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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