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From Big Bang to Big Mystery

From Big Bang To Big Mystery

The Foundations of the Scientific Method

What we call the natural sciences emerged only in Western civilization which in turn was built on the experiences of Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian revelation. How did these experiences make possible the emergence of the experimental natural sciences?

It is possible to list three factors underlying modern scientific method. To undertake any scientific investigation we must:

(i) be convinced that the experienced data which prompt our inquiry is potentially meaningful–otherwise we would not bother to investigate;

(ii) have some control over how we are to understand those data, some kind of definition, however provisional; and

(iii) acknowledge that there is a demand for a process of verification only if the world does not need to be the way it is, but could be otherwise.

So, a word on each of these levels in terms of the history of natural science

The World as Potentially Meaningful

First, for natural science to emerge at the level of wonder at the experience of the natural world, there had to be a belief in the meaningfulness of created reality, where that belief had its origins in faith in a rational creator. In fact, historically the experimental natural sciences only began to flourish from the late-medieval period onwards. The mathematician and philosopher A. N. Whitehead in the first chapter of his Science and the Modern World, discussed ‘The Origins of Modern Science’ and ascribed that development not only to classic Greek philosophy but also to the Jewish and Christian articulation of the rationality of God and of nature.23

The dedivinisation of the mythic cosmos, which occurred both in Genesis and the Hebrew Bible, continued emphatically with Christianity. As Eric Voegelin notes, “when divinity is concentrated in a world-transcendent sphere, the intracosmic [that is, within the cosmos] divine order disappears.”24 Without the notion of a world that was not divine there couldn’t be an experimental study of what’s typically called “nature.”

And yet, if that natural world was either divine–as for example the Stoics considered it to be–or chaotically impenetrable to rational analysis, no one would take on the tremendous labour of investigation.25 This, Stanley Jaki notes, underlies the failure both of the classical Greek, Indian and Chinese cultures to develop an experimental natural science.

He writes of how the phrase from the Book of Wisdom:

“‘You have arranged all things by measure, number and weight’ (11:20) served as inspiration and assurance for those who in late antiquity assumed the role of champions of the rationality of the universe. A thousand years later the expression was gladly seized upon by those who daringly started out on the road to unfold the marvels of God’s handiwork along the lines of quantitative inquiry.”26

Historians of science would also include the Arab advancement of mathematics as a factor, since the ability to make controlled measurements of natural phenomena was central to the advance of the natural sciences.27 Whatever his theological views, Einstein’s famous remark, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible” can be taken as a late echo of comments by scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, all explicitly referring to the Creator as the underlying source of the world’s meaningfulness for scientific investigation.28

The World Explained With Definitions

Second, at the level of what we’ve been calling the “what question,” the Greek discovery of definition was a key component in the emergence of scientific thinking–or of controlled reasoning–in the history of humanity. Lonergan discusses this Greek component, where the “classic expression of the effort to control meaning is found in the early Platonic dialogues.” Socrates’ questions aimed at “universal definitions, brief and exact statements that fitted every case of courage and, at the same time, fitted nothing except courage . . .” He had made the discovery–although its beginnings can be found in the earlier medical treatises of Hippocrates–”that a good definition . . . had to apply to every instance of the defined and to no instance of something else.”29

Lonergan’s Insight explores the richness of definition in modern science, including not only the kind of definition employed in classic Newtonian physics, but the later development of the science of probability. Statistical method deals not with the nature of an X but how often Y occurs, and further, its expansion within quantum mechanics. Lonergan further widens the notion of definition to include living things whose definition necessarily includes the facts of development, and–in an extension to the human sciences–articulates a scientific understanding of individual, social and historical breakdown.

So definition can include classical, statistical, developmental, and dialectical methods.30 However, just as the potential meaningfulness of the natural world ontologically has an origin outside itself, the natural scientific definitions of things do not exhaust the meaning of the realities they define. When we define what a star, an atom, a bacterium, a plant, an animal, or a human being is, there always remains the further metaphysical question about their existence. And this further question remains even when the “nature” being defined is at a much higher level of explanation, as for example, overarching physical or astronomical theories, or the various theories of evolution connecting all living things into one overall explanatory context.

As Voegelin puts it in his essay “What is Nature?”, “there are no things that are merely immanent.”31 Echoing this, David Walsh writes, “The reality of nature is contained not within itself, but within its tension toward being as such.’32 This in no way means that philosophy can ever make up for the observation and experimentation that constitutes the methodology of the natural sciences. For example, only years of research in botany can yield the range of insights into the growth cycle of California redwoods, the difference between the coastal and High Sierra species, and why their ecosystem is so complex that they cannot be reproductively grown anywhere else, and so on.

But even when, in some botanical future, all such questions are finally answered, there still remain the questions Leibniz as a philosopher would ask: why have the redwoods the nature that botany shows them to have? Another instance would be Stephen Hawking’s assertion “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing . . .”33 Is it not also reasonable to ask the further question: why is there a law like gravity?

The World as Necessary or Contingent

Third, at the level of judgement, or the Is-Question, there is the notion of contingent being. Stanley Jaki writes of the Hellenistic attitude towards nature as something “one could speculate about in order to understand it, but one was not suppose to supplement his speculations . . . by submitting them to tests consisting in changes imposed systematically on nature. This entailed the barring of repeated experiments” since nature was determined to repeat itself according to necessary laws.34

He notes the “inhibitory influence of the belief in eternal recurrences” on Greek science and how that was historically overcome by the Christian refusal to accept either the divinity of the heavens or the myth of necessarily recurring cycles, both because of belief in a divinity transcending the cosmos and that the world had a beginning in time.35 The point is that only if the natural world is not necessary can we arrive at concrete judgements which verify or falsify our hypotheses or theories about this or that aspect of it.

