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Specialized Nature

On the opportunities and challenges for natural philosophy.

Faust and Marguerite in the Garden (Faust et Marguerite au J
Faust and Marguerite, Tissot, James Jacques Joseph, 1861 . (Photo by: Picturenow/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Natural Philosophy: On Retrieving a Lost Disciplinary Imaginary, Alister McGrath, Oxford University Press 2023, 256 pages

According to Aristotle, a life devoted to theōria—the disinterested contemplation of the natural world, and the linguistic root from which we take the concept of “theory”—was the highest good to which man could aspire. This was of course partly intended as philosophical validation of his own leisurely aristocratic lifestyle, but it also spoke to a deeper truth. For the Ancient Greeks, this practice of “contemplation” had its roots in the observance of the pan-hellenic games and religious festivals that knitted together the otherwise antagonistic city-states; in stark contrast to the modern idea of the neutral observer, the study of nature offered both a way of understanding the world, and of existing within it.

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Indeed, the idea that empirical investigation was somehow inseparable from the more personal practice of moral and spiritual improvement would persist until well into the 19th century, when what had become known as “natural philosophy” was finally superseded by the newly professionalized natural sciences. It was a momentous shift, and the increasing specialization of different scientific disciplines reaped considerable technological progress. But it also came at a cost, not least the marginalization of any broader questions into the purpose of that progress or how it might contribute to human flourishing. In his latest book, out early next month, Alister McGrath explores what exactly has been lost, and the prospects of retrieving some of the methods and insights of that earlier tradition of natural philosophy.

The first half of Natural Philosophy: On Retrieving a Lost Disciplinary Imaginary provides a rapid sketch of the rise and fall of an evolving and frequently contested discipline that variously encompassed what we would now differentiate as science, philosophy, mathematics, theology, and even music. Much of the detail is relegated to the copious footnotes, the intention being rather to highlight the distinctive features originally associated with the study of the natural world that have since slipped through the institutional cracks of modern science. One was an aspiration to universalism, the Book of Nature apparently written in the sort of shared language that could allow St. Thomas Aquinas to freely debate his Muslim contemporaries, or the factions of the English Civil War to contemplate God’s purpose without sectarian disputes over scripture.

A second was that the study of nature was a fortiori the study of ourselves, a conviction that took on added resonance for the Medieval Church and a world saturated with signs and symbols pointing beyond themselves to the divine. By the time Aristotle’s thought was revived in the 12th century, empirical investigation had become a way of stimulating religious devotion. For Francis Bacon in the 16th century, our growing mastery over nature was seen as a complement to religious faith, even a part of our path to redemption:

By the Fall, man fell from both his state of innocence and from his dominion over creation. But even in this life both of those losses can be made good; the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and science.

Galileo would go even further, arguing that natural philosophy was superior to traditional theology as it was expressed in the pure and uncorrupted language of mathematics. After Newton, the extraordinary harmonization of celestial and terrestrial mechanics was seen as the ultimate proof of God’s magnificence and design.

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The project was to prove a victim of its own success. The order and predictability of Newton’s universe was so well-tuned that it no longer required the day-to-day maintenance of its creator—an intricate piece of clockwork wound-up at the beginning of time and then left to its own devices. The natural world remained an object of wonder, but no longer the site for a personal encounter with what had become an impersonal and distant deity. At the same time, cultural upheaval and an increasingly cosmopolitan society put pressure on the idea of moral absolutes; the result was a sharp philosophical distinction between facts and values, and growing skepticism that any description of the natural world could entail moral judgements or other normative conclusions. The process was only to accelerate throughout the Industrial Revolution, and its fetishization of technological accomplishment.

Romantics like Keats may have deplored the “unweaving” of the rainbow in the face of its meticulous and clinical dissection, but the 19th century would see the professionalization of science as an autonomous discipline, with all the attendant need to distance itself from its academic rivals: The term “scientist” was first coined by William Whewell in the 1840s in an attempt to impose an institutional identity upon a new breed of likeminded thinkers; while popular works began to rewrite recent history as a continuous battle of “scientific” reason against the superstitious dogmatism of established religion. And while Darwin himself remained very much the paradigm of the traditional natural philosopher—mixing careful observations of nature with wide-ranging and deeply felt meditations upon man’s place within it—his interpreters would find in his theory of evolution a world red in tooth and claw, one that man had fortunately transcended through scientific rationalism and a stiff upper lip, and which now had nothing more to teach him.

It has become increasingly clear to many that while the specialization of the natural sciences has led to unprecedented technological progress, this has been a mixed blessing. The environmental damage resulting from an overly instrumentalist attitude toward the natural world is an obvious concern; yet the growing moral and political imperative to “follow the science” to the exclusion of other considerations also stems from the same radical disconnect between facts and values that now characterizes scientific investigation. The second half of McGrath’s book is therefore concerned with the prospects of reviving various aspects of natural philosophy today: an improved attentiveness to nature that recognizes its intrinsic value as well as its practical utility; and a sense of respect toward the natural world that recognizes our own dependence upon it.

The discussion, however, is extremely abstract. One problem is how to reconceptualize the relationship between the disparate disciplines of the natural sciences, without thereby succumbing to a crude reductionism that sees everything as ultimately a branch of fundamental physics. A second problem is how to overcome the cultural dominance of scientism, the belief that the natural sciences offer the only reliable source of knowledge, and thus require no further input from the outdated disciplines of ethics or philosophy (morality of course being just another self-interested strategy for maximizing genetic propagation). As McGrath notes, such reasoning is deeply flawed. To assert that scientific reasoning has rendered all value-judgements redundant is itself just to make another value-judgement about how we should approach the world. Arguing that science provide the only source of knowledge means that we can only offer scientific justification for the belief that science provide the only source of knowledge, which is to argue in a very small circle indeed. But these are all debates that have raged in philosophy departments for decades without any apparent impact on our scientific institutions.

The issue perhaps is that natural philosophy involved more than just an attentiveness to nature and an open-minded engagement with different disciplines. It was also highly structured; as McGrath makes clear, it is no accident that it enjoyed its Golden Age within the explicitly religious framework of the seventeenth-century, one in which the natural world was seen as divinely created, and therefore capable of providing insight into the divine plan. The study of nature had a higher purpose that no amount of philosophical debate on the epistemological flaws of scientism is going to recapture.

One is reminded here of Goethe’s Faust, where the eponymous doctor first introduces himself through his academic accomplishments:

I’ve studied now Philosophy,
And Jurisprudence, Medicine, —
And even, alas! Theology, —
From end to end, with labor keen;

It is however not simply a collection of complementary disciplines, but a deliberately ordered hierarchy culminating in religious devotion; and once Faust makes his infamous bargain—essentially dropping theology as his major—his other learning systematically unravels, each one in turn becoming corrupted in the absence of any ultimate purpose (it is his misused medicine, for instance, that kills Gretchen’s mother). There is much to be said for retrieving those aspects of natural philosophy that reconnect scientific advancement with the more basic questions of human flourishing and good life, and McGrath’s book is a stimulating overview of the terrain. The worry, however, is that he may have underestimated the challenges involved: not just the academic barriers to better interdisciplinary engagement, but the profound cultural shift also required to reweave Keats’s rainbow. In Goethe’s play, Faust is only saved through divine intervention. In the original tale, he remains damned for eternity.

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