Science of Little Help with Personhood Issues

Yesterday at Real Clear Religion, Jeffery Weiss made a simple but brilliant observation: The public arguments—both pro and con—over the personhood amendment voted down this week in Mississippi were clothed in the language of science. Science, that is, which is uniquely unqualified to define the term “person.”

Writes Weiss, “Both sides claimed that science was on their side, when there is really very little that science can offer about the question that voters were asked to decide. Personhood, for better or worse, is not an attribute that can be identified in a blood test. It is a quality that is utterly a matter of moral and, in many cases, religious definition.”

It is easy to see why science has become our public lingua franca. Science does, in fact, transcend local cultural vagaries of all kinds—religious, linguistic, ethnic—by referring to things that are demonstrably true about the single physical world we all inhabit. But science’s universality is expensive. Its price is all references to human meaning.

Just last night after teaching a class on the big bang theory at my church, a gentleman asked me, “Do you think the expanding universe is a good thing or a bad thing?”

My response: “Neither. It’s just a thing.”

That’s the scientific answer: It just is. Words like “good” and “bad” presume a purpose, and science just doesn’t do purpose.

In fact, the more scientific an idea is, the less purpose it conveys. Physicist Steven Weinberg was right when he wrote that, “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

Meaning persists, of course. As (pseudo)scientific as we have become, we can’t shake the sense that our lives are somehow important. But the triumph of science is so complete that we feel we must appeal to it in order to be taken seriously.

It happens all the time: Sam Harris looks to science to provide us with a serious moral system. Presidential hopefuls look to “the science of intelligent design” (a.k.a. Creationism 2.0) to draw votes. Personhood USA quotes a scientist who says personhood “is no longer a matter of taste or opinion… it is plain experimental evidence.” And those who argue against Personhood USA also feel the need to employ scientific language to justify their position.

We cloak meaning in the language of meaninglessness. Beneath the scientific clothing, however, lurk the moral and religious convictions that are the real engines of our convictions.

Who loses? We all do, of course, but perhaps it is science itself that takes the worst damage. Ironically, the more we look to science to do jobs it was never meant to do—bear the full weight of our moral systems, demonstrate the existence of a “designer,” define personhood—the more we fall under its sway, the less we understand what it can and cannot do, and the less willing we are to let our (non-scientific) moral and religious traditions speak.

I am not one to insist that morality requires religious belief, but I have a hard time seeing how any morally serious worldview can persist without some kind of appeal to ultimate things. And so long as science remains the sole arbiter of ultimate things, our public moral lives will remain impoverished.

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