At least in this we can agree with the positivists of the Vienna School and Karl Popper’s variation of it, that all our scientific insights have to be tested in the material under investigation and judged true or false on the basis of that testing. And again, that verification requires the background context of the radically different approach to reality in Judeo-Christian culture that can’t be found either in the great Oriental religions or even in classic Greece. These other cultures did not develop the notion of the natural world as inherently contingent, and not necessary, which might explain the emergence of the natural sciences in the West, at least from the time of Galileo onwards.36

Again, our third factor of contingency is no more an ultimate than are the earlier two factors of possible meaningfulness or definition. As David Walsh has written, “Contingency is not itself contingent. Once we realise that what characterises the flow of things does not necessarily, and cannot necessarily, be extended to the whole itself, we are no longer so lost in the cosmos.”37

In the Judeo-Christian experience there was a strong awareness of the world’s createdness. So the world did not necessarily exist, but as a matter of fact, had come into existence. And there could be no natural science without that awareness of a contingent world. It’s a contingent world whose laws–unlike those of mathematics or logic, which are necessary and universal–are not necessary, yet when they’re discovered they’re found to be universal, Still, as Walsh has noted, contingency itself can only be understood in terms of what is not contingent, or it is itself without meaning.

Having discussed the epistemological, ontological, and historical background for the natural sciences, let’s have a quick look at an overall framework or heuristic for investigating the entire material world. This will help us interconnect the full range of natural sciences with one another and show their correspondence to the dynamic unity of the material world.

The Contingencies that Made the Earth Possible

We’re all familiar with the outlines of the cosmos story narrated by the natural sciences, even if the details undergo constant modification by new discoveries and theoretical revisions. Edmund Hubble’s and George-Henri Lemaître’s discovery of the expansion of the universe at a constant rate in the 1920s and early thirties, the later development of the expansion theory as inflation theory by Alan Guth and others, and George Smoot’s discovery in April 1992 of the variation in the density of matter at 300,000 years after the first instant of the existence of the cosmos, led to a renewed attempt to understand the origins and nature of the cosmos as a whole.38

Hugh Ross, in his Why the Universe is the Way It Is, gives an excellent summary of up-to-date scientific conclusions regarding the series of improbable events that make the emergence of life, and later of human life, possible.39 He begins with our galaxy, the Milky Way, and points out how its age and its position in a medium-sized system of galaxies known as the Local Group is just right as the star-based context within which life could emerge. The Milky Way itself emerged at the right time, since if it had belonged to the earlier galaxies, it wouldn’t have been able to emit the metals required for the formation of the terrestrial planets needed for most higher forms of life.40

Then there’s the wonderful positioning of our Solar System on a partial spiral of the Milky Way, which again falls within the requirements for a habitable zone. Our own Sun is at just the right age, neither too young–when it would be too bright–nor too old–when it would be too hot–for life to emerge. Then there is the position of the Earth within the Solar System, where the much larger gas planets, especially Jupiter and Saturn, largely shield it from the continual and life-threatening assaults of space-debris like comets and meteorites. The Moon’s gravitational pull slowed the Earth’s day from a two- to three-hour length–which would not have been the balanced twenty-four hour period of day and night that plants and animals, which came later, require.

The Contingencies that Made Life Possible

This unfolding sequence of events exhibits a series where the earlier levels can function without the later ones, but the later ones depend on the earlier. As we know, the elements necessary for life could only come into existence through the process of nucleosynthesis. The only place hot enough to “cook” the light element helium into the heavier element carbon, apparently, is the heart of a dying star. Some 10 to 5 billion years ago, the first generation of stars, when their hydrogen cores burnt up at a heat of 100m°K–an incredibly finely tuned process–released carbon and the other heavier elements into the universe.41

It is up to astrophysics and biochemistry to understand the process by which, say, the heavier elements of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, along with hydrogen, in the extremely apt compounds of amino acids, are swept up into at least one hundred proteins arranged in highly-ordered three-dimensional shapes, which constitute a living cell with its unique property of reproducing itself every twenty minutes.

The first signs of life on earth, the bacterial cells (that is, cells without a nucleus) of fossilised stromatolites–mat-like layers of cells–have been calculated at 3.7 billion years ago. Just as old are  the archaea, the single-celled organisms living near high temperature vents in the ocean or at hot springs or salt lakes. (More recently they’ve also been found in soil, marshland, and plankton –discovered as late as 1977 by Carl Woese and George Fox.) And the first complex eukaryotic cells (cells with nuclei) in algae date from 1.5 billion years ago.42

Towards the end of Smoot and Davidson’s Wrinkles in Time they remark: “We can see how very complex the universe is now, and we are part of that complexity.”43 The universe is not simply one layer of existence heaped on top of another, like a gigantic world-burger. What makes the narration a story, as distinct from the discrete set of facts we have just given, is the dynamic interconnection between the different levels of being in the cosmos–physical, chemical, biological, botanical, zoological, and human.

The Origins of the Anthropic Principle

Frameworks have been constructed by various thinkers to try to articulate the links among the different levels of existence. One framework is the well known theory of biological evolution. Another is what cosmologist Brandon Carter and later John Barrow and Frank Tipler called “the anthropic principle.” We’ll be discussing evolution in our next chapter, so we’ll just say a few words about how the anthropic principle was developed.

For example, we’re familiar with the vital role played by the earliest life forms on earth, prokaryotic algae. These algae turn water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight into their food, with oxygen as a very important by-product, which, from 2.7 billion years to 2.2 billion years ago, changed the Earth’s atmosphere from lacking oxygen to containing almost 20 per cent oxygen.

