I am grateful to Peter Leithart and the Theopolis Institute for the opportunity to lend my thoughts to this extraordinarily rich conversation.  I am also grateful to my interlocutors for their insightful and generous responses and for the opportunity they have provided for me to try to clarify these thoughts within the space constraints of the medium.  I would just add to this second effort the caveat that the issues under consideration here are extraordinarily complex, and it exceeds my capacities to exhaust them within these constraints.  I’m sure I speak for several of us when I say that readers interested in going deeper should consult our more extended work on the subject.

Let me begin with what I take to be the most foundational of these criticisms, those of Peter Leithart.  Peter latches onto my remark that “the rational superiority of theology [does not] consist in its providing better explanations for the dynamics of natural systems and processes that are the subjects of the various sciences,” and he takes me to task for saying that the doctrine of creation “does not offer a better explanation of ‘how the world works’” but a more adequate explanation of “what the world is,” thereby rescuing reason “from the reductive functionalism of scientific rationality.”  He counters that this fails to apprehend how scientific cognition actually works, that it is not “reductive,” “functionalist” or “mechanistic” because its reliance on metaphors and models makes it more akin to poetry.  And, more importantly, he worries that the distinction between being and working threatens to re-institute the territories for science and theology seemingly favored by Peter Harrison.  Science and theology would then really live separate lives after all; the theological understanding of “what things are” would not carry over, as it surely must, into how they work, and theology would once again be deprived of any capacity to correct science in its sins of commission and omission.  And he adduces the apparent incapacity of the sciences to acknowledge or even cognize the soul as a case in point.

I appreciate the objection.  The distinction between “what the world is” and “how the world works” was a short-hand way of indicating three aspects of the larger thesis of No God, No Science? that appear, briefly and in somewhat disconnected fashion, throughout this essay.  I thought them particularly relevant to this discussion but could not develop them in full. 

In the first instance, I was trying to head off the commonplace mistake of regarding the doctrine of creation and scientific theories as mutually exclusive forms of explanation, in the hope that Christians thinking about these questions would not unwittingly assume the reduced conception of God presupposed by the sciences in treating divine agency as if it were a mechanical force that could be substituted for by a natural mechanism or process.  The doctrine of creation is a function of the doctrine of God, which is effectively negated by the metaphysical presuppositions of modern science.  The Christian who attempts to engage science taking those presuppositions for granted has failed from the outset. 

Secondly, I was trying to distinguish between science, metaphysics, and theology without separating them.   The distinction between abstraction and separation was a scholastic commonplace, but for metaphysical reasons I discuss in my book, it has become very difficult for us to sustain.[1]  That there is a distinction to be maintained here should be uncontroversial.  Metaphysics and theology do not gaze upon reality under the same formal aspects that distinguish the other sciences from each other qua biology, chemistry, physics, etc.  Neither do metaphysics and theology engage in the same kind of empirical and experimental analysis or accept the Baconian conflation of truth and utility.  Nevertheless, what I describe as the constitutive relation of science to metaphysics and theology means that what Peter Leithart calls the “hidden metaphysical and theological assumptions of the sciences” lie not just at the origin of scientific inquiry, where they can be discretely cordoned off from empirical and experimental analyses that are metaphysically indifferent. Peter Harrison’s response perhaps suggests this sort of understanding.  What is true of being must necessarily be operative both in the objects of scientific analysis and in the subjects who undertake it, and the judgments about this truth, or the ‘decision’ to neglect it by ignoring the exigencies of one’s own thought, likewise remain operative at every step of the endeavor: objectively, for example, in determining which aspects of natural phenomena in their total self-presentation are going to count as ‘the empirical’—say their quantifiable and measurable aspects and not the unity and intelligibility through which we necessarily apprehend them—and subjectively, in the decision to make irrelevant the existential unity and interior horizon of the perceiving scientist or the meaning through which he necessarily perceives the world.  While all this means that theology and philosophy must engage the sciences qua philosophy and theology, and not as an ersatz science, it does not leave them as bereft of things to say, including things of scientific import, as Peter Leithart suggests.  In my extended critique of Darwinian evolution in No God, No Science?, for example, I concede the likelihood of descent with modification, natural selection, and the genetic kinship of all living things as interpretations of the empirical evidence from paleontology and genetics while calling into question an important range of inadequacies in Darwin’s theorizing. For example, I question the adequacy of the Darwinian conception of the organism on grounds that it lacks the unity, interiority, form, and finality heretofore conferred on it by soul; I question the coherence of the transmutation of species and the Darwinian conception of change; I question the adequacy of the claim of Darwinian biology to provide an overarching and causal explanation—that is, a theory of ‘how the world works’—while also raising the possibility that an organism could be genealogically related to earlier ancestral forms without our being able to say that it ‘evolved’ from it in any meaningful sense.  To meet these objections, Darwinism would need to incorporate into its understanding of living things both something like the ‘soul’ excluded by its ontology, and more expansive notions of both causality and explanation than its ontological commitments will allow it to entertain.  I would hope that this would provide a more nuanced example of what a metaphysical and theological engagement with the sciences, proceeding according to these principles, might look like, one which doesn’t run afoul of Peter Leithart’s criticism.[2]

