Russell Kirk knew that in the empire of science, if it be genuine science, one must pursue wisdom and leave space in the world for mystery and faith…
Mystery isn’t something that is gradually evaporating. It grows along with knowledge. —Flannery O’Conner to Alfred Corn, 12 August 1962
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Mark Kalthoff as he remembers Russell Kirk’s alternative to scientism, Sir Thomas Browne. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
When thoughtful conservatives commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Russell Kirk’s book The Conservative Mind that appeared in May of 1953, I suspect that rather few disciples of the “sage of Mecosta” recalled with equal acclaim two separate and quite different publishing events from those same spring days of 1953. One appeared in the pages of Science, the flagship journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the other in Britain’s equally prestigious counterpart, the scientific journal Nature. From our view a half century later, it is easily argued that the two scientific items offered more fitting symbols of the twentieth century’s habit of mind than did Kirk’s monumental genealogy of conservatism.
The mid-May 1953 issue of Science published a brief article by Stanley L. Miller, then a chemistry graduate student at the University of Chicago working under Nobel Laureate Harold C. Urey. In his article, Miller reported the results of his attempt to synthesize the chemical building blocks of life from a primordial soup presumably mimicking “primitive earth conditions.” His success at gathering a few amino acids from his concoction of water, ammonia, methane, and hydrogen was hailed as the first step toward what hopeful co-believers firmly trusted would be the scientific solution to the mystery of life’s ultimate origin. The intervening years have seen many sophisticated efforts to improve upon Miller’s work. Despite their failure to produce satisfying solutions, Miller’s famous 1953 experiment remains a textbook icon of the trust placed in science as the oracle from which must come answers to the deepest mysteries of life.
If Miller’s early research promised clues to the origins of life’s building blocks, the British journal Nature, at the very same moment, announced in a pair of articles by James Watson and Francis Crick what architectural form those blocks must invariably assume in living things. The two young scientists from the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, as everyone now knows, had introduced the world to the structure of the DNA molecule, the famed double-helix. A transformation of modern biology had begun; and by the century’s end, Watson and Crick’s discovery had assumed mythic proportions in the wake of such new techniques as DNA “fingerprinting,” recombinant DNA cloning, gene therapy treatment and, of course, the human genome project. Stanley Miller’s 1953 work had encouraged the dream that science could solve the mysteries of our existence and render sterile the metaphysical worries about our origins, our destiny, and the meaning of it all. Watson and Crick’s 1953 work promised the power that scientific technique would bequeath to a modern age striving to cure diseases, fight crime, end hunger, and engineer global security. Thus were offered the twin promises of secret knowledge and the power to fix the world. No wonder that since 1953, among conventionally forwarding-looking thinkers of our world, the names Watson, Crick, and Miller have much greater cachet than has Kirk, the name of a supposed technophobic Luddite from Mecosta, Michigan.
Kirk, as many conservative Catholics know, was no conventionally forward-looking thinker. So just as it is unlikely that Watson, Crick, or Miller ever knew of Kirk, we have no evidence that their names registered with him. The latest technology, the up-and-coming theories, and the trendy optimisms were not Kirk’s bailiwick. After all, Kirk thought himself a “Bohemian Tory,” which he described in this way:
A Tory, according to Samuel Johnson, is a man attached to orthodoxy in church and state. A bohemian is a wandering and often impecunious man of letters or arts, indifferent to the demands of bourgeois fad and foible… Tory and bohemian go not ill together: it is quite possible to abide by the norms of civilized existence, what Mr. T.S. Eliot calls ‘the permanent things’: and yet to set at defiance the soft securities and sham conventionalities of twentieth-century sociability.
Did this bohemian Tory merely relegate the scientific advances of his age–origin-of-life studies, DNA, Sputnik, nuclear science, the Apollo program, et cetera–to the category of “soft security” or “sham conventionality,” thereby excusing himself from thoughtful consideration of modern science, its promises and its pitfalls? In other words, did Kirk, by dwelling upon the “permanent things” dismiss modern science as an unworthy pursuit? In a word, no. He did have a few choice words, however, for those he called “the throng of the quarter-educated” who fail to apprehend “the limitations of science” and he believed firmly that it was “lust for innovation” not regard for tradition that “enslaved” people. Still, Kirk was no enemy of genuine science. Its corruption, however, came in for severe criticism.
Kirk’s defenses of good science and his critiques of its sham version, the ideology called scientism, appeared here and there in articles during the fifties and sixties, either in reaction against ideology or in affirmation of sanity. Take, as an example of the former, the case of C.P. Snow (1905-1980) whose life work provides a fitting case with which to begin a consideration of Kirk’s engagement with the empire of science.
