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Scientism and Heisenberg's "Deplored Division" July 14, 1996
Science is properly a method of investigation and, as such, need not be opposed to art or religion. Renaissance science (of which Bacon was an independent spokesman) held that science was in large measure the handmaid of art and religion. Bacon's science was intended to serve religion, not oppose it; what it opposed was rather the prideful tendency of the contemporary church to observe and interpret the world through a rigid screen assembled from bits and pieces of holy scripture and canon law, and forbidding any other view of it. Bacon said:

"My first admonition (which is also my prayer) is that men confine the sense within the limits of duty in respect of things divine, for the sense is like the sun, which reveals the face of the earth but seals and shuts up the face of heaven. My next, that in flying from this evil they fall not into the opposite error, which they will surely do if they think that the inquisition of nature is in any part interdicted and forbidden. For it was not that pure and uncorrupted natural knowledge whereby Adam gave names to the creatures according to their propriety, which gave occasion to the fall. It was the ambitious and proud desire of moral knowledge to judge good and evil, to the end that man may revolt from God and give laws to himself, which was the form and manner of the temptation. Whereas of the sciences which regard nature, the divine philosopher declares that "it is the glory of God to conceal a thing, but it is the glory of a King to find a thing out." Even as though the divine nature took pleasure in the innocent and kindly sport of children playing at hide and seek, and vouchsafed of his kindness and goodness to admit the human spirit as playfellow at that game. Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all, that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things, but for the benefit and use of life; and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from the lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell, but of charity there can be no excess, neither did man or angel ever come in danger of it." (1)

It is really only after the renaissance that science came to be regarded as a somehow autonomous pursuit, which eventually gave rise to the "scientism" of our day. I am not aware of a real definition of scientism, so I am going to define it for my own purposes here (however if there is a real definition I would be happy to hear it): "Scientism is the belief that the domain of scientific investigation and the universe are coterminous." This is not really the same thing as empiricism or positivism, as those notions do not necessarily deny the existence of things outside of their domain (cf. Wittgenstein in the Tractatus: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence"). Scientism does so deny. Scientism thoroughly embraces materialism, to the extent that it entirely denies traditional views of mind in favor of strict chemical determinism. In this respect scientism is truly the worm that devours itself. Given Bacon's admonitions to the church of his day, it is more than a little ironic that once science broke free of that church, it retreated to a philosophical domain that is in most respects smaller and stingier than the one it left.

It is not so much "the extension of scientific methods of thought far beyond their legitimate limits of application " as it is scientism's embrace of a material, mechanical world view and denial of all else that has really led to Heisenberg's "deplored division in the world of ideas between the fields of science on the one side and fields of religion and art on the other." This division is truly a gulf in which scientism views religion as a kind of naive cosmological speculation that can only be appreciated historically, i.e., in light of the fact that it predates science and therefore must be excused for errors it did not have the tools to correct (but now has no such excuse and is therefore largely intolerable). Art is even more difficult for scientism to understand, however it is easier to accept because it is often practiced without reference to God or religion.

On the other side of Heisenberg's "deplored division," art and religion have made equally drastic work of science. In those ever diminishing enclaves where art is not simply the tool of the marketplace, the marriage of art and scientism has produced an art so impersonal, so devoid of any reference to the human beings we persist in being, that it is mostly deaf and dumb. Where religion has married scientism we see the same thing in the form of a Christian theology that reduces scripture to a cipher to be deconstructed rather than lived, and that advises men who would know God to close their eyes, leap, and hope for the best in the face of a general conviction that such leaps may very well be fruitless. Where religion has rejected scientism there is a stubborn fundamentalism that in its behavior (if not its doctrine) approaches the Manichean heresies of the early church in its rejection of science and the world.

What is fairly clear is that the "deplored division" and all of its consequences was an entirely unlooked for result of Bacon's Great Instauration and renaissance thought in general. E. A. Burtt once attempted to decipher the great shift in western thought that accompanied science and posed a question I believe is at the heart of this:

"Just when did teleological explanations, accounts in terms of the use and the Good, become definitely abandoned in favor of the notion that true explanations, of man and his mind as well as of other things, must be in terms of their simplest parts?" (2)

Burtt saw very well what scientism forgets, which is that science is always limited by being a generalizing activity and only operates on those portions of the world it is able to single out for study (the "simplest parts"). And science's manner of singling out, as effective as it often is, should (as a caution) be compared with Nietzsche's observation on the claims of naturalistic painters of his generation:

"All nature faithfully"--But by what feint
Can Nature be subdued to art's constraint?
Her smallest fragment is still infinite!
And so he paints but what he likes in it.
What does he like? He likes, what he can paint!

Nietzsche's comment should also remind us that science and religion are both rooted in human notions of use and are driven by human values. Their respective successes can only be measured against the motivating human values in whose service they've been put to use. In this respect, no matter how mechanized and determined a universe the scientist may imagine, the purposive actions that drive his study are themselves stubbornly teleological.

We should also recall that religion's primary service is to reconcile man with God, not to explain, describe, or manipulate the world. (The phrasing of this can be suitably altered for Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. without losing the sense of it). For this reason, whatever science may tell us of the universe, it can say nothing of the supernatural wherein God also works (as Bacon put it: "for the sense is like the sun, which reveals the face of the earth but seals and shuts up the face of heaven."). Science cannot say with any authority that religions don't work; it must either deny that the subject of religion exist (as scientism has done), or assume that it must always work within certain limits and, outside of these, approve the work of faith.

(1) Francis Bacon, Preface to the Magna Instauratio, 1620
(2) E. A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, revised edition (1932).
(3) Friedrich Nietzsche, unattributed quotation in E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion (1960)`

Related Posts: Heisenberg's Deplored Division  
E. O. Wilson and Consilience
The humanities and sciences are preeminently activities and products of the mind, and evolutionary biology has (in general) assessed the mind quite succinctly: as we typically conceive it, it doesn't exist. There is a wonderful marriage of spirit with postmodernism here, yet art, science, and religion become epiphenomenon that can have no certain meaning in this assessment, because we no longer have an "organ" with the independence to determine objective meanings. Certainly the "brain" as seen by the materialists couldn't qualify for such duty.

posted 1998-05-02

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