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Striving Joyfully (2) – Science

Science tells us what is, but not what ought to be. For example, it describes how to make poison, but not if we should use poison. It tells us how to swim, but it does not and cannot tell us when we ought to plunge into a raging river to attempt to save a drowning man.

Yet this definition of science is not universally accepted. The phenomenal growth in technology that followed the discovery of the Scientific Method led thinkers in the West to believe that they could apply science to every area of human life from politics to ethics and from family life to economics. This is the essence of The Enlightenment. The goal was to replace uncertain approaches like Philosophy and Theology with the certainty of the Scientific Method and to thereby answer questions that humans had been fighting over for millennia.

Despite this noble goal this project failed. Miserably. Applying science to politics produced a number of absurdities in the French Revolution (e.g. a “scientific” week of ten days; a cult of “Reason”) and culminated in the totalitarian systems of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, etc. who all thought they could “scientifically” remake man and ended up murdering over a hundred million people when reality got in the way of their theories. Applying science to morality led men like J.S. Mill and Jeremy Bentham to make calculations of human happiness and to use these calculations as a moral framework. When these Utilitarian systems showed themselves to be empty and unworkable men like Nietzsche and Sartre filled the vacuum in ethical thinking by deifying the will. (They said, in short, if science cannot tell us what is good then we ought not to try to do what is good, but rather call what we do “good”.) “Scientifically” planned economies have created shortages and famine and retarded the growth of prosperity. And the “scientific” abstracting of the family structure by treating men and women as interchangeable parts has led to a redefinition of marriage that leaves both spouses less secure while literally traumatizing tens of millions of children over the past two generations.  

Why is this? Why does science fail so terribly in telling us how to organize human life or in helping us to chart a moral course? My answer is that there is no science to life. Science can give us expertise on mental health and on viruses and on the economy (though experts in these fields often disagree). However, even when there is scientific consensus on a specific part of life, life can’t be reduced to any of its facets, no matter how important any of them are. Consider the following brief thought experiments: Would it be right to decrease the spread of the seasonal flu virus by 10% if that increased depression by 10%? Would it be moral to decrease carbon emissions by 10% if that increased the cost of energy by 20%? Would it be ethical to double economic growth if that increased anxiety by 20%? Science cannot definitively answer any of these questions! As the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.”

All of human life is a balance. Aristotle defined wisdom as the ability to make the correct choice when that choice is not clear. It takes wisdom, not science or technical expertise, to navigate the whole of life. Science is not bad; it is a wonderful gift of God when kept to the limits of its field! But we have been foolish in looking to it to answer questions that only wisdom (and I should add, a wisdom found in Christ alone) can answer.