- Natural science is the only field of knowledge with consensual warrants
- The definition of “science” is time-sensitive, having once meant only “systematic approach.”
- What could be called “systematic” is also time-bound and evolved in the premodern era.
- Thomas Aquinas began the restriction of meaning by distinguishing “rationality” from “apprehension,” though he thought revelations could be apprehended by the soul.
- Dividing “systematic approaches” to knowledge as Aquinas did opened the door to further investigations of the nature of organized knowledge and produced multiple controversies.
- In addressing these, we must avoid the “golden thread” reading that views all prior knowledge as a runway to our current understandings and therefore minimizes the other interpretations that were dominant and now are considered to be outdated.
- One such turn was the Protestant Reformation that assumed persons are capable of using faith to comprehend spiritual truths in defiance of institutional authority.
- The Reformation was more than an epistemic crisis; it was also a desperate moral catastrophe, for divine authority had underwritten and mutualized all truth and goodness claims from before civilization’s recorded history.
- Luther’s revolt opened the door to modernism, whose axioms of commitment held individual rational and moral autonomy as essential; unfortunately, eight generations and twenty million lives were lost in discovering and verifying these foundations for every assertion of truth or goodness.
- The greatest loss was to trust, the sole axiomatic basis for authority, for now uses of power had to be sanctioned rather than trusted; this reliance on individual experience and universal knowledge became the axioms of modernity.
- Because institutions are essential and assumptions poorly understood, the decline of authority was not finalized until the twentieth century; in the meantime, a constant epistemic and moral conflict between authority and individual agency created social churn.
- A golden thread history would ignore most of this confusion to focus on “the birth of science” that began with modernism, but even the founders of modern science could not limit their “science” to our contemporary definition, meaning that “science” was subject to the epistemic and moral conflicts that characterized modernism more generally.
- “Systematic” investigation of organized knowledge produced empirical cannibalism, a generational conversation on epistemic truth; because authority’s truth and goodness claims had been mutually justifying, the empirical cannibals found it necessary to entertain deep doubts about the certainty of any knowledge not built upon experience.
- But as experience is inherently privately processed, this restriction introduced still more uncertainty into the issue of “reliable knowledge” as the empirical thinkers engaged in a sustained critique of each other’s thinking through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
- This focus on experience required that it be “distilled,” subject to more rigorous limitations so as to eliminate sources of uncertainty and open it to rational criticism, but while this effort was superior to “common sense” understandings of experience, the uniqueness of each moment and the privacy of our processing of it meant experience could never produce certain knowledge.
- Empirical cannibalism produced such skepticism that naturalists were forced to extraordinary care in their observations and experimentations, leading to the standardization of the scientific method, a process that occupied most of the nineteenth century.
- Despite deserved skepticism about the unreliability of experience, the specialization of ‘natural philosophy’ produced deep knowledge that slowly became linked into a spectacular quilted, coherent, and justified reflection of reality itself.
- Further, when the same rigor was introduced to experimentation, it produced technology of great social utility, again indicating that emerging empirical processes were applicable to reality, were therefore “reliable knowledge.”
- What emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century was “true science” in a contemporary sense as natural science professionalized and further restricted itself.
- Its maturation and technological products ensured this emerging scientific practice would have a role to play in the culture war between modernist and premodernist axioms of commitment that occupied the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries.
- One such development was a denial of science’s methodology and products that grew into the first mass movement in history; Romanticism was a revival of the connection between intuition and revelation that empiricism had denied.
- A second response to natural science’s success was the slow disillusionment with “commonsense reasoning” as sufficient to interpret the complexities of reality and guide agency to moral choosing.
- Both Romanticism and the discrediting of common sense were responses to the gradual self-restrictions of a scientific methodology that found reliable knowledge so difficult to attain that all moral issues must be put aside; Romanticism was a revival of “certain knowledge” through intuition; its appeal was heightened by the simultaneous discrediting of common sense.
- By the mid-nineteenth century, Romanticism had begun to reveal its incoherencies, though it remains a force in contemporary cultures because of its simplistic access to value and its anti-authoritarian reliance on individual intuition, thus flattering agency; simultaneously, commonsense reasoning was further discredited by a series of theoretical interpretations that touched on nearly every moral and epistemic presumption that persons make in exercising choice..
- The refinements of natural science in the second half of the nineteenth century continually restricted the kinds of experience it was capable of analyzing; they had to be perceptible, measurable, limitable, and reportable in order to be proper subjects for scientific study.
- These limitations gradually produced a separation of expertise and empiricism with expertise producing less reliable knowledge over a wider range of experiences.
- As science professionalized, its work became bounded by disciplinary divisions and educational specialization in each discipline’s paradigms; it also adopted a strict peer review process of verifying results; in sum, science by the end of the nineteenth century had become a universal process of warranting claims to knowledge rather than merely a compendium; it became the greatest proof of modernist axioms of commitment.
- This disciplinary process excluded outliers that became all the pseudo-sciences that now populate the Internet.
- By 1900, authority was entering is last crisis as empiricism was entering its century of triumph.
- Modern axioms had triumphed over premodern ones in part because science and its technologies confirmed their utility; but the professionalization of science simultaneously began a retreat from expansive promises of a coming era of “scientific morality,” but modernism seemed impotent to provide any other kind.
- This crisis centers on science’s inability to systematize judgments of quality and morality; some scientists and nearly all of the general public in technologically advanced nations were ignorant of this incapacity, and so they embraced scientism, the mistaken belief that science can provide guidance to qualitative questions of truth or goodness.
- This quality problem was exacerbated by the expectations that empirical science had raised in the public mind: its ability to dig deeply into complexity and deal systemstically with whatever was found and to fill needs of social utility even when common sense and authority had failed proved as corrosive to trust as the Reformation had shown.
- By 1920, three crises came together into one civilizational crisis: the utter failure of trust in authority clarified by World War I, the accelerating pace of societal change brought on largely by science’s products, and the utter failure of commonsense thinking to resolve institutional quandaries and public moral direction, particularly in the face of scientific theories that were deeply counterintuitive, like Darwinism, Marxism, special relativity, and Freudianism.
- The 1920’s was the era of liberation from tradition, though this effort also continued throughout the century; it greatly damaged modernist axioms of commitment, all documented by the postmodernist analysis that emerged in the 1970’s.
- The twentieth century developed into a campaign of constant change, but with no public moral end, the direction of change and its directors became the stuff of endless culture wars, shooting wars, and revolutions, many based upon vague assertions of “rights” to individual self-authentication.
- At the center of these societal conflicts was the moral basis of institutionalism itself: was it to be trust, interactive sanction, or total rejection of bad faith?
- With authority’s demise, twentieth century intelligentsia conducted an autopsy on trust based upon a distrust of all exercises of power, particularly institutional power, but at the heart of this investigation was an unanswered question on publicly warranting claims to goodness.
- Natural science’s success had resulted from a strict act of severance in which truth becomes the sole object of the investigation, meaning that utility of what was discovered had to be applied subsequently, but what methodology could supply that external source if not science itself?
