The Suicide of Thought (Part Five)

Part Five: Science Envy

Starting with Descartes, the philosophers attempted to erect the whole of philosophy on a foundation of something other than the common sense observations of Aristotle or Saint Thomas Aquinas, as well as finding something other than the intuitive axioms of Plato or Lucretius. It was immediately discovered that common sense, being particular and local, cannot, without reference to some abstract principle, be applied universally; and likewise intuition, being universal, cannot be justified by a particular, such as an observation or such as an experiment. Hence the acid of universal skepticism was too potent a solvent for its task.

Men began a delusive search for perfect certainty while avoiding the two things on which certainty rests, namely, intuitive truths which we know in our hearts and common sense truths we can see with our eyes.

These men attempting to use science to bring rigor and certainty to fields where the methods of science have no possible application. To real scientists, of course, this attempt has no meaning and no appeal, because real scientists recognize that science has limits. There are questions the scientific method can address and there are those it cannot.

But a new breed was born: the science worshipper. A science worshipper is one who attributes mystical powers to the scientific method, and holds it able to answer philosophical questions as well as questions of physics. A science worshipper is aware of the uncertainties and anxieties of the human condition, and imagines in his delirious heart that somehow, by happy miracle, science will answer all questions of human life and afterlife, and tell us the meaning we seek, and cure our strange heartache for something beyond this life.

At the same time, please note, the real source of philosophical certainty, theology and metaphysics, was in the slow but ineluctable process of being dismissed from the academic life of Europe.

Religious conflict between Christian and Christian was too painful to contemplate, and the disputes barren of results. Unlike the ancients, who could debate, let us say, Trinitarianism for a century, hold a General Ecclesiastic Counsel, voted among the bishops, render a verdict and settle the issue, the intellectual anarchy following the Reformation meant no theological issue was ever settled. Any heretic with a new opinion differing by a shade from that of the previous heretic simply started his own denomination. Once theology was no longer the foundation of philosophy, metaphysical reasoning about abstract but non-divine things was sure to follow, since the axioms of the world were uprooted.

Then began centuries of mental effort which five minutes of sober contemplation should have aborted is a brief snort of derision, where the two properties for which natural sciences were admired were falsely applied to the other disciplines of ethics, metaphysics, politics, logic. Everything was crammed into the box of science, whether it fit or no.

What are the two beauties the physical sciences offer which abstract reasoning does not?

First, science reduces wide ranges of carefully gathered sense data to a few simple ratios or rules, as in Kepler’s Three Laws of Motion.

Second, deduction from axioms was rejected as the starting point of philosophical reasoning, so that man was studied, something more practical and empirical was sought in its place, until the meditations of the philosophers on their fellow man lost all wisdom altogether. They approached the questions not as a juror judging guilt or innocence of a fellow being like himself, but as a biologist studying livestock, and, later, as a mechanic studying a clockwork.

The sad side effects of the first attempt was to introduce reductionism into all branches of philosophy.