Friday, 12 May 2017

Modern Science

The modern world is founded on science, not only technically and intellectually but metaphysically too. Science is regarded as objective knowledge or as close to that as we can get. It is something everyone from all cultures can agree on and benefit from. It releases us from the ignorance of our ancestors. It has also, in many respects, been a complete disaster for humanity.

Science should be founded on the love of truth but it is not.  Modern science has very little interest in truth. Its main concern now is to protect its own interests and power, and for this a materialistic world view is essential. If science were to accept that there were truths, foundational truths, beyond its reach and inaccessible to its methods of investigation it would, in its eyes, be admitting a kind of defeat. It would be acknowledging its inferiority to religion, to revelation and to the spiritual. But it proudly believes itself to be above these things and it does so for the very reason that it is, in fact, below them which is its attachment to the rational principle and the denial of any higher faculty in man. This is like a blind man denying the existence of light just because he can't see it.

But this truth is blithely ignored by most modern scientists, secure in their illusions and, I have to say, intellectual arrogance. Nor do they seem aware that their approach is based on several a priori assumptions, specifically the assumption that the world accessible to them through their methods and their instruments is self-supporting. In other words, that matter is primary. This most certainly is an assumption and actually a fairly ignorant one since it leaves all the fundamental questions unanswered.

We have instead the assertion, based on nothing more than speculative hope, that one day science will uncover these truths as it has so many others though note that it has never discovered a single fundamental truth about the world. Everything it has discovered is to do with phenomena alone which has led to the supposition that phenomena are all there is.

Science can never understand the world because when it looks at it what it sees is a reflection of its own way of looking. The information it gleans from the world can't go beyond the limitations of its reason based approach because all that approach can uncover is the part of life that is open to it. Higher levels of existence that are not accessible to reason and sensory observation simply can't be detected. So it is not that science sees what it wants to see but what it sees is all it can see because what is observed is determined by what is observing and how it observes. A fly sees the world according to the limitations of its mind and so does a scientist. The difference, and it is an important one, is that the fly can't help it but the modern scientist imposes these limitations on himself because he denies a faculty higher than reason. Now, reason is certainly not a false faculty. It is God given, but when it is taken as man's highest faculty and its existence is used to reject higher spiritual principles then the servant has become master and reason becomes a tyrant that insists the world is seen according to its own limitations.

If we note how modern science started we can see the near inevitability of its descent into spiritual ignorance. For nature to be regarded solely as an object of study and exploitation it was separated from its roots in the spiritual world, a world not open to investigation by the new methods. As time passed and the new approach proved highly successful in material terms it came to be seen as the only way in which the world could be understood despite the protestations of people like William Blake and writers and artists associated with the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. When science through Darwinism came up with its own creation myth its triumph was assured, and we now live with the spiritually disastrous results of that. Even much spirituality nowadays, such as it is, has to accord with science if it is to be accepted as realistic, the very opposite of what should be the case.

Anyone taking the line I have here will inevitably be asked if (for example) he uses computers or avails himself of the advantages of modern medicine. In other words, if he uses some of the many benefits that science has brought. If the answer is yes, he will be charged with hypocrisy. However it's not that simple. We all live in the 21st century and, unless we take to the woods and become hermits, we have to do so. No one disputes that modern science has brought many material benefits. It would never have made the inroads it has if it had not done so, but the point is it has brought them at immense spiritual cost. If we live in the modern world then we more or less have to use the products of science, and we can legitimately do so though I would suggest we should do so to a limited degree if we wish to avoid being contaminated by the mindset behind them. For it is not science that is bad but the mindset behind it, though I admit it can be hard to disentangle the two especially when the products of science reinforce the idea of man as a machine.

