Science and Western Civilization

William H. Young

America was founded upon uses of science and technology, in accord with societal ideals, to improve man’s material condition, with actualities provided by the scientific method, different from verities accessible through religious revelation and secular reason, the concept of Western civilization.

 Over many centuries, explains Jeffrey Hart, emeritus professor of English at Dartmouth College, in Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe (2001), the Western interaction between “a philosophic-scientific approach to actuality, with the goal being cognition… and a scriptural tradition of disciplined insight, with an aspiration to holiness… has been a dynamic one, characterized by tension, attempted synthesis, and conflict.” This dynamic relationship “is distinctive in Western civilization and has…energized its greatest achievements, both material and spiritual.” The consequences of the interaction “have been decisive for the character of Western civilization, setting it off from other cultures and civilizations…” The philosophy, literature and arts, history, natural and social science, and religions of Western civilization impart that unique character.

Aristotelian science, a subset of philosophy, saw a world in hierarchical and purposeful terms. The Summa Theologica (1272) ofThomas Aquinas synthesized faith and reason; man and natural phenomena were considered part of the Great Chain of Being, culminating in union with God. But most humans still saw nature as a frightening master, and supernatural beings intervened miraculously in the lives and events of man as well as nature.

The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century—advanced by Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton—concluded that natural science accesses nature, space, and time through reason, material evidence, and mathematics: the scientific method. God was considered outside nature, space, and time and accessible through reason and revelation, or faith. When reason and science began to be used against God and faith in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Kant demonstrated in The Critique of Pure Reason (Second Edition, 1787) that science, in its understanding of nature, does not comprehend the whole of things. The realms and tenets of religious and moral belief are beyond the realm and actualities of natural science.

Perhaps surprisingly, Benjamin Franklin was one of the best-known scientists of the eighteenth century for his discovery of the new phenomena of electricity and his creation of the first satisfactory theory of electrical action, explains emeritus professor of physics at the University of Pittsburg, I. Bernard Cohen in Science and the Founding Fathers (1995). Metaphorically, Franklin brought electricity down to earth, starting the understanding of a science and technology that would be instrumental in the advance of the American economy and its practical benefits to our people. Kant called Franklin “the modern Prometheus,” after the Greek god who gave fire to humankind.

In 1752, Franklin’s famous kite experiment demonstrated that lightning was a form of electricity. He described his experiments and set forth his new theory of electrical action in Experiments and Observations on Electricity (1751–1754), which ranks as one of the most notable scientific books of that or any age. His theory enabled scientists successfully to predict the outcome of laboratory experiments.

He used his discoveries to invent the lightning rod, a device that effectively tamed this terrifying force of nature. Before Franklin, many people believed lightning to be a thunderbolt hurled from heaven as the action of an angry God against sinners down on Earth. Franklin demonstrated an axiom of the Age of Reason—that science could and should conquer superstition. The Frenchman Turgot composed a popular epigram including a Latin statement, meaning, “He snatched lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants.” Fragonard’s painting Eripuit Coelo (1778) depicts Franklin as half Mars, defeating tyrants, and half Minerva, deflecting lightning from the Temple of Liberty.

In an early-nineteenth-century backlash against reason and science, Romanticism popularized subjective feeling and sentiment, tending to worship nature rather than seeking to understand it. After Darwin’s discoveries, biology became the lodestar of Western philosophic faith. It was widely held that science was the only means of certain knowledge and that anything unknowable to science must remain unknowable forever—a doctrine called agnosticism, or the acknowledgement of ignorance (a word invented to dismiss the dogmatic beliefs of Gnosticism).

At the outset of the twentieth century, with the discoveries of mathematical physics, philosophical doctrines of scientific materialism made matter and motion the sole reality and physical science alone competent to deal with man’s problems. In The Limitations of Science (1933), J. W. N. Sullivan, an eminent English physicist and philosopher, explains that it was metaphysical doctrines which accompanied science that made it appear so depressing. Speaking of the effects of Logical Positivism, Lord Bertrand Russell had said that “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation henceforth be built.”

The modern scientific revolution and the change in the philosophy of science which occurred in the early twentieth century came from the realization that the new discoveries of science showed that the universe is not as fully knowable or orderly as previously believed. Newton’s world machine was as much a construct of the human mind as was the theistic cosmos of Dante. In retrospect, Sullivan notes, electricity played a key role in changing the Newtonian outlook. The addition of electricity to the list of Newtonian entities—mass, inertia and force—was of profound significance. For the first time, an entity was admitted into physics of which nothing was known about its nature but its effect on measuring instruments—its mathematical structure. This led to the realization that the other Newtonian entities were also really known only by their mathematical structure, that their reality could only be established mathematically.

That science was confined to knowledge of structure was of great “humanistic” importance, for it meant that the nature of realities other than those provided by science was not precluded. The truly significant change in modern science in the early twentieth century was the change in its metaphysical foundations. Scientism, the belief that scientific methods can and should be applied in all investigations, was replaced by the belief that science provides knowledge about only a limited aspect of reality, that man’s religious impulses, philosophical and humanistic ideas, and mystical beliefs are other aspects of reality.

Again, in the early twenty-first century, scientific discoveries regarding human nature by the new sciences of genetics, neurobiology, and evolutionary psychology have led to a reappearance of scientism from some bio-prophets. The new scientism argues that man’s consciousness arises from electrochemical brain processes, not from an immaterial psyche or soul. As before, it is not the science itself that is the issue, but the speculative philosophies, especially on religious belief, not necessitated by the scientific discoveries.

For the first time in our history, academic postmodern multiculturalism rejects Western science and denies the validity of scientific actuality and methodology. Ironically, it also rejects the verities or truths provided by Western liberal education, in both instances adopting the illusion that all reality is socially constructed, and reflects mere opinion. And the sustainability ideology revives the romantic worship, rather than the understanding, of nature.

Our colleges and universities should once again teach the unique philosophic, humanistic, scientific, and religious heritage of Western civilization, as recommended by NAS in The Vanishing West and earlier reports. Science and the scientific method provide only a partial set of answers to our material reality. Science cannot and does not answer questions of being, cause, purpose, inwardness, hierarchy, and the goodness and badness of things. Philosophic reason, revelatory religion, and humanistic literature and art are complementary sources of such answers for man provided by a liberal education. However, natural science—not religious or irrational belief—and the scientific method are, and should continue to be, the basis for measuring and predicting man’s interactions with a non-sacred physical nature.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image: Public Domain

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