Modern Science and the Lie of the Soul

How the presuppositions underlying modern science cause us to claim a kind of knowing that is not warranted

I’d like to broach the topic at hand by pointing to a poem that articulates the deep sorrow and ache of the Modern Man: William Wordsworth’s critique of the world caused by the Scientific Revolution, “The World is Too Much With Us.”

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

It is difficult for us, who have been brought up in the aftermath of the Scientific Revolution, to fully appreciate how deeply humanity has been effected by the change in paradigms that happened as a result of it. We take for granted that this is simply the way things are, the way they have always been, and the way they must be in the future.

But Wordsworth’s lament cut me in the best way possible, and it got me asking questions: How can we re-mythologize the world? How can we regain that way of living in the world that even the pagans enjoyed, but has since been lost? If the metaphors and paradigms of the Scientific Revolution were true, then why has the consequence been an increasing move towards deconstructionism, suicide, and nihilism? Why does my soul feel like it is strangled?

Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. Looking back, I can best understand what was going on through a very old concept.

SOCARATES, in Plato’s Republic, explores the difference between two types of “lies.” The first kind, often translated as the “noble lie,” can be understood best as stories which are not (and cannot be) historical, but are yet foundational for establishing and revealing important truths. A myth, parable, or fable, for example, is technically a ‘lie,’ in that it is not a literal, historical documentation (“Say, where and when did this sower live, anyway? And what kind of seeds was he using?)–but rather a story designed to communicate truth and wisdom. But here’s the important bit: we know these things are not literally true, and thus we are not harmed by the fact that they are lies. Even saying this may difficult for some to accept (especially those who do not understand paradox), as the ancients had a much more fluid way of understanding the value and purpose of literature, poetry, and truth-telling. Despite the fact that they are not “true,” these “lies” nonetheless still communicate truth. They are truth-ful lies.

This is contrasted with what we usually mean when we speak of lies: pernicious lies, or what Socrates calls the “lie of the soul.” The lie of the soul is an untruth that is taken into one’s being (like a spy getting unnoticed past the guards and into a city) but it is not recognized to be a lie. This kind of lie, Socrates argues, is the most dangerous kind because it will have a deleterious effect on the person’s soul precisely because it goes unrecognized as being false or untrue. The most dangerous kind of deception is the kind that thinks that it is above deception. You will not seek healing if you do not know that you are sick and infected. The lie of the soul is like a Trojan horse.

What I am ultimately trying to argue in this essay is that we, as a culture, have accepted such a lie into our soul, and it precisely because we do not know that it is a lie that it is having such destructive effects on humanity. It is this (complicated) lie that I would now like to try to explore, and name.

One thinker who helped me to begin the process of uncovering and understanding this lie of the soul is a man named Thomas Kuhn. Much of what I have to say here is merely my attempt to reformulate and explain the ideas that he presents in his excellent book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. At its heart, Kuhn’s book functions as a corrective to a widespread misunderstanding concerning the true history and nature of scientific study and knowing.

We tend to think, Kuhn argues, that scientific knowledge is a slow, accumulative process whereby the study and research of past ages is gradually built up over time, like a tower or edifice being constructed over the centuries from the ground up. Each generation, we imagine, passes the torch of scientific knowledge on to the next generation to complete a new row of bricks, in a glorious, ongoing progress towards more and better ways of knowing the deepest truths of the cosmos. The only problem with this picture is that anyone who actually studies the history of scientific developments knows that it is false and misleading as to how scientific revolutions actually work.

The presuppositions underlying modern science cause us to claim a kind of knowing that is not warranted

It is impossible to do justice to Kuhn’s arguments in such a small space, but what he argues is essentially this: the history of scientific development shows not a slow, gradual accretion of knowledge, but rather a series of competitions between vastly different and contradictory ways of viewing the world, in which one paradigm holds prestige and sway in the public imagination until another (contrary) paradigm rises up and overthrows the previous one. We tend to think of the Scientific Revolution as being the revolution, but in reality the history of science has been one of continual, ongoing, smaller revolutions. One particular theory that explains some aspect of the cosmos will enjoy its time in the spotlight, until another vastly different theory comes along and overturns the presuppositions and implications of the earlier. In other words, the “knowledge” of the previous theory is not kept, preserved, or built upon, but scrapped and thrown out in favor of a new one.

IT’S helpful here to examine a tangible example, and the Copernican Revolution is a good one to begin with. We tend to think that the drastic shift that happened during this time is that humanity went from believing that the sun revolves around the earth (geocentrism) to believing that the earth revolves around the sun (heliocentrism), and this is partially true. But the larger, and more significant, shift actually came in the way that humanity began to think about scientific models. The Catholic church, when it examined the heretical teachings of Galileo, did not forbid Galileo from exploring or teaching his new theory of the cosmos; what they did say was that he must not promote this new theory as an actual fact, but rather must present it as a potentially useful theory. Legend has it that Galileo agreed to this in public (in order to avoid punishment) but did not at all acquiesce in his heart. The point here is that the Scientific Revolution brought about a fundamental shift in how we understand the use and role of models in science; it also changed our epistemology, or how and what we know, and the necessary criterion for knowing.