The careful survey in Barrow and Tipler’s study dedicates chapters to the physical, quantum mechanical and biochemical examples of the so-called “Goldilocks Principle”–which finds again and again that the natural order shows an amazing tilt towards the exact balance of neither too much nor too little needed for the emergence of life.44 They discuss the importance of water, the significance of carbon, carbon dioxide, and carbonic acid, of nitrogen, and so on, without which life could not have emerged, or at least been maintained.

While algae may be considered as plant life, still, since they are only single-celled, we may prefer to see plants in terms of the more complex forms of land plants as late as 450 million years ago. The first multicellular animal life appears from around 550 million years back, with Australian Ediacaran and Canadian Burgess Shale fauna.45 Later we’ll be discussing the evidence for the earliest undeniably human beings–perhaps as early as 150,000 years ago.

Weak and Strong Anthropic Principles

For Barrow and Tipler, it looks as if the universe did know we were coming, as theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson put it.46 There are various versions of the anthropic principle all asking the underlying question–how is it that a series of improbable events have made life, and then human life, possible?

The “weak” version simply holds that, as a matter of fact, life wouldn’t be possible without that sequence of improbable events. The “strong” version goes so far as to say that that sequence occurred in order that we should be here. However, the “strong” version doesn’t seem to belong to natural science, but to the area covered by philosophy or theology, and has been rejected by most scientists as scientifically untestable, and therefore unprovable. It might just be a playful metaphor, ascribing to the universe a capital letter and the power of thinking.

But from a philosophical or theological perspective, it’s a bit unadventurous–it avoids the further question as to why such a universe should be the case, and even more, whether it was created and by whom. The formulation of the strong anthropic principle seems due to the blurring of the two types of question we’ve spoken of, so that some think that “how” questions do away with the need for “why” questions.

The Foundation: Aristotle’s Leap of Being

Before saying a few words about Bernard Lonergan’s approach to understanding cosmic process, I’d like to consider Aristotle for a moment. Aristotle developed a way for understanding the relationship among different levels of being particularly in his treatise called De Anima, or On The Soul–which is an investigation of vegetative, animal, and human life. He spoke of that heuristic or intellectual context in terms of the relationship between matter and form. Eric Voegelin has a useful modern restatement of this:

“These levels of the hierarchy of being [Voegelin had already mentioned them as human-psychic, animal, vegetative, and inanimate being] are related to each other in (a) the grounding of the higher on the lower ones and (b) the organisation of the lower by the higher ones.”

“These relationships are not reversible. On the one hand, there is no eu zen, no good life [that is, the full actualisation of the human level in its ethical realization] in Aristotle’s sense, without the foundation of zen [that is, the biological level of life]; on the other hand, the order of the good life does not emerge from the corporeal foundation but comes into being only when the entire existence is ordered by the center of the existential tension [towards the Good].”47

Lonergan’s Emergent Possibility

But is there an intellectual framework for understanding a world which is a lot more dynamic and interrelated than Aristotle’s world? About twenty years before the anthropic principle was formulated, in a profound upgrade of the Aristotelian articulation of the relation between matter and form, Bernard Lonergan remarked in Insight that “concrete extensions [spaces] and concrete durations [times] are the field or matter or potency in which emergent probability is the immanent form or intelligibility” (Insight, 325).

What Lonergan offers in Insight is a generalized framework for the entire dynamic sequence of interrelationships among the levels of reality from physics up to anthropology. He writes:

“Let us say that the schemes P, Q, R . . . form a conditioned series, if all prior members of the series must be functioning actually for any later member to become a concrete possibility. Then P (say, the physical and chemical levels of existence) can function without Q (say, the biological level of existence) or R (say, the zoological level of existence); Q can function without R; but Q can’t function without P, nor can R function without P and Q” (Insight, 118-19).

The Six Factors in Emergence and Survival

Emergent probability for Lonergan “results from the combination of the conditioned series of schemes with their respective probabilities of emergence and survival.” He outlines the application of this insight in terms of its capacity to make sense in world process of its (i) spatial distribution, (ii) large numbers, (iii) long intervals of time, (iv) selection, (v) stability, and (vi) development (Insight, 122).

Attempting to summarize his explanation of these factors we can say:

(i) that the later and more advanced schemes, since they depend on the greatest number of conditions being fulfilled, “will be limited to a relatively small number of places.”

(ii) Large numbers are required since “the lower the probability of the last schemes of the conditioned series the greater must be the initial absolute numbers in which elementary schemes can be realized. In brief, the size of a universe is inversely proportionate to the probability of its ultimate schemes of recurrence.”

(iii) While “the initial benefit of large numbers is lost by the successive narrowing of the basis for further developments,” long intervals of time greatly increase the probability of more developments.

(iv) There’s “a selective significance attached to the distinction between probabilities of emergence and probabilities of survival . . . If both are high, the occurrences will be both common and enduring. If the probability of emergence is low and that of survival is high, the scheme is expected to be rare but enduring.”

(v) “The line of maximum stability would be of common and enduring schemes while the line of minimum stability would be of rare and fleeting schemes.”

(vi) Lonergan notes that stability and development can conflict, since schemes “with high probabilities of survival tend to imprison materials in their own routines,” providing a stable basis for later schemes but tending “to prevent later schemes from emerging.”

A Radically Non-Deductivist Philosophy

The best solution “would be for the earlier conditioning schemes to have a high probability of emergence but a low probability of survival,” forming a “floating population on which later schemes could successively depend.” Their low probability of survival “would readily surrender materials to give later schemes the opportunity to emerge” (Insight, 122-4).

