92. Philosophy in the Age of Scientism

I see Western Civilization as two distinct ages, the of philosophy and age of empirical science. The age of philosophy, starting with the Greeks, spanned from the 6th century B.C. until the birth of Modernism in the 16th century. The age of Empiricism, spanning until the present, began in 1543 with the Copernican Revolution. The “bible” of the new Empiricism, written in 1620, was Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum. As you can imagine, the period of the early 16th century was characterized by upheaval and transition. It’s rarely seen in the course of history. 

This is not to say that there was no willingness for scientific inquiry and advancement in the age of philosophy. In fact, the first philosophers, the Greek Ionians such as Thales, were highly interested in science. Because they formulated various theories on the nature of matter and the cosmos. The major problem with them and those who followed was that they needed more rudimentary instruments, such as microscopes. It would have enabled them to unlock the secrets of nature and the created order.

What is even more critical than this division is how people have viewed it since the Enlightenment. In this regard, people generally fall into two camps. On the one hand, some view this division was very beneficial. Whereas a new, enlightened way of thinking supplanted the old, backward way of thinking. On the other hand, some bemoan the fact that there has been a significant rupture in the continuity of thought in Western Civilization. And, this rupture has led to the problems of societal decadence that we see today.

A Brief History of Pre-Enlightenment Thought

Even with the advent of Christianity, which turned the classical world upside-down, there was, remarkably, a continuity in thought from the classical to the Christian world. One may ask how this was even possible?. Since the pagan and Christian worlds were so different, the latter being the antithesis of the former. While this antithesis existed and was responsible for a complete transformation of the ancient world. I believe that there is a significant divide between the traditional Christian perspective and the materialistic Enlightenment viewpoint. This gap is wider than the gap between Christianity and the classical pagan outlook.

For one thing, both the Christian and Pagan worldviews were theistic. If a modern Christian were to return to the ancient world, he might find more in common with the ancient pagan than the agnostic co-worker with whom he interacts daily. This is because the theistic worldview has been replaced by a materialistic worldview to the point that even many Christians are affected. We may acknowledge that God created the world. Still, we often view the world in a reductionistic sense. We see it as a mere collection of atoms devoid of any supernatural or transcendent component. Regardless of our spiritual beliefs, we are all influenced by this since this is the air we breathe. Whereas the classical and medieval people saw nature as rife with symbolism, we view nature in purely mechanistic terms thanks to Descartes.

So, with the advent of Christianity, there was a significant continuity in the retention of theism. It was because of lesser discontinuity with the replacement of “the gods” with the one God. Theologically, this was a significant step, a watershed event. But philosophically speaking, this was less significant of a change than what occurred in the Enlightenment. It can almost be viewed as an “exchanging of the gods” while preserving the underlying theism that animated the classical world. With the changing of the guard came, on the one hand, a radical transformation of the classical mind. But on the other hand, there was a preservation of the classical outlook, especially in terms of philosophy.

Reason and Faith

The two pillars of Western Civilization are reason and faith, philosophy and religion, namely Greek philosophy and the Christian religion. Greek philosophy sprouted and grew in the fertile soil of the Ionian Enlightenment starting in the 7th century B.C . The progress persisted until it reached a golden era during the times of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Aristotle, in particular, marked the apex of this era. It was because his ideas profoundly influenced Western thought for nearly two millennia. Significant developments in philosophy, such as the rise of Stoicism, emerged after Aristotle. However, compared to him, Greek philosophy went into decline. Christianity eventually breathed new life into Aristotle.

Greek philosophy eventually became a discipline in search of a purpose. It was with the newfound purpose being the defense, articulation, and propagation of the faith by the early church fathers. Sharing the Gospel faced resistance, just like science today. Opposing philosophies challenged Christian belief. This, combined with the emergence of diverse Christian interpretations. It compelled the Church Fathers to meticulously define core concepts like the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ.

