1 May

Saving the Appearances: Creation's Gift to the Sciences

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ben Garner
Published: 05/01/14

Michael Hanby on theology and science

Dr. Michael Hanby, Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy of Science, Pontifical John Paul II Institute

Is it possible to have science without theology? Can the scientific enterprise, as its apologists frequently claim, easily bracket and set aside theological and metaphysical assumptions and pursue disinterested observation of natural phenomena?

That it is possible for science to be fully neutral and disinterested is largely taken as a given, even by those who think that science shouldn’t be so neutral (those who argue scientists should allow Scripture to inform the direction and interpretation of their research, for example, as well as Kurzweil-ian futurists who propose science be guided by a trans-human, singularity narrative).

But Michael Hanby, recently featured on Volume 121 of the Journal, isn’t convinced that science ever can fully separate itself from metaphysical assumptions. In a 2009 article entitled “Saving the Appearances: Creation’s Gift to the Sciences,” Hanby argued the following:

There is no pure method, and no science can do and indeed ever does without a metaphysics and therefore ultimately a theology whose “axioms” with respect to being, time, space, matter, motion, truth, knowledge, and God are not simply “presupposed” at the boundaries of the science where they can be bracketed in the name of methodological purity.

It’s a claim that will sound shocking to some, but it really isn’t all that new. Hanby follows in a long line of philosophers and theologians skeptical about the supposedly self-evident neutrality of things such as science, technology, and economics. The legacy of such concern over technological and scientific trends in society stretches back at least as far as C. S. Lewis, and includes such figures as Jacques Ellul, George Parkin Grant, and Gabriel Marcel. In fact, Hanby and these other thinkers all argue in various ways that the idea of “neutrality” within any particular discipline is a belief peculiar to modern society. Just as with the advent of modernity came a belief in a purely “secular” state and economy — capable of bracketing all assumptions about truth and goodness — so also came the idea of a “secular” science.

No God, No Science? is a dense but fascinating work, and I would encourage anyone interested in the topics mentioned above to read it. If you’re looking for a shorter introduction to Hanby’s thought, however, the essay quoted above provides the perfect opportunity, as do the following essays:

  • “Culture of Death,” on how boredom is the ontology of modern society, against which the only effective resistance is an ontology of joy.

The ideas Hanby discusses in his interview on Volume 121 are particularly resistant to brief summary, so be sure to take a look at his writing, either in the essays above or his book No God, No Science?, to see the full scope of his arguments.