Browsing The Northern Cross

Kyle Eller: Love and support science without worshiping it

For kicks, I recently took one of those online political quizzes, where you are asked your opinion on a variety of issues, and after you finish, you are told what politician you should support or, as in this case, what political label best applies to you.

It’s a bit of a game with me, because, having formed my views on Catholic social teaching, I tend to confuse the heck out of those things, and the result is often good for a laugh. This one was a welcome exception — it knew Christian Democracy is a thing.

Kyle Eller
Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

I mention this because one of the questions stood out to me. It asked whether one agrees or disagrees with this statement: “A better world will come from automation, science, and technology.”

I happened to take this quiz right around the time of the recent March for Science, so perhaps it jumped out to me more when I indicated that I somewhat disagree with the statement.

Now, keep in mind that just a few months ago in this space I confessed to being a huge geek as I sang the praises of open source computer software in general and Emacs in particular.

And while I didn’t end up going into the sciences, I was interested enough in that possibility during my college years that I took past-introductory-level math and science courses, and I graduated with a psychology minor.

The relation between faith and reason has played a super-sized role in my faith journey and life, and to cut a long story short, encountering the healthy respect and regard for science and reason within Catholic teaching has been an incredible God-send in my life — one of the things God used to bring me back to faith — because I am unapologetically pro-science and pro-reason.

Like Pope St. John Paul II, I am quite happy to say that faith and reason are “like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

I’m even a Trekkie, which means I’m a fan of a fictional universe based on the premise I disagreed with, that automation, science, and technology will bring about a better world.

Star Trek’s stories make my point quite well, actually. Its characters have science and technology that has largely eliminated want, hunger, hard manual labor, many diseases, and more. Yet those characters still find themselves contending with people who have used that technology to build doomsday weapons and master races, to enslave people, to amass totalitarian power. Technology still has unintended consequences.

And it’s placed in the hands of people who still kill, steal, lie, cheat, covet, and violate all the rest of the commandments. Politicians are still corrupt and inept. Even the good guys still have to contend with their brokenness.

So it’s pretty much like now, but with better technology.

In the abstract, deepening knowledge of creation may be a good in itself, but as a practical matter, it has a multiplier effect on the ends to which we put it. If accompanied by moral progress, science and technology can make the world much better. If not, they can make the world much worse. Science can cure polio — and weaponize anthrax.

The Second Vatican Council, in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, put it profoundly: “… All that men do to obtain greater justice, wider brotherhood, a more humane disposition of social relationships has greater worth than technical advances. For these advances can supply the material for human progress, but of themselves alone they can never actually bring it about.”

So no, science and technology are not going to make a better world — in any case, not by themselves, and not automatically.

That will sound like heresy to those in the grip of the cult of science, which treats science as an object of worship rather than as a useful practical method for investigating specific kinds of questions.

There are people who incorrectly imagine science can answer every question. There are those who fall into the related error of scientism, who imagine that the only kind of knowledge that is real is that which can be examined scientifically and measured empirically. (This idea is actually self-refuting — if true, it would be a piece of knowledge that cannot be proven through the scientific method or empirically verified.)

Real scientific knowledge is hard-won and humble, built up over answering many specific, often narrow questions, and it always has an element of the provisional to it, as new knowledge continually shapes our understanding.

That’s why studies are peer-reviewed to determine if the data have been understood correctly or if there are flaws in the experimental methodology or if there are alternative explanations for the data that need further exploration. It’s why we rely on reproducible results rather than one-off experiments. It’s why experiments disproving a hypothesis are at least as valuable as experiments supporting one.

This doesn’t diminish science’s value — far from it. The March for Science seems to have been highly politicized — what isn’t, these days? — but I agree with many of its concerns. Science is being attacked and undermined in a variety of ways for ideological reasons, and science literacy is not what it should be. Both are destructive to the common good.

And scientific knowledge is essential for addressing numerous public policy questions. The fact that it is not sufficient all on its own doesn’t mean it is not still critically important.

Catholics can be a leaven in this culture by bearing witness to these truths — holding science in the genuine high regard and respect it deserves without fashioning it into an idol or pretending it is the all-sufficient answer for every question, and especially by insisting that our technical progress be accompanied by the moral progress needed to ensure it actually makes the world better.

Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at keller@dioceseduluth.org.