April 13, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The Vacant God, Part I
Science and Philosophy
IF WE WERE TO JUDGE by the “popular mood”—what temperament reigns in the general discourse; what words surface again and again in our daily parlance, and what words remain instead discreetly but noticeably submerged; what candles now flicker around which the moths most like to gather—then we would surely be quite forgiven for inferring that science has replaced philosophy as the first tribunal and the last arbiter of all fundamental questions in human life. The very ground upon which we stand seems paved over with scientific precepts and conclusions—the terms of science, the expressions therefrom derived, and, indeed, something subtler altogether—a certain sense and outlook, a certain vision of the world and the things of the world. Indeed, the scientific way of thinking rules today, its method and its proud impartiality, which bind us here like the dumb gravity of the very material world it so assiduously investigates. Indeed, it strikes us most forcibly that philosophy, which has always been a suspect figure in the marketplaces of men, has never enjoyed one-tenth the privileged position of science in our time. The nearest one comes nowadays to questioning science, is sometimes, and rather tepidly and apologetically, questioning its technology. But the one is by no means the other; and those who condemn this technology do not generally condemn science, but desire instead to yield up as much respect to the one, as they deny to the other. Yet science itself takes an uncritical eye of technology; being impartial, it can do no other. And so to be an explicit supporter of science is, in the end, to prove oneself a tacit supporter of technology as well.
When reviewing these matters from a historically removed perspective, it becomes suddenly and surprisingly clear that science in our day enjoys a kind of catholic acclaim and influence such as the Church could boast only at the height of its reign. Now, much is made of the conflict between theology and science, and many are the attempts to demonstrate that this animosity is eternal and unfordable, or else to disprove it and so to effect a joyous reconciliation between these two estranged bodies of human theory. One is astounded to dream the amount of paper which has been spent toward these ends even since the turn of the century. But much more rarely are such books written about the relation between science and philosophy, save in a purely historicist mood and mold. Perhaps the nearest one gets, in the official literature, is C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures; yet in that lecture, which as far as I know is the best of its kind, the word philosophy appears but once, and in a totally incidental fashion. Rather it is the “literary intellectual” who here has, shall we say, one half of center stage.
The fact that Snow was content never once to broach the subject of philosophy in a lecture speaking on the heart of our cultural life, already betrays everything. It is as if the two worlds of theology and science, or literature and science, lay so far apart that one were spurred to their consolidation or sundering; while philosophy must lie in an altogether different universe to that, and one which is easily enough disdained and ignored. Yet this is most strange. The conflict between theology and science, which is hardly so neglected, is nothing but a contemporary version of the ancient conflict between theology and philosophy, for which Socrates was ostensibly killed, and the conflict between literature and science is but a contemporary version of the ancient conflict between poetry and philosophy, which, through Aristophanes, had its hand in killing him. What then is the meaning of the silence that enshrouds philosophy on the part of the practitioners of science—indeed, to a certain extent, the silence that enshrouds philosophy in all quarters?
Let us approach this same question from another vantage. What are we to make of the fact that, outside the high and sound-proof walls of academia, the name of philosophy is bantered about in an offensively familiar manner one would never permit with the hallowed name of science? What is one to think when one sees, for example, some book professing to exhibit the “philosophy” of a work of popular fiction, or that of some third-rate children’s movie, or that of some poor television series? Consider a book which I happened upon some years back, entitled, most shamelessly, The Philosophy of the Lord of the Rings. Could one ever imagine a book bearing the title “The Science of Tolkien’s Lost Realm”? Surely, such a book would be an absurdity, or at best some manner of winsome caricature, or some psuedo-scientific flight of fancy. But why is the same seriousness not accorded to philosophy?
