Science as a quest for understanding of the workings of the universe had its formal beginnings in ancient Greece. It was augmented by the scholastics of the Middle Ages, who added the philosophical foundation on the notion that the universe is intelligible. However, as Henri de Lubac notes, there was more recently a shift in scientific methodology toward a focus on positivism, the primacy of sensory experience. A scientific contemplation of creation gave way to a sort of practical science, ultimately “oriented toward the possession of the world” (book “The Drama of Atheist Humanism”, chapter “The Search for a New Man”). It cannot be denied that the success of these endeavors to gain power over creation has greatly strengthened a worldwide faith in positivism as sanctioned by modern science.
In the second chapter of his book “Scholasticism and Politics”, entitled “Science and Philosophy”, Jacques Maritain gives an insightful account of the philosophical implications of this modern mindset. The tone of his argument is nicely summarized in his quotation of St. Thomas Aquinas: “It is a sin against intelligence to want to proceed in an identical manner in the typically different domains – physical, mathematical and metaphysical – of speculative knowledge.”
The scientific method successively applies carefully constructed experiments to physically measure results and compare them to a conceptualized ideal. This ideal is based on the scientist’s preconceived notion of the physical laws that produce the result, and successively changes to better fit the observation. In the science of physical phenomena, an ever-deepening understanding of the workings of nature is always at the service of these empirical results.
Maritain cites the primary error of modern science as the tendency to apply to the verification of all knowledge those principles which only apply to the scientific verification of physical phenomena. For the scientist of this school of thought, the question of whether the ear has a purpose has no meaning, since it is not possible to physically demonstrate the concept of “purpose”. The mistake is made when this conception of scientific knowledge is projected onto all knowledge. Any conception that has no basis in “real world” sensory experience is not worthy of the term “knowledge”. As noted earlier, the prolific successes of modern science have lent popular credence to this error.
What is lost here is the truth that intelligence is the higher faculty, and physical phenomena are subordinate to intelligible laws. Speaking of this scientific perception as the “Viennese school”, Maritain notes: “They do not see that, if it is true that all knowledge properly speaking supposes an intersubjectivation submitted to fixed rules of significance, such an intersubjectivation is not met with only on the plane of scientific knowledge, but also on the philosophical plane, where it acts, however, in quite a different way, and refers above all, not to an operation of the external senses, but to an intelligible perception. The Viennese do not see that the meaning of a judgment is derived from the intelligible objects which it composes or divides in the act of being.” He makes the astute observation that, through a sort of philosophical purism, these scientists are blinded to the self-defeat of their primary assumption: that the notion that all true knowledge is a product of physical demonstration is not itself physically demonstrable.
The emerging modern appeal to this worldview is the reign of the physical universe over intelligence. Faith comfortably coexists so long as it makes no claims on the natural world. However, as Cardinal Ratzinger observed before he assumed the pontificate, faith is becoming increasingly relegated to the private sphere as the domain of relativism grows. The Catholic faith does have a sound philosophical basis, and thus is led to make authoritative pronouncements on natural and worldly matters. It is primarily here that the present battle over truth is fought over many fronts, scientific positivism being but one.