Is Scientific Knowledge Grounded in Faith?

The act of faith consists essentially in knowledge and there we find its formal and specific perfection.” -Thomas Aquinas

eginning with the Cartesian rationalistic, dualistic paradigm of perceiving reality there is within Western Civilization an unfortunate tendency to see science and religion in adversary relationship to each other, but that is a false dichotomy. It is basically false because the two phenomena have a common origin. I would submit that the inability to discern a common origin has done irreparable intellectual damage to Western culture and, in as much as its thinking and praxis have spread globally.

If Thomas Aquinas has taught us anything, it is the notion that faith is the very mode of rationality adopted by reason in its fidelity to what it seeks to understand. This is to say that faith and not “clear and distinct ideas” is the most basic form of knowledge in which rational inquiry may be grounded. Vico too never tires of reminding us that before there can be a reflective philosophical knowledge, there is an informal kind of knowledge directly grounded in experience and the senses and formed through the adaptation of the mind to the nature of things.

Our most basic beliefs will arise during this primordial phenomenological, as well as chronological, process. Admittedly this may appear strange to a culture steeped in materialistic empiricism and scientific positivism, but the notion that knowledge is grounded in faith has always been an intrinsic part of the genuine Judeo-Christian tradition.

A philosopher of the stature of Kant and, closer to us, a scientist of the stature of Einstein, were acutely aware that behind scientific activity there is an intuitive faith in the significant nature and meaning of things in the universe. Aquinas for one surely grasped that human rationality stands or falls at the service of faith in reason, or better, faith in truth. Einstein too was aware that without ultimate beliefs, which are by their nature unverifiable, science cannot exist; that those beliefs rather than a formal rationalistic reasoning process, advance knowledge and understanding through the human mind’s fundamental commitment to reality.

To briefly elaborate on this issue let us take a look at Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science. Perhaps more than any other modern scholar Kuhn has gone a long way in convincing the open-minded members of the scientific community that science is nothing but an affirmation of our basic beliefs. In his classical The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962), Kuhn points out that the ultimate beliefs of a scientist exercise a directive function in the way we formulate questions, interpret observations and weighs the evidence; that within a Cartesian paradigm of reality the writing of a history of science will invariably end up with the setting up of a false dichotomy between science and religion.

This notion of science as underpinned by basic beliefs was ridiculed and even caricaturized by some prominent scientists when Kuhn published it. It is still being fought forty years later, but one can confidently predict that, as ideas go, following the natural trajectory of all radically new ideas, it will eventually be accepted and become integral part of a new paradigm.

The dilemma is that after three hundred years of “enlightened” rationalism we, as a civilization, have almost run out of time. In 1992, five hundred years after Columbus’ discovery of a new continent, we seem to be at the crossroads in Western Civilization, lost in a vast see surrounding the small island of scientific knowledge, much as Columbus was lost in the Atlantic in 1492.

It is indeed intriguing to follow the controversy among cultural anthropologists regarding Columbus’ legacy. Certainly today Columbus does not look as good as he looked in 1882. What happened meanwhile? Could it be that Columbus has in fact always been projected as the archetype of Western man’s penchant for spreading his alleged superior civilization to the rest of the globe; a sort of duty called “the white man’s burden”?

A civilization this that only one hundred years ago celebrated Columbus’ discovery for two whole years, to then go on to proclaim technology and its push-button solutions as the key to its superiority over other cultures and civilizations. It now finds itself responsible for a polluted earth, a brutal history of exploitation and colonization, a less than secure political milieu, the threat of nuclear weapons still hanging over it despite the demise of the “Evil Empire,” the executions of a variety of genocidal holocausts, two devastating World Wars, not to speak of the other fifty or so minor conflicts, the so called ethnic conflicts going on even in Europe’s Balkans, an economically exhausting Cold War, two thirds of its former colonial world at the margins of economic prosperity, and close to two million dollars a minute spend on arms while two children die of malnutrition within the same time. This is hardly the Utopia envisioned by the scientists of 1892.

That Utopia was perhaps no longer feasible even in 1892 when the new inhabitants of this continent had already exhibited little desire to prepare for the coming global village by learning some valuable lessons on ecology and social justice from Native Americans. To the contrary, in 1892 America’s propensity was for Jack London’s brand of social Darwinism; a philosophy more consonant with unbridled capitalism and still very much alive today when Ayn Rand has returned with a vengeance.

This rather nightmarish scenario is the direct brain-child of nineteenth century scientists insisting all along that scientific theories and ultimately technology itself are value-free, convenient arrangements of operational “clear and distinct” ideas for purely pragmatic ends with no bearing on Being. It is that kind of mind-set which, when it operates in the world, reduces it to relations of ideas with one another while eliminating the very ground upon which ultimate beliefs arise.

To become more cognizant of this malignant cultural phenomenon, it would suffice to open any of the history texts written in the last one hundred years or so. If ultimate beliefs are even mentioned there, they are usually regarded as nothing more than arbitrary personal manifestations to be discarded in the name of “objectivity” and scientific detachment. That this intellectual stance may itself be a belief system, a paradigm, a myth of reality if you will, is never contemplated because this mind-set is capable of doubting everything except itself.

Indeed the Enlightenment remains to be enlightened about itself. Vico’s insight consists in perceiving that within such a paradigm, conceiving of abstract rational operations as somehow cognitively superior to other intellectual operations of the human mind, the origins of Man’s culture cannot possibly be recaptured. He also intuited that the inability to recapture our origins will doom us to the vision of a less than humane future wherein Man ends up conceiving of himself as nothing more than a mechanically complicated, soulless, and mindless machine. Vico calls the phenomenon “the barbarism of the intellect.”

