Metaphysics, Medicine and Modern Science: Why the Christian Response to COVID-19 Must Change

In his introductory book on Thomas Aquinas, Edward Feser contrasts medieval intellectual inquiry with modern scientific methodology in the following way:

The medieval approach to knowledge was constituted by “a search for wisdom, understood as knowledge of the ultimate causes and meaning of things, in light of which one might improve one’s soul and prepare for a life beyond this one.” (Feser, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, p. 40)

The modern scientific methodology is constituted by “a practical interest in reorienting philosophy and science to improving the material conditions of human life in this world.” (Ibid.)

It is very important to note therefore that modern scientific methodology (or “science” as we call it) is limited to temporal (and not eternal) considerations which have to do with increasing human utility and power through the mechanical arts (Francis Bacon) and making us “masters and possessors of nature” (Descartes). Healthcare and medicine is also a part of this: making the body healthy, curing disease, delaying physical death and so on.

What is my problem with this? Nothing, as far as it goes. But when, in the words of David Bentley Hart, the scientific methodology mutates into a metaphysics, and from there into a comprehensive view of reality encompassing moral and religious considerations, there is a very serious problem indeed.

One aspect of this mutation from methodology into metaphysics is the removal of the concept of teleology from the natural world and, by implication, human life. The modern scientific paradigm posits as a dogmatic truth the denial of final causes in nature: nothing is for anything; nothing has an inherent purpose. And this includes humanity. There is no final cause to human life apart from that which we might subsequently assign, but even this must ultimately be an illusion which is determined by natural “laws.” And there is certainly no supernatural end to human life on the modern scientific metaphysical paradigm.

Feser rightly cites Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument that the loss of belief in final causation or teleology has resulted in the confusion around ethics in modernity. On an Aristotelian schema that takes into account final causality, ethics is quite easy to understand, at least in principle: things are for things. A good watch is that which tells the time in a certain way and fits onto someone’s wrist well, etc. Similarly, a good human being is a human being that fulfills the purpose for which he is made. And there you have ethics. All you need to do is find out what a human being is for and then fulfill that end.

But, without final causality, there is no real ethics and this is because there is no real purpose to human beings. They are not for anything but are constituted only by mechanical, deterministic laws.

So, science mutates from a method for enhancing human mastery of nature into a comprehensive view of reality and, therefore, our understanding of the purpose of human life and, as a consequence, ethics is destroyed. We have now no moral compass, nothing really to guide us, and so we are adrift.

I would put it to you that the crisis around COVID-19 is primarily a metaphysical crisis rather than anything else. The decisions that have been made by governments around the world have been made using a utilitarian calculus of “bare life” or, as I’ve heard Dr. Joe Boot say, “not death.”

How many deaths can we prevent from COVID-19? That is the only question that has guided government policy. The moral philosophy underlying this may be closest to Hobbes’ Leviathan, in which Thomas Hobbes describes human life as constituted by human beings running quickly down a hill, bumping into each other, and trying to avoid death. The Leviathan (who is the agreed-upon dictator) is a benign ruler who staves off war and violence and gives individuals the best chance of surviving for the longest period of time. Hobbes was explicit in his rejection of teleology from nature and human life: human beings are not for anything, but they would prefer not to be killed in war or violent attack. Therefore, they should give up all of their power to a sovereign who will dictate terms to everybody.

In 2020, we have perhaps seen the logical end of Hobbes’ political philosophy, which is that really in order to avoid death, the best thing that we can do is to eliminate risk as much as we possibly can. And the best way to do this is simply to lock everyone in their homes and prevent human interaction as much as possible. As Dominic Cummings said in his deposition on May 26th, 2021, what we needed at the outbreak of the crisis was “a kind of dictator with kingly power,” who would “push out the boundaries of legality.” “Any rules…” he said, “Forget it.” Very Hobbesian, indeed.

Well, so what? Maybe that makes sense to you. The problem I have with it though is from a Christian perspective, and especially from the perspective of a Christian leader. I have seen many Christians and Christian leaders saying words to the effect that they will support and enact literally anything that the government’s scientific advisors suggest, including, for example, the shutting down of churches and banning of collective worship.

But just think about that for a minute: you’ll support anything the scientists say? What if they suggested a concentration camp for suspected infected individuals? What about if they said that the churches must close forever and public worship be banned permanently? What if they said that infected individuals should be killed and their bodies incinerated?

Now I’m not saying they’ll actually mandate these things, but it just goes to show how unwise it is to cede all authority to secular scientists whose moral and religious paradigm is almost certainly antithetical to the Christian picture of reality.

And central to that picture of reality is the fact that human beings are created by God for a particular purpose, which you might define as eternal joy in God’s presence. Therefore, when we Christians accept the limited, modern metaphysical picture of reality and the ethical entailments that it appears to imply, we involve ourselves in a contradiction, because our view of reality, and of humanity in particular, is that there are eternal ends to consider, which far outweigh in importance even physical health. There are things which are more important – dare we say it? – even than the great virus itself.

Life is not, in other words, just about staying alive, but it is about knowing eternal life in Christ. The scientists might be able to speculate about what might extend a certain amount of lives, but they can say nothing at all (with authority anyway) about what makes a human life worth living at such a cost, and, especially, they can say nothing about the eternal salvation of human souls and how their own mandates might affect the mission of the Church in bringing about God’s purposes to that end.

Sadly, the churches appear to have largely abandoned the metaphysical territory to the scientific advisors and have limited themselves to pronouncements about “saving lives” and “protecting others.” As important as these things are, this is a limitation of the paradigm of reality that Christian leaders are called to proclaim. We are not just social workers, partnering with the secular environment to bring about an amelioration of social conditions, but heralds of the Gospel of eternal life. Oh that the Church would reject the metaphysical paradigm of modernity and rediscover her true calling in these dark days.

Rev Dr J.A. Franklin

Jamie is a priest in the Church of England, serving his curacy at a parish in the city of Nottingham. He trained for ministry at Ripon College Cuddesdon from 2017-2019 and holds a DPhil in Systematic Theology from the University of Oxford. Prior to training for ordination he had various jobs, among them piano teacher and virger at Winchester Cathedral. He is married to Lorna and has three small children. He also hosts Irreverend, a podcast about faith and current affairs.

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