It has become fairly common in these post-Covid times to distinguish very carefully between science and scientism, or between science and The ScienceTM. The distinction generally goes something like this: Science is a method for gaining objective, observable knowledge about the world through devising experiments with repeatable results, accruing over time, and supposed to be self-correcting as our knowledge and understanding of the observable world grows more detailed.
Scientism, or The ScienceTM, on the other hand is more like a cult: one blindly follows what one is told is true, one may not question the narrative of the leaders (the lab-coat wearers), and one must even have some kind of an outward signifier of participation (in the case of Covid: masks, vaccination cards, and boosters).
To be sure, scientism is dangerous and can devolve into the absurd, such as when Anthony Fauci declared that attacks on himself were attacks on science (one wonders what the reaction would be if any pontiff proclaimed that to attack himself would be to attack God), and it is good and fair that these distinctions be articulated, and criticisms of the cult-like actions of those that claim to follow The ScienceTM are being made. There is, however, a subtler problem, one with which we as a Church have been dealing for at least the past three centuries and one which I think has yet to be resolved. That is, how do we approach science properly speaking and not just its devolution into cult?
Knowledge without understanding
Much of the commentary I have read over the past two years critical of the way we have been handling this pandemic has been prefaced with something along the lines of “I am vaccinated, but…” or “I believe the science, however…”; that is to say, there is always some deference paid to the reigning scientific regime—a regime, I might add, may have unleashed this pandemic on the world in the first place. But this kind of offering at the altar of science before any attempt to criticize pre-existed Covid. Any theoretical, philosophical, or theological criticism of science as a method seems as if it must also be accompanied by a qualification along the lines of the author acknowledging that he quite enjoys his car, or artificial light, or the benefits of modern medicine. The toll has to be paid before moving ahead.
This kind of obligation needs to stop. Living in an order shaped by modern science and the technology that has resulted therefrom does not mean we cannot criticize or even outright condemn that very order. The deference showed to the modern scientific and resulting technological regime betrays a much deeper problem that I believe infects the entire world. But I will limit myself here to the Church: we have ceded judgment about reality to the modern scientific method, and in so doing imply that we do not actually or fully believe what the Church has to say about reality.
Criticisms of the modern scientific method have more or less been co-terminus with its existence. Goethe is notable as one who saw with great insight that isolating a part in order to know more about the whole will always produce a distorted understanding of both, thus his emphasis in studying wholes in nature.1 There was already resistance to Descartes’s splitting of the world into res cogitans and res extensa even as he proposed it. But in the West in particular, Enlightenment ideas of what it means to know something took over what it means to know anything at all. And such that knowledge effectively became what it means to make something perform a certain action, whether that meant melting down celluloid to produce what we now call plastic, capturing nitrogen to put into our soil so that we can grow things, or knowing which inputs will get the desired output from human immune systems so that we can fend off disease.
This shift from knowledge as understanding to knowledge as making has been traced and analyzed with great insight many times (not least in Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity). Indeed, on some level, we know the problem with the radical shift that takes place in the Enlightenment and therefore of what it means to know something: the isolation of anything apart from its greater environment may convey a certain kind of mechanical knowledge about that thing to me, but apart from its community I do not actually know that much about the thing.
For example: it is true that if we artificially isolate nitrogen and introduce it into our soil that our plants will likely grow more fully and rapidly—under laboratory conditions. But it is also true that if we introduce nitrogen into our soil year after year in the form of fertilizer, our crops grow weaker—their roots do not go down as far in search of the nutrients they need, and so we end up producing weaker crops that are more dependent on human intervention and thus a bad cycle of intervention-dependent fragile crops feeds into itself (and, handily, into the coffers of companies such as Monsanto). It is in a lab that we figured out nitrogen is a key component for healthy crops, but the necessary spatio- and temporal isolation in that same lab prevents us from seeing the full picture, which would include the fact that plants grow in an environment rather than simply as a result of human inputs.