Some of the latest movies on war exhibit this dehumanizing process. In them violence has no face, suffering has no purpose and ethical considerations have no place. Homer’s Iliad they are not. Efficiency and effectiveness is the name of the game in those movies; nothing less than a prescription for insanity. In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton points out that poets rarely if ever go mad, but chess players (to which I would add military and political strategists) quite often do. He further points out that of all the English poets only Cowper went mad, and that was not because of his imagination but because of his logic of predestination.

The discovery of Vico in our modern age is providential and due to the fact that there is a great need for an integrative scientific approach, capable of bypassing the object/subject dichotomy of a rationalistic materialistic and mechanistic approach to reality, to take its cue from the fundamental relations of the mind to the nature of the world around us. This requires nothing less than a profound synthesis of human thought, the kind of synthesis Vico advocated to his contemporaries as an antidote to the dehumanization of a purely casual account of everything in the universe devoid of a human consciousness.

In this regard the reader should consult Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds and the Laws of Physics (Oxford University Press, 1989), or William Barrett’s Death of the Soul: From Descartes to the Computer. Those two scholars point out that by concentrating exclusively on mechanistic logico-casual connections; the Cartesian paradigm has deprived Man of the rational ground for his convictions and actions. The end result is scientific activity devoid of responsible ethical judgments and decisions.

The moral relativism of our society points to the above mentioned disaster. Many today have opinions (supposedly all valid as any other), precious few have convictions and principles to which they are willing to commit themselves, even die for. That sorry ethical outcome ought to have been apparent the moment Descartes took away from human knowledge the ground of ultimate beliefs, thus discounting the fundamental relationship between thought and being, understanding and reality; notions that any science, in as much as it is made by Man’s mind, should always presuppose.

In education this leads to the privileging of the means over and above the authentic goals of education, the emphasizing of the “real” over and above the “ideal,” the ignoring of the ethical-spiritual component of man’s life, the prostituting of education to mere training for successful manipulation of the “real.”

A rock bottom belief of modern science is that the visible and the tangible have primacy, i.e., are more real than the invisible and the intangible. This is a premise never openly stated but pervading the scientific world which seeks the quantifiable, what can be materially observed while questioning the very existence of the invisible and the intangible. Invariably, it ends up with a purely casual interpretation of human existence devoid of the concept of human freedom. It is all deterministic.

To the medieval mind this view of reality would have appeared quite squalid, especially if one considers that even in the material realm some 90% of matter is invisible to the naked eye and even to the telescope. So it appears that any fair minded scientist has to acknowledge that his standard “scientific” approach is no longer viable after the discovery of the metrical field which is invisible and yet controls all the observable objects in our experience. He would also have to admit that science operates within a hierarchy of levels of meaning and explanations which are open upward but not reducible downward. The organismic relations of living beings, while presupposing the laws of physics and chemistry, are not explainable in terms of these laws. In other words, the higher we go up the scale of levels, the richer the meaning we seem to encounter. The paradox is this: the medieval view was much more “realistic.”

Atoms in motion hardly explain the varied complex meaning of one’s humanity. Humans reading books in a library must appear pretty incomprehensible from a dog’s viewpoint of reality or perhaps to a barbarian who has no inkling of what reading and writing are all about. Indeed, all meaning in science is to be discerned in higher levels of reality and it is not reducible to the laws controlling the ultimate particulars of the universe. Human beings, in as much as they are inherently free, cannot be explained but only understood.

Once this fundamental notion of ultimate beliefs as the foundation of science is accepted, a reverse of the customary Cartesian paradigm begins to occur and we begin to acknowledge, with the medieval mind, that in fact what is most tangible (the substratum) in the universe has least meaning and that moreover the tangible cannot be identified with the real. On the contrary, the deeper the reality of a thing, the less tangible it seems to be. If the substratum is our ultimate reality, then all things are pretty much meaningless. Aquinas was correct: angels are higher beings because they are less tangible in what the scholastics call the chain of being. It appears that the more meaningful the reality, the more spiritual.

That is not to imply that we need to understand angels before the scope of Western scientific development undergoes a transformation. All we need to do is understand Vico. One of his most significant insights, ultimately derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition, is that there is only one creative Source of order and rationality in the universe. That order in turn is creative of the contingent order of nature and our own understanding of it.

As John was inspired to render it: “In the beginning was the Word.” In the interrelation of creation and incarnation within time and space lies the ultimate ground of order. In more traditional Christian thought the self is to be understood only in terms of its relation to God. It is created by God (creation), alienated from him (original sin), visited by him (incarnation), called to spiritual health by him (redemption), destined to be in communion with him forever (resurrection).

Indeed, this is Immanuel, the God who enters into history with us, and therefore to know God is to also know this history with us. Conversely, to detach humanity from the relation to its ultimate underpinning is to miss the very purpose of human existence. And since God cannot be demonstrated empirically or scientifically, man’s worth, his intrinsic dignity, cannot be demonstrated empirically either. All we can do is believe in humanity, just as one believes in God who sustains human nature. Only thus one may hope to reach the very essence of humanity: human personhood. Human personhood and dignity, freedom itself, cannot be proven scientifically (since science functions with deterministic necessary laws) but it can be intuited and one can live by such an intuition.

It is unfortunately true that religion and science, since the Enlightenment have been presented as estranged from each other, but they are now beginning to come around full circle to their common origin where they can meet again as Vico aptly described some three hundred years ago. For as Eliot best rendered it: “The end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time.”

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.


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