A Philosophy of Following the Science

The pandemic made it popular to say, “follow the science” or “believe in science.” Science is becoming the last certainty of our secular age, the last consensus worthy of universal trust, the authority to which we turn in times of trouble. Of course, those of us who do science have always followed the science when we looked for ways to expand our scientific understanding of the world. We have always believed that we can trust the results. Taking stock of what we already knew with scientific certainty, we hypothesized over the next steps, we tried them out, we evaluated, and we followed the science to deeper understanding. Hypotheses were tested, theories were refined, and an ever-clearer picture emerged that we called scientific understanding. When we remained faithful to following the science, when we saw not only the hoped for but also the unexpected results, then we even found the mistakes we had made and corrected them. We changed our minds based on the evidence! This was really annoying to our friends and supporters who wished that we would have picked a conviction and stuck with it, just like everybody else. Nevertheless, we always knew that we must follow the science. This is what we do.

However, what if “follow the science” became a political rallying cry? We can hardly think of science as a perfectly objective rulebook on how to act in the world so that we get the results that we want. First, we need to know what we want, and why we want it, and whether it is the right thing to want. Usually, we want more than one thing, and we need to order the priorities. When these questions are settled, then we can apply science to take us to our most worthy goals. Following the science makes for good science, but it may not lead us to the truly and really good.

What Is the Right Starting Place?

Science can even become a distraction from the good. It can obscure purpose and meaning. Reductionism is inseparable from the modern sciences, having reduced all of chemistry and an ever-greater part of biology to applied physics. “Why do you want to spend your life studying solutions of Schrödinger’s equations?” my friends in physics asked mockingly, hearing me choose chemistry as my major when I was young. It is easy to say that there is more to nature than science can describe, but it is much harder to show how there is. How can powers be in matter understood by physics beyond the powers of physics? You may remember physics experiments with billiard balls that taught you basic principles of motion. With Newton’s laws and some calculus, you can now explain the solar system and the movements of planets in the night sky. Aristotelian angels were the first to be rendered unemployed by the scientific revolution. The whole cosmos, all that we see in the night sky, with evidence spanning from the big bang until right now, is explained as one big system working by impersonal laws. In modern physics, indeterminacy and randomness are found as the definitive completion of this path to understanding.

Modern biology’s progress has also had remarkable successes. The spread of a virus in the global human population is also a system, but one in need of being shut down. The COVID-19 pandemic, terrible as it is, is also an encouraging reminder of the power of scientific investigation to provide us with solutions. Very rapidly, the virus was identified, reliable tests developed, and promising vaccines distributed. These were spectacular successes accomplished at an unprecedented speed. It was a success of molecular biology, medical engineering, and basic logistics. The vaccination campaign is an example of the power of human rationality at its absolute best. But as the master plan is being drawn up, what are our priorities as we get out of this crisis? What do we seek, other than ending the pandemic?

We have many concerns. We could arrange these in systems, too. There is the economy, politics, social structures, arts and entertainment, teaching and research. All are systems with their own mechanisms. But what about the pursuit of happiness? Does this fit into a system? Then there is the pursuit of the good, of ethically good acting. Could this be a system? We seem to have reached an impasse with our thinking in terms of systems. Utilitarian ethics offers itself as the solution. It applies scientific thinking in systems to assess consequences of actions, which seems like the ethics fitting for our time. Maybe we can quantify goodness and happiness, or at least find surrogate markers for them, and use them to optimize our systems.

However, science and ethics ought not be brought together too hastily. Science is evidently of importance when we think about ontology, such as when we ask about the nature of material beings. Ethics, however, is a different matter. The Enlightenment philosopher David Hume writes in 1739 that what is must not be confused with what ought to be.

But more contemporary philosophy, such as the work by the German twentieth century philosopher Robert Spaemann, offers an intriguing alternative. Ontology and ethics remain distinct, but their relationship is found in a shared beginning. This is the human being. The human being is the starting place for both ontology and ethics and bridges the gap between is and ought. This starting place may come as a surprise for those who would rather start ontology with insights from elementary particle physics but please hear me out. This is about making sense of our contemporary scientific-technological world.

