We hear a lot about ‘following the science’ in these pandemic-days. As someone who has ‘followed science’, and tried to practice it, for most of my life, this media soundbite intrigues me. But the biographical sense means something rather different. ‘Following science’, for scientists, is that lifelong, tantalizing glimmer around the corner that comes from insight, imagination and curiosity, a guide in the dark labyrinth of our present ignorance to the next step of understanding. Science itself doesn’t tell us which hunch to follow up next, but it will tell us when we emerge into the light. More prosaically, we will know when a vaccine works, but not in advance which candidate to choose.
So ‘following science’ is not to make it our master. Francis Bacon, the 16thcentury philosopher once said that, ‘Money makes a good servant but a poor master’. As an influential promoter of early experimental scientific method, he might well have said the same about science. Knowledge on its own is a poor decision maker. We also need wisdom.
As well as a devoted follower of and participant in science, I confess to being an equal fan of wisdom. One of the reasons that I find the Judeo-Christian tradition of knowledge attractive is that it is paired, throughout the Bible, with the urge to gain wisdom as well, and never to deploy knowledge without it.
The place where this message is loudest of all must be in the Old Testament Book of Job, according to Berlin philosopher Susan Neimann, a book as important as Plato. As for so many of us at the present moment, the book’s protagonist, the righteous and upright Job, cries out for a reason that he is suffering terrible illness and loss. The whole cosmic fabric seems to be falling apart around him and descending into chaos:
Yet as a mountain slips away and erodes … so you destroy human hope
Job rails at God.
God’s answer, when it comes, is unexpected. For far from taking Job into some moral debating chamber, he is taken on (literally) a whirlwind tour of nature’s wild side: the ice and seas, the dawn light, star-clusters, lightning and the life cycle of wild animals. At the same time God declares Job to have been right, and others who interpreted his suffering as a punishment, to have been wrong.
This Wisdom is to learn to live alongside the necessary wildness of nature, rather than just to rail against it. But it goes hand in hand with our miraculous human ability to uncover the material structure of our world, to understand it, and to care for it. That’s using science wisely.