What “science as science” can offer us – or not

This fascinating essay by Marilynne Robinson, “Reclaiming a Sense of the Sacred,” is a thoughtful and insightful piece of writing. But unfortunately, as noted by my friend Jacob, it completely fails to distinguish science from scientism (or, I would hasten to add, techno-optimism). Thus, my experience of reading it was whiplash-inducing: after each paragraph, I suffered an overwhelming urge to blurt an enthusiastic “yes!” or an affronted “no!” and write an entire blog post right then. (Since it is a very long essay, that would have been insane.)

Here’s a “yes”:

The locus of the human mystery is perception of this world. From it proceeds every thought, every art. I like Calvin’s metaphor—nature is a shining garment in which God is revealed and concealed. As we perceive we interpret, and we make hypotheses. Something is happening, it has a certain character or meaning which we usually feel we understand at least tentatively, though experience is almost always available to reinterpretations based on subsequent experience or reflection. Here occurs the weighing of moral and ethical choice. Behavior proceeds from all this, and is interesting, to my mind, in the degree that it can be understood to proceed from it.

But here’s a “no”:

In fact there is no moment in which, no perspective from which, science as science can regard human life and say that there is a beautiful, terrible mystery in it all, a great pathos. Art, music, and religion tell us that. And what they tell us is true, not after the fashion of a magisterium that is legitimate only so long as it does not overlap the autonomous republic of science. It is true because it takes account of the universal variable, human nature, which shapes everything it touches, science as surely and profoundly as anything else. And it is true in the tentative, suggestive, ambivalent, self-contradictory style of the testimony of a hundred thousand witnesses, who might, taken all together, agree on no more than the shared sense that something of great moment has happened, is happening, will happen, here and among us.

I just don’t know what that paragraph is trying to say. Science can’t acknowledge pathos — because it is not a crowdsourced poll of human opinion? Wha?

First, as the author notes, science is a human endeavor; as hard as we try, we cannot purge science of our human fallibility. We try our hardest to keep the language of science as objective and detached as possible, because that is how science works best, but it is never fully detached from the human condition (which I’d add is not one variable, but many). What the author means by “science as science,” I’m honestly not sure (nor am I sure what she means by “truth,” since her attempts to explain it strike me as internally contradictory). But regardless, I’m certain that a significant number of the moments in which I personally have felt a wrenching sense of pathos, of tininess in a vast interconnected network, of incomprehensible wonder, have been when I was “doing science.” So there. The author apparently has not had the same experience in her own education; perhaps she was better than I at partitioning her scientific work from the rest of her psyche. Or perhaps (her essay seems to suggest this) she identifies “science” primarily with economic modeling, not (as I do) with the accumulation and synthesis of empirical observations.

The point is, for each of her anecdata, I have a counterpoint. You might say, in fact, that we “agree on no more than the shared sense that something of great moment has happened, is happening, will happen, here and among us.” So why she selectively excludes science, and only science, from contributing to the shared sense of “truth” emerging from our various human experiences, I have no idea.

However, because I think the author is being as fair as she can, and because I think we agree on the main points in the end, I’ll conclude with one more “yes:”

We live in a time when many religious people feel fiercely threatened by science. O ye of little faith. Let them subscribe to Scientific American for a year and then tell me if their sense of the grandeur of God is not greatly enlarged by what they have learned from it.


Read all of Robinson’s essay at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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