Science in Christian Perspective
Scientific Theorizing and Societal Good
EVELINA ORTEZA y MIRANDA
Department of Educational Foundations
University of Calgary
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2N 1N4
From: JASA 29 (March 1977): 4-8.
This paper discusses the problem of when to translate scientific theorizing into actual societal practice such that society will be in a state of psychological readiness and be willing to accept whatever results may come out of the scientific experimentation. One suggestion is for society to develop a system of scientific beliefs such that what is scientifically desirable is also that which is desirable for man/society. To the extent that a societal system of belief becomes thoroughly scientific, to that extent the problem of psychological readiness will be solved, for the ends of Science and Man/Society will be one and the same.
The problem of psychological readiness may be dissolved, but at a price that may well cost the meaning and significance of human life made in the image of God, If a society becomes thoroughly scientific in its total beliefs, it must not expect that convictions will be settled. Rather they will always be in a critical state that does not contribute to an individual/societal feeling of totality and well-being.
A major question for most scientists is when to translate theory into practice such that the nature of its results is controlled and that society, to which such practices are to he applied, will he in a state of psychological readiness to accept such predicted consequences, especially if they involve changes in society's basic system of beliefs expressed in its conduct of life. To disregard societal feelings and human concerns over these matters is surely an immoral act. This question arises, perhaps, because society continues to hold beliefs which may be uninformed by knowledge (true scientifically! logically), which is the result of scientific theorizing. If society's beliefs were derived from such scientific knowledge, perhaps psychological readiness would not be a problem. Societal scientific beliefs would he supportive of scientific theorizing and of its attempt to find out if their theories are true and if true in what ways they may be considered desirable.
This paper inquires into two questions: (1) will the gap between scientific theorizing and that which is judged desirable be resolved if society holds scientific beliefs, and (2) will scientific social beliefs encourage a sense of societal stability and cohesiveness, assuming that this is a social good?
Beliefs Based on Science
Let us envision a society where the basic beliefs are derived from scientific theorizing and knowledge. Obviously, not all beliefs would be acceptable scientifically and the task for society is to 'refine' its beliefs such that they meet the requirements of scientific knowledge. Whenever scientific theorizing is refined, such that its results are highly predictable, it is released to society for its application. The results of the applications are, of course, predicted to benefit society as a whole. Should the results, however, turn out to be wrong, even humanly destructive and undesirable, society interprets this to he characteristic of the process of theorizing-a trying and finding out with no promise of guaranteed certainty. Some risks necessarily remain, given that risk is a basic element in belief. For whether a belief is scientific or not, it never achieves apodictic certainty or else it is not a belief. But the risks involved in scientific beliefs are minimized and calculated on the basis of what is known as a result of scientific theorizing. (This calculation does not obtain where beliefs are inspired solely by the existence of a Divine Order or a personal theistic God, because His reality is independent of man.) The risks are understood and accepted by society if it is guided in its practical conduct by scientific beliefs. Society is, therefore, always ready to try out what science theorizes to be beneficial to man. Societal readiness or fear that the dignity of life might be threatened are no problems. For according to the scientific theorists, society accepts the view that it is the scientists' laboratory. When a new theory is tried out and its results are judged good by society, it itself having been a participant in the experiment, it is adopted and practiced as a part of the plan of life.
Huxley's speculation on how to improve the quality of human genetics, for example, could be tried out.' It is possible to divorce sex for love, from sex for mere
(1) Will the gap between scientific theorizing and that which is judged desirable be resolved if society holds scientific beliefs? (2) Will scientific social beliefs encourage a sense of societal stability and cohesiveness?
procreation or breeding purposes. If such experiments indeed lead to
better genetic type of human species, and if there is also fulfillment of the
human need for physical love, then it is socially adopted. Of course,
of certain concepts, such as marriage, family, wife, etc. may have to
in order to fit new social practices. But for scientific purposes, the changes
are justified and are, perhaps, insignificant when compared to the
of the genetic quality of the human race. With such improvement, new
could indeed be generated.
Indirectly, perhaps, the influence of other scientific theorizing upon societal practices and human relationships is already evident. It is indirect because it cannot be shown that there is a one-to-one correlation between the scientific theorizing and new societal practices engendered by it, nor can it he shown that the particular scientific theorizing is the direct cause of such societal practices. The scientific theorizing referred to here is the biological evolutionary theory.
