The Historical Bifurcation Between Science and Philosophy

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In my post of March 6, I noted that we must distinguish between what science has been and what it ought to be, or what it is naturally ordained to be. It is therefore a mistake to take any current or past state of science and construe that as universal without any argument. It is a mistake, for example, to suppose that the Galilean paradigm of physics as “written in mathematical terms” is a universal truth, merely on the ground that physics has been that way for some time, and indeed with some fair degree of success. Or, again, I shall argue, it is a mistake to infer that science consists essentially, and by its permanent universal nature, in reasoning from artificial “paradigms,” even if the recent history of science suggests that.

But from this one might be inclined to draw either of two diametrically opposite inferences. One would be to suppose that history and science have nothing to do with each other, otherwise than accidentally. We should therefore try to find out what science is really supposed to be, and let it be that. But the opposite conclusion seems perhaps equally justifiable: namely that science is essentially historical, so that stages in its progress are precisely stages, and therefore ought not to be confused with the universal character of science itself.

Which is the right conclusion? Should we think that science and history have any real connection? To make the question suitably concrete, we should first recognize that this is really a question about humanity. It is humanity we are wondering about when we ask whether our knowledge has any essential relation with history. It is about the being called “man” himself that we must finally ask whether there is something essentially historical.

But then we can see, perhaps, that this is no small question, and it would scarcely do it justice to propose an answer to it in a few short paragraphs. For now, I will let it suffice to have asked the question. But I would also like to take note of some significant historical facts which suggest a direction in which to seek an answer. And after that I will propose what I think is an absolutely fundamental and critical principle on the way to finding an answer.

The signs I have in mind are these. Some 2500 years ago, Aristotle wrote his Organon, which laid out the delineations of “science.” Aristotle argued that science, in the strictest sense, must be knowledge from universal causes, that these causes must be expressed in self-evident principles, and that the principles must derive from the essences of things as expressed in their definitions. Historically, that view seemed to hold a very firm sway for a very long time, until something strange happened: there was a revolt. Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes were primary agents of the revolt. The revolt was in large measure a backlash against entrenched stagnation, against which irrepressible spirits finally grew indignant. From that moment on, intellectual culture became bifurcated into “science” and “philosophy,” and that bifurcation remains to this day.

Those who remain in the camp of the “philosophers” often stake their claims on the basis of the original claims of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. They resist the intrusions of science on the alleged ground that only philosophy proceeds in a truly universal mode, seeking definitions by “genus and difference,” aiming at truly universal causes, and proposing its theses with complete certitude. Those, on the other hand, who decide to be “scientists” stake their claims on the basis of what they take to be reality itself. They notice the truly astonishing degree to which physical reality has a structure, a structure which reaches down deeply into the materiality of things. They see, all too well, that the discovery and appreciation of that structure absolutely demands a mode of thought which is not that of conventional philosophy. And they cannot, moreover, help but notice that conventional philosophers have often tended to either be completely ignorant of that structure, or worse yet, to not care about it, or to deny that it matters, or to deny that it really exists at all.

To describe this by a succinct approximation, we might say that the philosophical mindset tries to reason from characteristics of the mind: from its yearning for what transcends the murkiness of matter. The scientific mindset, by contrast, seeks to reason from the characteristics of physical reality, even possibly at the expense of the aspirations of human reason towards what is immaterial.

It is the philosophical mindset which also, at least in certain relatively isolated enclaves, clings steadfastly to a more or less static view of human thought, and indeed of man himself. (A colleague of mine tried recently to prove to me that the instantaneous propagation of light was a matter of “common experience,” despite my pointing out that there are photographs of light spreading through space! And I know others who still insist that atoms are mere hypotheses.) The scientific mindset, on the other hand, seem very ready to acknowledge the plain fact that our knowledge has greatly progressed, especially in the last two centuries, and shows no signs yet of letting up in that progress; yet on the other hand this acknowledgment seems to be often coincident with a peculiar indifference to our natural desire to find ultimate principles in something which lies beyond the mobile and contingent.

All of this points to what appears to be a central problem, if not the central problem, of natural philosophy: namely to discern the place of humanity, and especially of the human mind, in this vast physical cosmos. This indeed appears as one of the principal motivating questions in the entire history of Western thought. At the dawn of our tradition, Plato expressed the mind’s awakening to the reality of logoi, to that aspect of reality which would answer to our own mind’s deepest nature and aspiration. But at the same time he drew the conclusion that our mind, and we ourselves therefore, could never be at home in a physical world. Our body itself came to be thought of as a prison.

Plato’s great disciple Aristotle recognized a way beyond this rejection of the physical. A more refined understanding of the concept of matter, and its distinction from privation, became for him a key to restoring the possibility of seeing physical being as fully and truly a part of the order of things. Plato’s logoi thus ceased to be viewed as incompatible with physical being.

Nevertheless, to recognize that there is no such incompatibility is far from being the same thing as fully grasping the nature of the compatibility. This leads me to the fundamental principle I mentioned above. That will be the subject of my next post.

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  1. Physics and philosophy « Cordus linked to this post.
  2. sancrucensis

    the philosophical mindset tries to reason from characteristics of the mind: from its yearning for what transcends the murkiness of matter. The scientific mindset, by contrast, seeks to reason from the characteristics of physical reality, even possibly at the expense of the aspirations of human reason towards what is immaterial.