- This has produced a dualism of scientistic approaches. The first assumes that natural sciences like neurology and genetics will produce in time a “moral science,” which is a contravention of contemporary scientific principles and is likely to be a fool’s errand; a second cadre takes the act of severance seriously enough to deny science access to moral issues entirely and so judges that such matters must not be capable of systematic resolution at all; both responses disqualify empiricism from producing or even sanctioning public moral consensus.
- One branch of science has eagerly embraced scientism: the human sciences.
- They are founded on an attempted empirical analysis of felt human freedom and empirical prescriptions to direct and perfect it, both of which are impossible for them to achieve; they exemplify scientism today.
- Though sharing science’s prestige, human sciences failed to unify their paradigms or develop metrics applicable to individual subjects, and from their beginnings in the Enlightenment, their interests were always on perfection of human nature.
- Their work ignored the act of severance that natural science mastered in the nineteenth century; nevertheless, the public eagerly embraced their “scientific” analyses because they were broadly explanatory of social phenomena, simplistic, and morally prescriptive.
- Practitioners in the human science were unable to limit their biases and their societal interests; in addition, ethical concerns also limited using human subjects in experimentation, both impediments to true empirical processes.
- Every catastrophic societal error of the twentieth century is in some sense traceable to the human sciences; perhaps the most pernicious influences were efforts to develop “scientific” and “moral” solutions like communism, fascism and pragmatism to define human needs.
- Human sciences have been successful in developing expertise in narrowed segments of human interest subject to the requirements of expertise and also in large scale population studies in which quantification can be applicable and even predictive, though without empirical prediction.
- The influence of the human sciences in the twentieth century has camouflaged the incapacity of natural science to arrive at judgments of goodness, leaving natural science to proceed largely unguided or misguided in its pursuits.
- Despite its limitations, natural science has some lessons to teach us: first, that the modernist axiom of universal reason is applicable to experience if sufficiently distilled, though these lessons cannot be moral ones; secondly, that employing an act of severance in ordinary experience can increase the reliability of nonempirical judgments.
A Term Seeking a Meaning
The gulf between our truth claims and our warrants for them is so frequently ignored that it is a pleasure to turn to a means of knowing that was built entirely on warranting its declarations. Empiricism, commonly known as natural science, is the most clearly defined contemporary justification for truth precisely because its methodology focuses powerfully on verification. Its clarity and practical value have earned the cultural respect it has received. For over a century it has been the exemplar in our contemporary arsenal of verification (see “What Makes It True?“). Consequently, it has deservedly received thoughtful attention from academics and popular media. The happy result is a fair understanding of science as a justification for truth claims, and considering how poorly other warrants fare, that is a good sign, for we may use science’s processes as a partial model for more ordinary pursuits.
History has shown that transfer to be full of dangerous temptations, so we should not think science a perfect model for all claims to truth (see “What Counts as Justification?“). Empiricism may be more transparent than other means of warrant, but the usual confusions attend its relation to less prestigious means of justification or to other human interests, so I turn to that task here.
Should you ask me to define “science,” I should have to ask the era you wish to discuss, for few terms have seen more variation over the centuries. To the ancients, it was thought to be simply some systematic approach. They spoke of “scientific mathematics” or the science of horsemanship or archery, indicating thought or skill (as late as 1927, the famed phenomenalist Martin Heidegger called his efforts in phenomenology an “epistemic science.”). The term retained that sense of a simple focused study through the middle ages, essentially following Aristotle’s three-fold division of knowledge into natural philosophy, mathematics, and theology, though the term grew suffused with a respect for custom that stifled independence and novelty. One change from classical thinking did occur in medievalism. Theology was not a separate subject of the curriculum. It did not need to be, for it suffused every subject studied. Its justification, authority, offered the means by which serious thinkers could accept public claims to truth and goodness by a submission of trust (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”). No alarm was raised at the possibility of rational contradiction for the simple reason that trust requires a surrender of the very rational agency the thinker might use to discover inconsistency. As a consequence, the “science” of theology relied as much on surrender to authority as on disciplined study.
By the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas had quite unintentionally begun a dissolution of that unquestioning trust, though he was careful to enunciate a deference that his reason might have questioned had it been allowed to dominate his devotion. But even that limited venture into his own agency produced a discordant element, for he thought natural reason could be further divided into two distinct mental operations: apprehension and rationality. A student of Aristotle (whom he called “the philosopher) Aquinas maintained that all knowledge comes through the senses. This view accords with our own, but only partially, for he did not restrict apprehension to sense data. Later thinkers would further limit apprehension to a contemporary understanding, calling it perception. Combined with reflection, perceptions become the contemporary goto term: experience.
For his “science” of analytic theology, Aquinas was following Aristotle’s lead: one could have a science of scripture or of mathematics independent of the perceptions. His attempt to underwrite faith by reason might seem a strange oversight on the part of the most thorough thinker in religious history, but Aquinas was hardly the first to think apprehension involves some “inner sight” that reveals indisputable truths through the operations of the supernatural on the mind. This conception of insight is obvious in Plato and constitutes a route to knowledge that religious authority has always sanctioned so long as it could be translated into dogma leading to public trust. So long as “science” included this capacity, it must prove subservient to the gnostic revelations that insight might claim and authority must formalize. Aquinas certainly could not establish a separation, for the Dominican priest thought natural reasoning must always serve the ends of Church authority, an acceptance he explicitly endorses throughout his monumental Summa Theologica. His great contribution was not to question authority but to think it consonant with close thinking about its nature, to subject even an inner light to natural reasoning. This proved to be an analysis later centuries could not support. From his day forward, reason and perception would be linked. The next seven centuries would be tasked with defining the workings of that link and properly limiting it. That process is not completed. Science steers it.
Even this truncated overview of empiricism’s origins might tempt us to a common mistake. We like to work backward from the ostensibly superior vantage point of our current view, but that effort is inescapably flawed by the search for the “golden thread of correctness,” the contemporary lens that we bring to our inspection. We imagine some modern intuition must have imperfectly informed Aquinas’s efforts in preparation for the deep wisdom that is our own judgment of reality, transforming him into an unwitting prophet of a coming scientific revolution, This cherry-picking is understandable for any historical retrospective but it tends to foreshorten the generational courage required to challenge tradition and the manifold ways —many of them outliers to our own views — that individuals might frame such a challenge. We try to separate Pythagoras’s geometry from his belief in the divine quality of numerology or Aristotle’s careful observations of nature and politics from his conclusions that slavery and women’s inferiority were natural states. I mention this now because the greatest impetus to the development of empirical science as we know it today was the result of one such wrong turn. Our mistaken focus on the “golden thread” of evolving scientific enlightenment nearly always misses the meaning of that wrong turn and forgets its history as a result.
One way to challenge religious authority is to sanction your own agency, rely upon the evidence of your own senses, learn from your own experiences, test your own conclusions. These are all science’s ways and every one of them was presaged by Aquinas and the scholastic movement he represented. But that path was not the one Western society chose to take in the first great revolution against authority in history.