Grounded in scientific evidences, its practical implications for a way of life are easily accepted and implemented. Each one creates his own meaning, for life as such has no meaning in itself. The destiny of each largely depends upon one's self. The values of society are wholly man-made, hence, changing and primarily instrumental for the continuous search for the human good. Since human life shares the same basic elements as that of the lower forms of life, such as the amoeba, the paramecium, etc. somehow it is suggested that human life is not as sacred as when viewed as a creation of God, made after His own image. The sanctity of human life can be easily obscured if not missed altogether. This is not, of course, to suggest that there cannot be a totally humane attitude toward life, which may he also one of respect, of decency, of compassion for that which is human independent of a belief in Cod. There can be a kind of "sacredness," a "spirituality," in man which arises out of his human qualities. Nonetheless, there have certainly been those who drew, rightly or wrongly, implications from the biological evolutionary theory of life for new types of individual and societal human relationships. To repeat, this is not to say that such influences or changes can be directly attributed to the theory itself. But it is not impossible nor illogical to say that one's way of life, its meanings, and its activities may change when influenced by the evolutionary theory of life.
Once the theory is made the justification for certain social actions, practices, and reforms, then it ceases to be a theory. The biological evolutionary theory is not merely believed that but more important now believed
in, It becomes a scientific social belief which now operates as one of the principles that underlie basic practices of a way of life. The scientific belief, a necessary condition for actual practice, now displaces other beliefs that contradict it. Displaced beliefs are treated as inquiries, subjected to criticism or theorizing in order to find out if they are worth keeping, modifying, or testing. If they prove themselves acceptable to the standards of scientific knowledge, they are retained in the belief system. Now they have a right to be believed in, not because society feels deeply about them, but because they meet the demands of the rules of logic, of stubborn facts, and of human knowledge. As such, there is public agreement about them as beliefs because they are not relative to the believers but to the conditions of scientific knowledge which are independent of man.
Refining Scientific Beliefs
Having been subjected to scientific scrutiny, the accepted beliefs form a part of the conditions of actual practice. Similarly, other beliefs will be the object of theorizing and criticism before their right to belong to the societal scientific belief system is ensured. Still other beliefs, however, failing to meet the standards of knowledge, are replaced by scientific theories which may have become beliefs or presuppositions for the purpose of action. The process of "refinement" of beliefs continues ad infinitum; theories are accepted as scientific beliefs, beliefs cease as beliefs and become theoretical inquiries and, in turn, are either accepted or rejected as beliefs once more, or, perhaps are rejected forever. On and on the process goes until society's belief system is completely "refined" and consists only of scientific beliefs. Such a societal belief system then is fully informed by scientific knowledge, to the extent that scientific beliefs become identical with scientific knowledge itself. What one knows is also what one believes in and is the basis of conduct in life. There are no irreducible elements and the original problem of psychological readiness stated in the beginning of this paper is now solved.
Belief vs. Action
But, perhaps, this is too strong a claim to make. To say that there are now no irreducible elements is to say that the grounds for knowing (theoretical propositions), the grounds for believing in them, and the grounds for acting on them are identical. But, surely, this is not so. To say that society holds scientific beliefs is not to say that what society holds is scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge is that which is true, and it is not a necessary condition for action. It simply is. Scientific beliefs, on the other hand, are a condition for action informed by scientific knowledge. The action, although based on scientific beliefs, is not shown to be either true or false, but is rather judged to be desirable or not, reasonable or not, etc. Likewise, saying that value judgments are scientifically informed is not to say that they are scientific statements. They remain as judgments and are assessed not as true or false statements but as sound, reasonable, sensible, meaningful, arguable, etc. judgments. The scientific theory, which is the basis of the beliefs/action, is a set of logically related propositions and is subject to questions of logic. The hypotheses it generates respond to questions of evidence. The practices drawn from the theory or induced from the hypotheses, however, do not correspond to either logic or evidence, but to the question of desirability. The act of believing in the desirability of certain practices and practicing them are not matters of truth or falsity. One may insist that he believes in the truth of the practice because the practice is derived from a certain verified theory, for example, biological evolution (if it is verified). But saying this does not establish the truth of the practice, because truth refers to the theory, not to the practice. One asks: "Is the practice sound, reasonable, etc?" but not "Is the practice true or false?" Of course, it is acceptable to say "Is the practice based upon that which is true?" Granting that scientific knowledge informs the question of the verifiability of the belief (is it true/false), of the feasibility of the practice (can it be carried out), such information, although necessary, is not sufficient to make a decision on the desirability of the practice nor does it lead necessarily to action on such a decision. The conditions for knowing, believing, and acting, (whether they be of the scientific kind or not) are not identical; the gaps between and among them remain and they must be reckoned with.
