H.E. Bishop Robert Barron | Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, USA

Three philosophical paths beyond scientism


What becomes obvious once one enters into the field of evangelism is that the supposed conflict between science and religion is a major reason why so many, especially the young, are disaffiliating from the traditional religions. Christian Smith, sociologist at the University of Notre Dame, has done particularly illuminating work in this regard. Time and again, the young “nones” that he surveys claim that science has either refuted religion or rendered it useless, an artifact from a past age.

Given its massive and evident success and given the extraordinarily useful technology that it has made possible, science looms in the minds of many in the West as the best, even unique, method for exploring the truth. By contrast, religion seems to be an arena of fantastic thinking, a pathetic intellectual space in which unsubstantiated and untestable claims are routinely made. The so-called “new atheists”, who emerged in the years following the tragedy of September 11th, have hammered this point home. The great religious texts, they say, were written long before anyone had an adequate understanding of even basic scientific principles. This “bronze age” thinking, therefore, should be abandoned by any responsible person today. And when this scientific critique is coupled with a moral critique of the apparently violent and arbitrary God of the Old Testament, young people in great numbers feel the pull away from religion.

Addressing all of these issues is obviously beyond the scope of this short paper, but what I should like to do is to tackle the general problem of scientism, which is to say, the reduction of all knowledge to the scientific form of knowledge. Like its close cousin logical-positivism, scientism holds that authentic truth claims can be made only in regard to those matters treatable through the scientific method. Not only is this epistemic viewpoint hopelessly reductionistic, but it also shares with logical positivism the dubious distinction of being operationally self-contradictory. For the principle that the only legitimate form of knowing is the scientific form cannot itself be the result of a purely scientific examination. It is, in point of fact, a philosophical axiom. In the Derridean manner, I would like to tug on that loose string and see if we cannot unravel the weave of scientism. In accord with G.K. Chesterton’s metaphor, I would like to crack open the skull of the devotee of scientism in order to let in more light.

The Radical Intelligibility of the World

In Plato’s famous parable, the prisoner, chained in place within the cave and able to see only passing shadows on the wall, manages to escape and to access higher and higher levels of reality. The flickering images represent the world of our ordinary sense experience, the world legitimately explored by the physical sciences. But to see only that dimension is a pathetic epistemic impoverishment. The first step out of the cave is to appreciate the realm of mathematical objects, the pure abstractions of arithmetic and geometry. To grasp these qua abstractions is to move quite clearly out of the evanescent order of sensible reality. When one truly understands the quadratic formula or the simple equation 2 + 3=5, one has grasped a reality that does not come and go and that obtains in any possible world. Another way to express this is to say that the inquirer has moved from the visible to the invisible. I hesitate somewhat to use this language, for it gives the impression that there are two types of realities, some relatively solid and others relatively ghostly, that exist side by side. What I mean by the “invisible” is another dimension of reality, beyond the merely sensible, but that same time, deeply implicated in it.

David Tracy, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, in a recently published essay entitled “The Ultimate Invisible”, draws our attention precisely to this Platonic construal of the mathematical. “Aside from the religions”, he writes, “the major form of invisibility in our time is that provided by mathematics and the mathematization of modern science nurtured in the early modern period by Galileo…”. Tracy observes that the classical definition of the circle – a locus of coplanar points equidistant from its center – is easy enough to memorize but absolutely impossible to imagine or concretize in fact. A picture of a wheel might suggest to the beginner in geometry the notion of circularity, but it could never adequately represent it and hence could never suffice to answer the question “Why is the circle round?” In point of fact, we could never answer such a question by remaining in the field of the visible. “We can answer the question, but only by moving into a realm of intelligent supposing – a realm that can neither be seen nor imagined but can be supposed and understood”. The inquiring mind knows these invisibilities by entering into intimate communion with them in their distinctive arena of existence.

