The Lights by Which We See

Science Is Knowledge by Reasonable Faith

It has become the default assumption among the smart set that there are two non-overlapping spheres of human understanding. One sphere is Nature, where starfish, starlets, and stars are reducible to elemental forms of matter and energy. Here, direct observation and the powers of reason and science make knowledge certain.

The other sphere is Supernature, which is populated by souls, spirits, God, and everything else originating from human imaginings, needs, and yearnings. Since these things are beyond the reach of empirical examination, knowledge of them is tenuous and uncertain.

The former is the realm of Facts, the latter the realm of Faith, and betwixt them there is no connecting thoroughfare. Such was not always the case.

The ancient Greeks believed in a primal source of harmony that made the universe, in its diversity, a coherent whole. (The word "universe" embodies the idea of "in the many, one.") Accepting a common rational structure for both the mind and the universe, they supposed that nature and knowledge were unified. Even "things unseen" were thought to be knowable through the powers of unaided reason.

The presumption of unity held sway until "hard" empiricism jettisoned the question of ultimate causes to the Empyrean.

From Unification to Bifurcation

Reliance on reason alone led the Greeks to many false conclusions about the universe—aether, geocentrism, and spontaneous generation, to name a few. Corrections to those errors had to wait for well over a millennium, until the scientific method was introduced, which added experimentation to rational analysis.

The new, empirically based approach to the study of nature enabled the discovery of laws and mathematical relationships that described the workings of the universe with breathtaking accuracy. And with that breakthrough came a new theory of knowledge.

Inspired by the smashing success of the Scientific Revolution, John Locke and George Berkeley concluded that the only reliable source of knowledge was empirical. Unlike the ancient and medieval rationalists, who believed that the cognitive powers of the mind were sufficient for discovering the true nature of things, Locke and Berkeley insisted that knowledge stemmed from sensory experience. They asserted that the mind was a blank slate with no in-built organizing architecture. It is our senses that inform our mind, they claimed, not the other way around.

With each new game-changing discovery of science, the theory propounded by Locke and Berkeley gained more credence. Rationalism fell deeper and deeper into the shadow of empiricism, until it was finally fully eclipsed by the "hard" empiricism of David Hume.

Undergirding the empiricism of Locke and Berkeley was the presumption that true knowledge was acquirable even of things not directly accessible by sense perception, such as physical laws and abstract mathematical concepts like infinity. But David Hume said "No!"

According to Hume, we have no access to physical laws; they are not implanted in us from birth, or writ large in the sky for all to read. All we have is a continuing stream of perceptions and experiences. We may construct associations, relationships, and patterns among and between these experiences, but they have no necessary bearing on what is truly real. For instance, we may experience a sunrise every morning and may not be able to cite a single day that lacked a sunrise, but that does not mean we can be certain that the sun will rise tomorrow. Since our minds have no access to the true nature of things, we can only form working assumptions to help us order our lives.

Hume's "hard" empiricism jolted Immanuel Kant out of his dogmatic slumbers. To rescue rationalism from the onslaught of Hume, Kant synthesized it with empiricism by proposing that the mind comes endowed with faculties that give meaning to our experiences. This synthesis, Kant submitted, makes possible the identification of laws, including the moral law. But Kant's deliverance of reason out of the Humean mire did not include the presumption of unity upheld by the ancient rationalists.

In the Kant schema, reality was split asunder into the phenomenal worldandthe noumenal world. In the phenomenal were the things of the sensible universe, i.e., Nature; in the noumenal were the ultimate causes (the Logos, the Good, God) and the true nature of things (Ideas, Forms, Spirit), i.e., Supernature. For Kant, certain knowledge was only attainable with respect to the phenomenal world. Knowledge of the noumenal world would always remain tenuous.

In time, though Kant would have been pained to learn it, all of Supernature—including the moral law—was pushed to the sphere of Faith. The resultant Fact/Faith split had a tremendous influence on the gatekeepers of science. Caught up in the anti-clericalism of the times, they sought to liberate science from the fetters of faith by reducing its scope to things that could be given "natural" explanations. Then they decided that everything could be given a natural explanation—i.e., that everything was reducible to elemental forms of matter and energy and as such, could eventually be brought into the realm of Fact. This worldview is known as scientific materialism.

But as we will see, materialistic science is far from faith-free.

