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On science

The first thing to know about Science is, that it doesn’t exist. By this I don’t mean that it doesn’t exist in the way unicorns do not exist; rather, it doesn’t exist in a more fundamental way. For any child can know what a unicorn looks like, or can know once the thing is drawn for him. Whereas, no one can ever know what Science is, no matter how much explaining. It will always, and necessarily, be gummy wool and bafflegab; and it will always be sold to some disreputable purpose.

Which is not to say that sciences, in the plural, don’t exist. They are innumerable, legion, and many if not most are perfectly legitimate, within their respective boundaries. But each has its own history, and follows its own rules, and must be glimpsed in the totality of that historical existence if we are to avoid speaking nonsense about it.

“Poetics,” for instance, is (or, are) among these sciences, but in the absence of real languages and real poetry it becomes the kind of gummy wool and bafflegab that is taught in our universities today. Like all the other sciences it is essentially applied. If there is nothing to which it can be applied, then it is tosh some tenured fool is putting over. “Literary theory” is almost all like that: done by people who could not read with attention to save their lives.

At the other extreme, mathematics exist, but again note the plural. Too, that maths are not sciences. They (keep noting plurals) come closest to the gods, in their abstraction from material realities, and thereby form a kind of unity, in opposition to the sciences. Maths are never messy, the way sciences always are.

Now if, like me, gentle reader likes to embrace heroes, and one of them is, say, Archimedes of Syracuse, or Apollonius of the Conic Sections, or Euclid for that matter, you will perhaps have noticed something “backward” about them. These stunningly ingenious Greeks did not think arithmetically, the way we do. Rather they thought geometrically. And thus they never fall into the swamp of statistics, where the modern scientistical scientists live. Rather they live where the unicorns dance, and the Houyhnhnms reason, on the solid ground of the Arcadian uplands, where the shepherds pipe, in the clean air, and the wool is fairly free of vegetative gunge, muck, sand, grease, suint, urine stains and dung locks.

Let me refer again to a name I mentioned recently, that of Michael Polanyi (1891–1976), who did a superb job of disentangling sciences from “Science”; though my own master in this regard was the Scotsman, Arthur David Ritchie (1891–1967), and the book I recommend, should you ever find it, is Studies in the History and Methods of the Sciences (Edinburgh, 1958). As he says near the outset:

“I have spoken of the sciences in the plural, not only because they are manifestly plural but even more because singular Science is the sacred cow of twentieth century idolatry, from which the worshipper procures his magical milk (sweet or sour) and other magical bovine products.”

One of which is “Scientific Method” — which doesn’t exist, and could never exist and, as Ritchie said, can be advanced only in the absence of that fine old Athenian (and later, Edinbourgeois) sense of the ridiculous.

Consider, if thou wilt: “One difference between religion and science is that science assumes humankind does not know the answers to many of life’s biggest questions. Religion, however, assumes that the important stuff is already known.”

This was my inspiration for this morning’s Idlepost. It comes from Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuvah Noah Harari, currently perched high in the New York Times bestseller list, and teeming with similar fatuities and clichés. He and his ilk assume “religion” has no answers, then assume “Science” has a few.

Only if God does not exist are they safe in their assumptions. For then reality does not exist, either, and nothing actually matters, so you may utter any unconscionable blather that comes unbidden into your wee head.

By David Warren, lecturer in religion and literature, St Philip’s Seminary

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto