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“Follow the Science”? Yes and No

One of the themes for this summer’s Lambeth Conference is theology and science. We have invited authors to reflect on what they hope the bishops will take to heart and keep in mind regarding this theme as they meet. 

By Kara Slade

Honk if you believe in science! Signs like this seemed to be everywhere in my neighborhood during the earlier days of the pandemic. As those first weeks turned into months and years, research into COVID — its causes, transmission, prevention, and treatment — became enmeshed in the rhetoric of the 2020 election season, and it has remained a politically charged topic. Questions of scientific authority and its role in public life had previously been a topic of academic interest to some (including myself), but now they have become matters for punditry and even for satire.

An example of the latter is the Netflix film Don’t Look Up, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. While it was written as a Dr. Strangelove for the climate-change era, it works equally well as a parable for COVID America. The premise of the movie is that a giant asteroid is about to crash into the earth, resulting in the immediate extinction of human civilization. Two obscure astronomers make a futile attempt to convince the government to pay attention. They almost succeed, until it’s discovered that the asteroid is full of profitable minerals. The villainous CEO of BASH Industries, Peter Isherwell, devises a plan to launch his own spacecraft, mine the asteroid, and split it up into manageable pieces — which would then belong to his corporation. Suffice it to say that the plan doesn’t work, and the world is destroyed. In the midst of the debate over how to solve the world’s asteroid problem, a pop song is released that summarizes the film’s argument. Ariana Grande sings,

Listen to the [expletive] qualified scientists …
It’s so close, I can feel the heat big time
And you can act like everything is alright
But this is probably happening in real time
Celebrate or cry or pray, whatever it takes
To get you through the mess we made
‘Cause tomorrow may never come.

The message of Don’t Look Up is clear: Listen to the qualified scientists. This seems to be uncomplicatedly good advice, until one realizes that the people who devise the devious BASH Industries plan are also qualified scientists. Scientific expertise may indicate technical knowledge, but it does not necessarily entail wisdom or moral character.

The process by which science and scientists accumulated authority in the public sphere began at the dawn of modernity, but the role of scientific authority vastly expanded in the 19th century. The biological discoveries of Darwin and his contemporaries, combined with the emergence of the historical-critical method in scriptural interpretation, cleared the field for science to emerge as the authoritative source of a system that explains and governs all of existence. Scientific authority expanded beyond the description of how the material universe works to questions of meaning and morality. And yet, as Julia Watkin points out in her commentary on Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript, this logic makes the mistake of confusing objective description with the subjective human predicament. Popularizers of science, she writes, tend to go “beyond using a system constructed logically on the basis of principles derived from induction and mathematics” and to “the creation of an existential system.”[1]

“Qualified scientists” may begin from their subject of expertise, but the migration of their thought to questions of meaning and political projects is a common and perhaps even inevitable category error. Nowhere is this more true than in evolutionary biology, where authoritative figures from Darwin in the 19th century to E.O. Wilson in the 21st have attempted to explain the meaning of human existence and devise a political project from that basis.

Writing under the pseudonym of Johannes Climacus, Kierkegaard illustrates this category error with the whimsical tale of an escapee from an asylum who tries (and fails) to prove his sanity by an inappropriately deployed appeal to objective truth:

What [he needs] to do, then, is to convince everyone completely, by the objective truth of what [he says], that all is well as far as [his] sanity is concerned. As he is walking along and pondering this, he sees a skittle ball lying on the ground. He picks it up and puts it in the tail of his coat. At every step he takes, this ball bumps him, if you please, on his r——, and every time it bumps him he says, “Boom! The earth is round.” He arrives in the capital city and immediately visits one of his friends. He wants to convince him that he is not lunatic and therefore paces up and down the floor and continually says, “Boom! The earth is round!” But is the earth not round? Does the madhouse demand yet another sacrifice on account of this assumption, as in those days when everyone assumed it to be as flat as a pancake? Or is he lunatic, the man who hopes to prove that he is not lunatic by stating a truth universally accepted and universally regarded as objective? And yet, precisely by this it became clear to the physician that the patient was not yet cured, although the cure certainly could not revolve around getting him to assume that the earth is flat.[2]

Climacus’s example here is comedic, but it illustrates the error that scientists, and particularly evolutionary scientists, stumble into as their thought drifts into matters of human meaning and human life together.

