Magic, Science, and Man

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious.

CS Lewis
The Abolition of Man

Naturalism vs. Freedom

In confirmation of the view that there is no such thing as personal moral responsibility for one’s actions, one has only to shift from a commonsense context to the perspective of contemporary science. Generally speaking, in modern psychology and sociology, to say nothing of physiology and biology, notions like “free will” and “personal responsibility” are not employed at all; they make no sense in the context of a scientific explanation. Nor is this surprising. For while the older schemes of a rigorous, mechanistic determinism may not b compatible with many of he recent developments in quantum physics, we are still not justified in reintroducing concepts like “freedom” and “moreal responsibility” into the scientific domain.

Henry Veatch, Rational Man: A Modern Interpretation of Aristotelian Ethics

The natural sciences hold forth and are even held forth by politicians as the final authority on matters of knowledge. Only what they tell us can be known. What poets and mystics have to say can be enjoyed in private, but don’t try to impose their morals and insights in the public domain.

In this post, I want to suggest (perhaps to demonstrate finally, clearly, and once and for all in a later post) that this path is the way of folly and that it cannot possibly work.

My argument is not complicated. It is this.

The natural sciences as practiced today base their conclusions on what can be determined on the basis of materialistic assumptions. Materialistic assumptions cannot even raise the question of, much less discuss the application of, matters like truth, freedom, or morality, each of which must come from non-material concerns.

As a result, the materialistic assumptions that drive virtually every agency of the post-human world we inhabit have established a world that is post-truth, post-freedom, and post-morality.

Most particularly, I want to suggest that we cannot be free on the basis of the ideas that control our political discourse and that the hypocrisy that permeates it is an unavoidable consequence of a domain that cannot possibly be anything other than pretense and empty rhetoric because of the assumptions we have built it on.

In other words, we have seen the foundations of our liberties undermined by the natural sciences and the walls are about to collapse.

Love Never Abdicates

We 20th century Naughts share a common error when we think.  We tend, against our better judgment and against our natures, to look at the universe and all that is in it – material or immaterial – scientifically, as though life were one big laboratory.

However, the cosmos is not a great scientific experiment nor can we live wise, successful, or prudent lives on that basis. Life is an art, not an experiment, and the differences are far-reaching.

So are the similarities. For example, both involve uncertainty and what we might loosely call experiments. The artist does not approach her work with complete certainty about where the next brush stroke belongs, how the next line should scan, or when the orchestra should reach the crescendo. She experiments.

The difference between art and science is not whether the artist and the scientist experiment, but how they judge the success of the experiment, which implies further that each has a different purpose for their experiments.

The artist judges by fitness – by whether the stroke, line, or note harmonize with the elements and idea of the specific work of art. The artist is formal.

The scientist judges by fitness as well, but his fitness carries a much narrower, a more precise (perhaps) purpose. Does the information gathered fit the hypothesis? The scientist is, at least in an ideal way, factual.

It’s ironic when you think about how little practical information can be gained through the so-called scientific method. No doubt, if we think about the discoveries made by scientists over the last 800 years, we are astonished. And some of those discoveries are so immensely powerful that they seem to be quite practical.

Nor do I want to diminish the use that has been made of many of these discoveries. But the scientific discoveries are only practical, that is to say, they only benefit people, when they are applied in an ethical context. When scientists function within a power context (in other words, when scientistific research is driven by political ends and the drives of businesses whose highest function is to make money), the results are quite mixed.

They are only beneficial to the people who benefit from them. And people only benefit from them when they are brought into an artistic framework.

I have to leave this point somewhat unfinished and no doubt provocative (please don’t make me say anything I didn’t say when you attack me – I am in no way opposed to science; I love it and I yearn to see it restored to its rightful place) because it isn’t what I meant to write about.

What I meant to write about is how I and virtually everybody I know is trained from early childhood to think in the scientific mode while the artistic mode atrophies.

We are trained to assume that things should be assessed quantitatively instead of formally.

We tend to believe what is scientifically compelling, and dismiss those elements of being that stand outside the reachof the sciences as either unimportant or as merely personal.

