Is there anything beyond science? If so, what is it?
The Latin root of science simply means knowledge. We have for some time now separated out all "real" knowledge as "science" in the modern sense of the term. This has done great damage to our political and cultural lives, and ultimately damaged science itself. We cannot move forward without realizing that science depends on presuppositions that require a different sort of knowledge obtained by human reasoning outside of the scientific method. We must also realize that, just as science in the modern sense cannot proceed outside of principles that depend upon human reasoning of another kind, so it cannot answer the question of its own purpose. Nazi and Communist regimes have had excellent STEM programs, after all. The implosion of ethical and natural philosophy in the wake of modern science's disproportionate rise has left an untethered metaphysics to float into the ether and deflated political and ethical philosophy to fall to the ground. Philosophy in the old and serious sense must reassert its rightful claim as the overarching valid pursuit of truth within and not outside of which experimental science and technology can properly thrive, ordered to true human flourishing.
For those wanting to know more, I propose reading one short but now classic text on the subject: “An Epilogue,” in Liberalism Ancient and Modern, by Leo Strauss. For more on this and related topics, read the responses of J. Eric Wise and Glenn Ellmers in our feature "Does Nature Have an Algorithm?" See also the excellent essays they have written together here at TAM.
“Beyond” science? Just about everyone knows or finds out there are Things out there beyond science—more farfetched, more outlandish, harder to see, to grasp, to know. Fewer understand that what makes us alive and human is closer to hand than science, which always sets up positions at a certain remove in order to make sense of its subjects. There are lots of ways to describe the aliveness of ourselves in which we be and do, our anima, our soul. Many mistakenly sense themselves as alienated from their own animating soul on account of its stubbornly inexplicit quality and its existence “beyond,” so to speak, “ownership.” The gift of life is the least beyond us that a thing can be. But it is inextricable from us, at least until death. It can’t be teased out and away from us in order to bring it close enough for science to establish its studious critical distance. Other kinds of relationships must be established with the soul. Disagreement and divergence around how to do this has driven—perhaps defined—Western life.
Good grief, who drafts the questions these days? This is hard.
So, I take this question to ask us whether or not there exists a framework with greater explanatory powers than modern science with which to understand the world. I actually think there are two.
First, there is revelation. Of course, modern science snidely discounts revelation as a competitor in any real sense, but revelation does seem to be superior in that it provides an account of the whole of things and it plainly situates man in the cosmos. Modern science is incapable of this.
Second, there is philosophy. And here I will use an example. Modern science cuts the body open or images the brain as a clumsy way of, say, trying to explain what we mean by soul. But an approach that only can inform us that what we have inside are more insides, does not tell us anything meaningful.
So those two frameworks are, I think, “beyond science.” And I don’t mean to prejudice one over the other or even to denigrate modern science. I do, however, mean to encourage readers to investigate both.
We will all be answering questions this week about science. These days there is a distinction that needs to be made before doing any such thing: on the one side of that distinction is a salutary and useful practice called small-s science, a venerable human undertaking rooted in the Greek tradition of physikē epistēmē (on which more anon in days to come). On the other side of this distinction looms the great god Science. This god is the object of worship by cultists in a mystery religion whose priests are “experts” and whose edicts may not be questioned under any circumstances.
John Kerry, whom Joe Biden has chosen to serve as his Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, has said that “President Joe Biden will trust in God, and he will also trust in science to guide our work on earth.” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot defended her decision to celebrate Biden’s successes maskless in a vast crowd by saying that “there are times when we actually do need to have...relief and come together.” Apparently the Sabbath is not one of those times, however: Lightfoot was quick to remind us that, when it comes to the harshness of Chicago’s COVID lockdown regime, we must “listen to the science.”
It is immaterial whether or not the “s” is actually capitalized in oracular proclamations such as this. It might as well be, for the reverence is implied by the context. These are the gnomic utterances of servants to a false idol, one who takes the shape of real science but is actually a form of haruspicy. The great god Science declares: his elect foresee all that will occur on the basis of occult knowledge that is beyond the capacities of the uninitiated. Those who dare object must be condemned. It is in worship to this false god that the weak and the poor are constantly put out of their jobs here in Los Angeles on the basis of no evidence.
Like all idols, the great god Science wants us stripped naked, on our knees, and flayed bloody with our own consent. That is, in a word: the great god Science is a demon, a contorted shadow version of the good gifts which come in reality from the one true God alone. “Science” entices us with the stolen allure that belongs rightly to those gifts, but then trades their sweetness for dust and ash. Under the reign of this god, to paraphrase the Prophet Micah, the flesh of the poor is eaten and the wicked grow fat.
Look around you: you live in a world enslaved to this idol. Only habit and the soft degrees by which we were ensnared has kept us from seeing it this long.
There is, indeed, something beyond this false god—something even beyond the good and noble practice of discerning patterns in the natural world and making use of them for our benefit, which practice we rightly call small-s science. That something beyond is in fact a Someone Beyond: the one true God Jehovah of Abraham and Isaac, of Joseph and Jacob and Peter and Paul. To set belief in Him against the use of small-s science, or to suggest that our new knowledge of the physical world’s order makes Him obsolete, is to beclown oneself utterly. It is He who shapes the patterns of the world in the first place. If we are to rightly use the knowledge of those patterns which He affords us, we must repent of our idols and worship Him.
Without such repentance, and such worship, all small-s science—indeed all human endeavor—will devolve into incoherence, and we will devolve with it.