I do not dispute the truth or falsehood of scientific research in itself. However, I do dispute the assertion of scientific objectivity in an attempt to explain truths that science cannot, in fact, explain. As Kierkegaard might suggest, the cure for this problem has nothing to do with (for example) re-asserting the reading of the creation narratives that is often dubbed “creationism” in contemporary American debates. The earth is not flat. But shouting its roundness in the street makes the shouter a comic figure, rather than an authoritative explainer of the meaning of human existence.

In teaching seminary students how to think about evolutionary theory, I often use the example of Ohm’s Law from introductory physics. It is uncontroversially true that voltage in an electric circuit is proportional to current and resistance: V=IR. Likewise, it is uncontroversially true that evolutionary theory has something to say about how species develop and differentiate themselves from each other, even if the exact mechanism of that differentiation is still contested. But that biological truth — the earth’s roundness, as it were — should have as little hold on the moral imagination as Ohm’s Law does. Electricity is everywhere, but no one believes that Ohm’s law explains the poverty of Haiti or the pitfalls of marriage. Popular accounts of evolutionary biology, however, have been far less circumspect in the limits of its explanatory power.

Scientific inquiry and the scientific method can be be a vital part of the intellectual life. I participated in it for years, and for the most part I enjoyed it and found that it could be a vital part of my own Christian life. As we read in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, such thought may be “wholly legitimate” in its proper place.[3] The problem, as Climacus argues in Kierkegaard’s text, arises when the “inquiring, speculating, knowing subject” is one who “asks about the truth but not about the subjective truth, the truth of appropriation.”[4] This “inquiring subject” is “indeed interested but is not infinitely, passionately, impassionedly interested in his relation to truth concerning his own eternal happiness”[5] He continues,

Let the scientific researcher labor with restless zeal, let him even shorten his life in the enthusiastic service of science and scholarship; let the speculative thinker spare neither time nor effort — they are nevertheless not infinitely, personally, impassionedly interested. On the contrary, they do not want to be. Their observations will be objective, disinterested. With regard to the subject’s relation to known truth, it is assumed that if only the objective truth has been obtained, appropriation is an easy matter; it is automatically included as part of the bargain, and am Ende [in the end] the individual is a matter of indifference. Precisely this is the basis of the scholar’s elevated calm and the parroter’s comical thoughtlessness.[6]

This “elevated” position of speculation leaves no room for involvement with the thinker’s own situation. Here, there is no room for what Kierkegaard customarily refers to as the “subjective” stance — which in his writing has to do with the individual’s engagement with, and appropriation of, thought from within daily life.

In a time in which “following the science” has become a shibboleth for the NPR-listening classes that overwhelmingly make up my own part of the Anglican Communion, deeper questions need to be asked about what “the science” means and what it means to follow it. “Science” is not a unitary entity that exists in a zone of objectivity and uncomplicated good outside of politics and policy. The process of scientific inquiry contains successes and failures, heroes and villains, because it is a process conducted by people — a creaturely act performed by creatures. The measurement and the measurer cannot be separated from each other, and when we speak of measurers, then we must as well speak of the God who both creates and redeems them.

The Rev. Dr. Kara Slade is associate rector of Trinity Church in Princeton and canon theologian of the Diocese of New Jersey. She holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and materials science and a Ph.D. in theology, both from Duke University. 

Portions of this essay are drawn in a condensed form from The Fullness of Time: Jesus Christ, Science, and Modernity (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Press, 2021).

[1] Julia Watkin, “Boom! The Earth is Round!”, 108.

[2] Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript Vol. 1, 195.

[3] Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript Vol. 1, 25.

[4] Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript Vol. 1, 21.

[5] Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript Vol. 1, 21.

[6] Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript Vol. 1, 21.

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