    That seems true as a generalization. I’m not sure though whether one of the main objections that philosophers of a Goethian or Aristotelian persuasion make against the ‘scientific’ view is reducible to that difference. I mean the objection that the scientific view denies one of the most obvious facts about reality: the diference between the living and the non-living. “I know when one is dead and when one lives.” But I suppose that too has to do with what is most known to me and thus with “the place of humanity, and especially of the human mind, in this vast physical cosmos.” As De K. puts it, “If we have positive knowledge of life, we do not have that kind of knowledge of non-life […] the materialist who sees in life only a pure epiphenomenon right off puts himself in a point of view that we only attain in a negative manner, that we define by exclusion of that which is attained first off and by experience. How else could one define non-life? And once the materialist principle of the priority of non-life in our knowledge is conceded, it will be forever impossible to arrive at anything but the non-living. The living will only be constructed from the non-living.” (Works I, 271)

  3. Ed Wassell

    Perhaps the principle work of the scientist (those who pursue experimentation and modeling) is to extend our experience such as to give the natural philosopher more from which to draw his universal principles. Because of science (in the modern sense), we now have a pretty good idea of the history of the universe at large and of life on our planet. I see one of the principle works of the modern theoretical scientist as an attempt to reconstruct history in a way quite similar to how a detective reconstructs the events in his case. The detectives work is then given to a court a law to pronounce judgment. The scientist does a very good job of explaining the “how” in terms of how we got here, but perhaps is inadequate at explaining the “why”. This is because he is limited by his own assumption that the past determines the future, and the only causes he considers are those which are prior in time to their effects. Thus, in a way like the detective who submits his work to the law, the modern scientist ought to submit his work to the natural philosopher for judgment, and the philosopher likewise has a duty to respect the work of the scientist.

  4. Patrick Moore, ABQ, NM

    “To describe this by a succinct approximation, we might say that the philosophical mindset tries to reason from characteristics of the mind: from its yearning for what transcends the murkiness of matter. The scientific mindset, by contrast, seeks to reason from the characteristics of physical reality, even possibly at the expense of the aspirations of human reason towards what is immaterial.”

    This comment is odd. Perhaps I’m just out of touch, but Aristotle, at least, didn’t do this. Did I miss something?

    In passing, but it interests me a lot: “And I know others who still insist that atoms are mere hypotheses.” What is the ontological status of atoms? Does anyone really know and state his position clearly? Hasn’t quantum theory suggested (at least) that they’re not “out there” like trees?

    I remember W. Murray’s enlightening dictum that science has a great deal of “art” in it.

    Generally speaking, I think one can safely say that the many approaches to knowledge are not exhausted by “philosophy/science” (in the sense of your everyday Aristotelian/your everyday physicist); even with natural philosophy in the most general sense there are more things on earth as well as heaven than are dreamt of in your (meant impersonally) philosophy; without in anyway wanting to be new age-y (gawd!) I have personal experience with Chinese medicine which relies on a manipulation of the subtle/psychic “qi” that is the immediate principle of certain bodily — physical — operations. (No, really! It worked; instance was a heart arrhythmia. No beta blockers needed.) Where does qi stand in all of this?

    It would be interesting to expand this discussion to the macrocosmic analogue of the tripartite division of microcosmic man as body/soul/Spirit, with Spirit (Blake: what is the Holy Spirit but an Intellectual Fountain?) being transcendent to the human individual while its presence in the human individual yet makes the human individual human.

    Hope I haven’t rocked any boat too much.

    Greetings, best wishes from long ago!

    Patrick Moore

  5. love the girls

    Patrick Moore writes : “In passing, but it interests me a lot: “And I know others who still insist that atoms are mere hypotheses.” What is the ontological status of atoms? Does anyone really know and state his position clearly? Hasn’t quantum theory suggested (at least) that they’re not “out there” like trees?”

    That atoms do exist in some manner no one argues against because we can all see the empirical data.. Atoms are sign. Atoms are the poetic mistaken for concrete existence.

    God gave us the models, of which atoms are one, so that we could manipulate matter, and so they do reflect reality, but not because they are what really does exist, but because God knew we would need models which would in turn give us the precision required to build from.

    What is self evident to my senses is what is real. I am not deceived. Nor am I deceived when I understand atoms as the poetic sign God gave us.

    • Patrick Moore

      Wow! Heavy!

      Perhaps you can elucidate: (1) describe this empirical data. (A general answer, sufficient to point the sincere questor in the right direction, will suffice.) (2) What do you mean by “sign” and, further — much further! — “poetic”?

      (3) Explain these God-given models, of which atoms are one. (4) “Manipulate” — a key word! How much of the modern scientific worldview is, at root, the result of an attempt to manipulate matter for more commodious living?

      (4) “What is self evident …”: elucidate, to wit, define “self evident” and “appears to sense” and “real.”

      More seriously: Once again, to limit mankind’s outlook on reality, physical and otherwise, to what can be abstracted from everyday sense experience, this on the one hand, and Revelation on the other, is to say the least, naive. Even our modern Thomist and Aristotelian sensibilities are restricted by our modernist upbringing and categories of thought. To think, for example, that Aristotle and Plato “thought their way through” the evidence provided by sense to a groping anticipation of the wisdom later granted us (and truly granted us) by Christian revelation, is, to say the least, question begging. Christ came to remind us of what is in the very structure of reality. Wisdom is independent of time, place and circumstances, or it is nothing. If it is not in the very structure of reality and — Man is microcosm — of the human soul, it is nothing.

      The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old.
      I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was.
      When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water.
      Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth:
      While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world.
      When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth:
      When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep:
      When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth:
      Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him;
      Rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men.
      Now therefore hearken unto me, O ye children: for blessed are they that keep my ways.
      Hear instruction, and be wise, and refuse it not.
      Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.
      For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the LORD.
      But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death.
      31Rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men.
      32Now therefore hearken unto me, O ye children: for blessed are they that keep my ways.
      33Hear instruction, and be wise, and refuse it not.
      34Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.
      35For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the LORD.
      36But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death.

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