Science, thanks be to God

Here is an interesting article on how belief in God allowed scientific inquiry to get underway, and how all atheistic scientists still act as if God existed.  They might think they can kick aside God and go about their science.  But Novak reminds them of Nz – if God is dead, then reason is dead too.  Upon this realization, “Zarathustra wept.”

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

32 thoughts on “Science, thanks be to God”

  1. I would hope that Mike’s input would be a little more nuanced than that. I could add a list 1000 times longer of scientists and artists and their achievements that were financially supported by the Catholic Church (all fields, medicine, biology, genetics, physics, fine arts, etc etc etc).
    The point of the article is philosophical/theological rather than being a question of politics or power (and the Church visible is as prone to those human follies as any other institution). It is not a claim that only the West has discovered things nor is it a claim that the Catholic Church has a blemish free record. The point is that unless one has a trust in the basic intelligibility of the world, science is pointless and in vain. The Abrahamic religions are a good example of a set of faith principles that actually encourage scientific inquiry. That the Catholic Church has not always lived up to her principles is a great shame (a shame that JPII publicly acknowledged), but not an argument against the principles.

    The point remains – atheistic scientists act as if God existed. Nz, by far the most profound ‘atheistic’ thinker, knows that when God dies, reason dies too. (Sartre, rather more weakly, makes a similar point).


  2. Without God there is nothing to assure us that the world is fundamentally ordered and intelligible rather than fundamentally disordered and chaotic. Truth dies with God. After the death of God, there is only power. This is why Zarathustra weeps.
    Note – this is not a straw man I (or Novik) are propping up. This is Nz’s argument!

    I raise the point because I am tiring of ‘easy atheism’ – atheism that moves along as if the death of God is not shocking and catastrophic. Every atheist I know blinks, they never walk all the way with Nz. But Nz is about the only courageous and authentic atheist I know, he is the only one that is really willing to face the costs. Everything else is chickenshit atheism. How many atheists really think that reason – and their precious science – is dead? Almost none, they all act as if God existed.


  3. I think these sorts of discussions miss the main point that we rely on science because it works, not because of underlying principles (well, apart from scientific method). So it’s pretty hard to be worried about science being undermined because of lack of philosophical foundation. But at times philosophies, religions, and institutions make inquiry difficult or impossible. Christianity (as a set of principles you submit yourself to) allows for certain types of inquiry and not others.


  4. If you don’t care about truth and understanding but only about ‘what works’, then you probably are not vexed by the problem. But at that point I would wonder – again – why you spend so much time on a philosophy blog.
    No one is suggesting that science will stop, just that atheistic scientists (who are usually not philosophers) act as if God existed. The corollary is that religion is not, as is often thought, ‘at war’ with science.
    The only kind of inquiries Catholic Christianity does not support are inquiries that deny the dignity of the human person or inquiries that work against the ‘integral good of man’. Science that advances on merely utilitarian principles, science that treats persons as mere means to ends, science whose ‘advances’ require a eugenic perspective is morally atrocious. But it is hardly anti-science to insist that we proceed in a way that respects the basic value and dignity of every person (and the basic goodness of the created order as such).


  5. I wasn’t trying to say what works is the only thing I’m concerned with. I was trying to say that’s what science concerns itself with.

    “why you spend so much time on a philosophy blog”

    Like flies, I’m attracted to bullshit.


  6. Funny. Of course flies are attracted to bullshit because it is actually nourishing to them, just as the search for truth and wisdom is actually nourishing for us. Your nature asks for more than merely ‘what works’ – your nature has a natural yearning for truth (‘all philosophy begins in wonder’).

    You are right that science and scientists might only concern themselves with ‘what works’. But the point is – again – that they operate as if God existed. So they have unexamined assumptions. You are quite right that they don’t actually need to examine those assumptions in order to do science, but I think most of us would agree that they should examine their underlying assumptions (that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’). And those atheist scientists should certainly spare us from having to listen to how they don’t need God and how religion and science are ‘at war’. They deny God but then act as if He exists. They are the ones that are inserting themselves into a conversation that goes beyond mere science. It is the atheist scientists who are trying to do philosophy (and they are doing it very poorly), not philosophers or theologians who are trying to do science (they would do it poorly).


