The Division of the World
Miller, James B., The World and I
The dualistic modern worldview undergirding Western culture's intellectual mainstream and undermining its Judeo-Christian heritage traces its roots to the science of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton and the philosophy of Descartes and Kant.
The birth of modern culture is often understood to coincide with that of modern science, as commonly identified with the publication in 1543 of On the Revolutions of Celestial Bodies by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473- -1543). The book was not a scientific work in the modern sense, however. It was instead a philosophically motivated mathematical argument against the prevailing Aristotelian/Ptolemaic cosmology. It was grounded in Copernicus' commitment to a Platonic and Pythagorean philosophical perspective.
Beginning with a set of cosmological and metaphysical presuppositions drawn from Aristotle (e.g., the perfection of the heavens and circular motion as the perfect form of motion), Ptolemy (c. 87--150 c.e.) had developed an Earth-centered system of cosmic geometry that described the observed motions of the heavenly bodies. To make his geometric system match observations, he found it necessary to include an element of irregular motion that compromised the heavenly movements' perfection.
Copernicus found this philosophical flaw especially troublesome and showed that it could be overcome by assuming that the Sun, not Earth, was at the center of the cosmic motions. Copernicus inherited his heliocentricism from the Pythagoreans, who, as early as the fourth century c.e., had proposed a twofold motion of Earth: rotation about an axis and revolution about the Sun. Thus Copernicus proposed no radically new position but rather recovered an ancient view that had been lost amid the dominance of Aristotelian thought.
Copernicus' moves against the presuppositions of his day involved both the geometry of heavenly movements and the presumed truth of mathematical astronomy. For most of his contemporaries, mathematics as applied to the motions of the heavens served strictly practical purposes. It was valuable as an aid to astrological calculations or for establishing the dates of civil and religious events, but it was not seen as a reflection of the "true" cosmic order.
Faith in mathematics
In his preface to On the Revolutions of Celestial Bodies, addressed to Pope Paul III, Copernicus described his position as "almost against common sense." Ordinary experience seemed to show that the Earth was stationary and that the Sun revolved around it. Yet, Copernicus argued that the demands of mathematics in service to metaphysical assumptions about the perfection of heavenly motion required that what was empirically obvious was not true. He thus elevated mathematics as a source of knowledge above metaphysics, the traditional interpretation of Scripture, and even ordinary sense experience.
This commitment to a mathematically "ideal" description of the world was shared by Galileo Galilei (1564--1642). In the mythos of modern culture, Galileo is the champion of Copernicanism who fell victim to dogmatic religious repression. But this is too simple a characterization.
Galileo's trial was the outcome of a complex set of factors, which included his own aggressive personality and the charged atmosphere over religious and cultural authority that marked the Reformation. In this context, Galileo's challenge to Aristotle's intellectual authority in the area of astronomical cosmology and terrestrial physics threatened papal authority because Aristotle was the implicit philosophical authority within late medieval Christian theology.
Galileo's terrestrial physics depended on the acceptance of what Stephen Toulmin has called "ideals of natural order." For example, Galileo asserted the principle of "frictionless" motion as a presupposition for his mathematical description of the pendulum or falling bodies. He never observed such ideal motion. Yet, this theoretical ideal was a foundation for Galileo's physics and shows his Pythagorean/Platonic commitment to identify reality with the purity of ideal mathematical form.
Although the circumstances of Galileo's trial, recantation, and house arrest in 1633-1642 are complex, the cultural impact of these events was profound. They resulted in a shift of the cultural center of the emerging modern science from Roman Catholic regions, especially Italy and France, to Protestant northwestern Europe, especially the Netherlands and England. This shift is clearly seen in the career of Rene Descartes (1596--1650).