This is where the cognitive dissonance becomes thick, because we have all been inundated since the day of our birth to believe that science doesn’t rely on faith, that science is simply a description of the way things actually are. But the truth is not so simple: all science uses models and paradigms in order to explore and study the natural world, and those models and paradigms at their root are not scientific; they are philosophical, theological, and subjective. Like a first premise in rhetoric or a foundational proof in mathematics, everything must begin with an un-provable, a priori assumption or presupposition. As C.S. Lewis has argued, you can’t use a proof to prove the validity of a proof; you must simply assume it. You must simply have faith that it is true without needing to be proved.

As startling as it may be, those who undertake a serious study of the differences between the geocentric model and the heliocentric model will soon run into some troubling facts. As it turns out, both models “work,” and both can be accurately used to predict and explain certain events (like predicting eclipses), or be used to accomplish certain goals (like navigating the earth). As with all science, the questions that you are asking and trying to answer will guide the experiments, techniques, and models that you use. It also turns out that the main difference between these two models is one of relative motion. And as anyone with a basic understanding of the concept of Point of Reference will tell you, technically the question of which object revolves around which is not (conclusively) visually verifiable; if you were able to somehow sit up in the heavens and have both earth and the sun in your view, you could not tell which was moving around which until you had first determined which one is at rest in relation to the other. That one moves around the other must be a presupposition, not a conclusion. E. Christian Kopff gives an excellent lecture on this subject, and I highly recommend everyone give it a listen, as he provides a wealth of helpful and interesting information and history on this topic. Although we simply take it for granted nowadays, there are actually a whole slew of assumptions and theories at work behind our current models of the cosmos.

Anyone who does even a brief survey of the Scientific Revolution will clearly see that we did not reject geocentrism in favor of heliocentrism due to observational data. It was rather due to the fact that we began asking different questions, and looking for different answers, and this is what led us into thinking about the world in an utterly different way.

In his insightful article The Funeral of a Great Myth, C.S. Lewis points out that every age gets the science that it wants. Anyone who takes this thesis seriously will be troubled by the multitude of implications it holds for our society. My goal is not to argue for one or the other of these models, but simply to highlight the fact that they are both viable models, and there exist many other viable models as well.

The lie of the soul is so dangerous because it mistakes non-reality for reality

What Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions does so well is to show through examples the ways in which scientific studies throughout history have been guided and shaped by the philosophical paradigms that guide and control our observations. Ultimately, the process of seeing/observing is not so simple as we often think; what we see is actually a result of our language, not our eyes. People groups that lack linguistic concepts literally see the world in a different way than others, and his book provides a wealth of compelling examples. These examples point us to an important corrective: we tend to believe that see with our eyes, but in reality we see with our imaginations. Our eyes are the vehicle by which we receive the necessary sense-data, but our imaginations are where that information is assembled into something meaningful and comprehensible (which is why we have all heard or said in a moment of epiphany, “Oh! Now I see it!”). Language, which is actually fundamentally pictorial/metaphorical at its root, translates and makes sense of the images that our eyes transmit to us. As scandalous as it may be, Language and Imagination are the heart and lifeblood of Science.

Kuhn gives an interesting example of this in his book by referring to a study done where test subjects are shown a series of normal playing cards with some “anomalous” cards thrown in as well–for example, a black four of hearts, or other cards that don’t actually exist. Most people, when shown the cards, did not actually notice that anything was amiss when shown the anomalous cards and saw them as normal–and as Kuhn puts it, “one would even like to say that the subjects had seen something different from what they identified.” Many of them exhibited anxiety and agitation because they knew at some level that something was amiss, but they could not put their finger on exactly what it was because they could not see it. Eventually, after increased exposure, some of them, with difficulty, were able to spot the anomalous cards. Terrifyingly, some never could, and these subjects were thrown into a state of “acute personal distress” (think of Wordsworth’s poem). This is an illuminating example of the way in which people’s ability to see–which we tend to think of as straightforward, simple, and objective, is intimately tied to the verbal constructs we are given to use in our observation. Without a linguistic paradigm in which to situate what we see–our vision is deeply hampered or distorted. It turns out that seeing isn’t so straightforward and simple as it seems.

Kuhn also explores the way different linguistic paradigms fundamentally alter how we see by exploring some of the revolutionary paradigm shifts in the realm of chemistry. The use of different conceptual models caused scientists to ultimately come to differing measurements, showing that even measurement of physical phenomenon with standardized measurement is not some objective, universal constant–what you see and how you measure it is ultimately dictated by your existing paradigm. Aristotle and Galileo, for example, when looking at and studying a rock swinging on a string, did not just come to different conclusions about what was happening based on their paradigm–they actually saw it so differently, that, as Kuhn puts it, it is as if they were living in different worlds (one saw constrained fall, the other a pendulum). Measurement wouldn’t have settled the question of what was actually happening because they were not looking at the same object in the same way. Even observational data is not “unequivocally stable,” as we tend to believe unquestioningly. The paradigm the observer uses will color everything that they see, and hence, measure. It will also dictate the questions that they ask, and the answers they are willing to accept.

