An Eastern Orthodox Howitzer image

An Eastern Orthodox Howitzer

The last few Wednesdays’ posts have represented something of an evangelical intramural, so how about an Eastern Orthodox philosopher to fire his apologetics howitzer at us? David Bentley Hart is back:

The great danger that bedevils any powerful heuristic or interpretive discipline is the tendency to mistake method for ontology, and so to mistake a partial perspective on particular truths for a comprehensive vision of truth as such. In the modern world, this is an especially pronounced danger in the sciences, largely because of the exaggerated reverence scientists enjoy in the popular imagination, and also largely because of the incapacity of many in the scientific establishment to distinguish between scientific rigor and materialist ideology (or, better, materialist metaphysics).
This has two disagreeable results (well, actually, far more than two, but two that are relevant here): the lunatic self-assurance with which some scientists imagine that their training in, say, physics or zoology has somehow equipped them to address philosophical questions whose terms they have never even begun to master; and the inability of many scientists to recognize realities—even very obvious realities—that lie logically outside the reach of the methods their disciplines employ. The best example of the latter, I suppose, would be the inability of certain contemporary champions of “naturalism” to grasp that the question of existence is qualitatively infinitely distinct from the question of how one physical reality arises from another (for, inasmuch as physics can explore only the physical, and the physical by definition already exists, then existence as such is always “metaphysical,” or even “hyperphysical”—which is to say, “supernatural.”)
But that is all matter for another time. Here I do not want to argue about being. I have, rather, a very simple worry to confess about the competence of method—any method—to recognize its own boundaries. All method, after all, as the etymology of the word exquisitely shows, is an elective practice of cleaving to a particular path (met’-hodos), a labor of limiting oneself to a particular approach to a problem in order to achieve as precise an understanding of that problem as may be achieved from one perspective. But that means that method always remains only a perspective, however powerful it may be: a willful blindness to many things for the sake of seeing a few things with a special clarity. A man peering into a microscope has been vouchsafed a glimpse into realities that the naked eye could never see, but he may also fail to notice the large fire that has just started on the far side of his laboratory, near the only exit.
Modern experimental science began to coalesce into a general method with the rise of the mechanical philosophy and the shattering of the old Aristotelian fourfold structure of causality. That may be only an accident of history, in long retrospect; but, whatever the case, the magnificent force and fecundity of modern scientific method is in part the consequence of a conscious decision to eschew any explanation for any physical phenomenon that requires the invocation of final or formal causes. By thus prescinding from teleology and causative morphology, experimental science was allowed to devote itself unwaveringly to those material and efficient processes at work within any physical event (though here “material” and “efficient” no longer have the meaning they had in Aristotelian thought). In Daniel Dennett’s language, science learned to think in terms of “cranes” only, and entirely to discount the possibility of “sky-hooks.”
Even so, it would be worse than naïve to imagine that the sciences have thereby proved the nonexistence of final and formal causes. In fact, by bracketing such causes out of consideration, scientific method also rendered itself incapable of pronouncing upon any reality such causes might or might not explain. Now, of course, the typical reply to this observation (from the aforementioned Daniel Dennett, for instance) is to say, with some indignation, that modern science has in fact demonstrated the utter superfluity of final and formal causal explanations, because the sciences have shown that they do not need finality or formality to understand the processes they investigate.
That, however, is an empty tautology: of course modern scientific method discovers the kind of reality it is specifically designed to discover; and even in cases where it finds its explanatory reserves overly taxed, it must presume that in future some sort of “mechanical” cause will be found to restore the balance, and so issue itself a promissory note to that effect. But, again, this may mean that it must also overlook realities that actually lie very near at hand, either quite open to investigation if another method could be found, or so obviously beyond investigation as to mark out the limits of scientific method with particular clarity.

At this point, Hart moves on to discuss two fascinating evolutionary anomalies – the thylacine and the fossa – which raise some fascinating questions about evolutionary biology and convergence, similar to those raised by Simon Conway Morris (as I understand him). But this, he remarks, is not his main point. Rather,

My question really is one regarding method. If there were a case in which modern biological method came up against a reality that seemed to point towards orders of causality it could not logically investigate without altering its working premises radically, would it be able to recognize that it had reached its limit? Could it admit as much to itself, or tell us about it? It is an imprecise question, so open as perhaps to be vacuous, but I raise it just the same, because only when a method is conscious of what it cannot explain can it maintain a clear distinction between the knowledge it secures and the ideology it obeys.

Quite. You can read the whole thing here.

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