MARS HILL AUDIO Anthology 11

Rediscovering the Organism: Science and Its Contexts

Modern culture is profoundly shaped by science—by its methods, its products, and its public authority. The centrality of science in modern society affects how we think, what we think about, the kinds of conclusions we come to, and the kinds of assumptions that we hold—including assumptions about what sort of creatures we are and what sort of lives are most fitting for our nature. Theologian Lesslie Newbigin has argued that science has effectively eliminated “Why” questions from our culture. Modern Western people, he wrote, have “a disposition to believe that purpose has no place as a category of explanation in any exercise that claims to be ‘scientific,’ and thus to look for the explanation of everything, including both animal and human behavior, without reference to purpose.”

Any effort to understand modern culture, and to avoid being captive to its various disorders, requires understanding something of the social and intellectual history of science. The interviews heard on this MARS HILL AUDIO Anthology are an effort to promote such understanding. The anthology, Rediscovering the Organism: Science and Its Contexts, features philosophers, theologians, historians, and research scientists, all of whom have thought deeply about the interaction of science with other disciplines and with the settings in which science is practiced and exerts its influence. One theme that emerges is how science in answering “How?” sometimes obscures the “What?” of specific things, as well as the “Why?” of all things.

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  • Description
    Martin X. Moleski (co-author of Michael Polanyi: Scientist and Philosopher) explains why Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) left his career in science to become a philosopher.
    Michael Polanyi: Scientist and Philosopher (Oxford, 2005)

    Polanyi was trained and worked as a physical chemist until he realized that the totalitarian regimes of Europe were basing their destructive and dehumanizing views of humanity on a faulty definition of knowledge. Polanyi knew the definition was inadequate and became a philosopher in order to study why.

  • Description
    Steven Shapin (historian of science at Harvard University) talks about the qualities modern people project onto science in order to enhance its stature.
    Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010)

    Shapin describes how science is today seen by many educated persons as monolithic, when there are in fact many sciences, each with their particular histories, methods, and modes of inquiry. Shapin notes that it is counterintuitively in the departments of philosophy, economics, political science, psychology, etc. where “the scientific method” tends to be pushed most strongly. He goes on to describe the kind of ultimacy modern people seek from a mechanical method of gaining knowledge; however, in the actual practice of the sciences, it is impossible for science to be mechanical. Credibility and rhetoric, for example, are non-scientific factors that are always present and always bear on scientific conclusions.

  • Description
    Thomas Lessl (author of Rhetorical Darwinism: Religion, Evolution, and the Scientific Identity) discusses how “public science” influences our perception of the role of science in public life.
    Rhetorical Darwinism: Religion, Evolution, and the Scientific Identity Studies in Rhetoric & Religion (Baylor University Press, 2012)

    Just like other public institutions, scientific research needs to attain sources of revenue and institutional support. Lessl explores the emergence of science as an institution during the nineteenth century and the structural effects it had upon the university.

  • Description
    Mary Midgley (author of Science and Poetry) explores the connections between scientific analysis of the world and poetic imagination.
    Science and Poetry (Routledge, 2001)

    While some claim that poetry merely deals with the unsubstantial while science deals with facts that have practical significance, Midgley points out that prior to scientific ventures, poetic metaphors describe the world and stir the imagination to pursue the undertakings of science. In other words, science relies heavily on metaphors that profoundly shape scientific doctrine.

  • Description
    Sir John Polkinghorne (author of Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality) explains that both science and theology are “bottom up” disciplines.
    Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality (Yale University Press, 2006)

    Science and theology gain knowledge of reality through observation and experience, and move up towards understanding from there. Polkinghorne is concerned with building a strong foundation for understanding God and thus encourages believers not to overemphasize “bookishness” in their faith. In addition to reading about God, Polkinghorne explains, the strong foundation of “bottom up” theology is built through worshiping and experiencing Him.

  • Description
    Craig Holdrege (author of Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering) discusses whether the world should be seen as a problem to be solved by mathematical means or as a gift apprehended by reverent engagement.
    Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering Culture of the Land (University Press of Kentucky, 2010)

    Holdrege argues that the reductionism of reality to the gene drives the technology of genetic engineering. This false picture of what the gene actually is leads to unintended consequences in genetic engineering, and Holdrege explains that our understanding of the organism as a whole is affected in unintended ways.

  • Description
    Michael Hanby (author of No God, No Science: Theology, Cosmology and Biology) argues that science unavoidably involves making certain assumptions about reality.
    No God, No Science: Theology, Cosmology, Biology (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016)

    A Christian account of science must consider the ongoing relation of God to his Creation. This relation has ramifications not only for the Creation itself, but also for every moment of existence. The alleged distinction between science and scientism conceals the fundamental problems with modern science itself. If we subscribe to the Christian account of science, the doctrine of Creation ex nihilio answers different questions than science typically thinks it does.