  7. “all philosophy begins in wonder” and ends in sophistry and illusion.

    The trick is to stay in wonder.

    I have yet to meet the person who acts as if God exists.


  8. Everyone I know agrees that it is important to ‘stay in wonder’, though that does not mean you don’t move or make headway (I am apparently not as pessimistic as you). Since that about which we ultimately wonder is inexhaustible, one cannot escape wonder except by turning away from the object of inquiry and becoming seduced by modern ‘technological’ (in the Heideggerian sense) mastery.

    What do you mean by your last statement? From the point of view of humility and charity, I think you are right. But to keep us on the initial post: Novik argues that atheist scientists act, in their scientific activity, as if God exists. That is, they confidently move ahead with their science on the assumption that the world’s order and intelligibility is assured.


  9. If you’re trying to build metaphysical structures around human behavior patterns, thousands of possibilities are available. But why is a metaphysical structure necessary where experience will suffice as an explanation?

    Here’s the story — man plays with stuff, stuff does what he wants it to do, he keeps playing in that way. Where did God sneak in?


  10. I am not trying to ‘build metaphysical structures’, I am just recognizing them when I see them.

    Your story is not the whole story. Experience does not suffice as an explanation, rather experience asks us questions! The buck does not stop at behaviorist accounts, and the only people who think it does are materialists (which is a metaphysical position!).

    – ‘Man plays with stuff [Man is the sort of thing that is naturally inclined to ‘play with stuff’, and this natural inclination to ‘play’ is both practical and theoretical/reflective in orientation. And man plays with stuff in a certain way, in a way that presumes that the stuff with which he is playing is orderly and intelligible.]

    – Stuff does want he wants it to do.’ [Of note first and foremost is there are things that man wants the stuff to do, he has natural desires and works toward ends. The world, for its part, cooperates and it ‘does the stuff he wants it to do’, and it does this in a causally regulative way, and this gives some ‘pre-theoretical’ or ‘implicit philosophy’ justification for how he naturally plays with the world but also raises important and interesting theoretical/philosophical questions for him to wonder about, which he is naturally apt to do].

    – ‘Man keeps playing in that way’ [in large part because of his pre-theoretical and theoretical grasp that the world is ordered and intelligible].

    I see God’s fingerprints all over that – embedded in your stripped down ‘what works’ account of human existence are questions (and assertions) about the nature of man and world and questions about the Beyond.


  11. Huh???
    1) It is not nice to call people such mean names, particularly this close to Christmas.

    2) How is making an appeal to the transcendent a reduction? My move is to see more in the less, not less in the more. Human nature has a built in orientation toward the Other and the Beyond (see Pieper’s great little book ‘Divine Madness, Plato’s Case Against Secular Humanism’). Novik and I are here claiming that you can see that natural orientation even in the atheist scientist, even though he himself denies what he assumes. Man is never his own answer, and man’s questions (about his nature and about the world) can never be answered without making an appeal (even if assumed) to something beyond man and beyond the world. That is reductionistic?


  12. ((Without God there is nothing to assure us that the world is fundamentally ordered and intelligible rather than fundamentally disordered and chaotic.))

    Hello Professor Kleiner.
    I think this claim is very often claimed by the religious, but I have never come across a good justification for it.

    Now even if this claim is justified, there is no reason to suppose that this is God you believe in or anything that is remotely like god in any sense.

    You still have a job of proving why this entity should necessarily be God of your religion.


  13. Agreed. I am not treating the point as an argument for Christianity. One might say that there is no argument for Christianity, but at best only an ability to defuse arguments against it. There is a movement of faith, no rational proof could be offered that God is Love.

