Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 6

(Read Part 5 of the series.)


The age of increasing importance of science is usually claimed to have begun with Copernicus in the early 16th Century when he argued that the sun is the centre of the solar system and not the earth as the church had always insisted. (This is stated in the Psalms of the Old Testament and by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd Century.) In fact, so afraid was Copernicus of incurring the wrath of the clergy that publication of his beliefs did not take place until after his death. Even Galileo, later confirming the facts by telescope, was forced to deny it since he wished to stay alive. Galileo advocated that all prior beliefs and opinion should be kept out of scientific observation, which should be completely objective. Needless to say, once such ideas gained support, the authority of the church began to diminish and their dogmatic pronouncements about the nature of everything began to be supplanted by more tentative suggestions based upon specific observation and experiment.

Isaac Newton was born in the same year that Galileo died and his discoveries were to have a devastating effect on religious faith. Once it became accepted that the workings of the universe could be understood through scientific laws, the idea of a divine creation became suspect. Man was just a tiny phenomenon in a vast universe, no longer the centre of everything. This had a profound effect upon man’s self-image and outlook. Previously it had been believed that our earth was effectively the creation and that man was the most important being in it, capable of communing with God and aspiring to union with Him. Henceforth it became increasingly apparent that the earth was insignificant in the immensity of the universe and the concomitant conclusion was that man himself was nowhere near so important as had previously been supposed.

And, if everything moved according to principles of action and reaction, gravitation and so on, in an essentially mechanistic way, what did this imply for man’s free will and morality? If you could know the initial conditions and the forces that acted upon a particular body, then the outcome was inevitable. What place could God have in all of this? Henceforth, people would look towards science for evidence to provide explanations for the phenomena that they saw around them rather than accepting what the bishops or rabbis told them was the case.

The advent of science marked the boundary between the old world and the modern. It did not however open the way towards any understanding of self or purpose or make us more satisfied with what we had. In fact, it led towards materialism and an ever increasing concentration on detail. Instead of looking inwards, the world of objectivity was suddenly opened up in ways that had previously been unimaginable. It was now possible to continue to find out more and more about less and less, as someone once cynically pointed out until, in the limit, we would know everything about nothing. Discoveries and inventions have diverted us ever since, making life easier and perhaps more enjoyable but doing little to explain to us what exactly it is really about. Where would we be without the automobile, refrigerator, television and the atomic bomb? How would we survive if we couldn’t look forward to holidays in the Bahamas and choosing the sex of our future children?

At least the scientific method developed by Francis Bacon at the end of the 16th Century gave us the tools to enable us to question our beliefs and approach new ideas more circumspectly. He advocated looking for patterns in repeated, controlled experiments, putting forward hypotheses to explain our observations and devising new experiments to test them – ideas familiar to all of us today; clearly valuable if we are looking towards understanding the world ‘out there’ in an objective manner.

He pointed out that we have an innate tendency to accept what our senses tell us and we are far too easily persuaded by opinion, whether our own or those of someone else. Existing systems, philosophical or religious, as well as language itself, can also deceive us. We need to be on our guard against all of these things. Bacon is also remembered for stating that ‘knowledge is power’. But is it happiness or fulfilment? And, as we may ask shortly, in the light of philosophers such as Bishop George Berkeley, what does it actually mean to know all these facts about ‘objects’?

This is not to say that Bacon was an atheist. On the contrary, like Averroës he believed that it was possible to discover truths from divine revelation as well as through reason. Faith, indeed, could triumph over reason in such matters. Apparently he rejected the Copernican theory for example, continuing to believe that the sun orbited the earth. In fact, science was never going to be of any help in investigating into the nature of spiritual matters and of limited value in respect of subjects such as consciousness and happiness.

