Monday, April 1, 2013

Why Science Needs Faith

My evening devotional reading over the last few weeks has involved delving again into the writings of George MacDonald.  MacDonald's the brilliant hard-nosed last 19th century Scots mystic who's been a substantial part of my adult spiritual development.  He's not light reading, not at all, but that he's best read and then carefully digested makes his work great for pre-sleep meditation.

I've been carefully moving through his "Hope of the Gospel," in which MacDonald has let his imagination wander into some fascinating places.   His reflections towards the end of that work on the nature of animal life go into some pretty esoteric places.

At one point in talking about the spirits of the simpler, less sentient living beings around us, his mystic's sense of the interconnection of all being goes so far as to almost be talking about reincarnation, or some peculiarly iterative view of the nature of the soul.

It's a bit hard to tell, as he's intentionally coy about exactly what he means.

But as he gets deeper and deeper into his talk about animals and their souls - a line of thinking that was stirred by the gentle question of one of his children - his fierce Scots temper turns in anger against science.

Now, I love science and appreciate its insights, so the sudden wave of invective against it from a spiritual teacher came as a bit of a surprise.   MacDonald didn't appear to have the benefit of an editor for much of his writing, so a full page or more of "science is monstrous" pours out of MacDonald before he explains why he's so cheesed off.

When the reason came to light, though, it makes sense.  MacDonald had clearly been in conversation with late 19th century biologists, and was aware of some of the scientific practices of that era.  He was particularly horrified at the practice of vivisection and the way animals were used in experimentation.

From his mystical inclination, all living beings had value.  Where the pursuit of knowledge objectified beings capable of suffering, and inflicted suffering for the sole purpose of expanding knowledge, MacDonald saw a horror.

That has always been the challenge for science.  Our efforts to develop an ever deepening understanding of creation are fascinating, but they have always been fraught with danger.  If we perceive existence as ultimately reducible to mechanics and process, life itself becomes less and less significant.  The first to fall are the simpler beings around us, the trees and the fish and the cattle.  But eventually, even sentient and self-aware life becomes meaningless, little more than the mechanism by which complex proteins replicate themselves.

MacDonald heard the arguments of scientists, that knowledge itself was the primary value, and rejected it.  If an action violates the integrity of another being, and radically devalues that living being, then the end goal of understanding is itself broken.  Without a deep sense of compassion for living things driving the process of seeking, one cannot seek the greater good.

Without compassion as a fundamental guide, science does not really deepen understanding.  It simply deepens our ability to project power.   And that isn't a good thing, either for the world around us or for the creatures who share it.