Such precision and articulation required the church fathers to utilize philosophical concepts, definitions, and vocabulary from the rich Greek language. For example, Did Jesus share the exact nature of the Father, homoiousios, or just a similar nature, homoiousios? Such word precision was only possible with the Greek language. When the Western fathers later created equivalencies in Latin, they had to invent new worlds to match their Greek counterparts. Theological development extended until the end of Patristic Age of church, marked by the Second Council of Nicea (787 A.D)

The Scholastic Age

Western philosophical development with the Greeks and theological development with the Catholic Church fathers lasted approximately 700 years each. It was now left to the medieval Scholastics to integrate faith and reason or define their relationship more clearly. Unlike us, in the post-Enlightenment age, medieval philosophers and theologians saw no contradiction or antagonism between the two. They were distinct, but what was the relationship between the two? How did they complement one another? While the Scholastics united on faith and reason’s harmony, they varied their views on their relationship. In a nutshell, figuring that relationship out was the main task of medieval thinkers.

St. Thomas Aquinas

There is no definitive historical cut-off for the beginning and end of Scholasticism. But It is incredible that in the same year the Patristic Age ended in 787, King Charlemagne made a decree establishing schools in every abbey in the empire. This is known as the Carolingian Renaissance and was the West’s first significant revival of learning.1 This could be considered the beginning of Early Scholasticism. Then, of course, there was high Scholasticism and late Scholasticism, but the detailed discussion of these periods goes beyond the scope of this article.

The critical part of this discussion is to draw attention to the crowning achievement of Scholasticism, the integration of faith and reason to an extent never seen before or since through the work of Thomas Aquinas (1224/5-1274). Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica was undoubtedly the high water mark of Scholasticism and Western thought. One could say that Aquinas “baptized” Aristotle’s work, making it suitable and compatible with the tenets of the Christian faith. He did not alter it much, nor even disagree with most of what Aristotle wrote; he explained Aristotole’s thinking on many essential ideas in more detail and integrated his philosophy very well with Christian theology. With Thomas, a compatible and fruitful marriage was found between faith and reason. But like the best marriages, there would soon be trouble in paradise.

The Rejection of Thomism and Aristotle

By the 14th century, Aristotelianism fell out of favor, and with that, Thomism. The Aristotelian revival that began in the 12th century with the reintroduction of Aristotle into Europe through Islamic influence was effectively over.2 Four years after St. Thomas’s death, the bishop of Paris, Stephen Tempier, published a list of 219 heretical theological and philosophical thesis known as the Condemnation of 1277. Anyone caught listening or teaching these heresies would be excommunicated. Even though the “heretics” were not explicitly named, it was clear that the document was a reaction to the reintroduction of Greek philosophy into the faculty of arts and the sciences in Paris.

Reading between the lines, it is apparent and widely believed among scholars that, specifically, many of the ideas of Aristotle and, by implication, St. Thomas were targeted. After this condemnation was published, the tenor of Scholastic teaching changed considerably, and many, including myself, believe it for the worst. The ideas and arguments formulated at this time were very nuanced and complex, and I hope to cover these in the future.

But for now, we can simplify it by viewing it as a giant pendulum swing in two particular areas. First, there was a shift from emphasizing God’s rationality under Aquinas to emphasizing his will. And secondly, there was a shift from an emphasis on universals to a focus on particulars. In fact, with the rise of Nominalism under William of Ockham (1287-1437), the idea of the existence of universals was discarded altogether in favor of belief in particulars alone.

While these changes had no immediate societal repercussions, they were ultimately devastating and eventually brought a materialistic, soulless, modernistic way of thinking that devastated the West. While many blame the Enlightenment, Martin Luther’s fracturing of Christendom, or even the corruption of the Catholic Church that preceded Luther, I argue that the philosophical changes in Scholasticism post-Aquinas were the beginning of the end of Christendom and the West.

And, like a newly formed cancer cell, it doesn’t kill the host immediately. Eventually, it will if left untreated and sometimes years later. Nominalism, in particular, made it even possible for Luther and the Enlightenment to exist merely merely symptoms, the inevitable result of the former. I plan to develop these ideas in greater detail, and there is hope that if we come to understand the actual problem, a restoration, both philosophically, theologically, and thus morally and politically, is possible.

The End of Scholasticism and the Rise of Empirical Science

With these changes, medieval Scholasticism painted itself into a corner. On the one hand, with Aristotle dethroned, the Aristotelians devoted themselves to increasingly narrow technical questions that could only be resolved logically.4 On the other hand, what arose to take its place was a revived Platonism under men like Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464). But this wasn’t your grandfather’s Neoplatonism, a robust form of Platonism found in the Patristic Age with men like St. Augustine and Boethius. Instead, this was a more abstract Platonism that rejected Aristotelian rational thought in favor of a more intuitive approach to truth.