Taken together, these factors help to make sense of the enormous size and age of our universe and the small likelihood and incredible scarcity of life. What Lonergan opens up, I think, is the possibility of a radically non-deductivist philosophical formulation of a cosmological-anthropological view of the world.48

There, each level can be seen as providing the materials required for the next highest level. As he writes, “World process is open. It is a succession of probable realisations of possibilities. Hence it does not run along the iron rails laid down by determinists nor, on the other hand, is it a non-intelligible morass of merely chance events.”

This openness admits breakdowns and blind alleys, since schemes have no more than a probability of survival, and successful schemes can “bind within their routines the materials for the possibility of later schemes and so . . . block the way to a full development” (Insight, 126,127).

These remarks will be worth keeping in mind when we consider several blind alleys in hominid development, from Australopithecus robustus to the Neanderthals, where their greater physical strength may have blocked off opportunities for further development.

Confirming Science to Material and Formal Causes

Lonergan notes that his heuristic for development is to be understood within the limits of empirical science, focusing only on what Aristotle would call material and formal causes. “As empirical science it prescinds from efficient, instrumental, and final causes, which refer to distinct types of intelligibility and lie beyond the qualifications of empirical method either to affirm or to deny” (Insight, 260).

By (a) efficient, (b) instrumental, and (c) final causes, Lonergan means here, (a) the primary causation from non­existence into existence, (b) discussion of created or secondary causation in its relation to primary causation, and (c) the overall aim of the created universe.49

The openness of emergent probability is due to its radically non-deductive nature, accepting as a matter of fact that lower aggregates of existence make materially possible the emergence of the next level, but neither explain nor necessitate it. As a heuristic framework, it is not a hypothesis to be verified or falsified within any of the natural sciences, but a heuristic assumption that can only be empirically tested through specific determinations and applications (Insight, 261). For our purposes, its primary function is to provide an intellectual context within which the various findings of the natural sciences can be drawn together.

Swiss philosopher of science Arthur Pap wrote of how such heuristic contexts could be verified in terms of what he called “the contextual confirmation of theoretical postulates.”50 In other words, such general theories can only be found to be true or false in terms of how well they explain the wide ranges of material they purport to make sense of.

We can say that the series of six interconnected levels, from physical to human, in Lonergan’s terminology is “a linked sequence of dynamic and increasingly higher integrations” (Insight, 115f., 454f.). And since such sets of dynamic interactions among levels are recurrent, from plants through lower to higher animals, including the hominids, up to man, it is possible to form a viewpoint of the entire sequence with lower levels providing the materials for the next highest level. That overall insight is into “the immanent design or order” of the universe (Insight, 116).

The Levels of Science Math the Levels of Reality

Lonergan spells out the hierarchy of levels in being to which the different natural sciences correspond:

“The laws of physics hold for subatomic elements; the laws of physics and chemistry hold for chemical elements and compounds; the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology hold for plants; the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, and sensitive psychology hold for animals; the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, sensitive psychology, and rational psychology hold for men. As one moves from one genus [here meaning level of being] to the next, there is added a new set of laws which defines its own basic terms by its own empirically established correlations.” (Insight, 255)

Against the view holding that all the higher sciences can ultimately be reduced to the lower sciences of physics, chemistry, and biochemistry, Lonergan finds the need to proceed to a higher science when it confronts data which can’t be understood in terms of the lower sciences:

“. . . if the laws of subatomic elements have to regard the regular behaviour of atoms as mere patterns of happy coincidences, then there is an autonomous science of chemistry. If the laws of chemistry have to regard the metabolism and division of cells as mere patterns of happy coincidences, then there is an autonomous science of biology. If the laws of biology have to regard the behaviour of animals as mere patterns of happy coincidences, then there is an autonomous science of sensitive psychology. If the laws of sensitive psychology have to regard the operations of mathematicians and scientists as mere patterns of happy coincidences, then there is an autonomous science of rational psychology [what we’ll be calling philosophical anthropology].”

The higher sciences don’t take away the need for the lower ones, which must do their own explaining on their own terms. What the higher sciences do is to explain only what the lower sciences leave unexplained:

“Nor does the introduction of the higher autonomous science interfere with the autonomy of the lower; for the higher enters into the field of the lower only in so far as it makes systematic on the lower level what otherwise would be merely coincidental.” (Insight, 256)

The Need for Success Higher Viewpoints

What Lonergan is saying here is that corresponding to the various levels of reality–physical, chemical, biological, botanical, zoological, human–is the sequence of sciences which function as a series of higher viewpoints.51 Each higher viewpoint arises from a new set of questions the phenomena pose to the scientist, questions which can’t be answered in terms of the lower science. Corresponding to the successive levels of reality, there will be distinct and autonomous empirical sciences. These distinct and autonomous sciences “will be related as successive higher viewpoints” (Insight, 438-9).

A simple example for the need to move from a lower to a higher viewpoint would be trying to arrive at a scientific understanding of a field of buttercups. Let’s say the buttercups show slight species variation depending on their position in wetter or drier parts of the field. However exhaustively the biochemical changes in the buttercups were registered, no such account would yield the specifically botanical insight into the kind of things buttercups are.52 Nor are the millions of cells in each buttercup separate “things,” since intrinsic to the constitution of each cell is that they are buttercup cells.

The point is that when you ask questions as to why a whole range of data that’s making some sort of sense can’t be explained at a certain level, you may then have to move to another level of science, in this case from biology to botany. We’ll come back to the question of higher viewpoints when we discuss biology and evolution and especially when we’re discussing the relative status of hominid studies and philosophical anthropology.