Charles Percy Snow, Baron Snow Of The City Of Leicester, completed a physics doctorate at Cambridge in 1930 when he was but twenty-five years old. He remained as a Fellow of Christ College working as a molecular physicist for the following two decades when, in 1950, he became a university administrator. During his years as a scientist and administrator he labored steadily at his separate literary vocation, authoring an eleven-volume series of novels collectively titled Strangers and Brothers which were published between 1940 and 1970. For his multifaceted achievements he was knighted in 1957. Two years later, in May of 1959, he delivered at Cambridge the influential Rede Lecture which, perhaps, did as much to establish his reputation as did any other event in his illustrious career.
Snow titled his Rede lecture “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” The “two cultures” of his title were “literary intellectuals” at one pole and “scientists” at the other. Snow maintained that the literary intellectuals were “natural Luddites” separated from the scientists by “a gulf of mutual incomprehension–sometimes…hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted image of each other,” he insisted. “Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can’t find much common ground.” Moreover, Snow was not simply describing a sociological curiosity of mere academic interest; but rather a deeply worrisome state of affairs that he believed portended grim consequences of global proportion. This is because Snow insisted that the chief solutions to the greatest human troubles depended upon the widespread embrace by all cultures of technological innovation and the ongoing scientific revolution. “Health, food, education; nothing but the industrial revolution could have spread them right down to the very poor. Those are primary gains,” proclaimed Snow. “They are the base of our social hope.”
Kirk disagreed with Sir Charles, detecting in the Cambridge knight’s ideas the unsavory odor of scientism. In 1956, the same year that Snow had first floated his “two cultures” thesis in print form, Kirk denounced in Prospects for Conservatives those who placed their trust in “industrialization and urbanization of modern life” to solve human problems. He simply could not abide Snow’s contrary assertion that the industrial revolution and its fruit constituted the “base of our social hope.” Kirk was not alone either. Snow’s lecture “provoked a plethora of criticism, commendation, and censure.” For his part, however, Kirk waited to weigh in on the “two cultures” discussion until 1963. By then he was thoroughly unimpressed by what he regarded as the “superficial” debate sparked by Snow’s “curiously archaic” and “shallow” lecture. Kirk entered the debate with an article rhetorically titled, “Can we apprehend science?” which appeared in The Teachers College Record, the journal of Columbia University’s Teachers College. In it he addressed Snow’s view of things head-on, and in the process mounted a convincing case for a view of science grounded in right reason and the “permanent things.” Kirk refrained from making the first obvious criticism, viz., that by offering himself as a “living bridge between the two cultures,” Snow had falsified his own thesis that a gulf of mutual incomprehension separated the scientists from the literary intellectuals. Was not Snow living proof that mutual comprehension was possible after all? Kirk was less concerned, however, with denouncing Snow’s logic than with defending a wholesome view of the scientific enterprise, a view that pursued wisdom while preserving mystery and faith. This was not, by the way, Kirk’s first such defense either. Kirk’s response to Snow was his fourth article on science since 1956, and was not to be his last word.
What exactly did he say? With Snow’s assertion that there was much ignorance of scientific and technological detail, Kirk agreed. But where Snow saw it as a problem, Kirk, agreeing with John Henry Newman, insisted that “in order to know anything, we must resign ourselves to ignorance of much.” Kirk explained,
Emphasis upon genuine education–upon systematic development of the intellectual faculties–rather than the vain endeavor to burden the brain with a crushing load of facts about myriad techniques, offers us our chief hope for governing competently our modern scientific and industrial and technological upheaval. Mere technical training cannot suffice; yet the union of humane learning with scientific methodology remains within the limits of possibility.
Snow’s problem, Kirk recognized, was a limited view of the kinds of knowledge humans may acquire. Kirk knew that questions of beauty, goodness, and moral virtue were not matters of mere personal preference, private judgment, or sentimental emotion. Science alone could not be the only source of genuine knowledge. Rather, the voice of tradition, the obligations placed upon all by what Edmund Burke called the “eternal contract” between the dead, the living, and the yet unborn, and even revelation–both natural and special–provided the genuine knowledge able to order our minds, our souls, and our societies. Such things needed to be taught, argued Kirk, even more than technical gadgetry and the latest scientific information. Unfortunately, Kirk determined that such a view of the matter was entirely foreign to Snow: “He sincerely believes that a training in technical knowledge is the only education worth while,” wrote Kirk, “because he is moved by the faith that there is no knowledge, in the proper sense, except technical knowledge.” Kirk was moved by the distinctively less restrictive faith that wisdom transcends technical knowledge, and that it can be acquired.
