briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Tuesday, April 28, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Is Science the Answer to Death? A Secularizing Society Grapples With How To Think About Death During a Pandemic

Yuval Noah Harari is a professor of history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but most people do not think of him as an historian, but rather as a public figure who writes across the board on many issues. He is also a proponent of the worldview known as transhumanism. That is, he actually argues that Homo sapiens as a species has basically run its course to be followed by something else or someone else. He speaks about evolution and then forward-projects, the evolution of Homo sapiens into a different kind of being with a different kind of consciousness. He talks about, for instance, incorporating artificial intelligence inside this new species that Homo sapiens would become. And he writes often about overcoming death.

Now, Harari is cited by many people. He’s a very influential public intellectual. Amongst those who have cited his books and cited his authority and even blurbed one of his books, writing an endorsement is the former President of the United States, Barack Obama. But notice that Harari is really a very radical thinker and that radicalism comes out in the recent edition of The Guardian, a newspaper from London, in an article with the headline, “Will Coronavirus Change Our Attitudes to Death? Quite the opposite,” he says. The subhead of the article, “Will the Coronavirus Pandemic Return Us to More Traditional and Accepting Attitudes Toward Dying or Reinforce Our Attempts to Prolong Life?”

Harari begins by telling us that the modern world has “been shaped by the belief that humans can outsmart and defeat death.” He goes on to say that was a revolutionary new attitude for most of history. Humans meekly submitted to death. He writes, “Up to the late modern age, most religions and ideologies saw death not only as our inevitable fate, but as the main source of meaning in life.”

Now that last part is just profoundly not true. Even though there have been some societies and cultures and worldviews that have had an unhealthy celebration of death, the reality is that for most worldviews, death has served as a boundary line, that boundary marker at the end of our earthly lives. That’s very true when it comes to the Christian worldview based in Scripture, a linear worldview with a past, present, and future with creation at the very beginning of the story, and you could say even before creation, the eternal existence of the self-existing God, and then of course there is an eternity on the other side of the experience of death, and to that the Scripture speaks emphatically.

But the point that Harari is making is that there are certain human patterns of thinking about death that are very deeply, deeply ingrained. He writes about the fact that the scientific revolution, however, changed all that. Now, of course it didn’t change all that, but it did bring in a different consciousness because that scientific revolution did bring in along with the other advances of late modernity, the opportunity to develop medical therapies, as we discussed yesterday on The Briefing—disease resistant seed lines that could feed humanity and furthermore, antibiotics, surgeries, open heart operations, you go down the list, that have extended human life in a way that was not true in any previous century.

But Harari writes that after the scientific revolution for scientists, death became not a divine decree, but merely a technical problem. Later in the article, Harari writes, “Humans have been so successful in our attempt to safeguard and prolong life that our worldview has changed in a profound way. While traditional religions considered the afterlife as the main source of meaning, from the 18th century ideology such as liberalism, socialism, and feminism all lost interest in the afterlife. What exactly,” he asked, “happens to a communist after he or she dies? What happens to a capitalist? What happens to a feminist? It is pointless,” he says, “to look for the answers in the writings of Karl Marx, Adam Smith, or Simone de Beauvoir.”

But here we just need to understand that even as Harari asked the question, there are two dimensions to the question. The biblical Christian could answer the question of what happens to a communist after the communist dies. Regardless of whether the communist would answer the question the same way. An ideological communist certainly would not answer the same way, but the communist would have had an answer. The communist is committed to materialism. That is the fact that nothing but material stuff, material dimensions are real and so he would argue, the communist, he or she would argue that after death the communist simply returns to the soil, atoms and molecules eventually absorbed back into the natural world. End the story.

There is a very interesting aspect to Harari’s article because he is putting this argument in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and he is suggesting that for many people around the world today, the pandemic is an atheological matter. That is to say there’s no theological interest in the plague at all, rather it is seen as a technical problem. In that insight Harari is exactly right. There are many people in the world today who are simply saying, “Science is going to fix this. It’s just a matter of time and science is going to overcome this.” And of course there are many people who admit that the COVID-19 crisis, the pandemic is real, but they assume that the world will return to some kind of rather natural and normal state before. But let’s just remind ourselves, everyone died before COVID-19 and everyone’s going to die after COVID-19. It’s a question of when, not a question of if.

The legitimate insight in Harari’s article is the fact that many people actually have this unfounded confidence in technology and science. The odd thing is that Harari himself would seem to be one of those people who in his writings in his books would point to exactly that, the capacity of human beings even to direct our own future evolution. Again, that reflects his worldview.

