In the first chapter of Human Existence–Contradiction and Hope, Walter Strolz traces the origins of the modern scientific viewpoint. He begins with Descartes (1596-1650), who is credited with providing the philosophical foundation for philosophical dualism, in which mind and matter are distinct and separate. Within this framework, the external world can be regarded in a purely objective way, unaffected by the mind’s attitudes or desires.
Next, Strolz cites Galileo (1564-1642) for his “courage to discover by means of experiment the dependency of natural phenomena on one another. This enabled Galileo to express the events of nature in terms of law and to make them available to human purposes.” Isaac Newton (1642-1727), he writes, then extended this empiricism by showing how to
generalize by induction the forces and laws of nature recognized throught the analysis of individual phenomena and thus, with far-reaching synthetic power, to encompass the movements of the stars in the sky and those of the bodies of the earth in one and the same lawfulness. Newton’s principles are sustained by faith in objectivity within nature which the physicist can describe as existent data and can express in mathematical terms in the form of laws.
This determinism laid the foundation for what later became known as Newtonian or classical physics. Space and time are assumed to be autonomous and completely uniform throughout the universe.
However, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) upset this theoretical framework by showing that it only held true on the macroscopic level, due to the dependence of space, time, and motion on other factors, such as the distribution of matter in space. At the minutest levels, Strolz writes, “a causal description of physical processes is doomed to failure.” Nevertheless, atomic physics, like classical physics, is mathematically determined, so that it can still be verified by experiment.
Finally, Strolz ends this survey with Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), who formulated an “uncertainty principle” to describe how the scientific view of nature is influenced by the experimenter’s intentions, insofar as the application of his method changes how an object is measured. Heisenberg proposed that the position and momentum of a particular atomic object at a particular moment in time cannot both be precisely determined: the method of determining either measurement destroys the validity of the other.
Heisenberg saw this as a significant shift in the relationship between humans and nature. Before, we could say that we were completely objective, confronting the nonhuman Nature; but with atomic physics, it becomes clear that we are confronting our own mathematical theories.
Heisenberg concludes his reflections on the reasons why man no longer meets nature but merely sees before himself a “construct of our relationship to nature” with this recognition: “Herewith natural science’s world concept ceases to be an actual natural scientific one.“
Finally, we have arrived at my point: Modern science is a technical construct, in a hall of mirrors showing progressively finer recursive images of itself. The technologies of measurement, data-gathering, data-recording, information storage and retrieval, probability, statistics, and mathematical theory serve to enclose the modern scientist in a tight cocoon.
It represents technological refinement, and it shows itself through precise control of new technology. It is not, to that extent, “naturalistic.” Is that bad? Not necessarily. However, it is hypocritical to claim to be “naturalistic” and “empirical” when you are not.
Naturalism means accepting the existing world as it is, without imposing on it a presupposed framework. I say that this natural world is made by God, and whereas I can try to understand it through my own reasoning, I do not claim to know everything about it. I cannot know it in all its massive extent throughout space and time, in accordance with manmade laws that are too numerous and complex in themselves, yet cannot possibly provide an exact description of everything in the universe.
This is naturalism and empiricism: to know what the ground of your being is, to know that your life is contingent and transient in itself, and to reject preconceptions about the universe. I reject the arrogance and stupidity of people who do not themselves understand the inadequate mathematical and theoretical constructs that they claim fully determine every created thing. They are self-limiting, insular, artificial, solipsistic, and without hope. If they can ever break out of their little manmade cocoons, they might find the true glory of nature, which is a pale reflection of the glory of its creator.