By Brett Williams
Several years ago, while on a lengthy flight to a conference, I found myself sitting next to a young neurobiologist. To some, a theologian and scientist on a plane may sound like the beginning of a poor joke. To me however, it was a fascinating confluence of contrary epistemologies (“studies of the method and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity”).
After polite pleasantries, she disclosed her reasoning for studying neuroscience: for many years, her mother had suffered from dementia and was nearing the end of her life. That passenger and I had an instant human connection the moment I shared that I had lost my grandmother to the same terrible disease. This connection produced a respectful and congenial conversation about neurology, synapses, the nature of the soul, and whether or not memory is mere physiological mechanics, mysterious metaphysics, or both. Eventually this debate expanded to whether or not science or faith is best suited to understand truth.
Ours is an age of science. Its preeminence and power are undisputed, particularly in relation to other so-called soft disciplines like philosophy and religion. These disciplines, we are told, explore the realm of the relative and subjective. Science, on the other hand, exists in the territory of the testable and observable. One belabors belief; the other reveals reality. Philosophers and theologians are thought to have their heads in the clouds, speculating into the unknown, while scientists rest squarely upon terra firma, exploring the known facts of the universe. Not only does so-called hard science sit atop the hierarchy of disciplines, but it has also achieved cultural hegemony (“preponderant influence or authority”), bidding the masses to follow. In fact, an August 2019 Pew research study revealed that Americans overwhelmingly trust scientists (86 percent) above other professionals, especially religious leaders (57 percent).
People look to what they trust in order to determine truth. Science is often seen as the discovery of self-interpreting facts—phenomena that can be observed, hypothesized, and tested. This process of discovery results in immutable natural laws. These laws exist independently from belief. They are inviable and irreversible. They are true. Observable verifiability equals verity. Religion and philosophy, on the other hand, deal with a different aspect of truth—things that are either believed or felt. Philosophy and religion pontificate on the nature of truth, while science discovers the truth of nature. This nuance of truth in modernity has produced a sort of epistemological dualism; natural or physical truths can be known differently from and better than metaphysical truths.
The notion that science, because of its superiority to other disciplines, is best suited to reveal truth is known as scientism. In a 2017 video, famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said that “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe it.” To Tyson, science itself is “an entire exercise into finding what is true.” Specifically, scientism holds that science is able to discover truth because of the supposed superiority of the scientific method. Chemist Peter Atkins said that science, “by its combination of careful experimentation guided by theory, and its elaboration and improvement of theory based on the experiments it has inspired, … has shown itself to be of enormous power for the elucidation and control of nature. There appear to be no bounds to its competence” (“Science as Truth,” History of the Human Sciences, 8, no. 2 [May 1995]). In other words, science is superior because, unlike philosophy, it is based upon a self-correcting and closed method. It is epistemologically pure. Philosophers merely speculate, while scientists actually know.
The scientific method, as every high schooler knows, is not just the foundation of modern science, but is also the result of the Enlightenment. After millennia of superstitions, we are told, brave researchers like Copernicus and Galileo stoutly stood up to the religious ruling elite. Science prevailed against mystery, and knowledge broke the chains of ignorance. Centuries later, advancements in medicine and technology stand as abiding proof of science’s illumination and superiority. Modernity is so pervasive that even Christianity has become thoroughly indoctrinated into its dogma. The belief that science is somehow distinct and epistemologically pure is grounded in four key ideas: separation of knowledge and belief, the scientific method, science and certainty, and scientific progress.
Knowledge and Belief
Ironically, the idea that science is distinct from philosophy (and therefore knowledge is distinct from belief) comes from a philosopher, René Descartes. This Frenchman remains the father of modernity and one of the most influential thinkers in history. For Descartes, the dualistic ideas of knowing and believing began with trying to answer what was known as “the mind-body problem.” This age-old question was asked as far back as Plato or even the Buddha: How can a thought, which isn’t seen, result in observable movement? If thinking occurs in the conscience, how can it produce a physical, corporeal response?
In 1641, Descartes published Meditations on First Philosophy, in which he proposed a radical new answer to the mind-body problem. He simply separated the mind from the body. The mind was to be seen as abstract and internal. The brain/body, on the other hand, was believed to be extended from the physical. This solution, known as Cartesian dualism, created two distinct realms: the subjective mind and the objective real world. Some facts of the extended world do not depend on the interpretation of the mind or cognition. These facts correlate with one another independently of human comprehension and can be recognized accordingly. The only way to understand them as they truly are is to first doubt your own subjective mind and then corroborate truth through extension. Descartes encapsulated this idea in his famous saying, “I think, therefore I am.” As this dualism began to take hold, the separation of philosophy and science began to take shape. Philosophy and theology belonged to the subjective world of the mind. Science, contrarily, existed as an extension of the natural, objective world.