Husserl, Heidegger, and Stein

In 1900, Edmund Husserl recognized a weakness in Hume’s argument and renewed philosophy by a method that he called phenomenology. For those who know nothing of him, I will start by saying that he is what Martin Heidegger and Edith Stein, or St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, have in common. They were both Husserl’s assistants, Stein from 1916 to 1918 and Heidegger from 1919 to 1923. As they developed Husserl’s initial insights, their lives followed dramatically different trajectories. Heidegger had lost his faith as he turned to philosophy, and Stein found it there. Heidegger succeeded Husserl as a tenured full professor, and Stein was denied the Habilitation required to become a professor. Heidegger tried to ingratiate himself to the Nazi leadership and protected firstly himself, and Stein was murdered with her Jewish kin in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Heidegger became the giant of modern philosophy whose Being and Time is required reading for all students, and Stein’s Finite and Eternal Being was not published until after her death and is only slowly being recognized.

What they continued to have in common is their attentiveness to language’s exploration of the complex depth of reality. Non-technical language’s closeness to life protects against oversimplifications of reductionist thought. Stein makes the importance of language explicit in her book. She argues that the translation of Aristotle’s Greek philosophical terms into St. Thomas Aquinas’s Church Latin already reduces an original subtlety and complexity that she hopes to recover. Heidegger, of course, goes much further in his attempt to speak anew of philosophy. He argues that the whole philosophical tradition since Greek antiquity has merely obscured the real question, the fundamental question of being and the sense of being, rather than what we can know of the multitude of beings that happen to be. The difficulty of the question that he poses and the ease with which it is lost requires him to use language in his very own way.

They both seek the sense of being, or being in general, rather than specific beings. Heidegger develops his concept of Dasein, being-there or existence. However, Dasein is not just for any thing. It is really the finite being of a human being, the self-understanding of being a contingent person. It is the kind of being that knows itself as being, finds itself thrown into being, preoccupied with concerns and the question of the sense of being, being eternally abandoned by the eternal. Heidegger’s philosophy is a vivid analysis of the human experience in the absence of faith, but his exclusive concern for human beings as the paradigm of being offers us little to make sense of science, where human beings are only one kind of being among many others. Furthermore, Heidegger’s approach gives up on Christian theology, as his paradigm for being is finite human being, rather than the infinite being of God. As Stein points out in her critique of Heidegger, this grave error deifies human beings by hiding the contingency of their being.

Stein’s philosophy is much more useful to us. While she also considers the individual human person’s experience of being as the starting place to understand being, she continues from there. She develops her phenomenological philosophy through her reading of the work of St. Thomas Aquinas and his interpretation of Aristotle. She also draws attention to Bl. Duns Scotus and his teaching regarding the univocity of being and the individuation of beings.

Just as all medieval philosophers, she treats philosophy as a discourse about questions that must always be answered anew. Her book combines the powerful vitality of modern philosophy with Aristotelian metaphysics. In this way, she can consider Aristotle’s understanding of material being without getting too close to modern scientific materialism. She is very attentive to contributions from other fields, which includes not only science of nature but also theology. The infinite being of God is a necessary and integral part of her thought, and if harmony between philosophy and theology is possible and fruitful, then it should not be avoided.

Faith in Human Being

Today, the challenge is not just faith in God but faith in the reality of the human being. When we begin with the scientific understanding of material beings and then try to understand ourselves as human beings, we discover next that we are no longer there! As Spaemann puts it, man has become an anthropomorphism in the scientifically understood world. It is absurd, yet quite easy to see. We do not fit into a world thus understood, as what we know of us first is no longer there.