It may be argued that the notion of "desirability" is no longer a problem. It is also informed by scientific knowledge such that what is "desirable" is "desirable scientifically." But what does this mean? To say that an object is desirable to me means that the object has certain properties that please and satisfy me. Independent of me, such properties would not in themselves have desirable qualities. It is I, therefore, that determine what object is desirable and what object is not. Now, if we speak of "desirable scientifically," what are the desires of science? Obviously, we are not using "desires of science" in the same way as "desires of persons." Science does not have desires in the same way that people do. Rather to say that something is "scientifically desirable" is to say that something has qualities/characteristics that meet the approval of science or scientific thinking. For example, to hope that there can be different kinds of "banks" to house different human organs from which those in need of replacement of an organ may draw, may be repugnant to society, given its supposedly humane attitude toward the human person and his organs. Or, the human organs may be "farmed out" in "green houses" where they could be nurtured (kept alive) while waiting for the call of those in need of them.
There is nothing basically wrong about such ideas if they could be put into practice. Scientifically, the body is viewed as a machine, although admittedly complex, and its different parts, when worn out, can be replaced. Heart and kidney transplants could be only the beginning of a systematic, total program of human organ transplantation. Such a practice, if possible, is attractive to science and its purposes, among which are the continuous refinement of its techniques and methodologies such that a body of true propositions about the world, about society, and about humankind may be developed. Science has been successful, on the whole, with its attempts at knowing the world, but much less so at knowing human society and humankind. To conduct scientific experiments on the latter entities is, indeed, scientifically desirable.
Is this to say that we are treating the human person with disrespect in treating human organs like pieces of hardware that are easily replaceable or like plants that can he rooted or uprooted? Not at all. If anything, scientific knowledge teaches us to view the human body as it is, that is, truthfully, as an object that can be inquired into as thoroughly as possible such that its functions and malfunctions may be understood. With such an understanding, much of what we now know to be "incurable" diseases, even "old age," would be no longer a threat to those who want to live a long life. More important, such an understanding could possibly generate new types of human possibilities. But to view the human body, on the other hand, with scientifically false notions, with myths and superstitions, is to disrespect it. It is to encourage attitudes of physical inadequacies and frailties, thereby thwarting any notions for new potentialities for total growth.
Investing the human body with sentimental feelings prevents the study of science from knowing fully well what the human body is all about; hence some public "good" does not ensue. Science aims to correct societal beliefs about what is desirable and what is not. To say that something is "humanly desirable" is not to say that something is "scientifically undesirable," Rather, it is to say that it can also be "scientifically desirable." In the same manner, that something is "scientifically desirable" is not to say that it is "inhumane, degrading to the human person." "Science" and "human/ humane" are not mutually exclusive possibilities. Wrong thinking has made them so.
To be scientifically desirable any practice must be in consonance with the canons and thinking of science If a practice fails to meet the standards of science, such a practice must be either doubted, subject to further inquiry, or rejected. Any practice is justified on the ground that it is scientifically based, and, therefore, contributing to the inspirations of science. The goal is science and the fulfillment of its aims, which is nothing short of knowing everything that is true, empirically and scientifically, of the world, of human society, and of humankind. For purposes of experimenting with and testing some of its theories on problems of human society, science views society to be the ideal laboratory, with its members the objects of scientific experimentation.
Such a situation can, therefore, be envisioned, where the conditions of knowing, believing, and acting are completely reducible one to the other. It is a societal situation where the aim of life is to uphold science and the achievement of its goals, to the extent that life is not only scientific but, more important, science itself. "Life" and "science," implicated in each other, are one and the same.
Is this too much to ask of human society? Perhaps not, if the conviction of contemporary society is to develop and adopt a societal belief system that is thoroughly scientific.
Scientific Belief and Societal Stability
What arguments may be made for societal scientific beliefs considering that the encouragement of a stable society is a social good? A scientific belief system is
Scientific beliefs provide society with certain goods, but to stabilize societal beliefs is not one of them.
viewed as a form of human development in man's understanding of
himself, his problems,
and his environs, with no sanctions from an Absolute Truth or God. Scientific
beliefs, like scientific knowledge, emphasize tentativeness, make no promise of
being right, true, adequate for all problems for all times and for us
criticism and examination of them, their bases, evidences, and
based on new questions and forms of inquiries, are encouraged. As a result, a
scientific belief system does not create a feeling of increasing stabilization
of belief nor does it encourage total commitment. On the contrary, one's faith
in scientific beliefs is constantly being undermined. There is only a
attachment to them which could easily be suspended, replaced, or
any time they are no longer functional or viable. One could ask: "Does it
really matter what one believes in? Or, does it matter that one
believes at all?