Conversely, a millennium before Descartes, Augustine surmised the idea that faith and knowledge were inextricably connected and that faith, being the reflection of God’s truth, must logically precede knowledge. The physical world could not be known independently from one’s beliefs and presuppositions. Faith and philosophy were the starting points of understanding, not distinct from it. Anselm’s famous words were “I believe so that I can understand.” This dictum did not presume that faith and knowledge were somehow epistemologically pure, only that faith and philosophy were necessary for understanding. You cannot have one without the other. Everyone approaches the natural world with presumptions and beliefs. No one has a blank slate.
Some early scientists, such as the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, also rejected the separation of knowledge and belief. Kepler is best known for his ideas about planetary motion, especially in clarifying Copernicus’s heliocentricity. Modern scientists often cite Kepler as a bastion of rationality against the folly of faith and have even referred to his notions as “Kepler’s laws.” What is lesser known is that Kepler believed that reality is sourced in the transcendent mind of the Creator and is imprinted upon humanity through the imago Dei. These divine truths, called archetypes, are readily available to the human mind because humans were created in the image of God. Observations of order and syntheses in nature (such as heliocentricity) can be trusted, not because they are distinct from belief, but because they are sourced in the belief of the Creator. Nature is not ordered by itself, but is orderly because it reflects the Creator. Patterns exist in nature because patterns exist in the mind of God.
These patterns are demonstrated clearly in Kepler’s planetary geometry, specifically in his well-known work Harmony of the World (1619). Kepler said, “Geometry, which before the origin of things was coeternal with the divine mind … , supplied God with patterns for the creation of the world, and passed over to man along with the image of God; and was not in fact taken through the eyes” (304). Geometry, as observable and testable, is not independent of theology; it is the result of theology. For Kepler, at least, geometry, among other disciplines, is to be seen as a priori, that is, deduced through theory and theology and applied to observations. Mathematics and cosmological order are to be trusted, not because they are independent of philosophy and theology, but precisely because they are sourced in philosophy and theology.
The Scientific Method
Possibly the most practical way in which knowledge and belief have been separated in scientific understanding is with the development of the scientific method. In 1605 Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties” (The Advancement of Learning, Book I, V. ). Before Bacon, Aristotelian philosophy reigned in educational institutions. Aristotelian philosophy used an a fortiori method for inquiry into nature. This method begins with assuming universal elements known as first principles, thought to be sourced in the mind of God, and then correlates the lesser, natural elements to the first principles. This is known as deduction, the idea that knowledge begins with assuming a theory or revelation and applying it to observations.
Bacon scoffed at this idea. In his aptly named work The New Organon, published in 1620, Bacon reacted to Aristotle’s axiom by offering his own. This method, he said, “derives axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last of all. This is the true way, but as yet untried” (“Aphorisms concerning the Interpretation of Nature,” Book 1:19). For Bacon, philosophy must begin with doubting first principles, focusing on natural or secondary elements, and then extrapolating from the lesser to the greater. This was the birth of the modern scientific method of doubt, hypothesis, and experimentation. It assumes the truth of local phenomena by repeated testing and then moves to making generalized statements about external or greater phenomena. What Bacon proposed, and what the scientific method relies upon, is known as logical induction. Induction is the method of inference of a generalized conclusion from observing specifics and then proposing a theory. One could even summarize the battle between premodern and modern methodologies as a fight between deduction and induction.
No examples of this methodological melee are as entertaining and well written as the two fictional sleuths Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown. Both series were written at the height of modernity in the early 20th century. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, written by physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, chronicles an irascible intellectual who solves confounding crimes by noticing details that others miss. These “elementary” details, as he was fond of saying, inevitably lead to a correct hypothesis and, after some misadventure, the revelation of the truth. Holmes always discovers the truth through induction—through observing the details in nature and extrapolating these to inviable truths.
Sherlock relies on observation, data, and the scientific method. Father Brown, a crusty cleric, came from the mind of Catholic philosopher G. K. Chesterton. Brown solves crimes not only by relying on induction and the scientific method but also by having a masterful understanding of theology and human nature. Brown understands human actions, including crime, because he understands human nature. He arrives at the specifics by understanding the first things. Truth is uncovered not because it is elementary but because it is eternal.