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Friday Feature: Magic, Science, Religion, and Technology

Updated: Jan 3


VIDEO LINK: https://youtu.be/ZvaldMeJLGk


Christians know that we live in a fallen world, and each of us is responsible for its fallenness. The evil of the human heart is not limited to what we do, but also involves what we think. Imaginations of the mind feed the desires of the heart. When biblical principles do not constrain them, our collective imaginations feed the growth of worldly philosophies that deceive souls away from the lordship of Christ (cf. Colossians 2:8).


In a little book called The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis identified one of the chief philosophical difficulties of our age: the loss of objective truth—especially moral truth.


Among Lewis’s most incisive observations is the following quote from Abolition of Man that summarizes the modern problem:

“There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”[1]

Commenting on Lewis, Peter Kreeft notes[2] that when asked to classify four things—religion, science, magic, and technology—nearly everyone will pair science with technology because their advances are empirically verifiable. Religion is therefore paired with magic. But Kreeft observes that this superficial analysis ignores a deeper relationship. When properly pursued, both science and religion seek to conform the mind to reality, while magic and technology try to bend reality to human desires.


Biblical and worldly perspectives are opposed to each other. From the worldly point of view, “magic and applied science” (aka technology) are both used “to subdue reality to the wishes of men.” Applied science is pursued primarily on the basis of naturalistic assumptions about reality.


The question may be posed, what is the problem with this arrangement? Shouldn’t we use technology to alleviate human suffering and disease? Shouldn’t we welcome advances that improve the quality and length of life for as many people as possible?


To answer this question, we must consider that scientific academic disciplines are pursued in an atmosphere in which naturalistic philosophy is assumed if not explicitly stated. A strictly naturalistic framework provides no moral guidance, because that which is right is limited only by that which is possible. Individual scientists, with or without the benefit of Christian belief, may be constrained by conscience to recognize limits to their research. But the philosophical underpinnings of modern science acknowledge no God, and in principle, no universally agreed moral limits to research.


Christian thinkers beginning with Augustine[3] thought of God’s revelation as having two “books”: general revelation, known as the ‘book of nature’ (cf. Romans 1:18-20), and special revelation, known as the Scriptures. Because God created everything and imparted his rational image to humans, we had only to take up and read from the Scriptures on the one hand, and from the book of nature on the other—both were seen as God-honoring enterprises in which we discover truth and conform our minds to it.


However, shifts away from this way of thinking that began in the early modern period and grew in the Enlightenment affect the philosophy of science to this day. Modern science is no longer supported by a transcendent moral philosophy grounded in the existence of God, and prominent scientific naturalists are eager to fill the void with naturalism and scientism. A temptation therefore exists, especially at the edges of modern science, to a rudderless pursuit of practical ends apart from a moral philosophy to constrain the means.


Why would we want to exceed the natural limits afforded by our identities as God’s creatures?


Who among us in this fallen world has not used technology to temporarily disengage from reality? Some innocuous forms of detachment can be tolerated without ill effects, but the most destructive forms threaten our very lives and identities as God’s image-bearers. If our view of the cosmos offers no credible narrative of redemption, then we have no reason to endure pain of any kind. We medicate our minds to be comfortably numb. We deconstruct our own identities and rebuild them in our image, subject to our desires. We declare ourselves free from physical constraints and mutilate our bodies.


Why tolerate genetic defects when we can eliminate them?


CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing techniques may soon enable us to eliminate heritable maladies in humans, such as cystic fibrosis or sickle-cell anemia. Standing against such progress at this moment is an international patchwork of inconsistent laws and regulations which for the most part enforces moratoria over gene editing of human germ lines.


