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Scientific Dreamers and Religious Speculation

by James M. Gustafson

James M. Gustafson is Henry R. Luce Professor of Humanities and Comparative Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 10, 1993, pps. 269-274. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A genre of writing that fascinates some scholars and clergy consists of books and articles written by scientists who, venturing beyond what can be securely proved, present larger visions of the cosmos, life, the beginning and the end of all things, and the place of the human in the grand narrative. Scientists who write works of this kind arrive at their larger visions in different ways. These visions may be necessary conclusions from scientific work or extrapolations from it; or they may result from inserting other sources of meaning into scientific findings; or they may be the product of a sometimes unacknowledged assumption at work in the background of the scientists’ investigations.

However generated, these visions can display significantly different orientations. Biochemist Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity, for example, leaves the reader with a dark existentialist ending in a universe totally indifferent to the human. Physicist Freeman Dyson in Infinite in All Directions, partly in deliberate reaction to Monod, describes a cosmic optimism, an eschatology of hope for life that fits a statement from Jürgen Moltmann’s Gifford Lectures, God in Creation: "...every realization of possibility by open systems creates openness for yet more possibilities." (Dyson reports that he was persuaded that he is theologically a Socinian through a conversation with philosopher Charles Hartshorne.)

What do theologians or pastors and laypeople make of this Scientific Wisdom Literature? What do they make of "Nova" on television, of Carl Sagan’s rhetorical powers to reinterpret the world in which humans live? Well, different people respond differently, as they have for some time. I remember hearing Ernest Freemont Tittle, a pastor in Evanston, Illinois, quoting well-known scientists in a 1946 sermon, and assuring his congregation that science and religion are compatible. But Tittle’s openness shared the stage with, and was shoved offstage by, other positions less sympathetic to science. Theologians who believed that their task began with exegesis and sturdy confidence in God’s self-revelation in the Bible and history ignored modern science’s possible implications for theology. Such a strongly Bible-based theology might very well find the theology-like speculations of scientists idolatrous, or relevant only to the phenomenal, not the real, world.

Both of these conclusions held sway in different parts of the theological world for some time. The voices of theologians who were receptive to this genre, like Ralph Burhoe, founding editor of Zygon, a journal dedicated to the interchange between religion and science, were seldom taken as seriously by theologians as they were by scientists. For the most part, mainstream theologians dismissed the scientists who produced writings of this sort as philosophically and theologically naïve; and so they judged those theologians who took an interest in them.

In recent years, however, theologians have expressed a remarkable new interest in the sciences, while philosophers of science such as Stephen Toulmin have shown some new interest in theology. In addition, scientists such as Melvin Konner are appealing to "the sense of wonder," involving a sense of the sublime, if not of the divine, to supplement, if not correct, scientific explanations. After an intensive discussion of Erazim Kohak’s profound philosophical and religious meditation on "The Moral Sense of Nature" in The Embers and the Stars, a biophysicist and a primatologist both said, "I like that. I wish I could prove it." I, for one, take such intimations seriously as evidence of profound moral or religious sensibilities and wonder whether the church’s traditional language of theology and religious symbols thwarts not just apologetics but also the moral, spiritual and intellectual nourishment of those uncomfortable with religious institutions.

Enter Mary Midgley’s Gifford Lectures. Her book is a learned, deep and witty critique of the pretensions of scientists who extrapolate larger visions of the cosmos and of the place of humans in it. Their writings (and she says it almost like this) "create a framework of interpretation which can provide overall orientation for human life"—which is Gordon Kaufman’s view of the function of theology. Thus her dramatic title, Science as Salvation. Midgley engaged in a similar venture in Evolution as a Religion. Biologists were the object of her analysis in that book; this one includes them, but concentrates more on physicists.

