Sola Scientia

The Covid-19 Chronicles: Reflections in a Pandemic, Part 9

I’m a big fan of science. Having spent six years of my college and graduate education and the first seven of my vocational years in chemistry, science is in my intellectual DNA. As a pastor-theologian, the only chemistry I practice these days is in the kitchen and meticulously studying those fine-print sheets that accompany prescription medications. However, the recent Covid-19 crisis has reawakened my science brain. With hockey and baseball down for the season, I now spend my free time perusing abstracts from Cell, Nature, and JAMA, and watching scientists discuss real-time, collaborative science on a global scale. I may never return to sports. Who could have foreseen the day when Dr. Anthony Fauci of the NIH would have a bobblehead, a T-shirt, and a parody on Saturday Night Live? This is the revenge of the nerds.

The word “science” comes from the Latin scientia, knowledge. This isn’t the forbidden fruit of the “Tree of Knowing Good and Evil” (Gen 3:3), which had to do with experiencing the creation as good and evil. Nor is it the secret knowledge (gnosis) of Gnosticism by which Man becomes divine. Science is a way of knowing about the natural world through observation and experimentation, hypothesis and theory, trial and error, educated guesses and dumb luck. It seeks to understand the natural world on its own terms, looking for natural causes and effects. Science doesn’t so much seek “truth” as it eliminates false explanations. Science is the great myth-buster.

Science and religious faith are not really the arch-enemies some make them out to be. In fact, they work together quite nicely. Religious faith, in the form of biblical monotheism, helped pave the way for modern science by ridding the world of false deities. Because everything in the world was not a god, it was safe to study the world without risking the ire of the deities. Science returns the favor by debunking superstitions, false causalities, and general confusion of cause, correlation, and coincidence. Superstition is the mother of idolatry. Thanks to science, we know that the earth is spherical and orbits around the sun, garlic juice does not demagnetize iron, and epidemics are caused by viruses and bacteria, not evil spirits fouling the air and water. Science and faith are two different ways of knowing different things from different perspectives. We know by reason and observation “from below,” and we know by faith and revelation “from above.” There are different things to know and different ways of knowing. Vive la différence!

Scientific method is restricted to natural, or in Aristotelian terms, “material” causes and effects, what can be observed and measured either directly or indirectly. We can’t see protons, neutrons, or electrons, but we can observe and measure their effects and mathematically describe their behavior. In science, the “invisibles” are not spiritual things but things that are too small, fast, distant, or elusive to be observed directly. There is no place in science for the supernatural or the spiritual. To say “God did it” or “it’s a miracle” may well be true, but it’s not a scientific way of speaking.

“Science is a way of knowing about the natural world.  It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes.  Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.”

Statement of the National Academy of Sciences

Scientific method is, by definition, agnostic about spiritual matters including the existence of God. Science deals with the natural not the spiritual. It can measure the head of a pin to great accuracy, but it can never tell you how many angels are dancing on it, if indeed angels actually dance on the heads of pins. Science can tell you how many people are in church on a given Sunday, but it cannot count the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. If you subject baptismal water or Eucharistic bread and wine to chemical analysis, all that science can say is that it’s water, bread, and wine. Science can explain how things work, but it cannot explain why things are.

Science is analytical. It seeks to understand the whole by taking it apart. When I was a kid, I loved taking things apart to see how they worked. I couldn’t always put things back together again, which is why I was given only broken stuff to take apart. Like donating your body to science. The problem is that the whole is usually greater than the sum of its parts, whether we are talking about the biology of the body or the Body of Christ, the Church. Analytical methods tend to focus on leaves and trees rather than forests.

Science also tends to be myopic, lacking in peripheral vision. It’s not some monolithic enterprise, like a huge corporation or religion, but a vast collection of specialties and sub-specialities. Physicists study subatomic particles and waves. Astronomers study stars and galaxies. Virologists study viruses, and epidemiologists study the spread of diseases. Each specialty has its own language and body of knowledge. Focus is required if you’re going to understand how something works at more than a social media level. You don’t discover the double-helical structure of DNA or the principles of quantum mechanics by dabbling.

Science is a method of knowing things not a philosophy of life. Taken as a philosophy or worldview, science becomes naturalism or materialism, which holds that all that exists is what we can know by observation and reason, a decidedly unscientific statement of faith. Viewed through the materialist lens, the world is a cold, cruel place of blood, tooth, and claw, survival of the fittest, and natural selection as a tiny virus particle culls the weak while the herd develops immunity. There is no place for beauty, justice, mercy, compassion, and love. It’s kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, fight or flee. There is no meaning to life in general or your life in particular. There is nothing transcendent beyond your biological existence – no life beyond death, no world beyond this world. Your purpose is to survive, reproduce. and die, or at least take one for the team so your species can survive another day. You are nothing more than dust in the wind. Also sprach Zarathustra.

Our current Covid-19 crisis demonstrates that Man cannot live by science alone, sola scientia. Science alone makes for poor public policy in which the solution may be worse than the problem. We’ve seen this before as scientific theories find their way into public policy concerning the environment and climate change. Science tends to treat everything as a laboratory experiment where all the variables can be controlled. But as we are seeing, the world is not a big petri dish; there are far too many variables to mico-manage. A pandemic is not just an epidemiological problem.

We are more than our biology. We are economic creatures woven into a complex tapestry of vocations. Pull on one strand and the whole cloth comes unraveled. We are community creatures living in relationship with one another. We need to touch and be touched, to hear and be heard. It is not good for us to be alone. We are spiritual creatures endowed with a sense of the transcendent, of a Creator beyond the creation/ We are priests and kings of creation, images of the Creator tasked with the care of His footstool and temple in the cosmos. We are answerable to a Higher Authority as we work, play, and worship. We’re human.

This is not intended as a criticism of the current shelter at home policy as a strategy to slow the spread of Covid-19. I’m in no position to criticize. I have opinions, as nearly everyone does, but I have no expertise in public policy, economics, virology, or epidemiology. My vocational expertise is in biblical theology and pastoral care with a distant background in chemistry. I work in the ordo ecclesiastus not the ordo politicus. I wouldn’t want the job of our government leaders, and they probably wouldn’t want mine.

My point is a larger, philosophical one. As grand as science is, we do not live sola scientia, by science alone, not even the most skeptical among us. As much as I admire and appreciate science, petri dish solutions to complex societal problems have consequences far beyond the presenting crisis. Hopefully, the virologists and epidemiologists will acquire enough scientia on this new member of the Coronoviridae family to make its home with our species to at least mitigate its most devastating effects. We’re going to have to learn to live with SARS-CoV-2, and science can help us.

Beyond that, I pray we will be able to recover our humanity when we finally come out of virtual hiding, without lasting damage to home, church, and civil society. Hopefully, we will have learned that faith in science is misplaced hope and trust. Science makes a second-rate philosophy and a third-rate religion on par with nature worship. Science cannot save the world; at best it can mitigate the symptoms and preserve our lives to die another day.

The salvation of the world comes from the Cross not a test tube. Man does not live by science alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.


©2020 William M. Cwirla