September 21, 2010

Interview on My Latest Book, 'The Science: The Art of Living'

Writing about web page http://www.acumenpublishing.co.uk/display.asp?K=e2009012713293172

Cover of

Science: The Art of Living is published in the US and Canada with McGill-Queen’s University Press.

What follows is an interview in which I explain some of the motivation and ideas behind the book:

Science: The Art of Living. Ten Questions for Steve Fuller

What inspired you to write Science: The Art of Living?

Mark Vernon, himself once a student of theology, contacted me to write this book for his ‘art of living’ series at Acumen, a distinguished UK philosophy publisher. He knew about my work in science studies, especially my interest in the democratisation of scientific authority – and how creationism and intelligent design theory played into that trend, certainly in the US and increasingly in the UK. With his help, I coined the term ‘Protscience’, which I explain later in this interview. Arguably that concept forms the centrepiece of the book. However, Mark probably did not expect that I would stress so much the positive role that even quite difficult and problematic theological concepts – such as the Eucharist, Grace and Providence – have played in motivating the scientific enterprise. Personally speaking, the book provided me with the opportunity to re-connect with my own religious roots. I was never an enthusiastic churchgoer or especially pious. To be sure, my mother always spoke of God as a source of personal strength, a view that I have always found attractive. However, I never fell in and out of love with God, the way so many born-again atheists seem to have done. Rather, I have been taken with theology as a kind of 3-D version of philosophy, in which abstract metaphysics acquired vivid personal qualities. Maybe this had to do with my excellent Jesuit teachers in high school (Regis, in New York City) who made the transition from Jesus to Marx and Teilhard de Chardin appear seamless. For me, all theology – if it’s any good—is ultimately liberation theology, in which science plays a central role as a change agent. While I realize that people tend to see the science-religion relationship in much more adversarial terms these days, that was not so obvious in the 1970s, when I first caught the God bug. For me, recovering the theological underpinnings of science is all about recovering science’s progressive mission in the world.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

A lot depends on the reader’s starting point. The basic message is that it is unlikely that science would have developed the way it has or acquired the significance it has, were it not for the Abrahamic religions – specifically, the doctrine that we are created in ‘the image and likeness of God’, which figures most prominently in Christian theology. However, the science-friendly interpretation of this doctrine is the boldest one, namely, that we are capable of recovering from our fallen state to reunite with God. What secular philosophers and scientists call ‘the ulitmate theory of everything’ is simply another name for the mind of God. While there are many reasons why both atheists and believers, theologians and scientists, might want to deny this equation, the price of denial is quite high – especially for science: There really is no other justification for our having tolerated all the violence and destruction unleashed on both humanity and nature by science-led policy decisions in the 20th century unless some much higher end is in view, such that the end does truly justify the means. The theological doctrine of Divine Providence was designed precisely with this prospect in mind—to urge perseverance in the face of adversity. Our undiminished faith in science – even as we doubt particular scientific authorities – reflects a similarly providentialist mentality. In case there is any doubt, I support this perspective – but it needs to be pursued with open eyes. It will eventually mean that we re-adjust our collective moral compass. But that’s a project for another book.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

This is the third book I’ve written on the science-religion relationship, and I tend not to repeat myself from book to book. However, that doesn’t mean that I’m always able to say everything I want! Word limits and the need to retain a broad audience prevented me from ranging more widely into the medieval prehistory of science as well as into the nascent ‘transhumanist’ movement that would use science to enable us to better realize our spiritual ambitions. In particular, a lot more needs to be said about the roots of the much – and to my mind, unjustly – maligned quest for a ‘literal’ interpretation of the Bible. Such literalism, whatever its shortcomings in practice, was born of the same spirit that begat the modern preoccupation with hard facts and the testability of knowledge claims. All of it is rooted in the fourteenth century doctrine of ‘univocal predication’ associated with the great Franciscan philosopher, John Duns Scotus, according to which when we say that God is all good, powerful, knowing, etc., we mean ‘good’, ‘powerful’, ‘knowing’ in exactly the same sense as when we speak of humans – except, of course, that God possesses these qualities to an infinite extent. Scotus provocatively suggested that were we to imagine the maximum version of all of these qualities in one being, then we would come to know God. What makes this proposal so provocative is its suggstion that the ultimate spiritual quest might be achieved with some serious effort, since God is willing and able to communicate his existence through our normal linguistic channels, not least Scripture.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

There are many but three stand out. First, it is simply the idea that science and religion are either natural antagonists or peaceful parallel universes. Neither is true. As a matter of fact, science and religion address exactly the same questions of explaining and controling reality, albeit using somewhat different institutional, technical and verbal means, which have for the most part been mutually supportive but occasionally have led to profound conflict. In this respect, today’s search for a neurological or genetic basis for religion is completely misguided, insofar as ‘religion’ is presumed to be something psychologically opposed to ‘science’—at best a sense of the ineffable, at worst a fount of superstition. The second misconception is that a lot of ‘anti-scientific’ sentiment is afoot today. There is absolutely no evidence for this. What we see, rather, is considerable suspicion of scientific experts, given their palpable failings and excesses. This phenomenon is best interpreted on the model of the Protestant Reformation, when Christians decided to take the doctrines of their faith out of the hands of the priests and authorised theologians. Thus I dub it ‘Protscience’. The third misconception is that the recovery of the theological dimension of science would be a boon to conventional religious belief. On the contrary, if history is our guide, the sort of religiosity that has tended to focus the scientific mind has been heretical, dissenting or otherwise marginal to the religious establishments of their day. Nevertheless, as I stress in my book, the spirit of those positions is radically different from that of atheism. There’s a world of difference between saying that the devout are worshipping the wrong God because you know the right God and because you know there is no God. (By the way, religious believers may take comfort in the fact that pure atheism in the latter sense has made virtually no contribution to the history of science.)

