Cohen on “The Ends of Science”

It’s by no means a stretch to suggest that the relationship between science and faith is a topic of significant interest among Christians. For example, this very blog has seen a fair amount of discussion regarding the topic. Additionally, the question regarding scientific evidence for Christianity that Dave will be addressing this Sunday actually received the most votes in our online poll earlier this spring. And when one scans newspapers and magazines, it’s not at all uncommon to find articles dealing with the subject.

With that in mind, I thought I’d pass along a particularly engaging piece by Eric Cohen entitled “The Ends of Science.” I found it to be a thoughtful examination of the modern scientific enterprise, including its nature and limits (my thanks to David Clark for pointing it out to me). Here are a couple of excerpts:

In every area of public life where science and morality intersect, there are questions about the use of science that science itself can never answer. On stem cells, scientists can tell us the potential benefits of destroying human embryos but not whether the progress of medicine justifies the willful destruction of nascent human life. On drilling in Alaska, scientists can estimate the potential oil reserves and the potential harm to the ecosystem but not whether we have a moral responsibility to expand the domestic oil supply or to preserve an unsullied wilderness even with economic harm to ourselves. On human exploration of space, scientists can estimate the economic and human costs of putting a man on Mars and the potential benefits of such a mission to the advance of human knowledge, but they cannot say whether human greatness in space is more worthy of public funds than ongoing research into curing AIDS. Science is power without wisdom about the uses of power. As Hans Jonas put it: “The scientist himself is by his science no more qualified than others to discern, nor is he more disposed to care for, the good of mankind. Benevolence must be called in from the outside to supplement the knowledge acquired through theory: it does not flow from theory itself.”

Despite its inherent limits and frequent excesses, there is great dignity in the scientific vocation rightly understood—the dignity of confronting nature’s facts in all their beauty and ugliness, and the dignity of seeking to make human life a little less miserable. Science is, or can be, a noble vocation, a realm of human endeavor that invites human excellence, including moral excellence. Against the sin of despair, the scientist stands for action. Against the postmodern revolt against reality, the scientist seeks truth. Thrown into a world that is mysterious, the scientist seeks to bring into light what is so often shrouded in darkness.

The trouble is that most scientists—at least most modern biologists, whose work dominates the public imagination about science—do not seem to reflect much or deeply about the limits of their method, or about the moral significance of the ends they seek and the means they use. The recent book by human genome pioneer Francis Collins—a memoir of faith that might have been titled C.S. Lewis Goes to the Laboratory-is notable precisely because it is such a striking exception to the norm. In the public realm, most biologists seem, all too often, like scientific geniuses and moral simpletons, applying rational rigor to their investigations of nature but relying on feeling as their only moral compass. And for all its appreciation of nature’s complexity, the scientific mind seems no rival for the Bible or Aristotle or Machiavelli in understanding human complexity. Next to the philosopher, the neuroscientist still looks, all too often, like a fool.

The scientist is especially foolish when he is optimistic without a dose of tragic reservation. For, despite Condorcet’s claims, science is perhaps most necessary precisely because of the permanence of human sin and human evil, not because scientific progress will be the tool of their eradication.

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