Why Science Is Not Enough

Only through our imagination can we know the world

Photo-illustration by David Herbick
Photo-illustration by David Herbick


We are at the center of the universe. We ought to recognize this now, at what seems to be the beginning of a new age, for which postmodern is an inadequate word. A great change after about 500 years.

There are two (and for some of us, three) reasons why we should acknowledge our centrality. They have inspired and compelled me, after considerable hesitation, to write these words.

With this recognition I know that, although I remain in a small minority, I am no longer entirely alone. I am speaking of the uneasy realization that the so-called scientific view of the universe is insufficient. It is not enough to make this argument on moral, religious, or metaphysical convictions alone. There are ample evidences that the scientific or materialistic or deterministic explanations for the world that we know are at best incomplete or at worst insubstantial. The achievements of science during recent centuries have been immense, of course. But in the past 200 years, more and more people, including scientists, have come to the conclusion that the science pertaining to the subjects of their knowledge is imperfect, and probably inevitably so. (Note, too, that the word science has narrowed to mean the science of nature; the word scientist became current in English only after about 1840.)

We ought to recognize that one of the main applications of material science, technology, depends on a single limited function of causality, what we call mechanical causality, which Aristotle called efficient cause and defined as but one of four causalities. (The other three are material cause, formal cause, and final cause.) Mechanical causality means that the same causes must necessarily result in the same effects. That is the inevitable condition of machines—while at the same time it is incomplete, because it excludes the presence or participation of any kind of nonmaterial or nonmechanical element. A recent statement by the poet Wendell Berry is most appropriate here: he wrote that in the near future the great division of mankind may be between people who think of themselves as machines and people who think of themselves as creatures. His statement brings me to my argument that the earth is at the center of the universe.

About five or six centuries ago, at the beginning of what is still called the modern age, Copernicus and then Galileo discovered and proved that the center of the universe was not the earth. Centuries later astronomers’ observations have led people to understand that the entire solar system is but a minuscule portion of the numberless galaxies of the universe. But my theme is not cosmology.

Some theologians and churchmen at the time of Galileo’s trial for heresy did not want to condemn him (as it turned out, the condemnation he received did Galileo little harm). They offered him a way out—to accept that his treatise on the heavenly bodies was not an attempt to state a definite truth but a hypothesis (which, in a way, it was). Galileo would not agree to that. He believed and said that he had discovered a new truth, a forever truth.

Yet what is given to human beings is not the pure truth but the pursuit of truth. The shortcoming of Galileo and Descartes and Newton and an endless line of scientists and “realists” has been their lack of recognition—or even admission—that all of our knowledge is inevitably only human, with actual limitations (and near-miraculous potential richness, too). They looked at the universe as being outside of us and saw the greatest achievement of the human mind as being to discover and prove the existence of more and more matters in a world beyond our existence. But we, inhabitants of this earth, are inside the universe and indeed at the center of it. What we know of the universe is never entirely outside of us.

Perhaps this is how (how, rather than why) reading the great humanists of the early modern age—Machiavelli or Shakespeare, Montaigne or Pascal—tells us things that may be more enduring than the statements of the scientists of their time. Three hundred years ago, the philosopher Giambattista Vico insisted on the difference between certum and verum, between the measurably accurate knowledge of nature and the knowledge of our own kind. He understood that human causalities and relationships are more complicated than mechanical ones, since the human mind interferes with and disturbs the relationships of material causes and effects. Human relations and human communications are incomplete—while not at all meaningless. Only consider our inclinations and relations to each other.

The strongest evidence that we are not possessors of eternal truths is the inevitable relationship between the human knower and what he knows—never identical but inseparable. That relationship between the knower and what he knows, the seer and what he sees, the hearer and what he hears, and so forth, suggests that our perception is but a component of our reality. A sometimes conscious and at other times less conscious recognition of this condition has grown over the past 200 years. We can find it in Goethe’s treatise on color (dismissed for a long time even by his admirers), which says that color has three components: a material-chemical substance, contrast, and the act of seeing. The profound recognition that our reality is not separable from us was beginning to grow.

Here and there among French painters, writers, and thinkers toward the end of the 19th century, an impatient reaction to “realism” began to appear, whether or not they were fully aware of what their impatience meant. Consider the Impressionist painters. They replaced realism, which they knew had run its course. The scenes and people they painted were not less (but in a way more) real—their “subjects” were what the painters saw, not the places and people themselves. In their renditions, their participation as viewers (including the technical incompleteness of viewing) amounted to a main component of reality. Human knowledge, including human sight, is participant. (Were they aware of what this means? Perhaps not. But this did not compromise or reduce the quality of their art.)

When it came to prose, the best novelists knew that the novel was different from the epic: they had to see and describe people as they were at a certain time and a certain place. That involved more than the choice of new subjects; it involved a shift in perception and in style. Flaubert himself (often described as a high master of realism) hinted even in Madame Bovary that realism was not quite what he intended to depict. His famous principle of the mot juste was his insistence that the right word mattered more than the right “fact.” Maupassant puts this very well: that the aim of the realistic novelist “is not to tell a story; to amuse us or appeal to our feelings; but to compel us to reflect, and to understand the darker and deeper meaning of events”—a desideratum much closer to history than to science.

