These days, much of academia seems to be narrowing the scope of its discourse through inflated political correctness and reliance on purely technical reasoning. At such a time, it is heartening to see the recent debate over the relationship between the natural sciences and the humanities in The New Republic between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier, and here at Public Discourse between John Crosby and Edward Dougherty. Engaging in such debates, despite their apparent irrelevance to the pressing concerns of the day, is of great importance for preserving and sharing a life centered on what T.S. Eliot called the “permanent things.” I am grateful to Pinker and the others for this conversation.
In part, this debate asks whether there is one fundamental approach to discovering the meaning of the world and of human life, or many. In light of the deep roots of this debate in the history of Western thought, I note that the most traditional position has not been adequately represented in the current debate: the position that philosophy and theology are genuine sciences that are different from the natural sciences and the humanities, and that these disciplines have a privileged, foundational role in the search for meaning.
Aristotle notes that most sciences presuppose first principles that they cannot prove. They receive these principles from higher sciences. Biology, for example, cannot prove everything about the physical world. Rather, biology takes for granted many principles that are proven by physics. Principles given by a higher science to an essentially subordinate science provide the latter with a starting point for its own reasoning and understanding of its subject.
There must, Aristotle reasons, be a most general science that provides the fundamental principles for all the other sciences. According to Aristotle, this science is metaphysics, which is made up of both ontology (inquiry into the nature of being and of beings) and theology (inquiry into the causes of being). Metaphysics can discover the most fundamental nature of reality. While it makes use of empirical observation, it also abstracts from the observable to discover the permanent reality and meaning within and above observable things.
Man by nature desires to know, to understand things beyond what he can perceive with his senses. We want to understand what it is to exist and to be intelligible, and why there is something rather than nothing. For Aristotle, engaging in such metaphysical thought and contemplation gives the highest degree of meaning to human life because it is the act proper to our nature.
Many later philosophers and theologians have disagreed with Aristotle as to what the most fundamental science is—consider, for example, recent works by John Milbank, Jean-Luc Marion, and Ralph McInerny on this very subject. Such thinkers argue that revealed theology, phenomenology, or ethics is the most foundational science. But all these thinkers would agree that neither a natural science nor one of the humanities, but only a philosophical or theological one, can be the most foundational discipline.
A Foundation for Both the Humanities and the Natural Sciences
Such a view might seem odd given the current debate. Wieseltier, Crosby, and Dougherty seem content to place philosophy (and, presumably, theology) among the humanities. In this view, there need not be any most foundational discipline: meaning is plural, and the sciences should be too. Pinker, by contrast, seems to claim much for natural science, which he explicitly casts as most foundational, providing principles even for the humanistic work of interpreting art.
But if Pinker’s account of the natural sciences is correct, then the foundational approach to reality will be ever-shifting, subject to the whims of fickle peer reviewers and grant review boards. Perhaps such inquiry is all moving toward some final, unified theory—but perhaps it is not. In the meantime, Pinker would impose the current standards of natural science on all forms of discourse, even though these standards are subject to constant change.
If Dougherty’s account is right, then things are even worse: the foundational approach to reality will be an approach to something manifestly unintelligible, merely expressible in mathematical symbolization and prediction. Philosophy would be restricted to an epistemology that could not account for an approach to reality itself, since such an approach would be impossible.
Taking the natural sciences to be foundational leads to narrow, technical discourse. So, while I am grateful to these thinkers for engaging in a debate that can free us from such an evil, I think their solution would again deliver us into its clutches. In these perspectives, human acts such as contemplation of the higher things and the desire for ultimate meaning must go unfulfilled. Likewise, fundamental questions about the metaphysical presuppositions of natural science can hardly even be asked, let alone answered.
Contemplation and Transcendence
Pinker argues that natural science can aid contemplation. This is true, but it leaves out another key component of contemplation: the ability to transcend the merely physical, to arrive at permanent, fully intelligible meaning. Plato knew, long before modern physics, that the material world is in itself unintelligible, as Dougherty argues. Yet he also saw that the material world participates in a deeper reality through which it can be understood. This reality is intelligible through philosophical inquiry and contemplation, and it can give meaning to our lives.
Plato also knew what Dougherty denies: that storytelling can be every bit as rigorous and true a mode of expressing genuine, not just humanistic, reality as mathematics. Philosophy and theology, unlike the natural sciences, allow us to inquire into that deeper reality, and so come to the foundations of the sciences and to the acts and answers that fulfill our deepest desires.
Wieseltier's and Crosby’s pieces reveal why a humanistic approach to meaning must be founded in a deeper form of inquiry. Wieseltier, following Dilthey, holds the Aristotelian view that different subjects require different methods, but he leaves us with a plurality of analyses and experiences without any synthesis. Wieseltier also recognizes that, for a fully human life, we must draw on and be nourished by the tradition, but he dismissively redefines tradition as the “domination of the past by the present.” Engaging with tradition is, more properly, an opportunity to encounter the permanent things and to learn how to engage in those acts that will take us to the heart of the permanent meaning of things from those who performed them best.
When one privileges humanistic inquiry above all, the desire for ultimate meaning must go unfulfilled, or else be fulfilled only in a fragmented manner. Fundamental questions must receive partial, even conflicting, answers, depending on which sphere of inquiry one engages in. But the world we experience, especially in our deepest moments of desire and contemplation, is unified, and we human persons are unified as well. We want to know not just the meaning of various human works, or of the physical world, or of our current times, but how the whole thing hangs together.
By systematizing the findings of the various sciences, philosophical and theological inquiry and contemplation can provide a way of discovering this fundamental vision of reality—without destroying the essentially subordinate sciences, but without granting them total autonomy either. It is only in light of the foundational sciences that the findings of the subordinate sciences attain their full meaning. This is a major difference between taking the natural sciences as foundational and taking philosophy and theology as foundational: the former drains much of reality of meaning, reducing it to the merely physical, while the latter elevates all reality, both the human and the physical, through discovering its basis in a reality that is higher than human.
To elevate the level of discourse in our universities and public institutions and to help students, teachers, and all citizens find genuine human fulfillment, we must re-appropriate the systematic philosophical and theological sciences as foundational to all other sciences.
Mark K. Spencer is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.