Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Three Sunsets

"Orange, red, and deep violet hues--
Split across the sky once blue,
There be dragons behind the western clouds,
Each sleek and powerful and ferrociously proud.
Their breath is filled with heat and flames,
Each will to the skies stake his own claim.
Their soundless cries fill the early nights,
Noiselessly hearkening the dying of the light."
With that the old pagan ended his tale,
And the materialist began his own description.
"It's beautiful to behold without your mythologies,
These legends are silly and false as astrology,
'Tis not but simple photon scatters,
Not magical but simply interactions of matter,
Long since Lord Rayleigh's theory explains,
That the reason for these colors is too plain:
They result from light absorption by molecules,
Not a war between dragons most cruel."
As he finished, the materialist sat back smugly,
And regarded his companions with some derision.
"The charm and wonder your descriptions each confide,
I find that I cannot in justice deride,
Both contain certain sublime truths,
One efficient, one more fantastic in sooth,
But nature's very law to us shows
A deeper truth which the laws foreshadow:
A battle once fought and again at the end of all things,
Captured by our pagan friends mythic imagining."
So spoke the kindly mystic in his turn,
Though he too was dismissed with deprecation.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Controlling Nature and Controlling Self

I've been working on a fairly long (~ hour) talk for the AP physics class at one of the local Catholic high schools which is supposed to touch on what I believe is to be the relationship between science and religion. The original type manuscript for the talk came to 22 pages (single-spaced), so I'm doing a bit of trimming down. This is one of the things which I am probably going to cull from the talk itself, because it really doesn't fit with the rest of the talk. Since it's probably not going to be used for the talk, I've made no attempt to edit it to a level which is suitable for high school students, beyond the semblance of doing that which was present in my initial brainstorming. Enjoy!
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I would be remiss in a discussion about the relationship of religion and science if I did not at some point mention the philosophy of scientism*. Scientism, briefly defined, is the epistemological attitude that only the knowledge gained through scientific or otherwise empirical methods is trustworthy; and that, moreover, knowledge is little more than a means to an end, specifically, to the end of controlling nature. Knowledge is only valuable if it is useful, and it's only useful if it can aide me in controlling my environment, increasing my comfort, or improving my health.

Is his short though prophetic work, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis discusses one of the major problems of this will-to-power over nature:
In what sense is Man the possessor of increasing power over Nature?

Let us consider three examples: the aeroplane, the wireless, and the contraceptive…What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by. Again, as regards the powers of the aeroplane or the wireless, Man is as much the patient or the subject as the possessor, since he is the target for bombs and for propaganda. And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose or prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.

The initial stated goals of "improving health" or "making people more comfortable" are worthy ends. Unfortunately, they eventually become a sort of "bait" by which men are convinced of the error of scientism: we see that science gives us technology, and technology can make our lives easier, longer, and more comfortable.

What science does not do, and cannot do, is give ultimate meaning to life. A corollary to this is that it cannot tell us how to use that technology, what is the proper way by which men are benefited from having these technological advances. About such things, science is incompetent. Thus, for example, technology gives us improved efficiency in the workplace, but it cannot tell us how to spend the time which we supposedly "save." Computers may allow us to make more mistakes more quickly, but they also enable us to get more work done. This should give us more time for leisure and family and God--what Fr James Schall calls the important things in life in his On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs--but what we actually see is that the expectations of productivity are often increased instead. The need to toil from dawn until dusk to provide all the necessities of life--food, shelter, clothing, etc--is gone from life in the West, yet the father who works long overtime or the mother who is scarcely home from her job has become the norm again.

There are, meanwhile, new moral problems created by our advanced technology which cannot be answered by appeals to science alone. Embryonic stem cell research, cloning, new forms of artificial birth control, artificial insemination or implantation:  in each these things, one group of men (though now living) exercise unchecked power over another group (those not yet living). That control is somewhat varied:  from denying existence (contraception) or denying the right to life (embryonic stem cell research, abortion) of those not yet born, to forcing into existence people whose physical or genetic traits we have pre-determined (cloning, genetic engineering).

Worse still for those of us who are living is that although science itself lacks the competence or the authority to give the answer to the meaning of life, scientism is nonetheless happy to abrogate to itself that authority, often on strictly utilitarian grounds. Some men--perhaps a governmental agency, or a "bioethics council"--will decide for all what is to be the meaning of life, and what is a life worth living. Some will decide what, exactly, constitutes "more comforts and better health, and a higher quality of life."

Technology, in-as-much-as it is the control of Nature (and at times the control of others through Nature) can therefore also be opposed to another type of control:  self-control. This is sometimes knows as substituting a technical solution for a moral problem; in more blunt terms, it is a means of committing a bad act without having to face the consequences, of trying to get something for nothing. The problem--as Professor Budziszewski (among others) has noted--is that a morally illicit "bad" act always come with consequences, and then consequences must be paid; if not with the moral currency of repentance, then with whatever coin is close at hand. Perhaps technology will progress to the point where artificial birth control is 100% effective, so that fornication will not result in unwanted pregnancies or STIs, as it does for a still-growing fraction of the population; nevertheless, fornication will ultimately result in a loss of intimacy for those involved.

We may alleviate some of the physical consequences, but never the moral ones, and rarely the emotional ones, either. There is a reason why, for example, the depression rate in the US is doubling every 20 years (the treatment for this is often drugs: another technical solution). Instead or exercising  self-control before acting--or humility after sinning--we too often rely on our technical knowledge to bail us out. Fornication becomes sinful only if the proper methods of birth control aren't used. We quiet the voice of conscience with this substitution, and then we begin to wonder why there are so many single (or divorced) men an women in their thirties. We look to control nature as a substitute for controlling ourselves, and slowly replace religion with "science."

Unfortunately, we ultimately replace the sacrifices of religion with a different kind of sacrifices, and trade the true salvation offered by God for the false salvation offered by technology. All the while, we can pretend that nothing is wrong, because, after all, God and morals are outside the realm of science: hence, we have a philosophy which argues these away. But neither God nor morals are mere arguments, let alone fantasies:  they don't go away just because we want them to, nor can they be argued out of existence.Instead, by embracing a philosophy which rejects both, we only lose the ability to embrace God's grace and His revelation. Using technology to defy God and His moral law will not allow us to escape the consequences of sin, nor the demands of our human nature. We may start with attempting to abolish morals, but we will only end by abolishing men.
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*Although I am probably culling this particular aspect from my talk, I actually will still have some discussion of scientism.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Marraige as witness to hope

[the idea is that marriage witnesses to all three virtues, faith, hope, and charity; that chastity is required of all three; and that contraception subverts all three; that this weakens the witness of marriage to the spouses, and also to the culture]