The Invisible Things

Articles in Apologetics

Archive for the ‘Progress’ Category

Progress, Ethics and the Finitude of Means

leave a comment »

As petrol costs continue to rise, there seems to be an abundance of discussion about governmental regulation of price gauging and even some philosophical talk of alternative energy. As much as I am intrigued and hoping for a paradigm shift in our reliance upon fossil fuels, I can’t help but suspect that it is a long way off. While new types of transportation solutions are a start, even if they are still very much in the concept phase, my concern is the pre-technological paradigm shift that is needed in our scientific motivations. How does this in any way relate to Christian philosophy and apologetics? Stick with me, I promise to make the connection, however loose, long-winded, or disconnected my approach may be…

Let me begin by suggesting that the past two decades have seen exponential growth in technology, both on the scientific and consumer level, which ultimately seems to have become the goal of science itself. In other words, it seems that science, at least on the popular level, is expected to produce technology, which in turn is expected to progress society towards something better. Yet, it seems that any sincere scientist would hope that at the root of their study is a fascination for the universe and a desire to understand it more. For the Christian, this inductive study of the creation is rooted in the image of God in which we are made. As I suggest in my past two posts concerning the relationship between faith and science, the questions that man asks regarding his existence and the universe must be approached bilaterally- from both observation and philosophy, as science ideally gathers data and philosophy provides the framework through which to interpret it.

However, some scientists disagree. In 1985, Dr. Gerald Feinberg, Professor of Physics at Columbia University wrote,

Scientists now consider that scientific inquiry dominates the human intellectual adventure…Many philosophers argue, as do I, that ethical questions do not have answers in the sense that scientific questions do. (from ‘Solid Clues’).”

While I certainly agree that there are substantial differences between the approaches that science and ethics may take in providing answers to questions, or even the types of questions that they can answer, it is a false dichotomy to limit questions categorically to ethics and science. In fact, if one is determined to create such a dichotomy, ethics is the wrong choice and should be substituted with philosophy. Ethics is a system of moral principles dependent upon a philosophy. Without a grounded philosophy, a system of ethics is meaningless and could allow for anything. (I would even go further to say that philosophy cannot be the ultimate counterpart to science in this hypothetical dichotomy, as the philosophy itself depends upon its epistemological root, but this gets our discussion into much choppier waters than I am ready to navigate in this post!) But, to suggest that science dominates the human intellectual adventure is irresponsible and ignorant of the reality of science’s need for philosophical guidance. This is along the lines of the projected face of the Wizard of Oz declaring it’s independence from the true ‘wizard,’ the man behind the curtain.

Feinberg goes on to write,

“There is no valid reason for any society to limit the type of questions that scientists may investigate or to constrain the type of answers that scientists may find to the questions that interest them…Society is no more justified in regulating the curiosity of its scientists than it would be in regulating their eating habits, or regulating the expression of artists.”

Society is certainly not justified in arbitrarily setting limits for scientific inquiry, but clearly no one is advocating this. Ethics, on the other hand, derived from philosophical determination of the nature of mankind and the universe, should naturally affect how science proceeds. This certainly does not mean policing the thoughts of individuals, so Feinberg can rest assured that even ethics cannot limit the types of questions that scientists ask. This does, however, mean that ethics should prevent certain methods from being used for the purpose of answering questions, as well as determine the value of study relative to its expected impact upon society. For example, while many would agree that it was nobody’s business what sorts of questions Josef Mengele asked in his own mind, it became the world’s business the moment he proceeded to use men, women and children as the subjects of his depraved inquiry. Even today it is fashionable to decry the use of animals in scientific testing, of course it should be pointed out that tolerance for this practice is much lower in the case of the cosmetics industry than it is in cancer research. So while it is true on one hand that ethics cannot allow men to attempt to police the minds of other men, it is true on the other that one’s curiosity does not have preeminence over society. Moreover, thoughts of Mengelian proportion aught to compel psychiatric and/or spiritual council rather than be indulged simply because they are one’s right to think. Likewise, many questions are lawfully and rightfully asked, but the means of attaining answers to these questions have the potential to wreak havoc upon mankind. Thus, our responsibility toward the protection of one another trumps curiosity.