Hardening the divide
In 1633 Descartes was preparing to publish the first stage of an ambitious project to produce a unified science. The work, Le Monde, had been in preparation for at least six years and included an affirmation of the Copernican astronomical system as an integral part. Almost on the eve of publication, Descartes received the news of Galileo's condemnation. He was devastated and withdrew Le Monde from the printer. As he wrote to his long-standing correspondent Mersenne:
"I was so astounded that I have quasi resolved to burn all my papers or at least not to show them to anyone. I cannot imagine that an Italian, and especially one well thought of by the pope from what I have heard, could have been labeled a criminal for nothing more than wanting to establish the movement of the earth. I know that this had been censured formerly by a few cardinals, but I thought that since that time one was allowed to teach it publicly even in Rome. I confess that if this is false, then all the principles of my philosophy are false also. ... And because I would not want for anything in the world to be the author of a work where there was the slightest word of which the church might disapprove, I would rather suppress it altogether than to have it appear incomplete--"crippled," as it were."
Le Monde was not published until 1662, 12 years after Descartes' death. In 1633 Descartes was living in Protestant Holland and faced no immediate personal danger from church authorities. An explanation for his action is suggested by his own words; namely, that his ultimate audience was the Roman Catholic intelligentsia.
Born in Touraine, France, Descartes was the product of a Jesuit education at the college of La Fl?che. Throughout his life he placed great value on the opinions of this academic community. In addition, he continually sought acceptance of his work within the broader Roman Catholic scholarly community. Ironically, it was at La Fl?che that he became acquainted with Galileo's astronomical observations.
In 1619 Descartes had conceived of developing a "unified science" in which all domains of knowing would possess the certainty found in mathematics. Like Copernicus and Galileo before him, he arrayed himself against the "traditional authority" of Aristotle. In this effort he made a fundamental distinction between two forms of truth: truth acquired and truth revealed. The former was truth about the world, truth accessible to reason. The latter was truth about God, truth accessible only through revelation.
The model of knowledge that substantively informed Descartes' system was that of mathematics and especially axiomatic geometry. This was paralleled by a form of "methodological" reductionism. For Descartes, the most complex phenomena and objects were built up out of simpler ones.
In axiomatic geometry one begins with simple definitions and axioms, first principles that are validated intuitively. From this simple foundation, complex geometric figures and relationships are built up by a series of rational deductions. Similarly, when confronted with a complex object, Descartes sought the simplest constituents to provide a foundation from which to build up an understanding of the whole object. In this context, the move from Descartes' "methodological" reductionism to the modern "ontological" reductionism is a short one. Ontological reductionism, which stands as a pillar of the modern view, holds that complex objects are fully explained as the combination of their simplest parts.
In Discourse on Method, published in 1637, Descartes expressed the cosmological perspective that he had developed in Le Monde. It was here that his foundation-setting cosmic dualism became explicit.
Grounded in doubt
Descartes' "method" was grounded in doubt. His program of systematic doubt sought to chip away all apparent knowledge, leaving only a "clear and distinct" residue that was certain. Applying this program, he arrived at the one affirmation about which he could have no doubt:Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). He could not doubt his own existence, for the very act of doubting required his existence. Further, this experience of thinking did not necessitate a body that thought.
Thus Descartes crystallized the distinction between body and mind (or soul) in the human as but one manifestation of a fundamental metaphysical dualism that pervaded his cosmological vision. Within the cosmos there were two distinct substances: material substance (matter) and mental (or spiritual) substance. The former was extension; the latter was thinking. The behavior of the former could be fully described in the terms of mathematical physics, while the latter could be understood only in philosophical or, ultimately, religious terms.
Though Descartes made this dualism of substances central to his thought, he recognized it as problematic because the two presumably separate substances, mind and body, apparently interact as the human mind animates the body. At a fundamental level, this problem remained unsolved for Descartes. He did propose a physiological point at which the union of body and soul occurred: namely, the pineal gland.
Descartes' contributions to mathematics (analytic geometry) and physics (the law of conservation of motion) were important. But his mechanics was conceptually bound to mechanical causality, where one material object conveys force directly to another by striking it. Thus, he was unable to develop a simple mathematical description of the force (gravity) that controlled the motion of the heavens and of falling objects on Earth. In 1687 Isaac Newton (1642--1727) provided this description in his "law of universal gravitation."
Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749--1827) carried forward Newton's project with precise mathematical rigor and also emphasized the view that the universe was a great determinate machine. He stated with confidence that given the precise positions and velocities of all the bodies in the universe and a knowledge of all forces acting on them, the entire history of the cosmos, the future as well as the past, could be seen. In a famous quip, Laplace exhibited the fundamental distinction between the material universe and the domain of the spirit. When asked by Napoleon about the place of God in his system of celestial mechanics, Laplace responded, "I have no need of that hypothesis."
Accompanying the development of Newtonian physics was a parallel development in the philosophy of knowledge. Descartes had turned attention to the rational subject whose existence was known in the experience of thinking. John Locke (1632--1704) developed an analysis of the structure of empirical knowledge grounded in the sensory experience. For both Descartes and Locke, the reality of the material world was not at issue. Bishop George Berkeley (1685--1753), however, argued that the sensations of the knower were not identical with the thing known and that what was known was not things but ideas.
David Hume (1711--1776) took Berkeley's "ideal philosophy" one step further and argued that the only legitimate rational position for the knower was skepticism. For Hume, all that the knower knew were his own sensations or ideas. For example, from Hume's perspective, reason gave no sanction for concluding that there was a causal relationship between two events merely because they were habitually experienced in a sequential order. In this sense, "causality" was not a characteristic of the world but rather a habitual way of thinking.
Awakened by skepticism
In response to Hume, Immanuel Kant (1724--1804) developed a critical analysis of the nature and exercise of reason. As he stated, "I openly confess that my remembering David Hume was the very thing which many years ago first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy a quite new direction." In Kant's work, the formation of the modern dualistic worldview was completed.
Although his earlier works had dealt with cosmic structure and origins, the questions that came to dominate Kant's thinking were about the nature of knowledge. How do we know the world? What is the relation between the knower and the known? How is conformity achieved between the mind of the knower and the object known? These were not new questions, but in the face of Hume's skepticism, they took on new urgency.
Kant's aim was to accept Hume's challenge, provide a critical analysis of the issues, and resolve them. This effort is seen especially in his three Critiques:The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), The Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and The Critique of Judgment (1790).
Kant's first Critique, an analysis of the limits of what he called "pure" or a priori reason, analyzed the constitution of scientific or theoretical knowledge. The second Critique sought to illuminate the rational grounds of morality, grounds that could not be based on empirical experience or knowledge in the proper sense. As he said, "I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith."* But was faith then a different kind of reason irreconcilable with knowledge? Were ethics and science ultimately isolated from one another? The third Critique was an effort to show how the two fundamentally different domains of reason could be related to one another in human judgment and moral action. (In Kant's teminology, knowledge lies in the domain of theoretical or pure reason, and faith lies in the domain of practical reason.)
Kant understood his approach to these issues to be analogous in its profundity to that taken by Copernicus, as each introduced a radical shift in orientation. Unlike the classical scientists and philosophers who preceded him, Kant did not ask how the mind conformed to the constitution of the objects of sense experience but rather how objects of experience conformed to the constitution of the mind. For Kant, the mind was not a passive receptor of sensory impressions but was rather an active shaper of empirical experience. Due to the mind's structure, objects of experience had the form they had. This meant that the objects of experience were not simply representations of things-in- themselves. Thus, Kant made a formal and fundamental distinction between phenomena (the objects of experience) and noumena (things-in- themselves). The phenomena were the objects of scientific investigation.
Kant agreed with Hume that we do not observe causality as such. But he disagreed by saying that the very constitution of human understanding was such that our experience of the world, to be experience at all, had to have causal form. In this way Kant sought to legitimize the products of scientific investigation. Science was the investigation of phenomena, the products of the interaction of data provided by the human senses and the ordering structure of the human mind.
But what of noumena, of things-in-themselves? For Kant, noumena were objects beyond experience and so beyond the reach of knowledge. Their existence could not be proved. Yet, it was to the noumenal domain that he assigned such traditional objects as the soul (or self), God, and the world as a whole. But if these "objects" were noumenal, was he condemned to silence regarding them?