It is impossible to deny the impression that science has assumed the role once publicly reserved to religion, and privately to philosophy: science has become the judge of all human questions regarding the nature of the universe in which we live. Put otherwise, science has supplanted philosophy and conquered faith. And in a certain respect, we may say that science has filled its role much more brilliantly than religion ever managed, or philosophy ever desired. For on the one side science has succeeded in producing an endless stream of mundane miracles, and on the other has done what philosophy refused to do: science has made itself popular. More than that, it has created for itself a sort of internal circle and priesthood, held to be somehow sacrosanct and incorruptible, and within the magic borders of which it may do whatsoever it pleases, so long as it abides its own laws. The old philosopher’s dream—to be kept and fed by the city, whilst one pursues in peace one’s contemplations—is today become a living reality amongst the scientists.
Now it is certain that the scientists could not have attained this if their science had been unwilling to bribe the appetites of the people. It is largely through the astounding practical successes in technology, and the way in which this technology has bated and propitiated the broader populace, that science has paid its way into the heart of society. For people are as they have always been: they believe anything which sufficiently awes them, and blindly trust whatever sufficiently spoils them. Technology has done for science what the sophists of Greece tried to do for philosophizing, but were not permitted to do by the sovereign integrity of philosophy: it has made science marketable.
This, however, is but half the argument—admittedly, the half that clinched the case, and built a cathedral of science upon the foundations otherwise provided. As for these foundations, it is safe to say that we have forgotten them, as we have no use any longer for their remembrance—or think we haven’t. The ages of men, too, are like the bedrocks of the world: there are whole strata beneath us that are deep enough down we have never glimpsed them, save now and again in the exposed cliffsides cut here and there by some river or sea. Much gets buried which is not for that reason lost. Science as we know it was a latecomer in the arena of human knowledge. Philosophy had a precedence of some two millennia or more by the time the first champions of “natural philosophy” stepped into the field. Given the antiquity of its foe, it is difficult to imagine how science has so thoroughly managed to route it, establishing an almost universal command of all investigations into truth of the natural world—especially since any historical review suggests that the metaphors we have lately used are inaccurate: there was practically no battle between the two for dominance, but rather the one rose as the other fell, like the swelling balance of the tide.
Now, science grew out of philosophy, was initially in no way distinguishable from it. The word “science” itself was originally a philosophical word, and is used abundantly by, to name but a few august sources, Aristotle, Kant, and Aquinas, in their various tongues, long before the emergence of modern science. The word “science” meant originally simply “knowledge,” or perhaps more rightly “a method of knowing.” Science as we know it began in our time as a new philosophical attempt—a new outgrowth of an antique philosophical tradition; a new method for the discovery of truth, which, it was modestly hoped, might finally to supersede and displace the old. Bacon’s Novum Organum is probably the founding, and certainly among the more revelatory books in this new tradition. Its ambition is already writ large in the very title: it was meant as the new organ of scientific discovery, to supplant the older classical tradition which traced its heritage to Aristotle. Bacon was presenting the first form of the scientific method we know today, and he was presenting it as a revolution for the entire classical tradition which had reigned practically unchallenged for two millennia before him.
A question then emerges, a very important question which is almost invisible to our science-drunk minds: why, after so much time, was it seen as necessary to reconstruct the whole of philosophy from the ground up? Philosophical methods are ever the most fundamental parts of philosophical inquiry, and of philosophies themselves; they determine all progress and set all all borders to progress. Then why, at the time of Bacon, was it suddenly seen necessary to re-establish this basemost part, and reconstruct the entire edifice of philosophy diverse from what it had been?
Philosophy was seen as having failed: that is the answer, long and short. In the two-thousand years of its existence, it had failed to discover lasting and undeviating solutions to its greatest questions. It had failed to produce an outstanding ascent from ignorance to wisdom. And it had failed to better the conditions of humanity, to alleviate its suffering and to ameliorate its toil. Philosophy had failed, one might say, in three distinct ways: as science, as tradition, and as consolation. It had proved to be nothing but an arid habit carried over faithfully from a distant past, and in this, seemed much too much like religion; yet when its most devoted members brought down the ark from their aching shoulders to see what it contained, they seemed to find nothing but the brittle ash of an empty formalism and a mindless adherence to old ways. Its barrenness was best evidenced by this: it had gone willingly to be servant and serf of the Church, had even through the singular brilliance of St. Thomas Aquinas become so interpenetrated with Christian dogma that it was no longer possible to disentangle it. Thus come the first stirrings of Enlightenment: the need was felt for a new philosophy to replace both Church doctrine and also the philosophy that it had corrupted and therefore disproved. Philosophy, as it had existed, had been judged before the tribunal of history, and found wanting.
