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Friday, November 16, 2018

A Franciscan Approach to Science

Some years ago I attempted to write a textbook in sociology from a Franciscan perspective. Some of the writing still seems pretty good to me, so I decided to put pieces of it here on this blog.

The first section is my attempt to describe "science."


The Enlightenment proposed science and intellectualism as replacements for the institutions of monarchy and religion. There was a strong moral content to the proposal: kings and priests had failed to do good. They had stood by idly while people suffered, and refused to allow good things to happen that might free others in body and in spirit from centuries-old shackles. It was this moral passion that gave the Enlightenment much of its force, and it is the loss of this moral passion that has undercut the Enlightenment metanarrative in the last decades.

And in fact the Enlightenment did do much good. It helped to facilitate the industrial revolution, and certainly opened the way for the democratic revolution that gave birth to our own nation. On balance most people would say that the development of industry and of democracy have been good things.

The postmodern attack on science faults science because it has become evil: it tyrannizes and degrades people. Science has become a tool of those in power that facilitates their oppression of the rest of us. It has lost its right to guide.

As I suggested above, the Enlightenment contained the seeds of its own delegitimation because it promised to eliminate evil, and failed to account for the human frailty of its own backers. Any number of religious metanarratives have the potential to ground a scientific quest in a more solid human context. The Franciscan story is one such metanarrative.

A Franciscan approach to science says that science is meant to be part of the kingdom of God preached by Jesus. It is a human activity, as flawed as any other human activity, but just as open to grace any other human action. The goal of science, just as the goal of everything else in life, is to give glory to God. It does this by helping human beings to become more fully human. The goal is salvation, a word with the same Indo-European root as the Latin word sanus (healthy), and even sacer (sacred).

There are two other Latin words that underlie a Franciscan approach to sociology: scientia and sapientia.

Scientia, which becomes the English word “science,” comes from the Latin verb scire, to know, or to understand. Sapientia has its root in the Latin sapio, which means to taste or to savor. We translate sapientia as “wisdom,” in Greek, sophia.

We need one more Latin word to situate sociology in a Franciscan context: speculatio, which can be transliterated as speculation. The word comes from the Latin word for mirror, speculum, and has the connotation of peering intently at something. Michel Foucault, one of the key writers in the movement known as postmodernism, sees the action of gazing or peering as the key to the modern approach to the world.

Scientia, sapientia, and speculatio were important words in the university world that was just beginning in the years after Francis’s death. The first universities, Paris, Oxford, and Bologna, were just coming into being. Some of their students and faculty found themselves drawn to the new Franciscan movement, where they ran head first into the radical poverty and simplicity of Francis.

How could one reconcile a university life of reading and intellectual searching with a Franciscan ideal of living without property and influence, especially at a time when books had to be copied by hand and were therefore tremendously expensive and rare?

The earliest indication of the tension comes from a 43-word message sent by Francis to an Augustinian religious who had become a follower of Francis shortly before Francis’s death, Anthony of Padua. Anthony, who had been educated earlier in his life, had been asked to teach theology to the brothers, but did not wish to do that without the approval of Francis. Francis wrote him: “I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers providing that, as is contained in the Rule, you ‘do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’ during study of this kind.”

“Do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion.” That is the phrase, found in the Franciscan rule as the norm for all work, which is the key to understanding a Franciscan approach to science and wisdom. There would be tensions between the use of books and Franciscan poverty, but the central value was to be the “Spirit of prayer and devotion.”

Both scientia and sapientia were legitimate projects for a Franciscan. Speculatio was permissible as long as it was not vana speculatio, “vain” or “empty” speculation. Vana speculatio was doing intellectual work for the sake of idle curiosity (another catch phrase of the time), or for the sake of one’s own human glory. Scientia and sapientia are to be good for something, good for something greater than mere intellectual amusement or personal pride. They were to be tools for doing something good, for others and for God.

And that is the central contribution that a Franciscan approach to sociology has to offer to the crisis in metanarratives we have today. Science is to do good. Otherwise it is empty and possibly harmful.

I will examine the concept of “good” later, when I talk about cultural diversity. For now I will argue simply that most people do science, and have always done science, because they see science as a way of doing something good in the world.

Some early Science

The story of Galileo shows how science sometimes challenges accepted ideas. However, his story does not show how science benefits ordinary human beings.

Galileo observed carefully, using a new tool, the telescope. The tool allowed him to see things that people had not been able to see previously. He used his observations as evidence in favor of a theory that showed the earth as moving around the sun. The theory is “counter-intuitive,” in that our first observations would lead us to say that the sun goes around the earth.

Theologians, people who speculate on the intellectual meaning of religious beliefs, were attracted to the theory that the sun goes around the earth because they believed that Jesus Christ was the center of the universe. If Jesus was the center of the universe, the earth must be the center of it, because the earth is where Jesus became incarnate. As further proof, they cited statements in Scripture that implied that the sun goes around the earth.

Aside from those theological issues, it is hard to see how theories of sun and earth had much effect on human affairs. The only possible benefit I can see from Galileo’s new theory is that it might have improved navigation by providing better mathematical models of the movement of sun and stars. The older mathematical models had worked, but they were more complicated. Historians say that navigation was helped more by the invention of the compass, which freed sailors from dependence on observing the sun and stars.

