Wisdom of the Moderns: Science and Religion

In W.T. Stace’s 1948 essay “Man Against Darkness,” he outlines the decline of religion in the West and the implications this has for civilization. He notes that modern science suspended contemplation on final causes. This quickly caused a non-teleological cosmology to be widely accepted, either implicitly or explicitly. Religion rests on teleology, so this view of the universe eroded the core of religion, leaving it hollow and unbelievable. Religion is the foundation of values in the West, so Western civilization faces a profound crisis. Stace concludes by briefly examining the way in which we might pull ourselves out of this nihilistic crisis.

In Aristotle’s Metaphysics, he identifies four causes behind all objects (Book V, Part 2). The material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause. Important here are the efficient and final cause. Aristotle calls the efficient cause, “That from which the change or resting from change first begins.” In other words, the efficient cause is the physical agent of change; it is the thing that actually did the work of causing. For example, the efficient cause of dynamite exploding could be found in its chemical composition and its trigger. Aristotle describes the final cause as “the end, i.e. that for which the sake of a thing is.” For example, he says, “health is the cause of walking.” The final cause is the purpose behind an object.

Prior to the scientific revolution, natural philosophers and thinkers investigated both the efficient and final causes of things. They saw the world as governed by intention and purpose. However, this changed with the rise of modern science. Stace writes, “The founders of modern science – for instance, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton – were mostly pious men who did not doubt God’s purposes. Nevertheless they took the revolutionary step of consciously and deliberately expelling the idea of purpose as controlling nature from their new science of nature.” (p. 3). These men wholeheartedly believed that final causes existed, but they decided that the idea was not useful for scientific inquiry. So, they consciously disregarded the question, “Why is this here?” to pursue the question, “How does this work?” Because this freed them from an abundance of incorrect religious doctrines, such as the geocentric model of the universe, it enabled them to become hugely successful at describing the mechanics of the natural world.

This success posed a problem for religion. It seemed that the suspension of final causes was able to give a rational and powerfully descriptive view of the universe, one that could be tested and empirically proven. Religion, on the other hand, was never able to produce mathematically precise and repeatable theories. Very quickly, a new conception of the universe as cold and dead appeared. In this new conception, we do not withhold discussion on the topic of final causes while still believing they are there, we abandon the belief that final causes exist at all. Instead, “Nature is nothing but matter in motion.” (p. 4). The universe is just a random collection of materials that interact according to laws that we can discover.

Stace notes that this view of the universe has immense implications for religion. The teleological view of the universe, that each part of the universe has a purpose, is at the center of the religious sentiment. If this is destroyed, then religion is destroyed. He writes:

Religion could survive the discoveries that the sun, not the earth, is the center; that men are descended from simian ancestors; that the earth is hundreds of millions of years old. These discoveries may render out of date some of the details of older theological dogmas, may force their restatement in new intellectual frameworks. But they do not touch the essence of the religious vision itself, which is the faith that there is plan and purpose in the world, that the world is a moral order, that in the end all things are for the best. (p. 4)

Without a warm universe, one in which the Good will always beat the Evil in the end, religion cannot survive. It is not the individual discoveries of science that eliminated this view, but rather the enormous success of the scientific spirit.

This is a problem not only for religious people, but all of civilization. Religion, and Christianity in particular, was historically the foundation of all morality and values in the West. If religion has crumbled, then all of our values have also crumbled. Neither morality nor aesthetics are recoverable from this collapse.

Stace goes on to say that we must now face this situation. He says, “The reason why we must now boldly and honestly face the truth that the universe is non-spiritual and indifferent to goodness … is not that it would be wicked to suppress it, but simply that it is too late to do so.” (p. 11). To assume that truth in itself is valuable would be again to hold on to a value, but this is precisely what the scientific spirit has made impossible. However, Stace points out that the fact is that the deadness of the universe is in front of us. It may have been better to ban Copernicus and Newton, and indeed the Catholic Church attempted this, but it is too late for that. The conception of a nihilistic universe is unavoidable now, so mankind must learn to live with that. The way to do this, Stace says, is by finding some way to establish a firm secular foundation for morality. An example of this is Kant, and “this [project of finding a secular foundation] may very well be intellectually successful.” (p. 6). It may be that experienced philosophers may be able to show why ethics is still valid as a category of knowledge. However, the whole question is whether the “masses” will accept this. If it is only an esoteric theory, this will never motivate the common man to be civilized. If we are not able to motivate the common man, says Stace, then it is highly likely that civilization will collapse completely (p. 13).

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