Finally, as a gesture toward this more comprehensive conception of reason and nature, I was trying to recover the significance of questions in the “what is” form.  Such questions, though they are existentially and syntactically unavoidable, are stricto sensu excluded by a scientific ontology predicated on the negation of the essence and existence corresponding to those questions and by a form of reason that remains “reductive,” “functionalistic,” and “mechanistic” not just in spite but also because of the “metaphors” and “models” it employs, leaving science in a paradoxical position which I will discuss below in connection with Peter Harrison’s proposal.  These metaphors and models frequently function as placeholders for “we know not what” and are often called upon to do the heavy conceptual lifting to account for those aspects of reality otherwise excluded by science’s underlying ontology and mechanistic forms of analysis while simultaneously assisting them in their reduction through the images they employ.  I have myself likened many of these—stars as a “chemical factory,” the notion of “biological information,” the definition of the organism as an “autocatalytic dissipative system,” the distinction between DNA “software” and cellular “hardware,” to say nothing of Dawkins’ “survival machines” and “giant lumbering robots”—to bad poetry.  Even so, the inherently reductive nature of scientific analysis does not derive principally from the presence or absence of metaphors and models good or bad, but in two features of scientific reason that correspond to the underlying mechanistic ontology of science.  The first is an act of cognition which, in Francis Bacon’s words, “takes experience apart to analyze it,”  abstracting the phenomena of nature from their own self-presentation and the totality of conditions characterizing the actual existence of both substance and object.  Objectively, this leaves us with the sort of desiccated world described by C.S. Lewis in Jeff Meyers’ essay; subjectively, it extracts the observing scientist from his immersion in and dependence upon that same reality to an Archimedean point outside nature that Hannah Arendt calls the “astrophysical” viewpoint, wherein he is no longer a participant in being, subject to its exigencies and aware of how they impinge upon thought, but a spectator of it.[3]  The second is the pragmatic criterion, the success in prediction, retrodiction, manipulation, replication, control, or simply performing what William James called the “marriage function” between present and previous experiences, by which the adequacy or “truth” of his models and metaphors will finally be measured and which leads inevitably to the conflation of substance (being) and operations (working), the reduction of ontological identity—“what a thing is”—to what it can do or be made to do.[4]  The recovery of an ontology and a corresponding form of reason capable of saying “what things are,” and something approaching the Aristotelian conception of causality, are the preconditions for a science that can say “soul”—or include within its conception of reality a rational expression of what we mean when we say it.  For as Joe Sachs observes in the introduction to his translation of Aristotle’s De Anima, “That inward depth of life that opens up in perception”—part of what is indicated by the word ‘soul’—”cannot be found on or between the extended surfaces of bodies, and when we cut bodies open, all we find on their insides are more outsides.”[5]