It is into this world that the new tradition first stepped; and the very experimentations of the first of these new philosophers already suggested the way they were to go. Through them was born the initial promise of that science which began to take hold of the best minds of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and which produced such a striking and explosive success, almost at once, in the fields of physics and the new chemistry. Up even to the day of Newton—aye, even up to that of Lavoisier, who did not survive the French Revolution—the scientist was still considered a “natural philosopher,” which is to say—a species of philosopher; and as there is not any, nor can there be any, specialization in philosophy, these men were by rights also philosophers in the full and proper sense, or they were something less than philosophers, namely—scholars. But in turning first to the natural world in their investigations, and neglecting the soul of man, they had unwittingly turned the classic philosophical tradition as founded by Socrates on its head, and thus prepared the way for the divorce of philosophy and science.
Now simultaneous as this entire generation of proto-scientists and mathematicians was applying its new method to the physical world, and drawing out of it the first forms of our modern physics and chemistry, there naturally arose a great ambition to duplicate these peerless scientific results also in philosophy proper—in the fields of metaphysics, ethics, and politics, among others: to use the method discovered by philosophy for the final or near-final resolution of all problems historically confronting it. Hobbes can properly be seen as initiating the first of these attempts; but Hobbes was prone to putting himself clearly, which is never advisable in written political philosophy, and often enough is not even responsible. Nonetheless, Hobbes was the first of a tradition of philosophers who reformulated political philosophy, and who have to their credit the inspiration of the modern Occidental republics, along with a veritable array of other, generally derivative and often less successful compacts of state.
No matter the enormous practical success of his project, however, Hobbes did not win himself place in some pantheon of “scientific philosophers” or “political scientists” as Newton was later able to do in the field of physics: his attempt to build a mathematically complete system of philosophy was not perceived as a success, and in consequence the history of modern philosophy did what it always has done: it disassembled his entire edifice and sought to rebuild it elsewhere.
After Hobbes, the next fundamental modern attempt to set philosophy on a more scientific bedrock comes with Descartes. His method, rather than taking up the mathematical side of science as Hobbes had done, began instead from a kind of philosophical transfer of the very spirit of scientific method: arrant skepticism in absence of trial. But though he thuswise added his name to the field of mathematics, the philosophical conclusions that Descartes drew as it were from the void proved nothing more durable than those of his brethren. To make philosophy mathematical and to make it scientific-skeptical: Hobbes and Descartes represent the root attempts in this respect; but neither of them was able to found a new philosophico-scientific tradition as Lavoisier, for example, founded chemistry, or Newton, physics.
Needless to say, these men were not alone in their attempts. It is indeed remarkable and fascinating how intent the philosophers of the Enlightenment became in the task of producing philosophical knowledge epistemologically parallel to the new scientific knowledge. Spinoza and his Ethics, the whole notion of a “state of nature” from which Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau commenced, even so late a figure as Wittgenstein with the logical and hierarchical apothegms of his Tractatus—all of this owes its very existence to the change in tenor following the scientific revolution, the sudden desire to discover for philosophy generally a new method, a closed system, a scientific foundation. The failure of all these attempts has resulted in the desperation of philosophy, its gradual disintegration into modern skepticism, relativism, and arid specialization.
Wherefore this failure? We are hardly speaking of the work of second-rate minds; and when the geniuses, the marked men of whole generations expend themselves on some problem or other, without clearly effecting its resolution—does this not make one pause? Does not the failure of their dearest hopes, make us wonder?