    The argument about the intelligibility of the world requires ‘only’ an Unmoved Mover (in either the efficient of final cause sense), the proverbial ‘god of the philosophers’. It does not require a personal God, much less a God who chooses to Incarnate himself (the Christian God).
    That said, the Abrahamic faith traditions seem amenable to the god of the philosophers, though this will require some work to show that the God of Abraham and Isaac is the same logos of which philosophers speak. There would be some cost to this, so to speak (you would certainly have to dump biblical literalism). But both Christianity and Aristotle (from whom, one could argue, modern science flows) treat God as being, in some sense, ‘logos’. So there is plenty of room for discussion and appropriation.

    Anyway, I am not treating as an argument for Christianity. I had two things in mind: (a) scientists act as if God (at least the God of the philosophers) exists and (b) insofar as a faith tradition, like Christianity, can show that what philosophers refer to as God is also who they call ‘Lord’, then religion and science need not be seen as being ‘at war’. (By ‘show” I do not mean that they could prove it, but that they could at least show that it is not crazy and irrational to believe that it is). While they are not alone in this, this is precisely what Catholic Christianity does. There might be other faith traditions that are actually hostile to the idea of God being Source, Creator, Truth (the ‘ground’ of intelligibility), and those religions would be in some trouble I would think.


  14. “It is not nice to call people such mean names, particularly this close to Christmas.”

    Funny. :) It’s a methodological criticism, it’s nothing intrinsic (personal).

    You really think scientific explanations see ‘less in the more’? Only by a scientific definition of ‘simpler’ and not a philosophical definition.

    As I stated earlier, you have a thousand metaphysical options. Because you only generally imagine one of those, your explanations are reductionistic.


  15. I am not saying that scientific explanations themselves see less in more, my point (and Nozik’s) is that scientific explanations assume a more, even if they don’t pay any attention to it after assuming it.

    What are these ‘thousands of metaphysical options”? There are certain features of the world that require explanation (her causal orderliness and intelligibility). Not any old thing is up to that task. In fact, it seems like UMM is the best available account. There is much that will, and perhaps must, be left ‘unsaid’. I am inclined to think that speaking the Other will be an ‘endless hermeneutic’ – far from reducing it to one saying we could never say enough.

    Anyway, this is a tangent from the original point – atheist scientists act as if God exists. (even if you want to call the move to God, or at least the move to ‘this’ God, ‘reductionistic’).


  16. What does that mean that scientific explanations “assume” and features of the world “require”? Who makes these assumptions and requirements and how do we get them to stop?


  17. It cannot be stopped, Mike! Run away, run away!!

    In order for science to be at all meaningful and worthwhile, the scientist must presume that the world is intelligible. If you didn’t think that what you just demonstrated about this chemical reaction to cancer would be repeatable, then why bother with the experiment in the first place?

    As Nozik puts it, the scientist has ‘confidence that all questions can be answered if diligently pursued’. That is, the scientist must have confidence that his questions can be answered – that the world is orderly. We can’t stop scientists from making these assumptions, because natural science is not her own ground (she is not queen of the sciences). Nor should we try to stop them, it is a damn good ‘assumption’!

    If that is so (and I cannot imagine you would disagree), then it is reasonable to ask ‘Why should we think the world is ordered?’ Now the scientist himself might say, ‘Who gives a shit, it seems to be and my science works’. Fine. But those of us with a more philosophical spirit ask ‘why, what makes it so, why is it this way instead of some other way?’
    Those are not unreasonable questions, are they Mike?

    So unless you are satisfied with an ‘it is what it is’ sports cliche answer to why the world is intelligible and orderly, we are called to philosophical inquiry. Three main options come immediately to mind:
    (a) There is some account to be given for why the world is intelligible, so we can have some confidence in our activities (including science) that require that intelligibility. This will almost invariably lead to ‘God-talk’.
    (b) There is no account to be given. This can take the form of Hume’s skepticism, which keeps doing science because it seems to improve our lot in life. I think this is weak – God is dead and reason is too, but let’s not let it really change how we go about things. BLINK.
    (c) Or, more courageously I think, you can walk with Nz’s – God is dead (there is no account), but with God so also dies reason. With Zarathustra we weep, because rather than having an assurance of the orderliness of the world we now have an assurance of her absurdity. But then we move on to will to power. (We could still do science as a will to power rather than truth, but then science will become very dangerous indeed, predictably preying on the weakest and most vulnerable members of communities).