Years earlier, Kirk had explained that at the heart of genuine science was the quest for wisdom and the “pursuit of truth.” Genuine science, Kirk knew, by its very nature must be a liberal enterprise. That is, it is knowledge pursued for its own sake, not for the sake of technological application, for the creation of entertaining gadgets, or for a yield of increased power over nature and neighbor. The world, Kirk knew, is a place of mystery and wonder. Genuine science is that marvelous pursuit which gratifies the human desire to explore the mystery and magnify the wonder that is so evident in the created order. Whenever science is transformed into a hunt for power, it ceases to be real science and becomes the ideology of scientism. Kirk again:
Pure science is the pursuit of truth, with no end except the increased apprehension of the truth. “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom”: this conviction dominated science until the modern era, and a good many men of science still are influenced by it. To them, science is a reverential search for a fuller understanding of this world of mystery in which we dwell. They want to improve the human reason for the human reason’s own sake–the gratification of a noble curiosity–and out of awe for the great intelligence, transcending human frailties, which governs this earth and all the stars.
On the other hand, however, there are those adept at scientific technique but void of liberal motives, masters of industrial technology but enslaved to it as well. Such practitioners see science primarily as a tool for engineering a utopian heaven on earth, something that the twentieth-century ideologues proved to be an impossibility. Such scientists, Kirk claimed, had submitted to a most unwholesome desire:
I refer to the desire of Francis Bacon to make science into an instrument for the building of new empires, and to Hobbes’ insistence that ‘the end of knowledge is power.’ Power over man and nature, the arrogant ambition to reshape the universe after some energumen’s notion of Utopia, has inspired a great part of the work of modern science. From the same roots springs the greater part of the work of what is called ‘scientism’–the employment of methods allegedly scientific to make society into one uniform, equalitarian tableland.
The enemy, then for Kirk, was never science per se, but a disproportioned fondness for technology, that “bastard child of pure science” as he called it, that put “things in the saddle,” and placed a higher priority upon means than upon ends. Kirk saw the need to “put man back into the saddle.” Against Snow’s view, Kirk warned that “there exists little peril that the man at the top, or the man in the street, will pay too little heed to the latest gadgets; on the contrary, what they neglect is wisdom…limitless enthusiasm has been generated for putting a man in the moon, but only obdurate gadflies still ask, ‘To what end?’”
From whence, according to Kirk, had come this emphasis upon “know how” or techne and the relative disregard for “know why” or telos? This stress upon means over ends had come from the restricted vision of what a human being is, a vision that rests at the heart of scientism. To put “man back in the saddle” required, first and foremost, knowledge of what he is, a purposive creature made in the image of God. Here is one of Kirk’s better summaries of the anthropological heresy at the root of scientism:
[Scientism] is the popular notion that somehow the revelations of natural science, over the past two centuries, have demonstrated the obsolescence of religious beliefs; have informed mankind how men and women are naked apes merely; have pointed out that the ends of existence are production and consumption merely; that happiness is the gratification of sensual impulses merely; that notions of the resurrection of the flesh and the life everlasting are superstitions of the childhood of the human race merely… This view of the human condition has been called–by C.S. Lewis, in particular–reductionism: it reduces human beings to almost mindlessness; it denies the existence of the soul.
Because scientism fosters such reductionism, and the related acids of relativism, positivism, and determinism, it has rightly been called “the world’s littlest religion.” It ignores too much of reality.
Years later, in The Politics of Prudence, Kirk explained that proponents of such scientism will logically deduce “that life has no purpose but sensual gratification; that the brief span of one’s physical existence is the be-all and end-all.” Such a deduction, while valid, is both unsound and grim. It reminds of the Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins who once insisted that “the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” Accordingly, Dawkins proceeded to describe those who possess religious faith and believe that reality is ultimately purposeful and charged with meaning as “patients” “infected with” “viruses of the mind.”
Were Dawkins correct, then perhaps C.P. Snow’s technocratic goals of egalitarian creature comfort and widespread embrace of industrial scientism would be fitting. But Kirk argued that such goals betray both human nature and genuine science. Hence Kirk concluded, “So what Snow pursues, it turns out, is not science for the sake of science, but scientific technology for the sake of scientism.” Consider this quotation which rightly sums up Snow’s angle on the matter: “Any scientist who concerns himself with abstract problems must never forget that the purpose of all science consists of satisfying the needs of society.” This comes not from Snow’s The Two Cultures, however. Its source is the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. The first principals of Snow’s scientism, Kirk recognized, had more in common with Soviet totalitarian ideology than it did with the American cause of liberty. This is why Kirk insisted that Snow’s “view is more nearly characteristic of the bureaucrat than of the man of truly scientific passion, intent on discovering the nature of things.”
