Mon - March 1, 2004

How Do We Think About God? (Part 4)

Western science was founded on a spiritual insight with which it has now come into conflict. What passes for a straight line in the realm of intellectual evolution could be drawn from the philosophic efforts of Socrates and Plato through Aristotle's efforts, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and on to Western science as we have it now. This lineage is important if we're to understand the dogma on which modern Western science precariously rests. It was born in Socratic and Platonic dualism, not Lucretian materialism. Western science started not with the empirical insights of Epicurus and Lucretius (that is, all existence is nothing but fundamental particles and their motions), but with the abstract theoretical frameworks of Socrates and Plato (that is, there are fundamental distinctions between ideal and real, abstract and concrete, soul and body, and so on), as later supported and explored by Aristotle and his followers. In a sublime irony that has taken centuries to unfold, science followed Platonic dualism to Lucretian materialism, and over the last century, that has started to cause some serious epistemological problems.

The Socrates of the Platonic dialogues can be seen as similar to the Jesus of the Gospels. The clearest parallel is their willing martyrdom after refusing to compromise themselves and defend themselves on the terms employed by their accusers. But there are other parallels as well: Both claimed to benefit from divine enlightenment; both were at the center of a community of disciples; though neither left any documents of their own, both spread their wisdom to the world through the work of those disciples and their followers; and both declared the existence of the immortal soul. They described an eternal and immaterial homunculus within each of us, experiencing and guiding our existence, a transcendent subject forever separate from the object of material creation. Lucretius had little patience with that idea:

Listen: to show you that a living thing's
Soul is as light as air, is born, must die,
I shall lay forth my hard-won labor of love
In verses worthy of your noble life.
Make sure you merge these two under one term,
So if I need a word and I teach that "spirit"
Is mortal, trust I've said that "soul" is too,
Since the two are conjoint in unity.

That certainty and impatience can be heard in the arguments hurled by the champions of empirical science at believers in transcendence, yet those champions of science are the intellectual descendants of Socrates, not Lucretius. This is not an amusing historical accident--it is a historical necessity. Empirical science, the science practiced in the West since at least Aristotle, would be impossible without that initial dualism of subject and object, observer and observed, scientist and experiment, natural and artificial. And I contend that the intellectual leap to that distinction wouldn't have occurred to those who made it if they didn't feel that they were somehow apart from or somehow transcended the creation that they sought to understand. In short, science as it is practiced in the West is unlikely to have come into being without the idea of the soul.

It's possible to understand something clearly and objectively only if you can separate yourself from it as an observer, but having done that (whether by explicit belief in an immaterial soul or implicit use of immaterial abstraction), it will be far easier to develop a productive, systematic understanding of that thing if you can limit yourself to material explanations. So Western science starts from Socratic, Platonic, and Aristotelean dualism and aspires to Lucretian materialism. As they say in Maine, "You can't get there from here." That's what Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, and our attempts to understand our own consciousness each tell us. And the further we push the reaches of dualistic empirical science, the more often we will stumble on that fundamental conflict. We can only achieve a full empirical understanding of creation as long as we're not part of it.