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” is helpful here to explain what I mean. In the “Allegory,” the prisoners chained in the cave, seeing the shadows of forms dancing before them on the wall by firelight, think that the shapes they see are the real things themselves. They do not know that these fleeting forms are not solid and real, and mistake mere shadows for the reality. They do not know that there is more going on behind the scenes, so to speak. They do not know that they do not know.

There is an anecdote I heard once about a Native American who was learning to read, write, and speak English when the European colonists arrived. He struggled to learn the complicated new grammar, and when asked about the grammar of his own native tongue, he laughed and insisted that no, his language didn’t have any of that horrible, complicated stuff. Of course it did, but he had learned it intuitively from his earliest years and so it had not been difficult. What this humorous answer reveals is that it is often the things which we are surrounded with our entire lives that are the most invisible to us, and we take much for granted without ever supposing the complex reality at work behind it all. The simple things are not really so simple.

BUT let’s return to the lie of the soul for a moment: the whole reason that the lie of the soul is so dangerous is the fact that it mistakes non-reality for reality, while the ‘noble lie’ is life-giving because it is understood not to be the Truth itself, but a glimpse of it. The danger that we are in since the Scientific Revolution is an increasing tendency for us to forget or deny that science relies upon linguistic paradigms and spacial models that are not inherently objective or authoritative. Our presupposition that seeing and observing (or testing and evaluating) lead to indubitable knowledge is fundamentally flawed, and in thinking in this way we endow science with an authority in our imaginations that it does not deserve. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, many of us have put far too much faith in our own ability to see and interpret the world clearly and reliably. In a word: we are far too proud, and trust to human authority more than we ought. Please do not misunderstand this as an attack on Science, which I acknowledge to be a wonderful and valuable art. But I am attacking the skewed, distorted, untrue definition of science that has emerged since Natural Philosophy fell out of style. We moderns prefer magic to philosophy, and the fact that most of the important figures in the Scientific Revolution dabbled in Hermetic magic is not irrelevant here.

Our problem can be illuminated by looking at the Book of Job, a wonderfully mysterious and difficult story. There are many things we could say about Job’s experiences, but I would draw your attention to the theme of knowing and epistemology that emerges in that poem. Job is convinced throughout all of his ordeals that he knows that he is in the right and that God has made some mistake, and my favorite part of the story comes when Job’s three friends (plus fiery young Elihu!) are done speaking and God himself comes down to have a little chat with Job. It is an exhilarating exchange to imagine. God begins somewhat wryly:

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

God continues pounding Job with question after question, and in this brutal cross-examination we experience a breathtaking journey through the cosmos, with one repetitive implication reverberating throughout: your “knowledge” is nothing. You think you know, but you do not.

At the end of this humbling exchange, Job says the only sane thing possible:

I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.

Job was a righteous man, but you’ll notice that he wasn’t perfect; he had to repent. In fact, it would seem that his repentance is the only thing that separates him from his ‘comforters,’ with whom, we are told, God is not very pleased. But it is important to see that the thing that Job had to repent of was an illicit claim to knowledge; he had claimed to know things that he did not actually know. For this, he had to repent, and it is precisely this for which we must, a thousand times over, also repent. For this is the lie of the soul of which I am speaking.

The presuppositions underlying modern science cause us to claim a kind of knowing that is not warranted. On a large scale, we have fundamentally misunderstood the limitations and weakness of science, and have therefore accorded it an authority that is incommensurate to its purpose. And this misunderstanding, this lie about the function and practice of science has slipped into our souls unknown and is causing us great damage. It has harmed us by the pictures it has put into our imaginations, pictures that are mistaken for reality–mere shadows that are believed to be the real thing.

Knowing is in many ways a matter of having true or accurate pictures in your imagination; deception is in many ways a matter of having false or misleading pictures in your imagination. And we should remember that we do have an enemy that is thrilled to pump false pictures into our imaginations without facing any resistance. But repentance and a proper and humble approach to the limitations of our scientific paradigms and models could safeguard us against much harm. Our vision must be, as Chesterton puts it, stereoscopic. We must be able to see two contradictory pictures at the same time and still see the better for the contradiction.

This is the good news: the universe is still a wonderfully mysterious place.

“…the first principles of any system of knowledge cannot be arrived at through the means of that knowledge itself, but must be given in advance; they are the object, not of scientific demonstration, but of faith.” – Seraphim Rose

“Error never shows itself in its naked reality, in order not to be discovered. On the contrary, it dresses elegantly, so that the unwary may be led to believe that it is more truthful than truth itself.” – St. Irenaeus of Lyons

“The slightest knowledge of the greatest things is greater than the greatest knowledge of the slightest things.” – Thomas Aquinas

“The struggle in the modern age is not between Atheism and Christianity, but between Pride and Humility.” – Fr. Andrew Damick

“Unless [a person] has enough imagination, and enough power of detachment from the established meanings or thought-forms of his own civilization, to enable him to grasp the meanings of the fundamental terms–unless, in fact, he has the power not only of thinking, but of unthinking–he will simply re-interpret everything [the ancients] say in terms of subsequent thought.” – Owen Barfield

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