Modernism’s Proudest Product
The crisis of apprehension came in the awful chaos that began with Martin Luther in 1517. It was not a revolt of reason against authority but of private belief, religious revelation, total gnostic conviction. The revolution that Luther began gradually became as hostile to empirical progress as authority had been. It began differently, from our perspective, prophetically. When Luther spoke out against Catholic authority at the Diet of Worms in 1519, he defiantly threw down his own reasoning as superior. The “Ninety-Five Theses” that he had nailed to the door in his native Wittenberg two years earlier was a catalogue of authority’s offenses against rationality, a self-evident chronicle of contradictions and hypocrisies. It appealed to the laity’s reasoned experience of Catholicism’s many abuses. One only need read it once to understand what outrages the clergy had long perpetrated against Christendom and against its own doctrines. Called to account before the assembled Catholic hierarchy at Worms, Luther made that appeal explicit, arguing that one ought not go against his own reason, that one “can do no other” than to respect it.
If we pick up that golden thread, we nod and agree, for that is surely our view of things. And we can then trace out the fabric of natural science being woven from what follows: to da Vinci and his moons of Saturn and to Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton. Ever upward!
But this is nothing like what happened, and for us to understand what did, we have to step outside our axioms of commitment, see Luther’s moment not in our terms but in his (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). Only by understanding that the full story is still being written can we avoid the hubris that tempts us to view ourselves as the endpoint of history.
Religious authority had underwritten every truth and goodness claim since before history was written, as the Pyramid of Cheops attests. Our penchant for the golden thread should not blind us to the miserable desperation that followed Luther’s stand at Worms. His quarrel was with Catholic corruption, and he tirelessly evangelized it through the latest technology, the printing press. The medieval mind could hardly process that his attack on doctrine was also an assault on every justification for extant economic and political order, for every social institution from guilds to parenthood, and for every dictate of moral conscience at every moment of medieval consciousness. All indubitability was shattered over the next two centuries. We fail to understand the momentous power of Luther’s stand at Worms because we take for granted our inheritance. Our power to decide by our own standards is captured by a single word whose meaning was differently understood by Luther and every one of his contemporaries. Our most treasured right is our our individual freedom to steer our own lives (see “Our Freedom Fetish”). We must not let the golden thread lead us to think this was Luther’s sense of things. For him and his world, his own power was only exercised through a submission of trust to a web of authority that circumscribed and defined the nature of his freedom (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge“).
The problem was that no other warrant could replace the trust that had illuminated every truth and goodness claim by divine light (see “Premodern Authority”). Luther himself later disavowed his own stand at Worms (“Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God”). Worse, he endorsed the annihilation of German peasants who sought to bring their own reasoning on the Bible’s truth to the Holy Roman Empire, resulting in the loss of 200,000 lives.
What happened next was in retrospect and from our viewpoint very predictable. Other believers saw other truths in the gossamer webs of their beliefs, a pluralism of private revelations and thoughtful apprehensions that clerical authority had forbidden and one that the trusting congregant, like Aquinas, would never consider. Following Luther’s deference to his own reading of sola scriptura, they espoused their own beliefs as revealed and inerrant truth superior to corrupted institutional authority and worthy of popular trust (see “A Problem with Sacred Texts”). But there were so many to choose from! Protestantism’s signature departure from Catholic clerical authority was a belief in the self-sufficiency of the Biblical word. But belief is inherently private and cannot automatically be converted to public trust (see “Religion and Truth”). But whether among Protestant revolutionaries or against their Catholic foes, the next eight generations found no sole scriptural message sufficient to bring disputants to a single Christian truth. The Wars of the Reformation (1521-1688) cost twenty million lives. The worst of it is that no one knew how to rebuild trust or in failing, find some other means to concord, not only in religious faith but in all public declarations of truth or goodness.
We see continuity when we trace the golden thread, but people living through those millennial horrors saw no such future. Authority of any stripe cannot reconcile the dissolution of trust that doubt inspires and therefore cannot regain trust to have it resubmitted without restoring agency to the doubting mind. Once rational agency is restored — and in the Reformation, that means it was simply gained after millennia of automated, childlike submission — the individual seeks some equally reliable authority to trust. This is the intuitive recourse once autonomy is acquired. But when a thousand clamoring voices, many of them former institutional authorities, are all shouting in your ear demanding your submission, which can be trusted? More simply, what can bring order to chaos when every hierarchy’s light of truth and goodness has been snuffed out? Where can one turn in a blackout of truth and the utter darkness of moral perplexity?
No reconciliation or remediation could be found until religious authority’s ultimate warrant had collapsed into chaos and the submission of trust could be stamped out. The disorder hardly ended at the church’s doors, for congregants must now view all truth and goodness claims that had made sense of their world with equal suspicion and without a means of discrimination since no one could say what God wanted. Or rather everyone was saying it.
One cannot live that way, and so reflexively persons sought a replacement for evaporated trust. The sole criterion in the beginning was the same level of certainty authority had conferred, and so any replacement for religion’s authority was expected to find equally irrefutable supports for its claims to truth and goodness. Those could not appear, though that realization took far too much time to discover. In a traditional society, precedent sets the agenda. From the time of the pre-Socratics, institutional authority had claimed to know truth and goodness through the wisdom of orthodoxy: customary opinion. But with custom crumbling and authority destroyed by its own methodological weakness, a need coursed through the culture like a parching thirst (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”). A historical view must comfort us that in the end at least a partial substitute was eventually found, but in the midst of that contention, no such golden thread could be woven into some new fabric of meaning and value. In the wake of the Reformation, clarity could only come from further failure. I wish to argue that at least some of that failure plagues us today.
What only gradually emerged from the chaos was not science, was nothing like it. It is true that da Vinci said that only observation could find truth, and we applaud his timing the pendulum motion of chandeliers using his own pulse. But we ought not to forget where he performed this experiment: in Pisa’s cathedral. Nor ought we to ignore the other intrusions of religious intuitions in the thinking of those other prophets of modern science. Picture Galileo dedicating his speculative theories to the Pope and later denying them in the face of the Inquisition. Consider the six years Johannes Kepler spent attempting to squeeze Mars into a circular orbit despite convincing evidence to the contrary. His motive: a perfect God would only create perfectly circular orbits, not inferior ellipses. That was in 1609, at the dawn of what history would call “The Scientific Revolution.” Even the paragon of modern science was not immune. Isaac Newton spent the last years of his life seeking the numerical code God had hidden in the text of the Bible. Those we most associate with the birth of modern thinking, the British empiricist philosophers who invented epistemology itself, were hardly free from a supernaturalism that summoned them to trust. Descartes, Locke, and Berkeley all claimed we could have certain, intuitive knowledge of God but could never have any certainty of our natural knowledge. Over generations, both points have been tested. Both are still contested and still disrupt public consensus today. So we should remember that even the greatest prophets of science accepted a set of warrants entirely different from our own, one in which supernatural truths impressed themselves upon reason, and divine revelation guided it to certainty. That is certainly not our view of things, but we should not applaud our own excellence unless we can explain why such belief is not superior, all sanction of the golden thread aside (see “Can Belief Be Knowledge?”).
