On science – ancient and modern

6 05 2010

For how shall we account for those plants called heliotropes, that is, attendants on the sun, moving in correspondence with the revolution of its orb, but selenitropes, or attendants on the moon, turning in exact conformity to her motion? It is because all things pray, and hymn the leaders of their respective orders; but some intellectually, and others rationally; some in a natural, and others after a sensible, manner. Hence the sunflower, as far as it is able, moves in a circular dance towards the sun; so that if any one could hear the pulsations made by its circuit in the air, he would perceive something composed by a sound of this kind, in honour of its king, such as a plant is capable of framing. Hence, too, we may behold the sun and moon in the earth, but according to a terrene quality; but in the celestial regions, all plants, and stones, and animals, possessing an intellectual life according to a celestial nature.

-Proclus, On the Hieratic Art

Recently, a commenter mentioned how many intuitions of Renaissance philosophers constituted “bad science”. While I respect the opinion of this commenter on many things, here I have to disagree.

For people who are quantitatively challenged like myself, it is always a good idea to have someone close to you who understands the ins and outs of scientific discourse. In my case, my significant other is a professional scientist. So here I will try to duplicate what she told me in a recent conversation, and add some of my own thoughts if deemed appropriate.

The project of the Renaissance thinkers cannot be considered science because it can neither be proven nor disproven by quantitative analysis. However, science is not able to supply us with a complete world view, nor can a philosophy be extrapolated from scientific analysis. Not only that, but certain scientific theories, such as the theory of relativity or string theory in physics, are often reached by intuitive hunches about the world or a particular set of observations. In the case of string theory, there is still no concrete evidence that it is an accurate description of the physical world (in its smallest or largest scales), only an intuitive idea that things would make more sense, mathematically speaking, if it is.

In this way, we can see that my commenter was using a certain theory of “scientism” in order to create a dogmatic idea of what science should believe, not actually what it claims to be able to prove.

The Renaissance philosophers were also trying to reach some sort of theory of the world by trying to explain certain types of observations, often trying to explain phenomena that we to this day cannot explain. Why are birds able to migrate across entire continents after only having been to a certain place once or twice? Why do sunflowers turn towards the sun in their budding stage?

How effected are we human animals by these phenomena?

Another example is the ancient intuition that the universe is composed of a ratio of numbers, going back to Pythagoras and beyond. What is the nature of this order that surrounds us? Why is it that there is a poetry built into creation, a sense of patterns that occur over and over again in all things?

Recently, I have read an interesting excerpt from Pope Benedict’s recent encyclical, Spe Salvi. In it, he writes:

In this regard a text by Saint Gregory Nazianzen is enlightening. He says that at the very moment when the Magi, guided by the star, adored Christ the new king, astrology came to an end, because the stars were now moving in the orbit determined by Christ. This scene, in fact, overturns the world-view of that time, which in a different way has become fashionable once again today. It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs the stars, that is, the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love—a Person. And if we know this Person and he knows us, then truly the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free. In ancient times, honest enquiring minds were aware of this. Heaven is not empty. Life is not a simple product of laws and the randomness of matter, but within everything and at the same time above everything, there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love.

I can accept that Christ conquered the demons of the air by His ascension into Heaven. I can accept that the universe is governed by a personal God who cannot be manipulated and not supernatural forces that are to be read into all events. But do these conclusions thus silence the cosmos forever? Does this make the idea of God as a detached watchmaker far more palatable for the Christian imagination?

It is arguable that the goals of many Renaissance Neoplatonists was not to advance the march of secular philosophy, but rather to detain it. The Middle Ages created the dilemma of the existence of two sometimes opposing truths: one for theology and one for science. These philosophers sought a way to reconcile this dualism that they did not create but was already there. Sometimes it took the form of natural magic, such as Ficino’s astrology or the famous experiments of many now respected scientists concerning alchemy. Sometimes it was in recovering ancient texts, such as those of Plato and Hermes Trismegistus. But through all of it, there was a sense that the goal of human thought, to cite Nicholas of Cusa, is not to define but rather to invoke. We do not own the truth, but we rather witness its manifestations and behold its splendor.

And for me, that is a profoundly Christian, and dare I say, traditional project.

(Originally posted here)



2 responses

6 05 2010

“The project of the Renaissance thinkers cannot be considered science because it can neither be proven nor disproven by quantitative analysis.”

I think the problem here is that the natural philosophy of folks like Bacon and Newton is accepted today generically as “science.” That is, after all, what “science” is- just another term for natural philosophy. That only one system is accepted as “real” science today is, in my view, a symptom of our philosophical impoverishment.

There are some forms of science that do not depend as much on quantitative analysis. The natural philosophies of the Renaissance thinkers were among them. There’s no such thing as a science that is philosophically neutral.

6 05 2010

“But through all of it, there was a sense that the goal of human thought, to cite Nicholas of Cusa, is not to define but rather to invoke. We do not own the truth, but we rather witness its manifestations and behold its splendor. ”

Rather, we seek to know the truth and not be victimized by it. Controlling downside risk makes ownership unnecessary.

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