Sep 16, 2009
“Oh, who can wonder at that old reproach against science, that it is atheistical?” – from The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville
For a long time I’ve harbored the notion that enmity towards the Devil stems not from the bad things of which he is capable or to which he drives men. Rather, it arises from the fact that the Devil, in his infinite relativism, questions the hard-and-fast division of acts and events into “good” and “evil.” Thus, the truly satanic perspective says, “There is a reality prior to your ethics, even your perception, and it knows neither good, nor evil; good and evil are post-hoc projections onto this neutral stuff.”
Of course, this is precisely the view of science which suggests that all matter is built up from fluctuating, quantum states of energy (or something like that – look, I’m not a scientist.) Science does not see any particular moral value inscribed in the hierarchy of electron shells, Avogadro’s number, or Planck’s constant. Ethical norms are epiphenomenal.
This moral ambivalence (verging on indifference) applies not just to the metaphysical assumptions, or lack thereof, of science as a collective enterprise but also to the scientific method itself. Experimentation on humans, for example, is a social problem, not a methodological one and the methods of science can be employed in finding a cure for cancer just as easily as they can be employed in the synthesis of weapons-grade anthrax.
This dynamic was one aspect of the “dialectic of the Enlightenment” described by Horkheimer and Adorno fifty-plus years ago. In their view, the rise of scientific rationalism, which liberated Western Europe from a variety of mythical constraints and archaic social structures, had as one of its results the Nazi’s systemic attempt to exterminate the Jews, which at some level the Nazis treated not so much as a monumental, inhuman atrocity, but as a diabolically complex logistical challenge.
I raise this point not because I believe that science requires the leash of some divinely or humanely ordained moral order, of whatever flavor, nor because I believe that scientists are unethical by nature and would be just as comfortable working with Dr. Mengele as working with Dr. Salk. For the record, I believe neither of these things.
I only wish to emphasize that the conflict between religion and science, such as it is, stems less from any specific finding of the latter than from it’s inherent ontology, an ontology which insists that things are before they can be assigned any type of value and that said being, through its priority, implicitly questions any claim to absolute value.
Due to this ontological difference, I do not believe that science and religion can ever be reconciled – they can only be consigned to separate spheres, a consignment which some representatives of the latter will inevitably, and not entirely unjustly, view as a rebuke. However, as a form of consolation I would offer the following:
As every schoolchild knows, the serpent was punished for tempting Adam and Eve into eating from the Tree of (Scientific?) Knowledge, a transgression for which they were banished from Eden. In the Gnostic reading of this parable, the serpent wished to liberate Adam and Eve from enthrallment by a false god and was thus a precursor of the gnostic Christ.
At its best, I believe that science can and does serve as just such a serpent.
Image Courtesy of m4r00n3d.