An Appeal to Restrain Science

by Scotty Ellis

I wanted to allow some time for thought and consideration before returning to the issue of nuclear tests and scientific inquiry.

Science, most properly understood, is a virtue of the intellect, a perfection of knowing. At least under the Aristotelean conception, science is knowledge of necessary, eternal truths, truths which are unchanging and cannot be other than they are. In pursuing and attaining this scientific knowledge, the mind is perfected according to its object, Truth. The mind is conformed to the world, and becomes more perfectly a kind of mirror reflecting all reality. Christ’s revelation allows us the opportunity to tweak this understanding of science. Christ is the Incarnate Word, the Living Spring from which Truth flows like honey. In this fashion, Catholics are the most perfect of scientists, for they weekly and sometimes daily approach a table where Truth is the main course. This perfect conforming of the mind with Truth Himself is science, and all other science flows through that primal Word.

Today, science more commonly refers to a very specific and limited sphere and method of knowing. The physical elements of the natural world are subject to clever experimentation in order to reveal its inner workings. We are willing to break open the world to see how it works. This has been the modus operandi of modern science. The skin must be flayed off, the veins and arteries pulled clean from their housings, and the heart itself cut out and open for the eyes to gaze upon. There is certainly advantages to this sort of science; anyone who has ever opened a pomegranate knows a delicacy may sometimes be reached only through a kind of violence. Fruit has to be torn open for fertile seeds to fall.

This analogy may seem to perfectly justify every excess of empirical science, unless careful thought is given. Man should beware plucking fruit, especially fruit promising knowledge. After the dissection, a scientist is left with two things: knowledge and carnage. It is understatement to say prudence must decide if the knowledge is worth the carnage. A boy experimenting with salt and a slug will soon learn that the compound rapidly dehydrates the creature’s tissues. He will be left with a stain on the concrete, an animal that will move no more. In a similar way, Nazi scientists contributed important data regarding a number of phenomena, such as hypothermia and burns. There is perhaps no better, faster, or more efficient way to discover the effects of cold on a man than by immersing him in freezing water. In the end, the Nazis had some data and a corpse.

These are admittedly extreme examples, but such magnification can help illuminate smaller but similar trade-offs in other cases. It is important to note that such experimentation rarely is performed on subjects near and dear to the experimenter’s heart. A Nazi will freeze a Jew or the disabled; he will not immerse his own son in the freezing tub. A boy who will dissect a frog will not dissect his pet cat Whiskers. The history of anatomical studies has shown us that the task of being dismantled after death often rested on the shoulders of executed criminals. The atomic bomb which was born of the Manhattan Project was tested in New Mexico rather than New York City. The Bikini atoll was a perfect spot because no one cared if it would be irradiated (except, of course, the Bikini islanders, whose affections for their native land was not taken into account).

Today, the Bikini islanders, who once spent their days living according to their ancestral tradition of fishing and coconut farming, live on an island less than a square kilometer in area. They are completely dependent upon food shipments for their survival. Residual radiation on their home island has rendered their former food supply poisonous, and their homeland remains uninhabited. Seventy acres of their home had been completely vaporized. Someone’s favorite fishing spot was gone forever.

At what point does the carnage of science outweigh the knowledge? What calculus is at work here? A study of the human person reveals that a virtue, when isolated from the others, is hardly virtue at all. In fact, such false virtues become great evils. Some of the most hideous vices are overgrown virtues, virtues the exercise of which has grown beyond all boundaries of wisdom. They cease in such uncontrolled practice from being virtues. The courage of a mass murderer is no courage at all. It merely enables him to actualize the perverse fantasies which a more cowardly man may have been unable to act out. The super villains of comic books are dangerous precisely because of the incomplete nature of their virtues; their strength, courage, intellect, and cunning are not matched to a charity and wisdom which would make them whole and good. For many, the pseudo-virtues they possess are the substance of their vices. In the same way, virtue of science, when removed from the virtue of charity, ceases to be virtuous.

