Faith, Science, Materialism: Hab Rachmones

This is an extended quotation (but a small part of the whole) from a blog post by Roger Kimball at Pajamas Media. It reveals the error at the heart of the faith/science debate quite well:

No more than, eh? Nothing but, you say? As a specimen of materialist reductionism, that is hard to beat. The idea the Cricks and Dennetts and Dawkinses of the world wish us to take on board is that really, at bottom, our experience of ourselves and the world counts for nothing. That flowering crab apple outside your window, for example, is not really a beautiful celebration of spring, but merely an agglomeration of biological processes.

Do you believe that? I don’t. W.H. Auden did not have the honor of helping to discover DNA, but when it comes to the reality of human experience, he is a much sounder guide than Francis Crick. “We seem to have reached a point,” Auden wrote in Secondary Worlds,

where if the word “real” can be used at all, then the only world which is “real” for us, as in the world in which all of us, including scientists, are born, work, love, hate and die, is the primary phenomenal world as it is and always has been presented to us through our senses, a world in which the sun moves across the sky from east to west, the stars are hung like lamps in the vault of heaven, the measure of magnitude is the human body and objects are either in motion or at rest.

This is an insight that the English philosopher Roger Scruton has expatiated on in several places, including in his book Modern Philosophy. In one sense, as Scruton notes, philosophy is the helpmeet of science. It aids in the task of putting our conceptual household in order: tidying up arguments, discarding unjustified claims. But in another sense, philosophy peeks over the shoulder of science to a world that science in principle cannot countenance. “The search for meaning and the search for explanation,” Scruton writes, “are two different enterprises.”

The problem is that we do not, cannot, inhabit the abstract world that science describes. Reason allows us to distinguish between appearance and reality; but our human reality turns out to be rooted firmly in the realm of appearance. “This worry is not just philosophical,” Scruton observes,

it is also spiritual. The meaning of the world is enshrined in conceptions that science does not recognize: conceptions like beauty, goodness and the soul which grow in the thin top-soil of human discourse. This top-soil is quickly eroded when the flora are cleared from it, and nothing ever grows thereafter. You can see the process at work in the matter of sex. Human sexuality has usually been understood through ideas of love and belonging. … The sexologist clears all this tangled undergrowth away, to reveal the scientific truth of things: the animal organs, the unmoralized impulses, and the tingling sensations. … The meaning of the experience plays no part in the scientific description.

I experienced this quite well. In my Ayn Rand days, I remember reading several Church documents and leaving unimpressed. They were not tightly reasoned, had numerous unstated premises, and generally begged the question. The documents compared unfavorably to Rand’s clear, slashing prose.

Over time both my estimation of Rand’s prose and much Church prose has changed. What I came to realize is that the philosophical reflection that both the Church and Rand used does not lend itself to the precision that other, more technical prose exhibits. The reason, as Kimball and those he quotes explain, is that the technical focuses on a different realm and that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Once grasped, the faith/science recedes until it is at most a truism.