Science is a Servant, Not a Master

Jeff McLeod - Science Master


What used to be an annoyance to me has grown into a concern. Some who are hostile to Christianity invoke science not as the fruit of our gift of intelligence, but as something superior to faith or even incompatible with it. Yet we Christians have known for millennia that the two are fully compatible and that in reality they purify one another.

I would like to tell the stories of two very accomplished Catholic scholars in history who would like to reassure you and me that anybody who claims that exact science is the exclusive route to truth is simply wrong.

Wittgenstein on Language and Logic

The first is a quirky but brilliant man named Ludwig Wittgenstein from a prominent Catholic family in Austria just before First World War. He was intrigued by mathematics and logic, and wondered how they are capable of arriving at truth. He did not want to know how to do math or logic—he already knew that. Wittgenstein wanted to understand what it was about these languages that made them trustworthy guides to truth, and to understand better the kinds of truth they facilitated.

In 1922, Wittgenstein published the results of his investigations in a very important book, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus in which he claimed that he had definitively solved the problem. However, Wittgenstein quickly added that in so doing, he had shown more importantly “how little is achieved when these problems are solved.” Doesn’t it strike you as odd that a man like this would demean his own most important finding?

Hardly anyone knew in 1922 what he meant by that statement. A strong suggestion is made by Wittgenstein’s biographer Ray Monk who illustrated the possible meaning of this statement with the following story. [1] The Vienna Circle—a very influential group of leading, world class philosophers and scientists—were so impressed by Wittgenstein’s accomplishment that they invited him to speak at their meetings. Now, Wittgenstein as I said was an eccentric man; he seemed at times oblivious to established social rules. Yet even with his social awkwardness being well known, it was unsettling when on more than one occasion, the elite members of the Vienna Circle seated themselves for a formal lecture on the logic of scientific inference, only to find that “Wittgenstein would turn his back on them and read poetry . . . as if to emphasize to them . . . that what he had not said in the Tractatus was more important than what he had.” (p. 243)

Wittgenstein seemed to know he had defined science in such a way as to illuminate by contrast the rest of human life, the spiritual dimension, things that cannot be said scientifically but are rather contemplated as mystery. The song of Wisdom begins precisely at the boundary where scientific language ends. Wittgenstein ended up saying that he merely showed that “what can be said, can be said clearly, and everything else must be left unspoken.” Scientific questions alone are solved decisively by proof and demonstration.

There are two ways to take this. One is to say that everything outside of exact science is mere emotion, to be dismissed or merely endured. This is a widely held view among materialists. Consider, for example, A.J. Ayer’s highly influential Language, Truth and Logic. As the Vienna Circle incident suggests, however, Wittgenstein did not see it that way. He seemed to believe that metaphor, intuition, common sense, art, music, and mysticism are complementary to science as ways to know what science is incompetent to discover.

In short, we credit Wittgenstein with the suggestion that the symbolism of math and logic rests on solid ground, and guarantee a certain kind of exact truth. But these powerful systems are like strong dogs on a very short leash. They are effective only within a very small radius of empirical facts. We, their masters, understand and value not only their strength, but also life outside the radius where we answer questions about moral truth, goodness, and beauty.

Michael Polanyi on Science and Personal Knowledge

Michael Polanyi is the second figure I would like to introduce you to. Born in Budapest at the turn of the 20th century, he was trained as a physician but later earned a doctorate in Chemistry and pursued an academic career. A child of a Jewish family who was baptized Catholic and considered himself a Christian, he fled to England when the Nazis rose to power and he spent his life teaching science and philosophy at Oxford. Two of his students, together with his son John, went on to become Nobel Prize winning Chemists, so he must have been not only a brilliant scientist, but an inspiring teacher and father as well. He was invited to give the Gifford Lectures in Aberdeen in 1951-52, an honor extended to a small number of influential scholars in history, and his lectures are published under the title of Personal Knowledge.

