Science, a religious or utopian project?

New Atlantis Island

It is interesting at least to wonder what the scientific revolution would have looked like had it occurred somewhere other than in the West. What latent goals and assumptions might the systematic and empirical study of nature have had if it had arisen somewhere in what were at the time more technologically and scientifically advanced civilizations: in the lands of Islam, in Confucian-Daoist-Buddhist China, in the Hindu lands of southern India?

We will never know, for what we think of as modern science emerged only once and in the context of a Christian civilization, although also one shaped by classical mythology, though more on that another time. Modern science’s latent goals and assumptions, for good an ill, are likely, then, to have been refracted through Christian religious ideas, ideas which are in many ways, I believe, again for good and ill, still with us.

Modern science emerged in a period of increasing rather than declining religious enthusiasm and its earliest proponents such as Descartes, Newton and Francis Bacon were religious and Christian men. The spread of religious literacy to the masses that grew out of the Reformation provided a wealth of ideas around which the project of understanding nature empirically,which was the essence of the new science, could be conceptualized.

One passage of the book of Genesis would prove especially important in the way the scientific project would be understood and granted theological justification.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. Genesis 1:26

As Carolyn Merchant has written:

The problem of domination becomes the problem of the Scientific Revolution. Does humanity remain the victim of nature, fatalistically accepting the hand that nature deals in the form of failed harvests and deaths from unknown diseases, droughts, and fires? Or can humanity, by understanding those causes through science and manipulating them through technology, gain the upper hand? As William Leiss pointed out in The Domination of Nature, “the consequence of this view is to set the relationship of man and the world inescapably in the context of domination: man must either meekly submit to these natural laws (physical and economic) or attempt to master them.”

And yet, surely it matters what exactly this idea of dominion actually means, and it is our confusion over what this strange status of being a “lord” over nature is actually for and what its limits are that I believe are at the root of many of our contemporary debates about the proper relationship of science and technology to society and the natural world.

One of the key figures in the shift from pre-scientific to scientific thinking and its move to control nature was Francis Bacon. His utopia, The New Atlantis, reads today like a description of a research university. The members of the scientific institution which governs the island- Solomon’s House- focus their energies on observation and experimentation. They set up weather stations, work on understanding the properties of metals, research remedies on improving human health and longevity. They send out missions that are essentially involved in scientific and technological espionage seeking to bring back to their island of Bensalem useful knowledge discovered by other peoples all the while trying to keep their own knowledge and even their very existence hidden.

Bacon’s works, and not just The New Atlantis are surrounded by Christian themes and motifs. The inhabitants of Bensalem are given special revelation of the Christian gospels, their governing institution traces its roots to the Old Testament’s King Solomon. Many scholars such as the political theorist Howard B. White in his Peace Among the Willows have argued that this religious talk was all a clever ruse by Bacon, and that what he was really after was a reconceptualized idea of power that would strengthen the nascent modern state.

Yet White’s is not the only view. Stephen A. McKnight in his The Religious Foundations of Francis Bacon’s Thought makes a compelling case that we should take Bacon’s religious rhetoric seriously. Indeed, if McKnight is correct the idea of dominion found in Bacon leans science much more in the direction of being a humanist and compassionate utopian project than being a road to human power.

As was the case with many of his fellow travelers in the early days of the scientific revolution, McKnight argues that Bacon was deeply influenced by religious ideas and their tumult swirling around him. He too spring boarded off of Genesis 1:26 to come up with new ideas about humanity’s relationship to nature and the development of knowledge over time.

More precisely, Bacon had the idea that in the “prelapsarian” state before Adam and Eve’s Fall human beings understood the work handiwork of God- nature- perfectly and without effort. Just as Protestants had revived millennial expectations that at last human beings were bringing into being the true nature of the Christian message,and therefore the possibility even in a postlapsarian world of living a Christian life,  Bacon believed that his “new science” would restore in some measure the dominion over nature promised to Adam and the knowledge of the natural world that the first parents possessed in their prelapsarian state.

Yet what was such dominion actually for, and why would God, in Bacon’s eyes allow such a restoration of human powers? There is a one word answer to this question- charity.

