Friday, January 16, 2009

Science as Religion

There is a common rhetorical practice of comparing something, a form of politics, or of literary criticism, to a religion. The comparison is always pejorative, and always works because no one is every sure what religion means. The word stands for whatever sort of foolishness is to be indicated at any particular moment. So it is under advisement that I say that I have decided one can, in fact, talk about science as a religion in the 19th century.

Two books have brought me to this point. Ernest Renan’s L’avenir de la science, and Claude Bernard’s Introduction à l’étude de la médicine expérimentale. The first was written in 1848-9, and not published until the 1890s. It represents the record of a sort of conversion experience for which, I am certain, an analogue or description could be found in James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. Renan kept the manuscript with him, and mined passages and ideas from it over decades as, in fact, the progress of events stripped from him the transparent faith in the power (or perhaps efficacy) of critical, which is to say scientific, investigation. ‘Science’ meant something very different to the readers of this book in 1895 than it did when the book was written. It was indeed partly to remind people of that past that Renan had the thing published. At that time, reasoned investigation of man and nature seemed a force able to pull down the great wall of superstitions surrounding society and allow Humanity to enter the realm of its full potential. This messianic form of Enlightenment was not at all uncommon in the first half of the 19th century (no doubt “messianic Enlightenment” is not a great way of describing it, but I think the sense of continuity with Enlightenment projects of the previous century is must be retained). Renan describes the overwhelming experience of criticism, of the sense that a tool has been put into one’s hands that is able to dissolve nearly everything that one believed to have been solid. So this messianic Enlightenment is not only a social program, but a kind of emotional experience and discipline.

Here is the link, or rather the contrast, with Bernard’s Introduction, that makes the two books interesting together. Renan was a man of letters, but at a time when philosophy and literature and science and history could all still be boxed together. Bernard, in fact older than Renan, was professionally formed as what we, today, would call a research physician. His Introduction, published in 1865, comes toward the end of his life. If science is a messianic faith for Renan in 1848, ready at any moment to alter the world radically, it is for Bernard a way of living within the realm of appearances. Doubt and modesty are at the core values of Bernard’s experimental scientist. What I find most compelling is how effectively Bernard encloses this doubt within a higher faith. The very condition of existence of the scientist is faith in the absolute determinism of the physical world allied with the realization that this determinism will probably never be fully understood; faith in actual absolutes, doubt and modestly in the claims one makes on, for, and toward them. This is a recipe for living. If Renan’s young scientist is not exactly arrogant, it is only because he is himself too crushed by the power of reason. Bernard’s scientist, on the other hand, has never said anything that he knows to be absolutely true, and is ready to submit every opinion to the criteria of experiment and reason.

The intellectual position of the two scientists is similar. They are both committed to the practice of true knowledge about the world, which is governed by immutable laws that are in principle knowable. Their emotional, or perhaps subject, positions are radically different, as are the relations they imply between the scientist and the rest of the social world. For Renan it is the scientist’s duty to proselytize in the cause of reason. Bernard’s scientist is, it seems to me, unlikely to be very interested in engaging with society. No doubt this difference could be ascribed to their respective vocations: Renan was an historian above all, and Bernard a physiologist. Yet we can imagine without difficulty a Bernardian social-scientist. Let us put this differently: Renan’s scientist is, it seems to me, outside the problematic Max Weber describes in “Science as Vocation,” whereas Bernard’s scientist is firmly within it. Emotionally, however, Bernard’s scientist is the more firmly grounded. He or she (Renan’s science is strongly gendered—Bernard’s is not) is able to find a firm footing only on that which floats between two absolutes that are, in themselves, not graspable; on the one hand, there is the absolute determinism of the objective world, to which we have only relative access, on the other hand there are the absolutes of our subjective existence, to which we have access, but which we cannot bring into the objective world other than partly.

Renan and Bernard both describe modes of comportment determined by one’s understanding of a reality that is somehow at once beyond this world and within it: reason. Their conception of reason and its presence in the world is, I think, similar. The ‘conclusions,’ or modes of comportment, they draw from this same reason separate them. Why do I say this makes 19th century science like a religion? Because the two writers belong in different tents within the same house, because they draw inspiration, emotional sustenance, and rules for living from the same source, but differently. That this constitutes a religion (rather than a sect) is evidenced by the difference itself.

Jennifer Hecht, in The End of the Soul, describes a group of free-thinking atheists in early Third Republic France who, she says, erected a certain kind of science in the place of religion to the extent that they have recreated Catholic burial rites in the form of autopsy procedures. This is the Society for Mutual Autopsy. They pay dues. They have meetings. When a member dies, the society removes that person’s brain and performs an autopsy on it to further science. Hecht takes as evidence that this is a recreation of religious rites that they continue to perform autopsies even when there is no possible scientific benefit. Although Hecht’s functionalism bothers me (she seems to assume that there are a set of basic human needs, and that Catholicism having been removed, a new procedure must be found to fulfill these needs), the historical situation she describes seems to warrant her assertion that the ceremonies of Catholicism, and their emotional meaning, were transferred to these ‘scientific’ procedures, so that, we might say, the meaning of the ritual became dissociated from its significance.

Hecht may point to her atheists as enacting a religion of science, but it is neither Renan’s nor Bernard’s. To allow the emotional significance of the autopsy procedure to over-run its scientific importance would be, for both, to have replaced science with superstition. It would mean leaving the house of science. So I would suggest that Hecht’s atheists are really still Catholics, something like inverted versions of Charles Maurras, who supported Catholicism for political reasons while refusing ‘belong’ to it himself.

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