The Search for a Satisfactory Narrative

While we can look at science in terms of the scientist as the knowing subject and in terms of the object that is studied, both of these aspects can get seriously distorted. Scientific inquiry gets derailed by the ideology of what’s called “scientism,” and the objects of scientific inquiry find themselves downgraded through the corresponding blind spot of “reductionism.”

Bernard Lonergan has developed the correlative terms of “scotosis”–the non-occurrence of relevant insights for whatever reason–and “scotoma”–the reality eclipsed because not questioned. Thus, we can see scientism as the scotosis whose resulting scotoma is reductionism (Insight, 191-203). Why these derailments?

The comparatively late emergence of the experimental natural sciences in Western Europe from the 1300s on, with its great sequence from Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo to Newton, coincided with the epoch when the intellectual and cultural significance both of Judeo-Christian revelation and of classic Greek philosophy was breaking down in the West. Possibly to substitute for the loss of these sources of Western order, the natural sciences acquired an unquestioned authority, setting them over against both revelation and classic philosophy as inherently superior to them by reason of their experimental methods.

However, many practitioners of the newly developing natural sciences failed to understand the specificity of the methodologies they were developing to the fields of data they were studying, and mistakenly assumed that their new methodologies were equally applicable in the areas covered by classic philosophy and Judeo-Christian revelation.

So we’ve arrived at the situation Neil Postman described in his essay, “Science and the Story That We Need.” For Postman, the contemporary need for a narrative that will answer our quest for meaning occurs at a time when a series of attempted narratives have ceased speaking to anybody. The narrative of National Socialism died in the ruins of 1945 Berlin, Marx’s narrative ended most dramatically in the rubble of the wall dividing that same city forty-four years later, and Freud’s petered out perhaps in a Woody Allen spoof.

Postman asks, “Is there no secular god left to believe in?” and answers: “There is of course the great narrative known as inductive science.” Certainly those whom Postman lists as its first storytellers–Descartes, Bacon, Galileo, Kepler and Newton–”did not think of their story as a replacement for the great Judeo-Christian narrative but as an extension of it.”53 Nonetheless, that is what it has come to be in Western society, in what has been called scientism rather than science. What do we mean by scientism?

When Science Explains Everything

If natural science claims to be the total explanation of everything, it becomes, what I believe Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek was the first to call, “scientism:” “natural science” as an ideology claiming to be the only valid science.54 One of the sources of that cultural success has been the obvious achievement of physics and chemistry, leading to a privileging of the type of understanding employed in those natural sciences. As early as the 1550s, Rabelais felt the need to satirise this:

“Others were carefully measuring flea-hops in a long garden. This practice, they assured me, was more than necessary for the government of kingdoms, the conduct of wars, and the administration of republics.”55

It does no harm to remind ourselves that scientism hasn’t been arrived at by any inquiry by the natural sciences. When a Richard Dawkins insists that unless an issue is decided on the basis of evidence, his presumption is that the only kind of evidence is that required by, say physics or biology. But, as Eric Voegelin writes:

“. . . the popular assumption that mathematical natural science is the model of science par excellence, and that an operation not using its methods cannot be characterised as scientific, is neither a proposition of mathematical science, nor of any science whatsoever, but merely an ideological dogma thriving in the sphere of scientism.”56

In his essay on “The Origins of Scientism,” Voegelin notes that along with scientism’s “assumption that the mathematised science of natural phenomena is a model science to which all other sciences ought to conform,” what follows is “that all realms of being are accessible to the methods of the sciences of phenomena,” and “that all reality that is not accessible to sciences of phenomena is either irrelevant or, in the more radical form of the dogma, illusionary.”57 His critique of scientism, then, is part of a more general diagnosis of ideological thinking in general, a closure to rational inquiry characterised by its routine “prohibition of questioning.”58

When the Scientist Overreaches

Up to his death in 2002, Stephen Jay Gould was probably the US’s best-known evolutionary biologist. Still, he took Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett to task in a famous article called “Darwinian Fundamentalism.”59 While, as P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster would have said, “and he meant it to sting,” the title performs the useful service of reminding us that “fundamentalism” isn’t limited to narrow-minded religious attitudes.

What aroused Gould’s ire was that Dawkins and Dennett were stepping outside their area of biological expertise and pronouncing on matters their science didn’t deal with–an approach common to all those called fundamentalists and which I’ll call “the fallacy of answering the unasked question.”

If I claim that the Bible answers questions in geology or paleontology that it doesn’t ask, or that a theory in astronomy or biology fully accounts for the mystery of existence, including human existence, or that a Marxist or positivist philosophy rules out any possibility of divine revelation, then I think there’s been an attempt to provide answers to questions which don’t arise within their methodologies. In the natural sciences, that kind of intellectual closure is what we’re calling scientism.60 But there’s a serious consequence of scientism we must now refer to.