He also writes later in his article, “Attitudes today are the polar opposite. Whenever some disaster kills many people, a train accident, a high rise fire, even a hurricane, we tend to view it as a preventable human failure rather than as divine punishment or an inevitable natural calamity.” A lot of insight there, but what’s missing in both dimensions of his article is the acknowledgement of secularization, the fact that the worldview, especially in the West, and it’s very important to recognize that we are talking about a fundamental shift of this worldview in Western civilizations and the regions touched by, influenced by Western civilization. The fact is that secularization means that God, religion, theology, even ultimate meaning have basically escaped the consciousness of many modern people. They live entirely secular lives or at least they think they do. Their thoughts are at the very least increasingly shaped by secular presuppositions.

And he’s right when disasters tend to happen, the first question that many people in the modern age want to ask is, “Whose fault was it?” It’s beyond the imagination of many people that God would have anything to do with it, anything to do with the world at all or for that matter that God would even exist becomes a dubious proposition.

Writing about our confidence in modern science, Harari tells us, “Just as moviegoers know that Spider-Man and Wonder Woman will eventually defeat the bad guys and save the world, so we are quite sure that within a few months, perhaps a year, the folks in the labs will come up with effective treatments for COVID-19 and even a vaccination.” Then he says, “We’ll show this nasty coronavirus who is the alpha organism on the planet. The question on the lips of everybody from the White House through Wall Street all the way down to the balconies of Italy,” he writes, “is, ‘When will the vaccine be ready?’ When, not if.”

Now Harari ends his article with a political argument, which I’m basically going to ignore, but for our purposes, the article is interesting because he does describe the modern mindset of scientism. Of course in his books, he fairly represents that modern ideology as well, but for our purposes it is important to recognize that many people around us are confused between science and scientism. Let’s think about those for just a moment. Science is a way of knowing. It’s a way of knowing certain things. The scientific method as it developed in the modern age, modern empirical reason and the very power of observation, the scientific method. All of these came together such that modern science grew out of a Christian worldview and the affirmation of a biblical worldview of a real world that the Creator intended to be known, an orderly world that operated by principles we can discover. Modern science did emerge and with it came enormous benefits.

After all, we have talked in recent days about the space age and human beings blasting off on planet earth and going to the moon and landing and coming back safely again. We have seen the splitting of the atom which has had both positive and negative impacts. We have seen such things as the development, yes, of antibiotics, modern understandings of bacteria and germs and viruses. We have seen the decoding of the human genome. We have seen all kinds of medical advances, all kinds of scientific advances that we actually depend upon every single day.

Science has proved itself to be an extremely effective way of learning certain truths, of detecting certain patterns, of developing certain technologies, of treating certain diseases. There are questions that modern science and the scientific method are uniquely competent to answer, and modern society depends upon scientists doing science, as they say, and learning by means of the scientific method, what becomes necessary for our technologies and for many dimensions of our lives. But not for all dimensions.

The difference between science and scientism is that science is a legitimate way of knowing. Scientism is the claim that science is the only legitimate means of knowing, the only legitimate epistemology, as we say, the only way of knowing anything. If it cannot be observed by, proved by, demonstrated by science, then it’s not important. But of course that’s actually now antithetical to the biblical worldview. The biblical worldview was necessary for the rise of science, but science has now been transformed in many minds into scientism. And you hear this now over and over again.

Now, one of the things you hear is that there is far too much hope that is invested in science alone. Let’s just consider this about what we know concerning human beings. Human beings are frail and fallible creatures. The scientific method by the way, with its testing and experimentation, its peer review and scientific consensus, it offers many protections against wrong ideas that can be demonstrated by science, either demonstrated to be true or false or at least plausible until there is more scientific data. But again, the problem with scientism is that the adherence of that worldview argue that science is the only way of knowing. Or another form of scientism is the claim that science trumps everything else. That when it comes down to any important question, the scientists have the final say.

Now, if it comes down to the specific atomic weight of an element, well, clearly scientists should have the last word, but if it comes down to the meaning of life or for that matter, the meaning of death, scientists do have something to say. Medical scientists in particular have something to say, but they do not have the last word.

Part II

The Most Certain Thing There Is—Science? Even Commercials Have Worldviews

One of the news programs I try not to miss is the NBC program Meet the Press. It’s broadcast live in a way that conflicts with church, so I have to record it and watch it sometime later. The program Meet the Press is actually the oldest continually broadcast program in the history of television. The first broadcast was on November 6th of 1947. And it is a conversation amongst the news makers that is always interesting even if sometimes infuriating. But as I was watching my recorded edition of this week’s Meet the Press, what caught my attention more than anything else was actually a commercial that was broadcast during the program. The commercial came from Pfizer pharmaceuticals and the message was extremely clear. The message was an undiluted scientism. The narrator of the advertisement says this, “At a time when things are uncertain, we turn to the most certain thing there is, science.” The next words by the narrator, “Science can overcome diseases, create cures, and yes, beat pandemics. It has before, it will again.”

The advertisement shows some Pfizer scientist holding a sign that says, “Science will win.” And a company spokesman said concerning the commercial, “Our goal is that the message of hope and help will be meaningful in the current environment.” Now, when I heard the commercial, it certainly caught my attention and even as I was prepared to write down the words that had been broadcast, I was eventually able to find a script of the commercial itself. Here again are the key words. The narrator of the commercial says, “At a time when things are uncertain, we turn to the most certain thing there is, science.”

Now just think about that. Here’s a straightforward claim made in a brief television commercial that science is the dominant way of knowing anything but beyond that, science is defined as, “The most certain thing there is.” Now as you think about it, one of the things we need to recognize is that Pfizer pharmaceuticals has released that ad because they think it will serve the company well. It will serve the company well that the people who are watching the NBC program Meet the Press will be reassured that Pfizer scientists and employees are at work seeking to beat the coronavirus and that science will win. Science after all being what evidently all right-minded people are supposed to think, is the most certain thing that there is.

Now, this is where Christians simply have to say, “No, this is incompatible with a biblical worldview.” But at the same time it is Christians who rightly value science when science is actually being scientific. When science is scientific, and not reflective of the worldview of scientism, it is entirely healthy and is to be welcomed. Science being science is of tremendous assistance to us and, yes, I along with virtually everyone I can imagine are hoping for and let’s be honest, waiting for the development of a vaccine. And we believe that medical science has a very good shot at developing that vaccine. Just consider what science has already accomplished even when it comes to diseases and vaccines over the course of say, the last century or two.

But we also have to acknowledge, even as we express that hope, that there are still diseases for which no vaccine has yet been found. Now, part of what makes science, science is that scientists are not satisfied with not yet finding vaccines or treatments for those diseases, but when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all hoping and indeed praying that a vaccine will come and come quickly to save human lives first of all, and then to help us save our societies and our economies, our jobs as well. And all of this comes together to remind us that it would be timely for us to remind ourselves of the insidious and encroaching nature of scientism. It can sneak right up on us. We can have a confidence in science that goes beyond anything that’s legitimately scientific.

Now, one of the ways this shows up is what you will see on television where you have a scientist speaking as an authority on something that is outside the scientific method, that actually doesn’t have anything to do with science at all. Furthermore, it takes a scientist sometimes to interpret what scientific evidence should be considered and you have the pattern of the fact that in the media and in public life, you sometimes have scientists cited as authorities outside of their own scientific expertise. Science is not only in epistemology, a way of knowing, it has many specializations. And someone who applies the scientific method in physics is probably very competent to speak about physics, maybe less competent to speak about medicine, much less a pandemic.

But we also need to understand that when you have a secularizing society, that space that is left in that secular vacuum is going to be filled by something and scientism is a very, very attractive option for people who primarily no longer believe in God. They no longer believe that they require God for an explanation of the universe. They’ve dismissed God from their imaginations, and so something is going to have to fill the void left by an operational, ideological worldview and scientism is an easy one to grab in such a case.

Part III

C.S. Lewis on Turning a Fascination with Science into Scientism: The Incompatibility of Scientism and the Biblical Worldview

The ominous development of scientism, especially in the middle of the 20th century, caught the attention of many Christians amongst them, one of the most eloquent was C.S. Lewis. C.S. Lewis incorporated his concerns about the rise of scientism as an ideology and as a cultural temptation in both his nonfiction writing and perhaps more influentially in his fiction, including the works, Out of the Silent Planet and That Hideous Strength. That latter title, That Hideous Strength actually becomes one of the most important indictments of scientism of the 20th century.

Lewis was prescient in understanding that modern science was far outside of its own boundaries, claiming authority far outside of anything legitimately scientific. It was reducing human beings to nothing more than material existence and it was openly denying that there could be anything beyond the material realm. What C.S. Lewis came to understand is that such a science is not only wrong, it becomes inherently dangerous. It takes on an anti-human kind of aspect, and that becomes very dangerous to human beings. Science is simply, as C.S. Lewis made very clear consistent with the biblical worldview, science is simply inadequate to grant or to explain an adequate human dignity or right of human beings to exist an adequate explanation for the significance of human life or for that matter, the existence of the cosmos as a whole.