Modern and now postmodern sciences are deeply indebted to mathematics, indeed, unthinkable apart from it. Tracy again: “Since Galileo, Descartes, Leibniz, and others, modern science has employed three essential elements: dispassionate empirical observations, mathematical conceptual formulations of its hypotheses and theories, and experimental testing of all its theories”. If we focus on that second indispensable step in the scientific method, we see that the very disciplines that, in the minds of many today, most root us in the empirical order in point of fact lift us beyond it to the invisible order. Therefore, the search for intelligibility continues to lead us out of the cave and into more intense expressions of being. But the journey comes to a conclusion only when, to follow the Platonic master metaphor, we gaze up to the sun, the light that finally illumines anything that we perceive or know. Only when we “see” the one who gives intelligibility and hence who gives being, the one who, in Plato’s language, lies therefore beyond the beings, do we come to rest.

But why should we suspect there is such a giver? David Tracy comments that the sciences come to the end of their capacity when they confront the puzzling limit question which they, on their own terms, couldn’t possibly address, namely, why should the world be intelligible at all? Precisely because they rest, inevitably, on this very assumption, the sciences themselves could never answer this query. Albert Einstein himself grasped the nettle of this when he commented, “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible”. As Joseph Ratzinger argued in his indispensable Introduction to Christianity, the only finally credible answer is that there is a governing intelligence that has imbued the universe, in every detail, with intelligibility. In point of fact, this intuition, Ratzinger contends, is evident in our term “recognition” (re-cognition), a thinking again what has antecedently been thought. And once we grasp this notion, we come to the spiritual heart of Thomas Aquinas’s epistemology. When the human knower finds adequatio with the form of the thing to be known, when he affects, in short, a real union with that intelligibility, he has attained, at the same time, an inchoate but deeply real oneness with the divine agent who has, through a series of secondary causes, imbued that object with form.

The Immateriality of the Mind

A second way of breaking the skull of the advocate of scientism and letting in some light is by examining the faculty of subjective consciousness that corresponds to the intelligibility of the world. Representing the classical and medieval consensus on the matter, Thomas Aquinas, with typical pith, said intellectus in actu est intelligibile in actu (the intelligibile in act is the intellect in act). Such a statement would be incoherent on an “observer-observed” model of epistemology, so typical of the modern sciences but it is luminously clear on an “objective participant” model that held sway in the pre-modern period. There is, in a word, a deep correspondence between the invisible intelligible patterns that the mind comes to know and the nature of the mind that knows them.

On a modern mechanistic or purely naturalistic reading, what we call mind or consciousness is, at most, an epiphenomenon of material forces in the brain following deterministic laws of cause and effect. To use very contemporary language, it is an emergent pattern of more elemental materials and energies. The seemingly intentional nature of consciousness becomes, on this reading, more or less an illusory product of efficient causes that produce it.

But this is repugnant to reason, however widespread the model is today. When the mind entertains and understands a pure intelligibility such as a mathematical relationship or a formal structure, it is not trading in material reality. It has conformed itself to the invisible and hence must itself belong, at least in its higher faculties, to that order of being. Similarly, to grasp, as any user of language must, the formal, syntactical structures of language is possible only if mind in some sense transcends mere imagination and perception. (This is, in fact, the burden of Thomas Aquinas’s argument for the immateriality of the soul). Furthermore, the undeniable experience of teleology within one’s consciousness, that one is acting for an end, cannot be reconciled with a purely physicalist account of mind, which is to say, one that assumes a deterministic physical substrate.

A classical argument for the immateriality of consciousness was made famous by C.S. Lewis in the twentieth century, but versions of it can be found throughout the tradition. The thrust of it is that an entirely naturalistic account of reality cannot explain the very ratiocinative process by which one would draw such a conclusion. Every act of deduction or formal reasoning involves the making of connections between premises and conclusion, connections that are causal indeed, but not in the materialist manner. David Bentley Hart took as indicative of the immateriality of the mind “the syntax and semantics of acts of reason, or of any mental acts whose internal connections appear to be conceptual or logical rather than merely physical”. In Lewis’s terms, if the mind is nothing but atoms bouncing off one another randomly or in accord with strict determinism, why would we ever be tempted to trust its deliverances as true, as adequate depictions of what is real? Once again, the very process of reasoning must represent a qualitatively different order of being than the realm of sheer mechanical causality.