To read the news web sites, one would think that we don’t know of any other ways to find truth than through the sciences. Newspapers constantly call on experts, who generally are readers of statistics, often from a particular brand called “social sciences.”

Let me list a few examples of this bias that come easily to one’s mind:

We build our subdivisions (not neighborhoods) on the technical ideas of the civil engineers, not the formal ideas of the artists. Even our architecture tends toward a technical, rather than a formal approach.

Our economy is regulated by people who seem unable to even imagine valid information that stands outside their technical analysis. They do not think about the nature of an economy (which literally means “household customs”), of the household in it, of the soul in the household, etc.

Political science, so-called, is utterly informal. People learn how to scientifically measure and thus to manipulate the masses. The person in that mass does not merit the politician’s personal attention. The symbol embodied in a person, yes, but not the person.

Our inner cities are the results of technical analysis applied to a reality that is fundamentally artistic.

So are our suburbs, our schools, our malls, and even our entertainment, though at least movies and music are unable to completely eliminate the artistic element that makes up their essence.

Even religious life is approached scientifically in America. Consider church growth and even the Emerging church. Progressive, cutting edge, and failing utterly to grasp the nature of the Bride of Christ.

We don’t trust the person who cannot back his case up with the sheen of scientific research, regardless of whether the issue relies on scientific research. We might not even know how an issue could possibly NOT rely on said research.

The sciences are powerful and admirable. They are marvelous servants; it is their nature to serve. But they do not and they cannot tell us what is right and wrong, how things ought to be, what the nature and essence of a thing is, whether and how we should use the power they give us, or the forms of beauty.

They cannot tell us (though they can provide information – they can advise us) how to raise children, how to nourish our souls, how to love our spouses, how to develop our virtues, how to arrange our flowers, which books to read, how to manage our time, how to build our communities, the foundations of sound government, how to play an instrument, whether a song is beautiful, what love is, what truth is, what knowledge is, what goodness is, what justice is, what freedom is, or, for that matter, what anything IS.

Happily humans are not finally scientific by nature. We include a scientific impulse in our nature, but we are artists, formalists, creators by nature. Even the great scientists approached science like an art, and that is because underlying and mastering the scientific method is a deeper commitment to the arts of truth and knowledge. When that commitment is lost, the sciences become tyrannical and tyrants use the sciences for their ends.

This post is an appeal to get back to nature. To stop surrendering our common sense to the latest research. To stop believing that the misapplication of the methods of the natural sciences can save us. Only love can save us. Only beauty can save us. Only truth can save us. Only the Good can save us.

And, while each of these rejoices in the work of the natural sciences, none would ever bow their knee to them. Love never abdicates.

Created Creator

At the end of each of the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth days of creation, God looked upon the work which He had made and our author tells us with rhythmic regularity:

and God saw that it was good; and there was evening and there was morning, the second day…

God saw that it was good. So evening and morning were the third day…

God saw that it was good. So evening and morning were the fourth day…

God blesssed them, saying, “Be fruitful and mulitply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on earth.” So evening and morning were the fifth day…

Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good. So evening and morning were the sixth day.

I love that fifth day on which God blessed the crops. On the sixth day He blessed the animals and placed man above them to “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion…” This was paradise, the state of nature, in which all things were ordered to their own blessedness.

And God saw that it was good.

What does that mean? Does it mean that He was pleased with His work? I cannot imagine that He was not. But then why does the author not simply say, “God saw that His work was pleasing?”

I think the answer might be rather simple. It was indeed pleasing to Him, but why? Because it was good! And why was it good? Because it embodied His intentions.

To take an anthropomorphic stance for a moment (and after all, that is what Genesis one does), we could easily say, first God planned out His work. He gave it time and space within which He would do it. He developed ideas for what He wanted done. He even delegated His tasks, certainly to His Son, probably also to angels.

Then, for a week, He worked. At the end of each day He assessed His work . At the end of the week, He assessed His week’s work. He said it was good. It came out the way He wanted it to. He had an idea, a plan, and a process. It worked!