One of the chief causes for the excesses of modern science is the myth of perpetual scientific progress. Like any mythology, this particular story has been retold in various times and places with a number of variations, but the essential core of the narrative is the eventual triumph of science over ignorance. Mysteries once accepted through tradition are put to the rigorous test of empirical methodology, in the belief that knowledge is an end which is justified in itself and without reference to further ends or contexts. The field of science is seen as having theoretically infinite potential, the only ceilings being either the limits of current resources and the ultimate end of total, unified theoretical understanding. It is a narrative that justifies and has justified a vast amount of carnage. It is a testament to the humanity of most scientists that their practices are usually not fully in line with this mythology, yet history has given us examples of those who have. Projects such as eugenics, nuclear and biological testing, even pharmaceutical tests are artifacts of this myth.

Additionally, modern politics has embraced this myth, seeing it as a subset of its own myth of perpetual progress. Some of the empty rhetoric of the Obama administration makes use of this connection. When a spokesperson of the administration claims that we must allow science to proceed unfettered by ideology, he affirms a belief in science as justifiable in itself. Such concrete concerns, such as the humanity of embryos, are discarded or ignored as at best subsidiary, if not irrelevant, to scientific progress.

There is a special sort of wisdom which grows in the hearts of those who are close to their land and to their places. It is precisely the sort of wisdom which is able to put the virtue of science in its place, to prevent it from vicious excess. Attachment to and affection for a particular place produces a singular narrowness of mind which is critical for sound thought and sound science. Within such a context, the experiments of science take on a new importance and naturally acquire new boundaries. Science as a virtue of the mind can only be such when it is directed towards and guided by an overarching wisdom; any Aristotelean can tell you that this wisdom consists in an ability to act well according to goods. Action is concerned with particulars, and wisdom requires not merely the abstract understanding of science but a firmly concrete familiarity with particulars. It is, as a poem might tell us,

Not to see and hear in the changing airs
The propagation of light waves and sound,
But to see my wife and to hear her voice
Bent down at the table by me at her work:
Making a garment and mending my soul.

It might also involve a calculus which is not reducible to cost and benefit analysis. True wisdom measures the worth and cost of action according to memory and the context of a community, in which the demands of profit, scientific or economic, may be seen in terms unavailable to the outsider, even an outsider who has sincerely benevolent intentions.

Grey and battered, and the guest said
(he lifted his coffee cup just below his lips
as he spoke, leaning back in the chair),
“You should tear that thing down, back there,
Ain’t no use anymore, and plant some more rows
Of tobacco or cotton,” and he pointed and drank.
At his finger’s end, the shed my grandfather built,
Where father and I had placed four dozen years’ hay,
And I every summer scorched myself bronze and red
While beating in rhythm nails into new boards.
He drank one more cup then went on his way.

Familiarity with the particular is absolutely essential to the proper exercise of wisdom. It is thus essential to the proper exercise of science. This familiarity is not merely an understanding of the unique characteristics of particular places and things, but is also an intimacy which is not reducible to abstractions or formulae. Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit poet and priest of the 19th century, had developed a concept called inscape, which in short is the unique pattern, inner being, and outward showing forth of a particular creature. Knowledge of the particular requires the contact of our own inscapes with that of another creature. In such a moment, we are united with another particular in a unique way. Over time, we can develop a familiarity (in fact, such familiarity can only develop over time). This patient understanding leads gradually to an ability to treat other creatures with a true respect and act according to a true wisdom.

It is, of course, necessary to carefully distinguish between the importance of this local, particular wisdom and sentimentality. Mere sentimentality is a longing for meaning and which thus cherishes as quaint or precious an idealized (and false) vision of reality, often attached to a particular but without any real familiarity. It is really one of the great accomplishments of science to clear away these sorts of false particular sentiments with a keen and more universal vision. In this function, science can operate as a much-needed source of iconoclasm that can shatter certain sorts of idols. However, the unreflective practice of science can itself crystallize into something sentimental. The quest for universal knowledge can itself become an idol; iconoclasm can (and, perhaps necessarily, does) become an icon. This is how the myth of perpetual progress was born in the first place. When this has happened, it is necessary to return the mind to the particular, to recognize the unique inscape of the concrete. Navigating between these two tendencies, the false sentimentality of the particular and the idolatry of science, is the duty of wisdom. It requires keen vision.