And so I say that, while science has brought some good things on the material level (it has brought many bad and unholy things too), these don't begin to compensate for the spiritual destruction it has wrought. But I would also add that it is not science per se that I am attacking here but a science not pursued in the light of the reality of God and the hierarchical supremacy of revelation and spiritual insight to unsupported reason. If science acknowledged that there are truths, deeper foundational truths, beyond its reach then it might begin to acquire a wisdom it currently lacks and which we so desperately need. If it pursued knowledge not for its own sake or even humanity's sake but for a fuller revelation of God then it might start to discover something really worthwhile.


Aaron said...

The problem is, that to be very good at science you must learn to think in a way that eventually leads to the severance of any connection with Mystery and poetry.

Darwin said by the end of his life he lost the ability to appreciate beauty or poetry. And J.S Mill collapsed into depression and was only able to recover through the poetry of Wordsworth.

So even though science and religion are not theoretically incompatible, they are practically so. Science is not neutral. It requires a reorganization of one's mind and new mental habits. It imposes its structures on the mind, which are costly.

What's more, high level science requires a reorganization of society. The best minds and resources must be diverted to science, and social organization must have science as a priority.

In other words, science really does require the total transformation of society and the individual (it is a "revolution" - one of three. The Scientific, the Industrial, and the Capitalist. All required a basic reorganization of society and the individual.)

A religious society is unlikely to view mere "material manipulation" as its primary goal.

That is why, perhaps, high-level creative science only flourished in a few few countries - England, Germany, and France, perhaps Northern Italy briefly - even though many countries can easily learn to use technology.

Few were willing, or able, to suffer the social and intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual costs of reinventing themselves for the purpose of "material manipulation".

Only defective spirituality would make this seem an attractive option - and maybe the countries where creative science flourished had some fatal defect in them.

Science likes to claim it is a search for Truth, but this is rhetoric. Lord Bacon and Descartes, who created the theoretical groundwork for science, were quite candid that their aim was to increase man's power to manipulate the material world.

This is a moral fight. Science "won" by seizing the moral heights, claiming it is grounded in Transcendental values. By conceding science this point we surrender crucial ground. The very origins of science are ignoble - surrender of the quest for Truth in favor of expediency, for "what works". In the end, science is about convenience, and that doesn't sound so grand.

Nietzsche was, as usual, perceptive on this point - he said science derives its immense hold over our minds by its claims to being grounded in Truth, a transcendental value, and as Christians we care deeply about Truth. He said the death of Christianity through science is the ultimate consequence of Christian ethics (!).

Nietzsche excelled as a diagnostician of the Western mind, if nothing else, and he strikes me as correct on this point. That's why its important to be cautious about the flattering rhetoric science uses in promoting itself. It's powerful, and false.

Aristotle rated "techne" - technology - the lowest kind of knowledge. We rate it the highest.

William Wildblood said...

Superb comment. Thanks Aaron.

ajb said...

"For it is not science that is bad but the mindset behind it"

I believe a term for this is 'scientism'.

ajb said...


"high-level creative science only flourished in a few few countries - England, Germany, and France, perhaps Northern Italy briefly"

This sounds like poppycock. There were significant scientific contributions across basically all Western European countries, but of course you have to adjust for population. France, Germany, the U.K., and Italy were the ones with the largest populations.

William Wildblood said...

I actually mean something rather more than just scientism. I mean any science not pursued in the overall light of the reality of God and the superiority of revelation and intuitive insight to reason and even observation. Not that I discount these, of course, but they are limited. So scientism is an extreme form of what I am talking about here but it goes further than that.

My history is not really up to it but I rather think Aaron is correct and that it was Northern Europe which was the main powerhouse behind modern materialistic science. Then it spread everywhere but these were the countries in which it started surely?

Aaron said...

@ajb - other countries had individual scientists of genius, but science as a sustained process only flourished in a few countries.

Just as other regions of the world produced many inventions, often ingenious, to meet specific contingencies (like China), it never amounted to a scientific 'revolution' - a self-sustaining process that built upon itself with no end in sight.

For instance, Japan industrialized around the same time as Germany, and by WW2 was producing superior weapons technology, some of the best in the world. But Japan has produced few creative scientists of genius, despite a history of impressive creativity.

