The limits of science and the freedom to make moral choices – Catholic World Report

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

If scientists should tread carefully making definitive claims in the metaphysical sphere, they should be even more cautious where moral judgements are drawn.

The limits of science and the freedom to make moral choices – Catholic World Report
(Image: Vlad Tchompalov/

If there is one thing that is omnipresent in empirical research, it is doubt.

This line has always stuck with me, from a methodology textbook I studied years ago. We may rephrase this in a more theological way:

There are no dogmas in science. 

This is not to say there can’t be certainty. ‘Science’ in its original, we might say classical, sense – scientia – simply meant knowledge in general. Science adopted its modern, and more limited, meaning with Galileo, Francis Bacon, amongst others, which may be described as the investigation of natural phenomenon by quantitative measurement. Through statistical analysis, we connect – more properly, correlate – two or more events in space and time. If these events occur together often enough, we say that one is the cause of the other.

Yet, as soon as we make that inference – into the whole realm of causality and connecting the dots -we are leaving behind science strictly speaking, and entering the realm of meta-science, meta-physics, or, if you will, philosophy.

Saint Thomas Aquinas sums this up with his four questions of scientific investigation of a phenomenon: 1) Is it? 2) What is it? 3) What properties does it have? 4) Why does it have those properties?

Measurement and Metaphysics

Science – quantitative measurement – may tell us that objects fall at 32.2 feet per second squared, and we call that ‘gravity’. But what actually causes the ball to drop is a deeper question, and one rather fraught at that. Do objects always fall at the same rate, and, if not, what causes the difference?

When Newton calculated the mathematics of gravity, people found the implication of invisible forces rather weird, not least Newton himself, who claimed ‘non fingo hypotheses‘ – ‘I fix no hypothesis’, and he stuck to the math. Hidden forces acting instantaneously across a vacuum at seemingly infinite speed may seem a bit unsettling, and it was not until Einstein that gravity was explained by a warping of the space-time continuum. But that only raises further questions.

Ponder a more human example: Smoking and cancer. Cigarettes were at first perceived as rather harmless, and you may have seen photographs of physicians puffing away in front of their patients. And it took years to discover the risk. Yet smoking does not cause cancer in the same way that gravity makes an object fall. We infer there is some connection, but we are not certain how much is too much. There are any number of other putative causes: Stress, genetics, diet, or, perhaps, simply the will of God.

And what of the plague of depression and anxiety? To say that they are caused by a ‘lack of serotonin’ or some such is to beg the question. As body-soul composites, each acts upon the other, and as one physician lamented after years of practice, too many of his patients needed a priest far more than a doctor.

Science, at this qualitative and metaphysical level, must be free to ponder and investigate any number of putative causes and effects, especially for the more complex and manifold phenomena. Any number of valuable explanations have come from imagination, from Einstein wondering what it would be like to surf a light wave, le Maitre’s Big Bang, all the way to Hawking’s theoretical black holes.

There should never be any ‘one narrative’ in science, which should be open to many competing hypotheses, jostling and competing for the ever-elusive truth. Otherwise, the planets would be floating through a luminiferous ether; animals would still be spontaneously and abiogenetically forming in rotting meat; a high sugar and carb diet would be good for you; plagues and pestilences caused by a mysterious and malodorous miasma; the universe would be the size of the solar system, or smaller, with the Earth immobile at the centre. We should recall that Galileo was challenging the consensus, against a Church that was ‘following the science’.

We should be open to evidence, which always wins out in the end, at times overwhelmingly, and even tragically. Gum, chocolate and skin cream were once laced with radium to give us all a ‘healthy glow’, and Thalidomide was touted as a perfectly safe cure for morning sickness. Its teratogenic effects are to this day not fully known, nor could they have been predicted.

Need it be repeated: if there is one thing that is omnipresent in empirical research, it is doubt. And it is this doubt which prompts every further inquiry.

Measurement and Morality

If scientists should tread carefully making definitive claims in the metaphysical sphere, they should be even more cautious where moral judgements are drawn.

We may accept that science should help to guide and inform our conduct, keeping in mind we mean mainly those inferences drawn from quantitative measurement. Gravity may make one think twice about free-style rock climbing, or walking between two skyscrapers on a tightrope, and Newton’s inexorable laws should limit our speed in vehicles, and what vehicles we choose. We may also reflect on the risks of cigarettes – even of pipes and cigars! – as well as too much alcohol and junk food.

Until recently, such choices were left up to the individual, as a free moral agent made in God’s image, what risks to take, and even to some extent to which to expose others (e.g., following someone up a mountain; exposing oneself to second-hand smoke; or caring for the infectious). This is especially the case where those risks are uncertain. For if science is doubtful about present things, it is even more so about future contingents, that may, or may not, be.

As Benjamin Franklin quipped, those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

To give up this freedom to make moral decisions – or to have it taken from us – is to sell our birthright at a very cheap price, and instantiate a totalitarianism, one more encompassing with modern means of surveillance than any that came before. As I thought years ago, a state that can force you to wear a bike helmet for a short jaunt to the grocery store has pretty much plenipotentiary power over you. As we have discovered, it is the same authority that can now force an entire populace into house arrest, or mandate an experimental vaccine for every person on the planet, for the sake of their safety.

Of course, this is presuming the powers-that-be even have our safety and best interests at heart, one that appears to be an increasingly doubtful hypothesis.

One way or the other, should our new technocrats try to seize a power and authority that even God does not, they will, like Prometheus and Pharaoh of old, sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind.

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