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Against Science Fetishism

31 January 2009

Note: This semester, I am also using this blog as the journal for my course on Religion and Ecology. Journal posts can be found in the RELG 022 category. Due to the close interconnectedness of my classes this semester, some of these might overlap with Mandate.

Heikenwaelder Hugo, Wien 1998

Universum - C. Flammarion, Holzschnitt, Paris 1888, Colourist : Heikenwaelder Hugo, Wien 1998

A charge often levied against organic agriculture is that it is more philosophy than science. There’s some truth to this indictment, if that is what it is, though why organic farmers should feel defensive about it is itself a mystery, a relic, perhaps, of our fetishism of science as the only credible tool with which to approach nature.

– Pollan, Micahel: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, p150

Heidegger, in The Question Concerning Technology, cautions man against becoming too dependent on technology as a method of revealing, that techne is a form of poeseis but not an end in and of itself. But isn’t it already too late? Science fetishism has become to define our age. Instead of being “a tool for describing what works and explaining why it does” (Pollan 151), science itself has become our driving motivation. And it is the scientific, not the moral, not the philosophical, which has been set as the highest standard.

How does this make sense? My economics professor is fond of saying that “math is the easy way” of explaining economic concepts. It shows what equals what, but does it really say why, or whether it should be equal? Science can tell us what is, not how it should be, and believing it does has become a huge societal tragedy. Thinking of the Greeks, the Renaissance, the Humanist revolution, science might have been celebrated, but it was second to the gift of man for moral judgment and artistic conception. Why have those gifts been shunned for the abacus?

Science is integral to modern society, I do not deny. It has greatly improved the quality of life, and expanded our knowledge of the world. However it is only one element of human ability and must be balanced with the moral, creative, and instinctual aspects, if we are to achieve the most out of our own existence.

If we condense the world to numbers: kilowatts per day, miles per gallon, dollars per hour, bushels per acre, those numbers mean we know something, but they do not mean we understand anything.

Indeed, are we guilty of scientific arrogance? Though it we assume we’ve solved nature’s complexity, reduced her to calculations, described her workings as we would a machine. But how does that make sense? A priest would contend that you cannot understand the Lord, as he is too far above us. Nature is just too big. We think that because we can manipulate her component parts -the soil, the animals, the plants-, we control her wholly. But do we forget that we live inside the earth? Like Abbott’s A. Square*, who cannot comprehend the sphere as it resides in a higher dimension than him, we cannot comprehend the Sphere we live on, as we can only see her in terms of our own narrow existence. And like A. Square, those who claim to have seen the Sphere of our world are often labeled as a bit off, and either resisted hostilely or tolerated with amusement.

But she is larger than us. We do not expect a flower or a sheep to understand the complexity of human society; how can we claim the ability to comprehend the entire earth? How can we expect it to hold to the rules of our own society? I so often find myself questioning the logic of Science. But it is not the Science itself I question, but the people who claim it. Science itself is indifferent, logical, objective. However, no amount of research, no amount of observation and experiment, can separate the Science from the Scientist. And the Scientist is human, even if he chooses to not admit it, a complex being of experience, emotion, and beliefs. He is not objective. His science might be, but the men who decide policy based on that science are not. They are subject to temptation, moral conviction, intimidation, and narrow mindedness.

This is not to say that scientists or policy makers are bad people, not at all. Many of them honesty try their best to pursue their idea of the common good. But they are still human.

I do think that being able to see beyond ourselves is an evolutionary advantage that humans possess. Though we cannot understand everything, we can understand that there is more to life than us, and recognize that we cannot possibly comprehend it, but we must respect it. Some of us, too many of us, just haven’t realized it yet. Possibly because we have not thought, have not reflected, enough about it. Maybe we should.

* * *

Again I find my thoughts drifting back to my college admissions essay, which was silly, but the topic was my honest belief: Has our thirst for answers doused the greater quest, the search for questions? Have we become afraid of what is our greatest asset?

Maybe I should become a Buddhist.


P.S. If you haven’t already, please read Flatland, which this analogy is referencing. It’s a short work, both highly entertaining and thought-provoking.

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