A clue might be found in the fact that even today the Japanese retain a connection to the supernatural, though fading, and have not truly assimilated the scientific spirit, with its materialism, etc. Social and emotional factors play a role as well - they have only been partially altered and have not been made optimal for creative science.

Of course, you may disagree.

ajb said...

@Aaron re Japan,

22 Nobel prize winners in science since 1949!


Yes, modern science near the beginning was to a disproportionate extent a north-western European thing. High-level creative science has flourished in much more than 3 or 4 countries.

Aaron said...

Japan is #28 in nobels per capita, behind Croatia and Bosnia.

ajb said...


By that methodology a country included in your list of 3 (or 4) doesn't appear until the 10th spot (the U.K.)!

Of course, number of Nobels understood in the expansive sense is irrelevant (we want science Nobels), and comparing very small countries like Croatia to large ones like Japan is bad methodology (one lucky individual can skew the results, we're looking for centers of scientific innovation).

Looking at countries of somewhat comparable size (say, greater than 50 M but less than 150 M), the only ones with more science Nobels since 1949 are the U.K. and Germany. France is behind, at 20. Japan is a center of high-level creative science.

Aaron said...


Link -

As you can see, until 2000, Japan had one or two Nobel's per decade. During the 90s they had one Nobel altogether...for literature.

Things picked up after 2000, with 5 Nobels in 2008 alone.

It would seem that after 2,000, Japan got better at creative science, or everyone else got worse - i.e, or Japan got relatively better, not absolutely. Nobel's, of course, are relative measures, not absolute. 1949 is the wrong starting point, also.

Japan's population is a bit over a third of the US, and about fifty percent larger than Germany. It's a large country.

Anyways, all this is, in fact, very much in line with my theory, as you can see.

Much more can be said about this, but it is really beside the point.

If other countries became scientific powerhouses, then they did so after re-organizing themselves along European lines as a necessity - at first, only the European countries I mentioned were willing to break with timeless spiritual ways, with no pressing need.

I get the feeling you see being a scientific powerhouse as a matter of prestige - I see it as the opposite.

ajb said...

Be careful assuming prizes and research are in close temporal proximity. Nobel prizes are lagging indicators - typically 20 or more years between the discovery and the prize in physics nowadays.

My problem is with the view that "science as a sustained process only flourished in a few countries," and that *this is because* only few were "willing, or able, to suffer the social and intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual costs of reinventing themselves for the purpose of "material manipulation".

It wasn't a 'few' - Japan being one example where a simple recent metric exists to show how it is a center of scientific innovation - and this undermines the latter claim above. Off-hand, the list of countries where science has flourished for significant periods of time would include the U.K., France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Hungary, Japan, South Korea, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Russia. This is a conservative list, and many great scientists were from other countries.

Aaron said...


Those countries exhibit vastly different levels of scientific accomplishment. You may consider science to have 'flourished' in all of them - OK, but that does not alter the structure of my argument.

I believe this difference in rates of performance - often dramatic, unexplained by IQ (indeed often counter-IQ), levels of development, or any other factor proposed (in my view, that I have heard) - can be explained by spiritual factors.

Further, that some countries, like Great Britain, oriented itself towards science without any external compulsion, while Japan did so only under threat of American gun-boats, has spiritual significance.

It is significant, in my view, that as Japan has entered a national spiritual malaise (since the 90s), she gets better at creative science (if indeed it is not that others just got worse).

You may disagree, and point to material factors. This problem continues to be controversial - no consensus has formed around any materialist explanation, or any combination of them.

In light of this, I have chosen to move beyond the sphere of material explanations.

But to argue my position in detail would take me too far afield - I usually do that in more materialist blogs, although sadly to little effect.

William Wildblood said...

