Michael Polanyi changed his career path from science to philosophy so that, paradoxically, he could help protect science from being absorbed into a narrow ideology. In his 1962 Terry Lectures at Yale University, he recounted a conversation he had with Nikolai Bukhanin in 1935. At that time, Bukhanin, whom Lenin called the “Golden Boy” of the party, was a leading theoretician for the Communist party. When Polanyi asked him about the pursuit of pure science in Soviet Russia, Bukhanin protested that pure science was a morbid symptom of a class society and under socialism, would spontaneously limit itself to serving the current Five-Year Plan.
Polanyi was stunned by the bare-faced admission that a social order – Russian communism – based as it was on the Marxist contention that it was “scientific,” was incompatible with the spirit of science that provided its foundation. Such an admission is tantamount to denying that one ever had parents. Moreover, for the Soviets, science was not an open inquiry delving into the truth of things, but merely a tool used to implement a political plan. In Polanyi’s appraisal, there was “no place left for truth.” With the suppression of freedom of thought came the suppression of the freedom to pursue truth.
Soviet Russia under Stalin, the Third Reich under Hitler and China under Mao Tse-Tung are three of the more notorious examples of science being reduced to an ideological serving spoon. There is evidence all around us, however, in our own moment in history that points to an unfortunate recurrence of this ominous condition.
Christianity has consistently, clearly, and courageously emphasized the uncompromisable nature of truth. In fact, Christianity had a decisive impact on the development of science. Alfred North Whitehead, who is not a Christian, fully recognizes the indispensable role Christian thought had on the free spirit of inquiry that led to the development of modern science. In his classic study, Science and the Modern World, he concluded “that the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.”
What happens to science when Christianity, the world’s strongest advocate for truth, is not taken seriously? The surrounding evidence provides us with the answer. Science is discouraged from stating a number of inconvenient truths: The human nature of the human embryo is an inconvenient reality for abortionists. The link between abortion and breast cancer, divorce and juvenile delinquency, sexual promiscuity and disease are incompatible with the feminist ideology of choice. Since Darwin has become dogma, a free inquiry into the possibility of intelligent design is now politically incorrect. Citing the connection between certain homosexual practices and virulent diseases is now considered an act of discrimination. The list goes on.
The post-Christian world is one in which truth is suppressed in order to allow an ideology to reign. The problem, however, is not so widespread that no voices for truth can be heard. After all, knowing the truth, especially about ourselves, represents incalculable potential benefits. It is deeply prejudicial to Christians to dismiss them as merely people of faith. Nor is it fair to the current Pope to lock him up in a faith box. Benedict XVI has recently reminded the world that “reason is God’s great gift to man and the victory of reason over unreason is also a goal of the Christian life” (On Hope #23).
But ideologies are necessarily narrow and confining. They do not serve the full needs of the human being who, by nature, is not meant to subserve a political agenda. Moreover, they usually do not last very long. Poor Bukharin, who tried so hard to be politically correct under Lenin (he even married Lenin’s sister), was executed by Stalin in a house purge in 1938.
Christians, walking in the footsteps of Polanyi, can help prevent the narrowing of science. But in addition to their unswerving allegiance to truth, Christians are also committed to love. Far from being blind, love follows the path illuminated by truth. And it is precisely because ideologies smother truth, that they also inhibit love. For how does one love realistically in the absence of clear knowledge?
Science will not survive as a mode of free inquiry in the post-Christian world if Christians remain silent and do not speak out strongly on behalf of the unbarterable nature of truth. They need to be witnesses to the “inconvenient truth” that being a Christian actually intensifies one’s commitment to truth and consequently, to the freedom of the mind that science needs.
In the worlds of Professor Peter Hodgson, who is both a scientist and a Christian, “The advancement of scientific knowledge is our first duty as scientists and no consideration of possible applications should deflect from this aim.”
Professor Donald DeMarco is an adjunct professor Holy Apostles College & Seminary.