Cached Oct. 24, 2007, from

Commentary, April 2007

Science, Religion, and the Human Future

by Leon R. Kass

Leon R. Kass, the Hertog fellow at the American Enterprise
Institute and professor in the Committee on Social
Thought at the University of Chicago, served from 2001
through 2005 as chairman of the President’s Council on
Bioethics. In somewhat different form, this essay will appear
in a volume on religion and the American future to be published
later this year by the American Enterprise Institute.


My discussion of the permanent limitations of science may
be helped by some additional observations, beginning with the
radical differences between modern science and ancient science,
against which modern science deliberately revolted. The
most important differences concern the purpose of science and,
therefore, the character of knowledge sought.

Although it is commonplace to distinguish applied from
pure science (or technology from science), it is important to
grasp the essentially practical, social, and technical character of
modern science as such. Ancient science had sought knowledge
of what things are, to be contemplated as an end-in-itself satisfying
to the knower. In contrast, modern science seeks knowledge
of how they work, to be used as a means for the relief and
comfort of all humanity. Though the benefits were at first slow
in coming, this practical intention has been at the heart of all
of modern science right from the start.

But modern science is practical and artful not only in its end.
In contrast with ancient science, its very notions and ways manifest
a conception of the interrelation of knowledge and power.
Nature is conceived energetically and mechanistically, and explanation
of change is given in terms of (at most) efficient or
moving causes; in modern science, to be responsible means to
produce an effect. Knowledge itself is obtained productively:
hidden truths are gained by acting on nature, through experiment,
twisting its arm to make it cough up its secrets.

The so-called “empirical” science of nature is, as actually experienced,
a highly contrived encounter with apparatus, measuring
devices, pointer readings, and numbers; nature in its ordinary
course and as humanly experienced is virtually never encountered
directly. Inquiry is made “methodical,” through the
imposition of order and schemes of measurement “made” by
the intellect. Knowledge, embodied in laws rather than (as in
ancient science) theorems, becomes “systematic” under rules of
a new mathematics expressly invented for this purpose.

This mathematics orders an “unnatural” world that has been
intellectually “objectified,” re-presented or projected before
the knowing subject as pure homogeneous extension, ripe for
the mind’s grasping—just as the world itself will be grasped by
the techniques that science will later provide. Even the modern
word “concept” means “a grasping-together,” implying that
the mind itself, in its act of knowing, functions like the intervening
hand (in contrast to its ancient counterpart, “idea,”
“that which can be beheld,” which implies that the mind functions
like the receiving eye). And modern science rejects, as
meaningless or useless, questions that cannot be answered by
the application of method. Science becomes not the representation
and demonstration of truth, but an art: the art of finding
the truth—or, rather, that portion of truth that lends itself to
be artfully found. Finally, the truths modern science finds—
even about human beings—are value-neutral, in no way restraining
and indeed perfectly adapted for technical application.

In short, as Hans Jonas put it, modern science contains manipulability
at its theoretical core—and this remains true even
for those great scientists who are themselves motivated by the
desire for truth and who have no interest in that mastery over
nature to which their discoveries nonetheless contribute and
for which science is largely esteemed by the rest of us and
mightily supported by the state.

One special feature of modern biology, and a cardinal
premise of modern science altogether, is both most powerful in
yielding new knowledge of biological events and, paradoxically,
most untrue to life. This is the principle of objectification. Understanding
this fact is the intellectual key to understanding the
gulf between scientific knowledge and the world it purports to
capture and explain.

The term “objective” has a common colloquial meaning and
a precise philosophical meaning, the former descending from
the latter but without our knowing the distortions we have
swallowed in the process. In common speech, we use “objective”
as a synonym for “true” or “real.” Not only scientists but
any fair-minded person is supposed to be “objective”: unprejudiced,
disinterested, rational, free from contamination of
merely personal—that is, “subjective”—bias or perspective, and
able therefore to capture “objective reality.” “Objective reality”
is the domain especially of the sciences, because the methodical
pursuit of reproducible and shareable findings guarantees
their objective status.

But this common view is misleading: “the objective” is not
synonymous with “the true” or “the real.” Pursuit of the distinction
discloses, surprisingly, an unbridgeable gap between
science and reality, and, of greater moment for us, between the
science of biology and the living nature it studies. The so-called
objective view of nature is not nature’s own, but one imposed
on nature, imposed by none other than the interested human

Here is how it works. An “object,” literally, means that
which is “thrown-out-before-and-against” us—thrown by,
thrown-before-and-against, and existing for and relative to the
human subject who does the throwing. Not the natural world
but the self-thinking human subject is the source of objectivity.
The interested subject’s demand for clear and distinct and certain
“knowledge” leads him to re-present the given world before
his mind, in an act of deliberate projection, through concepts
(invented for the purpose) that allow him to operate mentally
on the world with utmost (usually quantitative) precision.
What cannot be grasped through such conceptual re-presentation
drops from view. Only those aspects of the world that can
be “objectified” (or quantified) become objects for scientific
study. As the given, visible, and tangible world of our experience
is banished into the shadows, the shadowy world of “concepts”
gains the limelight and reconfigures everything in sight,
giving them an “objectified” character that is at best only partially
true to what they are.