The nature of the scientific method was inevitably going to tend towards a materialistic view of life, with potentially everything being ultimately analysable. A contemporary of Galileo and secretary of Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, stated this view most clearly, believing that everything, including ourselves is effectively a machine. Hobbes believed that our desires are driven automatically by mental needs that can never be satisfied and we vainly attempt to avoid the inevitability of death. Our natural instinct is always to act in our own self-interest, regardless of others and we have to strive to subdue this in order to gain the benefits of security etc. that result from living in society with others. He is famous for his quotation that, without these benefits, life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Accordingly, his political philosophy advocates an absolute ruler for his ideal society, which although simply a compromise would at least ensure peace – far preferable to the anarchy that would result if man was left to his own devices. Needless to say, his books were banned by the church.

Hobbes had very straightforward notions of some of the issues dealt with here. Things were said to be good if we desire or love them and bad if we have an aversion to or hate them – there simply are no absolutes. Everything is mechanical and the idea of free will a logical absurdity. Religion was simply approved superstition resulting from the fear of invisible forces.

The scientific method has great appeal to the ego. It gives us a sense of somehow being in control. We observe something that we do not fully understand and investigate and theorise in a way that it is fully consistent with our existing knowledge and experience. We set up tests to see what happens in novel situations and modify our understanding accordingly. We put forward possible explanations for the observed behaviour and use these to predict what might happen under conditions that we have not yet witnessed. If the predictions are correct then we have an explanation that is satisfying to our intellect. This differs radically from the so-called explanations of religion, where we are asked to believe in totally illogical events supposedly engineered by a God of whom we can never have any objective knowledge.

Mathematics is an even more logical and self-consistent system. It begins with premises that are intuitively obvious, such as that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, and proceeds by a series of logically unarguable steps to conclusions that may seem quite novel and unintuitive. Descartes was a mathematician and he wanted to apply this sort of process to his own experience. He realised that our senses are often fooled and are therefore unreliable. We have dreams that we believe to be real at the time. How do we know that all our experiences are not being input electronically to our brain, itself isolated in a vat by a malevolent demon?

He reasoned that, even if this were true, we could still be sure of one thing, namely that ‘I’ am some sort of being that is having these experiences, however delusional – i.e. I exist. From this starting point, he went on to reason that he was a mind. It is only by virtue of ‘thinking’ that I know I exist, where ‘thinking’ includes imagining, feeling etc. Once thinking ceases, there is no longer any evidence. (Clearly he was completely unaware of the practice of meditation in its modern sense – anyone who has experienced the depths of meditation, totally without thoughts, will know the pure awareness of ‘I’.) He maintained that all conclusions reached simply through logical and rational steps, without the benefit of the senses, must also be true.

This power of the faculty of reason (Rationalism) and the importance of knowledge (Epistemology) became the two most important elements of philosophical endeavour for the next few hundred years and entrenched the scientific method even more firmly than before. Ironically, part of Descartes’ process of reasoning from the certainty of his own existence to the objective truths of science involved the proof of the existence of God. The very reasoning power that he was using, he claimed, came from God. He also went on to argue for example that, since God was good, he could not be deceitful therefore objects must exist because they appear to do so. His recognition that the evidence of things came from thoughts and perceptions in our mind, rather than externally, was very important for subsequent philosophers. He also assumed that thoughts need a thinker, which does not go without saying.

It is worth mentioning in passing the observation of a contemporary of Descartes, Blaise Pascal, on believing in God – the so-called ‘Wager’ analogy. He noted that, if we have doubts as to whether or not God exists, it must be to our advantage to wager that He does. In this case, if it turns out that we are correct, we will be rewarded eternally in heaven and will have the advantage of the consoling thoughts of this during our lifetime. If it turns out that He doesn’t exist, obviously we will not go to heaven but then we will be dead anyway so it will not make much difference. On the other hand, if we decide not to believe in God when He really does exist, we will suffer everlasting torment in hell and have only the minor advantage in our lifetime of not having to read the bible or go to church.

To be continued…