On Religion and Science

Leon R. Kass
Hertog Fellow
Leon R. Kass, M.D.
Let me first restate the gist of my long, complicated, and yet very incomplete argument concerning the state of the age-old tension between modern science and biblical religion. I focused on the latest form of scientism, proclaimed by anti-religious bio-prophets, which insists that genetics, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology can offer a complete, purely scientific account of our humanity (morality and religion included), and which seeks to overturn our traditional self-understanding as special creatures with freedom and dignity--and thereby to discredit all religious instruction about how we are to live.

While esteeming the findings of these exciting new fields in science, I argued that the knowledge they provide must always be incomplete, owing to science's chosen conceptual limitations. No science of life can do justice to its subject if it does not even inquire into the nature, character, and meaning of our "aliveness," with its special inwardness, awareness, purposiveness, attachments, and activities of thought, while believing that it has "explained" these richnesses of soul by reducing them to electrochemical events of the brain. Because of these limitations, and because, as I argued, the biblical account of our humanity can be affirmed even in the age of science, I suggested, against the zealots on both sides, that biblical religion has nothing to fear from science, and that, conversely, scientists still in touch with their humanity have nothing to fear from scriptural religion.

In the course of my critique of reductionism, I accused Steven Pinker of arrogance and shallowness. I am tempted to say that his letter provides further evidence for the charge, especially as it progresses quickly from science (about which he knows a lot) to philosophy (about which he knows a dangerous little) to the Bible and religion (about which he knows less than the village atheist). But some substantive points should be made.

In my article, I took him to task for the following remarks:

The supposedly immaterial soul can be bisected with a knife, altered by chemicals, turned on or off by electricity, and extinguished by a sharp blow or a lack of oxygen. Centuries ago it was unwise to ground morality on the dogma that the earth sat at the center of the universe. It is just as unwise today to ground it on dogmas about souls endowed by God.

I am happy to learn that Mr. Pinker denies saying that the "mind is the brain"--he says instead that "it is what the brain does," a position deftly skewered in Brian Beckman's letter. But one can hardly be blamed for thinking the man a simple materialist. Someone who boasts, even for rhetorical effect, that "the supposedly immaterial soul can be bisected with a knife" simply does not see that thought and awareness, like all powers and activities of living things, are immaterial in their essence and therefore cannot be so carved. This is not because they are the work of "ghosts in the machine" or because materials are not involved, but bemuse the empowering organization of materials (the vital form), the powers and activities it makes possible, and the "in-formation" it manifests and appreciates are not themselves material.

When considered carefully, confident use of metaphors about brains "manipulat[ing] information in ways that mirror normative principles" and "trafficking in abstract ideas involving meaning and truth," are just blowing smoke. The very ideas of "information," "normative principles," "meaning," and "truth" can never be discovered in the electrochemical descriptions of brain events. We know them, as we know any idea, only by acts of mind, receiving and grasping the immaterial units of intelligibility that, mirabile dictu, hitch a ride to audible sounds or visible symbols-like those you see when reading (i.e., seeing through them) on this page.

This is hardly the place to show Mr. Pinker why, especially as a psychologist, he should be open to the idea of psyche (soul). Suffice it to say that the human animal is constituted to be at once a source of its self-directed motion, beginning with metabolism and culminating in action; a source of awareness, as with sensation and intellection; and a source of appetite and aspiration, as with hunger and eros. What accounts for the unity of these vital and integrated powers and our capacity to direct them (partially) through knowledge and choice? Interested readers may look at my book, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature.

Mr. Pinker is a careless reader and an even more careless thinker. I never said that modern biology poses a grave threat to meaning and morality. I said that scientism posed such a threat. I never said that progress in understanding human nature was not conducive to human flourishing or was anything but exhilarating, though I did say that scientism's faith in science's unqualified goodness was a moral prejudice that science itself cannot provide or confirm.

