Sunday, April 12, 2009

Science Adrift, 2

Responding to my "Science Adrift" post of 4/8/09,
god-free morals said...

I think the problem is just that science does not only focus on matter. That is, what it can actually make statements about. It tries to apply itself to all aspects of humanity; religious, social, even artistic.

"People today believe that scientists are there to instruct them, writers and musicians to entertain them. That the latter have something to teach them never occurs to them." Wittgenstein

Dear Chris, god-free morals:

Thanks for helping to align the focus of this post. Your Wittgenstein quote was brilliant, pointing exactly to my intention. I am not speaking about scientific inquiry itself, which is often poorly conceived, sloppily done, and opinionated in its interpretations. That’s the nature of this (hopefully) self-correcting beast. I’m speaking about public perception and public education in the West, which is now based on scientific triumphalism. Religion is imagined to be outdated, primitive, and worse. There was a time when religious institutions controlled education (and it still does in some schools and many countries in the world), and that surely carried/carries its own set of problems.

However, my concern here is that our wholesale abandonment of religion and religious education is seriously, if not fatally damaging us. The trajectory of our secular culture was set in motion in an era in which religious/ethical values were foundational to our thinking. The democratic revolution begun 200+ years ago carried with it the ideals of universal freedom and dignity, and leadership based on merit and accomplishment; in short, an attempt to create a human-authored utopian society. But, as with all revolutions, there were other sides to the story. One of those sides was the power struggle with religious authority. The secular/scientific school has not merely won that battle, but routed its opponent. And we are left with a one-sided, materialistic focus, dominated by “number, weight and measure” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell, proverb 14), which is to say, an educational focus bereft of ethical values and the skills to develop psychological sensitivities.

Look at the curriculum of any high school (gymnasium), college, or university. Engineering is our obsession: mechanical, chemical, biological, electronic, ecological, nuclear, corporate, financial, medical, legal. We are fabulous at teaching the skills to build ingenious tools, models, historical scenarios, balance sheets, and other Rube Goldberg constructions, be they physical or mental, but how many course offerings (much less course requirements) are offered on practical ethics, conflict dynamics, life dilemmas, real-time ethical decision making, the conflicts between self and society, or identity building and religious tradition? We are taught professional skills but not how to live.

I sat in on a Sabbath morning study session with Rabbi Mordechai Finley last week. He asked us how we, as a society, define “the good life.” It was widely agreed that it means lots of money, leisure, and sex. But Finley’s definition, without denying the pleasure of money and sex, was very different. For him it means:
- learning how to endure existential despair with dignity;
- including people of all faiths, creeds, nationalities, and social strata among one’s group of friends (which means inviting them into one’s house regularly;)
- learning how to effectively engage with political diversity;
- taking time on a regular basis to pray, meditate, explore one’s inner being
- making learning an essential and regular part of one’s life.

The promulgating of meaningful values was once the provenance of our religious communities. In our secular societies, however, religious communities have become nearly vestigial. We need to revive those communities or replace them, because, assuredly, we cannot continue on a trajectory towards utopian ideals without a commitment to the values that will implement those ideals.

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