When Your Only Tool is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail – Why physical science is not enough and why we need the full range of disciplines and branches of knowledge.
We have had numerous discussions here on the blog on the interrelationship of faith and the physical sciences. We live in a time of reductionist thinking wherein many reduce reality to the physically measurable. Theology and other disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, even history according to some, cannot be a part of what we know. Some go even further to deny absolutely the existence of anything beyond matter. Here are things emblematic of our times: reductionist, materialist, and a kind of idolatry of the merely physical sciences.
Indeed the very word “science” has come to mean for many, merely the physical sciences. But, traditionally, theology and philosophy were (and still are, according to many) considered to be sciences. They are sciences for they follow a method, or methods, they include peer review and are subjected to the laboratory of human experience and tested by time. Of their nature they do not usually include physical measurements, for they engage what is largely beyond the physically measurable. But until recently they were included among the sciences and had a pride of place in university settings.
And while many derisively dismiss philosophy and theology as sciences, the fact is they they do deal with what we all experience on a daily basis. For there are many non material things that humans beings actually and really experience that require study and explanation, synthesis, and discernment.
I was recently given a link to an article by my brother, John, which describes our modern tendencies and problems with reductionism, materialism and scientism. It is by Dr. Jeff Mirus over at Catholicculture.org. I want to present excerpts of a much longer article he wrote and make some comments of my own. Dr. Mirus’ original text is in black, bold, italic. My comments are in red, plain text. The full article is here: The Hammer and the Nail
[O]ne of the great problems we face in understanding human dignity is that by the materialistic, empirical or purely scientific account, both our self-understanding and our freedom are illusions. These terms require some explanation, and the explanation will reveal a tremendous blind spot in our culture’s view of knowledge.
The term materialistic is plain enough. If we insist that there is nothing in the wide world but matter, then we have to admit something that will risk our sanity, namely that it is only an illusion that we can somehow stand outside ourselves and reflect on our being (intellect) or that we can direct our lives according to freely made choices (will). These things [according to materialism] must be illusions because they are abilities which transcend what matter can produce. But to accept this is to deny our own perception of ourselves.
In other words, it is our experience, that we have a spiritual aspect about ourselves. We can consider things which are non-material and concepts such as justice, love, mercy, sincerity, beauty, moral rectitude, and so forth. Further we have a sense of “I,” that “I” exist, a capacity of introspection and a well defined understanding that I am distinct from things and others around me. Yet again, there are longings for things beyond the physical world such as unity, acceptance, transcendence, fulfillment, and that ultimate sense of meaning beyond who we simply are, here and now. Clearly, as a theologian I attribute these human longings as pointing to the ultimate longing for God. But, even to the unbeliever, the spiritual insights and thoughts of the human person are empirically evident. These insights are “empirical” in the sense that they rooted in real and actual experience, what we truly experience within our very self. They are also things we are able to verify as existing in other human beings.
For the materialist, these sorts of experiences, these empirical data, must be treated either as an illusion (as our author suggests) or as emanations of brain chemistry not yet fully understood. There is the modern reductionist tendency to explain everything based on physical causation. I remember years ago an a secular and materialist attempt to explain the rather peculiar human experience of consciousness. The author titled his work: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind  A reductionist and materialist theory, to be sure!
But the point is that we all experience these sorts of non physical things in our psyche and, as our author goes on to develop, there is a rather twisted and contorted attempt to either dismiss such experiences as of any account or to redefine “empirical” are referring only to physical matter.
In our culture, empiricism is closely tied to what is physically measurable. But spiritual things are, by definition, immeasurable. Therefore, a [modern] empirical account of reality omits the spiritual, and a culture which comes to believe that the only possible solid knowledge is empirical knowledge necessarily either ignores the spiritual or denies it altogether.
Again, it is the MODERN notion that empirical equals physically measurable. For it is clear that very real things are not always physically measurable. For example, we cannot physically measure the degree to which we love someone, long for something, experience sorrow over some situation etc. Yet, these are real, and in a very real way, they are empirical, for they are observable, or shall we say, something we all clearly experience.
Some may argue for brain mapping etc. but here too is a reductionist attempt to reduce non-physical things to the purely physical. For even if there is an aspect of the brain, or central nervous system that is engaged by these human experiences, the answer as to why these non-material aspects are experienced by us, remains something that science is ill-equipped to explain. Justice is not a material thing, it does not go out for a walk or sit down to breakfast. Neither do longing, acceptance, serenity or humor go out to beach together for vacation. These things are real, but they are not material.
This brings us to the idea of a purely scientific account of man, in the modern sense of science, meaning not simply a branch of knowledge, but knowledge acquired by an experimental or empirical method. The scientific approach to knowledge is not wrong in itself, but it is only one approach, and it is necessarily partial. [Exactly, we are not anti-science, to be so would be foolish. But we do accept that science has limits].
Sadly, the modern world suffers from a dearth of other approaches. In particular, it suffers from the absence of a different sort of science, a different approach to knowledge, the approach of theology. Because of the materialistic and empirical biases of our culture, theology is no longer taken seriously as a branch of human knowledge. What was once considered the queen of the sciences, has been gradually eliminated from higher education. This gives rise to a very curious phenomenon: Whenever one branch of study is consistently absent, other branches of study will encroach upon its territory. [Pay attention, what follows is very important].
