Common Ground: Science, not Scientism, Unity, Not Dissension

Common Ground: Science, not Scientism, Unity, Not Dissension March 29, 2020


Apparently saying we should listen to scientists when they speak about their specialty, but not when they aren’t was easy to misunderstand. 

This was taken, by a few commentators to be an attack on science when it was merely a warning against scientism, the belief everything can be explained by the scientific method.

Of course, the belief that everything can be explained by the scientific method is not known by the scientific method, so from the start there is reason to think that while science is a marvel, it is limited in what it can do. What science can do is explain certain qualities of the physical world better than any other method yet discovered. This success sometimes angers people when they hear that science is not “all.” Apparently, I stirred up the acolytes of scientism.

One critic pointed out that if we wish to avoid the virus causing the present pandemic, we should listen to scientists and medical doctors when they urge us to practice social distancing and washing our hands. They felt the need to point out that of the billions of theists on the planet, there are some who confuse the physical with the metaphysical. We should not listen to such crazies.

Just so.

Let us celebrate all our medical workers. Our own church has a medical doctor, our priest’s wife, on the front lines serving our city. God bless her and may we give her the material tools she needs. This virus is a physical foe so it will be beaten by physical means, but only if we (the people) are up to the task. We need courage, reason, faith, and charity to conquer and these are immaterial ideas, virtues, not in the domain of science.

Just as there are scientists who have gotten the science wrong, there are metaphysicians who have gotten metaphysics wrong! There are theologians, ethicists, and philosophers who have given bad theological, ethical, and philosophical advice. No theologian, ethicist, or philosopher should lightly criticize a scientific consensus and should (mostly) refrain from commenting in this area.

Is there a spiritual component to this pandemic?

Surely, but this does not mean I needn’t wash my hands. As a religion with a history of medical doctors as evangelists and saints, who built hospitals wherever we have gone, mainstream Christianity has mostly gotten the need for both spiritual and physical hospitals right. Christianity has a long history of providing free medical care. Google “unmercenary saint.” If some whack-a-doodle is telling you not to wash your hands, but to cast out a demon instead, he does not understand Christian history or theology. If a theologian suggests wash hands and pray, then she gets orthodoxy.

On Denying Science or on Denying Metaphysics 

I assume that relevant scientists and medical doctors are the relevant authorities on how to stop the virus and prevent the pandemic from spreading. However, the moment citizens get this advice, they must ask: “Shall we take the advice? If so, how much and for how long?” There might be other social goods inconsistent with fully stopping the virus. Since the experts tell us many people will be killed by the corona virus being allowed to spread unchecked, no Christian citizen who relies on Christian ethics would be in favor of doing nothing. The right to life is a very high value in all Christian ethics. There might be actions that would stop the virus (based on science) that are not doable. The people that exist may not have (for example) the fortitude to “shelter in place” for months.

Nobody is “denying science” when they disagree with an application of science to the Republic. If the politician accepts that some action “X” would stop the virus, but also believes “X” would create other moral evils worse than “X.” then they are also not denying medical science if they suggest (based on psychology, sociology, or some other relevant discipline) that this particular group of people cannot do what they should do.

No group is immune to greed, fear, or irrationality: scientists, theologians, philosophers, and politicians.

However, “science” while awesome as “science” does not give us every answer. A scientist (a morally perfect one!) cannot tell us (as a scientist) what we should do. She might say: “If you wish to stop global warming, which as a scientist I have shown is happening, then you should do the following.” Citizens might accept all the science, admit all the outcomes, and not accept that the proposed solutions are worthwhile. Of course, they might be as well, but it will not be the scientist as scientist who tells us (even if their science is perfect and they have no mixed motives).

Dissent in Science, Religion, and Philosophy 

In any healthy field of knowledge, dissent is tolerated. Dissenters to the consensus are usually cranks, whether in science, theology, or philosophy, but sometimes the dissenter is a Galileo, imperfect, but essentially correct. The Lord Jesus was a dissenter from some of the experts of his day, as was Socrates. Sadly, most dissenters in science think they are Galileo, when they are Ilya Ivanov. Many dissenters in theology think they are following Jesus, when they are wrapping up an old heresy, such as Apollinarism, in new words. More than a few dissenters in philosophy think they are Socrates, when they are simply Sir Oracle. All reasonable people must unite in allowing dissent, even if it is most often cranky, the way America tolerated (however imperfectly) the village atheist in the nineteenth century.

The scientific method (in theory) has a place for dissent, though dissenters often find the actual scientists in the workplace a good bit less tolerant of “wild” ideas. Christian theology must allow for the prophetic dissident, since Jesus was one! Saint Francis in western Christianity or the tradition of the “holy fool” in the East are examples of the need for Christian theology to be open to development. Philosophy is not the story of “truth” being replaced by other “truth,” but of competing schools of thought (some as old as Plato, others as new as Sartre) competing, developing, growing. Human artists and wise men and woman of all cultures capture our conscience in their creations.

In times of pandemic, we need all reasonable people to unite, tolerate dissent, read nobody out of the beloved community.

Common Ground in a Pandemic 

Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.

Perhaps I am wrong about scientism, the limits of science, and Christianity. So?

In a pandemic, there is no time for debate, merely clarification as we move on to fight the virus with physical tools and stay whole with spiritual means.

This much I know as a Christian: we are to love the suffering and just now the entire nation is suffering. We need common cause and must let our disagreements go for now, best we can. Science is done by scientists, only human, but those humans and the methods of science are the best tools we have in stopping this horrible pandemic.

For the moment, let us declare a truce in any philosophical or cultural war with anyone who will unite with us against the pain and suffering. We need have no sympathy for a virus! Let evangelical Christians unite with the atheist in accepting what medical science can tell us about the best cures. Let our artists, philosophers, and theologians (of all persuasions) look for a beauty that can save the world.

Our disagreements are vast and our dialog will not be put off forever. But the Lord Jesus told a story about a good Samaritan, an outcast from the “elite” of his day, who saw an injured man. That Samaritan took the man and did not ask his worldview or his politics, but paid to heal the man. That is the way of Jesus in times of pandemic and pain. We are in solidarity with the suffering. We will heed our scientists, whatever their creed or lack of creed, on the science of stopping this pandemic. We must balance that mission with other goods, balancing the God given right to life, with liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We can do this.


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