Who, then, we may ask of Kirk, is this man of “truly scientific passion?” Kirk answers, “The genuine scientist of our time is not afflicted by Sir Charles Snow’s hybris; he does not lay claim to the offices of priest, ruler, and artist.” Rather, the genuine scientist is the beneficiary of liberal learning. He has developed, as John Henry Cardinal Newman described in his masterful The Idea of a University, a “philosophical habit of mind” and a proportioned intellect. When properly developed as consonant with faith, as cultivator of wonder, and as surrounded by mystery, science was to be embraced and pursued. “Exciting and mysterious, twentieth-century science truly is an integral part of liberal education, rather than a presumptuous substitute for religion, politics, and humane studies,” insisted Kirk. In short, Kirk denied the existence of Snow’s two cultures, except as they found a malnourished life within fragmented illiberal minds, given to obsession with narrow specialization. Yet Kirk also bemoaned the fact that too many colleges and universities encouraged such fragmentation and obsession, rather than prevented it. Kirk put it this way:
Science and liberal learning ought not to be opposed to each other, as Snow would have them; and certainly the vestiges of literary culture ought not to be swallowed up by the technician masquerading as scientist and world-reformer. Humane and social studies ought to be integrated with scientific courses to the strengthening of both. I hasten to add that I do not advocate the pabulum of even more amorphous survey-courses. Already ‘Natural Science Survey 101’ is destroying the virility of college scientific disciplines… Out of love of learning, which is its own end, those of us who hold by traditional culture ought to acquaint ourselves with scientific thought; and like the scientists themselves, we must restore the just claims of pure science if we are to avert the triumph of scientism and its social consequences.
Thus while jousting with the Cambridge knight, Sir Charles Snow, Kirk revealed much of what he opposed in the culture of modern science. But his opponent was not science itself, it was the ideology of scientism, which Kirk believed could be thwarted by liberal learning which included restoring the “just claims of pure science.” Scientism’s full defeat also required the pursuit of wisdom and the retention within the empire of science of a high regard for mystery and faith.
Was such an ideal possible? Had Kirk ever known of such a scientist–a liberally educated, wise man, captivated by mystery, and possessing Christian faith, yet also a man of science, an experimenter, and follower of empirical methods? In short, was there another type of C.P. Snow, someone adept at natural science and a literary man, but one not sold out to scientism? Yes, of course there were such men. The history of science was littered with them: Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Copernicus, Boyle, leap right to mind; and there were others. Kirk knew he was not imagining a chimerical fancy. The one he had in mind was another knight, too. But this one took degrees from Oxford, not Cambridge, and was 300 years older than Sir Charles.
He was the seventeenth-century doctor Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), the man whom historian of science A. Rupert Hall called “the greatest of all the English virtuosi.” Browne was a physician, a theologian, a scientist, a literary master. Kirk called him “inimitable.” Who could match, Kirk wondered, Browne’s multi-faceted qualities? He authored, what Kirk described as “splendid prose–glowing with the moral imagination.” He possessed a firm Christian faith that qualified him, in Kirk’s curious words, as “not merely a flying buttress of the church, but a veritable pillar.” He practiced medicine and interrogated nature. With three degrees from Oxford (including an M.D.) and formal scientific and medical training at Montpellier, Padua, and Leyden, Browne ranked among the best-trained scientific minds in a century known for great scientific minds. In 1664 he was elected an honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London and in 1671 Charles II knighted him at Norwich, Browne’s home. Consideration of a few items from Browne’s life and work, gives another angle on Kirk’s estimation of genuine science and its connections with other humane subjects. Where the case of C.P. Snow provided Kirk with a platform from which to castigate scientism, in Sir Thomas Browne Kirk found a praiseworthy sample of humane sanity residing within the empire of science.
Perhaps, as a man of science, Sir Thomas Browne qualified for Kirk’s high praise because Browne was a product of the seventeenth century, a time when narrow specialization had yet to be widely mistaken as the mark of an educated man. The great historian of seventeenth-century science and biographer of Isaac Newton, Richard Westfall, used to say that the single best adjective to describe Western Civilization at the opening of the seventeenth century was the word “Christian.” He insisted, however, that by the century’s end the single word that rightly characterized the West was “scientific.” This watershed century was, after all, the century of Harvey and Newton, Bacon and Descartes, Boyle and Galileo; the century of the birth of modern science. But the founders of modern science were nevertheless men broadly trained, liberally educated, steeped in the classics, drawn to metaphysics and religiously faithful. Sir Thomas Browne stood as a chief exemplar of the type. As the Cambridge scholar Basil Willey put it in his description of Browne: “Perhaps no writer is more truly representative of the double-faced age in which he lived, an age half scientific and half magical, half skeptical and half credulous, looking back in one direction to Maundeville, and forward to Newton.” This is because Browne had, according to Willey, “what T.S. Eliot called the ‘unified sensibility’ of the ‘metaphysicals’… [That is] the capacity to live in divided and distinguished worlds, and to pass freely to and fro between one and another, to be capable of many and varied responses to experience, instead of being confined to a few stereotyped ones.” Basil Willey’s account of the seventeenth-century intellectual landscape bears remarkable resemblance to the contours of Newman’s liberally educated mind, or of Kirk’s world inhabited as it was by such a diverse lot: scientists, poets, political theorists, ghosts, and gods alike. Consider Willey again on the seventeenth century:
Many different worlds or countries of the mind then lay close together–the world of scholastic learning, the world of scientific experiment, the worlds of classical mythology and of biblical history, of fable and of fact, of theology and demonology, of sacred and profane love, of pagan and Christian morals, of activity and contemplation; and a cultivated man had the freedom of them all. They were divided and distinguished, perhaps, but not, as later, by such high barriers that a man was shut up for life in one or other of them. The distinctions were only beginning to be made which for later ages shut off poetry from science, metaphor from fact, fancy from judgment.
