‘Know Thyself’ — Because Science Cannot Penetrate the Essence of What You Are

You are a creature of God, made in his image, fallen through sin and redeemed by grace. This is beyond the domain of science.

‘Know Thyself’
‘Know Thyself’ (photo: Armin Staudt / Shutterstock)

On my desk sits a popular history of science with a curious subtitle, all the more curious to myself because, besides being a physics teacher, I am a perennial student of the perennial philosophy — the author has dubbed his work a history of mankind’s search for knowledge of the world and himself.

Such a subtitle would be curious to anyone with any philosophy because a philosopher would argue that science alone cannot reveal to man what he is, though some scientists who have masqueraded as philosophers have argued that recent scientific discoveries have written a history of mankind losing himself in his world because he is just another piece of the world. 

These sophistical scientists do not recognize that their argument is a reductio ad absurdum; scientists are humans, and their arguments are the product of a human mind. If the human mind is reduced to mere unintelligent matter, then the argument itself is unintelligent and unreliable. Science assumes man’s uniqueness and science’s inability to penetrate to the essence of what man is. Only philosophy, or a philosophical theology, can do that.

What renders the subtitle even more curious to a student of the perennial philosophy is that man’s search to know himself was so important to the founders of Western Civilization that it came in the form of a divine command: Know thyself. The phrase was inscribed above the door of the Delphic oracle. If you walk into my classroom, you will also find it on my wall. The inscription over the entrance to a sacred place implies that we must know ourselves before we can approach the gods, which is the lesson in C.S. Lewis’ novel Till We Have Faces. The presence of that phrase in my classroom implies that learning is an essential part of human nature, which is the idea behind Aristotle’s dictum that man by nature desires to know.

Perhaps the only thing that can make the subtitle more curious is this quote from Walker Percy: “You live in a deranged age — more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”

Percy’s whole book Lost in the Cosmos is a reflection on the strange fact that in an age that prides itself on knowing man and man’s world from a scientific and psychological perspective, we are more lost than ever from a philosophical and theological perspective. 

Not that man’s nature hasn’t mystified men throughout history. Shakespeare wrote: “What a piece of work is a man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals. And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

The Psalmist wondered: “What is man that you are mindful of him?”

Percy, again, wrote: “Why is it that of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the Cosmos — novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes — you are beyond doubt the strangest.” 

But even the psalmist knew more about what he was than we do today: “Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowned with glory and honor. You have given him rule over the works of your hands, put all things at his feet.”

Philosophy can tell us that we are higher than the animals (a rational animal, in Aristotle’s terms) and give us a lower limit for ourselves. Theology can tell us that we are lower than God and the angels, and give us an upper limit for ourselves. We are creatures of God, made in his image, fallen through sin, and redeemed by grace. Science can carve out neither of these limits, nor can it even begin to understand the terms because they are unscientific. This does not mean that they are anti-scientific, but they are beyond the domain of science. 

The history of science is certainly a search, but it is not a search to know man and the world — that search would be the history of mythology, art, philosophy and theology. Science is a search for measurable and observable patterns in the universe, the quest to discover the order in an orderly universe. As Einstein said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

Humans are indeed strange creatures, but it is even stranger and more impossible to fit them into the mold of mere science than it is to fit the whole into one of its parts. 

If we consider the arts, what present philosophers can rival Plato, Aquinas, or Aristotle?

What Was Then and What Is Now

COMMENTARY: ‘We all want progress,’ writes C.S. Lewis, ‘but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.’