The apathistic stance, and asophism

I’m prompted to put this on my blog by reading this post. The link between science and faith has always been something of a driver for me, but I am often tempted to think that a plague should descend upon all theologians who seek to write a ‘scientific’ theology. It seems to me that there is something inherently idolatrous in the scientific method, taken as a final step in the discernment of truth; at the same time there is something profoundly holy in the scientific method, when it is taken as a penultimate step in the discernment of truth. To call a theology ‘scientific’ is, to my mind, to implicitly favour the former option. Theology may well be the Queen of the Sciences (I think it is, for reasons that will become clear) but to call – in today’s society – a theology ‘scientific’ is, I feel, trading upon the idolatrous elevation of scientific enquiry above theology – and that I believe to be wrong.

Science has customarily been described as an ‘objective’ discipline. My argument is that the scientific method is better characterised as an emotional disengagement from the material being studied. This emotional distancing is at heart a spiritual discipline, one with roots in Christian and Stoic thinking about controlling the emotions: apatheia (apathism – the structured denial of emotion, apathist, apathistic). I therefore think that the most precise description of scientific investigation comes from talking about the apathistic stance underlying all such enquiry.

However, when this is seen as the concluding means for obtaining truth, all the most important elements of human existence are excluded. Drawing on some recent research and thinking in the philosophy of mind and related fields (principally Antonio Damasio and Martha Nussbaum) I argue that to put science to good use we require wisdom and judgement – emotional intelligence– which necessitates an emotional engagement, and which is necessarily non-scientific. This has historically been supplied by religious traditions such as Christianity, and a central part of such ‘wisdom traditions’ is precisely their ability to inculcate and develop emotional intelligence.

However, as a result of particular historical circumstances, our culture has hugely developed the capacity for apatheia but lost the capacity to integrate the insights generated into a larger spiritual discipline. Put simply, apatheia – science – is unable to supply any answers to questions of meaning, to guide us as to what is considered important – it is blind to ‘the seriousness of life’. This I summarise in a neologism – asophic, adj. meaning not connected with wisdom. I believe that contemporary Western society is built upon asophic foundations, and the effects are well known.

It seems to me that the spiritual roots of scientific endeavour need to be acknowledged and affirmed; in so doing the re-integration of science within the broader framework of Christian understandings can proceed, with profound benefits to both forms of enquiry. This is what my book is about (first two chapters found here). I haven’t done much work on the book for a number of years, but I get the sense that something might happen this summer…