It was only by trial and tears that what we think of as natural science was conceived from the travails of contested religious authority. And it was only by trial and error that the greatest boast of modernism became natural science itself. That took three centuries, and in the process of refining its own search for truth, empiricism faced its own set of internal trials and external errors.
Modernism’s defining axiom is to base all truth and goodness claims on universal reason and private experience. These by definition reject authority — to subject it to rational inspection quite dissolves and replaces the trust that is the engine of authority — and locates the power to arbitrate claims to truth and goodness in the individual. Modernism’s earliest defenders in the seventeenth century were epistemologists: theoreticians of the means by which mind knows reality. Medievalism had favored a teleological ontology: an explanation for the structure of reality infused with divine purpose. In that system, no doubt could attend the means of transmission, for truth and goodness claims were guaranteed and certain to those who had placed their trust in the authority that warranted them. To trust in the truth of divine command was to trust the entirety of its explanation for reality and the institutions that translated it for for human consumption. Until the Reformation, truth and goodness were as certain as they could be, and the social order derived from those certainties a brute reality closed to inquiry. To be sure, there were apostates, but they were either crushed or domesticated by the machinery of tradition. “The Apology of Socrates” is elegant testimony to the voluntary deference of rational and moral agency to civil and religious authority. I have mentioned the same subordination in Thomas Aquinas. Aristotle, that paragon of direct observation, was shrunk into just another authority by the late medieval era. It was this reputation that Francis Bacon, progenitor of the scientific method, so objected to in the seventeenth century.
These new epistemologists of modernism found themselves treading on marshy ground, for no sooner did their reason and experience produce a replacement explanation then some other and more careful “proto-scientist” critiqued it based upon some combination of his own experiences and his reflections on them (see “Modernism’s Midwives”) . This new mode of thinking, this empirical cannibalism, seemed entirely unlike the rock-ribbed certainty of authority. It was perpetual revolution, constant doubt, ongoing uncertainty. It’s been that way ever since.
Only a total collapse of authority could have exchanged a confident warrant for one so tentative. It suffered at first in its contrast with authority that was discredited yet sorely missed. It was that yearning, the echo of which today is merely nostalgia, that has forced the constriction of science, always tempting the either/or of faith over reason. But this same temptation served to push modernist thinkers to extraordinary care in their self-critique, seeking the lost Eden of certainty through means that must keep them always in the wilderness of doubt.
The warrants that guided their search would repeatedly prove themselves flawed. Private experience must rely on the senses before it can be filtered through individual judgment so that it could be bruited aloud. And then it must be communicated through an idiomatic language poorly suited to reality’s complexity, and yet again poured through a second experiential filter to be heard, understood, and agreed to. Finally, it has to be synthesized into a broadly conceptual understanding of truth that can be consensually embraced by universal reasoning. And this risky effort must always be subject to a process that is biased by the privacy of experience and deficiencies in reasoning and so is prone to prejudice, self-deception, and imperfect comprehension. How could any truth or goodness claim survive a rational critique of such a defective process as making a declarative sentence?
Perhaps this context explains an initial attraction to reason divorced from experience. This was the Cartesian solution. But those like Descartes who placed their bets on a strict rationalism found themselves boxed out of the search fairly early. By the early eighteenth century, the argument that a stricter reasoning process might lead to certain knowledge had foundered upon the sterility of reasoning independent of perception. What can the mind reflect upon other than the products of experience? This route might find knowledge as certain as religious doctrine, but without an appeal to experience of what use might it be in guiding choice? Today’s formal logicians and logical positivists are still testing answers to that question.
Examined experience proved more promising. The earliest impulse in that direction was to examine the nature of experience itself, the kind of uncritical and everyday perception and reflection we all use constantly. The results were ugly, particularly when set against the crystalline logic of the geometric theorem or the theosophical infallibility of Church fathers. For a “mere empiricism” as expressed by an early modern thinker was nothing more than undistilled experience, a casual acceptance of sense data, the kind of thinking Aristotle joined to direct perception to categorize the world (see “Stereotypes and Categories”). It was the cumulative and corrective work of almost a century to recognize how defective and simplistic that view had been. One simply has to contrast the view of experience advanced by Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) to plumb these depths. A pure rationalism might be the clearest loser from this effort, but experience was also cast into greater doubt by this generational effort to think through the reliability of perception and reasoning.
The natural philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries used their critiques to refine their thinking and confine their conclusions to those that repetition and extremely close analysis could reveal. Experience, of course, resists that effort, for every one we encounter is uniquely sited in what filmmakers might call its frame. To see an experience truly, we must limit our focus to its elemental constituents. That examination requires a reliable repetition of the experience, for in the first go-round we cannot know what is important about it, how to isolate it from its context, or how to find the natural fault lines of analysis. That is hard, for that narrowing of focus must use reason to zoom into only those relevant factors that constitute the experience’s essential core and exclude extraneous ones, repeating the experience until study or skill has made it understood and thought has unwrapped its components.
It was reason that required this narrowing of experience and made it possible, but that same reason prompted the skeptic David Hume to explain why the effort could not reach certainty. One element can never be duplicated: the time that shapes the context of the experience. It must change as we seek repetition and that dissolves reliability and with it our confidence to forecast its causes and effects. Just ask any gambler about that. This explains why simple experience is the most unreliable of correspondence truth tests, though we use it more promiscuously than it deserves because it is always at hand. We compliment ourselves by calling this common sense. (see “Pure, Poor Systems of Knowledge”).
But even a loose analysis, as David Hume observed, must introduce more doubt. Causality, the root of all science, could never be found in the reality science observes but only in the explanations science infers: “…(W)e are never sensible of any connexion betwixt causes and effects, and tis only by our experience of their constant conjunction that we an arrive at any knowledge of this relation.” Thus empirical cannibalism nibbles away at the comforting cliches of commonsense reasoning. We ignore these valid objections in the flux of experience, for in the supersonic blur of everyday life, rough and ready reasoning is often the best we can do. But for the budding scientist and his quest for certainty, the lesson gained traction. Better reasoning yes, but certain truth about reality must always lie outside the realm of reasoning on experience. This failure of judgment stings, and it is noticed by those who find certainty by trust or by belief. Even today, religous nostalgists proudly claim that science is always changing its mind, but their religious authority never does. They think it an advantage. Today’s science brushes them away disdainfully, but in its infancy, empirical philosophers felt their inferiority to religious authority most keenly. And as Kepler and Newton show us, early scientists were only human, and like us, yearned deeply for certainty.
The degree of uncertainty their doubt instilled took time to recognize and negotiate, but it did have the salutary effect of forcing students of nature to abandon naive experience and attend to very narrow slices of experience minutely observed and catalogued. Proto-scientists of the eighteenth century developed these skills of close observation through national or royal societies to which they presented their results. Controlling the frame of their investigation to what could be repetitively observed became a defining effort. Otherwise, their fellow seekers would find reason to object to their findings. Narrower was always better. That also took time to work through as students of natural philosophy became naturalists and then scientists by means of an increasing standardization of practice and standardization of terminology in the nineteenth century. Though it had failed in its epistemological quest for certainty, empiricism continued to pile up reams of new discoveries, launch revolutionary technologies, and pitch new theories that challenged tradition throughout the 1800’s before erupting in a phantasm of invention in the next century. Was its continued acceptance merely a product of its pragmatic success even in the face of the doubt its own processes had revealed?