Indeed, nowhere is the silliness of Mr. Pinker's thinking more evident than in what he says about morality. How comforting to learn that morality is rooted in the fact that, thanks to our ability to see other persons' perspectives, no intelligent social agent has any grounds for privileging his own interests over theirs. How wonderful to learn that this cosmopolitan moral truth is supported by the discovery that we all share human DNA. Do the descendants of Darwin know nothing of competition and the survival of the fittest? Does their naturalistic morality really teach that it is immoral to "privilege" feeding my own children first? Or does not morality begin, rather, with the need to control nature, precisely in opposition to the excesses of naturally given self-love and love of one's own and (starting with toilet training) the unruliness of natural desires that embarrass rational self-command? Even leaving aside greed, cruelty, and natural lust, what about amour-propre--that natural form of comparative self-love found only among human animals and, famously, among scientists--that insists on recognition from and superiority to one's fellows?

Leaving aside the simplemindedness of his moral views, I would remind Mr. Pinker that "Love your neighbor as yourself" is a central teaching of biblical morality, promulgated centuries before his tepid and banal scientistic translation. It did not require the discovery of the human genome, because that "Iron Age tribal document" already understood and proclaimed our common humanity, based on the recognition of our equal god-likeness. Moreover, the Bible, unlike Mr. Pinker, understood that such a teaching had to be commanded, because it went against the grain of native human selfishness. In this respect, as in so many others, the Bible understands human nature in ways much richer than a science that sees man only through his genetic homologies and brain events. And it teaches us more wisely than homilies drawn from DNA analysis, embellished by naive and wishful thinking.

Sanford Lakoff is of course correct in pointing out that the permanent limitations of science do not alone establish the truth of any competing account, including that of any particular religion. I was not trying, however, to establish the truth of biblical religion but merely to show that the new scientism's confidence that it can refute all religious teaching is ill-founded. Because the challenge directly attacks Genesis 1 and its teaching about the nature and cosmic standing of human beings, I sought to show that the biblical account of man can withstand the assaults of scientism, and that, in fact, the truth of man's "god-like" status is demonstrated performatively by our reading and reflecting on the text.

True enough, such anthropological vindication hardly reaches to the moral teachings offered later in the Bible--teachings, I would suggest, that are superior to those provided not only by scientific naturalism but by all of modern philosophy. (The efforts of Leibniz, Spinoza, and Kant to develop a successful rationalist morality, in my view, all fail.) But such a defense of biblical moral wisdom requires much more argument, an introduction to which may be found in my book, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis.

I am grateful to Bill Linder for sending me to Psalm 148, but I do not think the text sustains his interpretation that it offers a biblical basis for what we now call the laws of nature. After calling on the heavenly bodies to praise the Lord, the Psalmist says: "He has established them for ever and ever; He has prescribed a boundary [bok] that shall not be overstepped." I take this permanent "boundary" to refer to the articulated order of the heavens, with each creature in its place--an order, according to Genesis 1, carefully brought into being out of the watery chaos by a process of separation and distinction, reflected in speech--rather than to anything like the so-called laws of nature that quantitatively describe the motions of bodies. There is no question that the biblical order of natural kinds is intelligible; but the intelligibility is qualitative, not, like science, quantitative.

I am honored by the praise from Norman Lamm, and would not dream of disputting his account of the history of Jewish discussions about the uniqueness of human beings. I would agree that the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligent life would not require us to abandon biblical teachings that seek to instruct earthly creatures to be god-like. Precisely because man's god-like powers, in the absence of godly wisdom, make him the most troubling of creatures, the necessity of the Bible's moral instruction is unaffected by what science might discover beyond our galaxy.

I should add that I suspect that Maimonides' qualification of man's supremacy as sublunar reflected Aristotelian notions about the higher dignity of the known, imperishable (and, in Aristotle's view, animated) heavenly bodies. Aristotle surely did not believe that there were, beyond the moon, super-intelligent perishable beings about which we knew nothing.

My thanks to Hugh Murray, Brian Beckman, and Jackson Toby (and through him, to E.E. Cummings) for their thoughtful contributions.

Leon R. Kass, M.D., is the Hertog Fellow at AEI.

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