Kant did not intend to remain silent. In his view, such ideas as the unified self or soul as a free moral agent, God as the perfect unity of all existence, and the world as a causal unity were necessary as practical conditions for the possibility of seeking knowledge of the world and acting morally. Although he excluded these transcendental "objects" from the domain of knowledge, they were necessary "objects of faith."
The modern worldview
In relation to the works of Descartes and Kant, it is possible to summarize the main features of the worldview that has come to characterize "modern" (and "critical") consciousness. First, it exhibits an unquestioned confidence in the power of a detached, impersonal, objective reason to exhaustively describe the world. Descartes and Kant shared a confidence in the capacity of reason to identify and describe the fundamental structure of things, though they had very different ideas as to what that structure was and how reason functioned in the task.
Second, there is a commitment to reductionistic analysis as the fundamental methodological approach. Descartes and Kant shared a methodological view that held that a whole was to be understood through analysis of its parts and their relations.
Third, there is an acceptance of a mechanistic natural order. Descartes' dualism of matter and spirit (body and mind) helped to set the foundations for a view of the cosmos as machine. Kant assumed Newtonian mechanics to be the authoritative description of the phenomenal world.
Fourth, the paradigm of reason is mathematical logic. For Descartes, mathematical logic was the standard against which he measured the exercise of reason. For Kant, Euclidean geometry, Aristotelian logic, and Newton's mathematical cosmology were standards of pure reason.
The fifth feature is a fundamentally dualistic vision. While Descartes' dualism was expressed primarily in cosmological terms, Kant's comparable dualism was manifested in epistemological terms. On the one side of this vision were matter, phenomena, objects, objectivity, facts, conventional reason, knowledge, and science. On the other side were mind (or spirit), noumena, perceiving subjects, subjectivity, values, emotion (or passion), faith, and religion.
The sixth feature is an explicit critique of the received metaphysical tradition, a critique that was ironically dependent on tacit metaphysics. (Here metaphysics refers to those general categories or postulates that serve as the implicit intellectual framework for all forms of human thinking and inquiry.) While Descartes' effort was aimed at overcoming what he saw to be the deficiencies of scholastic Aristotelian philosophy, his own attempt to deduce a unified science from "first principles" was a metaphysical enterprise. Although Kant criticized metaphysics as an improper use of pure reason, his own epistemological dualism (between phenomena and noumena) reestablished a quasimetaphysics that profoundly influenced subsequent generations.
Fruits of a dualistic vision
Evidence of the power of the thought of Descartes and Kant is found in the fact that even their critics tended to assume tacitly the cosmological and epistemological dualism they expressed. Four developments growing out of this dualistic vision are of particular significance, for they continue to be important elements in contemporary culture.
One of these was logical positivism, whose roots lie in the "positivism" articulated and named by Auguste Comte in his Positive Philosophy, written between 1830 and 1842. The development of logical positivism is ordinarily associated with discussions of the "Vienna Circle," a group of scientists and philosophers meeting in the first quarter of the twentieth century. In general, the logical positivists assumed that the only real world was the world of objects experienced by the senses. For them, the only reality was Kant's phenomenal world described mathematically. Both Descartes' domain of mind (or spirit) and Kant's noumenal domain were removed not only from the arena of knowledge but from reality as such. Language that made reference to noumenal entities was seen as neither true nor false but meaningless. It can be said that the logical positivists assumed the division of reality into the material and the mental or spiritual, the phenomenal and the noumenal, but then rejected the reality of that which was spiritual or noumenal.
This positivist attitude, when linked with a reductionist methodology, can give rise to the sort of ontological reductionism mentioned earlier in the discussion of Descartes. Within such a perspective, noumena are reduced to material phenomena. Such reductionism can be seen in the explanations given for religion by such thinkers as Ludwig Feuerbach (1804--1872), Karl Marx (1818--1883), and Sigmund Freud (1856--1939). For Feuerbach, religion was simply an expression of a stage of human cultural development, a stage that was being superseded by the scientific stage. For Marx, religion was an instrument of political and, ultimately, economic control. For Freud, religion was a form of neurosis, a deep cultural illusion.