Reductionism: Reducing Spirit to Genes

In direct contrast with what Lonergan said about data requiring that the scientist move to a higher level, it’s all too easy to find statements insisting that the lower level of, as here, genetics, determines “who we are and what we do as humans”:

“In The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins . . . writes that ‘living organisms exist for the benefit of DNA rather than the other way round.’ In a similar way, Wilson proposes that genes play a pre-eminent role, even in the development of human behaviour and culture. He argues that the environment is important in the selection of genetic variants and their expression. In the end, however, it is the gene and its information that determines who we are and what we do as humans . . . Even though allowances are made for some higher-level patternings, these are really epiphenomena of the structures that make up the whole.”61

Reductionism is the name given to the claim to reduce all of reality to the areas dealt with by the natural sciences, often, as here, privileging physics and chemistry:

“Right up to the middle of the twentieth century, life was thought to be qualitatively beyond physics and chemistry. No longer. The difference between life and non-life is a matter not of substance but of information . . . Most of the information is digitally coded in DNA, and there is also a substantial quantity coded in other ways. . .”62

As his encyclopedic Ancestor’s Tale and The Greatest Show on Earth abundantly show–each full to the gills with ranges of biological, botanical and zoological data–Dawkins has made it his life’s work to make accessible to the public Darwin’s understanding of the interrelation of all life’s phenomena, which was not in terms of physics or chemistry, but biology.63 Dawkins’ reductionist belief that physics, chemistry and molecular biology will provide an adequate explanation for the living realities Darwin studied may stem from Dawkins’ failure to reflect on the methodological and ontological issues posed by his own scientific study of biology, botany and zoology.

In Bernard Lonergan’s language, from the iewpoint of the lower sciences, all zoological behaviour is a “mere pattern of happy coincidences.” As we’ve noted, the reason the higher science goes beyond the lower one is because it’s required to make systematic what’s merely coincidental from the viewpoint of the lower science. Just as scientism can’t be proved by the methods of the natural sciences, so reductionism is an ideological opinion or belief rather than a valid conclusion of any of the natural sciences, since it’s not within their scope to make general statements about the nature of reality–for example, to declare that all of reality is material and only material. Reductionism’s contention “that things are all of one kind has rested, not on concrete evidence, but on mechanist assumption” (Insight, 257), and, as Sergio Rondinara writes, is “normally due to a monistic conception of the real.”64

One way of understanding reductionism is in terms of its inability to see the whole for the part, an approach Lonergan discusses in a section in Insight on “things within things” (Insight, 258-9). While the laws of physics and chemistry hold for biological or zoological or anthropological reality, that does not mean that things of the lower order exist in things of the higher order. Laws express relations, but the fact there are relations of a lower order which are verified in something of a higher order doesn’t mean that things of that lower order exist in the higher order reality:

“. . . it is one thing to prove that [lawful relations] of the lower order survive within the higher genus; it is quite another to prove that things defined solely by the lower correlations also survive. To arrive at correlations, abstractive procedures are normal; one considers events under some aspects and disregards other aspects of the same events. But to arrive at a thing, one must consider all data within a totality, and one must take into account all their aspects.” (Insight, 258)

If I play the piano, the movements of my fingers may be partly explained by physics and chemistry, biochemistry and anatomy, but the thing that is taking place–for example, playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”–would be missed by a description detailing these partial though true accounts of events on the lower levels. I’m more than my fingers and what I’m doing is more than the physics, chemistry, biochemistry and anatomy. This is the exact opposite to the reductionism of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene whose blurb accurately summarises his argument: “Our genes made us. We animals exist for their preservation and are nothing more than their throwaway survival machines.”65

Chemistry Does Not Explain a Rose

To try to understand simply in terms of chemistry the blur of chemical reactions involved in, say, the photosynthetic action around that field of buttercups we mentioned would be to not understand why the plants engage in energy transfer from sunlight in order to stay alive. This would mean ignoring the aspect of the reality that can’t be explained in terms of the lower viewpoint and that “justifies the introduction of the higher viewpoint” and the higher level of botany that corresponds to it. So, “if there is evidence for the existence of the higher genus, there cannot be evidence for things of lower genera in the same data” (Insight, 258).

Voegelin puts the non-reducibility of a plant to “things” within it very concretely:

“A plant is a plant. You see it. You don’t see its physical-chemical processes, and nothing about the plant changes if you know that physical-chemical processes are going on inside. How these processes will result in what you experience immediately as a plant (a rose or an oak tree), you don’t know anyway. So if you know these substructures in the lower levels of the ontic hierarchy (beyond the plant which is organism) and go into the physical, chemical, molecular and atomic structures, ever farther down, the greater becomes the miracle how all that thing is a plant. Nothing is explained. If you try to explain it in terms of some mechanism, you have committed the fallacy of reduction.”66

Underlying this whole discussion has been the often uneasy relationship not only between the natural sciences themselves, but between them and philosophy, since the problems of scientism and reductionism are fundamentally what Rondinara calls “metascientific, or if you wish, philosophical.”67 Our final section here will at least point in the direction of a resolution of the issue.

Natural Science Needs Philosophy

So that the natural sciences don’t derail into scientism or reductionism, reflection on their methodology and on their understanding of reality should include an understanding of their historic and cultural context, the theory of knowledge implicit in their practice, and the ontological presuppositions about “the world,” since all these factors underpin them as a human undertaking and achievement.

A simple way of keeping in mind the relationship between biology and philosophy would be to compare it with the relationship between cookery and farming (including market gardening). Cookery presumes that its materials will be supplied by farmers and market gardeners, much in the same way as biology presumes the existence of living realities.

No more than the busy cook has time to ask just how this or that piece of steak or turnip was produced, does the biologist have time to deal with the quite different questions regarding the existence of the material universe or of the huge range of living things. Both cook and biologist presume the existence of the materials they’re dealing with.

To resolve the conflict between Newtonian and quantum physics, Niels Bohr introduced the notion of complementarity between the two apparently contradictory approaches. This is a complementarity between branches of the same natural science. But we can go further and suggest that the natural sciences can best operate as complementary to other sources of truth: for everyone that should include philosophy, and for believers, revelation too.

It’s when complementarity breaks down that the limits of each area, revelation, philosophy and natural science, become most clearly exposed. If a believer, philosopher or natural scientist makes assertions which do not fall within his competence, when he claims to answer a question that can neither be raised nor answered within his area of experience or discipline, he has slipped, perhaps inadvertently, into what we’ve called the “fallacy of answering the unasked question.”