That might be a valid historical conclusion, but another oddity emerged from even immature scientific endeavors. “Narrower” must always imply “deeper,” and if recent developments have revealed anything, it is that there is no end to the profound discoveries of the natural sciences. But a strange thing was revealed by this sharpening of focus that convinced even skeptics that this new methodology was succeeding. From ornithology to optics, from astronomy to zoology, findings in one field supplemented those in another to assemble a multilayered jigsaw puzzle reflecting the very reality that philosophy had thought inhospitable to certain knowledge. True, new puzzles also emerged, but they arose from an ever deeper investigation that uncovered ever more layers of physical reality.
One effect of this exponential growth of knowledge that emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century was specialization. As subject disciplines subdivided, the volume of available knowledge in each field of study increased beyond the competence of any single mind to master. These deeper refinements also became correlative, and yet again. Every naturalist now found himself restricted to a single subdivision of empirical knowledge defined by the capacity of his own mind. At the same time he found it necessary to master at least the outlines of those disciplines that enmeshed with his so as to grasp relevant connections. When the natural philosopher looked up from his study, he found kindred communities knitting other research together. Deeper and wider. The edifice of natural science was built fragment by fragment by the efforts of these laborers to construct the grand mirror of nature by the sustained attention to the structure of each small piece. We have to see their labors as fed by the doubt that hollowed out their reliance on reasoning about experience, a stimulus to ever more careful investigation.
Naturalists’ devotion and care had the salubrious effect of cementing their entire explanatory structure more tightly to the reliability that had always been its goal, but it came at the expense of removing that structure from the access of non-specialists. As expertise in scientific study became specialized over the course of the nineteenth century, it discredited the ordinary experience that had launched its quest, subjecting it to a doubt proportional to science’s growing esteem and permanently separating science from common sense. Every scholarly effort to make the empirical process more reliable in the face of its quest for certainty and every rational objection raised to that effort subjected ordinary reasoning to disrepute and further removed specialists’ understanding from ordinary thought. The loud defenses of common sense we see in nineteenth century literature would have been unnecessary a century before. A century later, they were indefensible.
Professionalization Versus Pantheism
By the last decades of the eighteenth century, natural science’s discoveries and inventions began their now-familiar dominance of news media and disciplinary journals, in time to literally electrify the world. Their work only slowly assumed its critical mass during the early 1800’s, with each discovery and invention functioning as an advertisement for a new way to understand experience based on individual experience as interpreted by careful but universal reasoning.
As vanguard and apparent epitome of what became modernism, naturalists’ new techniques prompted two disjunctive responses in an increasingly literate culture in the West. A fascinated public found itself caught in a war between sense and sensibility, reason and emotion, mind and heart. As they were drawn into combat in the nineteenth century’s version of the culture wars, naturalists coincidentally began their century of professionalization. Deep in their observations and annotations, perhaps naturalists at first failed to notice when their antagonists began objecting to their project. And perhaps that is more understandable because as proto-scientists increasingly interacted with each other through specialized and technical presentations, the opposition was mounting its campaign through the new popular media. Its broadsides were published through narrative fiction and poetry, and it quickly recognized and waged war against the emerging science it saw as a mortal enemy.
Romanticism was the word first used in 1821 as an umbrella term to define this new anti-empirical movement. It was a full-throated rejection of the idea that ordinary experience requires correcting by careful reasoning, or by any reasoning at all. It embraced two-thirds of modernism’s core axiom: its individualism and its universalism, but Romanticism found its universalism where the wars of the Reformation had left it in bloody disarray: in private apprehension, not in the universal reasoning that became the hallmark of science. Romanticism’s universal truths were not scriptural unless we consider nature the script of a pantheist God eager to communicate truth to the receptive soul.
Romanticism was the first mass movement of literate society in history and it swept through Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century and then through every part of the globe that European nations dominated in the second half. Its voice was Shelley’s west wind and Heine’s Lorelei and it echoed across Dickensian moors and Goyan dreamscapes, to the Lake Country and Walden Pond. The Reformation’s reformers had fought against religious orthodoxy and authority. In an ironic compliment to the triumph of modernist axioms, Romantics saw the new science’s reliance on reason as a new orthodoxy, a new authority dictating truths and the only means to find them.
This was all wrong, but the Romantics’ error was evidence of the remnant power of premodern authority and the bitter fruit of the compromises the societal order had made with tradition in its spasmodic adoption of modernism. The objection had merit in another way too: for all its triumphs, early natural science was hubristic. It had failed to define its investigative limits. These were implicit to its means of perceptual justification, but as these were in the process of being worked out during this era, the new science thought itself capable of confronting the moral emptiness a retreating authority had left behind. Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” of 1851 memorializes this “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” that had left “neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” Romantics planted their flag in rebelling against tradition. They “wailed, for the world is wrong.” In denying trust to authorities, Romantics felt the pulse of their age. They knew, in Shelley’s words of 1819, that traditional authorities were but the “graves from which a glorious Phantom may burst to illumine our tempestuous day.” And they feared that this unnamed phantom might not be their moral system, but natural science’s. At this stage of its evolution, natural science, to the degree that it could be called a single value system, hardly knew enough of its limitations to stake out one.
As Romanticism launched its protest, this mélange of motives was unclear to all parties, but the resultant moral disjunction was growing more obvious by the year. Seen in this light, the Romantic revolt of 1800 was a prequel to the far more damaging crisis that would come a century later with World War I.
In its mature expression after 1815, Romanticism offered its consumers more than protest. It provided an alternative, not common sense but uncommon sensitivity to the entirety of experience. Though the distinction between commonsense reasoning and empirical logic had not yet been articulated, Romantics warned of the danger of both. They rejected the power of reason entirely. This meant that they must confront empiricism, arguing that it must “murder to dissect” and thus kill the meaning of the very experience it sought to explain by its reductive reasoning. And unlike the naturalists who needed the patronage of established authorities, Romantics would have no truck with authority of any stripe, thus inspiring Thoreau’s war cry: “What I think is right is right: the heart’s emphasis is always right.”
Romantics favored another route to truth and inerrant goodness they considered not only more reliable than science but indubitable. Certain knowledge had been the failed quest of empiricism from the beginning. It had failed in that task, empirical cannibalism had produced more contention than consensus. By contrast, Romantics could offer their rapt readers more than sensibility to certain truth by their technique of receptivity to interiority. They promised certain goodness. Their method? Hardly the painstaking analysis of the naturalist but rather an omnivorous consumption of all of experience. They relied on intuition to filter and refine it to perfect understanding. I won’t go into the loaded history of that term here, but I will refer you to other essays that explore the surprising roots of the Romantic movement and its still-powerful reverberations to our own day (see “Modernism and Its Discontents”). Intuition remains a defining influence in contemporary life (see “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements”).
