January 27, 2009

Caught in the Scientist's Perspective

Justin Katz

Stanley Aronson writes reasonable, interesting columns for the Providence Journal, but I often get the impression of an underlying scientism. By that relatively new coinage, I mean the tendency — a system of belief, really — to treat scientific answers as complete grounds for defining one's life.

So, in context of an essay about doctors' evolving ability to diagnose, even to forecast, illness, Aronson writes:

Where there had been three populations in a tripartite world dominated by health, disease or disease-incipiency, there was now a fourth population, namely, those currently quite healthy and without any underlying latent disease but who are nonetheless destined by the nature of their genetic baggage to be at high risk for some awesome disease in the future.

There are many who will bemoan: Has the time arrived when my physical destiny is inflexibly determined without my active participation? Have the domains of determinism and predestination, the specters that haunted theologians for centuries, finally emerged as an incontrovertible secular reality? Have I no choice in life but to be a pawn manipulated by my genes?

Personally, I don't believe that anything essential has changed in this regard. Human beings have always know that they would die. Using genetic information to give some sense of the when hardly represents an existential shift.

By standing in awe of science, however, those who tend toward Aronson's view lose sight of a critical principle underlying religion's answer to the question of destiny: Your lifespan and your health are not synonymous with your destiny. We are "manipulated by our genes" only if we waste our lives tracing their fatal calendar.

Yes, it is "an incontrovertible secular reality" that we will all die. What we do before (and after) that event is what defines us, and our destinies.