• Michael Martin

Science Doesn’t Need to be this Way

still from Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis'

Textbooks often describe the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century in triumphalist terms, glorying over the moment learning threw off the benighted shackles of the Church and Aristotle and stepped into a brave new world of truth. Posterity lauds the supposed winners of this paradigm shift—Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Bacon, Newton—and derides the losers, figures like Paracelsus, Robert Fludd, Athanasius Kircher, and Thomas Vaughan, all of whom persisted in affirming the participation of spiritual realities in the realm of natura. This is one bullshit narrative. But the winners are the ones who write the history books.

There is another book. This one tells of a counter-narrative, a counter-revolution, of a science not limited to the physicalism of scientific materialism.

In defiance of the august wisdom of the I Fucking Love Science Facebook page, let me just point out that most of the problems we face today—ecological degradation, confusion regarding simple biology, the disappearance of species, not to mention the impending horrors of AI development and transhumanism—are all directly or indirectly the results of scientific innovation. I am not dismissing the benefits science has provided, but people need to own this. As the late quantum physicist David Bohm observed, the problem with science as today practiced is that scientists are trained to look at the world as if disinterested observers. As a result, scientific innovation comes up with one great idea after another—ideas that later prove to have harmful consequences—to the environment, for example, to human health. And so, scientists come up with another great idea to address that problem—and then that solution creates another problem! For Bohm, this is the result of an epistemology that is wrong from the beginning: if scientists saw themselves as part of nature and not as godlike observers outside of nature, things would be much different. This doesn’t seem to be too much to ask. But, apparently, it is. No one wants to give up god-status. Only a god could do that.

What Bohm offers instead is what he calls an epistemology of “implicate order,” the idea that the whole is implied in the part and the part in the whole: that we are implicit to the cosmos, for instance, and the cosmos is just as implicit to our own being. As he also points out, the contemporary praxis of science should not be taken as an absolute: science was understood differently in the past and it will assuredly be understood differently in the future. We have by no means reached the scientific endgame.

Bohm is not alone as a scientist in his critique of science’s hamartia. Nobel laureate physicist Brian Josephson has been relentless in his criticism of the scientific community’s myopia. As he has been arguing since at least the 1980s, the science of the schools simply disregards a significant portion of reality, if not ultimate reality itself:

“The question then arises whether some future science may be able to cope with this aspect of reality or whether it will remain forever beyond the scope of science. The general aim of science being to gain as full and accurate a picture of reality as possible, one would expect logically that scientists in general would take a keen interest in such questions, just as they do in topics such as those of the fundamental constitution of matter, or from the mechanisms of life. In practice, however, such questions have been almost entirely split off from scientific consciousness, in some cases as a result of an atheistic point of view and in others because present science seems to be so far removed from anything spiritual that the suggestion of the possibility of merging of the two seems improbable or even absurd.”[1]

Likewise, Rupert Sheldrake, often maligned by his peers as “unscientific,” has gently (and humorously) been arguing for a science that is more scientific (in terms of being open to inquiry and innovation) and less dogmatic. But he knows how the game is played (and it is a game):

“Governments and corporations do not usually pay scientists to do research because they want innocent knowledge, like that of Adam before the Fall. Naming animals, as in classifying endangered species of beetles in tropical rainforests, is a low priority. Most funding is a response to Bacon’s persuasive slogan ‘knowledge is power.’”[2]

The poet, engraver, and visionary William Blake decried the totalizing influence of the Unholy Trinity—Bacon, Newton, and Locke—in his poetry for precisely these reasons. Their contributions, according to Blake, functioned as fetters to true progress and vision. (Aside: once I attended a conference at which Jean-Luc Marion, Richard Kearney, David Tracy, John Caputo, Adriaan Peperzak, and Robyn Horner—all theological and philosophical hotshots—were present, when Thomas (“The Death of God”) Altizer had this to say: “William Blake and James Joyce were better theologians than anyone here.” Ouch.)

Newton by William Blake

I often wonder what might have happened if the Scientific Revolution had not unfolded as it did. That is, what if Paracelsus, Fludd, Kircher, and Vaughan and their ilk (Goethe, Rudolf Steiner, Arthur Zajonc, among others) and had triumphed and not the dualists and materialists? I don’t think that science would have stagnated in a medieval mindset (the usual assumption)—but what if the spirit hadn’t been exiled from consideration in scientific inquiry? My claim is that we would be in a much different, and much healthier, state of affairs.

Even though scientific marvels appear almost daily, it does not seem that the bulk of them contribute much to the life of the planet and its inhabitants—though they are often of great benefit to corporations and governments. But a holistic scientific paradigm, one which takes into account all of reality: that might do something.

Michael's latest book is Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses, including one on The Metaphysical Poets.

[1] Brian Josephson, “Physics and Spirituality: The Next Grand Unification?” Physics Education 22 (1987):15–19, at 15.

[2] Rupert Sheldrake, The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry (London: Coronet, 2012), 15–16.

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