Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Ends of Science

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Ends of Science

Article excerpt

Whenever I meet with scientists, I'm always struck by their optimism-and their discontent.

Mostly they are optimists, excited by the latest findings: the newly isolated gene variant that may help explain schizophrenia, the new telescopic images that reveal the violent births of distant galaxies, the geochemical discoveries that may change our understanding of Earth's formation. Armed with an endless array of PowerPoint slides, the optimists believe they are uncovering life's secrets slice by slice, defining humanity's place in the universe, making life better through their mastery of nature's mechanisms. Knowledge through experiment, progress through reason: They have no doubt they are on the right side of history.

And yet, at the same time, many of these scientists seem frustrated and unhappy. Some are furious because policymakers are ignoring their advice and policing their laboratories, either directly, by trying to ban all human cloning, or indirectly, by not taking bold steps to stop global warming. Some believe that religious fundamentalists are on the march, replacing the study of Darwinian evolution with the pseudoscience of Intelligent Design. Some fear that human beings are poised to wreck nature by polluting the atmosphere or poisoning the soil. Others feel defeated by nature's relendess brutality, by the tsunamis and earthquakes and childhood cancers that so regularly mock man's illusions of control. "Don't blame God," Science magazine exhorts us. "Better planning could make natural disasters much less disastrous." But that hardly seems to mitigate nature's relendess indifference to humanity or the misery of mothers left to mourn the dead infants of Java Island.

Perhaps one reason the debate about embryonic stem cells has become so prominent is that it combines scientific optimism and scientific despair so completely: the optimistic search for cures, the discontent that nature yields remedies for her afflictions so slowly, the resentment at Bush-administration moralists for standing in the way of scientific progress for nonscientific reasons. The greatest animus among scientists is directed at religious believers, often defined as anyone who seeks limits on scientific freedom for ethical reasons the scientists themselves do not find compelling. The deans of major research centers feel like persecuted Galileos, yet they defend their turf in the most unscientific ways: treating the paralyzed as props in the campaign for research funding, promising cures based only on preliminary experiments, caricaturing every opponent as an irrational fanatic.

For it turns out that the methods of science cannot vindicate the ends of science, and the knowledge acquired by scientific methods cannot always justify the particular experiments used to acquire it. Yet scientists desperately want such vindication in the eyes of their fellow citizens: Good science (meaning interesting, promising, exciting) needs to be seen as good (meaning virtuous, praiseworthy, compassionate) by everyone. And so scientists have invented a new method to defend the unfettered freedom of the old one: They claim the mantle of science while making ethical claims ("embryo research is good") that rest on no special scientific basis at all, and they portray their opponents as antiscience for raising ethical questions that are entirely consistent with the scientific facts ("embryological development begins at conception").

Of course, the stem-cell fight is just one front in a long-standing conflict, not between science and religion, but between scientists who see all religion as an illusion and religious believers who desperately want the authority of science to bolster their faith's claims about the origins and destiny of man, including otherworldly claims for which there is no ordinary evidence. Both sides in this struggle make extravagant avowals about nature-especially about man's place within the natural world. And both sides are animated, in different ways, by visions of hope and despair, proof and mystery, man as elevated and man as small. …

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