Our Edenic Birthright, or Just a Lot of Babel?

In Salvo 39, I described the reticence of Xenophon, and of most pre-modern thinkers, to embrace the project of an open-ended experimental science of nature. An unfettered scientific quest could lead to virtually infinite control over nature, and such control, many thought, would be a dangerous thing for man to possess. Yet this reticence was overcome, and a civilization based on the promise of unending scientific progress came into being.

The change in attitude reflects a victory in a battle between old books in which the books of the seventeenth-century thinkers prevailed against the books of the ancient classical thinkers. A proper account of this battle would require consideration of many authors, but for reasons of space I will focus on one, Francis Bacon (1561-1626).

Bacon's Argument

Bacon called for the progressive perfection of human society by natural science (then called "natural philosophy"). He believed that with the right changes in education and the right arrangements for scientific research, man would gain immense knowledge of, and power over, the natural world. Among the steps that needed to be taken were the dethronement of Aristotle, the abolition of final causes from science, and the greater use of violent experiments on inanimate and animate creatures. But such steps could not succeed without parallel changes in man's religious orientation toward nature.

The fear of knowing and mastering nature was, in Bacon's eyes, a remnant of pagan sentiment which had survived into Christian times. The ancients saw nature as imbued with divine life, and therefore thought that an aggressive inquiry into the secrets of nature was impious. Bacon deplored this sentiment, insisting that for a Christian, nature was not divine; it was made by God but was not itself God, and deserved no reverence:

For as all works do shew forth the power and skill of the workman, and not his image; so it is of the works of God; which do shew the omnipotency and wisdom of the maker, but not his image; and therefore heathen opinion differeth from the sacred truth; for they supposed the world to be the image of God . . . but the Scriptures never . . . attribute to the world that honour, as to be the image of God, but only the work of his hands; neither do they speak of any other image of God, but man. (Of the Advancement of Learning, in The Philosophical Works of Francis Bacon, ed. Robertson, 91)

Pagans, lacking the Biblical teaching of creation, confused nature with God, and revered it; in contrast, Christians, tutored in the doctrine of creation, know that nature is merely an artifact of God, no more worthy of religious reverence than a chair, a clock, or any other artifact. The fear of "meddling with divine things" that inhibited science was a pagan fear, inappropriate for Christians.

This argument would have been sufficient if all reticence to explore and dominate nature was of pagan origin; however, some of the inhibitions came from the Bible itself. Bacon acknowledged the existence of the view "that the secrets of nature were the secrets of God . . . and that the desire in men to attain to so great and hidden knowledge, hath a resemblance with that temptation which caused the original fall." (Filum Labyrinthi, in Works, 209)

Bacon refers here to the "knowledge of good and evil" that was forbidden to Adam and Eve. If Christians understood the forbidden knowledge to include knowledge of nature, they would reject Bacon's proposal for a research-driven technological society. Bacon must, then, provide a "science-friendly" interpretation of the text. Thus, he writes:

[T]he inquisition of nature is [not] in any part interdicted or forbidden. For it was not that pure and uncorrupted natural knowledge whereby Adam gave names to the creatures . . . which gave occasion to the fall. It was the ambitious and proud desire of moral knowledge to judge of good and evil, to the end that man may revolt from God and give laws to himself, which was the form and manner of the temptation. (Preface to the Great Instauration, in Works, 247)

Here Bacon distinguishes knowledge of nature, which he regards as morally neutral, from "knowledge of good and evil," which he defines as "moral knowledge to judge of good and evil." It is not the search for scientific knowledge that is bad; after all, in Eden man had an "uncorrupted natural knowledge," which enabled him to name the creatures. What is bad is for human beings to wish to "revolt from God" by giving laws to themselves. Thus, scientific knowledge is permissible as long as it is undertaken in the spirit of submission to the moral law given by God.

Bacon's Inconsistency

The distinction between scientific and moral knowledge is plausible, but Bacon's further handling of the story leads to inconsistency. When Bacon says that Adam had "knowledge" enabling him to name the creatures, he means knowledge of their natures—knowledge that confers power. After the Fall, man lost this knowledge and power, but it can be restored by the Baconian scientific program, which would be "a restitution and reinvesting (in great part) of man to the sovereignty and power (for whensoever he shall be able to call the creatures by their true names he shall again command them) which he had in his first state of creation" (Valerius Terminus, in Works, 188).

Here Bacon's reading of Genesis is incoherent. If Adam was created with a deep knowledge of nature, then how did he lose that knowledge with the Fall? Did God take it away? But why would God take the knowledge away, if, as Bacon says, it was innocent in itself? And supposing God did have a good reason for taking it away, why does Bacon bid modern man to try to take it back? Wouldn't that be a "revolt" against God's will?

Further difficulty is posed by the Babel story (Gen. 11). Here a technically supercompetent human race tries to build a city reaching to the heavens, before God's intervention stops the project. Why does God intervene? Apparently because "this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them" (Gen. 11:6). It seems that God, like Xenophon, deems it bad for human beings to have no limits. Significantly, Bacon passes over the Babel story in silence.

 Bacon downplays the elements in Genesis which, if not anti-science, at least raise doubts about the intrinsic goodness of unlimited human knowledge and technical capacity. To me at least, the stories of the Fall and of the tower of Babel read like cautionary tales, but cautionary tales are incompatible with the enthusiasm for progress that Bacon sought to generate.

Bacon would have us believe that unlimited scientific knowledge or technical skill is not fundamentally problematic, as long as the knowledge is guided by Christian ends. Both Xenophon and the Babel story, on the other hand, seem to teach that unlimited knowledge or technical skill is dangerous no matter what the motivations of the person using it; man is not fit for such godlike control. And to bring my discussion full circle, back to the old horror movies, I note that the scientists whose inventions run out of control are sometimes Christian men who, like Bacon, suppose that their research will relieve the human estate. Thus, the modern situation, even for Christians, is fraught with danger. •

received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He writes on education, politics, religion, and culture.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #40, Spring 2017 Copyright © 2019 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo40/science-unlimited