The issue, put somewhat oversimply, is that the modern scientific method has no other way of understanding the world than through the lens of human input and therefore necessarily cannot see the larger whole, which of course includes the fact that there is always much more outside of human control than inside of it. This then becomes a problem that we must solve through technology: we try to place more and more of the world under our control, so we can predict the outputs. This a losing game, and always will be, as should now be evident to anyone paying attention for, apparently, in trying to “get ahead” of the next pandemic in a lab in Wuhan, we actually unleashed it on the world.
Again, a good deal of this has already been articulated by others more insightful than I am. But notice what I just outlined above is not a result of scientism, but rather of what we call science. Science and technology as we know them change the whole world into what Heidegger called “standing reserve”: material there for human input and desired output, with no intrinsic order or nature of its own—no “self” for humans to know and come to understand, rather just “stuff” for humans to use. And because there is no intrinsic order, because there is no whole in which man participates (perhaps in a particularly wonderful way, but in which he participates nonetheless), man then has no choice but to try and order (read: control) the chaos in which he thinks he finds himself.
A narrow and distorted worldview
This is the vision of reality the modern scientific method bestows on us, and it is to this vision we give deference every time we pay tribute to the regime of science by tempering our critiques with choruses of “but I am not criticizing the lightbulb.” Maybe I am indeed criticizing the lightbulb, as it has reordered our vision of reality such that we no longer pay heed to the sun, and therefore to natural human rhythms, and has allowed us to believe that second and third shifts are perfectly normal, and therefore induced many of our fellow human beings to work long hours in factories or fulfillment warehouses at night, and led us to thinking this is not only normal but right. Perhaps the lightbulb was a mistake: we should be able to discuss this freely in order to understand just how distorted our worldview has become, rather than being constantly afraid of not being taken seriously by a worldview that does not in fact take the given world and order in which we live seriously.
This does seem to be what is at the root of the tribute-making—the desire to be taken seriously. We think that in order to be a part of adult conversations about the world and what goes on in it that we must tip our hat, so to speak, in one way or another to the techno-scientific paradigm dictating for so long what it means to have so-called adult conversations. Sure, we can have our metaphysical and theological conversations, but when we get down to brass tacks—if we want people to pay attention to what we have to say—we must at least lay down some coin on the altar of the Enlightenment vision of the world, at the very least to say how much we enjoy the products of that narrow and distorted worldview.
The problem, of course, is that it is a worldview. Science as we understand it today is not a neutral method by which to observe the world (as it is so often painted), but rather most fundamentally a way of seeing and understanding the world and its order (or lack thereof) that then determines our actions. Make no mistake: what we understand something to be determines how we act on or toward it. If the whole world really is standing reserve for us to do with as we will, then there are no natural guides or limits on what we should do to or with anything in it—indeed, there really is no such thing as the natural at all, for the word “nature” indicates an order which precedes and exceeds man (natura: the character or constitution of thing, from the Latin natus: born).
If we, however, do understand that nature—that is, a given order—exists, then the implicit directive in that knowledge is we must pay attention and give heed to that order precisely because it precedes and exceeds us. Again, to put this somewhat oversimply, there are two competing worldviews here: man controls everything because there is no order in the world unless and until he wills it, or man stands and participates in an already given order which he ignores at his peril.
Stopping the erosion of nature
What, the reader may ask, does this have to do with the Church? What I have just laid out above shows that what we are dealing with is not a method of study of the world that at times happens to produce some unexpectedly poor results, but rather an entirely different vision of reality than the one the Church holds and knows to be true. Many of the Enlightenment thinkers were in large part self-conscious about this: they wanted to break with tradition (Tradition) and conceive an entirely new way of looking at and dealing with the world—one in which man gives and controls its order. But the Church holds that the world is given by God and therefore the order of nature is not something to be made but an infinitely fruitful gift that man has been given to know, understand, and, yes, have dominion over—but this last directive only in and through the first two.
The Christian worldview is not the only one to recognize that nature has an order which we must know and understand before we are able to work with its ends for our benefit. But it is the worldview that recognizes this truth most radically, since the Church recognizes the source of the natural order: God himself. And it seems the Church may also be the last and strongest groyne preventing the complete erosion of nature by the techno-scientific paradigm.
