Arts and Culture

Human Dignity Amid Empirical Science

OCCASIONALLY I READ an essay in a periodical that I find so stimulating that I decide to share some of the insights of the author with readers of this column.

I suppose that one reason that I find Marilynne Robinson’s essay, “Wonders Never Cease: Integrity and the Modern Intellectual Condition” (Commonweal, Dec. 17, 2017, pp. 13-19), so interesting is that a number of points she makes coincide with insights I have read recently in the writings of other philosophers and theologians, and also because I try to teach similar insights to students in some of my philosophy courses at St. John’s University. The essay will appear in Robinson’s new book, “What Are We Doing Here?, which will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this month.

If the essay is typical of the type of reflection and writing that will be found in “What Are We Doing Here?,” then I am going to recommend the book to the priests in a discussion group of which I am a member. I know that in this short column there is no way that I can do justice to Robinson’s thought-provoking essay, but I hope I can at least call attention to some of the important points she makes.

In trying to explain the modern intellectual atmosphere, Robinson goes back to Descartes (1596-1653), known as the Father of Modern Philosophy, because he inaugurated a new way of thinking, quite different from the type of thinking represented by medieval thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure.

Minds Made for Science

I hope I don’t oversimplify when I claim that Descartes thought that the best way of thinking was to do science. He thought that God had given us our minds to do science and so God’s truthfulness became the guarantee of the truth of scientific judgments. People could be certain about scientific conclusions, thought Descartes, because God, Who is truth, had created the human mind so that it could do science.

Robinson writes the following: “…the assumption became general that science could and some time would explain everything, including the mind itself. So over time the mind was desacralized and the world as well, metaphysics was put aside, and science, brilliant as it was, took on the character of dispeller of myth and agent of disillusionment.”(p. 13)

As science became a “dispeller of myth and agent of disillusionment” it moved many toward the philosophy of scientism, which I find many of our contemporaries embrace today, sometimes without even realizing they do or what the implications of that philosophy are.

Scientism holds that only statements of empirical science are true. Because God is not studied by chemistry or physics or biology or any empirical science, embracing scientism would mean that no true statements can be made about God.

Apparently the so-called “new atheists” embrace the philosophy of scientism. They seem to be unaware that scientism contradicts itself, because the statement – that only statements of empirical science are true – is itself not a statement of empirical science, and so, is not true.

Of course, empirical science can say nothing about the existence – or lack of existence – of God because empirical science deals with the material world. Because empirical science did not talk about God, all talk about God eventually became suspect.

Robinson believes, and I strongly agree, that removing God from contemporary thought necessarily shrinks the meaning of human person. She writes the following:

“The modern world, insofar as it is proposed to human kind as its habitation, is too small, too dull, too meager for us. After all, we are very remarkable. We alone among the creatures have learned a bit of the grammar of the universe.” (p. 18)

Robinson insists that a theistic vision of the world is freer to see the world whole. She quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur” to emphasize her point: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will blaze out like shining from shook foil.”

Reality of Human Intelligence

It surprises me that many who praise the glories of empirical science seem simultaneously to neglect the importance of the human person and the breathtaking dignity of the human person evident in the human mind’s ability to do science.

Somehow, though seeing the greatness of empirical science, many who embrace scientism don’t fully appreciate that human minds are the only realities on earth that can do science, and what that reveals about human intelligence.

Robinson notes that in much of contemporary thought, religion “is represented as a repressive system from which modern thought is a liberation.” (p.18) Unfortunately, it is from much of modern thought that we need to be liberated.

Robinson’s essay, “Wonders Never Cease: Integrity and the Modern Intellectual Condition,” with its wonderful insights into the human mystery and its critique of modern thought is a contribution toward that liberation.


Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).


Related: An Evening with Marilynne Robinson