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The Vital Place of the Sciences in the Classical Curriculum (and in our souls and communities)

Every adolescent needs to establish his independence and his ability to function without the constant provision and guidance of his parents. When this quest becomes rebellion, the blessing of independence is mixed with the alloy of folly.

The rise of the natural sciences has been the epitome of mixed blessings in the last 400 years. For classical educators, the place of the sciences is crucial, because it is a historical fact that for the entire scientific era, beginning with Bacon and Descartes, science has been opposed to both classical and Christian thought.

That will probably surprise some readers who think that science arose from and is nourished by the Christian classical worldview. It should surprise you, because science did arise from and is nourished by the Christian classical worldview. But it has long resented its parents.

Look at Bacon, for example, and his opposition to and quest to replace Aristotelian logic with his new logic and his great new start. Look at Descartes who resolved to begin with doubt.

For the entire period science has both been sustained by and rebelled against both Christianity and classicism. John Dewey exults in this development in his brief essay, On the Impact of Darwinism Upon Philosophy. While he doesn’t use the term, he demonstrates that with Darwin the Christian classical tradition has been firmly and finally rejected. He calls it an “intellectual revolt.”

The classical curriculum was replaced in the late 19th century when, starting in Prussia, universities worldwide shifted from a humane/normative emphasis to an analytical/scientific mindset. That naturalistic analytical mind that replaced the Christian classical mind has given us our public world.

I am prepared to argue that it is a parasitic mind, one that is finishing off its host even as I write. It submits to no standards (on the outside) but empirical proof, but somehow its practitioners constantly finds the empirical proof they need to empower and defend themselves.

In any case, there always has been a tension between the claims of the Empiricist and the Christian classicist. Today that is reflected in the ongoing inquiry into the place of the sciences in the classical school. Our culture makes demands on us that, if we attend to them, can easily take us off course. But if we ignore them, we might not have any students.

And yet, the sciences are so beautiful and elegant and wonderful when they mind their place. Our students ought to study science better than any students, because they alone can see it as a tool by which we can fulfill the Divine Instruction to husband the earth and learn what the stars are signs of.

But they have to mind their place. And since Bacon, they have refused to do so.

What is that place?

The natural sciences are the servants of the moral, philosophical, and theological sciences. They can help us better understand those higher sciences, but they cannot speak with authority on the matters spoken to by those higher sciences.

The sciences depend on the moral sciences to know where they should direct their energies, for all scientific research is human action and all human action is moral. They also recognize that their habits of mind are limited to analysis and are not sufficient to the normative questions of the moral sciences.

The natural sciences depend on philosophy for their existence, which is why they are dying in America today and why we constantly have to get people from other countries to study them here. Nowhere have the analytical habits of empiricism more permeated education than here. Therefore, nowhere have the sciences been more starved for air.knw

In the end, the natural sciences depend on the revealed truth that the world is real and knowable, a conviction that cannot be proven by the natural sciences but on which they depend. The world is not populated by little godlets. It is what it appears to be and so much more! It gives up its secrets slowly and only to those who accept it for what it claims to be.

Consider, as a test case, the human will.

Empirical analysis can never prove the existence of a free human will, which is why most psychologists, for example, are inclined to deny that it exists. Instead they substitute for it environmental or physical determinants.

The trouble is that, empirically, none of these alternatives can be proven either. You can’t prove that all human behavior is caused by chemistry or by the environment, though you can hold to the unproven philosophical position that matter and force are all there is. Nor can you prove, empirically, that we have a will.

But you can see the effects on human behavior, human society, and the economy when people see themselves and each other as “nothing but” blobs of protoplasm waiting to become manure.

Philosophy notes that empiricism is unable to deal with the question at all except by defining it out of existence. So it refuses to submit to the empiricist who insists that only what can be proven with his methods can speak.

Philosophy has a very hard time with the will as well, so it might not be a question for philosophy either. Though Kant had some pretty brilliant arguments for it in his Critique of Practical Reason.

But Christian theology has no trouble with it at all. It points out that mankind is made in the Image of God, and since God is unknowable in His essence mankind probably is too.

In other words, philosophy and religion begin, in terms of inquiry, where empiricism reaches its natural or practical end. When empiricism insists on using the same tools it used to discover the atom to discover the will, it oversteps its nature and cannot succeed.

The will is a different kind of thing.

But the empiricist (as opposed to the scientist) is not willing to acknowledge that anything stands outside his methods. He denies that there are “kinds” of thing at all (cf. John Dewey and William James, perhaps the most clear headed philosophers of empiricism).

This is, of course, not an empirical position at all as it cannot be proven using empirical methods. It is a philosophical position. But as they are opposed to metaphysics in principle, they cannot acknowledge that anything stands outside their empirical context.

This is also true of the common assertion that we are the result of natural processes. While there is evidence for evolutionary adaptation, and while it is obvious that the model of adaptation is extraordinarily powerful as a heuristic tool, it simply cannot be proven empirically that we are merely “the result of natural processes.”

For millenia every human society believed in some sort of will or soul or something that transcended the natural. Almost everybody still believes in the soul. Then, beginning with some radical encyclopedists like de Mettre, folks started to deny the will because they couldn’t see it.

Now we are all supposed to believe that there can be no mystery to us, no wonder at all, nothing that stands outside the invasive probings of the scientific researcher. Why? Because I can’t prove what all of human history has known, what I know in my own soul, what societies need for orderly community, what individuals need to grow to their own fulness?

Why should I submit to the demands of the empiricist for proof when he is so obviously in over his head on the matters of the will and of the soul and when he cannot provide any practical counsel on how to integrate my soul or my family or my society based on his empirical principles but only by borrowing philosophical or religious principles?

Empiricists continually leave their empiricism behind in their arguments for morality, not because their morals are necessarily unsound but because they are trying to be better than their beliefs.

Science is such a wonderful tool. Why demand that it attempt what it cannot possibly successfully achieve? Put it in its place and it will flourish and bless others. Put it in charge and we are all doomed.

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