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Friday, July 07, 2006

Former bioethics head: "Modern science is a religion for many of its practitioners"

Leon Kass, who chaired the Council on bioethics from 2001 through 2005, and was known for promoting intrinsic human dignity, recently made a very interesting comment
I think modern science is a religion for many of its practitioners, by which I mean they have utter faith in the sufficiency of their concepts to give a full account of life. But science cannot be a source of wisdom. By design it is morally neutral and indifferent to the pursuit of wisdom about human life that was the goal of pre-modern thought. If modernity went wrong, it was in taking the partial truths of science to be the whole truth about the world. One needs to recover a certain sense of the genuine mysteries of our existence on earth, which science doesn't explain but rather tries to explain away. The current argument of intelligent design is, however miscast, a way of raising again these fundamental questions. We need to restore a more philosophical science.

Kass's remarks are important for understanding the tangled controversies around the teaching of Darwinism in the schools. Nothing could be clearer than the way in which the American Association of Biology Teachers intended to use biology classes to promote the worldview of materialism and Darwinism in the mid-Nineties, as an "unsupervised" and "impersonal" process. I have no reason to think that their goals have changed. I suspect that they were a teeny bit sobered to discover that putting themselves in direct conflict with, for example, the Catholic Church on an essentially religious and philosophical issue could raise questions of separation of church and state.

It is nearly impossible to have a reasonable discussion of these issues in current legacy media because the legacy story template requires that the fundamentalists start the controversy. In fact, beginning from the 1925 Scopes trial down to the present day, it was always the materialists who actually started the conflict. How often do you hear it acknowledged that Scopes was teaching from a text that promoted eugenics?

As a textbook editor myself, part time, I simply cannot imagine the material that appeared in Scopes's text passing muster today. William Jennings Bryan opposed that stuff way back then. That's what started the controversy. As Secretary of State during World War I, Bryan knew where the growing popularity of eugenic theory was leading Germany.

There is a whole hidden history here, about the use of biology classes to promote materialism and a variety of other questionable causes - material for a book, if I can get a generous enough advance to pay for all the research. Goodness knows, there's boxcars of material to go through.

Why a hidden history? Well, a lot of big butts must be covered. H.L. Mencken, who popularized the view that only the booboisie would oppose Darwinism, supported eugenics. While I am here, I have noticed a tendency in American literati to refuse to face up to the fact the Mencken was a Hitler fan and an anti-democrat, as Terry Teachout shows. I am always hearing excuses, excuses, excuses for Mencken from the lar-di-dah quarters. Why?

Here's why I think they excuse him: They are so gutless that they cannot either believe or say what Mencken did, but they admire him for the guts to do it. In other words, they are not cowed by virtue or reason but by mere cowardice and political correctness. Except for their cowardice, Mencken's fascist leanings would be entirely in character for them, as they confront a world that rejects their materialist orthodoxies.

Clarence Darrow, who muscled the case away from ACLU, opposed eugenics, but did not believe in free will. Remember that when you hear him portrayed as a hero.

Kass also has some interesting things to say about technology:
Technology is more than machinery and acquired power to change the way things are. At its root, the technological disposition believes all aspects of life can be rationally mastered through technique. So now we have techniques for solving marital problems, grief, and almost everything else. And at the end of the day you've utterly transformed the character of human life. Eventually the things that really matter--family life, worship, self-governance, education of the next generation--become threatened.

Of course, there really are no techniques for solving the most fundamental human problems. Life is an experience to be lived, not a problem to be solved.
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

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