Soundings

Science and wonders

Jul 2014    

At Johns Hopkins University, neurosurgeons and biomedical engineers collaborated to create tiny, biodegradable “nanoparticles” that can transport DNA to brain cancer cells in mice. These scientists hope that one day, they will be able to load these particles with “death genes” and insert them in brain cancer patients by neurosurgery to selectively destroy tumour cells without damaging normal brain tissue.

“We now have evidence,” says Jordan Green, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, “that these Trojan horses will … be able to carry genes that selectively induce death in cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells healthy.”

Across the Atlantic, scientists at Cambridge University have succeeded in printing eye cells with a 3-D printer for the first time. Since many blinding eye diseases are caused by the loss of the nerve cells in the retina, the promise of this new technology is truly staggering.

The advancement of science and its close cousin technology that we have witnessed in the span of just one century can be described, without exaggeration, as truly phenomenal.

But it is precisely because of science’s great achievements, nestled in an increasingly secular culture, that some are led to elevate it to a status of omnicompetence that it does not deserve. The spectacular success of science should cause us to be wary of a dangerous triumphalism, bordering on idolatry, which often accompanies it.

Ominous signs of this tendency were already evident in the last century. In 1941, the evolutionist scientist Conrad Waddington could declare that “Science by itself is able to provide mankind with a way of life which is … self-consistent and harmonious.”

And in 1960, Indian politician Pandit Nehru could say: “It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people.”

More sophisticated thinkers have recognised the fallacy of this popular but inordinate confidence in science. Although science has indeed contributed greatly to human flourishing, insofar as it remains a human enterprise, it can never be anointed as humankind’s saviour.

Theologians and philosophers have long exposed the myth that says that science holds the answers to the world’s problems.

Observing its imperialistic tendencies, the British philosopher Mary Midley points out that from its birth, modern science “was associated with two strangely ambitious claims, infallibility and the formal unity of the whole of thought.”

Both these claims are of course patently false.

The diverse and often competing scientific theories suggest that science is not an infallible source of knowledge. For scientists like Peter Atkins and Richard Dawkins to claim that science is the only way to truth, and that it can, in principle, explain everything, is therefore unbelievably naïve. Such claims betray a simplistic view of reality, shaped by the narrow rationalism of the Enlightenment.

The scientific imperialists of our day have failed to recognise (or perhaps refused to acknowledge) what other scientists, philosophers and theologians are able to see so clearly: the limits of science.

The theologian Thomas Torrance argues persuasively that science raises questions that it is incapable of answering. Francis Collins, the Director of the Human Genome Project, rightly observes that “Science is powerless to answer questions such as ‘Why did the universe come into being?’ ‘What is the meaning of human existence?’ ‘What happens after we die?’ ”

As long as scientists refuse to acknowledge the limits of science, their search for truth will be futile. As the Harvard cell biologist and religious naturalist Ursula Goodenough has tragically admitted, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.”

Science requires a larger framework of meaning that only Christianity can supply. In fact, both science and religion have indispensable roles to play in the human quest for truth.

As the late Pope John Paul II has eloquently and perceptively put it:
“Science can purify religion from error; … religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish … We need each other to be what we must be, what we are called to be.”

“Soundings” is a series of essays that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

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