Shapes to Shadows

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You can’t argue with that: it’s science!

With all the force of an incantation, these two words have the power to transport their speaker to the heights of argumentative high ground. Flung down like a nobleman’s gauntlet, they indicate that the debate has just taken a definitive—and deadly—turn. The “argument from science” is one of the most effective weapons today’s disputants keep in their arsenal. I’m not talking about the legitimate use of a well-chosen example from biology, or a knowledgeable appeal to an obscure experiment from particle physics. I’m talking about the argumentative one-punch KO, “You must be wrong because some Scientist somewhere said otherwise.” And yes, “Scientist” gets capitalized.

There’s enough delicious irony here for a whole meal. On the one hand, contemporary culture loves to juxtapose science with religion, so that the former is “reasonable” while the latter is “authoritarian.” On the other hand, it turns out that sometimes science is hard—too hard for many contemporary critics of religion—and so in lieu of actual science, we get amorphous appeals to the authority of “Science.”

But we ought to delve deeper than just coyly pointing out the prevalence of anti-authoritarian appeals to authority. We ought to ask how we’ve come to this point in the first place. How has experimental (and not-so-experimental) science become the paradigm for all knowledge? And what does it mean, evangelically, that it has?

Allow me, briefly, to paint this history with a brush about as wide as a truck. According to the classical tradition of philosophy stretching from Plato and Aristotle through the medieval scholastics (a tradition called, in bolder ages, perennial philosophy), true knowledge involves two things: first, an actual understanding of the nature of things, and second, certainty in the conclusions drawn from that understanding. Thus, knowledge of natures begets certainty. With Descartes, this gets reversed: epistemological certainty becomes the gate through which we access the nature of reality. Kant completes this transformation, claiming that the natures of things-in-themselves are inaccessible to us, and, as such, all we have left is the certainty of thought.

The modern sciences operate in a predominantly post-Cartesian, post-Kantian framework. With theoretical physics as its paradigm, contemporary science strives to achieve certainty by producing models (ideally mathematical models) that more or less map onto phenomena in the world. The more mathematically precise the model, the more certain we can be of its “veracity,” even if we never claim to have actually grasped the natures of the things we’re studying. That’s why there’s always a better model to be discovered.

The project is something like trying to apply shapes to shadows. The former is clear, the latter is obscure, and the result is tentative. Reality is always eluding the model, just as a shadow will never be trapped by the shape we impose on it. The process of devising ever more detailed shapes, ever more precise theories, continues indefinitely.

In itself, there’s nothing wrong with this method of scientific investigation. It certainly “works” in terms of moving us forward in the development of technologies, medicines, and the like. But this development is merely a dialectical progress, and it becomes a problem when it pretends to sit upon the throne of true knowledge.

Like a rightful heir proclaiming his pedigree, the words with which Aristotle begins his Metaphysics speak the truth in the face of this usurpation. “All men,” he says, “desire to know.” The meaning here is robust. We are wired for knowledge in its fullest sense. We are beings open to being in our very being. We yearn for the truth about things, about ourselves, and about God; and this desire impels us to move beyond shadows and shapes to the very substance of reality.

The “argument from science” is what happens when men despair of such a possibility, and it is the task of the philosopher, and of the Christian, to spur our contemporaries on in hope. The methods of modern science are not exhaustive. There are other, and better, tools for truth. Man does not desire in vain.

In this task, we are like men holding up torches just before dawn. We cannot expect to scatter all the shadows, but we can cast a little light. With the divine assistance, we can take some small steps in helping others see a bit more clearly, until that time comes when the Sun of Justice rises in their hearts and brings all things to light.

Image: Danita Cole, Fibonacci Wave

By | 2015-02-13T16:58:25+00:00 September 20, 2012|Philosophy, Science|

About this Brother:

Br. Philip Neri Reese, O.P.
Fr. Philip Neri Reese was ordained to the priesthood in May 2015. He grew up just outside Annapolis, Maryland. He attended Dickinson College, where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree, double-majoring in philosophy and religious studies. On DominicanFriars.org