Magical Thinking


The arguments about the alleged war between science and religion have missed something important: the difference between science and technology. While some of the apparent differences involve science (does the theory of evolution conflict with the Christian idea of creation?), others, frequently the most contentious, involve technology (is the destruction of a human embryo appropriate if an apparently desirable end can be achieved?).

The late science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said that a truly advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. It’s an interesting thought, and says something about what is wrong, potentially, with both magic and technology. It is also interesting that the sentence would make no sense if the word “science” were substituted for technology. We often equate the two words, and we shouldn’t.

Science is always tentative, exploratory, and capable of being corrected. It is limited to what can be weighed, measured, and replicated, and that is its great strength. Technology has to do with the manipulation of what science discovers, or is thought to have discovered. Science asks, “What is this?” Technology asks, “What can I do with this?” In this sense science has more in common with philosophy and theology, and technology with magic.

Magic has always been manipulative. Leave aside the question of whether it works, whether you can really use my hair and fingernail parings or an image of me to do me harm (and please don’t explore that possibility too closely). Magic asks, “What can I do? What use of what symbols and materials will give me power?” It is more about use and effect than about understanding or insight. Magic and technology both ask, “What works?” rather than “What does this mean?” There is certainly an interplay between the two questions, but the fact of power and dominance arises with “What works? How can I use this? How can I profit from this?” The search for understanding and knowledge has given way to the desire for mastery and gain, and wisdom is a casualty.

So, finally, is science, which involves a necessary humility—the understanding that you might be wrong. When the argument against ethical objections to the destruction of embryos comes down to “They are so small,” you have to realize that you are arguing with serious jerks; but the objection to such crudeness has to contend with the fact that so many fertilized ova are naturally lost that we must see nature itself as tragic, and begin to make our argument from that point—or find better points to argue from. It is never enough to look to a weak natural-law position—one that distorts its Pauline origin—and hope that people who were never even close to that position will begin to come around. The stakes are too high, and Christian theologians have not begun to deal with them in any effective way.

It is important, though, to understand that a certain natural repugnance is not automatically a guide to an ethical response; nor is it to be discounted. The response of Catholics and Orthodox to abortion and the destruction of human embryos is, in a sense, instinctive. This is life at its beginning. Leaving aside the question of whether an embryo can be called a person, it is undeniably human life. Not to have any qualms about destroying the beginning of human life is, at least, insensitive; and to argue, as some do, that Christians respond to such destruction as they do simply because that is the way they have been taught to respond is to ignore a normal human flinch factor.

When I was in fourth grade, an abortionist went on trial in my hometown. I had never heard a word about abortion in church or at home (this wasn’t uncommon before Roe v. Wade), and when I read about the trial in the newspaper I asked my mother what abortion was. Without making any dramatic points, she told me and I was repelled: Why would someone kill a baby in the womb? I later came across tragic stories of rape and incest that complicated the picture. The initial repugnance still seems right.

We must understand the consequences of some of our arguments. If we insist that each fertilized ovum is human life, even though the body naturally expels so many of them, we are saying that we are expected to be more tender toward life than the universe is; and perhaps this is what we should say. John Breck, an Orthodox theologian, suggests that we should see this as one of the many questions involved in theodicy: How do we reconcile nature’s apparent cruelty and indifference with the belief in a good creator?

But the argument that this universe, as it presently is, is the way God intended it to be from the beginning is deist, not Christian. The Fall is not only a spiritual, moral catastrophe for human beings. It involves nature itself. This is a religious argument, and an appeal to natural law will be unconvincing to those who do not share the belief that human life is sacred and therefore worthy of protection—and who regard this as nothing more than a religious assertion. Perhaps the most we can do is point to the crassness of what technology can become, and hope that we can persuade people toward a more genuine scientific humility.

Published in the 2009-01-30 issue: 

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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