    But scientists (or at least my students who are interested in reduced scientific explanations) have extraordinary confidence in their science, which is a departure from both the weak atheism of Hume and the strong atheism of Nz. In other words, they do their science as if God exists.


  18. I agree that the mystery is deep, but I don’t think that forces us into silence. As Marion puts it, ‘to say God exists is the least thing we could say’. In the face of mystery, I want to say something in spite of its ‘unsayable-ness’.

    We have very different philosophical temperaments. I think you see most attempts at explanation as mere sophistry, productionistic accounts imposed on the world from the privacy of our own minds and is latent biases (that we ‘build metaphysical structures’). I think philosophy, when done properly, listens more than it speaks. But it still speaks, it speaks without imposing. Philosophy should be repetitive in this sense, it should repeat the world.

    But I am glad you are about out of things to say – I am leaving the office in a bit (one can only avoid in-laws for so long, right?) and don’t intend to even turn on my computer all of next week. So the discussion will probably die anyway. Time for one last bit of imposing my ‘reduced metaphysical imagination’ – Happy Christmas. Philosophical skiers – see you at the Beav!


  19. I had some time to spend offline over Thanksgiving, good stuff.

    Merry Christmas!

    A couple recent (not entirely related) posts:

    an anti-metaphysical approach to existential meaning (this one is freely available)
    Wittgensteinian foundationalism? (if you can get access, I can’t)

    I’ve had some good conversations with this programmer-philosopher. He recently made some new papers available.

    JT’s been writing a few boring things on Aristotle and Aquinas recently for those medievally inclined.


  20. Sorry, I don’t have my Zarathustra handy, but I don’t remember any passage where Z weeps because God is dead, or what God’s death means for the fate of reason. He weeps for other reasons (out of loneliness, mostly), but not over God or reason.

    I found the First Things article vacuous and self-satisfying. Sure, maybe religious belief aided scientific progress. Maybe it hindered it. Maybe the two are totally unrelated. Maybe an agricultural economy was more important. Hard to tell without any genuine tests. And why should God’s existence make the universe intelligible, or make it any more reasonable to think the universe is intelligible? That assumption sure failed Job.


  21. I’m in the office working – wasn’t I going to take the week off?

    I did not ‘fact check’ Novik’s Nz quote. But it does not strike me as a terrible misread (even if it is a misquote). The will to truth and the will to God are inextricably linked for Nz, I think. Pomos call it onto-theology (the identification of God with Being and God with ‘logos’).
    I agree that the article was a little too self-satisfying, but I find the basic point pretty compelling. I am willing to forgive the article since it is written in for a popular audience, and since it is tiresome being a religious person in a world of pseudo-intellectuals yelling about how much you allegedly hate science.
    Huenemann’s question about what God does for intelligibility always baffles me. Let’s refine the point a bit:
    An intelligent Creator (forget the details of the how of creation) would surely provide an account and a ‘ground’ for the intelligibility of the world. Descartes appeals to this in the Meditations when he remarks that the less perfect you take your creator to be, the less confidence you should have in your reason. The more intelligent is your author, the more trust you can have in your intelligence. That is not a silly thought, is it?

    Now, whether or not the Christian can show that the God that is logos (Truth, Intelligibility, Perfection) is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Job, well that is another issue. I am not meaning to sidestep it, since it is an important point. But Novik is obviously operating out of a tradition (as am I) that thinks it can show that the God of Abraham is not incompatible with the god of the philosophers.

    Let’s get back to the point that interested me the most. The article tried to put atheistic scientists on trial, not the other way around. Here was the charge: Atheist scientists act as if God (understood as logos) exists. That is, they act as if the orderliness and intelligibility of the world is assured for them.
    I have yet to hear a response to that basic claim. It seems to me that, if you don’t want God (logos) to be a part of the story here, you have to make one of 3 moves:
    i) Weak and easy skepticism a la Hume.
    ii) Strong and traumatic skepticism a la Nz.
    iii) A Kantian transcendental move – man would have to ‘make’ the [phenomenal] world intelligible (imagination in German is literally ‘building-up). But that Kantian transcendental move probably, if pushed to its own logical conclusion, results in all out Derridean deconstruction.

