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Four classical ideas about science

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... scientific training generally works for the good of the person who has it and of others, only if such training is solidly placed upon a foundation of the "hinge" virtues. And these cannot be acquired in a classroom.


I'd like to share with you four ideas about natural science from classical authors, which may be of relevance today. All of these ideas have been embraced by Catholic thinkers of note, such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John Henry Newman.

The first is the inherent tendency of scientific expertise to claim authority beyond its proper bounds. Socrates already saw this, according to Plato in the "Apology." Socrates went throughout Athens trying to discover if anyone knew anything of importance and therefore was "wiser" than him. Socrates for his part was convinced that all that he knew was that he did not know, viz. anything of genuine value.

Just to be clear: Socrates thought that knowledge about the human good, the soul, the virtues, and life after death were important. In contrast, reasonable opinion about how to manipulate matter (which is all that natural science can offer), although valuable in its way, was not truly valuable.

In his conversations with the scientists of his day, such as they were, he discovered that they did indeed have a certain expertise in a narrow field. And that was valuable for some purposes. But because of this expertise, they became presumptuous and claimed authority in other areas, even in important matters. By "claim authority," I mean that they insisted they should be believed just because they said it.

This tendency in scientific expertise, call it a certain "imperialism," a "libido dominandi," has been present within scientific expertise since Socrates' day. It's become even more tempting, given the astonishing technological achievements since then, and the exaggerated prestige of our scientific institutions. For Newman, it provided a main argument for why theological disciplines needed to have a lively presence in any true university. Take away theology, he said, and the sciences would quickly occupy that space. And surely he was right.

But the ludicrousness of this over-extension should be even more evident to us than it was to Socrates, because scientific expertise is now almost infinitesimally small. Scientists get their doctorates and attain tenure on the basis of highly specialized findings in subfields within subfields within subfields. To the extent that they are rightly accounted authorities in a very narrow area, to that extent, they are not to be counted as authorities in anything else. Once a scientist steps out of the region of his narrow expertise, he must be engaged in the task of weighing authorities, which involves as much prudential as scientific judgment.

This observation leads to the second idea, which is the necessity of prudence for practical judgments. Any time there is a cost attached to a benefit -- and there always will be, in any practical matter -- prudence rather than scientific expertise becomes the relevant virtue. For example, should children be compelled to wear masks in school? A filtration expert may be the best authority on the marginal effectiveness of masks for slowing the transmission of a virus. If there were no costs, his opinion on this matter would be decisive. But once a cost is recognized -- say, a loss of IQ, or delayed emotional development -- then filtration science has no authority to opine whether the trade-off, slower transmission for intelligence, is reasonable.

The third classical idea is the "indifference," one might call it, of scientific expertise to virtue. Plato drew attention to this in his dialogue, "Gorgias": a rhetorician's skill in persuasion could just as well be used for bad as for good. Aristotle said that knowledge merely made someone "good at" something, not "good." Our literary tradition is with figures like Dr. Faustus and Frankenstein, "mad scientists," who make a pact with the devil or in their pride harm others. C.S. Lewis' masterpieces, "The Abolition of Man," and "That Hideous Strength," are meditations and warnings along the same lines.

The modern successful scientist is someone who spent 10 hours a day studying as an undergraduate and 12 hours a day in a lab for the next 10 years after that. Let me put it bluntly: there is absolutely nothing about scientific training which should lead anyone to believe that scientists, as such, are good human beings.

This fact is the whole reason for the doctrine of the "cardinal" virtues, called originally "hinge" virtues ("cardo," Latin, "hinge") not because, as many think today, all the other virtues hinge on them, but rather because the goodness and integrity of intellectual virtue, including science, hinged on them. The doctrine is that scientific training generally works for the good of the person who has it and of others, only if such training is solidly placed upon a foundation of the "hinge" virtues. And these cannot be acquired in a classroom.

You cannot say that you esteem this tradition of the "cardinal virtues" unless you embrace, as well, the rationale for that tradition.

My fourth classical thought in closing: science is not science. "Scientia" means "knowledge," and yet natural science today obviously does not produce knowledge. If you truly know something, you cannot be wrong about it. It makes no sense to say: "I know that X is true, but perhaps X is false." You'd be better to say: "I believe on evidence that X is true." All the great philosophers of science and great scientists are aware of this.

But common sense does genuinely know things; and religion knows things; and because of this, scientific judgments are rightly bounded within them, not the other way around.

- Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD, with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His latest book is "Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John" available from Amazon.

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