With regard to the immateriality of the mind, a final consideration is in order. Any honest assessment of consciousness requires us to set aside merely passive or receptive accounts of mind. On the Humean or Lockean reading, intelligence is more or less an empty theatre in which the vague impressions of sense experience appear, but this is a grossly inadequate account. Instead, as Aquinas and Lonergan saw so clearly, the mind might originally be empty but empty like a stomach, not like a box, which is to say, ordered actively and energetically toward that which it seeks. The properly named intellectus agens restlessly and relentlessly asks of the data that it takes in the question quid sit? Under the influence of that inquiry, it abstracts an intelligible pattern from what was presented to the senses and preserved in memory. Yet, having made that abstraction, it continues to press, quid sit?, placing what it knows in every wider horizons of meaning, pushing finally toward the ultimate horizon of being itself, in Lonergan’s language, the state of knowing “everything about everything”. This teleological lure toward the fullness of being, in Christian terms, the beatific vision, is intrinsic to the mind itself and utterly transcendent to the order of finite, material being. It demonstrates, therefore, that a reduction of intellection to physical processes is absurd.

The Inescapability of Metaphysics

The deep ground for the scientism that plagues many young people today is in certain philosophical shifts that occurred in the late Middle Ages, most notably William of Occam’s option for a univocal conception of being over an analogical conception. On the latter reading, on rich display in the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas, the primary referent of the term “being” is God’s manner of existence, and the proper use of that term to describe finite, creaturely realities is hence neither univocal nor equivocal but analogical. Accordingly, finite things are properly described as participating in the fullness of being which God alone possesses, or to state the same truth more technically, creaturely things are those that have received the actus essendi not unrestrictedly but rather according to a delimiting principle of essence. On this interpretation, furthermore, all creaturely beings, in the measure that they participate in God, are connected by the deepest bonds one to another. St. Francis’s famous poem invoking “brother sun and sister moon” is perfectly in accord with this Thomist vision which sees all creatures as ontological siblings.

When this understanding was abandoned, the integrated vision fell apart. If, as Occam argued, the word “being” is used univocally of both God and creatures, then God becomes one being, however perfect and exalted, among many. Moreover, it is no longer appropriate to speak of creatures participating in the esse of God and hence it is mere fancy to speak of finite things as ontological siblings. Rather, as Occam himself put it, “outside of these absolute (unrelated) parts, there is no real thing”. There is a very small step from Occam’s shift to univocity to the rise of nominalism, for once the metaphysical bonds of beings to one another and to God are severed, it is easy enough to treat the universal dimensions of reality as mere abstractions or linguistic conventions.

Now the Occamist/nominalist God, one great being among many, was bequeathed, first to the Protestant reformers, most of whom studied in schools dominated by nominalism, and then to the founders of the modern sciences. Permit me to say just a word about the Protestant appropriation and then to say a bit more about the way the sciences took in this philosophy. Practically axiomatic to most of the Protestant founders is the view that God and humanity are essentially rivals, so that the more glory is given to us, the less glory is given to God, and vice versa. We can see this assumption behind both Luther’s theory of justification by grace through faith alone and Calvin’s insistence on a purely determinative divine sovereignty that essentially obliterates human freedom. Occamist nominalism had given rise to a competitive supreme being who existed over and against and in contrast to his creation. The analogical metaphysics of Aquinas, to the contrary, justified Irenaeus’s famous adage gloria Dei homo vivens, for the sheer act of to-be itself is not in competition with those finite realities that participate in his manner of existence.

The same typically modern conception of the God-world relationship was taken as axiomatic by many of the founders of the physical sciences. Assuming that nature consists of discretely existing individual things, they bracketed the Aristotelian formal and final causality and embraced, almost exclusively, material and efficient causality. The vision that followed was mechanistic – things bouncing off of one another, one thing influencing and reacting to the motion of other things. And if God were brought into this picture, as he was, for instance, in Newton’s conception of the universe, he was construed, in the nominalist manner, as one impressive mechanistic cause among many, the one who initiated the cosmic process or who intervened in it from time to time.

