On a fruitful opposition between Christianity and science

About a month ago, John C. Wright had a debate about the opposition between Christianity and science. One piece of evidence brought up (against John) to show an opposition was the claim that “Pope Gregory’s opposed the railroad”. One response to the claim was that it was a lie. But assume the claim is true. I’ll be blunt: good for Gregory, moreover, this is an opposition between science and Christianity, and we’d be better off if there were more of it.

First, my suspicion is that Gregory knew he was fighting a lost cause, or at least a rearguard action. This is important, since I don’t think the fight was about whether there would be railroads or not, but about what sort of witness or signpost would be left at that moment in time when railroads overran the world. The glory of the railroads is obvious and easy to celebrate, but Gregory’s protest is a powerful and necessary antistrophe which, if ignored, distorts our understanding of the march of science and technology- that is, what we now call “progress”. To make this critique requires being outside of the values of what now gets called science.

Notice that this isn’t exactly a debate between Christianity and science. Railroads are not “science”, nor were they developed by scientists, but by inventors and industrialists. A list of great scientists won’t mention Thomas Newcomen and James Watt, to say nothing of J.P Morgan or Cornelius Vanderbilt. Science and invention are two different kinds of genius, and those skilled at one are rarely skilled at the other (Edison stands out) Nevertheless, we identify the scientist and the machinist since both see the success of their enterprise as increasing our power over nature. Thus, the two share a common goal. For other reasons, the advance of one is a boon for the other. For example, the railroads did a great deal to advance scientific consciousness. It was railroads that put everyone on a single man-made clock, and stole a job that had belonged to the sun for thousands of years and handed it over to a machine. We no longer see time so much as any natural change or motion, but as the position of the hands on a machine – which is exactly how the scientist wants us to see it. Distances were no longer understood in terms of motions over them performed by men or animals, but by machines. Our consciousness of space and time became mediated by a single machine. The concrete details of human life became exactly what scientists had been saying they were in fact for many years – the working of a machine. We therefore started thinking of immense stretches of land as a single unit incorporated into a mechanical  circulatory system. A vast mechanical/ electrical nervous system sprung up alongside this – first a telegraph, eventually the television camera

In other words, we were building a Leviathan-machine. The benefits of the system are well-known and need not be mentioned here. For the same reason, the benefits that those in ages before us could not enjoy are also clear. But it is still an open question how someone who lived in the past would react if they saw how we live now. Even after we told them that they could be clean, well fed, and live for thirty years more, they still might recoil in terror from our life or at least be very conflicted about accepting it. They would find it horrifying and hilarious that a man could sit in a room thousands of miles away, looking at nothing but a camera lens, and convince people that he could understand their situation do something about it. What could he possibly know about my situation? It’s hard enough to come up with a plan that can help ten different people in the same room- which would be clear enough to anyone who has tried to organize people he actually knows. Yet the Leviathan promises to help people it’s never known and never met. The discipline and co-ordination that is required to run a railroad gives ideas to others, like salesmen and politicians. If we can be all drilled into shape well enough to co-ordinate an interstate and international train schedule, why not drill the same discipline, except to do different things, say, things to the benefit of the salesmen and politicians?

But wait, this last part isn’t what I meant to say. That was a critique of how the Leviathan- machine could be abused. In fact, there is a downside to the Leviathan-machine itself. Human beings can’t have human political or social relations with more than a few thousand people over a few dozen miles – I’m reminded of Aristotle’s striking  claim  (to us) in the Ethics that it is obviously impossible for a city to have 100,000 people. But the Leviathan gives powerful incentives for a human being to live within the machine- city: we get our news from national sources, we see politics as primarily national if not international, we entertain ourselves with shows that are watched by million and billions, we admire celebrities that are celebrities to billions, etc. All of this places us in a context where we are no longer having human relations with others. We live within a world consciousness where we cannot do anything but see. There is no smells, physical contact, need to express oneself, etc. There is no interaction. If not for television, we would all be speaking to our neighbors and acting within our communities: not because of any great civic virtue or love of neighbor, but simply because it would be the only way to keep from going insane.

In other words, we have entered into the nervous system that sprung up alongside the railroad. Our consciousness is conditioned and determined by life within a vast machine that we have lived in since birth. We are more well fed, healthy, and prosperous than any group of persons who has ever lived, but to think that we didn’t lose something very precious and worth remembering as a trade-off is just silly. If nothing else, we didn’t evolve to live life this way. Gregory saw this and let himself be crushed and mocked by the march of history. I say good for him. He gave a testimony to something that was worth remembering, and it was quite fitting for a Christian to give such testimony. Christianity is based on the love of neighbor – that is, a love of the ones who happen to be around you, and with whom we evolved to have human interactions.


  1. T. Chan said,

    August 29, 2010 at 5:28 pm


  2. everydaythomist said,

    August 31, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    I can’t quite tell if you are against science and technological innovation per se, or simply their imprudent use. Insofar as science (the habit of drawing conclusions from first principles) and art (the habit of knowing how to make things) are virtues, they can’t be put to bad use. And in so far as they are dependent on prudence, they are integrally related to the moral life. Thomas writes in I-II 58.2: “Accordingly for a man to do a good deed, it is requisite not only that his reason be well disposed by means of a habit of intellectual virtue; but also that his appetite be well disposed by means of a habit of moral virtue.” It seems like the problem with technological innovation like railroads is that those who are intellectually strong in science and art are weak in prudence and the other moral virtues, and so what they make ends up being put to bad use.

    Another alternative may be that the artists and craftspeople and scientists are virtuous but they live in societies that are vicious and thus use the scientist’s or artist’s craft badly because their own appetite’s are not disposed toward the common good.

    However, I would want to be careful about making categorical claims about scientific and technological innovation. Sure, something may be lost in the development of a machine, but many things are gained as well. Christianity may be based on the love of neighbor, but it is also characterized by an et/et tradition that says “YES” to both the church and its traditions AND the world.

  3. skholiast said,

    September 1, 2010 at 6:54 am

    An admirable and articulate semi-rant. The world (and the church) needs those who defend lost causes. There is a degree of crocodile teariness to most of the head-shaking over “the world we have lost;” even those sort-of luddites who really get off the grid and back to the garden are suspected (often unjustly, but not always…) of striking a pose for their ego’s sake. The only folk we can be fairly sure to have been serious about it are the ones who play the role of canary in the coal mine. (I think of some who have sounded a warning about the way the internet is re-shaping our mode of thinking, making us less capable of sustained and serious thought — and of course I say this as a blogger commenting on a blog). While, of course, it’s possible to take a Gregory’s stance for one’s ego’s sake (the role of the doomed prophet is attractive to some), it is at least far more risky to speak about the ills of the most recent technological innovation. Everyone can look back and see the good and the bad of the railroad now, for if hindsight is not 20-20 (whoever came up with the silly claim that it was?), still one can ruefully see the down-side of what is safely past–and immovably established. But the trends of now secrete a kind of aura of “the wave of the future;” which they may well be, but that is no reason to not stop and think a bit–or even not to righteously denounce.

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