Each Way of Knowing in its Place

Instead of conflicting with one another, why can’t natural science, philosophy and revelation each preserve its autonomy, purify one another whenever one goes beyond its original premises, and work in complementarity at the common quest for an understanding of our universe and our own place within it?

In this way, we can arrive at a more satisfactory account of the various levels of existence–the natural sciences, by presenting us with the latest insights regarding these levels and their contents; philosophy, in taking up the boundary issues that are sometimes raised by these levels in terms of primary causation.

Sergio Rondinara quotes from Pope John Paul II’s 1991 “Message to the Director of the Vatican Observatory” on precisely this complementarity, where he focuses on the science versus religion debate–I would add of course, the science versus philosophy debate:

“Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and from false absolutes. Each can help the other to enter into a more complete world, where both can prosper.”

He speaks of:

“a progress towards mutual understanding and a gradual discovery of shared interests . . . we have an unprecedented opportunity to establish a common interactive relationship where every discipline maintains its own integrity while remaining radically open to the discoveries and intuitions of the other.”68

Integrating the Personality

Rondinara goes on to point out how such complementarity enriches not only philosophy and the natural sciences. As persons, scientists, philosophers and theologians involved in the different areas can become more human since science, philosophic understanding and faith enrich different aspects of the same person. Such a unification of knowledge in the first place occurs within the inquiring subject. Rondinara speaks of the need for those involved in the dialogue to undergo a certain loss of self in order to receive the gift of the other partners in dialogue.

Drawing on Plato’s famous Seventh Letter and the Fourth Gospel, he suggests making a gift of our intellectuality to the other, so that, while remaining faithful to the requirements of our own discipline, we transcend it in “a new dimension of intellectuality capable of understanding and welcoming the differing intellectuality of every man and woman.”69 Obviously, this need for mediation between different modes of inquiry isn’t only an individual matter. C. P. Snow’s famous notion of “the two cultures”–human and natural scientific studies–and the need for continual dialogue between them, has enormous social and political implications.

While Snow was criticising the lack of scientific knowledge in educated circles in Britain in the 1950s and sixties, perhaps C. S. Lewis was more perceptive of the imbalance in the other direction–of the stifling of the humanities in a culture where technology had achieved dominance over human values.70 At any rate, the need for open and ongoing dialogue between the sciences and the humanities (including philosophy and theology) is a key imperative in Western society today.



22. For example, Stephen Hawking makes this assertion at the beginning of The Grand Design: “philosophy is dead” since it “has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch for discovery in our quest for knowledge” (p. 5).

23. A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, London: Cambridge University Press, 1953, p. 15f. Stanley Jaki in his Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1986, p. 231) refers to Whitehead’s remark that “studies in medieval science . . . provided . . . ample evidence that the medieval faith in the scrutability of nature had its logical justification in the medieval theology about Creator and creation, and that the faith in the possibility of science is a most conscious derivative from the tenets of medieval theology on the “Maker of Heaven and Earth”.” Jaki in Science and Creation and in his Gifford Lectures, The Road of Science and the Ways of God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978) among many other publications provides a mass of material on the origins of modern science within the context of Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian revelation.

24. Eric Voegelin, The Drama of Humanity and Other Papers, 1939-1985, eds. William Petropulos and Gilbert Weiss, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004, p. 81.

25. For example, Chrysippus: “The universe itself is god and the universal outpouring of its soul,” quoted by Cicero in his De Natura Deorum, p. i.

26. Jaki, Science and Creation, p. 154.

27. See ibid., pp. 192-218 on the strengths and weaknesses of the Arab contribution to science in the early medieval period.

28. Einstein’s remark was quoted most recently in Hawking, The Grand Design, p. 87. Jaki, Science and Creation, pp. 276-305.

29. Bernard Lonergan, “Dimensions of Meaning,” in Collection, New York: Herder & Herder, 1967, pp. 256-7.

30. See Lonergan, Insight, chapters I-VIII.

31. Eric Voegelin, “What is Nature?” in Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics, ed. David Walsh, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002, pp.157-74, at p. 164.

32. David Walsh, The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 12.

33. Hawking, The Grand Design, p. 180.

34. Jaki, Science and Creation, p. 130.

35. Stanley Jaki, The Origin of Science and the Science of its Origin, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1978, pp. 70-1.

36. Aquinas developed the ontological tools in his reflection on inherently contingent created reality in his early monograph, De ente et essentia; Lonergan has fully explored Aquinas’ parallel development of the epistemological tools for making judgements about contingent reality in his Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas, Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1967.

37. David Walsh, “The Turn Toward Existence and Existence in the Turn,” in Philosophy, Literature and Politics: Essays Honoring Ellis Sandoz, eds. Charles R. Embry and Barry Cooper, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005, pp. 3-27, at p. 24.

38. George Smoot and Keay Davidson, Wrinkles in Time, New York: Morrow, 1993.

39. Hugh Ross, Why the Universe is the Way It is, Grand Rapids, Ml: Baker Books, 2008.

40. We’re not going into the question of whether there are forms of life unlike the prevailing carbon-based forms we know on Earth–it’s more than enough here to deal with the only form we know.

41. See Barrow and Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, p. 252f.

42. Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004, p. 379.

43. Smoot and Davidson, Wrinkles in Time, p. 290.

44. John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986; see also Paul Davies, The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life? Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.