In his brilliant work The Idea of a University, Cardinal Blessed John Henry Newman argues that, as a university is by definition devoted to the full range of disciplines or branches of knowledge, it is a mistake and a distortion to exclude theology. Every branch of knowledge, Newman rightly notes, is tempered and improved by all the other branches, [YES!] as each branch has its own tools and methods, and each learns a certain care and modesty in its conclusions, [YES!] more accurately discerning their application and scope, in relation to what is discovered by other tools and instruments in other regions of investigation. Thus, when one branch of knowledge is left out or, worse, barred from the university or from “sophisticated” discourse generally, others encroach upon its domain, reaching conclusions which are unwarranted and, indeed, unattainable by their own proper methods.
And herein lie a lot of modern problems and distortions. We have become well aware of how science encroaches on faith in recent years. Science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God per se, that is not its field. And yet, in our times scientists make claims that God does not exist. But their statements are not scientific statements when they speak like this. They are making theological and philosophical claims, for physical science, by definition cannot measure the non-physical or render scientifically based conclusion on the existence or non-existence of the spiritual. Most scientists are not trained in the disciplines of theology and philosophy and are are no more qualified to opine on such matters than “some dude” at the local bar. Yet, as our author goes on to observe:
Thus, on every side, we find well-known scientists, lionized by our cultural elites, writing briefs for atheism, pronouncing that evolutionary biology proves the non-existence of God. [Exactly. But of course biology cannot prove the non-existence of a spiritual being].
And to be fair, some on the religious side have tried to exclude too many aspects of physical science, which has a legitimate and necessary role in human knowledge. In the last century, an often fundamentalist hostility to science has been evident among some Christians who see the Scriptures especially, as a scientific account of creation, rather than a theological account which, while having scientific aspects, also uses analogy, metaphor, poetry and speaks in a general, rather than a consistently specific manner. Further, they see Scripture as a “sole source” of revealed truth. From the Catholic point of view, God’s “Book of Scripture” does not contradict His “Book of Creation.” Both are revelation, and both speak truth to us, and the truth does not ultimately contradict itself. While there are certain scientific theories that at times come into apparent conflict with Scripture or dogmatic theology, and must be rejected or distinguished, this does not mean that science itself is wrong as a discipline. Neither does it mean that on-going discussions cannot help both disciplines (theology and physical science) to come to a deeper understanding of the one truth. The fact is, I generally find that a lot of scientific discoveries confirm my faith and encourage a sense of wonder and awe. If grace builds on nature, as we teach, then understanding nature is of benefit to us spiritually.
Physical Science too benefits from theology and philosophy by acknowledging that many of its processes of deduction and method are descended from theological and philosophical methodology. Philosophy especially is able to help science reveal possible flaws in reasoning, and also help science to stay within its own defined scope. And that scope is the material, the physical world. But physical science does well to maintain humility and to accept that that there may be things beyond its scope which it is not able to render an account of, one way or the other. If not, the physical sciences fall into the error of scientism. Scientism is the error which reduces everything to matter and insists that nothing exists outside the system which physical science can measure, a conclusion that can, in no way, be proved, scientifically.
In the end, perhaps the problem is best expressed in a very popular aphorism: When your only tool is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. The only trouble is, everything is not a nail. The human person perceives that instinctively, but in our culture we lack the tools to explicate the momentous truths which follow from such an irreducible fact.
Yes, I am convinced that this is going to have to be our way back. Basic human experience. And that experience, if we are honest, shouts to us the existence of the spiritual and the transcendent.
Even physical science rests on the mystic and metaphysical notion that reality is “intelligible.” For intelligibility bespeaks meaning and asks questions about purpose, direction and points, ultimately outside the physical (to the metaphysical) to the question, why? Intelligibility presumes also the great mystery of a questioning soul. For why do we seek to understand at all? The animals, who are physically very like us, do not seem to ask such questions or probe deeper relations. Intelligibility also presumes that there is actual meaning and purpose to be found. Still further it presumes that “I” exist at all, to discern it, and that my mind is not engaged by illusions and shadows. Why does anything exist at all and what does it mean to exist? How do we define it and by what means do we discover it?
These are deeper questions than they may seem. Reality has a mystical dimension that artists, poetics, writers, philosophers and theologians have pondered for centuries, long before there ever was a scientific method, (developed, by the way, in the largely Catholic and Christian universities of the West, and respectful of the Judeo-Christian insights of natural law and the Wisdom tradition).
We have to continue to engage the modern world in the understanding that things run deeper and more wonderfully than we can physically describe. Deep down most people know and experience this truth. Life has more meaning than just the physical. A beloved spouse is not just another body, they are a person with all the mystery that entails. A kiss is not just two lips meeting, it is two souls sharing the breath of mystical life. A house is not just a physical structure, it is a home with all the non-material meaning that includes. My longings are not just the firing of brain synapses and serotonin, but the sigh of my soul for completion and fulfillment, for something infinite, for something (some ONE) other, for God.
Dr. Mirus is right, life is more than a nail and we need more than a hammer to understand it. Deep down we know this, and this is where we must engage the modern person. We ought to remain respectful of physical science and the wonders it has offered us, yet we must also demand more: a deeper vision that respects the full human experience. There’s more to life.
Please pardon a little science humor and accept my full admission that we also have some real geeks in theology too!