Thus it was that Sir Thomas Browne occupied the watershed century of Newton and Donne, of Milton and Herbert, and of Harvey and Bacon. More importantly, in several ways he typified the best of the century.
Consider, as evidence, his first book, Religio Medici–The Physician’s Religion–published in 1642, the year of Galileo’s death and Isaac Newton’s birth. By all measures a classic. The book has yet to go out of print and as Browne’s biographer Jeremiah Finch rightly notes, the book “appears on virtually every list of ‘great books.’” It has been compared with Augustine’s Confessions; and one popular twentieth-century edition includes Religio Medici in a single volume together with Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. Kirk praised the book’s style and Browne scholar James Winny extolled its content this way: “As a representative cross-section of the ideas with which educated consciousness was stocked during the early seventeenth century, Religio Medici has no serious rival in our literature.” The irresistible appeal of the book “is easily explained. It offers one of those rare instances in which a subject of fundamental importance–a man’s relation to his God and to the world about him–is treated with entire candor by an author of imaginative power, originality, and abundant good will.” Indeed, another Browne scholar, Peter Green, notes that in Religio Medici Browne “ranges like a bee over the whole variegated garden of contemporary thought, sipping where he will, integrating what he needs into his own personal, creative interpretation of the universe.” The result is an “idiosyncratic spiritual testament” which cleverly imposes a creative unity upon “apparently irreconcilable modes of thought; the harmony that can embrace science and faith alike, gather together the scattered, broken symbols and from them strike, clear and complete, the lost music of the spheres.”
The restricted scope of this essay prevents offering anything approximating a careful survey of the Religio Medici. But a few quotations with comment illustrate sufficiently how this eclectic liberally-educated seventeenth-century Christian preserved mystery and faith within the empire of science and thereby endeared himself to Russell Kirk.
Basil Willey’s famous treatment of seventeenth-century intellectual life discusses Thomas Browne under two headings, “the metaphysical” and “the Baconian.” Indeed, Browne’s genius stemmed from his ability to reconcile the material to the immaterial, the natural to the supernatural, science to religion. This ability was grounded in Browne’s perception of human nature. In his most famous description, Browne calls man the “great amphibium”:
We are only that amphibious piece between a corporal and spiritual essence; that middle frame that links those two together, and makes good the method of God and nature, that jumps not from extremes but unites the incompatible distances by some middle and participating nature… For first we are a rude mass, and in the rank of creatures which only are, and have a dull kind of being not yet privileged with life, or preferred to sense or reason. Next we live the life of plants, the life of animals, the life of men, and at last the life of spirits; running on, in one mysterious nature, those five kinds of existences which comprehend the creatures not of the world only, but of the universe. Thus is man that great and true amphibium, whose nature is disposed to live not only like other creatures in divers elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds.
Given such a nature, man, according to Browne, must cultivate respect for reason and for faith as mutually supportive and jointly sufficient foundations for knowledge. Hence he trusted his reason; he trusted his senses; but trusted neither to the exclusion of his faith. About this he could be explicit: “Thus are there two books from whence I collect my divinity: besides that written one of God, another of his servant nature, that universal and public manuscript that lies expansed unto the eyes of all.” Here Browne adopted the “two books” metaphor, widely embraced in the seventeenth-century as originally expressed by Francis Bacon in The Advancement of Learning. There Bacon had written this, in the year of Browne’s birth: “Let no man upon a weak conceit of sobriety or an ill-applied moderation think or maintain, that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works, divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both…” For Browne’s part, studying nature, which he called “the art of God,” was itself of theological value for it cultivated true wisdom and humility, while bringing glory to the Creator:
The world was made to be inhabited by beasts, but studied and contemplated by man: ’tis the debt of our reason we owe unto God, and the homage we pay for not being beasts. Without this, the world is still as though it had not been, or as it was before the sixth day, when as yet there was not a creature that could conceive or say there was a world. The wisdom of God receives small honour from those vulgar heads that rudely stare about, and with a gross rusticity admire his works. Those highly magnify him whose judicious enquiry into his acts, and deliberate research of his creatures, return the duty of a devout and learned admiration.