A concrete example can make more vivid this abstract account
of the abstracting character of scientific objectification.
The classic instance of objectifying the world in fact concerns
the world as visible and, by implication, ourselves as its experiencing
viewers. In a revolution-making passage in the Rules for
the Direction of the Mind, Descartes sets the program of all modern
science by transforming how we should approach the study
of color:

[End of Commentary page 47]

[Quotation from Descartes-- See Addendum at end]
Thus whatever you suppose color to be, you cannot deny
that it is extended and in consequence possessed of figure.
Is there then any disadvantage, if, while taking care not to
admit any new entity uselessly, or rashly to imagine that it
exists . . . but merely abstracting from every other feature
except that it possesses the nature of figure, we conceive the
diversity existing among white, blue, and red, etc., as being
like the difference among the following similar figures?
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The same argument applies to all cases; for it is certain
that the infinitude of figures suffices to express all the differences
in sensible things. [Emphasis added.]
Note the following crucial points:

1. We are told by Descartes to ignore the being or nature of
color, and concentrate instead only on the “fact” that, because
colored things are extended (that is, take up space), all color has
figure or shape. (Never mind, says Descartes, what color really
is. You cannot deny that it has figure.)*

2. From “cannot deny” to “forget about everything else”: we
must abstract from every other feature of color except for its having
figure. Why? For an advantage in knowing; yet this is a
kind of knowing that is indifferent to existence or essence, to
what something really is. The knowledge gained by objectification
is indifferent or neutral to the being or reality of things.

3. Far from representing a reading of nature’s own phenomena,
objectification is a willful act of mind: Descartes decides or
chooses to conceive color under the concept of figure. We do
not, as knowers, try to catch the natural looks of visible things;
instead, by decision, we choose to conceive (“to grasp together”)
or represent before our grasping minds only certain aspects of
the world.

4. Which aspects? Not the natures of colors, not the being
of colors, but the merely the differences among them (“the diversity
existing among white, blue, and red”). We do not seek
to know things through and through, but only their external—
and measurable—relations.

5. These natural differences are “translated”—or, rather,
symbolized—by mathematical ones: the differences of color are
re-presented by differences among similar figures. Why? Because
if we con-figure things, we can then “figure them out.”
We can take their mathematical measure, using the radically
new mathematics of quantity (featuring the number line and
analytic geometry) that Descartes has invented for this purpose,
a mathematics that introduced terms of arithmetic (traditionally
the study of discrete multitudes) into the study of geometry
(the study of continuous magnitudes). The analytic geometry
of Cartesian space is the perfect vehicle for precise measurement
of anything—space, time, mass, density, volume, velocity,
energy, temperature, blood pressure, drunkenness, intelligence,
or scholastic achievement—that can be treated as a
quantity or dimension.

6. Descartes’s geometrical figures, standing for the differences
among the colors white, blue, and red, may be passé, but
the principle he proposes is not: today we still treat color in
terms of “wave lengths,” purely mathematical representations
from which all the color is sucked out. This tells the whole story:
the objective is purely quantitative. All quality disappears.

7. Objectification can be universalized: says Descartes, all
the differences (that is, changes or relations) in sensible
things—that is, in every being of the natural world—can be expressed
mathematically. The world—or more accurately,
changes in the world—can be represented objectively, as differences
among figures (or, eventually, in equations). The multifaceted
and profound world of things is replaced by a shadowy
network of mathematized relations.

In this classic example, we have the touchstone of all so-called
objective knowledge. The objectified world is, by deliberate
design, abstract, purely quantitative, homogeneous, and indifferent
to the question of being or existence. Objectified knowledge
is, to say the least, ghostly. “Things” are “known” only externally
and relationally. Moreover, unlike the signifiers of ordinary
speech that are its general nouns, the symbolic representations
used to handle the objectified world bear absolutely
no relation to the things represented; a wave length or a mathematical
equation neither resembles nor points to color.

No one gets very excited about the objectification of color,
but we become suspicious when science tries to objectify the
viewing of color or, worse, the viewer. And now we see why. By
its very principle, “objective knowledge” will not be—because
it cannot be—true to lived experience; for lived experience is always
qualitative, concrete, heterogeneous, and suffused with
the attention, interest, and engaged concern of the living soul.
Real sight and seeing can never be captured by wavelengths,
absorption spectra of retinal cells, or electrical discharges in the
objectified brain. The same goes for the inwardness of life, including
awareness, appetite, emotion, and the genuine and interested
relations between one living being and others, both
friend and foe; or the engaged, forward-pointed, outward-moving
tendencies of living beings; or the uniqueness of each individual
life as lived in living time, from birth to death; the concern
of each animal (conscious or not) for its own health,
wholeness, and well-being—none of these essential aspects of
nature alive fall within the cramped and distorting boundaries
of nature objectified.

Honesty compels me to add one last and, indeed, astounding
part of this tale, one that, I suspect, the reader already
knows. Objectification works! For some reason, the manysplendored
world of nature allows itself to be grasped by the
anemic concepts of objective science. Never mind that it is partial,
distorted, and abstract; the quantitative approach has put
men on the moon, lights on the ceiling, and pacemakers in our
hearts. Somehow, it must be capturing well at least one aspect
of being. But this aspect of being is not the whole or the heart
of being; not by a long shot.

* Compare the relation of color and shape (schema) suggested by Socrates
in Plato’s Meno: “Shape is that which, alone among all things, always accompanies
color.” Appealing to our primary experience of the visible
world, this account integrates shape and color as the two most evident and
always related aspects of any visible body, whose shaped surface we come
to see only because of color differences between it and its surroundings.
To put it crudely, Socrates’ philosophizing deepens lived experience;
Descartes’ turns its back on lived experience.

[End of Commentary page 48]

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