And what hopes there were! From the ranks of the Enlightenment there even stepped a philosopher with a mind of the structure and rank of Newton’s—the much-celebrated Kant, who put himself to the problem of scientizing philosophy with a workmanlike diligence hitherto almost unknown amongst the philosophers. It was no accident that Kant compared his efforts here to the revolution effected in science by Copernicus: Kant had every ambition to make of all philosophy a science like Copernicus’—to join “the starry sky above me and the moral law within me” by the bonds of a single science. The result of that tremendous effort was, of course, that series of books from which The Critique of Pure Reason and the Metaphysics of Morals stand out as the most famous. Through them, without doubt, Kant made his impact on the philosophical world. That as trenchant and critical a mind as Schopenheaur’s was ready to follow the direction Kant had indicated tells us everything already. But even good old Kant, despite literally a lifetime dedicated to such diligent ant-like activity, did not attain that place in some new moral science that Newton had won for himself in physics. And why? He did not exert himself any less than that man, did not shrink from work both humble and difficult; if I am not mistaken, there is even something in the tone of their two greatest writings which is kin and common—notwithstanding that Newton, dealing of phenomena reducible to mathematics, had relied on a language considerably more Euclidian, where Kant had no such convenient tradition in which to fix his words. Both of these men, of course, were superseded by later figures: but Newton to us is still a scientist, while Kant is ever and only—a philosopher. Why?
To any thinker of good faith coming after Newton—and this was true all the way until Einstein turned the world upside down—the work that Newton had done could be seen as valid and complete—complete, indeed, not necessarily in having answered every individual question, but rather in having provided the framework by which any individual question could in principle be answered, or through which novel theories could be discovered. This is the meaning of mathematical-scientific knowledge as Husserl understands it:
Thus mathematics showed for the first time that an infinity of objects that are subjectively relative and are thought only in a vague, general representation is, through an a priori all-encompassing method, objectively determinable and can actually be thought as determined in itself or, more exactly, as an infinity which is determined, decided in advance, in itself, in respect to all its objects and all their properties and relations.
Kant’s system, on the other hand, could not be reviewed even by men of his own generation without their finding numberless philosophical objections to it, numberless facets of that “infinity of objects” in the life of man, which it claimed but failed to comprehend precisely “through an a priori all-encompassing method.” Perhaps the trouble was the men drawn to philosophy—the particularity and strength of their characters, their almost tyrannical will to mastery: they will never accept what they do not have to accept. The clean rigor of Newton’s mathematics left no objections possible but the very profoundest, which it intentionally disdained; meanwhile, Kant’s system itself dealt of such profundities, and consequently could be challenged by anyone even somewhat versed in philosophy.
Kant represents, with the possible exceptions of Hegel and Husserl, the last great attempt to completely overhaul philosophy by the precepts of science. For this reason, Kant was perforce the culminating figure of the Enlightenment, whose particular failure to realize the dream of the Enlightenment—the reunification of science and philosophy—was also the final failure. After him, the claims of philosophy generally moved in two directions: audaciously back toward a more classical and increasingly non-scientific understanding of philosophy, without, however, losing sight of the problem of modernity; and modestly forward, to a yet-hoped-for future reconciliation of science with philosophy, and toward the re-welding of their broken destinies. For it was after the great failure of Kant that the division began in earnest between philosophy and science: while the one took step beyond careful step along the road presented to it, and began collecting to its celebrity success after startling success, the other drew off in the shame of its great confusion, from which it has still not recovered, and which plagues it to this day.
The great philosophers who lived between Kant and our own day do not for the moment concern us. We are investigating the fate of philosophy in this our time, and there is a certain strange way in which these greatest figures, for the first time in the history of philosophy, stand apart from that history and that fate. This does not make them any less essential to us, nor to philosophy; perhaps it makes them moreso. Nor is this meant to deny the profound and, in at least a single case, earth-shifting influence they have had. But they did not avail to save philosophy, the idea of philosophy, from degenerating into a mere specialty, and more and more a merely academic one: indeed, they perhaps hastened this end by speaking too loudly, too much—by forgetting the meaning of silence.