Here is McKnight:

It is well known that Bacon repeatedly links the knowledge of nature with the ability to bring relief to man’s estate. Most often this linking is associated with knowledge as power. What is often overlooked is Bacon’s emphasis on charity as the motive for using the knowledge of nature for the benefit of humankind. It is wrong, therefore, to link Bacon to a Faustian exercise of egomaniacal power. The understanding of nature enables humanity to enjoy the blessings that God provides.” (43)

If you don’t believe him, here is McKnight quoting Bacon himself speaking of the three types of reasons for which the dominion over nature that came from unveiling its secrets might be exercised:

The first is of those who desire to extend their own power in their own native country; which kind is vulgar and degenerate. The second is of those who labor to extend the power of their country and its dominion among men. This certainly has more dignity if not less covetousness.  But if a man endeavor to establish and extend the power dominion of the human race itself over the universe, his ambition (if ambition it can be called) is without doubt a more wholesome thing and more noble than the other two.  (97)

In other words, science is a project that can be directed by individuals against other individuals, by human groups (and we should include corporations) over and against other groups or is a project that is aimed at the benefit of humankind as a whole,which is how Bacon understood charity as in the improvement of “man’s estate.” We’ve essentially been faced with these three choices ever since.

McKnight is at pains to show that even the restoration of humanity’s prelapsarian control of nature did not mean, for Bacon, that human beings had assumed “God-like” powers. Man was an imitator not a creator. Bacon would have considered our confusion of our own powers with the powers of God a form of idolatry- turning our ideas and capabilities into idols to be worshiped. It was this question of the idolatry latent in the new science that would be the launch point of another great thinker of this period- John Milton.

I have written on Milton’s Paradise Lost before, so I will quote myself.

[Paradise Lost] is the tale of Lucifer and his angelic allies’ rebellion against God, the Son of God, and the angels that remain loyal to their Creator. Lucifer’s rebellion is sparked by his claim that angels are “self-begot”, and therefore owe no worship to God and his Son. The rebels are single-handedly casts out of Heaven by the Son of God, and into the depths of Hell, where they become monstrous, shift-shaping demons. Under the encouragement of the demon, Mammon, (literally “money”), they build Hell’s capital of glittering gold, Pandemonium. This city is supposed to replicate the glorious visages of Heaven, but, though more splendid than any earthly city, remains but Heaven’s pale shadow.

Satan plots his revenge against God, and finds his opportunity in the weak link of God’s new creation- Adam and Eve. After a courageous and epic journey through the depths of Hell, Satan makes his way to the earthly Garden of Eden, where in the form of a serpent, he convinces Eve that the Tree of  Knowledge of Good and Evil God had commanded her and Adam not to eat of on pain of death, is instead the means to upgrade to a god herself.

Ye eat thereof, your eyes that seem so clear,
Yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then
Open’d and clear’d, and ye shall be as gods. (PL 286)

Eve takes the bait, and Adam the ever dutiful husband follows her lead. Rather than leading to godhood, eating from the Tree of Knowledge results in the couple’s expulsion from the Garden and the beginning of the sad fate of human beings until the arrival, promised to Adam by the archangel, Michael, of the Messiah.

If Bacon was trying to recover a prelapsarian knowledge of nature with his new science, Milton might be thought of as trying to unveil this prelapsarian world itself through his enormous powers of intuition, imagination and poetry. Yet, in Milton we also find a kind of moral critique that warns us not to confuse our new found material powers with the ability to self-generate, to actually be gods which is the driving force behind his version of Satan’s rebellion, and the Fall itself.

And this is what people today who talk of us “becoming gods” or “omnipotenders” or any such thing are engaged in- a category error thinkers and poets such as Bacon and Milton warned us against. Or, in secular terms they have taken but one piece of religious mythology, inverted it, and have confused themselves into thinking it is real. God in Christian mythology can be the architect, designer and controller of nature because he is thought to be somehow “outside” or “above” nature like a player of Simcity.

