Monday, September 3, 2012

Separation of Science and State

How should we understand this statement, which is defined to be an error in the Syllabus of Errors?
55. The Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.—Allocution "Acerbissimum," Sept. 27, 1852.
I think the key thing to notice is that "separated" (along with other forms of the word, such as "separation", as in "separation of Church and State") is an ambiguous term.  It can mean distinct, but it can also mean isolated.  The Church has always understood that Church and State are distinct -- in terms of their goals, their founding, etc. -- but that they should not be completely isolated from each other.

Franklin Church (Lane County, Oregon scenic images) (lanDA0044)

Since Americans, and modern people in general, have such a hard time distinguishing the sense in which it is right for Church and State to be "separate" from the sense in which it is wrong, it might be useful to consider an analogous situation:  the separation of science and state.

Atlantis Arrival at 39A (STS-117)

In the best American tradition, I will hold these truths to be self-evident:
  • Science is different from the State in terms of its goals.  The goal of science is understanding.  The goal of the state is the temporal welfare of its people.
  • Science is different from the State in what it does.  Science seeks to discover the laws of nature, but cannot author them, nor is their any need to enforce them.  The State, on the other hand, has rather wide latitude in defining the laws which it enforces.
  • Science is different from the State in its perspective.  Science strives to be objective, but the State has inescapable subjective aspects that require compromises. 
Thus science and the State are certainly distinct, and in that sense, separate.  As a result, 
  • It would be a disaster for the State to attempt to dictate science.  Perhaps the most infamous example was the attempt in 1897 of some Indiana lawmakers to redefine pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.  (The bill was, fortunately, defeated in the state senate.)
  • It would be an even greater disaster for scientists to run the State as some kind of scientific experiment.  Don't get me wrong; a scientist can also be a statesman, and vice versa -- Benjamin Franklin may be the best example.  We have seen, though, what happens when one group of people has only scientific curiosity about another group of people -- the Tuskegee Experiment, or worse.
On the other hand, no one today really wants science and State to have nothing to do with each other.
  • We want the State to regulate the conduct of science, for example in the storage and disposal of hazardous chemicals, the ethical conduct of experiments on living beings, etc.
  • We want science to inform the State on the effects of regulation.  This is true whether it relates to the FDA approving drugs for limited or widespread use (or banning them altogether), the granting of offshore drilling permits, the establishing of automobile fuel efficiency or emission standards, etc.  
  • Also, because of both public interest and the widespread benefits promised by science, we want the State to fund and support science.
Thus, although we want science to do science and the State to be the State, we also want them to interact with each other in a mutually beneficial way.  Note also that it is precisely when the State is ignorant of science that it is most likely to infringe on what is properly handled by science.

There are significant parallels between the separation of science and State and the separation of Church and State.  Of course, there are differences, too. Since I seem to be all about bulleted posts, here are a few more that pertain to Church and State.
  • Although the primary focus of the Church is the eternal welfare of souls, Christians are to love the whole person, which means looking after their temporal welfare as well.  This is why the Church has founded so many hospitals, for example.  It also puts the lie to the current administration's attempt to pigeon-hole religious freedom to one hour of worship weekly.
  • Likewise, just because the State is dedicated to the temporal welfare of its people does not mean that it is properly concerned only with power, wealth, and health.  Only recently has Western Civilization begun to forget that knowing the truth is a good, even for this world, and that being a person of good character has value even apart from an eternal reward.
  • Because of the previous two points, Church and State have had a tendency over the centuries to become excessively intertwined, frequently to the detriment of both.  My understanding is that under canon law, priests and bishops are now no longer allowed to serve in government posts; thus Fernando Lugo, onetime president of Paraguay, resigned from being a bishop and priest in order to assume the presidency.  (I understand there were irregularities even with that maneuver.)  The point is that the prohibition against a confusing of Church and State is not born out of Divine Revelation only, or even of Divine Revelation plus philosophy; it is born most of all from experience. 
  • These days, however, the more likely problem is not confusion between Church and State, but the insistence that if an idea can be seen to have been suggested by the Church, the State must have nothing to do with it. This is an example of the genetic fallacy. The Church has steadily refused to commit this fallacy, which is why She has been comfortable using carefully sifted ideas from non-Catholic and even non-Christian sources.  In the final analysis, what matters about an idea is whether or not it is true, not who thought of it first.

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