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Is Scientific Knowledge Grounded in Faith?

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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

Beginning 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.”

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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New Social Compact

The Depth of Taboo: Social Issues in South Asia

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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Rarely does a geopolitical handbook also make such large and important contributions to uncomfortably critical social issues. This handbook is that rare example. The author Aryal takes our MD readers deep into some disturbing discussions – caste systems, systematic violence against women, rape, honor killings, gender stigmatizing, and societal sexism – not to just anecdotally expose people to some of the continued living horrors afflicting important regions of the world but to systematically analyze such atrocities so that their long-term political, economic, social, and diplomatic consequences are revealed.

What many around the world do not realize is how crippling these gross abuses of human decency can be for a nation and region writ large: these are not just individual crimes to be noted and then forgotten. The failure of societies, the failure of GLOBAL society, to make more effective progress and take a more rigid stand against injustice is a black mark on all countries, on all of us. This handbook in its own small way strives to be a light within that darkness and as such it is both informative and courageous. While the readers of MD will not find the content of this particular handbook for the faint of heart, the importance of acquiring this knowledge, of becoming more aware of the world that we live in as it truly is in so many places, should be considered a duty of all those fortunate enough to not be born into states where such systemic violence still exists and largely goes unchallenged.

The title of this work is no accident and no shameless marketing attempt to attract more readers. Rather, it is exposing in a single word the reason why overcoming systemic violence based on gender is so difficult. Social taboos run deep in every region, state, city, town, village. We will likely not succeed in eliminating them from the social conscience of people. But the attempt to ameliorate the power of taboo, its power to push rationality out and pull insanity in, is a noble one that all of us at the editorial staff at MD recognize as silently essential for the cause of future peace on so many different levels. The battle against taboo is the secret front end of the war against gender violence and oppression. Ultimately, the criminal justice systems of societies must improve to remedy those actions not prevented from occurring. But the real long-term comprehensive solution will be the effort to eliminate the fear of social taboos, to eliminate the stigma that drives many to commit ignorant violence in the first place.

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Women and girls with autism must be empowered to overcome discrimination they face

MD Staff

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On World Autism Awareness Day, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has joined the global call to empower women and girls with autism and involve them and their advocates in policy and decision-making to address the discrimination and other challenges they face.

“They face […] barriers to accessing education and employment on an equal footing with others, denial of their reproductive rights and the freedom to make their own choices, and a lack of involvement in policy making on matters that concern them,” said the Secretary-General in his message on the Day.

Emphasizing that “our work for gender equality and women’s empowerment must reach all the world’s women and girls,” he stressed that the international community’s efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) must uphold the 2030 Agenda’s core promise to leave no one behind.

The Goals and the landmark framework from which they emerged were adopted by UN Member States three years ago. Together they aim to wipe out poverty and boost equality by putting the world on a more sustainable economic, social and environmental path by 2030.

“On World Autism Awareness Day, let us reaffirm our commitment to promote the full participation of all people with autism, and ensure they have the necessary support to be able to exercise their rights and fundamental freedoms,” concluded the Mr. Guterres.

Autism is a lifelong neurological condition that manifests during early childhood, irrespective of gender, race or socio-economic status. The term Autism Spectrum refers to a range of characteristics.

Autism is mainly characterized by its unique social interactions, non-standard ways of learning, keen interests in specific subjects, inclination to routines, challenges in typical communications and particular ways of processing sensory information.

The rate of autism in all regions of the world is high and the lack of understanding has a tremendous impact on the individuals, their families and communities.

The World Day is marked annually on 2 April, and this year’s official UN commemoration will be on Thursday, 5 April, with a half-day programme in New York entitled Empowering Women and Girls with Autism, that will feature a keynote address from Julia Bascom, Executive Director, Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

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New Social Compact

Law in societies: Encounters vs. Anarchy

David Ceasar Wani

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In this essay I will discuss the purpose of law in society but before I go further law refers to the system of rules that a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members and may enforce by the imposition of penalties.

Some human beings can be aptly described as weak willed animals. They are easily influenced by the slightest sight or sniff of power and money. This originates from insatiable greed. Greed that can sometimes make even the iron willed loses their head. How many stories have we heard since our childhood where many “heroes” lost their way to the path of glory by being trapped by greed?

Our one aim in life has always been to find balance and serenity in our lives. A utopian society envisages a vision where people govern themselves. People trust each other blindly. They achieve happiness. People set their goals, lead disciplined lives and achieve anything they set their sights on They are able to live their lives to the fullest and all the time feeling secure about it.

However the vision, unfortunately, exists in an ideal world which frankly is almost the opposite of today’s real world. Our realistic society is heterogeneous mixture of all kinds of people, people who look to disturb the balance of the natural society. It is here that law plays a very important role in restoring that delicate balance back to the society and making the lives of the people living together cohesive. It is here that law helps to maintain the morality of the people as individuals as well as the society as a whole.

World without Let us imagine a world without any law to punish the wrong doer. Let us assume that the society has till now lived an honest life without any kind of betrayal. Suppose a person, in greed, steals a valuable item from his neighbor’s house. He isn’t punished but everyone knows what he has done. Some naive person, probably a youngster witnesses this and is tempted to steal because he knows there are no repercussions. This develops into a never-ending chain endangering the very foundations of the society.

Another example might be a survival situation. A group of people are stranded on an island with twenty days of food and water. They know that a rescue team will reach them on the twenty first day. They carefully divide the food such that they get the necessary nourishments by the time they are rescued. A person, out of greed for more, sneaks quietly and consumes two days of food meant for the whole group. When the group discovers what has happened they confront the person who cunningly reasons with the group that there was no rule or law which forbade eating more. As the group consisted of educated men and women, both young and old, they knew his reasoning was correct and they could not do anything to get the food back. As a result, they starved for two whole days during which a few old people fell ill and could not make it.