Explaining his approach in the book, That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis said, “It certainly is an attack if not on scientists yet on something which might be called scientism, a certain outlook on the world which is usually connected with the popularization of the sciences, though it is much less common among real scientists than among their readers. It is, in a word, the belief that the supreme moral end is the perpetuation of our own species and that this has to be pursued even if in the process of being fitted for survival, our species has to be stripped of all those things for which we value it, of pity, of happiness and of freedom.”

There’s an amazing insight embedded there by C.S. Lewis and that is the scientism is probably more attractive to nonscientists than to scientists. Scientists probably have a more humble realization of the limitations as well as the glories of the scientific method, but those who read the science or for that matter, those who are fascinated by science may turn science into scientism.

But if you’re looking for a scientist who actually does express scientism, and there are not just a few, one of the most famous or infamous would be Richard Lewontin, professor of biology at Harvard University who said, “It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept the material explanation of the phenomenal world, but on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover,” he said, “that materialism is absolute for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.”

It’s an amazingly candid statement by a scientist at Harvard University who says that God has to be excluded from any consideration even as a presupposition and that science can’t even leave the door cracked because science can’t allow God’s foot in the door. It’s an amazing statement because after all, why would scientists fear the foot of God in a door, which is to say the entry of God as a presupposition for any part of the explanation of the cosmos? If science is merely science explaining what science can explain, well, why would science fear the very notion or mention of God? And the answer is, because science often escapes those boundaries. And furthermore, when it comes to many aspects of modern science including modern physics, there is an attempt to try to explain or to claim eventually to be able to explain everything in purely material, scientific naturalistic terms.

This concern about scientism was often best expressed by professor Phillip Johnson. He taught for years at Boalt Hall. That is the law school, the University of California at Berkeley. He was also a dear friend. Phillip Johnson was the author of the book Darwin on Trial and one of the points he made repeatedly is that even as you’re looking at public conversation about many issues including controversies over creation, the press and politicians, even courts and judges, routinely turn to scientists to answer non-scientific questions. They’re simply unable or unwilling to understand the distinction between where science can speak and where science cannot speak. In the case of the late professor Phillip Johnson, one of his great contributions was as a lawyer to detect bad arguments and to reveal them. His book created something of a wildfire that wasn’t welcome in the evolutionary community.

So bringing this to conclusion, at least part of this entire conversation was sparked by that advertisement from Pfizer saying that we should turn to the most certain thing there is, science. If science is the most certain thing there is, let’s face it, we are doomed because science can’t explain the most important questions of life. Christians have to be ever attentive to the reality that we celebrate science as science, but we must detect scientism wherever it rears its head. And we also have to know that scientism has to be pretty deeply embedded in our culture for Pfizer to think that its commercial claiming that science is the most certain thing there is would be a winner.

Part IV

Science Ends Bernie Sanders’s ‘Beauty Contest’: New York Cancels Democratic Primary

But finally, along these lines, sometimes you have someone who is rather committed to scientism who doesn’t stay committed to it, when scientism isn’t convenient. Such as the case with Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who expressed his disappointment in recent days over the fact that New York has canceled its Democratic presidential primary.

Now, why would Senator Sanders be upset? It is because even though he has said that he has suspended his campaign and even though he went so far as to endorse former vice president Joe Biden for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, he wanted to stay on the ballot anyway in order to obtain as many delegates as possible going into the Democratic National Convention this summer, whatever that convention turns out to be.

But the best medical science argues that there should be no risk as would be undertaken in a statewide primary election where it isn’t necessary. And to state the matter bluntly, election officials there in New York dominated by Democrats came to the conclusion it is not necessary. One of the Democratic commissioners on the New York State Board of Elections said about Senator Sanders bid, “What the Sanders’s supporters want is essentially a beauty contests that given the situation with the public health emergency that exists now seems to be unnecessary and indeed frivolous.” He went on to say, “I think that it’s time for us to recognize that the presidential contest is over.” He means the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination.

So many people in our society want to say, “Science says, science says, science says,” until science doesn’t say what they want it to say. And one of the weird ironies in all of this is that Senator Sanders has endorsed former vice president Biden for the nomination. So what are voters on the Democratic side to do, vote for Bernie Sanders or listen to Bernie Sanders? Because evidently you can’t do both. But now by the action of the New York State Board of Elections, you actually can’t do either. A spokesman for the Sanders campaign in New York said that therefore all of the state’s delegates should be ruled invalid. I wouldn’t bet on that.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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