catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 1, Num 7 :: 2002.12.06 — 2002.12.19


Race against ignorance

Our society is running a race. It is a race we do not know we are running. Every day we lengthen the distance we have to run and at the same time we reassure ourselves that we will have no trouble going the distance. In fact, though, we have never run so far, we have no idea of the course ahead, and our time is running out. We have gotten ourselves into this trouble, says Wendell Berry, by making science into a god.

Berry's book is an attempt to articulate how we got onto this treadmill and some steps we might take to get off. Writing in his typically articulate and interesting style, Berry argues that we have made the monumental mistake of building a national religion based on science. Rather than treating science as the scientific method would have us treat it, as a series of assumptions that need to be constantly tested, we instead put an unshakable faith in what science can do. We read in the newspaper about the latest scientific development or postulation. Because of corporate support of research, the majority of grant funded studies tend to result in product developments. The new product or process seems to have some great benefits, and only a few bad side effects. We, along with the rest of our market-driven society, reassure ourselves that science will be able to provide a solution for the side effects in plenty of time. Berry points out that this may not be the best approach for a society to take. "It is dangerous," he says, "to act on the assumption that our knowledge will increase fast enough to out-race the bad consequences of incomplete knowledge."
But putting so much faith in scientists, Berry argues, is simply making science into a religion. "We seem to have conceded to scientists, to the extent of their own willingness to occupy it, the place once occupied by the prophets and priests of religion," he points out.

So why would anybody want to read a 153-page essay about the position of science in our lives? As a Christian interested in working for justice and for making the world the way God wants it to be, I was amazed at how often I found myself pounding the table in agreement of his analysis. It is a bit like reading Neil Postman, only without Postman's aloof attitude. A superficial reading might lead one to believe that Berry is a luddite, but in fact, he argues only that before implementing new technologies and new discoveries, we ought to consider the negative effects as well as the positive ones, then make an informed decision.

He also argues that we need to stop reducing and shrinking our world in an attempt to believe we can control it. In the beginning of the book, Berry quotes from King Lear, where Edgar tells his father Gloucester (after Gloucester's despair has driven him to unsuccessfully attempt suicide) that "Thy life's a miracle. Speak yet again." Berry believes that if we lived our lives not out of hubris, but out of the humility that would follow such a realization, change and redemption would be more possible.

Berry frames his argument as a response to an essay by Edward O. Wilson called "Consilience." Berry confesses admiration for Wilson's depth of thought and the quality of his writing but argues that the philosophy which Wilson espouses in that essay, essentially a suggestion that we use science as a central worldview, upon which to hang the humanities, the arts, and the rest of our thinking. He agrees with Wilson's identification that something needs to provide a unifying philosophy in this age of fragmentation, but believes that science is not the worldview for the job.

The antidote, according to Berry, is to get ourselves rooted, to begin to feel affection for things, to see things as having value for what they are, not for their statistical value. "Affection," he says, "requires us to break out of the abstractions, the categories, and confront the creature itself in its time and place." The solution is also to begin to look beyond ourselves and our own lives and get the bigger picture. Berry writes, "We can live fully only by making ourselves as answerable to the claims of eternity as to those of time." We can do this best, he argues, by planting ourselves on a piece of ground and staying there, by watching nature out the window through the years, by recognizing that places and people, and plants, and animals are valuable and unique, not statistics, numbers on a balance sheet, or equivalencies for something else. In short, the solution Berry offers is a profoundly Christian one. The solution is to love. "People exploit what they have merely calculated to be of value," Berry says, "but they defend that which they love."

Our world is in need of those sorts of defenders, and Christians ought to be leading the charge. Life is a Miracle is a good way to start to think and plan for how we can carry that charge out.

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