Apart from these indispensable figures, the destiny of philosophy has remained cowered beneath the growing shadow of science. It is still given to philosophy to speak on the subjects of greatest importance to the human being: the questions of society and politics; of ethics and morals; of cosmology and metaphysics; of ends and means; of the good life and the wicked, the noble and the base, the high and the low; of the gods and of man. But philosophy has lost its confidence to speak of these matters. It has as of yet discovered no scientific approach to these questions; indeed, its every attempt to do so has been rebuffed as though by an invisible wall. And most fatally: its failure to apply scientific method to its investigations is interpreted even by it as sign of its impotence and inferiority. The application of scientific method to philosophy, while it had been so marvelously productive elsewhere, here misfired, leaving that once-august master and ruler of all things human to contemplate its own abject failure in the light of science’s shining and boastful success. For the second time in the modern experiment, philosophy had been judged by history, and found wanting.
In light of this judgement, philosophy in our day has lost its autonomy. The question, which had hitherto been how to do for philosophy what science had done for physics, became after Kant considerably humbler. One no longer sought to finalize philosophy; one rather sought but a single point of entry into human things, such that one could slowly begin to apply scientific method to a part of them, and through this part, perhaps later to the whole of the human universe. We shall not chronicle these many dramas nor their many failings. The door was sought wheresoever one might conceive it. One sought it in history (Hegel, Marx), another in psychology (Freud, Jung); another yet in economics (again, Marx) or in biology (Spencer) or in linguistics (Frege). Each time an initial glint of success precursed the second and more ominous onset of that darkness around the life of man. Human existence itself and the very substance which makes it up began to take the appearance of a manifold of inscrutable riddles indelibly scratched on some primordial cave wall. And the study of philosophy, finding each of its successive attempts to interpret these hieroglyphs again and again repulsed, continued to humiliate its claims to slimmer dimensions, until at last we reach the present day which finds “philosopher” to be a word generally reserved for that particular species of dust-dry scholar who presses his inquiry in the history of philosophical failures all the way from when Thales bumbled into his well to when Richard Rorty proves that it is impossible for Richard Rorty to be convicted of irrationality. Philosophy, once the pater universalis, has become but one of the humanities, even as applied biology is one of the sciences. At its best, philosophy today remains the kind of arm-chair linguisticizing pursued by the likes of Donald Davidson. Whatever is divine in philosophy, whatever kingly and godlike, all its golden ichor, has been leeched out from it these bad centuries; and what of it remains is not even so noble a death-husk as the Pharaohs prepared themselves.
It is clear that the process we have just described is nothing other than the disintegration of philosophical discourse under the corrosive influence of dogmatic scientific skepticism. Philosophy has been so reduced, not because it has truly failed, but because it acquiesced to be subjected to that method it itself produced, yet which is nonetheless essentially foreign to it, and which it itself, to this day, has not yet adequately understood. Philosophy finds itself in its present straits, because it has deigned to allow that science be the final, the ultimate arbiter of all human thought. Philosophy itself so established the world—and thence suffered of its judgement. As if Prometheus had bound himself to the stone, as if Chronos rather than devouring his children had fed instead of his own flesh, his own limbs, his own heart—so philosophy in our day contains itself, and constraints itself, immolates itself before the face of the world.
High time were it, then, for philosophy to perform a thoroughgoing moral critique of science, as it and it alone can do, now that science has led us into countless difficulties and bound us up in countless riddles it itself is incapable of resolving. High time for philosophy to renew again its mantle as king of the sciences, not to stand so aloof and forlorn. And toward that end, it is high time that philosophy, with that royal glance once native to it, discard for a moment its ridiculous pretenses toward scientizing philosophy, that it might ask instead, in ruthlessly and unflinchingly philosophical manner, how and why it has come to this extremity, and on what philosophical grounds its great contemporary rival, science, finally stands.
Continue to Part II