For scientists, reality is what we observe and measure, and the better we can observe and measure it, the more real it seems to us. In the Aristotelian terms of substance and accident, scientists normally consider the accidents, while the being of substances is a lesser concern. In the language of Aristotelian metaphysics, accidents are what is said of and is present in another being, but a substance is what exists as itself. A substance is what is not said of another and is not present in another. You and I are substances, but all our properties are accidents, no matter whether they are bodily measures or friendships or brainwaves. And a substance is neither the sum of the accidents nor something else added to them. It is what is actually there and bears all the accidents. To find ethical direction among real beings, substances show the way. In seeing substances, we find being and meaning, not just what is but also what ought to be. We find the bearers of value and ethical concerns.

Regrettably, substances have acquired a bad reputation in modern philosophy as they tend to get confused with attempts to define sets of essential features. Such essentialism can lead you into trouble. You might conclude that human beings are featherless bipeds, as we are bipeds but have, contrary to birds, no feathers. A plucked rooster had a claim to be your fellow man. Calling us rational animals is much better, but still flawed. We are not really animals in the way we normally use the term, and our rationality is often wanting. When we act against rationality, we are irrational human beings, not animals. Indeed, we then become much worse than animals. Being inhuman, being contrary to our nature, is possible within the nature of being human, even while all other creatures are their nature and never the opposite. Therefore, equating human nature with a descriptive property is bound to fail, even though we recognize it quite clearly when it is before us.

We understand human beings before we understand how to distinguish them from other beings. Indeed, this lets us notice that essentialism can exclude what is merely defective or variant and that recognizing substances makes sense of differences. An irrational human being should be rational, and he may need care, or healing, or correction. A three-legged dog ought to have four legs, but it is still a dog, and maybe a much beloved pet that just happens to be different. Some people will consider a defect of theirs their superpower, as living with it teaches them something essential about their humanity. Clearly, checking off a list of essential features is not what is meant by recognizing substances. Recognizing substances is the act of recognizing and understanding a concrete being. It makes sense of the world, not only through recognition in terms of ontology but also by providing initial direction for ethical acting. We are called to care when we recognize a substantial being.

Human beings are paradigmatic for being. In our own existence, we experience the reality of substances in complete clarity, as we are one such substance. We know ourselves to be more than what is knowable by external observations. There is always more, unobservable and incommunicable, never fully known even to oneself. And each of us knows that he or she is not the only one. Recognizing another human being as another self in this way is the paradigmatic acknowledgment of a real being beyond a bundle of observable features. It is the act of recognizing a substance. Indeed, it is the first thing that we learn in life, impossible to question once our thinking begins as all our thoughts about the world around us begin in this recognition. Recognizing ourselves and others as distinct beings in the world is what we learn as we recognize our mother, father, and other care givers in infancy. In the growing recognition of persons in the world, we begin to make sense of all the substances in the world. When we understand human beings as the paradigm of being, then we discover a world of substances to be recognized, valued, and respected.

Faith in the Rights of Natural Beings

The emphasis on human beings does not relegate scientific knowledge to a lesser form of knowledge. Instead, it connects it with reality as we know it. Now we can use technical knowledge as we seek ethical guidance with full awareness of our responsibilities. We can lead with science, rather than just follow the science. We can understand our place in nature and our relationship with other beings. Take, for example, the treatment of animals. They are real beings, not just collections of animal-like features. We can understand their ways of life, their modes of being. It does not anthropomorphise them that we comprehend their being by analogy to our human being. It recognizes them. Avoiding their abuse is recognized as an evident ethical obligation, as it opposes their being. They deserve to be treated proportionate to the dignity of their being. We share much with them, and science helps us to understand this. We can use this information to understand their needs and act rationally towards them.

The distinctions remain. Animals are not human beings, who alone recognize and respond to ethical demands. Some animals seem to have awareness of their self. But without the power of human language, how could they acquire self-awareness in the human sense and know themselves as one among others, an I and thou? Without this, there is no actual or potential self that has or is meant to have ethical obligations. When animals assist each other or nurture their offspring, they do so out of instinct, fulfilling their inner instinctive needs. Animals cannot step out of their own central perspective and recognize another’s needs from another’s perspective. Human persons, however, are meant to do just this. They are meant to recognize their obligations by taking the place of another.