Copernicus

These changes resulted in a Scholasticism that, unlike Thomistic thought, had become more abstract or esoteric, losing touch with the surrounding world. With the rise of empirical science, there was a movement in the opposite direction towards interacting and discovering the secrets of the physical world. During this time, there were discussions between Scholastic philosophers and empirical scientists. The problem was that when the scientists would ask for philosophical explanations for what they were observing, they were usually given some abstract answer. The Scholastics had made themselves irrelevant to the development of science, even though many of their ideas would soon emerge to wreak havoc on the world.

Eventually, people like Descartes (1596-1660) and others rebelled against the Scholastics, rejecting their ideas. They were known, pejoratively, as the “Schoolmen.” Instead, Descartes and the new scientists opted for a more mathematical and mechanistic explanation of the universe. With this came the rejection of metaphysics, which was foundational to Aristotelianism and Greek philosophy. Why rely on invisible, abstract metaphysical principles that cannot be empirically explained. However, when Sir Isaac Newton said he had no explanation for the mysterious, invisible force of gravity, he got a pass. But that’s another story.

The Divorce of Science and Philosophy

Changes don’t happen overnight, and it took several centuries for these ideas to work out as they did through events like the Reformation and the Wars of Religion that followed. Despite the Scientific Revolution, the stigma remained in the universities that pursuing the physical sciences was somehow inferior to pursuing more “intellectual” disciplines such as philosophy and literature. Pursuing such things was considered a higher calling since it involved loftier thinking than merely working with the physical world.

Eventually, though, science captured the top spot. People were amazed by the incredible inventions that science has produced, recognizing their potential to enhance the lives of everyday individuals across various fields like medicine and transportation. Consequently, the significance of Aristotle and metaphysics diminished, pushing philosophy into a secondary role compared to this emerging scientific discipline. In earlier eras, theology held the prestigious title of the “queen of the sciences” with philosophy serving as its assistant or its “handmaiden”. However, the current scenario depicts science as a dominant force, often demanding blind trust (“Shut up and trust the science!”), while relegating other disciplines like philosophy and theology to slavish roles.

The truth now came through empirical means almost exclusively. Science established pre-suppositions dictated the validity of philosophical propositions. Only propositions fitting within these and not contradicting the materialistic worldview held weight. For any philosopher to be considered serious, reflection on science’s materialistic pre-suppositions became mandatory. Scientists today have to genuflect to Darwin by mentioning evolution at least once in their published biological papers. Or, they go out of their way to dismiss any spiritual aspects of reality or discount metaphysics as a useful tool for understanding scientific concepts. This is often done to show their peers that they belong to the materialistic scientism club. I’ve included a link to one such paper written by philosopher Jean Gayon, which discusses the definition of life.

The following quote for this fascinating paper is telling:

But, if we want to go further and provide a general definition of life, we
must be aware that it cannot be more than a stipulative definition, in relation with particular scientific theories. Such a definition will always be conventional, and for this reason, the wisest attitude that we may have is to accept that it is open to change, in response to new knowledge. If we do not accept this, Popper would probably go on, we must be aware that we enter into the realm of metaphysics. (italics added for emphasis)

-Jean Gayon, “Defining Life” paper

I find this very amusing, and it makes me laugh. If we don’t accept a specific scientific definition, “we must be aware,” or maybe he should have said, “Beware, Beware, enter at your own risk,” “that we enter into the realm of metaphysics,” which implies that we certainly don’t want to do that! This shows us that science now monopolizes knowledge, and metaphysics has been wholly discounted.

A Different History

I have obviously skipped over much detail on the evolution of thought from medieval to modern times. I aim to give overview of what happened to bring us up to the present crisis to understand our situation.