His observation suggests something contrary even to what Lord Acton, the great liberal Catholic historian, thought throughout his career. Near the end of the 19th century, he wrote that the science of history had reached a level where a history of the Battle of Waterloo could be written that would be fully acceptable to French, British, and Prussian historians, since it would be invariably fixed. According to him, professional history had reached a perfect or near-perfect level where it could be regarded as a science. About this Acton was wrong. Science was and is a part of history, not the other way around.

In the 20th century (a transitional one), a definite proof of the failure of science to include the human element, its involvement by participation, came from great physicists—Heisenberg and Bohr in the 1920s. This is the uncertainty or indeterminacy principle that came out of their researches. They found that our knowledge of atomic particles is the unavoidable result of our methods of observing them, of human participation, of its interference with mere physical causality (uncertainty means we cannot physically define the position and velocity of an atomic particle at the same time). This recognition of the inevitability of human participation makes the still widely accepted categories of “objective” and “subjective” knowledge incomplete. Our knowledge of this universe is inevitably participant.

The evidence—and the essence—of this truth is simpler than it may seem. It is the simultaneous and inseparable experience and function of perception and imagination. We see and imagine at the same time. The recognition of this condition of human knowledge accords entirely not only with what I wrote about the knower and the known, but also with the recognition that our world is at the center of the universe. The English thinker and writer Owen Barfield (1898–1997) ascribed some of this to the evolution of poetic diction. More essential is what

we half-perceive (that is, receive through sense-impressions) and half-create … not only the fictions of poets, but also the ordinary physical world. … The highest reaches of the imagination are of a piece with the simplest act of perception. … Only by imagination … can the world be known. And what is needed is, not only that larger and larger telescopes and more and more sensitive calipers should be constructed, but that the human mind should become increasingly aware of its creative activity.

The known, visible, and measurable conditions of the universe came not before our existence and consciousness, but as a result of them. Our universe is as it is because at its center exist conscious and participant people who can see it, explore it, study it. Such an insistence on our centrality, and on the implicit uniqueness of human beings and of their earth, is a statement not of arrogance but of its very contrary, of humility—a recognition of the inevitable limitations of mankind. Arrogance is the moral limit of those who state that the scientific and mathematical formulas worked out by frail and mortal human beings over the short span of 500 or 600 years—water is H2O, light travels at 186,282 mps, E=mc2—are absolute and eternal truths, in every place and time in the universe, trillions of years ago as well as trillions of years in the future, just as shortsightedness is the mental limit of those who believe that mathematics and geometry preceded the creation of this world and will remain true even when our world will have ceased to exist.

I appeal to the common sense of the reader. When I, a frail and fallible man, say that every morning the sun comes up here and in the evening goes down there, I am not lying. I do not say that a modern astronomer, dismissing this observation for being geocentric, is lying. There is accuracy—determinable, provable precision—in his observations and assertions, considering his particular measurements of the sun and earth. But my commonsense experience of the earth and sun is at least more basic than are his formulas. The evidence for the latter may well be true, but not true enough. When I see and recognize a tree in my garden is inseparable from what I think and what I have thought and even what I have imagined about it.

The recognition that the human observer cannot be separated from what he observes and knows suggests that we, and the earth on which we live, are back at the center of the universe—an anthropocentric and geocentric one. But this is both more and less than the returning movement of a pendulum. The pendulum of history and our knowledge of the world never swings back. First came nature, and then came man, and then the science of nature. And now, in the 21st century, or perhaps later, we may consider yet another stage of our consciousness and of our place and time in the universe, that of our interiority: that the conditions of our knowledge and our necessarily incomplete understanding of human nature (like all human understanding, even its impulse of love) may be more important than our science of nature. In our complicated democratic age, it seems to me that something like this may happen through a further skepticism about materialism—or, alas, through some oceanic movement of popular mysticism. But my theme is history, not prophecy.

About faith, belief, religion at the end of a great age and at the beginning of a new one, I am still bound to speculate. One last reason—or, better, argument—for placing humanity and its earth at the center of the universe: I happen to believe in God, and that Christ was his son. (Why I believe this, or perhaps why I wish to believe it, is not easy to tell, being part and parcel of my interior life—something that does not belong here.) Still, what this belief means, and what it ought to mean, is a recognition that Christ’s life among us, on this earth, may have been the central event in the history of mankind. If so, then this historical event took place in what was then (and not only then but since and in the future) the center of the universe. I know that, being such a believer, I am among a minority of human beings. And this essay is not especially directed to members of that minority.

To this I wish to add my anxiety about many believing Christians whose belief in Christ may be honest, sincere, and profound. Evidence suggests that their view of the world and of its history now exists together with, or at least alongside, their belief in endless progress, including the power of humankind to know and rule more and more of the universe, beyond this small planet where God makes us live. Sometimes I fear that as the life of Christ—only 2,000 years ago, a tiny portion of what we know of the history of mankind—becomes further and further away because of the passage of time, the meaning of his words, his life, his Calvary may weaken in the imagination of men.

But that I cannot know.

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John Lukacs is the author of more than 30 books, including Five Days in London: May 1940. His most recent book is A Short History of the Twentieth Century.


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