Nevertheless, this is a lot of work to ask of one pithy formulation, more, it appears, than it was successfully able to perform.  Perhaps what I should have said—and more or less what I tried to say in No God, No Science?—is that “creation tells us what the world is, not how the world works in the mechanistic sense presupposed by the sciences.  But when we think more deeply about what the world is, we discover that the mechanistic sense of “working” is itself partial, abstract, incomplete, and reductive.”  The scholastic axiom, agere sequitur esse, (doing follows being) remains in force.  There can only be mechanistic analysis because there are first substances, including the scientist himself, that are irreducible to mechanism:  things being what they are, doing what they do, in virtue of what they are.  But that then means that mechanistic analysis is itself a form of abstraction from the real, partial, incomplete, and reductive by nature, and dangerously so, unless and until it is integrated into a more comprehensive conception of being, causality, reason and truth.

All of this should indicate why I cannot finally accept the recommendations of Peter Harrison, despite my great esteem for his work and my great debt to him for all that I have learned from it over the years.  I do not deny a certain dependence of philosophy upon history—I am more suspicious of sociology for the reasons ably described by Paul Tyson—what I do deny is that history is first philosophy, or that metaphysics as first philosophy can be, or ever really is, dispensed with.[6]  (I appreciate Paul’s coming to my defense on this point as well.)  I understand, and indeed it is an integral part of all my arguments on this subject, that science is predicated upon the renunciation of truth in the traditional, ontological sense, though I prefer to speak of a functionalist or pragmatic transformation of truth as power or possibility, which assumes ontological precedence over being and actuality.  I have explored this at some length, attempting to show how the theologia naturalis inherent in the sciences has a kind of built-in obsolescence that warrants science and philosophy going their separate ways.  And in a line extending from Bacon and Locke to James, Dewey, and Rorty, it is precisely this reduction of truth to pragmatic function that has provided a philosophical justification for philosophical suicide and brought about the eclipse of the very idea of truth.  I have indicated some of the damage from the attempt both in my original essay and in the preceding paragraphs, and much more in my other writings, but we ought to be able to discern it even from Peter Harrison’s proposal.  He suggests that “we think of the sciences more akin to engineering.”  But if science is tantamount to engineering, and science alone has authority over the interpretation of nature, then we must inevitably regard the world and ourselves as machines.   

However, the real question—and it is a philosophical question rather than a historical or sociological one—is whether such a renunciation of the traditional Western understanding of truth is finally possible.  I argue that it is not, and that the attempt at renunciation leaves the sciences in a paradoxical position, unable to cognize theoretically a form of question that it must necessarily presuppose and answer in practice.  The impossibility of dispensing with metaphysics and theology—and the inevitability of our taking a stand with respect to truth—ultimately follow from the truth that there is no “outside” of the order of being that is creation, which makes us participants in it rather than spectators of it, though I elsewhere have offered complementary philosophical and historical justifications for this claim that do not depend upon the acceptance of this theological premise.  I will not repeat those here.  But if indeed we are creatures, and this claim is therefore true, then the very attempt to renounce the quest will not only result in a want of philosophical self-knowledge and a failure to understand the exigencies of one’s own cognitive act, but it will be tantamount to a refusal if not an incapacity on the part of the sciences to be integrated into a more comprehensive conception of reason and nature.  As Paul points out, this would only underscore the reduction of reason to scientific reason.  Yet insofar as reason does have a necessary ordination to truth and therefore cannot really exorcise questions—and answers—about the natures of things, it leaves us with only functional answers to ontological questions, that is, with the conflation of “being” and “working” and the reduction of “what things are” to what they can do…or be made to do.   I do not see how confronting such problems “from a more straightforwardly ethical perspective than from the lofty heights of metaphysics” can work once morality is severed from reality.  I do not see how this advice—or the separate “territories” of science and religion on which it seems to be based—does not simply reproduce Stephen Jay Gould’s “Non-overlapping magisterial authority,” which, I have shown, harbors a theology all its own and serves, in the end, to underwrite the pervasive idea that science is the sole authority on what and how the world is.  Nor can I see what prevents this division from terminating in the conclusion of a Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking that philosophy is bunk, though I know Peter Harrison does not think this, or Rorty’s conclusion that “truth” just isn’t the sort of thing we should talk about anymore.[7] 