Did you have a specific audience in mind?

Since I am broadly supportive of Protscience, my target audience is the intellectually informed and adventurous. Although the text presupposes a basic understanding of Western intellectual history – is this too much to ask? – it is not littered with academic notes. Rather, the book concludes with an extended bibliographic essay designed to allow readers to follow up elsewhere the larger points I raise. One of the great virtues of writing for a general intellectual audience is that you are encouraged to foreground your own role and keep the support cast off centre stage. Very often academic writing is nothing more than an elaborate exercise in scaffolding and routing, where the ultimate objective is kept only dimly in view – even to the author!

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

As I see it, informing readers is simply a means to an end, though often that is the best you can hope for – especially if the reader comes to the topic either ill- or mis- informed, which tends to happen when ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are used in the same sentence. But generally speaking, I see all my writing as irritants, grit in the oyster that eventually issues in a pearl. I am most disappointed by reviews of my work that fail to deal with what I actually say but rather respond to what the reviewer presumes someone versed in my topic would say. On matters of science and religion, self-avowed ‘liberals’ are most prone to slip into such stereotyping, which I think reveals the degree of anti-religious – especially anti-Christian – sentiment that is currently tolerated in polite secular culture. What’s bothersome about this response is less its negativity than its unreflective character. Perhaps I am an easy target for bigotry of this sort because, while trained by the Jesuits, I was never an avid churchgoer or especially devout believer, yet it strikes me as perfectly obvious that modern science would not have enjoyed its heroic levels of societal support, were it not for its Christian heritage. This combination of background and beliefs befuddles the average secular liberal.

What alternative title would you give the book?

The title was forced on me by the editor to fit the series (which consists of single words related to the ‘art of living’). I had published another book with the same one-word title –‘Science’—in 1997, which covers many of the same issues but differently inflected. A more clever and descriptive – but possibly opaque – title would be: Believing in God Literally: The Hidden History of Science. Someone who would have got the point is the father of cybernetics (and Unitarian), the mathematician Norbert Wiener. The epigraph to my book comes from him: ‘Science is a way of life that can flourish only when men are free to have faith’.

How do you feel about the cover?

Much better than I felt about the original cover proposal, which was made before I submitted the manuscript. It was an aerial view of a bacteria culture in a Petri dish. That would have been the consummate cliché of the philosopher-sociologist scrutinising scientific culture. However, once I turned over the manuscript, someone at Acumen realized that the apple dropping off the tree was much more to the point of my thesis – on at least two levels. Most obviously, it recalls the myth of Newton’s discovery of gravity, and my book stresses Newton’s mutually reinforcing scientific and theological concerns as a model for renewing our commitment to science in the 21st century. But more subtly, I also point out that much of the supposedly ‘anti-scientific’ sentiment of our times – ranging from New Age medicine to Intelligent Design Theory – really marks a maturation of the scientific sensibility in society at large. This is captured by ‘Protscience’. Instead of kowtowing to a science they don’t understand, people are increasingly motivated to learn about science for themselves and draw their own conclusions about its relevance for their physical and spiritual lives. The fully formed apple separating from the branch that nurtured it symbolises that transformation.

What book do you wish you’d written?

That’s tricky because it’s all too easy to rate a book by its impact and influence without worrying too much about its content and composition. This helps to explain the ease with which philosophers excerpt and gloss what they call ‘classics’ in ways that would be scandalous if the same practices were applied to works of ‘literature’. (A good antidote is the collection of faux publishers’ rejection letters to the likes of Kant and Kafka in Umberto Eco’s Misreadings.) With that concern in mind, I would say that Plato’s Dialogues have managed over the centuries to repay continued re-readings for new arguments and points of views about perennial issues. I actually think that drama is the most effective genre for the conveyance of ideas because it requires that people inhabit the roles that are scripted in order for the work to be fully realized. For the last three years, I have written and staged dramas at the annual British Science Festival. This started when I scripted an imaginary talk show in which Lincoln and Darwin (both born on 12 February 1809) are interviewed for their joint 200th birthday. This dramatic side to my writing has been very fulfilling both for me and the actors and the audiences involved. I also think it is potentially quite influential as a sort of dress rehearsal for things that later happen in ‘real life’. In this respect, I have come to believe that the Protestant Reformation’s stress on Biblical ‘literalism’ is really about the Bible’s readers coming to inhabit the roles of the people – especially Jesus – whose lives are portrayed on its pages, as if the Scriptures were a divine script.

What’s your next book?

Science: The Art of Living is my seventeenth book. Two are currently competing for the eighteenth position. One is called Humanity 2.0 (Palgrave Macmillan), and it elaborates the transhumanist challenge to any future understanding of the nature of our species. The other is Socrates vs. Jesus: The Struggle for the Meaning of Life (Icon), which basically portrays Socrates as a ‘Christ-Lite’ for tender secular sensibilities. But to say any more at this point would spoil the reading experience!


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