Indeed, for Browne, scientific learning, if not always an end in itself, was a path to wisdom and knowledge of the divine, and never exclusively a tool for industrial, medical, or utilitarian application. Hence his prayerful verse: “Teach my endeavors so thy works to read, That, learning them, in thee I may proceed.”
Browne exulted in mystery and was never bothered that some truths surpassed the powers of reason. “I love to lose myself in a mystery,” he wrote in Religio Medici, “to pursue my reason to an O altitudo! ‘Tis my solitary recreation to pose my apprehension with those involved enigmas and riddles of the Trinity, with Incarnation and Resurrection. I can answer all the objections of Satan and my rebellious reason with that odd resolution I learned of Tertullian, Certum est, quia impossibile est.”–It is true, because it is impossible. If there was any fear on Browne’s part, it was not that his religious faith would undermine scientific pursuits, but that the seed of scientism, the belief that human scientific reason was all-sufficient, would take root in his imagination and limit the pursuit of wisdom and the acceptance of mystery. Here again, he was explicit: “Where there is an obscurity too deep for our reason, ’tis good to sit down with a description, periphrasis, or adumbration; for by acquainting our reason how unable it is to display the visible and obvious effects of nature, it becomes more humble and submissive unto the subtleties of faith; and thus I teach my haggard and unreclaimed reason to stoop unto the lure of faith.”
Here to the modern scientific mind Browne, the metaphysical, seems all too enamored with the pre-scientific medieval mindset. What of the scientific knowledge and industrial progress upon which C.P. Snow pinned his highest hopes? Here Basil Willey reminds us that “in thinking of Browne as a ‘metaphysical’ we must not forget that he had in him a large infusion of the Baconian experimentalist.” Browne was deeply suspicious of trusting any and all authority without putting it to the test. He believed such blind submission to authority would undermine our quest for knowledge and technical progress. In, of all places, his treatise on Christian Morals he made the point quite clearly and praised the seventeenth-century as the source of a new scientific knowledge that will triumph over wrongheaded traditions:
Let thy Studies be as free as thy Thoughts and Contemplations: but fly not only upon the wings of Imagination; Joyn Sense unto Reason, and Experiment unto Speculation, and so give life unto Embryon Truths, and Verities yet in their chaos. There is nothing more acceptable unto the Ingenious World, than this noble Eluctation of Truth; wherein, against the tenacity of Prejudice and Prescription, this century now prevaileth. What Libraries of new Volumes aftertimes will behold, and in what a new World of Knowledge the eyes of our posterity may be happy, a few Ages may joyfully declare…
Browne did not stop at merely voicing his hope for scientific progress over false prejudice. Rather, he made his own effort at serious contribution to what has been called “the main intellectual problem of the seventeenth century, the separation of the ‘true’ from the ‘false.’” He did so in his curiously fascinating and weighty tome, Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into Very Many Received Tenents and Commonly Presumed Truths, known widely by its common title, Vulgar Errors. It was first published in 1646 and reissued during the following twenty-six years in a half dozen editions. The work aimed to be a thorough-going enumeration and refutation of common superstitions. “Ostensibly an attack upon ‘vulgar errors,’ it was, however, equally a defense of scientific truth.” Here Browne emerged firmly in the Baconian tradition as a scientist of high order. Indeed, his contemporaries regarded him as such. The great seventeenth-century chemist Robert Boyle called Browne a naturalist “so faithful and candid” that he should not be distrusted. As historian Gordon Keith Chalmers has noted, “Browne’s fame rested not only upon his Religio but also upon his medical practice and scientific work.” Consequently when Browne’s Pseudodoxia appeared, it “immediately attracted the attention of other scientists” who rightly regarded its author as “a serious man of science.”
The first section of Browne’s Vulgar Errors explained the principals upon which his work rested. “Reduced to essentials,” Browne’s position may be summarized this way:
Men naturally delude themselves. They are born with a perverse tendency to accept convenient explanations, to believe what they want to believe. The forces of evil in the world exploit this weakness.
Not only among quacks and astrologers but even in professions like medicine and government the process of deception goes on, aided by the ambiguities of language, which cause misunderstanding among individuals and whole peoples.
Men are at once credulous of merely plausible stories and incredulous of new ideas even though well supported, being too lazy to take the trouble to find out the truth for themselves.
