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The Hammer and the Nail

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 03, 2011

I suggested previously that one of the great problems we face in understanding human dignity is that “by the materialistic, empirical or purely scientific account, both our self-understanding and our freedom are illusions.” These terms require some explanation, and the explanation will reveal a tremendous blind spot in our culture’s view of knowledge—a blind spot which is right smack dab where our perception of the supernatural should be.

The term materialistic is plain enough, and is sufficient to carry the burden of the quotation. If we insist that there is nothing in the wide world but matter, then we have to admit something that will risk our sanity, namely that it is only an illusion that we can somehow stand outside ourselves and reflect on our being (intellect) or that we can direct our lives according to freely made choices (will). These things must be illusions because they are abilities which transcend what matter can produce. But to accept this is to deny our own perception of ourselves. Therefore, in a culture dominated by materialism, people tend to assert the self against whatever material nature imposes on them, but without having anything beyond their own personal cravings as a guide.

To describe this as “dignity” may be understandable, but it is also rather pathetic. And it is at this point that I find the need to expand upon the other terms I used in the quoted sentence, “empirical” and “scientific”. These terms suggest not just a materialistic point of view but an irremediably materialistic point of view; they suggest that authentic spiritual knowledge is not only absent but impossible.

Something is empirical when it is known by experiment as opposed to theoretical reasoning. In our culture, empiricism is closely tied to what is physically measurable. But spiritual things are, by definition, immeasurable. Therefore, an empirical account of reality omits the spiritual, and a culture which comes to believe that the only possible solid knowledge is empirical knowledge necessarily either ignores the spiritual or denies it altogether.

This brings us to the idea of a purely scientific account of man, in the modern sense of science, meaning not simply a branch of knowledge but knowledge acquired by an experimental or empirical method. The scientific approach to knowledge is not wrong in itself, but it is only one approach, and it is necessarily partial. Sadly, the modern world suffers from a dearth of other approaches. In particular, it suffers from the absence of a different sort of science, a different approach to knowledge, the approach of theology. Because of the materialistic and empirical biases of our culture, theology is no longer taken seriously as a branch of human knowledge. What was once considered the queen of the sciences has been gradually eliminated from higher education. This gives rise to a very curious phenomenon: Whenever one branch of study is consistently absent, other branches of study will encroach upon its territory.

In his brilliant work The Idea of a University, Cardinal Blessed John Henry Newman argues that, as a university is by definition devoted to the full range of disciplines or branches of knowledge, it is a mistake and a distortion to exclude theology. Every branch of knowledge, Newman rightly notes, is tempered and improved by all the other branches, as each branch has its own tools and methods, and each learns a certain care and modesty in its conclusions, more accurately discerning their application and scope, in relation to what is discovered by other tools and instruments in other regions of investigation. Thus, when one branch of knowledge is left out or, worse, barred from the university or from “sophisticated” discourse generally, others encroach upon its domain, reaching conclusions which are unwarranted and, indeed, unattainable by their own proper methods. Thus Newman:

For instance, I suppose, if ethics were sent into banishment, its territory would soon disappear, under a treaty of partition, as it may be called, between law, political economy, and physiology; what, again, would become of the province of experimental science, if made over to the Antiquarian Society; or of history, if surrendered out and out to Metaphysicians? The case is the same with the subject-matter of Theology; it would be the prey of a dozen various sciences, if Theology were put out of possession; and not only so, but those sciences would be plainly exceeding their rights and their capacities in seizing upon it. They would be sure to teach wrongly, where they have no mission to teach at all.

I had a history professor in graduate school at Princeton who one day introduced to his class in Renaissance history his “new” theory that the mystical experiences of the saints could be explained by their extreme fasts and frequent sleep deprivation, which must have resulted in hallucinations of various kinds, such as the corpus on the crucifix appearing to move or speak to some debilitated penitent extremely focused upon it in prayer.

How wise and practical he appeared, in thus advancing the study of psychology into the domains of history and theology. But how much wiser would he actually have been, had he attended to a proper method for his inquiry, and learned that the great mystic St. Teresa of Avila, in precisely the period he was studying, recognized the difference between self-induced hallucinations and the true experience of God, and sometimes had to rebuke susceptible nuns under her charge, who claimed all sorts of supernatural favors, by sternly ordering them to eat more and get plenty of rest!

This could have been a perfect example of several disciplines working together to form a more accurate appraisal of the whole reality in question; instead, it was yet another instance of Newman’s point that, when you rule any branch of knowledge out of school, proponents of other disciplines will encroach upon the abandoned territory and, while seeming to onlookers to seize the field with strength and power, will invariably make fools of themselves. Thus again:

[A]ny secular science, cultivated exclusively, may become dangerous to Religion; and I account for it on this broad principle, that no science whatever, however comprehensive it may be, but will fall largely into error, if it be constituted the sole exponent of all things in heaven and earth, and that, for the simple reason that it is encroaching on territory not its own, and undertaking problems which it has no instruments to solve.

What I am trying to call attention to here is not the simple falsity of an exclusively materialistic, empirical or “scientific” understanding of man, but the more significant fact that a culture which structures the exploration of knowledge as ours does must infallibly fall repeatedly into the trap of pronouncing falsely on precisely those things that it has so ill-equipped itself to understand. Thus, on every side, we find well-known scientists, lionized by our cultural elites, writing briefs for atheism, pronouncing that evolutionary biology proves the non-existence of God, and—more to the purpose of this particular series of articles—insisting that, since there can be nothing beyond the material in man, human dignity and human action, including ethics, must be defined in a purely utilitarian way.

In other words, we are going to have a great deal of trouble understanding what is unique about the human person, and therefore in what our particular dignity consists, as long as we refuse to grant legitimacy, in universities and elsewhere, to disciplines such as philosophy and theology which proceed by careful reasoning rather than through experiment and measurement. Such disciplines are based on given sets of data which we as persons are constituted to perceive, as it were, whole, without attempting to validate them by breaking them down into those measurable material results which apply properly only elsewhere.

I have no desire to make any larger point, at this stage in the discussion, than that it is absolutely essential to recognize our cultural deficiencies with respect to knowledge. When faced with a vexing problem, we invariably bring the tools with which we are most familiar into play, and our analysis reflects the purposes and capacities of our tools. This is not quite the same as blind men describing an elephant, but the relationship of parts to a whole certainly applies.

Alternatively, consider that in a cancer case, the radiologist finds one solution; the chemotherapist another; the surgeon a third; and the holistic health practitioner something else again. This does not perfectly capture the dilemma either, since all at least recognize the cancer. In the end, perhaps the problem is best expressed in a very popular aphorism: When your only tool is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. The only trouble is, everything is not a nail. The human person perceives that instinctively, but in our culture we lack the tools to explicate the momentous truths which follow from such an irreducible fact.

Previous in series: The Choice for or against God
Next in Series: Hiding from Truth: Denying What We Can’t Not Know

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: nix898049 - May. 30, 2017 11:29 AM ET USA

    Thank you for this insight. My spiritual life is based on the rule of St. Benedict and was before I met my husband. He does not share my faith and I tend to compartmentalize my marriage vocation and my oblation, I fear. Thank you for clarifying this obstacle. St Joan of Arc, pray for us. Holy Ghost, guide us. Amen.

  • Posted by: winnie - May. 24, 2017 2:26 PM ET USA

    Thank you for a timely reminder that my vocation as wife, mother and grandmother trump my role as lector and EM to a local nursing home. I will feel torn no more when out of town family visits and family occasions colide with those duties-usually in the summer. I will choose my family and be at peace.