It seems to me that often proficiency in science goes with deficiency in spiritual understanding - see Aaron's point above about how it forces the mind into a particular straitjacket. And yet such is the excessive reverence in which scientists are held now that their opinions are sought out on spiritual matters. The obvious example being how Einstein's fairly trivial sayings on this subject are quoted by believer and non-believer alike as though, just because he was a brilliant scientist, he should be listened to more than anyone else when it comes to spiritual things. Stephen Hawking is another example. These are probably the last people we should be paying attention to because of the lop sided nature of their mentalities.

ajb said...

"It seems to me that often proficiency in science goes with deficiency in spiritual understanding"

Certainly this is true, but it needn't be. Early prominent scientists were largely devout and piously devout. Many were in the clergy.

Re Hawking, I had someone recently quote Hawking on AI. I asked "Isn't he a physicist? What does he know?" It is, as you put it, an excessive reverence in general which leads to embarrassments like Richard Dawkins pontificating about Aquinas' five ways!

The popular methods in science are tools - if people don't understand the limits of a tool, they will make mistakes (in this case, of inference). The widespread acceptance of standard evolutionary theory or global warming catastrophism are two such mistakes - people don't appreciate how easy it is for reason (and things based on it, such as computer models) to get things wrong.

Gene Godbold said...

There are a lot of assertions being made here. One might be able to investigate them with the tools of sociology. You'd have to think hard about how to write appropriate questions, though. Have you thought you that might be done to distinguish "spiritual" thinkers from, say, "materialist" ones?

It has been 21 years since they tossed me a Ph.D. in biochemistry and over 15 since I was ordained a deacon (American Anglican, but not Episcopal) after going to seminary on the side while doing postdoctoral work on a protozoan parasite. I try to maintain a daily prayer life. I earn my living as a jack-of-all-trades biologist, though: mostly microbiology and biochemistry with some genetics for variety. I think I get to read more broadly than most scientists in infectious diseases. My employer is a nonprofit defense contractor. My wife and I are raising eight children, two of whom have graduated from college and might be considered adults now.

I was once a creationist of an old-earth stripe before I knew much genetics. After studying microbial and vertebrate genomes a lot more, I'm still a creationist, but it certainly appears that the method God used to create all biological life was what we call "evolution".

To state the obvious, to be able to contribute to the scientific enterprise, you need to spend a decent amount of time studying it. In the nature of things, this leaves you with less time to study other things well unless you are very bright, very diligent, very motivated, or have a lot of time on your hands. At the age of 50, I do not feel ripened, but I think I can truthfully say that the mental tools of those who go into science do NOT differ from those who go into theology or philosophy. To name two people whose writings I know pretty well: David Bentley Hart (in the US) and Stephen R. L. Clark (in England) show a grasp of theology, philosophy, and the scope of evolutionary science that would bring them no discredit amongst any of the three groups of practitioners. Speaking personally, the largest hurdle to overcome is the vocabulary of a field and the, uh, intellectual history of it--knowing what discoveries are important and seeing how other discoveries depend on them.

To be fair, you may intend the phrase "spiritual understanding" to be more comprehensive than mere intellectual grasp of the field. You may intend something like the relationship with God that St. Paul or St. Seraphim of Sarov, or St. Silouan the Athonite, or Elder Sophrony had (to name a few of the guys I try to read regularly). Well, you're undoubtedly correct, but what they had is way more rare than Nobel prizes. Would western culture produce more saints if we didn't have what might be called a technological mindset? Maybe. It is a whole lot easier to train as a scientist than a saint.

For what it is worth, in my moralizing about our plight, I tend to blame the pernicious maximizing of profit that comes with a (no doubt technological) capitalist mindset and a discounting of ecological (including animal welfare) and other resources. More than that, what contaminates my own spiritual aspirations--besides my many and various personal sins-- is the "entertainment" sensibility and the cheap and delectable ways that one can annihilate time. Why does discipline have to be so hard?

To conclude an overlong posting, Science magazine recently (March 2017) asked their readers to contribute their rationale for entering their fields and to say something of what they were doing. The answers were varied and seemed noble. Most were motivated by concern for the ills of the world and expressed eagerness at a chance to work to remedy them. And the collection of technological bags of tricks that we call science can provide an effective means for doing this.