Midgley, a retired philosophy professor from Newcastle, has published many provocative and insightful books in the past 15 years, combating various streams of uncritically accepted suppositions in science, ethics, philosophy and modern culture as well. Beginning with Beast and Man in 1978, her sprightly style, which does not sacrifice intellectual precision and profundity to her wit, has attracted considerable attention from readers with very different interests. She is surely one of the most readable philosophers writing today, leaving us with similes, metaphors, analogies and one-liners that make profound arguments clear.

A characteristic that pervades much of her writing is to declare a plague on the houses of both extremes when concepts and images are polarized and set in a win-lose "football match." Reasons versus feeling and desire is one such polarity, or Heart and Mind as she titles a book on a variety of moral experiences. She does not eliminate distinctions, but often sets them in a larger context that reveals how they relate variously to each other. Sometimes she summarizes a careful analysis and argument with a single memorable sentence. After discussing proposals about what single characteristic distinguishes humans (such as reason), she asks perceptively, "Why should not our excellence involve our whole nature?" (Beast and Man). In a discussion of recent disputes in ethical theory she gets to the marrow by stating that the debate is "between people who stress the autonomy of morals to avoid debasing them, and those who stress the continuity of morals with other topics in order to make them intelligible." The proper relation, she argues, is a vigorous dialectic, not a subsumption of one task into the other (Mind and Heart).

Her little book Animals and Why They Matter makes a persuasive case for distinctions among values, thus avoiding problems in extreme positions. For example, she states that "rights" is a desperate word. "It can be used in a wide sense to draw attention to problems, but not to solve them. In its moral sense, it oscillates uncontrollably between applications that are too wide to resolve conflicts (‘the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’) and ones that are too narrow to be plausible." Her Wickedness sheds more insight on evil than do many theological treatises, in part because the issues are not framed by the theological question. And Midgley is blunt; if she thinks a famous thinker is dead wrong she declares his or her writing to be "humbug."

Midgley is not hostile to religion and scores points against scientists and others who think that theology has not changed since the condemnation of Galileo. But she is candidly a nontheistic humanist. What I have termed anthropocentrism, Midgley calls "reductive humanism." Her valuations of life, her moral passion directed toward preservation of the earth and toward humane and just social policies are grounded not in a theocentric vision, but a deeply human one.

She explicates her own humanism in the essay "The Paradox of Humanism":

Humanism exists to celebrate and increase the glory of human life, undistracted by reverence for any entities outside it. But as soon as we begin to cut away those entities, valuable elements in human life itself start to go, too. The center begins to bleed. The patterns essential to human life turn out to be ones that cannot be altogether contained within it. They must, if given their full scope, lead far beyond it. To be fully human seems to involve being interested in other things as well as human ones, and sometimes more than human ones.

This kind of humanism is, for some of us, a clue to the presence of the Divine; Midgley, as she makes clear again in the last chapter of Science as Salvation, does not subscribe to that view. "Humanists who do not believe in God or a future life have been in a stronger position to insist on the urgency of making things better at once, in this [life] . . . If this is the only life that anybody has, then the fact that many people must spend it in such misery becomes more obviously and inexcusably scandalous. Salvation is needed now; it can’t be put off to some vaguely planned future state." One striking argument in this book is that the salvation offered by Freeman Dyson, John Barrow and others, as much as that offered by some traditional Christianity, can lead to a reductive humanism antithetical to Midgley’s own.

Midgley admits that theology has not focused her attention. One can believe, however, that if it did, theology would be subject to the same quality of critical analysis and wit that other literature is. Indeed, in a response to another author’s summary of Barth on creation, Midgley wrote, "This sounds to me quite simply mad, and mad for entirely traditional reasons. Where, after all, was Karl Barth when the Lord laid the foundations of the earth?"

Science as Salvation, however, is not, as many Gifford Lectures have been, a systematic statement of the author’s own convictions. It is a brief but trenchant critique of the pretensions of some influential scientific writers and some of their intellectual ancestors.

