When I wrote the first version of this post almost five years ago, my friend Jonathan Pageau brought my attention to an unusual event. Pope Francis, during an appearance at the Papal Palace in 2014, had two children release two “peace doves” of purest white. What was initially an “awwww” moment turned suddenly grisly. A black crow attacked one of the doves almost immediately, and in front of everyone.
When I first heard about it, I was dumbfounded. Immediately, my historical-critical self refused to believe in the possibility of such an event happened. It smacked of myth, of epic, of poetic devices that had nothing to do with historical reality. Then I woke up from my temporary madness. My poet-self rejoiced. This event was mythical. Plus, the almost automatic fear of omens inspired by this event among many people (as well as the knee-jerk, boring scientific “explanation”) only proves the point.
In fact, when this event will be read about in history books five hundred years, it will probably be relegated to the apocryphal and legendary by the very advanced historians of that future era. As I argued in the first part of this series, that’s exactly what historians are doing nowadays.
I’m going to be frank for a moment. How many of you, if you hadn’t heard about the papal pigeons already, had the same reaction as me? How many of you had a knee-jerk reaction defaulting to a critical, scientific mindset? Because if that’s so, then you’re guilty of being a follower of a heretical faith–scientism.
How many of us automatically perk up when we hear about a scientific paper that confirms our existing biases? How many times have we used the sentence, “Science has proven…” But why? After all, the scientific method in and of itself cannot be an arbiter of truth. The system itself presupposes the possibility, even the inevitability, of every discovery’s eventual obsolescence due to new research. There can be no objective truth in science. Every scientism must assume that every truth may eventually be disproved by better data.
I’ve already suggested (vehemently) that the supposed objectivity of the scientific method is limited even in the best situations. But what if there was more to the story?
The Sins of the Scientific Method
First of all, I should elucidate a point that I only hinted at in my previous post. This is the assumption that in any given Life, only those aspects that can be deemed historically accurate can be in any sense “true.” If something in the life (an event, a person, a miracle) could not have occurred in historical reality, then it cannot possibly be true.
In short, “truth” is equated with “history.” This “history” is an objective reality that can be found by using the scientific method. More than this, such an assumption asserts that human beings are themselves arbiters of truth (though that truth is, ironically, only really available through man-man instruments). This “truth” can be precisely defined using the scientific method. This leads to such phenomena as the ultimately silly “search for the historical miracle.”
This unscientific faith that “science will find an answer” is described by Wendell Berry in his excellent essay “Faustian Economics” as “a fantasy of limitlessness.” Berry at first refers to humanity’s “chew it up and spit it out” mentality when it comes to using the planet’s resources, but he goes even farther, saying that “this credo of limitlessness clearly implies a principled wish not only for limitless possession but also for limitless knowledge…”
The idea that humans can somehow achieve limitless knowledge through science is not only ridiculous, according to Berry, but it is simply diabolical: “necessarily, it must lead to limitless violence, waste, war, and destruction.” Citing Milton, he suggests that “knowledge without measure, knowledge that the human mind cannot properly use, is mortally dangerous.”
The problem is this. The search for limitless knowledge for the purposes of control is baked into the philosophy of the scientific method from the very beginning. Francis Bacon wrote about the need to control the wildness of nature. The entire Enlightenment project was an extended philosophical preparation for the Industrialization of the 19th century, when Social Darwinism led to such projects as eugenics and such absurd pseudo-scientific theories such as telegony.
The Abolition of Man
C.S. Lewis follows Berry’s logic in his Abolition of Man, where he explores when happens when man, deluded by his own apparent limitlessness, attempts to totally conquer and subjugate Nature:
From this point of view the conquest of Nature appears in a new light. We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may ‘conquer’ them. We are always conquering Nature, because ‘Nature’ is the name for what we have, to some extent, conquered. The price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature. Every conquest over Nature increases her domain. The stars do not become Nature till we can weigh and measure them: the soul does not become Nature till we can psychoanalyse her. The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature. As long as this process stops short of the final stage we may well hold that the gain outweighs the loss. But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same…
And now, we read about the transhumanist luminaries of our times waiting for the Singularity, when humanity itself will be unnecessary. Is this the kind of worldview that is conducive to a culture that fosters beauty, truth, and a search for the transcendent?
So what about the poet?
It seems obvious to me that the sins of the scientific method are reason enough to disqualify it from its lofty position of arbiter of truth. Practically speaking, we creators and consumers of culture should very seriously reconsider our knee-jerk scientism. Stop looking at the world as a phenomenon that can be defined using data points. Start experiencing it as a mystery with the capacity of bringing us closer to the transcendent.
Start reading the Lives of the Saints with the assumption that they are TRUE.
The scientific method has rendered today’s mundane reality practically black and white. By this prism, the miracles in the Lives are simply impossible. But every wise man from time immemorial has warned about judging the past through the lens of the present. Who’s to say dragons didn’t threaten the monks of the Egyptian desert, as described in the Lausiac History? That’s a question one would be foolish to try to answer until one has tried to understand what these dragons really are, and not in the sense of trying to find a specimen to dissect.
The poet, then, instead of assessing the truthfulness of a certain aspect of a Life or of the Life itself, has a much more important calling. He is as an apologist for the mythical and improbable in the Lives in general. But that’s the subject for my next post.
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