Is scientific knowledge safe in the hands of a fallen human race?
Science goes back to the Latin word scire, ‘to know’.
A cat might think twice before sitting down and starting to groom itself in the middle of a quiet residential road if only it knew that, at any moment, it could be hit by a force equalling the mass of a 1.5 ton metal box on wheels, multiplied by an acceleration of 45 feet per second.
The lives of countless women could have been saved if only people had known about hygiene before the Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis told staff on maternity wards to wash their hands.
We’d all soon be frying or drowning in our beds if climatology and technology weren’t there to increase our knowledge about global warming and how to mitigate it.
Knowledge can be a pretty useful thing. Meanwhile, the perils of ignorance go well beyond the immediate threat to survival.
Ignorance about human biology has not only led to fatal levels of bloodletting but to racism. Ignorant citizens are easy pickings for dictators and media moguls. Ignorance about the dark side of its history will make a nation self-righteous, arrogant, and a potential threat to others. Our refusal to know ourselves as individuals will trap us in unhelpful attitudes and behaviours for the rest of our lives.
Knowledge is power: to become wiser, to heal and rescue, to make the world a safer place.
But we humans are fallible creatures and so, we all know about the abuse of knowledge as well as its limits. Science is forever evolving. Scientific insights are temporary. And science can be morally ambiguous. Our knowledge about nuclear power could bridge the critical gap between transitioning from fossil fuels to green energy. Meanwhile, though, someone could decide to hit the enemy with a nuclear warhead. Our knowledge about DNA is likely to revolutionise medicine. Then again, we face the spectre of manipulating human cells for dubious purposes – a brave new world in which I, for one, would not care to live.
Is all that scientific knowledge safe in the hands of a fallen human race?
The opening pages of Scripture contain a passage which never ceases to intrigue me. Christians in the West commonly read it in terms of original sin. Jews tend to read it as a coming-of-age story. Do both have their finger on something?
But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of [the tree that is in the middle of the garden] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’
Genesis 3:4 (NRSV-CE)
Adam and Eve’s decision to listen to the serpent instead of the Creator, by tasting the fruit of moral knowledge, led to their expulsion from Paradise; ever since, the rest of us have had to deal with the fallout.
On the other hand, their thirst for knowledge and the act of gaining it, is at the heart of what makes Adam and Eve truly human. They have progressed from ignorance to awareness.
The story of the Fall, as we’ve come to call it in Christian circles, seems a fitting metaphor for the complex, multifaceted human condition: the tensions between good and evil, responsibility and failure, between eager ambition and despair.
Science, with all its potential and limitations, is part of that larger conundrum. Perhaps the surge of the ‘new atheism’ of twenty years ago, spearheaded by the likes of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, only made a comparatively brief splash because its infinite trust in human rationality and scientific progress just doesn’t ring true.
There are still more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of by science. And we are still riddled with more moral questions than reason will ever answer.
For reflection and discussion:
Is ignorance bliss?
How might my life change if I spent a year consistently pursuing knowledge of God, the world and myself? What might this pursuit look like?
Christianity and Science: Toward a Theology of Nature, John F Haught, Orbis Books, 2007.
The Great Partnership. Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning, Jonathan Sacks, Schocken Books, 2012.
Encountering Mystery: Religious experience in a secular age, Dale C. Allison Jr., Eerdmans Publishing, 2022.
‘Man errs, till he has ceased to strive.’
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.