What attracted my attention to his work is his ability to depict precisely how the limits of scientific language that we’re talking about manifest themselves. He shows us how to articulate the interface between science and faith—the boundary where science ends and the spiritual aspirations of a human person with a rational soul begin. He does so with the concept of tacit knowledge—knowledge that only the human person at home in the world can possess. Science as understood in the contemporary mind does not account for this aspect of knowing.

In the book Meaning, with Harry Prosch, Polanyi shows the necessity of tacit knowledge by playing devil’s advocate and framing the following question. [2] What if the materialists are right? What if the optimistic vision of science—the Laplacean ideal—were true? The Laplacean ideal is a criterion for what would constitute the triumph of empirical science. According to this criterion, if the universe were a strictly material system with no other content whatsoever, then it should be possible—at least in principle—to predict the future using measurements from the present. All that is required is that we know the positions and velocities of all the particles in the universe at this moment, plus the magnitudes of all forces acting on them; then we could use the equations of physics to compute the state of the universe at any arbitrary time, past or future.

What if science were to make these quantitative calculations? What exactly would come into our possession?

The answer is a very large swarm of numbers.

But the numbers interpret themselves and show us the nature of things well into the future, right?

In a real laboratory experiment, here and now, the numbers refer to readings on laboratory equipment, beakers, gauges, clocks, etc. that the scientist recognizes as the human person who has used them, who owns them and knows what they feel like.

But suppose in contrast, says Polanyi, you had the data from the future, and wanted to know if the primroses in your garden will bloom next spring. Presumably one would sift through the mass of numbers to find out how they fared. How do the numbers tell you whether your primroses blossomed? They don’t. The primroses themselves have no constancy, no identity in the system of quantitative measurements, nor does your garden. Their “whatness,” their quiddity, derives from the human person with a rational soul. They don’t come and tap you on the shoulder saying, ”Here I am, your primroses.” Nothing about the results of this Laplacean exercise tells you anything about what the world would look like to you as a person at a later point in time.

The topography would be factual as far as the numbers go, but you would lack the capacity to interpret the numbers. Such an experiment would tell you literally nothing that you are actually interested in.

In short, the results of exact science deliver a map of the world, but the map cannot interpret itself. The human person qua person, a spiritual element, is required in order to interpret the map by connecting it to his personal knowledge.

For some, science is said to have solved all of the riddles of the world, including the mystery of good and evil. For others like Wittgenstein and Polanyi, the world is a mystery that we are given to understand by means of our personal experience, the trustworthy guidance of exact science, and adherence to the Christian faith.

I want to close by offering my thanks to another great scholar of a more recent time, my friend Professor Stacy Trasancos, whose book Science was born of Christianity immersed me once again in these important topics after a long absence. [3] My reading of her work in recent months provided the inspiration for this essay. Professor Trasancos’ masterful articulation of the idea of exact science is the exemplar of how these conversations must go forward, and what we must teach our children.

[1] Monk, R. (1990). Ludwig Wittgenstein: the Duty of Genius. New York: Penguin.
[2] Polanyi, M. & Prosch, H. (1975). Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[3] Trasancos, S. (2013). Science was born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki.

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7 thoughts on “Science is a Servant, Not a Master”

  1. Pingback: This Week's Best in Catholic Apologetics | DavidLGray.INFO

  2. Jeff, thank you for a very fine article–I’ll give my highest compliment: I wish I had written that. Michael Polanyi is one of my culture heroes. My favorite Polanyi book (other than the audio book) is “Personal Knowledge”, which was the first in which he discussed “tacit knowledge”. By the way, It’s interesting that both Wittgenstein and Polanyi had a Jewish heritage, as did many great physicists/mathematicians who came over from the post-World War I Austria Hungarian empire: von Neumann, Wigner, Szilard, …
    I agree totally with your thesis that science should be our servant, not our master, and that the province of science is limited, as Fr. Jaki points out in “Limits of a Limitless Science”. It is also the case that science can be criticized on philosophical grounds as a vision of reality–see Nancy Cartwright’s “How the Laws of Physics Lie” and Bas van Fraassen’s “The Scientific Image”. Speaking as a retired physicist, I’ve had difficulty in coming to that point of view, but it’s become more reasonable as I read more.