Later scientific discoveries had more practical effects. The discovery of the circulation of the blood in the body was an important step forward in coping with accidents. The harnessing of water power to cloth-making equipment did not depend on any innovative scientific discoveries, but it led to mass production and the factory system for manufacturing.

Even though the 1700s did not see scientific breakthroughs that changed the world dramatically, thinkers of the time could see what was coming. The French thinkers called the Encyclopedists presented a vision of human life guided by reason and guaranteed to bring prosperity and freedom to all humankind. The movement they led, which we call the Enlightenment, was optimistic and self-assured.

In a much-reprinted article that has had great influence on my own thinking, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz contrasts four styles of thinking: the common-sense, the scientific, the artistic, and the religious. For the purpose of this contrast, he describes the scientific attitude as essentially questioning. It of course is more than questioning, but I like to push the questioning aspect to its limits, as follows.

Nothing in science is sure; everything is open to question. This is why scientists need some kind of religious faith and religious community. If you try to live your life as a pure scientist, you never get to breakfast. You question whether the coffee really exists, or whether the fire on the stove will be as hot this time as it was last night. You go crazy.

Since most of us don’t want to go crazy, we put aside our questions while we eat breakfast. For those brief moments we are not scientific. But of course, breakfast is not enough. We put aside our questions while we drive to work, while we enjoy a play or a game, while we praise God, while we marry a spouse, while we raise children. But during the moments when we are being scientific, we question everything. We question our own and others’ research, and our own and others’ theories.

Research means observing something closely and, if possible, counting something.

We question our research because observing is not a totally objective activity. What you see may not be what I see. We need to look at the factors that make us see things differently. Our goal is to arrive at descriptions of reality that most people will agree fit what is “out there.”

But observing reality is not enough. Pure observation creates what C. Wright Mills called “abstracted empiricism.” Observation without theory is usually a hodge-podge of trivia. The trivia may be fascinating or it may be boring, depending on your frame of mind, but trivia goes nowhere. We have to know what it means. We have to have theory.

Theory is a story about what causes something.

Scientific theory is story. Let me give an example.

In 1854 there was a terrible epidemic of cholera in London. A doctor named John Snow decided to do some careful observation (= research). He made a map of London and put x’s on the map at the address of every cholera victim. He noticed that the x’s clustered at a certain point on Broad Street. There was a pump on Broad Street from which the neighborhood got its drinking water. On a hunch, Snow ordered the city to take the handle off the pump. The epidemic stopped.

Thus far Snow had done nothing except observe what we call a correlation. A correlation means “when one thing happens, another thing also happens.” Cholera cases go with having a pump. No pump, no cholera. He was doing what we today call “epidemiology”--mapping where events occur. As happens in most epidemiology, the correlation was enough to suggest a solution: take the handle off the pump. It worked.

From one standpoint, Snow had accomplished his objective. The epidemic stopped. But no scientist would quit there. Scientists have to know why the epidemic stopped. They have to have a story of what is going on. What causes cholera, and why did taking the handle off the pump cause the epidemic to stop?

Maybe the stopping had nothing to do with the pump handle. Maybe the epidemic stopped for some other reason altogether. That possibility raises the issue of what we call “spurious correlations” and “spurious variables.” When two things correlate, one may not be the cause of the other, but there may be some third cause out there somewhere that we can’t see at the moment.

Eventually scientists did develop a theory. The theory went like this: there is a little bug that causes cholera. If you drink water with this bug in it, you get the disease. The bug lives in polluted water. The Broad Street pump water was polluted. When Snow took the handle off the pump, the neighbors could no longer drink the polluted water, the bugs could not get to the people, and the epidemic stopped.

However, creative scientists can spin a hundred theories out of every little bit of evidence. That’s why we need people to evaluate our theories as well as our research.

Science as seen by a Franciscan

St. Bonaventure wrote a small book that he called De reductione artium ad theologiam, which I would paraphrase as “How all the arts and sciences lead to God.” The Latin word ars, art, has the meaning of “something one does skillfully.” It refers to action, while science refers to understanding. People have always linked the arts with the sciences because they realize that what we want to achieve is skillful practice guided by good understanding.

In the book Bonaventure lists all the arts of his day, including such obsolete ones as hunting and armor-making, but including also some modern ones such as medicine and agriculture. There are four levels of art, he says: art that deals with physical objects, art that deals with our sense experiences, art that goes beyond experience to reach intellectual understanding of reality, and finally, art that helps us respond to God’s grace and influence, starting with God’s Word in Sacred Scripture. All of the arts come from God--“every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” is the quotation from James (1:17) that he uses as the opening words of his book.

The book works its way systematically through all four kinds of art, with the goal of showing how all of them lead to God. Here is the concluding paragraph of his book:

“And so it is evident how the manifold wisdom of God, which is clearly revealed in sacred Scripture, lies hidden in all knowledge and in all nature. It is clear also how all divisions of knowledge are servants of theology, and it is for this reason that theology makes use of illustrations and terms pertaining to every branch of knowledge. It is likewise clear how wide the illuminative way may be, and how the divine reality itself lies hidden within everything which is perceived or known. God may be honored, character may be formed, and consolation may be derived from union of the Spouse with the beloved, a union which takes place through charity: a charity in which the whole purpose of sacred Scripture, and thus of every illumination descending from above, comes to rest--a charity without which all knowledge is vain (vana) because no one comes to the Son except through the Holy Spirit who teaches us all the truth, who is blessed forever. Amen.”

That is how a Franciscan approach to science should start, and end.

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