June 1, 2007

Kass criticizes “scientism” at talk

“At issue are the moral and spiritual health of our nation, the continued vitality of science, and our own human self-understanding as human beings and as children of the West,” said Professor Leon Kass about the interaction between science and religion in a lecture entitled “Science, Religion, and the Human Future” last Thursday. Kass, the former chairman of President Bush’s Committee on Bioethics, warned against extreme views in both science and religion and promoted a distinction between the basic purposes of the two fields.

“It is, I trust, not just the residual scientist in me that insists that there cannot be more than one truth about the one world, even if we human beings can never know it to the bottom,” he said about the tensions between religious beliefs and scientific findings.

Kass criticized the notion of scientism, which he described as “a quasi-religious faith” in science’s ability to explain the meaning of human life and the universe.

“The problem lies not so much with scientific findings themselves as with the shallow philosophy that recognizes no other truths but these.... Scientism has no answers to these critical moral questions. Deaf to nature, to God, and even to moral reason, it can offer no standards for judging scientific progress—or for judging anything else,” he said.

Kass described his presentation as “a synoptic overview of what could be an argument for a book” and further expressed his hope that it would “be provocative of some interesting questions for discussion.” The lecture, sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute and the Committee on Social Thought, was based on an essay on the same topic, published in the April issue of Commentary.

Audience members asked Kass to elaborate on his distinction between God’s rationality—as represented in the Bible—and the rationality employed by science. A self-described theoretical physicist criticized Kass’s argument that miracles are fundamentally incompatible with the scientific method. Fourth-year Darren Beattie questioned Kass’s statement that mankind would do best to ignore the secrets to sight or consciousness, if they were to be discovered. Kass explained that scientific explanation should not replace human appreciation for natural phenomena.

Kass is the Addie Clark Harding Professor of Social Thought in the College and was chairman of the President’s Committee on Bioethics from 2002–2005.

—Nicole Burgoyne