There’s this ingrained belief in our culture that science will always progress, but we have no way of being sure that this will in fact happen. Civilizations collapse and disappear. Science is a unique phenomenon that really only appeared once in the history of the world—in Christian Europe. If its philosophical foundations are undercut, then it’s very possible that it will disappear. There’s also the danger that the misuse of science will become a tool for political tyranny. The two most tyrannical regimes of all time, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, both claimed to be scientifically based. Marxism/Leninism was promoted as scientific Socialism, while Hitler claimed that National Socialism was actually applied biology. It’s entirely possible that this sort of thing could happen again.
Is it really so arrogant and intolerant to think you know the truth? Let’s start with simple cases. I happen to know that the potato salad is spoiled, and the last three diners got sick just from eating it. Would it be arrogant for me to warn the others? You happen to know that the public library is this way, but the motorist who asked me for directions is headed that way. Would it be intolerant for you to suggest that he turn around, and tell him why? Is it really so arrogant and intolerant to think you know the truth? Let’s start with simple cases. I happen to know that the potato salad is spoiled, and the last three diners got sick just from eating it. Would it be arrogant for me to warn the others? You happen to know that the public library is this way, but the motorist who asked me for directions is headed that way. Would it be intolerant for you to suggest that he turn around, and tell him why?
Of course no one takes this line about potato salads or highways. On the other hand, people do take this line about who God is and how to live. “God and how to live are matters of opinion,” they say. “Where things are and what you can safely eat — those are matters of fact.” Yes, of course they are matters of fact, but they are opinions too. After all, people may have different views about just what the facts are. The other diners might be of the opinion that the potato salad is wholesome. The lost motorist might be of the opinion that his general direction is correct. Surely that wouldn’t make me arrogant to contradict them.
Differences of opinion arise even in the sciences. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould is of the opinion that Darwinian evolution is a fact; biochemist Michael J. Behe is of the opinion that it’s not. Each scientist says that he’s right; each scientist says that the other is wrong. Does that make him arrogant or intolerant? Not necessarily — although, of course, he might be. The rule is that each one should offer evidence for what he thinks, listen to the evidence offered by his opponent, and not try to shut him up. That’s how science is supposed to work. Arrogance doesn’t come from having convictions; it comes from having the wrong convictions about how to treat people who don’t share them with you. Humility doesn’t come from not having convictions; it comes from having the right convictions about the importance of gentleness and respect.
What gives the myth of the intolerance of knowing truth its strength? Its power comes from a picture — not a photograph or a painting, but an image many people carry in their minds. In the picture, a man is being burned at the stake. He’s there because other people, who say they have the truth, are angry with him for saying that they don’t. I agree that such a thing should never happen. But in my mind is a different picture. In mine a man is also being burned at the stake — I almost said, being hung on a cross. He’s there because other people, who say there isn’t any truth, are angry with him for saying that there is.
Sometimes people in the faith community are accused of attacking science. To do so would be the height of foolishness. No person of reasonable intelligence would question the value of science. Problems arise, however, when science overreaches itself. What should be requested is for science to remain scientific.
Would it not go against all logic to ask a plumber to check our cholesterol level, or to request that the gardener tune the piano? These people are skilled in a particular field, and they would do well to operate within that field. Likewise, science functions best when it stays within its prescribed domain. Science is equipped to analyze natural phenomenon but is not in a position to address any others, or to pontificate that other causes could not possibly exist.
Science is capable of telling us how things can be done, but it cannot tell us what ought to be done. To expect science to answer philosophical questions is to go to the wrong place for answers. To mix science with philosophy is to confuse them both.
“It is our mistake to ask science to do something it can’t,” admitted Iain McGilchrist. “It’s like expecting your iPod to tell you whether you are in love.”
Christianity is not at odds with science. It has trouble with science that has become religious and has ceased to be aware of its limitations. Science answers a lot of questions, but to expect it to answer them all is not only an impossibility, it is also an absurdity.