Dr. Liebe Cavalieri, in his book “The Double-Edged Helix: Genetic Engineering in the Real World,” responds to this particular type of thinking when he writes,

"I suspect that many of the implications of [modern science] have been cast aside by the scientific community because a more enlightened view would require a general examination of societal problems, and the solutions to those problems might place constraints on the scientific enterprise.”

In other words, in constructing this false dichotomy of science and ethics at odds, a world is created in which scientists can rightfully turn a blind eye towards considering the effects of their exploits. In doing so, the actual progress or improvement that society can expect is likely stunted. Cavalieri continues,

“Many scientists fail to take note of the possible ill effects that could follow from their work; they make the implicit, vague assumption that all science is good, as though its beneficent application were foolproof. This leads to the illogical conclusion that any and all goals are equally desirable in the search for knowledge, and this is somehow connected with freedom of inquiry…Some scientists hold up the specters of Galileo or Lysenko at any suggestion of public accountability, although their histories are not relevant to the issues of public and environmental safety raised by [modern technologies.]"

But all science cannot be implicitly good, as the example of Mengele so simply points out. Even questions such as how to apprehend cures to disease or improve food supply to the world are posited out of a moral and ethical framework. If it were not morally right to care for the sick, I can see little reason why science would be calibrated toward such results on its own accord. If there is such a thing as ‘good’ science (meaning science for good, rather than science well done), then there must also be such a thing as ‘bad’ science. Bad science could be as obvious as exploiting others for immoral purposes or as subtle as methods extended for a goal that brings short-term benefit but ultimately contributes to the harm of society. This is why ethics, as a system, and ultimately morality, must shepherd science.

I began this post with a remark about our present condition, some twenty years after Feinberg and Cavalieri wrote on the issue, which finds us uncertain of our future as we seem hopefully dependent upon fossil fuels and outgrowing our ability to sustain ourselves. It would be unfair to suggest that the scientists of the past, enthusiastic to develop society and get motors running (literally), should have known better and suppressed their knowledge of petroleum refining to prevent a massively disproportionate dependence upon it years later. However, now that we are existing within such an enormous machine, it may be time that we consider the costs of being liberated from our dependence. At that, I will conclude with Cavalieri’s seemingly prophetic remarks (made in 1985) regarding our situation and future:

“The physical realities of finite energy supplies, the limited ability of the environment to absorb pollution, population growth and the finite potential for food production, and, ultimately, the projected thermal instability of the planet force the inevitable conclusion that growth must cease within a few decades…The practice of science as we know it cannot continue unrestrained, in the present milieu, for its results are bound to be applied by the industrial establishment in the name of progress…Scientists will have to develop a social conscience, convey this to the people, and above all, teach their newly acquired wisdom to the technocrats. To call for an awakening of scientists, technocrats, and the masses on whom technology is practiced sounds all but hopeless, to be sure. But there is no other way to halt the impending technological disaster.”

