You See What You Want? Science and Faith

In the previous article on faith, entitled Overlapping Magisteria, we saw various ways that faith is used in non-religious contexts. They invariably relate to belief in a person—in that person’s goodness, trustworthiness, honesty, openness, all against a backdrop of evidence that might suggest that one should not believe them.[1] For example, engaging in an argument “in good faith” means that you are not saying things that you don’t believe, you are not trolling, and you are in fact working to understand the one with whom you disagree instead of using straw man or some other informal fallacy. And that you are doing so goes against the normal approach to arguments: To win at any cost.

The “publicly available” evidence—that evidence which everyone can see no matter what values they hold—serves as evidence against trust. But you, if you have faith in someone, trust them because you see something—something that is not publicly available evidence. And this trust simply means that you believe what they say, that their motives are good, and so forth.

What Does Science Want?

Scientific method demands publicly available evidence. Why would any field of study be concerned with publicly available evidence? The answer is obvious: It gives us a sense of certainty about the world. This isn’t like logical certainty, which seems to require no repeatability. Rather, this is a belief that things will repeat. This kind of certainty—that something will repeat—tells us about what science wants. Or, put more clearly, it tells us what we want that causes us to want to do science.

Why would anyone want certainty? Because certainty let’s us know that if we do action X, we get effect Y. Every time. And why would we want to know that? Because we want the power to control the world, or our environment (including our own bodies), and also to know the limits of what we can control.

Thus, science appeals to one’s desire to control the world.

Understand that I am using “control” in a neutral way. “Control” usually has a negative connotation—I do not mean it that way. Without control of (a part of) the world, you couldn’t eat, protect loved ones, or really anything at all. Science is an explanation of why those actions that have always worked work, and also how we might do them more efficiently and safely in the future.

The various theories of science in fact reflect this element. They are grand descriptions of how the universe works—from the unimaginably large to the unimaginably small.

But no one can be satisfied with the ability to control the world, nor the understanding required for reliable world-manipulation. We need a reason to move things about. Science itself is no “pure” interest in knowledge. It exists only because of the extra-scientific desire to control our environment with confidence. And the desire to control the world is driven by even more central or foundational values—everything from hunger to love, from fear of death to hatred of one who has hurt you. Of course, these values can include things as “purely” intellectual as the desire to solve a particularly difficult scientific (or mathematic) puzzle. In my own studies, I fell in love with complex logical proofs that were simply puzzles with no real content. But, even in solving a large and complex logical proof with no content, I was driven by a desire to overcome an obstacle, to find my way through a maze, to exert a kind of power-over—the exercise of control over a problem.

The point? Science wants something. It is not “objective” in the sense of being “without value.” Science is about puzzle-solving and world-manipulation.[2] And these are obviously necessary things: to overcome complex difficulties and to be able to manipulate the world so that we can accomplish our goals is surely a good thing. It is only bad if our motives are bad (e.g. we want to burn down our annoying neighbor’s house) or if we desire to control things that are not meant to be controlled (e.g. we enslave people).

Setting these issues aside for a moment, it seems that the value on which science is founded (world-control) is not sufficient for human life. We need other motives, too. But can science or, at least, thinking scientifically, give us values that would be sufficient for a human life?

Does Science See Enough?

If you pay any attention to what some might call the “science vs. religion” debate, you recognize that science is often praised as not only epistemically superior, but also a better ground for peace.

Why would someone say that if we all threw away religion and embraced science, we would be more at peace?

The answer to that question is quite simple: We disagree over religion and it can be very difficult to argue about which religion is true, at least based on publicly available evidence. On the other hand, science is strictly about publicly available evidence. Thus, an important value of science is, you might say, agreeability.[3] And if we are all seeking that which can be supported only on publicly available evidence, we will all likely have some level of agreeability.

Of course, we already noted above that the value that gives rise to science (world-control) is not enough for a human life.[4] What then can the practice of science grant us in terms of values?

But science has only one real value: Control of our environment. And this is not enough

Indeed, the problem is perhaps worse than this.

Imagine we were to say that science should be the final arbiter of all values. (This is already a problem, since science cannot give us the values that got science started in the first place. But let’s simply grant, for the sake of argument, that control is in fact a fundamental, true value.) Given that science is about control, each thing studied is understood by science to be an object studied with the goal of the knowledge required to manipulate it. So, when science comes to “understand” a human, science merely determines how that person might be controlled. What makes a person act a certain way, what stops certain feelings, and so on.

This is not all bad. After all, medicine is a way of controlling a person. Discipline is a way of attempting to control people—not in the sense of slavery, but in the sense of encouraging them to develop into responsible adults. And so forth.

But there is a problem when controlling the person is not meant to create a situation in which that person might be free. If medicine becomes that which controls a person, we might call that person an addict. When an authority wants to keep the person in a situation of discipline, then that is, at best, patronizing and, at worst, slavery and abuse.

