March 12, 2013, by Alex Smith

Is there something dehumanising about science?

John Dewey, one of America's leading philosophers

John Dewey, one of America’s leading philosophers

At the recent launch of Making Science Public, the Rt. Rev Dr Lee Rayfield – a member of our programme’s advisory board and, as Bishop of Swindon and a trained medical scientist, the lead contact on science matters for the Church of England – participated in a late-afternoon panel.

He posed an interesting question, which went largely unacknowledged until the final minutes of the session: ‘Is there something dehumanising about science?’

Elaborating during the (too brief) discussion that this question provoked, the Bishop wondered aloud about how major discoveries and intellectual advances in science that place emphasis on the role of accident, chance and serendipity in nature – such as, for example, Darwin’s theory on the origin of species or scientific speculation that the universe will end in an entropic ‘heat death’ event – has lead us to question our place in the cosmos.

For many people, this challenge to the centrality and role – this privileging – of humankind in nature can be experienced as very unsettling.  That some might turn to religion in their attempts to reaffirm the value of what it means to be human, in stories of creation and Intelligent Design, should therefore come as little surprise.

Of course, it should be emphasised that belief in a Creator God is not irreconcilable with embracing Darwin and his theory of natural selection, as Bishop Lee himself explains on a Church of England website devoted to Charles Darwin and the impact of his intellectual legacy on Christianity and science.

But it is on this question of creation – and, specifically, whether or not a supernatural being (God) ‘designed’ the world – that religious and scientific leaders often most spectacularly clash in public debate.  And the consequences of this, for both religion and science, are not usually constructive or desirable.

Science versus religion

On the one hand, such debate usually reinforces simplistic and unhelpful associations between secularism and science.  Empirical knowledge, as a result, is then equated with atheism and ‘truth’, sometimes in mercilessly bold terms (especially when Richard Dawkins is involved in the argument!)

On the other hand – and as if by default – religion is dismissed as a delusion: an indulgent fantasy for those who want ‘to bury their heads in the sand’ in the face of the scientific evidence and refuse to accept that there is no such thing as God.

This, of course, is an unhelpful caricature of religion.  After all, the world’s great faith traditions are concerned not just with addressing the ‘mystery’ of creation in terms that affirm the centrality and value of humanity.  Religion is also concerned with our conduct and purpose.

This goes beyond the question of whether or not there is a Creator God to ask fundamental questions about how we treat others – our enemies as well as our neighbours – and how to build communities of belonging that fulfil our obligations and responsibilities to our fellow human beings and towards our wider environment.

A science that is equated with atheism, secularism and, increasingly, the market, as I have argued previously, is often imagined as a value-neutral practice focused exclusively on the ‘discovery’ of (objective) facts and the production of evidence.  As a result, it can struggle to address questions of ethics and morality in terms that many people find meaningful and persuasive.

To return to Bishop Lee’s original question, a science conceived in this way – as deaf to such questions and silent on issues of justice – is almost certainly experienced as dehumanising for many people.

It is therefore right that faith leaders take an interest in – and stimulate – debate on the thorny ethical and moral issues raised by scientific advances, especially when they touch on the subject of conception and the question of where life begins.  Because religion is also concerned with questions of ethical conduct in human affairs, it is also appropriate for them to comment on economic, political and social issues, as the Archbishop of Canterbury and other Anglican Bishops did this weekend in their open letter protesting the Coalition Government’s proposed cuts in the welfare budget.

Secular institutions, publics and science may not always welcome the intervention of religious voices in the public square.  But in itself, it is not unreasonable for the Catholic Church, for example, to attempt to articulate an ethical position and provide what it sees as moral guidance to its followers on contentious issues like abortion and embryonic stem cell research – even if many of us then disagree with the Church’s teachings in these areas.

Dismissing the views of religious leaders on the grounds that they (and their followers) do not properly understand the science about which they speak is disingenuous and misses the point.  Rather, there is value in acknowledging that questions of the ethical, moral and social consequences of science are important in their own right and cut across boundaries of denomination, discipline and faith.  Furthermore, the intellectual traditions on which religions draw are often better and more powerfully placed to address them.

John Dewey and ‘religious values’

In an essay entitled ‘Democracy and America’, which appeared in his book Freedom and Culture (1989, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books), the American philosopher John Dewey, writing after the First World War, described ‘the conflict of science and religion’ as being founded on a division ‘between ideas in the form of knowledge and ideas that are emotional and imaginative and that directly actuate conduct’ (1989:128).

Dewey was particularly concerned about the impact of the accelerating pace of social change resulting from scientific discoveries.  This was, for him, a moral question:

‘An increase of power undreamed of a century ago, one to whose further increase no limits can be put as long as scientific inquiry goes on, is an established fact.  The thing still uncertain is what we are going to do with it.  That it is power signifies of itself it is electrical, thermic, chemical.  What will be done with it is a moral issue.’ (1989:126)

This question is acute at a time when scientific innovation goes (again) hand-in-hand with unrestrained market forces:

‘For a considerable period laissez-faire individualism … treated the new economic movement as if it were simply an expression of forces that were fundamental in the human constitution but were only recently released for free operation.  It failed to see that the great expansion which was occurring was in fact due to release of physical energies; that as far as human action and human freedom is concerned, a problem, not a solution, was thereby instituted: the problem, namely, of management and direction of the new physical energies so they would contribute to realization of human possibilities.’ (1989:128)

Dewey was worried about the erosion of local-level associational life and community ties resulting directly from advances and innovations in what he calls the ‘physical’ sciences.  In turn, this erosion could lead to the undermining of the moral basis of democracy, paving the way for the weakening of that sense of ‘personal responsibility for judgment and action’ that is forged in robust, face-to-face social relations and which is needed to militate against ‘the attitudes that welcome and support the totalitarian state’ (1989:131).

Ultimately, however, his argument is not for a reinvigoration of the politics of the Luddite or for a kind of reactionary anti-science that we might associate with certain conservative religious traditions today.  Dewey, after all, sat on the advisory board of the First Humanist Society of New York, founded by Charles Francis Potter.  In his book A Common Faith (1962 [1934], New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), he also (incorrectly) argued that the ascendance of science in the twentieth century meant that religion was now in permanent decline and would eventually cease to command anything other than historical interest in a fully secularised United States.

But Dewey thought it important that science seek to employ its knowledge, methods and practices to address questions of justice, morality and ‘truth’, which he believed were essentially ‘religious values’ worth ‘emancipating’ from religion (cf. 1962 [1934]:27) and claiming for the ‘human’ (humanised) sciences.  As a result, he articulated a timeless argument for science that serves democracy, humanity and the public first – and the market second.  It is an argument for a science of the social (rather than a science of behaviour) that takes seriously its ethical responsibilities and moral obligations to society and humankind.  It is, no less, a powerful argument for – and an affirmation of – social science.

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