Sciences and the Tower of Babel

Sciences and the Tower of Babel August 23, 2013

I am not a scientist, but I respect science. I respect science so long as science does what science can do. I disrespect science when science pretends to do what it can’t. That is, I respect science until it builds its own Tower of Babel.

Science does what science can do. I love that. It can discover and it can find and it can see and it can observe and it can induce. It can tell me why a tomato, a juicy red one through and through can generate potent, pleasing reactions on my tongue and make a (turkey) bacon, chard and tomato sandwich pleasurable. It can take us to the moon and back, and it can see things and discern things on the moon that will perhaps change life here on Planet Earth.

But science goes Babel on us when it tells us that because pleasure is in the frontal cortex it is nothing but chemical reaction; science goes Babel on us when it denies the glorious mysteries of beauty, of the eye of faith, and the splendor of perceptions.

“Science,” Marilynne Robinson tells us in When I Was a Child I Read Books, “can give us knowledge, but it cannot give us wisdom” (18). Robinson, as you may know, is hardly against science; she’s all for it… as long as it does not build its own Tower of Babel.

Anthropologists tell us, in their own Babel-building, that religions are all alike, that they are myth-building edifices drawn up by humans who can’t otherwise explain something. So for them — I’m reading Robinson so I’ll quote her again — “religion is intrinsically a crude explanation strategy that should be dispelled and supplanted by science” (15).

Pshaw! When I look into the Scientific American I don’t lose faith; I praise God and find the glories and grandeurs of God ever more immense and unfathomable. The more we learn, we learn in college, the more we don’t know — and the more science we learn, the higher  Babel goes? That’s just hybris. The more we learn about this world the bigger and more minute and more intricate God becomes.

There is, she says, “a tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell” (7). Indeed. There’s an attempt to contain the glories of nature in the wineskin but sure as we are sitting here that skin will burst when the next Scientific American is read. Where she’s got this in her grip is right here: “The assumption persists among us still, vigorous as ever, that if a thing can be ‘explained,’ associated with a physical process, it has been excluded from the category of the spiritual” (9-10). That, my friends, is to fall for the error of the Manichees — to pose the world as either spiritual or physical. The Christian Story, my friends, is that these go together — God and Us, God and Human, spirit and matter, body and soul.

Or, “Religious experience is said to be associated with activity in a particular part of the brain. For some reason this is supposed to imply that it is delusional” (10). This sort of Babel-building will not satisfy the urge and pleasure of beauty.

When science cannot tell me that my wife, Kris, is beautiful to me; when it cannot tell me why a chard leaf with red spines is beautiful; when it cannot tell me why a long iron with a slight draw onto a green banked just so takes the game to a new level; when science cannot tell me why my grandson’s twinkly eye when he sees something magical on the iPad or why my granddaughter brings to the surface in a smile a joy from deep within because of a gaudy pair of Cinderella shoes … when science cannot explain why some things are beautiful, then it needs to do what it does so well and not try to do what it cannot do. What it should not do is build the Tower of Babel all over again. Agamemnon’s pride, Constantine’s arrogance, and Nixon’s insolence are Babel-like, and so too science when it pretends it can do more than it can do.

Religion, too, Marilynne Robinson observes: “Nor can religion [give us wisdom], until it put aside nonsense and distraction and becomes itself again” (18). Should I ask if religion, too, is just as Babel-like when it thinks it can tell science where to go?

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