The book’s title might well attract religious and theological science-bashers. If it does, they will not be sustained; it is not a standard postmodern critique of science. For Midgley, objectivity in science has not given way totally to hermeneutics. "Radical skeptical suggestions that all our knowledge is just a social construction, not shaped by anything outside us, do not make much sense." "Science," she writes, "is important for exactly the same reason that the study of history or of language is important—because we are beings that need in general to understand the world in which we live, and our culture has chosen a way of life to which that understanding is central." Midgley draws from sophisticated feminist critiques of science as sources of insight, particularly about power, and she acknowledges that the West has placed particular confidence in science. But her analyses and arguments do not imply that traditional religion and theology can rest more comfortably with modern science.

Midgley’s main theme is that many people "believe that, on large subjects, it is always safer to be negative, to accept nothing that is not finally proved. Disbelief, as such, is then always preferable to belief, distrust to trust, skepticism to acceptance. Belief always shows weakness." To her, "that idea is doomed because it is wildly and unconsciously selective. It always involves ignoring the mass of propositions we have chosen to believe before we start disbelieving." This theme has deep affinities with H. Richard Niebuhr’s Faith on Earth: An Inquiry into the Structure of Human Faith, as well as Michael Polanyi’s description of tacit knowledge and similar writings. Midgley’s book, however, probes excessive skepticism, uncritical beliefs and unwarranted dreams in a rather dazzling array of particular scientific and philosophical writings, and in 19 brief chapters calls attention to other weaknesses as well.

She addresses so many aspects of scientific theorizing that a brief summary is not possible. To illustrate her arguments I will focus on her critiques of biologist Monod, of Barrow’s and Frank Tipler’s anthropic principle and of Dyson’s vision of a possible eternal future for life. Her analysis of each vision focuses on what happens to the understanding and value of the human. Just as a "reductive humanism" results from not interpreting and valuing the human as part of a larger interdependent whole, so also speculations about a cosmic whole impoverish its richness and value.

Monod was one of Midgley’s targets in Evolution as a Religion, and his Chance and Necessity and similar works by other authors are properly aimed at in Science as Salvation as well. The context of her interpretation of Monod here is Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers’s Order Out of Chaos. "Scientists found themselves reduced to a blind oscillation between the thunderings of ‘scientific myth’ and the silence of ‘scientific seriousness,’ between affirming the absolute and global nature of scientific truth and retreating into a conception of scientific theory as a pragmatic recipe for effective intervention in natural processes."

Midgley sees Monod as trapped in this oscillation. Monod the puritan minimalist, who shrinks science to value-free fact-finding, seems not be fully aware of the background world picture involved in that activity. Monod the maximalist mythmaker sees only chance and no purpose inherent in the order of things, and has a special concern to remove God from the picture. He uses the casino metaphor: "The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game." (Midgley notes, by the way, that this is a gross insult to casinos, which are purposeful artifacts designed to produce a winner.) Midgley comments that this scheme relegates life to "an unfortunate series of mistakes originating from an initial mistake." Monod depicts a universe without purpose in a depersonalized way in order to achieve a kind of objectivity. Any other view is "animism," clearly something primitive and unscientific.

The universe exists because I am." This graffito, which I read in a toilet stall at Emory University, is the strongest possible formulation of the "anthropic principle," developed and defended by Barrow and Tipler in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. Midgley summarizes the Strong Anthropic Principle this way: "If we are indeed the only observers in the universe, and if the universe is not real until it is observed, then ‘the universe must have those properties which allow life to develop within it at some time in its history.’" Barrow is aware that this theory skirts teleology and might be borrowed by theology. In trying to avoid such views he draws his arguments from physics and information theory. Humans are a type of computer; our bodies are a particular kind of hardware. The universe would not exist apart from the development of human observers, particularly physicists who can map the surprising coincidences that caused us. Midgley comments, "This claim to a standing independent of teleology seems, however, to be wish-fulfillment. The perspective would not be anthropic if it were not already teleological—if the universe did not demand these observers, and produce them because it needed them." Barrow uses the anthropic principle to develop an interpretation of the whole. Unlike Monod’s view, this approach treats humans as necessary, but reduces them to computerized entities, thus diminishing the richness and value of human life.

