"Neuroscientists are beginning to suspect that everything that makes people human is no more than an interaction of chemicals and electricity inside the labyrinthine folds of the brain," said Newsweek on Feb. 7, 1983.
This quotation pretty well sums up the prevailing scientific attitudes about life and consciousness. At any moment we can expect an announcement that the secret of life has been discovered and that life has been created artificially in a test tube. Science has not yet accomplished this feat, but there is every reason to believe that it will before long. Genetically manufactured drugs and organ transplants are already commonplace. Now that we understand DNA, our complete control over the processes of life is only a matter of time.
This may sound to some like the epitome of scientific progress, but I see it as a tragic step in our dehumanization. Not only does it portend some mechanical or chemical variety of humanity, but also it hastens out spiritual deterioration by strengthening what I call scientific idolatry.
Whenever we lose sight of the human source and origin of an idea, then it becomes an idol -- a symbol to which we attribute an absolute and objective authority. As Einstein and others have pointed out, the theories of science are fundamentally creations of the human mind. But because science claims to deal with an objective reality, we tend to treat its ideas and models as real and independent of their human creators. We idolize the concepts and theories of science.
The biblical sin of idolatry refers not just to the making of graven images, but to their worship. Idolatry in contemporary life is not as remote and anachronistic as it may seem. Neither the prophets of ancient Israel nor the medieval church fathers ever had to deal with idolatry on the vast scale that exists today in the name of science. For science has become our state religion, scientists our infallible priests, and scientific theories our icons and salvation.
One major consequence of scientific idolatry is the fear it creates among nonscientists. I see a good deal of this in my introductory physics course for liberal arts majors at the University of Minnesota. Invariably, I find a few students terrified and intimidated by physics, and, I think, for good reason:
Fear of Technology. The omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation and the chemical pollution of the environment provoke fears in all of us that are fully justified. Unfortunately, they cannot be alleviated, but they must be recognized and acknowledged.
Fear of the Quantitative. Math anxiety is but the tip of the iceberg here. Deeper still is a sense of intimidation and inferiority felt by people who view the world in subjective, intuitive and qualitative terms, which contrasts sharply with the objective, rational, quantitative approach of the typical scientist. What may an artist hope to accomplish that can possibly compare to the achievements of an engineer?
Fear of Meaninglessness. The picture of nature painted by modern science is of a world that is structured, fascinating, even beautiful, but nonetheless meaningless and accidental.
Despite the powerful hold scientific idolatry has on us, there is growing evidence today of its breakdown, especially in the health sciences. It has become apparent that the treatment of symptoms through drugs, surgery and other Herculean feats of technology has come up against some major obstacles in the form of cancer and other degenerative diseases. The traditional medical model seems almost overwhelmed by the efforts to treat illness in purley materialistic terms.
There has been a steady increase in recent years in the use of alternative medical techniques: homeopathy, acupuncture and Eastern folk and herbal medicine, spiritual healing, nutritional and dietary therapies, and various psychological or psychic treatments, such as bioenergetics and others that involve the use of imagery and meditation. All of these holistic therapies assume the cooperation of mind and body.
Dr. Karen Olness, for example, of the Children's Hospital in Minneapolis, has successfully used imaging and hypnosis in the treatment of children with terminal illnesses. Earl Bakken, the inventor of the pacemaker and president of Medtronics Corp., suggests that for purely economical reasons the growing use of high-tech medicine will have to be curtailed. Psychic and holistic techniques have become a practical necessity.
But medicine, and science in general, still face a long struggle against idolatry. The most powerful weapon is education. We must air these issues in science courses designed for scientists and nonscientists alike.
We need more articles and television programs aimed at a general audience. Many fine science books and programs are being produced today, and they have achieved a surprising popularity. But most of these present the "party line." They inadvertently (and often overtly) promote the material reductive philosophy that subtly oppresses and intimidates people while nominally enlightening them.
Fortunately, there are examples around us today, and as we look back in history, that illustrate a reconciliation -- even a harmony -- between the scientific and humanistic world views. Such writers as Gerald Holton, Michael Polanyi, Moris Berman, Jacob Needleman and Huston Smith are presenting a cultural, psychological and spiritual critique of science.
In the 17th century, poet-artist William Blake first recognized Newton's materialism as a dangerous threat to the human spirit. His message has been taken up again in modern times by such critics as Theodore Roszak and Owen Barfield, who offers the key to our dilemma:
"Imagination is the cardinal virtue because the literalness which supports idolatry is the besetting sin of the age which is upon us."
Roger S. Jones is an associate professor of physics at the University of Minnesota and the author of "Physics as Metaphor."
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