This suggests that science has tremendous importance, even for morality. For science is about control, and one element of morality is self-control, which surely involves looking upon parts of yourself as objects to be controlled. But you are not merely an object to be controlled, made up of objects to be controlled. So, too, much of our moral concern involves relating to one another in ways that encourage virtue, responsibility, love. Learning about ourselves, what causes lead to what kinds of effects in us, is terribly helpful for such moral endeavors.

And this is not even to mention the other obviously great results of scientific endeavors—from the almost-eradication of polio to sending a human artifact into interstellar space.

What Do You See?

Science sees the world through the value of world-control. And so it interprets all things as objects-to-be-controlled. This does not mean that science is in error, nor that it is bad. Rather, it sees a part of life.

There are two ways that science can be used badly. The first is obvious: Using scientific knowledge to do bad things. This is bad, but, at risk of sounding like a terrible person, it does not involve a misunderstanding of the place of science.

It is this misunderstanding that is the second bad use of science: I will call this, as others have, “scientism.” While some lovers of science mock this term, it does refer to a real problem. Scientism, as I’ll be using it, is the belief (which no one in fact holds, but many claim to) that only what can be proven, either now or at least theoretically in the future, by science is real. If this is the case, then people really are nothing more than objects that can be controlled. But no one with any healthy relationship, nor anyone who loves art or virtue, can possibly believe that. Thus, scientism is indeed not real. It really only exists in the statements of those who are actively engaged in trying to disprove religious beliefs, and perhaps in the minds of sociopaths.

So what do you see when you look at the world? When you look at other people? When you look upon a loved one? Yes, a large part of our interaction with the world involves acts of moving bits of the world about. But this is always for a deeper purpose—not often good purpose, but always deeper. Thus, science plays on a shallow set of values. These are indeed shallow enough that all humans may very well adhere to them—after all, we all want to have some control over our lives, our environment, our world. But if we allow the perspective which can only see objects-to-be-controlled to be the final arbiter of all interpretation, then our bad habit of seeing others as mere means to our own selfish ends will in fact be bolstered, not weakened.

Science is not enough. No one who is thinking clearly about the issue could ever say that it is.

Of course, this is not proof that Christian faith is enough, nor that it is good. But it is evidence that values richer and deeper than science will always be in play in practice, but that some good set of values must exist to temper and constrain the vision that science gives us of the world. Yes, you are an object that can be controlled. But that is not all you are. In fact, that is not what you fundamentally are. Your essential nature possesses a dignity beyond questions of control. One seeing you correctly, as you really are, should respond in love (and perhaps awe).

In short, you are a person. And seeing your personhood is truer to reality than seeing you as an object-to-be-controlled.

Indeed, the eyes that give us a vision for persons are the eyes that we should turn toward the world. These are the eyes of faith. But a lot more explanation is required to explain what this means. To that we will turn next.

[1] Rather importantly, you’ll notice that belief in the existence of the person is not really a question. The element of belief in the existence of God is perhaps not part of what it means to have faith in God. This issue will be discussed in a later post.

[2] One could respond here that the development of theories that give a description of the world we find a pure desire for understanding or factual information. But this response betrays a lack of understanding of the point. We desire to understand that which matters to us. We don’t seek understanding of that which has no value. And the value of the understanding that science offers is invariably a kind of control, or perhaps that the utmost limit, a line drawn on the limits of our control.

[3] I do not think agreeability is a fundamental value, but is a necessary result of the desire for certainty/repeatability.

[4] Puzzle-solving may be seen as another value alongside control. But it seems likely that puzzle-solving is a kind of practice of world-control, and so science can be reduced to simply world-control. Nevertheless, many experience the love of puzzle-solving as separate—a love of the intellectual. In a way, this might be akin to the love of money itself. Money, apart from what it can do for us, is in fact valueless. But it seems that some transfer the love of what money can do to the love of money itself. That is, instead of loving the things that money can acquire for us, they instead come to love the power (money) itself. Again, then, love of puzzle-solving is in a sense a kind of love of the power of overcoming difficult tasks. And so, while a game like Sudoku might be considered by some to be a fun exercise to keep mentally sharp, others come to love playing Sudoku just for the sake of playing it. I’d suggest that this is akin to the love of money (except perhaps less vicious) in that it is a love of the power of obstacle-overcoming itself. This love of obstacle-overcoming could open up a large conversation about existentialism, and one of my favorite thinkers, Nietzsche, who suggests that really our primary love is obstacle-overcoming (i.e. “will to power”). But for our purpose here, I believe desire to solve puzzles is a sub-category of the desire for controlling our environment/world.

Overlapping Magisteria

Greg Koukl Interview