I am not arguing that the Church and all who wish to think with and in her move to some kind of Amish-like existence, foregoing anything that results from the techno-scientific worldview (though perhaps we might at least seriously consider the wisdom in rejecting any product of such a worldview). For it seems to me she is never called simply to remove herself from the world—this we have been taught since her birth, and has been affirmed throughout the Tradition.
What I am arguing, however, is that the Church cease engaging uncritically with this alternative worldview and all that has resulted therefrom, and certainly to stop being embarrassed about her critique. Yes, we need to deal with in and in the world, for the Church was born for the world’s salvation. But we need not be embarrassed by what the Church knows to be true.
Criticism and confidence
Any time that tribute, as I have been calling it, is paid to the techno-scientific worldview, it subtly undermines the vision of reality the Church has been given. It is not simply scientism or The ScienceTM that we must criticize, but science itself—that is, this method of obtaining information about the world that allows us to think things with natures are just parts for our disposal. Because it is science that has recast our vision of the world as something that can be picked apart, toyed with, and reassembled at our will. This is, to repeat, antithetical to the Christian vision of reality as an order given by God for man to work with and in order ultimately come to know God himself (Rom. 1:20).
Most of all we need, I think, not just to be critical of this vision of the world and recognize it as such, but what is more necessary as a Church is for us to remember and be confident in the knowledge that the Church indeed does have final and fullest word on reality precisely because it has been bestowed on her by her Bridegroom. This does not, of course, mean that the Lord has given his Bride instructions for the best agricultural practices in every climate on earth. Rather, the Church has been given the certain knowledge that everything in the physical world has a metaphysical nature created by God himself and is therefore something which we must respect and to which we must pay attention in order to know the world at all (and in so doing, we can then figure out the best agricultural practices for each climate).
This means that while engaging in critiques of science or its products to remember that it is not necessary to justify the Church’s full understanding of reality—a reality she knows is made up of more than just the immediately visible and otherwise sensible, a reality that is saturated with the metaphysical, which both grounds and bears upon the physical—to the incomplete techno-scientific model of reality.
The framework for reality on which modern science relies is far too narrow—far too small for what reality actually is—and the Church is probably one of the only places (and persons) left on earth that knows this and carries it in living memory. As such, it is her duty to speak this truth, not by reducing what she knows to fit into an insufficient framework (for this is what we do when we attempt to make arguments, e.g., about the inviolability of life based only on biology), but by proclaiming and arguing it based on her full vision of reality.
I am always struck, when I read Church Fathers, such as St. Athanasius: he did not try to fit the Incarnation and Resurrection into the framework of his time. Rather, he showed that the framework of the time was totally insufficient to reality itself; he showed that reality is far more than we thought it was—that indeed the physical world could not just come into contact with, but welcome what is truly divine—and that is what was and continues to be compelling.
The Church has a science a problem—and that is not what she gives too little heed to modern science, but perhaps that she pays it too much. Of course it is her duty to engage with and understand the world better than it knows itself, which includes understanding modern science from within—indeed in some sense the Church must become the “expert” on modern science precisely because she “sees more” (to quote from Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Epilogue) than modern science. She can see behind and beyond the modern scientific method and its judgments about reality, and she understand it better than it understands itself because she sees the whole that it, by its very nature, cannot.
The Church has a duty to show the world the truth of reality, which is always much more than our ideas about it, or our attempts to control it. And her duty, it seems to me, includes the full proclamation and confidence that her vision and understanding of reality as a gift from the Creator, in its full metaphysical and theological depth, is the final judgment on what is right and just, not the scientific and medical experts.
Science is not a neutral method of observing reality, but rather a way of viewing the world, and as such, like any worldview, it can easily slide into believing it and only it sees the world truly. It is vulnerable, like any other worldview, to its own ism-ification. Only the Church is immune to this (and only because she is born from the side of Christ). We cede too much ground if and when we try to fit the Church’s vision of reality into an insufficient framework in order to be taken seriously.
We do not ever need to justify ourselves or our understanding to the techno-scientific model of reality, rather we need to justify our knowledge to reality itself—that is the only measure by which knowledge and understanding can be judged, and the Church first and foremost performs this judgment best because it is she who sees the whole.
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