Peter Harrison and Jeff Meyers, albeit each in his own way, seem concerned that a metaphysical perspective on these questions is too “lofty” or perhaps too abstract for ordinary parishioners, the general public or even the lowly scientists who have given up understanding the world for re-engineering it.[8]  This leads Peter Harrison to pose a question about my intended audience and who might be persuaded by my arguments.  It is a legitimate question, one that I posed to myself at the outset of No God, No Science?, where I conceded that such an audience may not exist.  The response to the book, or lack thereof, seems to support that judgment.  I often joke that I always try to write as if no one will read it, and most of the time they oblige.  But most jokes contain a kernel of truth, and the kernel in this one is that the point of thinking and writing is not first persuading but understanding.  That we are now largely unable to see this, and to see the value of a “useless” truth, good for what it is rather than what it does, reveals the scope of science’s triumph and a large part of the problem in need of overcoming.

It is this desire to understand that distinguishes real theology and philosophy from sophistry and from every other form of rationality on offer in our modern world.  And if we take Aristotle seriously, it reverses the way we think of the concrete and the abstract.  For him, it is the particular sciences that are abstract and metaphysics that is concrete, because the particular sciences each cut off a part of being from the whole to which it actually belongs to examine it under a particular aspect, while metaphysics is concerned with the meaning of the whole, which means penetrating to the foundations of each of the parts.[9]  The “lofty” and the “ordinary” are only superficially separate.  The only hope for the “ordinary” world is a renewal of the great tradition of Christian Platonism, that is, of Christianity.  It is only by a comprehension of the unity, interiority, and intelligibility of the whole that only theology and philosophy finally provide—a whole that includes the sense we make of it among the things that need comprehending—that we can give rational expression to the conviction that the “the sweetness of your breath as your draw it in, the comfort in your belly because we breakfasted well, and your hunger for the next meal,” the divine and human world that all of us, including the scientist, cannot help living in, is the real world after all.

Michael Hanby is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy of Science at Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC.

[1] See Aquinas, In Boeth. De Trin., q.5, a.3; Michael Hanby, No God, No Science? Theology, Cosmology, Biology (Chichester:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 30-36, 107-49, 375-415; D.L. Schindler, Ordering Love:  Liberal Societies and the Memory of God (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2011), 383-429.

[2]Hanby, No God, No Science?, 186-293.

[3] Francis Bacon, The New Organon (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2011), 17; Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1998), 257-73.

[4] William James, Pragmatism & The Meaning of Truth (Astoria:  Watchmaker Publishing, 2011), 35.  On the reduction of things to “what they can do and what can be done with them,” see John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (New York:  Henry Holt, 1920), 103-31, especially 115.

[5] Joe Sachs, Aristotle’s On the Soul and On Memory and Recollection (Santa Fe:  Green Lion Press, 2001), 4-5.

[6] Once again, however, this does not mean that metaphysics is a kind of consciously held, a priori system from which scientific conclusions are then deduced, but an often-unconscious entailment of every conception of reality.

[7] Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1982), ix-xlvii.

[8] “In the first half of the twenty-first century, biological understanding will likely become less an end in itself than a means to manipulate biology.  In one century, we have moved from observing to understanding to engineering.”  Gregory Stock, Redesigning Humans:  Our Inevitable Genetic Future (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 7.

[9] Aristotle, Metaph. IV, 1003b23.

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