The nature of the vision of wisdom is that it be passive. The mind must be conformed to reality. It is possibly the primal sin of modern science that its chief aim is to conform reality to the desires of the mind. The most monstrous examples of this has been in the areas of genetic manipulation, but it is found wherever knowledge has been used as a tool for power and mastery over nature. This use of science is in opposition to the service of a steward. That Christ chose to appear first after His resurrection in the form of a gardener is absolutely telling, especially if we relate this appearance to the washing of His disciples’ feet only a few days earlier. “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Christ is not diminished by kneeling to wash the feet of his disciples, who short hours later would abandon Him. Man, who is given dominion and mastery over nature, is also not diminished to become nature’s servant. Instead, he is ennobled through service and degraded through exploitation.

The nature of the vision of wisdom is that it be passive. By passive, I mean that it suffers. It not only suffers in the sense that wisdom must be shaped by reality (and, as Catholics, we know that our wisdom is to be shaped by the ultimate Wisdom who underwent the ultimate suffering), it also suffers in the sense that the road to wisdom is long and difficult. Another sin of modern science has been the refusal to suffer the long and difficult road, as lab after lab has turned its attention to a variety of shortcuts. Instead of the generation-spanning, even century-spanning task of perfecting crops through traditional farming methods, scientists seek in short years to develop super crops. I have nothing against labor-saving devices and technology in principle; such technology can be extremely helpful. When it is used to render virtue unnecessary, however, a line has been crossed. Consider birth control technologies. Sexual indiscretion once bore a variety of potential consequences which were intrinsically linked to the nature of the sexual act. Now, birth control offers the promise of care-free, casual sex. It simultaneously has pretended to render sexual moderation unnecessary, offering a labor-free access to the perks once associated with virtue. The lifelong road of marriage open to fertility handed down through tradition is much like the road to Calvary. It is difficult, but it bears much fruit, not only in children, but in charity and virtue. Birth control is a flight through the woods, a dash in the night which seeks to flee the cross but which also flees its accompanying crown.

By refusing the difficulty of lifelong knowledge of and intimacy with particulars, modern science refuses the patient guidance of wisdom and instead seeks the gratification of the moment. The longterm costs are ignored, and even short-term carnage inflicted on particular persons or locations can be ignored or justified by reference to the larger, abstract myth of perpetual progress. The justification rings hollow in the ears of anyone who has staked a true interest in the casualties. In Tennessee during the Manhattan project, tens of thousands of acres of land were seized by the government through use of eminent domain law in order to construct the Oak Ridge facility. Local farmers were displaced against their wills from land that probably went back generations. Farmers are discovering that their seed has become a liability, as species after species of plant seed and strain after strain are patented by large corporations eager and willing to prosecute anyone growing unlicensed seed. Local strains are becoming infected by strains of genetically manipulated varieties, with unexpected and sometimes catastrophic results for the small farmer whose livelihood is becoming increasingly threatened by the easy promises of new biotechnology.

The myth of perpetual scientific progress does have blood on its hands. There is a litany of similar scientific discoveries and technological applications that could be cited, each with its own list of casualties. Such a catalog of carnage might include the embryos destroyed in stem cell research, the workers fired because of technological efficiency, the privacy shattered because of increasingly sophisticated methods of surveillance, the metaphysical quandaries introduced by the monomaniacal obsessions of materialistic accounts of the human person and causality, the loss of a meaningful and unified account of reality, and the ease with which a globalization made possible by technology has gradually destroyed a sense of responsibility to place and persons. This list is made even more disturbing by the lack of accountability on the part of the perpetrators. The widespread and unquestioned application of and pursuit of science directed towards understanding for manipulation makes it almost impossible to point fingers at any particular individual or group of individuals. I am hardly advocating simply blaming scientists (nor am I exonerating them). There is, first of all, no homogeneous group of white-lab-coat-wearing persons known simply as scientists to either blame or exonerate. Many in the field of science are investigating the mysteries of reality guided by some sense of wonder and a conviction of the ultimate purpose and coherence of the universe. And there are many other non-scientists who both knowingly and unknowingly perpetuate the myth and its atrocities. Nor am I condemning (perish the thought) science. I merely wish to consider its boundaries.