Are you worried that some are taken away from their true calling to serve God more effectively in the spiritual life by the blandishments of our technological culture?

William Wildblood said...

First of all, thank you for your comment, Gene. I really appreciate you taking the time to write it. I'll try to respond to it intelligently but please forgive me if I miss something out!

You are, of course, right. There are a lot of assertions made in this post. I write some in polemical mode in which I rather over-egg the pudding and give a one-sided view. But I did that here because of the domination of materialistic science in the modern world view. It reigns supreme and has made of religion and spirituality, certainly in the U.K. where I am and I suspect most other places too, side issues and specialist interests when they should be absolutely central. I would have no quarrel with science if it kept itself to its own domain but it doesn't. There is a mentality, rationalist for want of a better word, behind it that insists on limiting everything to what it can understand by its own methods and approach, and these leave much to be desired if one wishes to penetrate behind the phenomenal world to a deeper reality.

I do intend 'spiritual understanding' to cover more than an intellectual grasp of the subject though that is certainly part of it. But primarily it is something more like intuitive insight or what I believe used to be called the intellect by the medieval theologians, meaning something like the mind in the heart, an open line to God or that part of him that we can comprehend. This is a faculty we all have but it needs developing, almost coaxing, and one of my criticisms of the scientific mentality is precisely that it stunts this by its dogmatic and, I have to say, arrogant restriction of human modes of understanding to the rational.

It may be easier to train scientists than saints but I believe that we are on this earth to become saints, certainly to make some progress in that direction, so everything should be arranged to assist that which means the culture should be totally open to the spiritual not almost totally closed as it is now which is largely down to science or what science has made of itself.

For the rest, I agree with you that money has corrupted science but that's a different matter really and not the fault of science I would say. I'm not against science per se, not at all, and I know there have been and are many great and noble scientists but I am against the reduction of what a human being is that science has brought about. The reduction to first an animal and then a machine. Yes, science has greatly helped in the fight against the ills of the world but what does it benefit a man (or mankind)to gain the whole world if he (or it) loses his (or its) soul? That's the path we seem to be set on at the moment in my view.

In reply to the question in your last paragraph, my answer is yes!

Thanks again for commenting. It's always very helpful and stimulating for me to receive feedback like yours.

Gene Godbold said...

I think the entertainment industry may be more responsible for the apathy that destroys souls than science. At least you have to exert yourself to be good at science.

As many others have noted, the epistemological modesty with which the Baconian project began (because it really *is* hard to discern ultimate purposes) has transmogrified into the idea that there is no ultimate purpose. And maybe the gestalt that this has contributed to has sucked the spiritual aspiration out of a subset of people...but I'm still inclined to blame cheap entertainment honed to produce dopamine rewards in the brains of devotees.

I feel that one of our tasks of redeemed humanity (like in Romans 8) will be to raise up some of our brother beasts to the knowledge of God. (But we've got to get there first.)

I agree with your points about our teleology. I would like to be a saint, but I get discouraged.

William Wildblood said...

I absolutely agree with you about the entertainment industry but would it have found such a ripe field if people hadn't already been softened up by the materialism which was down to modern science?

But, of course, even science had its roots in something and that was probably the nominalism of medieval philosophy. So it’s an ongoing process. Early scientists were still working with the sense that they were exploring God's creation but with every generation that sense lessened and this was because of the methods and attitudes behind science.

Exertion is good certainly but you can exert yourself to a good or bad end, surely?

I'm not anti-science as the search for knowledge and understanding, and the scientific revolution has certainly taught us how to think which is a hugely important contribution to our development. But I am anti any science pursued without reference to something higher than itself and beyond the reach of its methods which are limited.

Regarding discouragement, becoming a saint is the hardest thing in the world so it's natural to be discouraged sometimes. I do believe it's what we're here for though.