Midgley’s discussion of Dyson occurs at various places in her book. She admits that Dyson has religious sensibilities and that he acknowledges that his proposal for the continuation of life is speculative. I believe Dyson is more candid about this than Midgley states. In Infinite in All Directions he writes, "Looking to the future, we give up immediately any pretext of being scientifically respectable. From this point on, I make no apology for mixing science with science fiction." He also admits to "mixing knowledge and values," and thus distinguishes himself from Monod’s intention. His futuristic vision combines molecular biology, neurophysiology and space physics to foresee new combinations of biology and computer technology sending new forms of life into outer space to develop where it can and will. Midgley’s criticism of Dyson is multipronged, uncovering his use of physics, his assumptions about biology, economics and his religious and metaphysical assumptions. Space travel, she summarizes, is Dyson’s source of ultimate salvation, "but why this should be the right direction to go in remains quite obscure."

Midgley asks of all she has interpreted:

Is it plain now why I have asked you to take the trouble of examining these strange dreams? The notion they convey that our natural, earthly life can be despised is not just meaningless; it is disastrous.. . . It promotes, here and now, a distorted idea of what a human being essentially is. Its suggestion that our biosphere is merely so much waste matter and the human body, at best, a rather unsatisfactory ship in which the intellect has to sail, expresses an unrealistic, mindless exaltation of that intellect—narrowly conceived as searching for facts—and a corresponding contempt for natural feeling. . . . This remarkably high opinion of ourselves is not needed to support human life.

For Midgley it is better, indeed imperative, to concentrate on bailing out our planet; what we need from scientists is help in formulating a more realistic attitude toward the physical world in which we live.

So where do the scientific dreamers and Midgley’s cogent critique of their pretensions leave us? Monod, Barrow and Dyson, not to mention many others Midgley assesses, are not household names even to many theologians, not to mention pastors and laypeople. Their theories do not directly "create a framework of interpretation which can provide an overall orientation for human life" for most of us ordinary people. The effects of these theories do filter through popular culture, however, and science is perceived by many to be the source of salvation. Midgley’s prophetic message needs to be heard; while the sciences are highly valuable, they must be challenged when they offer soteriological myths. Her challenge is to academic culture; a more pertinent challenge for most of us is the technological impact of sciences. Renee Fox and Judith Swazey, for example, have recently noted how the drive to transplant organs from animals to humans is a Promethean effort to overcome our mortality. The costs of such heroics could be turned to what Midgley cares about, namely poverty, environmental depletion and other dehumanizing social conditions.

Do we only criticize scientists who draw inferences for the meaning and purpose of human life from their larger visions of the cosmos and our place in the grand narrative? We can call them crypto-theologians, fault them as Midgley does on the grounding of their despair or cosmic hope. But what do we do with the deeper human qualities that prompt such visions by Nobel laureates and others? Fundamental "religious" sensibilities, or at least queries, I believe, prompt these speculations. There are ways to engage these authors both empathetically and critically, and to be engaged by them.

What about the laity in the churches? My guess is that biblical concepts, images and ideas do not constitute their overall orientation to human life. Religious leaders, I think, face alternatives not easily reconciled: to try to form communities in which biblical imagery and ideas provide an alternative vision to our cultural ones, or to engage in a process of mutual critique, edification, correction and revision of frameworks that are informed both by our religious traditions and by the sciences and culture. Each alternative has to give reasons for what it gives up. The latter is my preferred alternative. While its theological and pastoral implications are daunting, it might more realistically address the religious and moral sensibilities of many thoughtful people both inside and outside of organized religion.


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