It makes us aware of a multitude of obligations in our world, separate from our own instinctive needs. We can make distinctions, distinctions in what is due to different creatures. We see quite easily why we have different obligations towards domesticated cattle that is in our care and wild bison whose habit needs protection, or abundant white-tailed deer overfed by lush suburban landscaping and the last remaining orangutans surviving in the jungle.

Recognizing the rights of animals is possible without confusing them with human rights. Human beings remain in a distinct class of beings. Irrespective of their state of development and actual mental powers, they are members of the human community. As individual substances, they are human beings at all times and under all circumstances. Ethical obligations towards creatures are located in the individual substances of the biological kind of human beings. This is what makes human beings special with regards to ethics. The philosophical evidence unambiguously singles out humanity as the only natural kind that is both subject and object of ethical obligations. Therefore, as a subject that is the bearer of its own obligations, the life of an individual human being is always his or her possession and responsibility and never at the free disposal of another.

Now back to our rallying cry: Follow the science. The knowledge of individual substances is the pre-scientific structure in which actions are meant to correspond to living well. We now understand the importance of the individual person, the individual human being, and its dignity that must not be violated. We understand the dignity of creatures and the dignity of all creation. Life is not about manipulating the conditions of our existence at will, but to experience its purpose and meaning. Our scientific understanding of the world as systems of cause and effect allows us to understand the consequences of our actions. We can study these global effects, while keeping our mind focussed on care for the individual. When used in this way, then following the science and believing in science make a lot of sense.

Consider the COVID-19 pandemic. You could argue that the mortality of the virus is not so high when compared with past pandemics. You might want to choose to take your chances and deal with the consequences as they happen. But for anybody attentive to the functioning of modern societies, it is evident that we depend on a highly developed technological health care system to function, which is quickly overwhelmed when the number of patients increases rapidly. Eventually, intensive care units are full, and nurses and doctors reach their limits. From this knowledge arises the individual responsibility to act in such a way that the spread of the virus is slowed down.

Scientists know that many minute steps add up to systemic change. We do not ignore the systems thinking, but we use it to understand personal responsibility. At the personal level, we can judge the pros and cons of specific actions as we participate in public life. Wearing a mask is a pretty minor inconvenience to protect others from droplets spreading when we speak. But there are harder questions, such as making children learn online rather than in the classroom. They miss out on learning in their ordinary social context. Should we impose this on them? Political judgement calls can be informed by science but are not replaced by science. Even when the science is clear regarding the facts and their understanding, there are always several possible political responses. Science is then no excuse for technocratic decision making oblivious to the value of individual and communal discernment of the good for oneself and the public.

Maintaining Trust

The final lesson from the pandemic for those who wish to lead with science is the importance of trust. One cannot lead without being trusted. When science informs political decisions with ethical implications, then trust requires not only soundness of science by its own standards but also soundness in moral and ethical terms. Scientifically informed decisions must recognize what we have known much longer: the dignity of the human person, the dignity of creatures, the dignity of creation. The pre-scientific understanding of the world must be respected, and science has no grounds to question it, as science is grounded in it. The earliest philosophies and their emphasis on virtues, obligations, and rights cannot be challenged by scientific investigation, and when it is pressed into service against the wisdom of old, then trust in science is lost.

There is only so much that can be learned from science. Our way of thinking need not be generalized to turn everything into an optimized system that seeks the least good of all, the greater good. Remember to seek the good for the individual beings entrusted to your care and remember to trust in God for all that is beyond your abilities. But do change your mind based on evidence. In this, but only in this, we should always follow the science.

Featured Image: Albert Edelfelt, Portrait of Louis Pasteur, 1885; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Joachim Ostermann

Joachim Ostermann is a Franciscan friar and a priest who entered the Order of Friars Minor in 2007. Prior to this, he earned a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and worked many years in academia and management. His current interests are the Christian faith and modern science in the light of the life of St. Francis of Assisi.

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