My parents were in town for a visit last week. They flew in from Long Island, NY, and stayed nearby in Clarksville. I had a chance to begin this post as they were taking my children to Nashville’s Adventure Science Center.
At the Science Center, the heavens and earth were on display: rocks were arrayed in terms of structures and properties; heavenly bodies were depicted in their orbits; animals were represented and described; created things were set forth according to their impressive empirical realities.
The heavens and earth were on display, yet not in the fullness of their glory.
This is not the fault of the Science Center. This is not a complaint against science centers! Within the scope of modernity, the hard sciences (biology, physics, chemistry, etc.) by their very nature possess a limited vision.
It is an Image Problem
It is the job of the hard sciences to examine, explore, test, and describe the empirical realities of the universe.
Take a diamond. To the chemist it is carbon. To the optician it is adamantine or fluorescent; To the mineralogist it is a class of gemstone.
If such a scientist were to describe a diamond as valuable or beautiful, she would do so not as a scientist, but from a separate sphere of knowledge. The beautiful, the meaningful, and the valuable are all not strictly elements of the modern scientific vision per say.
For a brief, clear, and accurate discussion of the term ‘science’, consider this recent post by Joseph Pearce.
It is only in regard to buying and selling that a diamond has value. This is not the scientific purview.
It is only in regard to aesthetics that it has beauty. This is not the scientific purview.
It may be that it is through aesthetics that it derives its value (or in a secondary sense the other way around), but it is not through hard science that such beauty or value is recognized. The aesthetic judgment needs little assistance from modern science to operate.
Let’s look at another example:
Is this a quarter, or an image of a quarter? Is this an image of George Washington or just a hunk of metal?
The hard sciences can tell us that the quarter above is made up of a certain mixture of copper and silver. They can tell us its weight, its size, texture, etc. But notice what they have not told us!
It is not modern that recognizes the quarter as a quarter. Nor does such science tell us that it is a coin with the image of George Washington.
Hard science looks at the coin qua (as) material, and not qua coin. It is ultimately not such a scientist’s jobs to identify or know the coin, but to know it qua material (empirical observation). But
What would happen if we only had hard science?
What would life be like if the totality of our knowledge was contained within the scope of modern science? What would happen our the highest knowledge consisted of what the hard sciences could tell us? Our lives might be like this:
Imagine a museum on an alien planet which housed hundreds of coins. Only, neither the curators nor the patrons knew they had an exhibit of coins. Rather, the only thing people saw were round metal objects of certain shapes, sizes, impressions, etc.
Because they looked at the coins (images of value & impressions of people) as the thing. They actually did not and could not see coins. Because the images were seen as the ultimate realities, the images ceased to be images and simultaneously ceased having any real meaning.
It is only within a system of economic relations that a coin is a coin, that is, currency. It is only within a system of human beings that portraits are portraits and not mere shapes. To know what an image is, one must be able to recognize it as an image.
Hopefully, this makes it clear how impossible and meaningless life would be without a knowledge which extended beyond the limits of modern science.
This does not mean that hard science is meaningless. But it does mean that any meaning it possess must be derived something more fundamental, something prior in time and significance. It also means that it is ultimately not sciences job to add or assess meaning.
Without prior realities, science, no matter how hard it tried, could never work itself from elemental attributes back to the fullness of reality upon which they hinge: realities of creation (animals, objects, bodies, etc.).
Aristotle referred to these realities as substances. We might simply think of them as the wholes, those things without which their would be no empirical attributes to observe. Though we might not always know what the primary and original wholes are, if there is any knowledge or meaning in the strict sense, there must be such objects. Ultimately, such objects even must rely on something else.
If the above picture is a photograph, there must be an original painter, and indeed a camera. If it is a digital production, there must have been an idea of a painter to inspire the computer artist. And if it was painted, then we know the individual had an idea of a painter. The important thing is that we do not see this as a random collection of colors, but as an image of something.
While sometimes we mistake one thing for another, we do so only in the context of consistency, normality and recognition. We might mistake a tree for a man or a duck for a rabbit, but no sane person doubts the existence of trees, people, ducks or rabbits, or thinks they have a very serious problem knowing which is which.
In the next post, this conversation will turn back to the original disucssion of nature and glory.