Law is essential and many do ask why and how but Law is essential in the society and it is there to guide the society towards happiness without bloodshed and in peace and harmony. Law helps us to restrain ourselves in times of great thirst for more money or power. It curbs our greed reminding us that there is someone or rather something out there ready to punish us if necessary. It helps to restore the balance in the society and bring justice to the victimized. The greatest thing about law is that all are equal before it. No man is rich or poor in the eyes of the law. No man is more powerful than the other in the eyes of the law. Law helps to regulate the behavior of the people. It prevents us from descending into anarchy.

Law is dynamic. It is constantly adapting to the changing times so as to close all the loopholes that may be left due to human error. Our Preamble states the ideals of justice liberty sovereignty fraternity and equality which constitute the basic foundation of Our Constitution. However, without law these ideals will be constantly shattered. There will be nothing to protect these ideals.

In a world where ‘survival of the fittest’ is prevalent, and looking at the size of human population we can say only one thing. Law is needed for survival. We cannot go against each other as it will definitely lead to destruction. Law plants an element of fear which may prevents in killing of fellow human being. It gives each one his or her own share, what they deserve.

Laws tell us what to expect as consequences as a result of our actions. It makes us look before we leap. It is there to protect and to destroy. It restricts people who get carried away due to the freedom given to them by the absence of law if this is the case. They know one abuse of the law will affect them economically, mentally and physically. Some exceptions may be found but this is applicable for the majority.

In addition the natural law which can be refers to Mother Nature herself which follows many rules and laws which help in the sustainability of this world and the life which flourishes on it in abundance. Every living organism, from the tiny unicellular amoeba to the biggest animal the blue whale follows a set of laws to survive.

Let us take the examples of honey bees. They follow the orders of the queen bee and visit hundreds and thousands of flowers to carry the process of pollination which helps in reproduction of these plants. They have to follow a set of rules or laws which will help in this important process. If one of them breaks the law, they are ordered to leave the bee hive. They cannot join another hive nor can they return. It is as good as giving them a life sentence. This life-threatening situation helps to keep the honey bees in check and brings order into the hive.

Same can be said for the birds which migrate every winter or summer depending upon their pattern. They have to follow a set of rules or laws which will help them navigate their way. One abuse of these laws can lead to cases extreme to death.

When in the modern society our modern society has become quite educated and the main question that arises from them is that who has the authority to form these laws which imposes a restriction on their lives. They question and debate upon the authority that makes these laws and rightly so. Once they are satisfied with the authority they know that their lives are secure and they are free to concentrate on their aims and dreams in life. Law is there to attempt to balance the needs of individuals against the needs of the majority. We accept responsibilities, we renounce some of our freedoms (not kill others, not harm others, not steal from other members of the society) to receive in return the benefits of society (not being kill by others, not being harm by others, not being robbed by other members of the society).

Law helps in removal of social stigmas such as dowry and untouchability. For example, in some Constitutions, it talks about untouchability and even though it still exists today, the number of cases has comparatively gone down a lot. This is just one example that law can have in a society which is not perfect, a society where human beings fight, and abuse and kill their own species. This is how law helps in protection of the underprivileged.

Furthermore Law plays a significant role in producing successful societal functions around the world. Law helps regulate social behaviors, ultimately leading to society running efficiently. Without laws, society would have no ethical boundaries or standards, no rules or measures, nor any means of settling even the simplest disputes. Law helps keep the peace in society through governance and standards set forth by all voting citizens. All functions of law in society include peacekeeping, promoting personal freedom, regulating government power, promoting economic growth, promoting social justice, and protecting all of society and the environment. It is important to remember without laws to govern the actions of people in society, it is highly likely all social structure and commerce would collapse. If one can imagine what life would be like if every prisoner in the world were to be released back into society that would be about how unsafe and dysfunctional society would be without laws (Melvin, 2011).

Law and Society The function of law in a society is more or less universal. It acts as a deterrent to control the evil and treacherous behavior of humans, to maintain discipline and imposes restrictions on some freedom. We live in a chaotic and uncertain world. Without an orderly environment based on and backed by law, the normal activities of life would be lacerated with chaos. Law is a social norm, the infraction of which is sanctioned in treat or in fact by the application of physical force or by a party possessing the socially recognized privilege or so acting. It provides a society with order and predictability, resolving disputes, protecting individuals and property, providing for the general welfare and protecting individual liberties. Law and the predictability it provides cannot guarantee us a totally safe world, but it can create a climate in which people believe it is worthwhile to produce, venture fort, and to live for the morrow. It prevents the state of nature, which would be total anarchy had there been no laws. Societies today are more complex and interacting. Maintaining good order and discipline have far reaching implications on a society’s prosperity. Laws are in acted daily throughout different societies for the protection and security of individuals, property, businesses and states. It permits an orderly, peaceful process for dispute resolution and provides us with the programs to establish and enable corporately, what would be impossible, or at least prohibitive, to do as individuals. Laws should be designed to protect the individual personal and civil rights against those forces, which would curtail or restrict them. Some examples of this are freedom of speech, religion, the press, the right to a fair trial and the freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. In the United States the respect for the law is paramount and disobedience to the law.

In conclusion it can be implied by common sense that law helps us to survive as a society and it is convenient. Convenient is comfortable and humans look for comfort above all things apart from happiness. Also law helps in getting rid of the social barriers that exist in our society. Through law we survive yet thrive. Hence law is necessary in a society.

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