The Romantics’ conception of its workings owed much to Immanuel Kant, who unfortunately used the word “intuition” to describe the mind’s preconscious rational sorting of sense data before presenting its completed mimesis of reality to consciousness. Romantics borrowed a fuzzy grasp of the term to propose these intutions to be not a species-specific brain function but rather the whispers of a God-in-nature to the sensitive soul, a revelation of absolute truth and goodness that enmeshed every person in a universal web of Nature whose vibrations guide preference inerrantly to truth and moral perfection. The wider the scope of experience, the more intense or exotic one could make it, the more awe it would produce and the clearer the pantheist voice of God (see “Awe”). By this method, Romanticism’s fans (the etymology of “fanatic” traces to “a divinely-inspired insanity”) might avert the fate of the Reformation’s personalized insights, which made every reader of Holy Writ his own pope. Romantics’ scripture was read through the heart and presented in all of experience, but it offered the charm of universality without the work of thought combined with the thrill and utter conviction of divine revelation.
Romanticism was unsustainable, for the thrill of such a search for novel experience eventually stales, as most adolescents discover. Their initial rebellion had been fueled by political events and the disruptions of the wars of the French Revolution ( 1791-1815). The post-Napoleonic world of the first half of the nineteenth century was a repressive but doomed revival of traditional authority in all its forms. The Romantics did not fear that threat so keenly as they did “the dark, Satanic mills” of science’s progress, with its tentative and fragmentary assertions of truths quickly challenged and often repudiated and its dulling temptations to material comforts. Romanticism offered a direct route to moral certainty, but the price was rebellion, not only against all traditional values but against the trust that warranted them. What doomed them was not their antiheroic stance against authority, for science shared it. What Romantics could not overcome was the legion of material improvements that science’s discoveries made possible. Utility won. Industrialization and urbanization transformed life in the last half of the nineteenth century, leaving Romantic notions to perfume the air of the next century with memories redolent of their many interrupted intuitions. By the last third of the nineteenth century, Romanticism had been so formalized and domesticated in Western life that it would have been unrecognizable to its early champions. Its self-defeat was abetted by its enemy’s triumps.
If discrediting science was Romanticism’s goal, it could not hope to prevail against the wave of technology that the nineteenth century produced: the greatest revolution in human history began simultaneously with the Romantic revolt. Even though their revolt was domesticated by its own inconsistencies and the clearcutting march of technology, the Romantics left to Western culture a legacy of distrust of both science and expertise coupled with an enthusiasm for raw experience that popular culture has elevated to a fetish.
Traditional authorities could not suppress modernist truths any more than the Romantics could, but then modernism could not stamp out traditional values either. Though the consequences were hypocritical at worst and inconsistent at best, the concessions that modernist institutionalism made to traditional authority were more than irritants to public concord. The bargain was implicit. Both sides needed it, for modernism had not provided either certainty or moral clarity, so it relied upon institutional authority’s collaboration to disguise its own axiomatic defects. But despite their steadfast resistance to modernity, the old authorities found they needed to collaborate as well, if only to accommodate the rapidity of societal change powered by technology. Trust was perennially under assault as the social environment required individuals to respond and as modernist axioms became foundational for new institutions.
It may be that nineteenth century naturalists were oblivious to the rise and fall of Romanticism. Too much was happening withing their own spheres of interest. To become true professionals, these proto-scientists had to invent a process for doing science and refine it to repair the deficiencies that individual experience and reasoning are heir to. Their gradual perfection of a methodology to limit an experience severely, repeat it as closely as possible, analyze its essentials and accidents, hypothesize, test and measure, and communicate the results was hugely successful. This gradual restriction of focus changed the seer more than the seen.. Narrowing his field of view transformed the casual naturalist of 1800 into the laboratory researcher of 1900 and required a methodological expertise that science students still find quite formidable and that non-scientists frequently misunderstand. Their painstaking refinements in observation, experimentation, and quantification were more a product of empirical cannibalism than of the Romanticists’ challenge. The tireless search for reliable knowledge prompts the relentless self-critique that pushes true science into greater precision and deeper discovery.
Even today, humanities students embrace broad understanding rather than depth in their academic work, an inheritance of Romantic values quite unlike the specialized training and professional preparation of students of the sciences. This is but a remote echo of an undeclared battle for hearts and minds – perhaps better said for hearts or minds — that dominated nineteenth century life. Today, university students have to choose between them, but the stark choice that now confronts college freshmen today is but the aftershock of a tectonic shift facing literate Western cultures over the course of the nineteenth century (see “The Victorian Rift”).
This restriction of focus and specialization made science’s growing expertise a moving target. Any medical student today can explain why. Aristotle had categorized everything: planets and politics, gardens and governments. And it is still true that rational categorization lies at the heart of both expertise and natural science. Naturalists, many of them dedicated amateurs with the wealth and social connections to devote their time and resources to their hobby, only gradually came to be experts in beetles or bats or benthic exploration. Many dilettantes spent their lives amidst the odor of alcohol and decay, moving from animal species to botany to chemical compounds, but the dedicated naturalist made his fame from specializing. Darwin, for instance, was an early authority on beetle life cycles before beginning to focus on “the war of the species.” Gradually, specialization became the norm as low-hanging experimental and observational pickings were plucked, presented and absorbed into various disciplinary divisions of scientific orthodoxy. The audience was learned societies who devoured technical studies in writing or in academia as today. But these often deeply complex summations of long hours of painstaking work packed lecture halls where an eager public raptly followed every exposition of geology or entomology that would no doubt put today’s audience to sleep.
Almost imperceptibly, the dilettante became the expert. Before it can succeed in the effort to make sense of experience, expertise has to limit it to something reason could grapple with and experience can attempt to replicate. That was and is an ever larger problem as we grow in knowledge. Probably the last person to attempt an encyclopedic grasp of nature was the famed Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt who died the year Darwin’s masterwork was published. His quixotic stab at all empirical knowledge, Kosmos, is seldom read today. There could be no second Aristotle.
Not every phenomenon proved amenable to the growing expertise of practitioners, and it was part of proto-scientist’s task first to discover and then to communicate to the public which experiences were and which were not. Fortunately for their quest, these trial-and-error stabs at professionalism happened upon techniques inherent to their means of justification that allowed self-correction. Reasoning may be uncertain, but it possesses the excellent quality of being open to analysis. In its purest form, mathematics, reasoning is so clear that one thinker can review her process of logic and so discover and correct error at any point in a superbly clear sequence. Math’s clarity derives from its artificiality: all of its reasoning is pure because none is subject to the ambiguities accompanying experience. Empirical reasoning cannot match that level of artificial certainty, but it can discover and correct errors in perception and reasoning about it by taking care in its processes. Authority can find no means to do that. Dispute must dissolve the trust that is the sole substitute for evidence. Common sense applied to experience cannot do that either, for it cannot allow us the space to attempt to repeat what is, after all, a unique set of experiential inputs. Practitioners found they could not replicate an experience, but they could learn to limit the variables that make it unique, and so conduct an experiment.