Browne, the scientist, sought to test empirically the “merely plausible stories” that were all-too-often believed without warrant. Skimming his table of contents provides sufficient introduction to the kind of material he considered. Here are a few chapter titles: “Of Griffins,” “Of the Phoenix,” “Of Unicorns Horn,” “Compendiously of Sundry Tenents concerning other Animals, which examined, prove either false or dubious,” “Of Sundry Tenets concerning Vegetables or Plants,” and “Of the Pictures of Mermaids, Unicorns, and some others.” The list could go on and on. The point should be clear, however. If there was any doubt, Browne concluded his Vulgar Errors with the following quotation from Lactantius: “Primus sapientiae gradus est, falsa intelligere”–The first step of wisdom is to understand falsehoods.
Browne, the scientist, knew that there could be traditions of error and falsehood. This did not mean that either he or other genuine scientists opposed tradition. Tradition was important. Traditionalism, thoughtlessly perpetuating the accumulated errors of the past; that was dangerous. This was another key point of harmony between Browne and Russell Kirk. Both knew that mindlessly following the authority of tradition could imperil society. Consider Kirk on this point:
Yet there can be error in tradition, and even a tradition made up of errors. Man always is compelled to choose among conflicting traditions, and to sort out from the mass of inherited precept the maxims and customs which truly apply to his present situation in the world… When men let their moral and intellectual freedom sink altogether into desuetude, and rely uncritically upon pure tradition, their society is liable to pass into decay, or at least find itself unable to resist the pressure of livelier societies… Routine without change, and change without routine, appear to be almost equally perilous.
Kirk and Browne also knew that if there were errors to be weeded out, conversely there were timeless truths that could be known and should be clung to tenaciously. This was true outside of the sciences to be sure, but also within them. Kirk again:
Tradition works in the sciences, also. The essence of tradition is the preservation of continuity in the midst of change. The modern physical sciences rely continuously on certain abiding principles, despite the fact that modern science is always reviewing, and sometimes revising, those principles in the light of newly-acquired knowledge or theory… Thus tradition–the preservation of continuity, the retaining of unifying principle despite the acquisition of new knowledge–operates in the sciences.
Thus in the Pseudodoxia Epidemica we witnessed the work of Browne the Baconian scientist. In the Religio Medici we encountered Browne the Christian metaphysician. Kirk saw in this seventeenth-century physician a living solution to the problem of tradition, a man committed both to the permanent things and to the rational empirical interrogation of nature. Such a combination–the wedding of scientific rationalism to Christian faith, the quest for certain knowledge joined with the acceptance of mystery and the celebration of wonder–offered, to Kirk’s mind, the best antidote to the scientism of C.P. Snow. For where mystery, wonder, and faith had life, humility necessarily would follow. Humility dissolves scientism. For it is intellectual pride, the hubris of technological mastery, that feeds the desire for human omnipotence and leads to the ideology of scientism. Kirk insisted that “with the rise of the applied sciences and technology, the pillars of democracy, Christianity and personal ethics in the United States have begun to totter.” Why? Because such technological mastery too often leads man to think he can make heaven upon earth, to think he is no longer answerable to a transcendent order, and to believe that anything possible is also permissible.
Kirk knew otherwise. He knew that in the empire of science, if it be genuine science, one must pursue wisdom and leave space in the world for mystery and faith. That Kirk had to turn back three centuries for an exemplar may suggest to some the depravity of the modern scientific world. On the other hand, it may merely have signaled Kirk’s fondness for a different era and his relative ignorance of latter-day Sir Thomas Browne figures who continue to stand against the scientisms of contemporary C.P. Snows.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in November 2013. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in Faith & Reason (Volume 31, Winter 2006, pp. 479-501) and is republished here with gracious permission of the author.
- Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953). An earlier version of this essay was read to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute Honors Fellowship Program, “The Conservative Mind Today,” Oriel College, Oxford University on 9 August 2003.
- Stanley L. Miller, “A Production of Amino Acids Under Possible Primitive Earth Conditions,” Science 117 (May 15, 1953): 528-529.
- Stanley L. Miller and Leslie E. Orgel, The Origins of Life on Earth (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1974); and Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley, and Roger L. Olsen, The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories (New York: Philosophical Library, 1984).
- J.D. Watson and F.H. Crick, “A Structure of Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid,” Nature 171 (25 April 1953): 738-740; and J.D. Watson and F.H. Crick, “Genetical Implications of the Structure of DNA,” Nature 171 (30 May 1953): 964-967. See also James D. Watson, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (New York: Atheneum, 1968).
- Russell Kirk, Confessions of a Bohemian Tory: Episodes and Reflections of a Vagrant Career (New York: Fleet Publishing Corporation, 1963), 3-4.
