Friday, January 20, 2012

What Science Cannot Do

Up to [the dawning of modernity], the recovery of what man had lost through the expulsion from Paradise was expected from faith in Jesus Christ: herein lay “redemption”. Now, this “redemption”, the restoration of the lost “Paradise” is no longer expected from faith, but from the newly discovered link between science and praxis. It is not that faith is simply denied; rather it is displaced onto another level—that of purely private and other-worldly affairs—and at the same time it becomes somehow irrelevant for the world. This programmatic vision has determined the trajectory of modern times and it also shapes the present-day crisis of faith which is essentially a crisis of Christian hope. Thus hope too, in Francis Bacon, acquires a new form. Now it is called: faith in progress. For Bacon, it is clear that the recent spate of discoveries and inventions is just the beginning; through the interplay of science and praxis, totally new discoveries will follow, a totally new world will emerge, the kingdom of man. He even put forward a vision of foreseeable inventions—including the aeroplane and the submarine. As the ideology of progress developed further, joy at visible advances in human potential remained a continuing confirmation of faith in progress as such.
Spe Salvi 17
Reflection – This passage brings up once again one of Pope Benedict’s perennial themes: the substitution of human progress for salvation in Christ in the modern era. The age of discovery and inventions (still ongoing, of course) held out at one time an assurance that in time, human beings would solve every problem, crack all the riddles of existence, and be able to eliminate suffering from the world.
It is truly hard to see how anyone can maintain this attitude today. I’m not sure anyone does, really. For myself, growing up as I did in the world science created, a world that in my childhood was continually threatened by the prospect of nuclear destruction, the ideology of science holds little appeal.
As Ratzinger has always underlined throughout his writings, the problem is that scientific and technological progress tells us how to do things; it does not and cannot tell us what we are supposed to do. It certainly has no faculty at all to tell us what we must not do if we wish to remain human at all.
It can tell us how we might alleviate the suffering of a given disease, but cannot tell us that experimentation on murdered human fetuses is a crime against all justice and goodness, a callous destruction of human life that calls into question the entire human project.
It can tell us everything about fetal development, and the delicate bonds that connect the life of the growing child to the life of its mother; it cannot tell us that we must not deliberately sever that bond and end that life, and that to do so unleashes evil into the world beyond our comprehension.
It can tell us so many things… except the things we most urgently need to know if we are to live happy lives of dignity, freedom, and joy. Science has nothing to say, nothing at all, about these matters. And we have to be clear about that.
So we cannot put our ‘faith’ in scientific progress. It is valuable indeed, and who would want to live in a world without the discoveries of the past 500 years? But it is not the source of happiness. For that, we must go somewhere else: to the quest for perennial wisdom, the deep plunge into the wellsprings of human thought and understanding, the challenge to penetrate and contemplate the meaning of life and existence.
In the Christian religion, we understand that God has offered Himself in Jesus Christ to humanity to open the path of wisdom and goodness to us. Clearly, not everybody feels they can accept that path or believe that God has done this. But for those who are not or cannot be Christians, there is a call nonetheless to find a path of truth and wisdom that is deep enough, persuasive enough, to shape the development and use of technology and scientific invention. Without this, we are truly at the mercy of the powerful elites who control the levers of the world… and they may not know anything more than we do about what they should do, but they certainly seem to know what they want to do… to us.
And this is among the most urgent tasks of our time – to provide a rational and persuasive basis to resist this exaltation of power and control over the whole of our lives. This is what Pope Benedict has labored hard to provide; this is what this blog is about.

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