Our categorical reliance on causation, for instance, forces empiricists to be skeptical about their core rational principle linking causes and effects. Its corrective must always be the old saw, “correlation is not causation” (see “The Determinism Problem”). Our ability to break an experience into discrete components and attempt to repeat it allows us to test our notions of its causes or effects. None of this process is certain, nor is it easy to master. Yet the nineteenth century saw it mastered. By the sheer luck of having sanctioned universal reasoning applied to individual experience, modernism had found a lock-and-key of knowledge, though its opening proved a very slow process plagued by manifold errors and ongoing challenges.
Natural science found it had to settle on an imperfect judgment by a reasoned examination of the preponderance of evidence. Its standards for “preponderance” evolved just as its practices did. In assaying that evidence, empiricism emerged from expertise so gradually that most observers could not mark the moment of their separation and many contemporaries still cannot.
I offer two possibilities to define it, both involving the fastidiousness of the empirical enterprise that had the welcome effect of further focusing the expert’s attention.
The first was the acceptance of the only infinite and most precise language available to humans. One can be an expert at many things whose mastery may require no communication. But empirical science found its process of peer review and the interconnectedness of its disciplines so fundamental to its progress that it was forced to find a language suited to the precision of its efforts. We recognize “true” natural science today in part through the employment of the language of mathematics. At the frontier of disciplines, we always find a cadre of researchers doing theoretical work that relies extensively, even solely, on the use of mathematics to extend theory in the field.
That same recognizable structure of the discipline introduces a second means to distinguish true science from expertise and even less rigorous practitioners. It was a restriction of subject matter dictated by the need for quantification and verification. The concept of the paradigm was pioneered by Thomas Kuhn in 1962 to explain the consensual nature of scientific disciplines. He described it as a community agreeing to the overarching theoretical basis of the discipline. This has turned out to be a defining quality of a truly scientific effort, particularly when coupled with Karl Popper’s theory of falsifiability, which argues for the employment of constructive doubt in scientific endeavor. One advantage of this specificity is that it allows empirical science a gatekeeping mechanism that every aspiring scientist implicitly absorbs in her training.
Rapid professionalization resulted. As its knowledge quotient increased radically over the course of the nineteenth century, true science evolved into something greater than a quilted reflection of material reality, far more than a body of knowledge. It became a means of warranting knowledge, a verb rather than a noun. As the nineteenth century progressed, the active voice of that verb centered on the academic community, specifically as German researchers structured it. Their process for certifying practitioners, defining operating paradigms through creation of disciplinary departments in higher education, and structuring experimental procedures became the model for the western world. Kuhn’s view of science as a collective of interacting disciplinary communities was the most important outcome of the German model of science.
As expert naturalists toiled in the mid-nineteenth century to perfect their processes of observation and experimentation so as to reveal new truths about material reality, they were engaged in the mirroring practice of disqualifying old ones. Their growing expertise in using new and better tools in their work also forced them to reject those raw materials and techniques that failed to meet their increasingly stringent requirements, especially fanciful creations of popular Romantic imagination. For every dedicated amateur chemist there was the eager alchemist seeking the philosopher’s stone who found himself shut out of serious consideration. For every naturalist teasing out the structure of the very air there was another seeking the phlogiston that allowed combustion or the ether that propelled gravity through space. For every anatomy student there were ten seekers of the physical location of the soul. As late as 1900, The Times of London offered a ten thousand pound prize to anyone who could prove the soul’s existence. Emanations and auras were photographed, dying patients were weighed at the moment of their passing. Impermeable cloth was laid over their bodies to capture the escaping spirit. These bizarre “experiments” are perhaps not considered as odd today as perhaps they were before the popularity of the Internet. Someone is probably still working on efforts of this kind. But that was to be expected when everything could be considered scientific until what qualifies as “science” was made clear to practitioners and their education was standardized.
Perhaps it was to delineate their profession from quackery that scientists in the nineteenth century and the next built up their methodological walls not only for the entire structure of the scientific enterprise but for each discipline within it. The gold had to be separated from the dross.
In contemporary empirical science, academic certification, peer-reviewed publications, and professional associations all perform the gate-keeping function that excludes pseudoscience practitioners. That distinction is quite clear to those inside their scientific disciplines, but the line is not so clear to those prowling the frontiers of discovery. It may be argued that pseudoscience still performs a valuable service to true science. On the margins, there may be something to telepathy or hypnosis that scientists will one day allow as they have acupuncture despite its violation of medicine’s paradigms. In earth sciences, for instance, plate tectonics was a fringe theory until new evidence proved it a paradigm-changing basis for vulcanology and seismology. Nearly every scientific discipline has undergone a similar paradigm shift, nearly always from ordinary practice in a discipline to what those ordinary practitioners dismissed as “pseudoscience” when it was done by a moonstruck visionaries. So pseudoscience amateurs occasionally do break through to “real” scientists as they apply what is now a process of immense power to unlock the secrets of nature.
Were I weaving this history whole cloth from the golden thread, I would continue lauding empiricism’s dominance into and through the twentieth century when its triumph was total. This is the story of science any educated person knows well. From subatomic quanta to multiverses, natural science has discovered ever deeper layers of complexity in the natural order. Its methodology is unsurpassed in discovering relationships of structure and change that are so rational they can be quantified by the ultimately sensitive language of mathematics. And not only discovered but predicted, for at the extremes of empiricism in the refined atmosphere of theoretical science, it is mathematics alone that models natural events too small, too fast, or too distant to observe or too vast to bring into the laboratory.
There can be no doubt that empirical science at the turn of the twentieth century was the most triumphant force in advanced countries, the greatest agent of change and the deliverer of wondrous technologies that dramatically improved and prolonged lives. But even leaving aside the darker shadows of science’s most brilliant century – the spoliation of the natural world and the perfection of multiple means of mass destruction – another threat continued to shade its progress. We should not let the golden thread weave a story that blinds us to all that natural science promised as the 1900’s dawned. Its failures now are obvious, but their cause is a much deeper and darker disappointment that even today goes unrecognized and as a result remains unrepaired.
The fin de siècle world must have felt like that slow ride up the highest rise of the roller coaster, full of frightening omens and thrilling promise. The twentieth century augered history’s greatest social transformation. Technology was redefining the advanced world and permitting that world to tighten its imperial grip everywhere else, spreading its own way of seeing and doing to every corner of the globe. In 1899, the next century looked too dizzying to predict. The only thing to do was to hold on tight and go over the top.
A remnant minority still tried to find the brakes. They felt bound to the past and took comfort in traditional institutions that demanded traditional obeisance: a submission of trust. For them, the past made sense and the present did not. More importantly, the future could not because it denied the power they most trusted, moral guidance in the midst of uncertainty, a rock-ribbed surety too deeply rooted to challenge even were its beneficiaries to consider it. The nature of their trust precluded that possibility. The avant garde had bid good riddance to a life of relentless toil and social paralysis and looked forward to a future freed from authority’s grip. Science’s products had so transformed the world that the old order seemed to be visibly shrinking, yesterday’s world better forsaken than embraced in a breathless climb up to the future.