Faith All the Way Down

The materialist operates on the belief that "nature is all there is," that no supernatural or noumenal world exists. The word "belief" signifies something that is not scientifically proven. In fact, this foundational assumption is neither scientifically proven nor provable because, given that only natural explanations are allowed, materialistic science depends on the very premise it is trying to demonstrate. Thus, like all worldviews, scientific materialism is founded on a faith statement. But faith is not limited to materialism's foundation; it forms part of the ideology's superstructure as well.

Consider, for instance, one of the most basic and familiar features of nature: gravity. As with angels, heaven, and God, we can't see, smell, taste, or touch gravity. Sure, we feel a "pull" toward earth (especially if we are carrying a few extra pounds), but we also feel a "pull" toward heaven. Even the most successful theories of gravity are not explanations but descriptions, and wildly different descriptions at that.

One theory says that gravity is an invisible force associated with matter and mediated by who knows what. Some say by gravitons, but these have never been isolated, observed, or measured. Nonetheless, they are a convenient placeholder for our ignorance. And talk about matter—no one knows why gravity is fond of it and not of other things, like photons.

Another theory says that gravity is not a force but, rather, that it is the topography of spacetime shaped by the presence of matter. As one physicist puts it, "Matter tells space how to bend and space tells matter where to go." Again, why does matter, and nothing else, have this effect? No one knows. More fundamentally, which came first, matter or space? If space, did it have no shape? If matter, did it occupy no space? To such tail-chasing, it seems, there is never an end.

That is not to take anything away from the formulation of these theories. Indeed, they have led to many space-age advancements. Yet the gravitational phenomena we observe, and the laws and equations that describe them, are independent of their explanation or ultimate cause. Regardless of whether the orbit of the earth is the result of an invisible force, a spacetime warp, or the guiding hand of He in whom "all things hold together," our observations and mathematical descriptions of it remain unaffected. The explanation we accept is an exercise of faith, not a demonstration of fact. The same goes for other common forces, like magnetism and electricity.

When we drill down to subatomic dimensions, we enter a world of bare faith. Quarks, electrons, and muons, and the nuclear forces that control them, are foreign to anything we know from everyday experience. And the infinitesimal scales involved make direct examination impossible. Everything we "know" comes from experiments done with particle accelerators—that is, with "atom-smashing" apparatus.

For an approximation of how this works, imagine trying to reconstruct a mystery object inside a steel box by riddling the box with an AK-47 and then piecing together the resulting fragments. Because we do not know how the strafing affected the object in its undisturbed state, our reconstruction will be based on inferences. The same goes for our depictions of the atomic world, with a little fancy thrown in for good measure.

For example, there is a whole category of stuff in the quantum realm labeled "virtual." It includes subnuclear-sized particles and photons that have never been detected and that, indeed, do not exist except as ethereal abstractions in the minds of physicists so they can make sense of phenomena that make no sense without them.

Even the quantum field, which is credited with preventing the annihilation of matter by keeping the negatively charged electron cloud from combining with the positively charged nucleus, is nothing more than a rarefied label for something (the stability of matter) that is, materialistically speaking, inexplicable.

The Price of Commitment

From the cosmic scale of gravity down to the micro scale of the atom, faith undergirds scientific knowledge—faith in materialism. Nowhere is that more candidly expressed than in the words of evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin: "We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises . . . because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism."

Astrophysicist Robert Jastrow warns that, for the scientist whose materialist faith will not be shaken by patent absurdities, "the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries."  

The History of Modern Thought in Four Brief Bios—A sidebar to "The Lights by Which We See" by Regis Nicoll

Regis Nicoll  is a retired nuclear engineer and physicist, a Colson Center fellow, and a Christian commentator on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters, available at Amazon.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #45, Summer 2018 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


Bioethics icon Bioethics Philosophy icon Philosophy Media icon Media Transhumanism icon Transhumanism Scientism icon Scientism Euthanasia icon Euthanasia Porn icon Porn Marriage & Family icon Marriage & Family Race icon Race Abortion icon Abortion Education icon Education Civilization icon Civilization Feminism icon Feminism Religion icon Religion Technology icon Technology LGBTQ+ icon LGBTQ+ Sex icon Sex College Life icon College Life Culture icon Culture Intelligent Design icon Intelligent Design

Welcome, friend.
to read every article [or subscribe.]