But for how long can regulations against gene editing stand in the face of compassionate pleas to eliminate genetic diseases, when the only basis for prohibition is itself grounded in a utilitarian ethic defined by “societal needs“ and measured in terms of “scientific consensus”?[4] A quick review of the battle over embryonic stem cell research shows that the issues at hand are foundational. Each side makes what they perceive to be a fundamental moral claim, but no universally acknowledged moral standard exists. The same general problem exists over a range of similar issues: designer babies, human-animal chimeras, in-vitro fertilization, therapeutic cloning, and others.[5] The desire to deconstruct and reconstruct individual identity in our own image apparently has no bounds. One prominent intellectual speaks of the possibility that one day he may “achieve immortality by uploading [his] brain’s connectome to the Cloud”.[6] On the ability to use technology to satisfy human longings, Nancy Pearcey remarks, “this mind-set acknowledges no abiding standards, so there is nothing to check the human desire for control and domination”[7]—even if it means the domination of the will over our own existence and identity as persons in physical bodies.


Whether we listen or not, we can’t say Lewis didn’t warn us.





Postscript


In passing, it must be said that in the modern cultural milieu, evangelical Christians have been maligned as anti-intellectual, and Christians in general have been characterized as having anti-scientific and anti-philosophical biases. We must therefore continually remind others, even ourselves, that we are neither anti-science nor anti-philosophy, and that from its beginning, Christianity has had a strong intellectual tradition.


The worldview of Christianity gave rise to modern science. As Pearcey observes, “Christianity provided many of the crucial motivations and philosophical assumptions necessary for the rise of modern science,” and “modern science arose in one place and one time only: It arose out of medieval Europe, during a period when its intellectual life was thoroughly permeated with a Christian worldview.”[8] The intellectual environment fostered by Christian belief made modern science possible.


Likewise, Christianity is not opposed to philosophy. Lewis himself once remarked, “good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered,”[9] and indeed, Western philosophy has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the last 50 years, driven in large part by the contributions of Christian philosophers.[10]


Biblical perspective does not put us at odds with science, technology, or philosophy; rather, it affirms the foundational truth that creation itself, including science, philosophy, and every human being, are ultimately subject to the sovereign God, the creator of all things.





Questions:


1. What is the problem with pursuing science on strictly naturalistic terms?


(Here we define naturalism as the philosophy that everything that exists belongs to the natural world, in other words, “Reality is exhausted by nature, containing nothing ‘supernatural’, and that the scientific method should be used to investigate all areas of reality.”[1])




2. Why is science paired with technology, but religion is thought to be similar to magic?




3. What could go wrong if there is no universally acknowledged moral standard as a basis for regulation of gene editing technologies?


Example: CRISPR-Cas9 lets us target and edit specific genes. By applying this technology to germ lines, we can change a species forever. Because it is so powerful, almost everyone agrees that CRISPR-Cas9 and related technologies must be regulated. But on what basis should we regulate it?



[1] “Naturalism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, March 31, 2020, accessed December 30, 2020, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/naturalism/.



[1] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 38-39. [2] Peter Kreeft, C. S. Lewis for the Third Millenium: Six Essays on the Abolition of Man (San Francisco CA: Ignatius, 1994), 136. [3] Melissa Cain Travis, Science and the Mind of the Maker (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2018), 38. [4] See for example, Natalie Kofler, “Why were scientists silent over gene-edited babies?” Nature 566, no. 7745 (February 26, 2019): 427, accessed December 30, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-00662-4. [5] For a review of moral issues in genetic research from a Christian perspective, see Oliver O’Donovan, Begotten or Made?: Human Procreation and Medical Technique (1984; repr., New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002); for a treatment of the moral implications of recent research, see Calum MacKellar, The Image of God, Personhood and the Embryo (London: SCM Press, 2017). [6] Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Viking, 2018), 427. [7] Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live? (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1999), 421. [8] Nancy Pearcey, “Christianity Is a Science-Starter, Not a Science-Stopper,” The Pearcey Report, September 18, 2005, accessed December 30, 2020, http://www.pearceyreport.com/archives/2005/09/post_4.php . [9] C. S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 59. [10] William Lane Craig, “What Is the Current Status of the Renaissance of Christian Philosophy?” drcraigvideos, June 12, 2020, YouTube video, https://youtu.be/BpzXrx-Hjq0.

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