There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
- Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5
In his latest book, Stephen Hawking claims that philosophy is dead and that science has replaced it. Amazingly, what Hawking doesn’t appear to understand is that he is making a weighty philosophical claim…
Philosophy is not dead, it’s only been forgotten and, in some cases, utterly misconstrued… Philosophy is silent. It doesn’t impose itself. It’s always there but it waits patiently for someone to notice it, to open one’s mind and heart to something more. Only then can it show us the world in a whole new light. In fact it is quite like light itself. We tend to take light for granted and produce it artificially where it doesn’t reach naturally. As long as we can see well enough to do what we want, we don’t think much about the light. We barely distinguish between day and night anymore because the semi-conscious flip of a switch allows for uninterrupted activity. Many people spend most of their day staring into iPhones and laptops and TVs that produce their own light, their own little artificial worlds. (There is nothing wrong with any of this, per se, but it does serve as a fairly good analogy for humanity’s relationship with philosophy, especially metaphysics. But what in the world is metaphysics? We will get back to that.) Philosophy is everywhere there are thinking people. In its simplest form, it consists of the presuppositions we make about the truth of our reality. It is the light by which we understand and move within our world, whether we are conscious of it or not. There are many types and sources of light. The world is seen differently with a flashlight than in the sunlight, with a black light than with the moonlight. Hawking does not seem to realize that the light he uses to look at the world is the same light that has been used by some since the days of the Greek Atomists, the light of philosophical materialism. Unfortunately it is a very dim light indeed.
To anyone who has ever studied any philosophy, the analogy I just provided will sound a lot like Plato’s cave of shadows. And it’s no accident. Anyone who has dedicated himself to the careful observation of reality is drawn to the marvel of light, both literally and figuratively. It is light that has brought us here. Indeed the very core of our planet is alive because it spun off from the sun at the birth of our solar system. And all of the energy that grows the plants that the rest of us depend on is received in a constant flow from the sun. We take these things for granted of course; we have busy lives and many things to do before our time is up. But this backdrop in our lives is astonishing when we stop to look around.
As G.K. Chesterton put it: “There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of light, more blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness; and it is the abyss of actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly are, and that we ourselves are incredibly and sometimes almost incredulously real. It is the fundamental fact of being, as against not being; it is unthinkable, yet we cannot unthink it, though we may sometimes be unthinking about it; unthinking and especially unthanking.” (Chaucer, 15)
The study of light by quantum physicists is one of the most fascinating fields of science. We tend to think that we see things because a little ball of light flies out of the sun, hits something and bounces into our eye, setting off a neural chain reaction that soon reaches our consciousness. However the truth is much more amazing: everything that is visible to us is constantly absorbing photons (which in themselves are a mysterious weightless packets of energy that behave like both a particle and a wave) and radiating out new photons. Simply put, everything is glowing.
This mysterious truth, brought to us by the scientific efforts of brilliant minds like Einstein, Planck and many others, causes in all of us a sense of awe and wonder at the world around us. And don’t we experience a similar sense of wonder when we see the setting sun pierce the rain clouds and illuminate the bright green grass speckled with olive trees, or when we notice that brilliantly colored hummingbird hovering above the hydrangeas, or we look out upon the enormity of the sea or up into the uncountable stars? Sadly, there are adults who have lost this capacity to wonder — to simultaneously be awe-inspired and to question — and many would agree with me when I say that this is a great tragedy, if not the great tragedy that is at the root of all the rest. But every child knows this sense of wonder, which should be cherished and nurtured by the adults around him or her.
Rachel Carson knew this well: “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood… If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder…, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” (Sense of Wonder, 54-55)
To wonder is to accept one’s smallness and neediness, one’s contingency; simply, it is to be humble. To wonder is first to allow oneself to be overwhelmed by the gift of existence, in whatever marvelous form it is presenting itself. This is a free act, a choice we make. You may choose to be unaffected by the world around you but it comes at the cost of hardening your heart. This recognition and acceptance of the gift of reality leads naturally to a question or a whole host of them: “what is that?,” “how does that happen?,” “why is that like that?,” or “who made such beauty?” Many times these questions are mere whispers, easily ignored. Other times they are impossible to avoid and send us on a quest that could last a lifetime.
This is why philosophy and science are inseparable: they are sisters born of the same mother.
The natural sciences study the natural world and give answers to questions like how, what, and why in physical, material terms. We tend to think that everyone is well versed in science but we almost exclusively leave the actual doing of science to the experts and trust their results. But on some level everyone carries out observations, forms hypotheses, tests them and comes to conclusions. This is all very human.