    Bob Kurland
    PS–I’ll be posting on this subject sometime in the future

    1. Sir, I am very humbled at your compliment. I am taken by Polanyi’s view, frankly it has changed my life.

      I can’t wait to see your posts in the future.

      To me, the difficulties have been very well articulated. Yet I watch while popular science overlooks these powerful critiques of science.

      As you know, nowhere in my essay do I assert the slightest doubt in exact science. I am so pleased that you saw that. Exact science is a blessing, we want more exact science.

      Thank you, Sir. You have no idea what an honor it is to me that you appreciated my essay. I can’t wait to read you future contributions.

  3. First of all, please note that some of these critiques of science apply specifically to theology, which is a science.

    Secondly, the problem of identifying a primrose from numbers and telling whether or not it has launched is nontrivial, but that does not mean it is impossible. It is a reasonably well-posed question, not that different from trying to have a computer recognize and count the tanks in a satellite photo. The latter problem has received some serious attention, and quite a bit of progress has been made on such problems.

    Now of course, the computer does not know that the spots on a photo are tanks, just like a Bible (a bound collection of papers with ink on them) does not know that Jesus is Lord and a book of the complete works of Shakespeare does not know what a rose smells like.

    “Nothing about the results of this Laplacean exercise tells you anything about what the world would look like to you as a person at a later point in time.” That is not really a meaningful objection, since it pretends that “to a person” — any person — the world looks the same. Whether a room is warm or cool to a person depends on the room, the observer, and the observer’s history — the same temperature will be perceived as very chilly in September and very warm in February. Whether a bed is comfortable, whether a place feels like home, whether a face is beautiful — all these things likewise depend on the observer, not just what is being observed.

    1. Thank you Howard.

      First, I am completely aware I am grouping Theology with science. The results of theology are Boolean judgments, true or false. Maybe I’m giving away my computational background, but I view Boolean values as numerical. I certainly program that way.

      Second, I am very sympathetic to the concerns you raise about a possible perceiver like a robot, who can aggregate data.

      My confidence in pushing Polanyi’s view is personal confidence. I have quite a strong background in artificial intelligence. We make a distinction between supervised and unsupervised learning. Supervised is easy, it means the examplars are well defined. I am talking about unsupervised learning. Artificial intelligence is notoriously bad at being able to partition the pattern of inputs to “discover” what is relevant about them.

      I think you raise very valid points. My experience in doing this very sort of analysis tells me that we are far from a solution. I don’t rule it out, but when I was in grad school in the 1980s, they were saying we were just years away from solving the problems. Almost 40 years later I am even less confidence that an unsupervised algorithm can determine what data is relevant to a criterion of judgment. I will never say it’s impossible, but my essay reflects my experience which says that things are looking more bleak, not better, for an artificial intelligence that can take in a field of experience and partition it to discern what is meaningful and why.

      I am very sympathetic to your point of view, my reaction is based on direct experience with various attempts to realize the ability of a “bot” to “recognize” the world.

    2. “… my essay reflects my experience which says that things are looking more bleak, not better, for an artificial intelligence that can take in a field of experience and partition it to discern what is meaningful and why.” Judging from the overall trajectory of our culture, I’d say that humans aren’t so good at that, either — probably because we have neglected too much the supervised training of our young.

      I’m a computational physicist and I have a master’s in software engineering, so I wish we could continue this over a couple of beers. My general impression is that the really hard problem is that AI systems (neural networks, for example) may be sensitive to correlations, but they have no concept (literally) of cause-and-effect. What we really get is less “artificial intelligence” and more “artificial superstition”. Does that sound about right? AI may be able to make better-than-random “guesses” about which compounds will have desirable properties, and for industry, that might be enough to give a competitive advantage; but if your interest is in understanding *why* some compounds have those properties and some don’t, it is useless.

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