An exceptionally clear exemplification of this typically modern construal is the debate between William Paley and Charles Darwin. Paley, the Anglican apologist, famously compared the organisms of nature to a carefully constructed watch. It is inconceivable, Paley argued, that the delicate and complex organization of a watch came together by chance; by the same token, he insisted, the structures of physical organisms must have been assembled by an intelligent designer. Throughout On the Origin of Species, Darwin is in conversation with Paley, whom he obviously had read with great interest. His fundamental disagreement with the apologist is that the combination of random genetic mutation, time, and natural selection would adequately account for even the most complex arrangements within nature. No appeal to a watchmaker is necessary. What I find particularly interesting in this back and forth between Paley and Darwin is not so much their disagreement as their agreement, for both are operating out of a thoroughly mechanistic understanding of God. Though Paley affirms this God’s existence and Darwin at least doubts it, they are on the same faulty nominalist ground, assuming that God is a being among many who may or may not play a role in assembling more elemental particles into complex wholes. Much of the conversation to the present day concerning God’s relation to the world breaks along very similar lines, some lining up with Paley and many others with Darwin. But both miss the proper understanding of the God-world relationship, which is predicated upon the analogical conception of being.

A path forward is suggested by the peculiar fact that we refer to the totality of finite things as a “universe”. The term itself indicates a “turning toward the one”, uni-versum. Why would we not refer to the whole of nature simply as an aggregate of disconnected individual things and events, as the nominalist metaphysics would in fact suggest? What is the one to which this entire collectivity is turned? The classical answer is being. What all events and objects within the universe have in common is existence, the actus essendi that Aquinas describes. Even if we were to posit an infinity of different universes, they would still constitute a mega-universe, since all of them would have at least existence in common. By means of this intuition, we have moved, necessarily, beyond the merely mechanistic and materialistic and come into contact with a notion that is essentially unlimited. Next, by a simple logical move, which the classical tradition made effortlessly but which is lost on most moderns, we notice that the limited expressions of being that we find all around us – those things composed of essence and existence – must be derived from that reality in which essence and existence coincide. In a word, contingency must be reduced to non-contingency.

And this relationship is precisely what classical theism means by the term “creation”. Read from one side, it is identical to God’s own being; and read from the other, it is the radical dependence of created things upon the on-going influence of God’s causality. Metaphysically far above any consideration of mechanistic causality or the ordered arrangements of parts is this fact of the world’s relationship with the creator, which Herbert McCabe compared to the manner in which a song relates to a singer. This is why debates today between Darwinists and, say, the advocates of “intelligent design” miss the point entirely. The one who approaches the universe from the standpoint of its being can happily say, “a plague on both your houses”.


I have indicated three paths for getting beyond the narrow scientism that dominates too many people today, and I have done so exclusively through philosophical argumentation. To a degree, I am following a prompt of Francis Cardinal George who once commented that before getting to the problem of religion and science, it would be best to address the problem of philosophy and science. For philosophy, though a non-scientific method, is an altogether rational method and hence might function as an attractive bridge to those impressed by the rationality of the sciences. The first path, regarding the intelligibility of the world, was given memorable expression by the pioneering physicist Eugene Wigner in his seminal 1960 article, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Physical Sciences”. Why should it be so that the patterns and relationships articulated by higher mathematics allow us to understand the physical universe so thoroughly? Why indeed, unless, as many scientists have suggested, the one responsible for nature is a mathematician.

And from this insight we move to the second path, that of the immateriality of the mind. Only an intelligence that transcends the evanescent world of matter and change could ever reason persuasively regarding that world and its intelligible patterns. From these two approaches we come to the third, namely, the inescapability of a metaphysical view of the finite universe. Beyond the intelligibilities inherent in the structure of created things, there is the elemental intelligibility of their very being, their actus essendi. And once this is grasped, we have moved necessarily beyond a merely mechanistic understanding of nature to a properly metaphysical, even mystical, perception of contingent being grounded in non-contingent being.