Meanwhile, philosophy is a grand tree with many branches: ethics, epistemology, logic, the philosophies of particular fields, and others. Specifically ontology (the study of “ontos“, “being”) or metaphysics (“beyond-physics”), studies the same natural world as science but in a different dimension. We will use two (imperfect) analogies to try to illuminate the nature of the relationship between science and philosophy: the first with light, the second with vision. The light spectrum is a continuum of wavelengths from the smallest, like gamma and x-rays, to the larger, like radio waves, to the largest like the ELF (“extremely low frequency”) waves that exist in the universe as the echoes of the Big Bang. Visual light is only a small portion of this spectrum nestled between the ultraviolet waves that we put sunscreen on to protect ourselves from and the microwaves we often use to make popcorn. That fact in itself should be a hint to us about how much we really know about reality. The analogy is the following: the natural sciences are to visual light as philosophy is to non-visible light waves. Metaphysics won’t tell you how many salmon you can catch in a season without damaging the population’s capacity to replace itself but it can give answers to questions like “what is a salmon?”, “what is a man?”, and “what is at the core of their relationship?”, which lead to ethical questions like “is it right for man to eat the salmon?” and “how much?”. The essential metaphysical question is: “what is the nature of being?”
Within the bounds of this analogy, natural science can only see visual light. If you give it infrared light waves it will tell you exactly what it sees: nothing. But it cannot tell you why. Only philosophy can tell you why science is blind to them. Historically, most if not all scientists understood this but it’s become increasingly (and disturbingly) common to think of science as completely a-philosophical. It is not hard to understand how this could have happened, and to those that do, “tragic” is the word that comes to mind, as tragic as a child unmoved by the show of fireflies on a midsummer’s night.
Once again, the analogy is imperfect. In our world everything has many levels of explanation simultaneously (think: many kinds of light waves that all come together). Aristotle named four levels of explanation - his famous four causes - and we need all four to understand things with the depth our reason can reach: material, efficient, formal and final causes ((Disclaimer: this is a very bare interpretation of Aristotle’s causes. Truly, all the causes have a metaphysical element. For example, matter for Aristotle is a relative term which refers to the potentiality of being and thus can’t be entirely simplified to mass, extension or energy.)). The first two are easily explained: the material cause is what something is made of and the efficient cause is how it was made. We can simplify things by imagining that these exist mostly within the realm of the physical sciences, though clearly philosophy takes them into account. The formal and final causes exist in the realm of metaphysics. The formal cause refers to the form or “universal” in which something participates (a table, whether it be made of stone or wood and by a carpenter or in a factory, is recognizable as a table). The final cause refers to the purpose or end (telos) of the thing in question. For a table this is an easy question to answer. For a man, not so much, and the answer you give to this question will determine the way you see the world and life itself. (Many agree that this explanation borders on the theological. For some this leap is natural, for others, supernatural. Theology however does not fit into the spectrum in the analogy. But that is not the topic at hand.)
Now we can present the second analogy: stereoscopic vision. The three-dimensional nature of our physical world made having two eyes quite an advantage. We don’t even realize this because when we close one eye, we still see in three dimensions but that is only thanks to the marvel of our brains which have learned to perceive all three of them. We look at a two dimensional picture and we see three. The philosophical dimension of reality is what gives depth and meaning to the physical world we perceive. Just as all knowledge depends originally on physical perception, so philosophy is built up out of the material world, but it is a qualitative jump, like passing from two dimensions to three. Materialism is a philosophy but it’s a sad and confusing caricature of reality that seems completely rational but ultimately can’t respond to the most important questions of life. It is trapped in an artificial, two-dimensional world.
How did it come to this? In the 14th century philosophy began to betray itself by first doing away with formal causes. For Ockham and his followers, “table” was nothing more than an empty word (flatus vocis) that was convenient but didn’t actually mean anything in reality. Final causes suffered an equal disdain when Descartes divided mind and body, claiming that all things were mere extension (res extensa). The success of Galileo’s scientific method sealed their fate by helping the burgeoning European economy reshape the world on the basis of technology, utility, production and consumption. Darwin made an amazing discovery that left most people wondering how no one had thought of it before. Religious people who understood the multi-dimensional nature of reality felt unthreatened, though perhaps worried for those unequally prepared to assimilate the new findings of science. John Henry Newman said this in a letter to a mutual friend of Darwin: “Perhaps your friend has got a surer clue to guide him than I have, who have never studied the question, and I do not [see] that ‘the accidental evolution of organic beings’ is inconsistent with divine design — It is accidental to us, not to God.” The discovery of DNA, which seemed (to some) to justify a mere physical explanation of everything, essentially bring us up to date. What we see today is the aftereffect of this process, this loss of the depth of reality.