45. Martin F. Glaessner, The Dawn of Animal Life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984; Simon Conway Morris, The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998; Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, London: Hutchinson Radius,1990.There has also been the recent discovery in the Draa valley or Fezouata formation in the Moroccan desert of a range of Burgess-like fauna from the Early Ordovician period, from 488 million years to 471 million. See Nicola Jones, “Weird wonders lived past the Cambrian: Moroccan fossils show that strange early animals were no flash in the pan.” 12 May 2010,

46. In this context, Paul Davies in The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life? (p. 223) writes that the “Nobel Prize-winning biologist Christian de Duve describes the universe as “pregnant with life” and calls life a cosmic imperative.” The biophysicist Stuart Kauffman echoes Freeman Dyson by declaring that we are “at home in the universe.”

47. Voegelin, Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics, p. 407.

48. William Stoeger speaks of different orders of emergence which are “radically new and irreducible to causal influences at lower levels of organisation. They emerge as matter becomes organized in more and more complex ways. For instance, goals develop within systems which are not in any way determined by what occurs at lower levels of organisation.” Yet while “we will probably never know exactly how these [key transitions between inanimate and animate . . . organisms] actually happened, it is becoming clear that the laws of nature at the proper level are capable of explaining these emergent phenomena . . . there are strong theological reasons for not making God just another secondary cause (instead of the primary cause) in the universe1 (“Reduction and Emergence . . .” p. 242).

49. This meets the complaint Dennett makes about “skyhooks” in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea–a complaint which is justifiable insofar as extrinsic causes can be wrongly invoked within the domain of the natural sciences as such, which deal with intrinsic formal causes. I’d suggest that Dennett’s complaint goes back to Darwin and his problems with the same issue–which we’ll be discussing in the next chapter. But those who make extra-scientific claims for their preferred natural science often provoke equally unjustified counter-claims by others who also import non-scientific considerations into the domain of the natural sciences.

50. Arthur Pap. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1963, p. 351.

51. As an example of a higher viewpoint, Lonergan spells out the “complex shift in the whole structure of insights, definitions, postulates, deductions, and applications” that takes place in the move from school arithmetic to the much more generalised operations of elementary algebra (Insight, pp. 13-19).

52. I owe this example to Philip McShane’s Randomness, Statistics and Emergence (pp. 71-6), and his discussion of the specific difference between botany and biochemistry in his Plants and Pianos: Two Essays in Advanced Methodology, Dublin: Milltown Institute, 1971.

53. Neil Postman, “Science and the Story That We Need” (First Things, 69, January 1997), pp. 29-32, at p. 29, p. 30.

54. Friedrich von Hayek, “Scientism and the Study of Society,” Economica, Vol. IX, 35, August 1942, pp. 267-91-

55. Francois Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, tr. John M. Cohen, London: Penguin, 1983, V, §22. Peter Gay in his The Enlightenment. Vol 2. The Science of Freedom, New York: Norton, 1977, has a section on eighteenth-century intellectuals who–generally untroubled by any scientific expertise–wanted to be considered “Newtons of the Mind” (pp. 174-86).

56. Voegelin, Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics, p. 376.

57. Eric Voegelin, “The Origins of Scientism” [1948], in Published Essays 7940-7952, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000), pp. 168-96, at pp. 168-9.

58. Eric Voegelin “Science, Politics and Gnosticism” in Modernity Without Restraint, ed. Manfred Henningsen (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000), p. 261.

59. Stephen Jay Gould, “Darwinian Fundamentalism,” New York Review of Books, June 12,1997, pp. 34-7.

60. Sergio Rondinara’s Interpretazione del reale tra scienza e teologia lists Steven Weinberg and Frank Tipler (to which we can surely add Stephen Hawking) in cosmology, Edward O. Wilson’s sociobiology, and Francis Crick, Jacques Monod and Richard Dawkins in biology, as scientists respected in their own fields whose prestige wins publicity for their extra-scientific views (pp. 57-8).

61. Martinez J. Hewlett, “True to Life? Biological Models of Origin and Evolution,” in Murphy and Stoeger, Evolution and Emergence, pp. 158-72, at p. 164.

62. Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, London: Bantam, 2009, pp. 403-4.

63. “Natural selection … systematically seizes the minority of random changes that have what it takes to survive, and accumulates them, step by tiny step over unimaginable timescales, until evolution eventually climbs mountains of improbability and diversity …” (The Greatest Show on Earth, p. 416). Would natural selection of the more successful strategies of living species as understood by Dawkins fall under the sciences of physics or chemistry? Where does a notion like “survival” fit into, say, astrophysics?

64. Rondinara, Interpretazione del reale tra scienza e teologia, p. 56.

65. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

66. Eric Voegelin, “Conversations with Eric Voegelin,” in The Drama of Humanity and Other Miscellaneous Papers 1939-1985, pp. 290-1.

67. Rondinara, Interpretazione del reale tra scienza e teologia, p. 56.

68. Rondinara, Interpretazione del reale tra scienza e teologia, pp. 79-80, pp. 82-3.

69. Ibid., pp. 82-7.

70. See C. S. Lewis’s related explorations of the issue in his 1943 essay on The Abolition of Man (London: Collins, 1981) and his 1945 novel That Hideous Strength (London: Pan Books, 1963).



Also see “Human Emergence as Cosmic Metaxy,” How to Think About Human Origins,” “Narrative, Neanderthals, and Art,” and “The First Mystics: Part One and Part Two.”

This excerpt  is from From Big Bang to Big Mystery (New City Press, 2012). Also see Glenn Hughes’ review here and Christopher S. Morrissey’s review here.

Brendan PurcellBrendan Purcell

Brendan Purcell

Brendan Purcell is a Board Member of VoegelinView and an Adjunct Professor in Philosophy at Notre Dame University in Sydney. He is author of several books, including From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (New City, 2012).

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