MEATY QUOTE TO PONDER: “When human freedom is not received as divine gift, only meaningful in a web of relationships and responsibilities, it will always oscillate between godlike pretension and nihilistic denial.”
Vinoth Ramachandra is an Anglican lay theologian from Sri Lanka. He has a PhD in nuclear engineering and combines multiple disciplines and interests. He is a fascinating writer and this book covers a wide array of territory, hence this blog will cover just one chapter as an example.
The overall project of this book is to unveil several global myths, ways of seeing our world. As Vinoth himself says: “Myths are an intrinsic part of human existence. They give meaning to our lives…Global capitalism, Marxism, behaviourism, evolutionism, social contract theories, all represent particular ways of seeing that employ metaphors and symbols embedded within an overarching story of the human condition.” Ramachandra insists that Christianity theology is not just beliefs but rather a way of seeing, “of dwelling in a particular language, that language arose out of specific historical events that both constitute us as the ekklesia (church) of Christ and call forth characteristic social practices such as thanksgiving, forgiving, exposing evil, truth-telling, welcoming the broken and the hopeless, and bearing testimony to grace.” This book unveils the way in which many global myths are simply taken for granted. It shows the way in which Christian community can offer an alternative and hopeful story in light of the many stories our contemporary society values.
The chapters are entitled “the myths of terrorism”, “the myths of religious violence”, “the myths of human rights”, “the myths of multiculturalism”, “the myths of science”, and the “myths of postcolonialism.” Now if those titles don’t want to make you read more I don’t know what will. These are all subjects deeply relevant to 21st century life in our increasingly polarised geopolitical scene. I can’t dream of covering all of these topics in one summary so I offer you one chapter, “the myths of science.”
THE MYTHS OF SCIENCE
This chapter begins with a look at how we define humanity and the collective worldviews that are often drawn from “the dominant technologies and science pictures of our time.” An example Ramachandra gives is that of the invention of clocks and other complex machines saying: “Viewing the world of humans and their societies, animals and plants, as essentially machines meant that they could be taken apart and reassembled in more satisfactory ways.” He makes the point that science and particularly the word “scientific” is used in an ideological sense. To talk about a “scientific age” isn’t just to speak of one which uses science as a tool but rather understand the world primarily in scientific terms. Historically this meant a move away from religion as a metanarrative to science as one. Examples here are given of Darwin’s concepts within biology and how they have been applied to areas outside of their original concern such as morality. Richard Dawkins is perhaps the most famous example, where in his book “The Selfish Gene” he appeals to the selfishness of our genetic makeup programmed to survive. Ramachandra elegantly points out the flaws in biological science claiming a moral worldview saying: “Dawkins, having spent page after page trying to persuade us that we are nothing but gene machines, whose sole purpose for existence is to replicate our DNA and pass it on to our offspring, ends with a passionate appeal to ignore the Darwinist picture when it comes to the ordering of human affairs. He summons us to defy the tyranny of our genes and cultivate pure and disinterested altruism.But why should we rebel? And from where do we derive countervalues? And, if we are able to rebel, does not that prove that there are other purposes for our existence than the transmission of DNA? No answers are ever given.”
At the heart of this chapter it seems that Ramachandra wants to make a point that the totalizing claims of a scientific worldview just don’t cut the mustard and that we don’t need to have such an all or nothing approach to understanding humanity. He says: “Why can we not accept that evolution accounts for some features of human life but cannot explain others and that this not need surprise us.” As an example Vinoth talks about contemporary neuroscience and the claims of the scientist Colin Blakemore in his book “The Mind Machine” that “The human brain is a machine which alone accounts for all our actions.” In refuting this claim Ramachandra wishes that we must not confuse claims about brains with claims about persons. It is not brains but people “conscious cognitive agents who think and make decisions, freely or otherwise, while their brains go through the corresponding changes. If our everyday belief that our conscious, deliberative efforts do make a difference to ourselves and to the world is really an illusion, like our belief in the solidity of tables or the rising of the sun, we have no basis for confidence in our powers of reasoning. We may as well give up scientific research altogether…If we really believed Blakemore’s picture of human agency, we have no grounds on which to either praise or criticize scientists for their efforts…Whenever scientists exempt their own work from the world picture they advance, we can be pretty sure they don’t believe it themselves. So why should we?”
After pointing out the way that science can function as an ideology or dominant social myth, Vinoth unpacks two widespread myths about science:
1)Science as encouraging an atheistic worldview
Space does not permit me to mention his full argument here, but in a nutshell Vinoth makes the point that science itself relies on the notion of a rational universe and therefore makes sense best with the worldview of a rational creator. Atheism makes less sense when one has a thoroughly scientific view of the world.
2) Science as inherently reductionistic.
Ramachandra urges us to watch out for “the language of merely, nothing but, or no more. When such language is used it reduces the complex reality of life and is far less rational and humble than science ought to be. A physicist may legitimately describe a Beethoven symphony as a pattern of longitudinal vibrations of nitrogen, oxygen and other gas molecules that make up air, but this is of no interest to any nonphysicist and especially to a musician or musicologist…There are different ways of understanding and explaining things and a lot of it has to do on what our interest is, or what it is we are trying to find out. We might ask why the kettle is boiling. I can either answer, because the vapor pressure has equalled with the atmospheric pressure or I am making pot of tea.” The point here is that science can’t claim absolutely certain knowledge, especially when we start talking about areas outside of its realm of expertise, like God, and the meaning of human life
Scientific research and Moral Responsibility
The final part of this chapter looks at the moral responsibility of scientific research. There are all kinds of moral minefields, not least violence enabled by science (not just religion!), and the commercial nature of contemporary research which can so easily put money before people.
Ramachandra looks at three areas of moral concern in science today: genetic engineering, eugenics, and post/transhumanism. All of these issues are of theological concern. Our stewardship of God’s good creation, our care for our fellow humans made in God’s image, and our care for the least and the lost forms a Christian view of the world that brings a counterbalance to the hubris and so called scientific objectivity of these endeavours.
Let me give Ramachandra the last word:
“For those of us who love science, the challenge is twofold: on the one hand, to rescue science from its cultural detractors…from those who want to reduce science to simply one culturally constructed language game among many, with no pretensions to universal validity, let alone to something called truth. On the other hand, we have to rescue science from those who want to reduce all human knowledge, goals and experience to talk of physics and biology, and to impose a scientific imperialism on other branches of learning as well as on public policy…A Christian theological anthropology recognizes the multidimensional nature of human experience.”