- Russell Kirk, Prospects for Conservatives (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1956), 279, 282. Jeremy M. Beer, “Science Genuine and Corrupt: Russell Kirk’s Christian Humanism,” The Intercollegiate Review 35 (Fall 1999): 28-33.
- See for example, Russell Kirk, “Science and American Society, Part I” U.S.A. 4 (February 15, 1957): 1-3; and Idem, “Science and American Society, Part II” U.S.A. 4 (March 1, 1957): 3-4.
- C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures and The Scientific Revolution (1959; 10th American Printing, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 4, 23, 29. Stefan Collini, “Introduction,” in C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993), vii- lxxi. Robert Gorham Davis, C.P. Snow (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), 3-5; and David Shusterman, C.P. Snow (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975).
- C.P. Snow, “The Two Cultures,” New Statewman & Nation 52 (October 6, 1956): 413ff; Kirk, Prospects for Conservatives, 279.
- Nora Calhoun Graves, The Two Culture Theory in C.P. Snow’s Novels (Hattiesburg: The University and College Press of Mississippi, 1971), 1.
- Russell Kirk, “Can we apprehend science?” Teachers College Record 64 (April 1963): 536-544. A revised version of the essay appeared two years later in Kirk’s collection of essays The Intemperate Professor and Other Cultural Splenetics (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965): 59-70. Here all quotations will be from the original version.
- Davis, C.P. Snow, 4.
- Kirk, “Can we apprehend science?” 536-537.
- Ibid., 541, emphasis added.
- Russell Kirk, “Einstein Raised A Question,” America 94 (January 28, 1956), 470. Kirk reprinted a later edition of this essay under the title “Einstein Raised a Question: Science and Security” seven years later in his collection of essays, Confessions of a Bohemian Tory, 245-249. Quotations in this essay will be from the original version.
- Kirk, “Einstein Raised A Question,” 470.
- Kirk, “Can we apprehend science?” 537-538.
- Russell Kirk, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice: Essays of a Social Critic, (Chicago, 1956; reprint, Peru, IL: Sherwood Sugden & Company 1991), xvi.
- Huston Smith, “Scientism: The World’s Littlest Religion – How Theology Must Confront the New Global Religion,” in James M. Kushiner, ed., Creed & Culture: A Touchstone Reader (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2003), 14-22. See also, Helmut Schoeck and James W. Wiggins, eds., Scientism and Values (New York: Arno Press & The New York Times, 1972).
- Russell Kirk, The Politics of Prudence (Bryn Mawr: The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1993), 289-290.
- Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 133; and idem, A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 128-145.
- Kirk, “Can we apprehend science?” 539.
- Great Soviet Encyclopedia, quoted in Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language – Abuse of Power, trans. Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 52.
- Kirk, “Can we apprehend science?” 540.
- Ibid., 542-543.
- A. Rupert Hall, From Galileo to Newton: 1630-1720 (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 29.
- Russell Kirk, “The Inimitable Browne,” Triumph 4 (November 1969): 36.
- Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background: Studies in the Thought of the Age in Relation to Poetry and Religion (1934; reprint, New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), 41-42.
- Ibid., 42.
- Jeremiah S. Finch, Sir Thomas Browne: A Doctor’s Life of Science & Faith (New York: Henry Schuman, 1950), 4.
- James Winny, “Introduction,” in Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, ed. James Winny (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), xx.
- Finch, Sir Thomas Browne, 8.
- Peter Green, Sir Thomas Browne (Harlow, Essex: Longmans, Green & Co. LTD, 1959), 11.
- Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, Part I, Section 34; Winny edition, p. 42.
- Ibid., Part I, Section 16; p. 18.
- Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, Book I, Section I, Paragraph 3.
- Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, Part I, Section 13, Winny edition, pp. 15-16.
- Ibid., p. 16.
- Ibid., Part I, Section 8, p. 11.
- Ibid., Part I, Section 10, p. 12.
- Willey, The Seventeenth-Century Background, 48.
- Thomas Browne, The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, ed. Charles Sayle, vol. III (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1907), 470. Hereafter “Works.”
- Willey, The Seventeenth-Century Background, 48.
- Works, Vol. 1, pp. 113-351; Vol. 2; and Vol. 3, pp. 1-85; Stephen Merton, “Old and New Physiology in Sir Thomas Browne: Digestion and Some Other Functions,” Isis 57 (Summer, 1966): 249.
- Gordon Keith Chalmers, “Sir Thomas Browne, True Scientist,” Osiris 2 (1936): 28-30, 32.
- Jeremiah Finch, Sir Thomas Browne, 144.
- Browne, Works, vol. 3, 85.
- Kirk, Prospects for Conservatives, 266.
- Ibid., 265-266.
- Kirk, “Einstein Raised a Question,” 471.