Let’s do a thought experiment. It’s same thought experiment you would do if you speculated on how history would be different if, say, Robert E. Lee had won the battle of Gettysburg, or Hitler had won WWII. We will never know, but it is interesting sometimes to speculate about such things. What would the West be like now if Aristotelian Thomism had not been condemned in 1277? Imagine if philosophers and theologians who followed Aquinas took his ideas further. They could build upon them, just as he did with the ideas of those who came before him. What if Nominalism had never replaced Realism or if the emphasis on Will had not replaced the focus on Reason? 7

William of Ockham and Duns Scotus changed philosophy significantly. Ockham’s Nominalism and emphasis on Voluntarism were groundbreaking. This shift in Western thought was a pivotal moment. It seemed like there was no going back after this. Without these ideas, an unhinged Luther would have never existed, and the Reformation would have never occurred. The Catholic Church would have cleaned up its corruption as it had done so many times before.

The Reformation was essential; it led to the Wars of Religion that fractured Europe. This, in turn, sparked the Enlightenment and secularized Europe and the West. Without that secularization, there would be no moral decay, moral anarchy, or societal breakdown. Community rather than alienation would be the norm. We would characterize our societies with hope and courage, replacing nihilistic despair and fear.

An Unnecessary Divorce

If the philosophers and theologians who followed Aquinas had further developed and built upon his ideas, then philosophy, in particular metaphysics and theology, would have been ready to meet the challenges of the Scientific Revolution. I don’t blame the Scientific Revolution for the rise of Scientism; I blame the post-Thomistic medieval philosophers and theologians who took a wrong turn and went down a destructive path. Because of this, they were not ready to meet the challenges faced with the advent of empirical science.

Imagine if the opposite happened. What if the physical scientists and the metaphysical philosophers could have worked together and cooperated with one another much like the philosophers and theologians did throughout much of the Middle Ages? Scientists could have enlightened philosophers on the workings of the physical world, while philosophers, in turn, could have enlightened and guided scientists on the metaphysical principles behind the scenes. The world would have been better off for it. We could achieve more comprehensive and complete knowledge today, and apply it with sound wisdom instead of resorting to mechanistic, dehumanizing pragmatism. One example I don’t have time to discuss is how Aristotle’s natural philosophy explains some of the unexplained and puzzling features of quantum physics. If you are interested, I can post about that.

Philosophical Upheaval

I mentioned above how there was a relatively seamless transition from paganism to Christianity in the ancient world. I would not call it a revolution so much as a transformation. This is because the fundamental underlying philosophical principles, especially those of Aristotle, remained intact, providing a metaphysical bridge between the old and the new. Late Scholastic philosophy upheaved that metaphysical bridge, destroying it in the process. Everything appeared to be okay because the Christian worldview was still intact, which was very deceiving.

We really had the opposite situation of what occurred in the Roman Empire. In the Classical world, we had a continuity of philosophy and a discontinuity of faith, which was sustainable. In the early modern period, we had a continuity of faith and a discontinuity of philosophy, which was devastating. Intuition would tell us that just the reverse would be true. Why is this not the case?

This is a discussion for another time, but the short answer is that correct thinking (philosophy) is necessary to understand the natural order of things and make sense of the tenets of religion, especially Christianity. We need philosophy to understand theology. Without correct thinking, we cannot appreciate the natural order of life and existence, and revealed religion becomes confusing. Without a proper philosophical understanding, we end up with the myriad brands and sects of Protestantism that we see today.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Modern science gives us many benefits, but without the guidance of sound thinking and the right philosophy, it too will run amuck and cause harm, just like unguided religion can. What better way to illustrate this point than to end with a brief discussion of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. English novelist Mary Shelley, at the young age of twenty, wrote the novel Frankenstein. This insightful work serves as a Romantic critique of the Enlightenment, particularly its emphasis on using rationalism and science to control and remake nature in humanity’s image.

Dr. Frankenstein built a soulless creature, a monster, that went on to wreak havoc on the local community. The monster, enraged by its rejection by the very humankind from which it came, killed people in its anger. When confronted with what he has done, Dr. Frankenstein throws up his hand and states that he is not responsible for what his creation does after he has made it. Other things develop, but I don’t want to give away the story.

Frankenstein Killing Villagers

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has always served as a cautionary tale about what occurs when science progresses unchecked by the ethical considerations of philosophy and theology. It really explains our modern state. Scientists create AI, but no one seems to understand how it will impact the world. Even worse, no one seems to have a plan for addressing the potential negative consequences of AI. Will AI become a new Frankenstein monster, created and turned loose upon society to wreak havoc as its creators throw up their hands, resolving themselves of all responsibility? This is just one of many examples. The field of bioethics is another area that drastically needs attention.