    Of you could just come home to Aristotle.


  22. I’m not sure the world is entirely intelligible to human beings. Some of it seems to be. No guarantee that the most important stuff is intelligible to us. But even if it is intelligible, to whatever degree, why does that fact get explained by positing an intelligent creator? Doesn’t that simply raise the question of why that being exists, together with the preconditions for that being’s existence? If I ask, “Why is the world intelligible?” and you answer, “Because of a great big entity responsible for its intelligibility,” it doesn’t seem to me anything has been explained.

    It could just be that the world is intelligible to us because our brains grew up in it and were shaped by it. If we wonder why there are any uniformities in nature at all, are we sure that that is something in need of explanation? Are there other possible ways for a universe to be?


  23. At the very end of the second part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (“The Stillest Hour” p. 257 in the portable Nietzsche), Zarathustra “cries” (Kaufmann) over his own incapacities (specifically his inability to live up to his own standards?) but other than that what I found seemed related to loneliness (or something to do with friends) as Charlie suggested.

    Apart from that there’s the problem that Nietzsche is (arguably?) dependent upon the veracity (tenacity?) of science for his core claims, including the death of God.

    There’s also this two ventricles quote Charlie posted quite a while ago

    For this reason a higher culture must give to man a double-brain, as it were two brain ventricles, one for the perceptions of science, the other for those of non-science: lying beside one another, not confused together, separable, capable of being shut off; this is the demand of health. In one domain lies the power-source, in the other the regulator: it must be heated with illusions, onesidedness, passions, the evil and perilous consequences of overheating must be obviated with the aid of the knowledge furnished by science. – If this demand of higher culture is not met, then the future course of human evolution can be foretold almost with certainty: interest in truth will cease the less pleasure it gives: because they are associated with pleasure, illusion, error and fantasy will regain step by step the ground they formerly held: the ruination of science, a sinking back into barbarism, will be the immediate consequence; mankind will have to begin again at the weaving of its tapestry, after having, like Penelope, unwoven it at night. (HH1, 251)

    I don’t think Zarathustra cried over the death of reason. I like to think he laughed over the death of Hegelian “reason” though.

    As far the claim about whether “Christian principles” were more of a hindrance or a help to “modern science” we’ll have to wait until we can create a simulation of the world and do it with or without Christianity and see how that goes. I want a control group.

    “Atheist scientists act as if God (understood as logos) exists. That is, they act as if the orderliness and intelligibility of the world is assured for them.” — I personally think they’re acting without any sort of guarantee (because of Hume) but just hope based on experience (induction?). But if they are acting as if God exists then I think conversion and sanctification aren’t necessary at all so at least that’s taken care of for scientists (perhaps we could petition the pope to see if we can get them sainthood).


  24. Since most every philosopher I can think of, from Plato to Husserl, thinks the apparent orderliness and uniformity of the world needs some account and explanation, it seems to me it is up to Huenemann to show that this fact does not need explanation (that ‘worlds just have to come this way’, that there is no other possible way for worlds to be). While Huenemann oft puts this forth as a possibility, will it be so easy to make good on the promise?
    This really flies in the face of Nz too, who is willing to courageously (if foolishly) confront the world as basically absurd. Huenemann seems to be pulling the sharpest teeth out of Nz’s view. (Though perhaps what we are also arguing about here is Huenemann’s more naturalist reading of Nz against my more postmodern reading of Nz).

    Does the appeal to God just push back the explanation one step (like a 3rd man or something)? Perhaps, though reason wants the buck to stop and so infers certain qualities (like necessary existence, and also that certain attributes are necessary for this necessary being – like simplicity and goodness – see Summa I.1-10) in order to arrest the regress. Nothing worldly can stop the regress, since worldly things are marked principally by contingency rather than necessity (I am just relying on Hume here for this point, though Aquinas and Aristotle would say the same thing. The difference is that the latter two are willing to appeal to a Beyond as a guarantor while Hume is not).