I often wonder whether the type of science we have would have emerged absent this Christian originating confusion that we are somehow “outside” of nature, or if science could have emerged at all without such confusion? There are no real answers to those questions. What we do know is that we are actually inside of nature and therefore incapable of exercising god-like sovereignty over it because affecting one thing means changing another which then affects us and so on and so on ad infinitum. There is no return to a prelapsarian state as either fully empowered human beings or as gods because no such state ever existed- it was a myth which allowed us to launch and exercise a new form of still very limited control over our surroundings. And still, we can not forget that such limited control is real and its results are astounding, but the powers themselves are morally neutral. The question is what should we use them for?

As Bacon pointed out, such control over nature can be used for a host of different ends. On the more disturbing side science and technology have increased our ability to exercise power over other individuals, and groups to lord over rival groups (including our fellow animals) though the most horrific and truly apocalyptic of these powers are those of states aimed against states, at least to date.

Even so it is undeniably the case that, at the same time, absolutely nothing has improved “man’s estate” more than science and technology. Because of the revolution Bacon helped spark we live better and longer and there are more of us than ever before. This science used for the benefit of others should be understood in broadest terms as Bacon’s charity. Freed from its Christian derived prejudice that only the well-being of human beings count because they are considered the only creature made in the “image of God” such charity is easily extendable outward to the animal world or perhaps someday sentient machines.

Though its exact boundaries and priorities are likely to be forever contentious, charity, unlike the similarly Christian derived desire to become “godlike”, is sensible and translates across a wide range of human value systems both secular and religious. Buddhists understand it, as do Muslims. As mentioned the urge to charity can be found at the heart of the secular left. And yet science is not often understood in this Baconian sense of charity ,or perhaps worse the best path to charity is too little seen in science.  Imagine, for instance, a world where a good portion of the Muslim obligation to charity, the zakat, estimated to be fifteen times global humanitarian aid went to science and technology to improve the lot of people in the poorer parts of the Islamic world.

In our diverse modern world Baconian charity is perhaps the only almost universally acceptable utopian project possible and our best road to survive as a species. Bacon’s question of whether or not we use science and technology primarily as our greatest tools for improving “man’s estate” as in charity, or instead use the as a means of power and control that serves our individual ambitions and group rivalries will inevitably decide whether or not newfound form of knowledge that we call science was ultimately a blessing- or a curse.

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5 comments on “Science, a religious or utopian project?

  1. NIKOtheOrb says:

    What I love best about your posts is as I read them I have all these questions about it and then as I continue to read further, you answer these questions. I like your approach to your chosen topics, you always take an unbiased and unprejudiced stance on whatever you are writing, and, inevitable, I learn something new at the end.

    St. Francis of Assisi was a devout Catholic, yet, he wrote and approached the subject of the existence of god scientifically, without surrendering his beliefs. He is an interesting philosopher to read on.

    I agree with your take, though, that as a part of nature (nay, as a nature manifested) humans cannot control it or possess dominion over it. *This* would be supernatural by literal definition. This is a mistake in humanity, I think. Science and religion can fit together, two sides answering the same questions in different ways. They needn’t oppose.

  2. […] The scientific revolution commenced when it was realized that we could neither trust our own sense nor our traditions to tell us the truth about the world – the most famous example of which was the discovery that the earth, contrary to all perception and history, traveled around the sun and not the other way round. The first generation of scientists who emerged in a world in which God had “hidden his face” couldn’t help but understand this new view of nature as the creator’s elaborate puzzle that we would have to painfully reconstruct, piece by piece, hidden as it was beneath the illusion of our own “fallen” senses and the false post-edenic world we had built around them. […]

  3. […] revolution Roger and Francis Bacon (no relation) thought that science would restore us to the knowledge before the fall (prelapsarian) which would allow us to live forever, or the depth to which very different Chinese traditions had […]

  4. […] from consciousness of machines. Getting free from this trap would entail eating again from the “tree of knowledge” and this would be “the last chapter of the history of the […]

  5. […] It was Christianity that inspired Bacon’s quest for scientific knowledge – his search for what he believes to be the lost true knowledge of Adam that will give us mastery over nature. The very purpose of this mastery for him was a Christian and charitable one “the relief of man’s estate”. And yet such mastery and relief can not be one without treating nature as an object to be tamed or forced into the constraints of a machine. The universe as clock. […]

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