Today such a reductionist perspective can be seen in the comments of some scientists whose science is helping to usher in a new worldview but who continue to reflect the dualistic and reductionistic philosophical legacy of the modern and critical worldview. For example, Francis Crick, Nobel Prize--winning biologist and codiscoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, proposes that mind (and the self) can be exhaustively reduced to neurological structure and processes (see his The Astonishing Hypothesis). Biologist Richard Dawkins' argument in support of neo-Darwinism reduces personal human existence and culture to genetic processes (see his The Selfish Gene). Steven Weinberg, Nobel Prize--winning physicist, argues that his study of the fundamental structure of the cosmos leads to the inexorable conclusion that "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless" (see his The First Three Minutes). More recently he has explained this statement by saying that science can find no meaning in the universe (see his Dreams of a Final Theory).
A second development was theological liberalism, which was spearheaded in Protestant circles by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768--1834), a devoted student of Kant's works. Schleiermacher came to ground religion not in the objective material world but in the world of subjective experience, the experience of ultimate dependence. Science was seen to rule in the objective world of nature, religion to rule in the subjective world of the spirit. A point at which the two worlds interacted was in the application of modern scientific historical and textual analysis to the Bible. In this context, liberal Protestants tended to concede to the "scientific" critics the meaning of the biblical text. Parallel developments occurred in Roman Catholicism. A similar theological liberalism, led by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, gave birth to Reform Judaism in the late nineteenth century.
A third development, existentialism, emerged as a criticism of the rationalism of Cartesian and Kantian (and later Hegelian) thought. While itself critical of the construction of quasiscientific, rationalist metaphysical systems, existentialism also implicitly accepted the modern and critical dualistic division of the world. An important figure in the formation of the existentialist position was Soren Kierkegaard (1813--1855). He was critical of rationalists of all stripes and asserted a fundamental gap between the realm of knowledge and that of faith. For Kierkegaard, the domain of faith was central to authentic human existence and that domain was a-rational in character. The existentialists could not ignore the natural world as described by science, but they could devalue it as having relatively little importance for authentic human existence. Their focus was on human history, not natural history, and, particularly, on the moment of human moral action.
The final development of special importance was theological neoorthodoxy, which emerged as a critique of the tendency of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theological liberalism to accommodate religious doctrine to the findings of the empirical sciences. Among Protestants this development is often identified with the works of Karl Barth (1886--1968), who drew upon existential views that focused theological attention narrowly on the "noumenal" domain of faith and moral action. Again, while not rejecting the material world (the domain of natural history), neoorthodoxy assumed a noumenal theological world (the domain of "salvation history") both above and beyond the realm of nature. As an example of this perspective, it is worth noting that following World War II, Barth was invited to participate with theologians and scientists in discussions about the possible theological significance of the emerging new physics. He declined the invitation.
Although more philosophically self-conscious, a similar development in Roman Catholicism was Neo-Thomism. It sought to recover the theology of Thomas Aquinas within a contemporary cultural context. Karl Rahner, S.J. (1904--1984), was one of the leading theologians in this effort. He described himself philosophically as a "post-Hegelian Kantian."
While these four developments are not the only ones of significance that emerged in relation to the Copernican/Galilean/Newtonian revolution in physics and the collateral Cartesian/Kantian revolution in philosophy, they are particularly relevant to understanding the present cultural context. They represent expressions of a worldview that is waning though still much at hand. Developments in geology, biology, physics, and cosmology beginning in the late eighteenth century and continuing today are bringing about the morning of a new worldview that, though not yet at noon, is well past dawn.n
Additional Reading:Ian Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, HarperSanFrancisco, San Francisco, 1997.
Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. Donald Cress, 4th ed., Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis,1999.
Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, ed. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999.
David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers, God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986.
On the Internet
Additional Reading:The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/
James B. Miller is senior program associate for the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Division of the World. Contributors: Miller, James B. - Author. Magazine title: The World and I. Volume: 15. Issue: 11 Publication date: November 2000. Page number: 156. © 1999 News World Communications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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