I view the time of the Presocratic philosophers to the Copernican Revolution (1543) as the “Age of Philosophy,” where an emphasis was put on philosophical ideas and inquiry. I view the time from the Copernican Revolution as the “Age of Science.” The philosophical age is the age of the soul since it generally deals with transcendent ideas and principles. The scientific age is the body’s age since it generally deals with the physical structures.

Because of the great divorce of science and philosophy, especially metaphysics, and the reign of scientism, the West has become like a gigantic Frankenstein monster, technology without a soul. Examples include the Covid crisis. We had so-called scientific leaders who knew virtually nothing about what they discussed because they lacked proper thinking on the nature of humanity and ethics. They do not understand the essence and, thus, the needs of the human person. They are like the Frankenstein monster running amuck with newfound technologies, who end up destroying for help. I’m not necessarily saying that they are malicious, although some of them are, but I am saying that, at the very least, they lack the wisdom necessary to handle such crises and the accompyning technologies.

Hope and the Way Back

If things had taken a different turn, the philosophical soul would be inhabiting and guiding the scientific and technological body. Science and technology would not be the oppressors that they have become now, as we live in an increasingly technocratic society run by those who would use technology to oppress and control. We have turned science and technology from humble servants into taskmasters.

If the problems began with departing philosophy from Aristotelian Thomism, then the answer would include returning to and reestablishing those ideas. We must reestablish the Aristotelian presuppositions that guided the West up until the advent of Modernity. That is not to say that we adopt them woodenly, but that we make corrections where necessary based on modern scientific discoveries, but overall, we must reestablish the disciplines of metaphysics and natural philosophy.

The Neo-Thinkers

Neo-Thomists, neo-Aristotelians, and even neo-Scholastics have a duty to leverage their knowledge beyond academic journals. While publishing is essential, they should also engage with think tanks and boards of directors, particularly those focused on bioethics and medicine. One example has to do with the practice of gender surgeries. Many of those who speak out against practices such as gender surgeries do so from merely a pragmatic perspective of the “damage that it causes.” While that is true, the ultimate answer is to change people’s thinking on the nature of a human being and, as an extension of that, how happiness can be found.8

You are correct for those who think we are fighting an uphill battle but never underestimate the power of the truth. If the problem is wrong, the answer is recovering the right philosophy. If we don’t rediscover and apply these principles, the West will turn into another failed civilization, leaving it to those who follow us to pick up the pieces. Eventually, some civilization will, if not ours, because the truth prevails.

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. There is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world it’s pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We’re on the wrong road. And if that is so we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.

-C.S. Lewis

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Deo Gratias!

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Footnotes and Endnotes:

  1. Colish, Marcia L. Medieval foundations of the western intellectual tradition, 400–1400. Yale University Press, 1999, 66–67
  2. Reason and Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Professor Thomas Williams, The Great Courses course guidebook, p. 91, The Teaching Company, 2007
  3. Ibid, p. 75
  4. Ibid, p. 93
  5. “Scientism” meaning the exessive believe in the power of science to inform us of all truth and to hold the exclusive answers to the major problems of life
  6. Gayon J. Defining life: synthesis and conclusions. Orig Life Evol Biosph. 2010 Apr;40(2):231-44. doi: 10.1007/s11084-010-9204-3. Epub 2010 Feb 17. PMID: 20162362.
  7. I apologize for those unfamiliar with these terms and concepts for not explaining them more thoroughly, but I plan to in future articles.
  8. Capuccino, Carlotta. “‘Happiness and Aristotle’s Definition of’ Eudaimonia.” Philosophical Topics 41, no. 1 (2013): 1–26

Further Reading:

Dodds, Michael J., O.P., Philosophical Anthropology, 2nd ed., Western Dominican Province, 2013

Dupre, Louis, Passage to Modernity, An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture, Yale University Press, 1993, ISBN-13: 978-0300065015

Feser, Edward, Aristotle’s Revence, The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science, editions scholasticae, 2019, ISBN 978-3-86838-200-6

Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein

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