Catholic Sense 2

The Imperialist Scientist

By David Mills

A New York Times writer is upset with the movie Angels and Demons, but not for the usual reason Dan Brown’s works upset people. Dennis Overbye doesn’t think it’s too hostile to Christianity. He thinks it’s too nice to Christianity.

He’s particularly irked by the closing scene. A cardinal tells the main character, a secular scholar named Robert Langdon, that he was sent by God to do what he did, and suddenly Langdon is not so comfortable a secularist as he was. That scene ruined the movie because it suggests that “These smart alecks who know how to split atoms and splice genes need to be put in their place by older steadier hands.”

The movie, he complains, implies that “having faith is just a little bit better than being smart.” Why, he grumbles, “should wisdom and comfort inhabit a clerical collar instead of a lab coat?”

Of course wisdom can inhabit a lab coat, but only when the man would be wise were he wearing anything else. (And there are many people who wear the collar and the lab coat.) The lab coat represents the knowledge of how things work, but that is not wisdom, which asks the deeper questions of why they work, and what they mean, and where they are going, and why they exist at all.

Overbye is really asking why so many people assume the scientist, as a scientist, cannot answer the Big and Final Questions, and why they defer to religion for the answers. We see his idea of the scientist in news stories, where a scientist makes some great moral or philosophical judgment as if he were competent to do so because he knows how things work.

In the recent public debate on embryonic stem cell research, reporters pitched the story as a fight between scientists who stated the objective truth and others who wanted to impose their own private opinions on “science.” Defenders of embryonic human beings were treated as if they were flat-earthers trying to change the astronomy books.

The right to decide such matters was given to scientists who showed no ability for moral thinking, starting with their inability to distinguish “can be done” from “may be done” and their unwillingness to ask basic moral questions like “What is a person?” and “Is this embryo a person deserving of protection?”

The great Christian writer G. K. Chesterton took up this imperialistic science a hundred years ago, addressing some theologians of his day who claimed that evolutionary science disproved the Christian belief in the fall of man.

He pointed out that everyone could see the basic moral facts and from them make some judgment about the ultimate questions of human life. The advance of science did not help them with this. “A man can be a Christian to the end of the world, for the simple reason that a man could have been an Atheist from the beginning of it.”

He explained: “A man who has lived and loved falls down dead and the worms eat him. . . . If mankind has believed in spite of that, it can believe in spite of anything. But why our human lot is made any more hopeless because we know the names of all the worms who eat him, or the names of all the parts of him that they eat, is to a thoughtful mind somewhat difficult to discover.”

The scientist knows much about how the world works, but his science cannot not tell him why it works, where it came from, and where it is going. If he is to be wise, he must learn wisdom somewhere else. Robert Langdon may indeed have been doing God’s work without knowing it, but he would be a better man if he knew it.

The relation of science and religion is a very complicated question, and learned men have written very long books on all sides of it. But the scientist, as a scientist, has no special insight into philosophical and moral questions that trumps the Church’s knowledge of these things. Wisdom inhabits a clerical collar rather than a lab coat because the man in the collar asks the deeper questions. Angels and Demons had that right.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared in the Pittsburgh Catholic on 17 August 2009.