Ernest Board (1877-1934), “St. Albertus Magnus Expounding His Doctrines of Physical Science in the Streets of Paris”
Scientism is science’s own Judas. It betrays its master with a kiss.
The understanding of science had changed considerably in the past few hundred years. It used to embrace all aspects of the art of knowing or seeing the truth, including philosophy and theology. Since the misnamed “Enlightenment,” however, this understanding of science has been narrowed so that it is now restricted to a knowledge of those things that can be known from the observation of purely physical phenomena. Whereas the ancient world differentiated between a knowledge of natural philosophy and a knowledge of other areas of philosophy, between physics and metaphysics, the modern world has granted a monopoly to the former and has sought to put the latter out of business. Such philosophical materialism leads to the idolization or worship of science, in its narrower sense, considering it the only oracle that speaks with authority and infallibility. It is, however, necessary to distance science, the “god” being worshipped, from the scientism of those who worship it. Science is, and has always been, a noble art. It is good whereas scientism is evil. The former shows us an aspect of reality, the latter distorts what has been shown so that reality is obscured or hidden.
In its narrower sense, science (natural philosophy) leads to a greater understanding of that part of the truth with which it is concerned, i.e., the physical cosmos. It does not and cannot enlighten us about anything but these things. It is concerned solely with the physical facts, and does not tell us anything about those parts of the truth which, being metaphysical, are beyond its scope of vision. Once we understand this fact, we see that science is an authentic path of knowledge, which, as a rational art, harmonizes with the truths of authentic philosophy. Science is, for instance, intrinsically and implicitly anti-relativist in its essence and in its modus operandi. It concerns itself with objectivity, with objectively verifiable data, with the facts, and the facts alone. It spurns all prejudice and opinion that flies in the face of the observable objectivity of the data. It is also intrinsically traditionalist in the sense that it is always building on the discoveries of the past. Such traditionalism was epitomized by the great physicist, Sir Isaac Newton, when he stated that, if he had “seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."
Today’s scientists are always building on the foundations laid by their illustrious forebears, thereby enshrining tradition at the heart of true science. It is no surprise, however, that Sir Isaac Newton was not merely standing on the shoulders of the giants of science but on the shoulders of the giants of philosophy and theology also. It is significant, for instance, that the aforementioned phrase for which Newton is famous was borrowed from Bernard of Chartres, who coined the phrase in Latin (nanos gigantium humeris insidentes). According to John of Salisbury, writing in 1159, "Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size." According to the mediaeval historian, Richard Southern, Bernard was comparing the modern scholar of his own time, i.e., the twelfth century, with the giant philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome. In such a statement he was no doubt alluding to the influence of Plato on St. Augustine but was also unwittingly prophesying the influence of Aristotle on St. Thomas Aquinas in the following century.
Yet it would seem that Bernard also had theology as well as philosophy in mind when he uttered his timeless metaphor. This is suggested by the stained glass windows in the south transept of Chartres cathedral, which depict the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) sitting on the shoulders of the four major prophets of the Old Testament (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel), the latter of whom are shown as giants in stature compared to the relatively diminutive stature of the authors of the Gospels. The truth is that the Evangelists see further than the Old Testament prophets because they have witnessed the coming of the Messiah of whom the prophets had spoken. Thus we see that Newton’s use of the metaphor to signify the traditionalist nature of physics dovetails with its usage by Bernard of Chartres to signify the traditionalism of philosophy and theology, thereby suggesting the transcendent unity of the three sciences as servants of the all-encompassing unity of faith and reason. It is also worthy of note that Newton may have borrowed the phrase from his near contemporary, George Herbert, who, in Jacula Prudentum (1651), wrote "A dwarf on a giant's shoulders sees farther of the two.” In any event, Herbert’s use of the phrase illustrates the role of literature as an agent of the same unifying principle of fides et ratio of which physics, philosophy and theology are servants.
Considering the unity of faith and reason, it should come as no surprise that the Church has been a major contributor to the progress of the physical sciences throughout the centuries. Nicolaus Copernicus, the founder of modern astronomy, was a Third Order Dominican; Basil Valentine, one of the founding fathers of modern chemistry, was a Benedictine monk; Thomas Linacre, founder of the Royal College of Physicians, was a priest; Athanasius Kircher, a pioneer in diverse scientific disciplines including microbiology, astronomy, and physics, was a Jesuit; Nicolas Steno, a pioneering anatomist and the father of geology and stratigraphy, was a convert to Catholicism who became a priest and, as a bishop, a leading figure in the counter-reformation; René Just Haüy, the pioneering mineralogist and father of crystallography, was a Premonstratensian and honorary canon of Notre Dame cathedral; and Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was an Augustinian monk. Such a procession of scientists, all of whom were priests or in holy orders, constitutes a veritable scientific eminenti and illustrissimi. It also nails the lie that the Church has been an enemy of scientific progress.
If the foregoing demonstrates that science is good, there is no escaping the fact that scientism is not only bad but is guilty of giving true science a bad name. True science has a noble tradition, interwoven with that of the Church in the shared desire to discover the truth; scientism, in contrast, has its ignoble roots in the sordid profession of alchemy, seeking to turn base metal into worldly riches or seeking in vain for the elixir of life. Science seeks the truth and nothing but the truth; scientism seeks the power that scientific discoveries can wield. Science, like its older sisters, philosophy and theology, seeks to unravel the mystery of God’s Creation; scientism makes its Faustian pact with the Devil. From the scientific racism of the Nazis, who mixed Nietzschean pride with the so-called “science” of phrenology and racial anthropology, to the madness of Marx, an advocate of scientism whose so-called “scientific materialism” led to the murder of millions of people in the name of “scientific progress,” to the advocates of infanticide who justify abortion through the pseudo-scientific denial that life begins at conception, the crimes of scientism in the name of bogus “science” are both manifold and deadly. It is clear that science needs to shake off the shackles of scientism, thereby freeing itself from the superstitious and supercilious superficiality of its untrustworthy and treacherous disciple.
Scientism, to misquote Oscar Wilde, is science’s own Judas. It betrays its master, its god, with a kiss. Having been complicit in the treacherous crucifixion of its master, we can safely prophesy that it will now go and hang itself!