He wove the matter of His task out of His words. Then He modified the matter to move His ideas from His infinite mind into the finite matter before Him. The earth, which was formless and empty at the end of the first day (it had no shape and took up no space!), was now a gathering of forms filling the emptiness.

Both the process of creation and the product of creation were structured and rhythmic and beautiful.

They were utterly flawless. He had executed His task perfectly. He had even created, miracle of miracles, a physical being that bore the image of God – clay breathing the breath of God, living the mysteries of reason and will.

Clay able to imitate its maker.

He saw that it was very good. Delighting in it, He willed it to flourish, so He blessed it. Part of that blessing was the appointment of a wise and just lord who shared His desire for it to flourish.

It was good, therefore, because each part was a successful embodiment of the idea He had intended. It was very good, because all the parts were ordered to a formal harmony, an order of soul-wrenching beauty. It had a lord, and every subject knew its place and delighted in it.

He had made the lord of the creation in His Own image, fit to rule with love and blessing. The lord was fit to rule, beginning with the act of naming. He was fit to exercise a just and wise dominion because he was given all the faculties of a just and wise ruler. He could see and know and act on the creation for its own good and flourishing. Made by a creator, he was creative himself.

And it was very good.

But if he failed in his duties, everything would change.

Shakespeare and Science

When I was in high school I discovered that people had different opinions about Shakespeare’s plays – what they meant, what specific passages meant, where he got his ideas, etc. In the back of my mind I formulated a general notion that one day I could settle all those questions.

During college I still had a vague notion that I could write the definitive work on Hamlet, settling once and for all what it was about (which I have done – it was about “sin’s true nature”), resolving every issue, and explaining how we should go about mining its riches.

Right.

I have discovered that literature is the most perfect parallel to the cosmos. The maths and sciences seek to describe cosmos. They operate within the quest for finity as observed from the outside. They play a vital role.

But the soul that neglects story, by which I mean story rooted in the ancient dreams of the human soul, can never know the place of the sciences.

An Existential Climate Crisis

The most interesting thing to me about the ClimateGate scandal is the most obvious one – that most people don’t know anything about the science behind the discussion and yet “both” sides are arguing as though there is a great deal more at stake than just a theory.

Which of course there is.

Which leads to the second interesting thing: the credibility, not of science, but of the “scientific community” is at risk.

Are scientists independent thinkers? Or are they bought and paid for?

Obviously there is, as alway, a mixture.

That is an important statement, however. Up to now, all it seemed one had to do to convince the New York Times and the Economist was have lots of data behind your argument and to be consistent with the “scientific consensus.”

That scientific consensus should always have been up for and seeking challenge. But when truth is replaced by profit or application as the final end, things change. Profit and application are always “interested.”

Truth alone allows us to be disinterested. The historical scientific claim to be the means to determine publicly accepted truth is itself now under a long overdue analysis.

Who are we laymen to trust?

If the distrust of many is genuine, you can expect an awful lot of noise over the next months and maybe years. 

The driving question of the next decade may well be, “What happened to science?” After all, we have wagered our future on it.

Why Pragmatism Doesn’t Work

During the last session at the conference I tried to weave things together into a practical structure that people could take home and think about and implement. Maybe the most important idea in the whole conference for me was the contrast between propriety and pragmatism, justice and utility, nature and abstract object.

Modernist thought found its clearest and fullest expression in two late 19th century philosophers whose teachings have dominated 20th and 21st century practice: William James and Friederich Nietzsche. James was a Pragmastist. It’s hard to say whether any principle ordered Nietzsche’s thought. He once said that he despised the great systemetizers. For him, it was about experience, not thinking (though he did the latter a lot). I would probably call him a Perspectivist (one who believes that truth is not knowable as a thing in itself – we all just have a perspective or worldview), but even that implies a rational structure to his thought that he would laugh at.

Both of them are, strictly speaking, anti-philosophers, or at least, anti-metaphysicians. James wanted to know the “cash value” of an idea. Truth is what works. Nietzsche wanted to know how an idea would lead to life, to flourishing.

