My husband has been getting after me since Christmas to read Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. He was right: Stark’s argument makes sense of much in early American lit. (I’m only half way through.)
He argues Christianity encouraged reason, glorified reason – because its believers had a powerful vision of life as purposeful and science as a study, undertaken with humility, of the grand mysteries of nature. Because they assumed it was done with purpose, they comforted themselves that their approach, too, was purposeful: the best way to glorify God was to study not only his word but the harmony & beauty of his creation. Science – then – was honored because it sought a logical, rational, exploration of what is. Some – indeed many, as Stark observes – religious beliefs are antithetical to science, but Christianity is not.
The self-righteous assumption of “reason” versus “irrational faith” is often a little irritating, but Stark would say it is also quite wrong. Many sneered that Bush’s position on stem cells was irrational – “faith-based.” This always bothered me. I didn’t share his assumptions, so I didn’t get very worked up about it. But I could see where it was coming from. And, given his assumptions – debatable but not stupid ones – his was a quite logical position. So, while this isn’t my cause, I was pleasantly surprised by this link to a report by Michael Fumento (thanks to Instapundit):
Yet it’s been virtually a state secret that for over five years researchers, beginning with a team headed by physician Catherine Verfaillie of the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute, have been reporting numerous types of adult stem cells (she used those from marrow) that in the lab could form mature cells from three germ layers. Experiments around the world have clearly shown that adult stem cells from one germ layer can be converted into those of another in a living human, such as those that have turned adipose tissue stem cells from the mesoderm germ layer into neuronal cells from the ectoderm among others but these are all germ layer. (It also produced bone; cartilage; skeletal; cardiac muscle; and blood cells – mesodermal.)
I don’t have much of a dog in this fight nor in the bigger one – I am neither religious nor a scientist. But I am struck by the difference between the motivations Stark describes and which can be seen in the daily thoughts of so many seventeenth and eighteenth century Americans, and those of some stridently secular modern scientists. Despite their contentions, a sense of proportion may come from religion itself. Stark describes a tradition which prized growing in understanding – a belief system that saw God as a constant but man as changing to better understand the grandeur.
This belief sees the body of our knowledge as becoming, its potential like that of the pluripotent cells, that science can unlock to educate us and lead us to both knowledge and consciousness. Reason, argument, application of scientific principles – these nurture that potential. Of course, being fallible, we may misunderstand, fail in our reasoning or our science. But the tradition encourages testing: proofs, logic, argument. Most of all, it encourages humility before the awesome beauty and harmony of nature, but not despair nor sloth. (This view is not foreign, of course, to many non-believers, but is encouraged by religious faith.)
Indeed, willful assertion is seldom the most productive approach. If scientists want to complain of the church’s medieval criticism of certain scientists or its position on abortion, we might remember what secular science brought us in the twentieth century. We’ve seen a lack of humility before nature and human nature. The results at their worst have been tragic; some have merely been incredibly stupid. Our local & quite huge chemistry department has had more than its share of Czechs, Poles, Bulgarians. Of course, as one of my friends from the Soviet block observed, chemistry was the least politicized; back under the Soviets we certainly weren’t going in for biology. (AL links to a current review by Susan Eisenhower of Ethan Pollock’s Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars which discusses this at more length.)
I’m no scientist, but suspect some motivations are more powerful than others and some societies more fertile grounds for discoveries. Sure conventional wisdom will always be what most of us believe & few of us can see around; we aren’t all Einsteins and most of us aren’t very speculative at all. Nonetheless some societies – and some belief systems – encourage questioning and others don’t. And those that encourage questioning are more likely to get the answers right – at least some of the time and generally eventually.
Which leads us to what I find striking in the current discussion of climate change. When four senators attack a think tank and a company for “thinking” on an issue, some of our ears perk up. I had no reason to doubt climate change. Well, except a tendency to doubt Al Gore’s intelligence and a belief that man isn’t all that powerful; and I’ve always doubted apocalyptic theories. (I figure my grandkids’ generation will know a lot more about that “lucky old sun” than we do.) And where I come from, the weather’s always been hell – like that’s new. But, sure, I’m not going to argue; I have the sense to know I don’t know.
But I do know what constitutes thoughtful debate, humility before what we don’t know, curiosity about exceptions. The climate change advocates see themselves as secular and “reasonable”; well, maybe. But they have the appearance and the apparent insecurity of thugs. Needless to say, as WSJ notes, it is inappropriate for senators to tell a “think tank” or a business (one that the Senate can restrain & tax) what to “think.” This is the real world, in which scientists have mortgages to pay and children to send to college and, even the most ascetic, want grants for research. Those are pressures enough to align oneself with the “consensus.” And if an advocacy group wants to advocate – fine. If you agree with them, give them megaphones. But if the position is affirmed as each year go by, then there is no reason to silence the opposition through such tactics as the Senate’s – the opposition will be silenced by what is. And if we don’t condemn those tactics because we think global warming is a besieged and vulnerable fact, then we might worry about the precedent it sets.
Ad hominem is not the sign of maturity (nor, often, of a very good argument). Closing down the marketplace of ideas is not the sign of security. In open debate those who deny climate change may appear loons – flat-earthers. This may be true next year or in five years or in fifty. Or not. But, I will be increasingly leery of those who see only stem cells as having the capacity to cure and I have also become more doubtful of global warming. I figure if the answers were sure, advocates would welcome debate.