Yesterday morning, Micah Mattix asked “is it impossible for the humanities to thrive in a secular society,” one dominated by a philosophical materialism? In one way yes, yet there is nevertheless hope.

Insofar as our secular society has become infatuated with materialism, denying the possibility of anything (except subatomic particles) which we cannot calculate or mathematically describe, the humanities will cease to matter—we will only care about the knowledge and corollary power to be sapped from the world by scientific and mathematical dominance. At this point, humans themselves will cease to matter, as our humanity is degraded into a chemical and molecular equation, much like the code and circuit boards of a computer.

The Canadian philosopher, Charles DeKoninck, describes the tension between the sciences and humanities in this way:

The problems of philosophy, when distinguished from those which Bertrand Russell calls scientific, will remain forever in debate. Should the day ever come when Leibniz has his way: when, to settle their problems, philosophers will merely have ‘to take their pens in their hands, to sit down to their desks and to say to each other (with a friend as witness, if they liked), “Let us calculate” ‘, there will be no more problems, for there will be no one to raise them. Meantime, the calculators have their use, while philosophers are forever in need of being debunked, a thing no one knew better than Socrates. Nevertheless, as Aristotle suggested, no one can deny philosophy without at least implying a philosophy of his own, and his own may prove to be a very foolish one.

What did we know of man before we found out that he is a throng of electric charges? And that he is composed of multitudinous cells? And that the circulation of his blood is an exquisite piece of chemistry and mechanics? Is it possible that, having learned all this, we may remain far more ignorant of him than Sophocles, or Shakespeare? Or the people who believe they know what these writers meant? [Bold added.-M.O.]

Biology and chemistry can offer insights into the chemical reactions of anger—why the face flushes red and the heart beats faster—but science cannot offer the insight into “the anger of Achilles” as Homer does nor the words of rage Shakespeare places in Hotspur’s mouth, “an if the devil come and roar for them,/I will not send them: I will after straight/And tell him so; for I will ease my heart,/Albeit I make a hazard of my head.”

The academy sets aside the humanities for the sciences because of a pre-imposed philosophical approach. To embrace materialism, as Dr. Ronald McArthur has noted in a speech at Thomas Aquinas College, is to embrace “nihilism. That means nobody knows anything. It doesn’t matter whether you affirm something or deny something….Education then turns to the practical…There is hardly any education that is ordered, institutionally, to anything that is sound intellectually.”

When academics assume material reductionism, education cannot flourish because it loses the capacity to see beyond mere material into the inner workings of things—we lose the object of our intellectual inquiry in the circuits and wires it wears. By denying God in so radical a manner, materialism denies all consciousness, and ultimately allows us to waste time until we are no longer deluded that there is such a thing: thing referring both to the notion of time and the notion of self. However, that is putting the “the cart before the horse,” or perhaps more properly “Descartes before the horse.” If the scientist and the author begin by observing a horse, they perhaps can tell us nothing about God. But if the academy did not insist that her scholars fit the horse into a predestined philosophical approach, and instead reached conclusions through observations, perhaps they would begin to find the knowledge of their subject springs organically from the horse.

Part of the problem with universities is that we too quickly search for answers before asking questions. We know that motion is like points on a line, with a first point and a final point, so we cannot be bothered to observe a stream move. We are certain that gravity exists, so we never stop to ask what it means to say objects interact through fields. Yet these questions, which are not religious but extremely human, force us to take the world seriously and employ every tool, both those of science and those of the humanities, to inquire into this strange and wonderful world in which we live.