The irony is that science was never meant to deny the existence of philosophy, in fact she can’t! How can a ruler, or a stethoscope or a Geiger-counter teach us about the immaterial world, let alone affirm that it doesn’t exist! How can they tell us who we are? And yet, look around…
To me, as a student of ecology and philosophy, this is not so much a question of the conclusion you come to but the presuppositions you bring to the table. Locke’s theory of the tabula rasa couldn’t be more wrong. We always carry presuppositions with us about reality. This is a psychological fact. If you don’t believe me, watch this video:
We have a hard time seeing what we aren’t looking for. This effect is multiplied when we actively don’t want to see something that is as plain as day to everyone else. Think for example of someone willingly trapped in an abusive relationship. In the words of the great American rock band, the Grateful Dead, “you ain’t gonna learn what you don’t want to know.” Science was never looking for the immaterial dimensions of the universe but today most science gurus actively deny that there are any to be found at all. G.K. Chesterton warns: “The man who begins to think without the proper first principles goes mad, the man who begins to think at the wrong end…. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic.”(Orthodoxy, 13).
The intellectual establishment of Western civilization has grown old and stale, forgetting the wonder and mystery of its youth growing up on the coasts of the Mediterranean. It has become insensitive to the depth of reality and the meaning of beauty. Einstein is claimed to have said: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” My intention with this reflection is to argue the latter.
If we observe reality with an open mind and an open heart we cannot deny what we discover. The natural world is filled with paradoxes and contradictions like the mysteries of life and death. But on special occasions, like a solar eclipse or the migration of the Monarch butterfly, or completely “non-special” occasions, like the late fall day when a hibernating pickerel frog tumbles out of a pile of wet leaves that had accumulated behind the barn or a spider spinning a web between the stems of two irises, reality overwhelms our senses and our imagination with beauty, order and light. Science, properly used, only augments this experience of wonder. Every question answered leads to a dozen more and the mystery only grows. This is the nature of science. But only philosophy can ask the question of meaning. What do all these things mean?
Rachel Carson asked the same question: “Is the exploration of the natural world just a pleasant way to pass the golden hours of childhood, or is there something deeper? I am sure there is something much deeper, something lasting and significant… Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” (Sense of Wonder, 100-101)
There are physical experiences associated with all objects in this world; the freedom of the mind is the realm of meaning. To see both of these dimensions at the same time is to have a stereoscopic vision that gives an unexpected depth to reality. It is beauty, truth and goodness and the wonder they produce in us, if we are sensitive to them, that allow us to enter into this new, deeper dimension. All of this is far more intuitive to children than it is to adults. It’s a question of imagination. There is a deep truth in Saint-Exupéry’s timeless reflection: “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them. (The Little Prince, Ch. 1)
Nothing of what I’ve said has even touched on the beauty and mystery of the most profound of human experiences: love. The gaze shared by a mother and new-born child, the smile of your beloved, a compassionate touch of the hand, a word of consolation, a simple presence when language fails, the soft fall of footsteps drawing near… Unfathomable mysteries. There is something deeply disquieting in the assertion that these experiences are the incidental manifestations of a “selfish gene” and one cannot but feel sympathy for those that make their livings on such claims.
To be a scientist or a philosopher, to be a man or a woman, is to be humble, to know that the mystery of reality is expanding constantly, like the universe itself. It is to be open to reality, meaning, truth, goodness, beauty and ultimately love. Our nostalgia for that childhood sense of wonder is far more than a desire to escape the drudgery of modern adulthood. It could very well be the key to healing our hearts and our culture.
Many, many people have said these things far better than I can. One of them is the late Stratford Caldecott:
Reality is dazzling; it is full of radiance, the radiance of beauty. And yet our capacity to respond, to see the light welling up from the depths, to be aware of the mystery, requires something of us. It requires us to resonate with that mystery, so that there is something in us that resembles it, something connatural with it. That capacity, that depth, is opened within us by the experience of love, in the moment when we understand ourselves to possess a meaning and destiny of our own. Until that moment we have no way to connect with the beauty that we see…. The search for beauty is therefore the key… not truth alone, not goodness alone, but the beauty which moves us toward truth and goodness, and which cannot be separated from them because all three are aspects and expressions of the same love.