Saturday, December 20, 2008

Speech to Ambassadors

In his French-language address recently to eleven Ambassadors at the Holy See , the Holy Father said, "The diversity of where you come from brings me to give thanks to God for his creative love and the multiplicity of his gifts, which never cease to surprise humanity."

"Sometimes diversity makes people afraid," he acknowledged. "That's why we shouldn't be surprised if the human being prefers monotony and uniformity."

Certain political-economic systems, the Pontiff continued "attributing to themselves or claiming pagan or religious origins, have afflicted humanity for too long, trying to make it uniform with demagogy and violence."

"They have reduced and reduce the human being to an unworthy slavery at the service of one ideology or an inhumane and pseudo-scientific economy," he said. "All of us know that there is not just one political model, an ideal that has to be absolutely fulfilled, and that political philosophy develops in time and in its expressions, according as it is polished by human intelligence and the lessons taken from political and economic experience."

So much of what the Pope has said echoes what what said by Friedrich August von Hayek in 1974 about "The Pretence of Knowledge": (plus ca change ?)

"The progress of the natural sciences in modern times has of course so much exceeded all expectations that any suggestion that there may be some limits to it is bound to arouse suspicion.

Especially all those will resist such an insight who have hoped that our increasing power of prediction and control, generally regarded as the characteristic result of scientific advance, applied to the processes of society, would soon enable us to mould society entirely to our liking.

It is indeed true that, in contrast to the exhilaration which the discoveries of the physical sciences tend to produce, the insights which we gain from the study of society more often have a dampening effect on our aspirations; and it is perhaps not surprising that the more impetuous younger members of our profession are not always prepared to accept this.

Yet the confidence in the unlimited power of science is only too often based on a false belief that the scientific method consists in the application of a ready-made technique, or in imitating the form rather than the substance of scientific procedure, as if one needed only to follow some cooking recipes to solve all social problems.

It sometimes almost seems as if the techniques of science were more easily learnt than the thinking that shows us what the problems are and how to approach them.

The conflict between what in its present mood the public expects science to achieve in satisfaction of popular hopes and what is really in its power is a serious matter because, even if the true scientists should all recognize the limitations of what they can do in the field of human affairs, so long as the public expects more there will always be some who will pretend, and perhaps honestly believe, that they can do more to meet popular demands than is really in their power.

It is often difficult enough for the expert, and certainly in many instances impossible for the layman, to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate claims advanced in the name of science. The enormous publicity recently given by the media to a report pronouncing in the name of science on The Limits to Growth, and the silence of the same media about the devastating criticism this report has received from the competent experts, must make one feel somewhat apprehensive about the use to which the prestige of science can be put.

But it is by no means only in the field of economics that far-reaching claims are made on behalf of a more scientific direction of all human activities and the desirability of replacing spontaneous processes by "conscious human control".

If I am not mistaken, psychology, psychiatry and some branches of sociology, not to speak about the so-called philosophy of history, are even more affected by what I have called the scientistic prejudice, and by specious claims of what science can achieve."

Friedrich August von Hayek; Prize Lecture: "The Pretence of Knowledge"

See: Lecture to the memory of Alfred Nobel, December 11, 1974