The Pope Is Right About Science

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Objections
to Pope Benedict's comments on Islam, in a recent talk, have
been widely noted and extensively debated — for an excellent
overview of the topic see Justin
Raimondo's article
. But there is another, less publicized
aspect of his remarks that has also raised hackles in some quarters:
his understanding of the inability of physical science to resolve
issues in epistemology (the theoretical exploration of just
what we can genuinely claim to know, and the path(s) by which
we have come to that knowledge).

On the
latter subject, the Pope asserted: "Modern scientific reason
quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter
and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing
rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology
has to be based. Yet the question why this has to be so is a
real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural
sciences to other modes and planes of thought – to philosophy
and theology."

Those who
were troubled by the above typically regarded it as yet another
instance of the Catholic Church attempting to impose arbitrary
restrictions as to what areas science might explore and illuminate.
And certainly, if what the Pope meant was that there should
be some sort of legal barrier or the threat of social ostracism
standing in the way of scientists' freedom to pursue their own
avenues of research, then I would find his stance objectionable.
But I think the suggestion that the Pope advocates a ban on,
say, brain studies or evolutionary psychology, or that he could
be so deluded that he would imagine such a proposal could possibly
gain wide support, both to be entirely implausible.

Instead,
it appears obvious to me that the Pope's view is not that physical
science must be forbidden from trying to address epistemological
problems, but that by its very nature it is logically unsuited
to that job.

Imagine
a friend reveals to you that he consistently fails to satisfy
his wife in bed. But, he declares, in an optimistic voice, he
has devised an extremely promising approach to remedy the problem.
Whenever he anticipates a session of love-making, he plans to
arrive equipped with a great array of medical instruments, electrical
sensors, chemical detectors, and so on. While he and his wife
are in bed, he will periodically pause their activities in order
to make extensive observations of every measurable aspect of
the situation that appears remotely relevant to the end result,
and meticulously record this mountain of data in a logbook.
Surely, he avers, such a thorough, scientific investigation
of the phenomenon cannot help but unearth the cause of his difficulties.

If you
respect the autonomy of other people, it will not occur to you
that you should try to physically hinder him from implementing
his scheme. But, hoping to save him from wasting a great deal
of time and no doubt annoying his wife to no end, you will probably
point out to him that his proposal is absurd. The techniques
he plans to employ, because of the severely restricted aspects
of reality that they admit into scientific theorizing — the
very restrictions that make them so spectacularly successful
at deciphering their proper subject matter, render them inherently
incapable of solving the sort of problem he faces.

The belief
that the only route to genuine understanding is that provided
by the physical sciences, and that they are potentially capable
of explaining anything that goes on in the world, is merely
a prejudice, backed neither by evidence — for after all, there
are many things science has not been able to explain — nor by
philosophical considerations. In fact, many notable philosophers,
including Husserl, Oakeshott, Polanyi, and Nagel, have noted
that the assertion that human understanding can be reduced to
mechanical causes is self-defeating. It is nonsensical to label
the outcome of any mechanical process as "true" or
"false" — the outcome is simply what had to
happen based on the physical laws relevant to the situation.
Anyone arguing that human thinking can be reduced entirely to
physical mechanisms must admit that his theory applies to his
own thinking no less than it does to, say, moral reasoning
or theology. Therefore, per his own theory, it is nonsensical
to claim that the theory is true! No, even his scientific work
is only the meaningless product of the jostling about of a bunch
of particles within fields controlling their movements. When
an evolutionary biologist suggests that all of mankind's religious
beliefs are attributable to our genes' efforts to propagate
themselves, honesty should force him to admit that his biological
ideas also are just attempts by his genes to survive — the "discovery"
of DNA was really nothing more than Watson's and Crick's best
chance to get laid!

Attempts
to proclaim science as the only real form of knowledge regularly
point to its "success" as plain evidence of its superiority.
But such arguments suffer from a vicious circularity — the criteria
by which they judge success are scientific criteria, and, therefore,
first award the prize to science and then "discover"
that it holds it. It is as though I tried to prove my genius
by taking an IQ test I devised myself, a test in which I included
only questions that I was sure I could answer correctly. And,
if later I realize I made a mistake, I allow myself to go back
and amend it, boasting that this offered even further proof
of my pre-eminence, since it demonstrated that I am not wedded
to my errors, unlike the usual taker of an intelligence test.

Epistemology
addresses questions like, "Does science provide us with
a reliable way of knowing things about the world, and, if so,
is the sort of knowledge it offers universal or conditional?"
Trying to reach answers to those queries through a scientific
investigation is logically untenable — the researcher would
first have to decide that science is a valid means for
discovering truths about reality, but that is the very issue
his research is supposed to be helping us to resolve! I cannot
avoid concluding that the Pope was standing on the philosophical
high ground when he declared that such matters are inherently
outside the scope of scientific inquiry, a proposition that
can be convincingly defended without any appeals to religious
faith or divine revelations.

If
I am right, then why are so many intelligent people so wedded
to the materialist dogma? Its appeal is perhaps made more comprehensible
when seen in the light of the mistaken view, adopted by the
leaders of various religions at various times, that the unfettered
advance of science presented a threat to their faith. To the
contrary, if what I see as the true role of any religion is
recognized — namely, that it provides guidance, coherence, and
intelligibility to its adherents concerning their moral life,
then it is clear that no discovery of a physical science can
conflict with its vital essence. Those who thought that, for
instance, the value of Christianity somehow would be reduced
or destroyed if was admitted that the Sun, and not the Earth,
was at the center of the Solar System, simply had misapprehended
the source of its worth. Materialism was embraced in an over-reaction
to the unjustified efforts of religious authorities to prevent
scientists from pursuing their investigations in whatever direction
their evidence and intuitions led them. But today it has become
the very sort of rigid orthodoxy it pledged to oppose, a faith
whose creed must be recited to gain admission into the highest
echelons of respectable scientific and philosophical society.
It is now as harmful to the human spirit as was any religious
orthodoxy in its heyday. Therefore, I think it is vital to understand
that materialism is justified neither by the findings of science
nor by sound philosophy.

October
6,
2006

Gene Callahan [send
him mail
], the author of Economics
for Real People
, is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute
and a contributing columnist to LewRockwell.com.
His first novel, PUCK,
has just been published.

Gene
Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives

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