All is uncertain and beliefs make no difference. What is the use?"
A scientific system of belief, more analytic than synthetic, leads to further questioning and criticizing, and not to the deepening of one's faith in the system. It does not lead to the cultivation of "settled convictions" or "solidarity of beliefs," but to the continuous settling and unsettling of them. Constant criticisms, which may lead to alteration of beliefs, create the loss of a sense of uniformity of sentiment which is the condition of social stability, the feeling of total well being.
Claiming justification or criterion in contemporary knowledge, scientific beliefs cannot claim a monopoly of truths/Truth. Such an orientation encourages the development of different systems of beliefs and life styles, different alternatives to values and truths, and different points of view. These differences can become extreme in their demands and radical in their insistence on certain kinds of values and behaviors which may be deemed disruptive of societal unity. After all, no one system of belief is strong enough to put down the claims of others or to show that they are completely and totally wrong, while it is completely and totally correct. Different systems of beliefs, each one threatening the viability and credibility of the other, could lead to societal divisiveness and disruptions.
The critical orientation of scientific beliefs leads also to practical doubts, suspension of action, hesitancy of conclusion, and other theoretical moods which are antithetical to the function of beliefs, which is to encourage action based on one's convictions. Scientific beliefs characterize the present academic posture which is judged by contemporary youth to be ineffectual, sterile, and irrelevant, a cop-out. Highly informed of knowledge and made critical by logic, it is impotent of action! In behaving like scientific knowledge, scientific belief fails to fulfill its function. Like scientific knowledge, it also says that because something is possibly the case, does not imply doing something about it. The motivation to act is not a necessary condition of scientific beliefs.
Do we therefore arrive at the conclusion that societal beliefs must not be judged on whether or not they are informed by knowledge, sensible, or rational, but on whether or not they are able to maintain the stability and well-being of society? Is a stable form of life, grossly empty of reason and truth, justifiable? Not at all. The point is that a thoroughly scientific societal belief system may not be able to cope with all societal problems, the solutions to which may sometimes have to go against the rules of logic. Not all of life's problems are problems of science, although, admittedly some aspects of some of life's problems respond to the inquiries of science. To the extent that such problems in life do respond, to that extent life can be scientific. But total life, with its hopes, dreams, and aspirations, is not science. A societal belief system needs to be informed by reason and truth, but need not be thoroughly scientific to the extent that it is identical with scientific knowledge or science itself.
It is true that scientific beliefs provide society with certain human goods, for example, belief in medical science, belief in forecasts of climatic conditions, belief in the "uniformity of nature," etc., but to stabilize societal beliefs is not one of them. Given their orientation to constant criticism, evaluation, and clarification, everything, including life, can be dissolved under the scrutiny of truth and logic. "One begins to feel that his bread or the salvation of his soul hangs on the fortunes of scientific and theoretical arguments."2 When criticizing is allowed to alter fundamental convictions to which most are committed, then, "it is like the trembling of a solid earth," and like "moving to a new planet and the work must be begun all over again.3 But for society to maintain a temporal continuity and to advance "it is necessary that beliefs should he transmitted together with problems and opportunities. Unless the burden is to fall, the young must not only grasp what the old have let go, but they must obtain the same foothold."4
It is possible for contemporary society to desire to adopt a thoroughly scientific societal system of belief, such that every societal practice is adopted because it is scientifically based. Science then is the be-all and end-all of such a society. But before such a societal posture is adopted, the price that a given society must pay must also be known. And after it is known, society must decide whether or not it is willing to pay the price in the name of scientific theorizing, scientific knowledge, and Science itself.
1Julian Huxley, Man in the Modern World: Selected Essays. New York: Mentor Book, 1955. See chapter on "Eugenics and Society," pp. 28-61. In modern times, the attempt at "selective breeding" was actually carried out by Heinrich Himmler's programme known as Lebensborn. Needless to say, Huxley and Himmler had different motives and interests. Other matters relative to Huxley's point are discussed in Journal of American Scientific Affiliation. Vol. 26, No. 4, December, 1974.
2Ralph Barton Perry, Present Philosophic Tendencies. New York: Longmans, Green, 1929, p. 21.
3Ibid., p. 12.