Nature is no doubt a life-study, or a study for eternity (for those so gifted); but there is a part of man which is not “Nature,” and which therefore is not obliged to study it, and is, in fact, wholly unsatisfied by it. – J. R. R. Tolkien
Many of my essays for The Imaginative Conservative have stressed the need to define the words that we use more definitely and precisely so that we can communicate our understanding of reality with greater clarity and less ambiguity. Over the months we have sought to define key words, such as “love,” “progress,” “man,” “utopia,” “Christendom,” “civilization,” and “distributism.” Even a nasty word like “nice” has been brought within the scope of our definitive scrutiny! Another word that requires such scrutiny is “science,” which has been abused by followers of the anti-scientific creed of scientism to imply or suggest that “science” is somehow inimical to Christian faith. Nothing could be further from the truth, as a definitive and scientific study of the Word will reveal. This being so, let us place “science” under the microscope, studying it with meticulous and definitive precision.
The word comes from the Latin scientia, which means “knowledge.” For our ancestors, all fields of study or modes of perception that lead to a greater knowledge of the cosmos were regarded as “science.” Thus, for instance, theology, the study of the word of God as He reveals Himself in Scripture, was seen as being not merely a science but as being the very “queen of the sciences.” The sixteenth-century Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, described theology as “the science of things divine.” Aristotle, arguably the greatest of all philosophers, divided science or knowledge into three distinct spheres, namely mathematics, physics, and metaphysics (the last of which he called theology). This division of the sciences, being essentially correct and all-encompassing, still holds true today. Physics, the science of nature, should be studied in unison with metaphysics, the science of things beyond nature (meta meaning “beyond,” “with,” “after,” or even “change”). Thus the study or knowledge of the physical things should lead inexorably to a study or knowledge of the metaphysical things. Indeed, as the prefix meta signifies, metaphysics is the study of things beyond physics, that should be studied with physics, so that, after such study, our knowledge of physics (the natural) is changed by, i.e. informed by, our knowledge of metaphysics (the supernatural). As for mathematics, the third part of Aristotle’s classification of the sciences, it can be seen as a bridge between physics and metaphysics, being quantifiable (finite and numerical) but also non-quantifiable (infinite and infinitesimal) and imaginary (as in imaginary numbers).
Astute observers of the structure of the cosmos will see a parallel between the Trinitarian nature of the transcendentals (the good, the true, and the beautiful) and the Trinitarian nature of the sciences (mathematics, physics, and metaphysics). The problem is that the modern world has sought to violate this unity through the attempt to separate the inseparable. In the same way as modernity has sought to separate the good (virtue) from the true (reason), with disastrous consequences, it has also sought to excise or exorcise metaphysics from the sciences, thereby distorting and ultimately contorting our knowledge of the cosmos. In seeking to restrict science (knowledge) to the purely physical sphere (the so-called hard sciences), and thereby relegating and denigrating metaphysics (theology and philosophy and their multifarious manifestations) to the realm of the “unscientific,” modernity has done violence to the unitive nature of true science, which seeks knowledge of all aspects of the cosmos and desires a perspective that sees the various sciences in relation to each other.
One disastrous consequence of this reductionist view of science is the separation of cleverness from wisdom. Once physics is divorced from metaphysics it is no longer able to make moral or ethical judgments. Liberated from theology and philosophy, which are no longer considered sciences, the new truncated “science,” more properly called scientism, can be put to the service of damnable endeavours. The list of such endeavours, clever but lacking in wisdom, includes the guillotine, the gas chamber, the atomic bomb, nerve gas, biological weapons, and abortion technology.
Returning to our initial question, science, properly understood, needs to be restored to its full Aristotelian and Trinitarian splendor. It needs to be catholic (with a small c), i.e., universal. It needs to encompass mathematics, physics, and metaphysics. In addition to the physical sciences, we need to restore theology as the science of the divine, and we need to restore philosophy (the love of wisdom) as the science of well-ordered reason. And this is not all. We need to restore history as the science of the past, by which the present understands itself from the perspective of collected and collective human experience.
And what of the so-called creative arts? Can these be called sciences? Is music a science? Is painting? Or sculpture? Or poetry? This brings us back to the quotation by J.R.R. Tolkien with which we opened this discussion. Nature (physics) is a life-study, but it is also a study for eternity for those so gifted. The geologist looks at Mont Blanc in the Alps and sees its physical attributes; a poet looks at the same mountain and sees in its majesty and beauty a manifestation of the majesty and beauty of God. The botanist looks at a pastoral landscape and sees the different types of trees and plants; the painter or the composer looks at the same landscape and sees a pastoral symphony of colour, shining forth the goodness, truth, and beauty of the cosmos. An architecture student looks at Rouen Cathedral and sees a structure erected according to set principles of engineering; the architect who designed it and the artist who paints it see it as a hymn of praise lifted to God.
What is science? It is scientia. It is the knowledge of the goodness, truth, and beauty of the divine cosmos in which we find ourselves. It is the science of the physicist and the science of the poet; it is the knowledge of nature and the knowledge of the eternity to which nature points. Science is good; science is true; science is beautiful. Science is divine!
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