    To Mike: This is anecdotal, but the scientists I know do not worry about induction, and would not admit that their science is based upon ‘hope based on experience’. Quite to the contrary, they think science can get us real knowledge (I think that too, by the way), and that scientific inquiry is really justified. Hume cannot give you that. Perhaps people that do philosophy and know about the problem of induction might be willing to weaken science’s claim to knowledge in this way, but most scientists that I know don’t. In short, I don’t think Huenemann and Mike are all that representative of the view of atheistic scientists. It is worth adding that the ‘new atheists’ are also generally unwilling to weaken science in this way – they are so convinced of their evolutionary science that they think they have fully edged God out of the picture. The new atheists are actually pretty damn dogmatic about their science, aren’t they?


  25. Looks like the Church is moving to reclaim the poster boy for the alleged war between religion and science as one of their own.;_ylt=A0Kjqe73XFJJwyQB8jXZn414

    Good PR, and of course there is some of that going on. But this is true: what is often lost in the popular debates about the Galileo affair is that Galileo himself was a man of deep faith who saw no conflict between his science and his religion. That the human powers in the Church of that day did not always share that same vision is a great shame. But the battle had more to do with politics and stubborn Aristotelianism than it had to do with any essential conflict between science and religion. It is easy to forget that the Catholic Church and her monks had for a very long time been the only [western] people concerned with doing science at all (even if their methods left something to be desired).


  26. Kleiner: I don’t have much love for the “new atheists” and really I think a more friendly approach to religion is warranted where religion is friendly to science, contrary views, and oriented around social justice. Also, for any decently sized group of people who believe something, I think it’s better to try to figure out what makes their beliefs so compelling instead of trying to fit their ideas into a “spotless machine” (Chesterton). What the scientific view may lack in traditional philosophical “ground” it more than makes up for with tenacity. I’ve been spending a decent amount of time with a guy working on his PhD in Chemistry and he’s a big fan of Camus. But also, you know, some scientists are *gasp* theists.

    What I’ve heard from the new atheists so far, mostly Dawkins, I dislike to the degree I dislike this First Things article.


  27. Vince: check out that paper on Wittgenstein and Nietzsche (“an anti-metaphysical approach to existential meaning”) I linked to earlier in this thread for a discussion of meaning. I don’t think science provides ground for ethics (I think that “ground” is mostly defined by cultural/historical context) or meaning though it does provide useful facts and I think they help. I don’t want to defend the new atheists really but I also don’t think the FT article is an attempt to understand the phenomena (I do think a better attempt to understand them is warranted).

    Everyone: It’s Christmas Eve, if you have the option, why are you sitting at a computer?


  28. I had to fix a couple things this morning before I head off to see the family (and Sarah is at her work watering the plants). While we’re here, check out what Borges has to say about Buber.

    Had the poet said so in so many words, he would have been far less effective. Because, as I understand it, anything suggested is far more effective than anything laid down. Perhaps the human mind has the tendency to deny a statement. Remember what Emerson said: arguments convince nobody. They convince nobody because they are presented as arguments. Then we look at them, we weigh them, we turn them over, and we decide against them.

    But when something is merely said or–better still–hinted at, there is a kind of hospitality in our imagination. We are ready to accept it. I remember reading, some thirty years ago, the works of Martin Buber–I thought of them as being wonderful poems. Then, when I went to Buenos Aires, I read a book by a friend of mine, Dujovne, and I found in its pages, much to my astonishment, that Martin Buber was a philosopher and that all his philosophy lay in the books I had read as poetry. Perhaps I had accepted those books because they came to me through poetry, through suggestion, through the music of poetry, and not as arguments. I think that somewhere in Walt Whitman the same idea can be found: the idea of reasons being unconvincing. I think he says somewhere that he finds the night air, the large few stars, far more convincing than mere arguments.

    This Craft of Verse p.31-32 – Jorge Luis Borges


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