Written by Christopher Butler

April 25, 2006 at 6:29 pm

Orthodoxy and J. Gresham Machen

with 2 comments

In the early years of the 20th century, modernist philosophy began to erode the orthodoxy of the Christian church at large. Though this was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that social theory and philosophy would challenge the essentials of Christian doctrine, it was one of the most significantly yet subtly pervasive threats the Church had experienced. J. Gresham Machen was a strong voice in response and opposition to the Modernist threat to orthodoxy by rooting the entirety of Christian life in doctrine and not accepting the reduction of the Christian faith to malleable and ambiguous values. ‘I tried to show that the issue in the Church of the present day is not between two varieties of the same religion, but, at bottom, between two essentially different types of thought and life. There is much interlocking of the branches, but the two tendencies, Modernism and supernaturalism, or (otherwise designated) non-doctrinal religion and historic Christianity, spring from different roots.In particular, I tried to show that Christianity is not a "life," as distinguished from a doctrine, and not a life that has doctrine as its changing symbolic expression, but that–exactly the other way around–it is a life founded on a doctrine (J. Gresham Machen on his own book, Christianity and Liberalism, 1923).’ Machen spoke of a controversy which not only compelled him in his initial grappling of spiritual identity but also had an emphatic and determining effect upon his life’s work and ministry. Though he spoke directly to a philosophical climate that has since dissipated, his words remain applicable to today’s climate of postmodernism. He indicted the encroaching influence of philosophical Modernism upon the theological grounding of the Christian faith, and admonished his brethren to retain their reliance upon Christ as the giver of life, rather than let the achievements of man erode the integrity of their own words, let alone the Word of God.To briefly summarize the context of his writing, Machen had himself witnessed the unprecedented changes brought about by the industrial revolution, and had been present among the philosophers whose thinking had begun to pull the rug out from under the conservative churches of America. He acknowledged the sweeping changes in capacity of our country and the elevation of utility above meaning; this made possible by the fact that an attitude of self-reliance had retracted the feasibility of the supernatural. Ultimately, this attitude gave birth to a general suspicion of the institutions of the past, and to be fair, one cannot help but sympathize with such thinking: After all, looking back over millennia of what was perceived as stagnancy, why would anyone desire to maintain any of the ideas, beliefs and institutions which must have stifled the progress and has finally broken through to improve society from bottom up? Machen’s thinking exposes, however, the fickleness of such an attitude.

In expounding upon his train of thought, it can also be shown that it retains its application toward the Church amidst the contemporary challenge of the postmodern mind. Just as Machen did in the early 20th century, so also do we today feel the pressure of claims that our expanding capability and practical understanding of the world has exposed not just the impotence of scripture, but the impotence of Christ! As we collect and arrange data from various sources with which to piece together even a meager narrative of origins, we assume that a document meticulously preserved for thousands of years by a culture known for its dedication in this area, and done so for the purpose of preserving a history and worldview, must be more myth than fact, more propagation than sincerity, more naïve wishful thinking than sophisticated skepticism. Yet improved means cannot simply invalidate that from which it came. Was it not the obsession of those who dwelled in Shinar with their own means that trampled upon modesty, stewardship and thanksgiving? Did it not ultimately result in their incapacitation (Gen 11, 1-9)? Was it not the worship of might which destroyed the foundation upon which it was built and rendered the people weak? Yes it was, but the effort, capacity and result are in themselves untarnished until they are motivated by a heart disconnected with God.

Machen was not advocating for a rejection of industry, nor of technology, nor even of improvement or a desire for improvement. He points out, and rightly so, that the means had illegitimately claimed sovereignty over all that had preceded them, rendering history suspect, faith futile, and the supernatural impossible. In fact, what truly incensed him was the compulsion many Christians felt to accommodate their faith for the revelation of means- many who were willing to reduce Christianity to an ethic under the pressure of scientific methods, historical scrutiny and a change in philosophical climate. Christianity is essentially tied to history; this is an undeniable fact. If history should prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that a man named Jesus had never lived, then Christianity would be in totality made irrelevant. Paul affirms this as he calibrates the whole of Christianity upon one fact: ‘But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty (1 Cor 15-16).’ Machen stridently called out those who would reduce their witness to the cajoling of an ethic. He refused to support those who ministered in the name of Christ while at the same time denying the truth of His existence. He refused to submit orthodoxy, which Webster defines as ‘the conforming to established doctrine,’ to the erosion of a type of thinking which overstepped its own bounds and attempted to usurp truth for its own purpose, not considering that as it built its kingdom it had not only destroyed its own foundation but had eradicated any hope for a resilient and philosophically consistent one to support it.

In today’s terms, as truth itself has been reduced beyond even utility, orthodoxy is still relevant. Improved means, though they may reverberate now more in our thinking than in our doing, cannot justify the arrogance with which faith is continually debunked. We may have the luxury of indulging in such thinking now because of the exorbitance of our capacity, but that will surely not last forever and if we have, in the meantime, set adrift from truth and a reverence for truth, we are not just then, but already, lost.

Written by Christopher Butler

October 4, 2005 at 3:24 am