Atheism, I began to realize, rested on a less-than-satisfactory evidential basis. The arguments that had once seemed bold, decisive, and conclusive increasingly turned out to be circular, tentative, and uncertain. The opportunity to talk with Christians about their faith revealed to me that I understood relatively little about their religion, which I had come to know chiefly through not-always-accurate descriptions by its leading critics, including British logician Bertrand Russell and German social philosopher Karl Marx. I also began to realize that my assumption of the automatic and inexorable link between the natural sciences and atheism was rather naïve and uninformed.
–Alister McGrath, Atheism, Christianity, Religion, and Science
In both religion and science, some people are dishonest, exploitative, incompetent and exhibit other human failings. My concern here is with the bigger picture.
I have been a scientist for more than 40 years, having studied at Cambridge and Harvard. I researched and taught at Cambridge University, was a research fellow of the Royal Society, and have more than 80 publications in peer-reviewed journals. I am strongly pro-science. But I am more and more convinced that the spirit of free inquiry is being repressed within the scientific community by fear-based conformity. Institutional science is being crippled by dogmas and taboos. Increasingly expensive research is yielding diminishing returns.
Bad religion is arrogant, self-righteous, dogmatic and intolerant. And so is bad science. But unlike religious fundamentalists, scientific fundamentalists do not realize that their opinions are based on faith. They think they know the truth. They believe that science has already solved the fundamental questions. The details still need working out, but in principle, the answers are known.
Science at its best is an open-minded method of inquiry, not a belief system….
Since the beginning of the 21st century, it has become apparent that known kinds of matter and energy make up only about 4 percent of the universe. The rest consists of “dark matter” and “dark energy.” The nature of 96 percent of physical reality is literally obscure….
Good science, like good religion, is a journey of discovery, a quest. It builds on traditions from the past. But it is most effective when it recognizes how much we do not know, when it is not arrogant but humble.
Science has been the iron wedge by which the secular has penetrated the realm of the sacred. Science has been the sharp scalpel with which our most cherished ideas about humanity have been subjected to dissection and doubt. Those who suggest that religion is the primary source of human conflict and bloodshed are not looking closely enough. If we examine the history of violence in modern times we will often find rationales rooted in science.
The idea that all human lives are sacred and of equal value is not a product of science. The sanctity of human life cannot be proven in a laboratory. When it comes to this most profound and foundational moral insight, we in the West have only one source: the Judeo-Christian tradition. This idea was first expressed in the Bible and it has survived throughout the centuries because of the ongoing authority of the Jewish and Christian faiths. If some of the Enlightenment thinkers later embraced and reiterated the concept, they cannot be credited with an immaculate intellectual conception. It was right there in the Bible most of them read.
The Judeo-Christian tradition has built a wall between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. It has placed man on a pedestal and put a crown on his head. Modern science, on the other hand, has consistently sought to tear down this wall and treat man as just another species of animal. Science has sought to take that crown off our heads—and measure the size of our skulls.
We are frequently warned these days about the great danger of religion expanding into fields where it does not belong. This concern is not without justification. There are areas of expertise, especially in the realm of science, where religion can contribute little. Religion cannot help us split the atom or map out our DNA. The Bible provides no clues that can help us cure cancer…
But we must also recognize that there exists an equal and possibly greater threat of science exceeding its proper boundaries. Especially when it comes to morality, science can confuse, but it rarely enlightens. Science can enable us to split the atom, but it cannot help us decide whether we are justified in using an atom bomb. Science can help us map out our DNA, but it cannot help us determine whether it is moral to clone humans. Science can help us cure cancer, but it cannot help us cope with cancer.
When science ventures beyond its core areas of competence into the area of morality, it often leaves corpses in its wake… With an air of authority to which they have no claim, scientists have called into question the key principles which protect humanity—especially the weakest among us—from annihilation. Before even grasping the danger, they could bring our whole ethical edifice crashing down. If religion does not belong in the science classroom, then it is equally true that science has no place in the ethics classroom. We need a wall of separation between science and morality every bit as much as we need on between church and state.