Saturday, May 05, 2007

Why Don't We Write About Science?

Earlier in the week, we posted remarks by Archbishop Chaput about the threats that science and technology pose to our spiritual lives. Helen C. White recognized some of these same dangers, but she believed that there was also a danger in over-reacting against science. In 1944, she wrote about "the role of poetry in a world of science, naturally submerged for the present in a world of war."

It is a topic on which humanists have in general been understandably somewhat on the defensive. The achievements of science have been so genuinely impressive and demonstrable that it is hardly surprising that a materialistic age, avid of short-cuts around the labors of thought, should have concluded that here was the answer to man’s ancient quest. There is no question that the popular faith in the omni-competence of science has been excessive, but Catholics of all people should know the perils of meeting superstition with iconoclasm.

In the next paragraph she actually criticizes Spirit, the poetry journal for which she's writing this essay. Apparently she thinks that the poets writing in it are wrong to ignore science as a subject:

Science as a method has its undoubted place if it is not taken for the only method, and its discoveries are endlessly stimulating not only to the appetite for fact, but to the imagination as well. I have often wondered if the great scholastic doctor who transformed Aristotle from a menace to a buttress of the faith would not have known how to meet modern science in a larger and more confident Spirit than some of his contemporary followers. And I cannot imagine Dante maintaining such a complete immunity to some of the most dramatic constructs of the contemporary mind as do most of the poets of Spirit.

One of the reasons religious writers are "immune" from science is that, unlike when Dante was writing, science is now perceived to be contrary to a belief in God. This is obviously a flawed perception, but it's prevalent. (On a recent sitcom, a character is asked whether he believes in God, and he replies, "No I don't believe in God. I believe in science." If Extras doesn't reflect the state of society, what does?!) And it holds for both sides of the debate -- Catholics, and I think most Christians, have perhaps un-intentionally bought into the God-versus-Science dichotomy. This is the "iconoclasm" she mentions in the first paragraph. We tend to think of science exclusively as a force against our faith and human dignity, something to be fought rather than what Helen C. White is promoting, a positive stimulant for the imagination.

To be fair, though, this imaginative blind-spot isn't unique to Christian writers. As she's suggesting in the first sentence above, it's "the humanities vs. science" as much as it is "religion vs. science." So maybe it stems from how we're educated -- perhaps our educations are so specialized now that the sort of person interested in writing can go through life never having to really engage with any scientific ideas. And when humanities courses do explore science, it's always in negative terms (the threat of the nuclear bomb, but not the development of penicillin).

Then again, maybe we want to avoid the humiliation of having our books in the Science Fiction section of Barnes & Noble.

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