I’m sympathetic with both of them. They lived at the end of the “Age of Ideas” that had been launched by the Enlightenment, especially Kant and Hegel. Ideas had become ideologies, and no ideology had been big enough to order souls or society.

So they directed thought away from thinking and gaining knowledge to acting and gaining power.

I can see the sense in what they did. The trouble I can’t escape is this big question of Nature. James and Nietzsche (and virtually all Enlightenment and 20th century thinkers) didn’t believe in the Idea of Nature.

Reality is not determined by (is not equal to) a thing’s nature. It is determined by personal and social constructions, which is what they believed ideas are. So rather than focus on the appropriate ways to treat something based on its nature, they were concerned with adapting to one’s environment.

John Dewey, a good friend of William James and a co-Pragmatist, went so far as to develop a philosophy of education that was rooted in the concept that the world around is not knowable in the Christian classical sense. Instead, knowledge is the adaptation of an organism to its environment.

As this played out over the 20th century, it led to some stark ideas. For example, knowledge isn’t the end we should seek, but practical applications. We shouldn’t contemplate ideas, we should produce measurables. We shouldn’t read old books burdened down with Christian classical assumptions about reality (most of all, that things have a nature); we should read books that are “relevant” to immediate issues for children.

This isn’t the place, and it would take too long to develop this thought, but I will simply assert here that these commitments fall horribly short of the aspirations of the Christian classical tradition.

  • The pursuit of virtue is replaced by adapting to the environmnent, which is a polite way of saying, “seeking power.”
  • Reverence for human nature is replaced by the use of schools to bring about the Darwinian and meaningless world these philosophers believed in.
  • Love of learning (i.e. of knowledge) is replaced by fear of testing.
  • Great books are replaced by, forgive me, twaddle.
  • Liberal arts and classical sciences are replaced by subjects, all equal, all disconnected, all meaningless.
  • Christ the logos is replaced by …
  • Contemplation is replaced by production.
  • Ideas are replaced by constructions.
  • Nature is replaced by permanent change.
  • Propriety is replaced by utility.
  • Purpose is replaced by utility.
  • Wisdom is replaced by skillful adaptation.
  • Being as the foundation of thought is replaced by utility.
  • Change is exalted to the status of divinity.
  • Whatever cannot be measured is reduced to what can be or disregarded as irrelevant.
  • Personhood is swallowed up in futility.
  • Freedom is replaced by compulsive efforts to satisfy instincts.
  • Justice is replaced by measurable social criteria, under the guise of equality.
  • Community becomes an effective marketing buzz word because everybody wants it but nobody knows how to get it.
  • Truth is what you make it.
  • Goodness is what you determine it to be.
  • Beauty is what you like.

In the classical tradition, all these ideas were considered independent realities. In other words, truth was truth whether you discovered it or not. You could construct an idea that was wrong. But look at how reading is taught now, both to children and to college students. It’s seriously influenced by the philosophy of constructivism, which says you create your own meaning.

It’s not that they are entirely wrong. Of course, we see things from our perspective. Of course we construct meaning from our experiences. But that doesn’t mean that there is no knowable reality beyond our perspective and no knowable meaning to which we can compare our constructions.

We see through a glass darkly. But there is something that we see. And as our vision more closely aligns with what is actually there, the better we perceive truth and the wiser we are.

There’s all the difference in the world between teaching a child that what he sees is all there is to see and teaching a child that he can improve his vision through training.

But the educators who dominated 20th century practices systematically undercut the students’ capacity to perceive truth and their confidence that it was knowable.

As a result, we have schooled our children into the least educated people in the history of the world.

Pragmatism doesn’t work. It excludes too much from its vision. It cuts short the quest for wisdom. It disables the mind. It redirects our attention to power. We need to absorb what it had right, but we need to transcend it with a restored love for truth rooted in the nature of things.

It seems un-American, but if you want to train a mind, the only way to do so is to give it ideas to contemplate.

(recommended resource: 2009 CiRCE conference CD’s)