Boundaries are necessary in order to counteract the hubris of modern science and the myth of perpetual progress. In effect, the boundaries are a work of humility and respect for the dignity of both nature and the human person. It is a crime against nature, for instance, to trod our way straight into the innermost depths and marrow of another creature and set about reworking it for our own imagined convenience. For one thing, we do not even know fully what we are doing when we muck about in the long and immeasurably complex sequences of DNA that form the secret depths of other creatures. But beyond our own ignorance, it is also simply speaking an act of unimaginable violence, like mucking around and rearranging a person’s memories and identity. Furthermore, this hubris blinds us to our limitations, and by imagining ourselves wise we become foolish. We are prone to completely misjudge the import of our own scientific findings. Consider the fact that we have found that bloodflow and neural activity in particular regions of the brain correlate with certain mental states and even choices. The hubris of materialism, which sees only one causal chain, is to declare determinism. The humility of wisdom refrains from this reductionist account; it knows the boundaries of science and is free to choose what Wendell Berry calls “the way of ignorance.”

What are, practically speaking, the boundaries of science? One most immediately presenting itself from what I have already said is that science had ought to be practiced by those who have developed an intimate love and knowledge of the particulars who their discoveries and accompanying applications may effect. Science must be tempered by love.

The second is that science must be bounded by a spirit of service and passivity.

The third is that scientists must be aware of the limits of human knowledge.

The fourth is that science must constantly submit to the dignity of its subject.

The fifth is that scientists may not justify their method because of its fruits. Let us imagine that we could kill a man to save ten million from a disease. It is still murder. It would not matter to those who do not love that man. It would matter only to those who love him, and, of course, to the man. Science must side with those who love the particular.

On that note, it is conceivable already that killing one man might save several. Kidney, liver, lung, heart transplants; but as of yet we still have the ethical sense not to do it.

The sixth is that science must heed tradition. There is a reason tradition has endured as long as it has; the novelties of a new theory, however seemingly grand or revolutionary, cannot replace the knowledge of tradition. Local communities ought not be destroyed for the sake of progress.

The seventh is that scientists ought to remember that the life of the particular is directed towards an end which is beyond their control and to which they, like all other creatures, ought to submit.

The eighth is that they had ought to perform no experiment upon a subject that they would not perform if the subject was near and dear to them. Perhaps they should be required to write a love sonnet about their subject before any experimentation began, and keep that sonnet close by them during the whole course of the experiment.

“How foolish!” one might object. “Everything worthwhile involves a degree of danger and risk.” I agree. Farming implies a risk; building a home implies a risk; science implies risk. I am not by any means advocating the cessation of any activity that might in some way endanger life or health. In fact, if my rules are followed, it may just be the case that, in some respect, there will be more dangers, just as there are more dangers if one abandons the soft promises of birth control. I am advocating a careful weighing of the costs that cannot be accomplished in any other way than by investing one’s life wholly in what might be lost. When you are committed so fully and so intimately, even loss is meaningful. If you are not so committed, gain is meaningless. Above all, it means a trust in the Word beyond all words.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves-goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is-
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

When Christ is seen in all things, then true science is possible; for His dignity pours down into all creation. It is a careful balance, like everything worthwhile, and it is fraught with danger. It is to treat all things as superfluous, because everything is superfluous and passing, yet to treat it all with the dignity of the Logos who is the source of it and all things.