It may seem surprising that authority could survive as a vestige of premodernism over four hundred years as modernist values that challenged its core axiom of trust. Its presence certainly instilled a dissonance into Western cultures over that entire era as modernist institutions founded upon active participation competed with ancient ones rooted in static social orders and traditional subservience to established power. Neither side was willing to express publicly what their followers could never admit: they needed each other. So long as the social order changed predictably, premodern authorities could soothe societal anxieties that might dissolve trust and thereby slow societal disruption, steering fear and confusion toward comity and consensus. Traditional communities could turn reflexively to the reassurance of established institutions in turbulent times. The nineteenth century certainly provided turbulence aplenty. The next promised something more.
Traditionalists’ fears proved more real than their desires. Empirical science’s dominance by 1900 had swept all of western culture into revolution, the greatest of which was the industrial one. Old governmental structures built upon static and cooperative relationships and downward flows of power had long been challenged by new institutions championing the individual and change over social stasis. Democracy confronted nobility. Capitalist competition suppressed feudal corporatism. Money trumped birth. No compromise was possible between two orders of living, but time favored the modern over the premodern way of life if only because technology had so ruptured traditional ways and palpably improved ordinary life for so many.
In the midst of the whirlwind, few saw the whole picture and fewer yet saw the hidden reason for authority’s remnant power: a growing vacuum of public moral consensus that had first emerged in the Reformation. Victoria was crowned in 1831. Her seventy-year reign would see the professionalization of empiricism and the crisis of authority synchronize their effects into a single civilizational crisis over what might warrant public value in the absence of trust. Authority and its hierarchies wobbled as old institutions issued their final, failing appeals for public trust in the face of radical change and the triumph of modernist axioms. Trust could not survive such a whirlwind, and common sense could not reconcile the innumerable contradictions, hypocrisies, inconsistencies, and lapses in the moral no-man’s land that signaled the old order coming apart in the storm of technological change. The moral crisis had crested, and the Victorian world faced it armed only with cliched Romantic escapes into pretty poetry and the polished brass and marble stolidity of increasingly irrelevant traditions.
The political and the economic order had turned increasingly to participatory institutions, modern inventions like representative democracy and capital accumulation, to achieve desired social ends. These institutions tapped into the reasoned experience of their members to chart their aims and evaluate success. They differed radically from the premodernist institutions they competed with. The older institutions resisted active participation and and valued static, hierarchical leadership structures in pursuit of timebound goals it could not question. The new institutions existed to accomplish external goals its members identified and modified in real time. The old ones existed primarily for self-perpetuation and stability. Both, however, were guided in pursuing their respective ambitions by commonsense, pragmatic calculation. Even the most hidebound authorities faced ordinary experience armed only with their capacity to decide, no matter how limited they thought their own preferential freedom to be.
Undermining commonsense reasoning was never empiricism’s goal. Sharpening it through increasing rigor and professionalization had been, though. The unintended consequence was that its own findings in that pursuit cast doubt on both the universality and the value of ordinary experience refined by universal reason. These were, of course, the core value set of modernism itself. By the beginning of the twentieth century, modernism’s proudest product had succeeded in undermining the values that had allowed it to thrive so spectacularly.
Drop the golden thread for a moment, and put yourself into the mindset of a late Victorian thinker. Truth about reality now seemed not to be common in two different senses: it was not universally available and it was not ordinary even for those capable of grasping it. Scientific discoveries had forced this realization. The nineteenth century had had its Darwin and Marx to cast traditional verities into doubt with theories of deeply hidden formative forces hidden in plain sight in nature and society. What heated the popular imagination to the boiling point as the new century dawned was science’s promise to provide equally revolutionary solutions to social problems. Public interest fastened on simplistic versions of complex paradigms that popular media and a thriving pseudo-science then offered as modern solutions to age-old moral dilemmas. To the ordinary thinker all of these new approaches seemed wrapped in a fog of exoticism and gnostic revelation that promised the unveiling of new routes to societal improvement. It may be helpful to remember that a sufficiently advanced scientific finding would prove indistinguishable from magic to a credulous public, as Arthur C. Clarke has noted. A confused audience ate up the potential of this deeper reality, translating it into commonsense language. If nature prescribes improvement in species, should we not expect that same process in the social order? And if that process was a ruthless competition for dominance, then human nature must be helpless to do otherwise. If one animal displaces another, ought not superior races displace inferior ones?
As expansive and complex as nineteenth century prescriptions like social Darwinism and communism had seemed, they were merely the appetizer for the radical assaults on reason itself launched at the beginning of the new century by Freud and Einstein. As incredible as empiricism’s findings might seem, they were repeatedly confirmed by other empirical work within and between disciplines. They revealed an external reality too weird to be understood by ordinary minds judging ordinary experience. And those minds were evidently prey to unconscious (or is it preconscious or subconscious?) influences that warp understanding even before we apply it. Even scientists were shaken by their own efforts as Einstein was by Planck’s quantum theory and Freud by Jung’s of the collective unconscious. Could the mind really contain recesses closed to consciousness? Could reality itself hold hidden realms closed to perception? The new science of psychology found nothing “common” about the dark recesses of the unconscious mind, and the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum theory combined with general relativity induced the dizzying realization that the very fabric of space and time must be as deceptive to sense as a magician’s hands.
Grossly simplified versions of these theories circulated through the popular media. They were treated as voyages of discovery, and their inventors as the new conquistadors opening undiscovered continents to human knowledge. Any reader could see that natural science’s professionalized wonders had opened a reality that was nothing like the one ordinary experience perceived, yet one verified by all the strength of modernism’s proudest project. Whether one was looking out or looking in, everyday life seemed a thin veneer covering unplumbed depths. Freud publish The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899. Never the modest one, he had asked his publisher to put its publication date as 1900 to emphasize its futurist vision. Einstein published his theory of special relativity in 1901. From the beginning of the twentieth century, psychology’s understanding of the unconscious and physics’ theory of relativity began their assimilation into the popular cultures as relativism, the plasticity of reason in private experience (see “What is the Virtual Circle?”).
All of these tensions came to crisis in World War I (1914-1918). It was the defining moment of the new century, reorienting and limiting justificatory options, producing cultural crises reminiscent of the Reformation wars nearly half a millennium earlier. This new crisis was in one sense less crippling, for modernism itself was axiomatically less certain than the premodernist authority it replaced. Doubt, chaotic change, and false hopes had clouded moral clarity for so long that few persons noticed at first that the storm was breaking. In another sense, though, this crisis was worse, for both its truths and its threats to moral order were far more complex than a simple loss of trust.
World War I provided convincing and final proof of the utter bankruptcy of authority. Traditional orders of government, militarists, and clergy who had sent millions of their young countrymen to die in the trenches could hardly justify either the cause of the slaughter or its scientific efficiency. Nor could they reconcile the resentments of industrial workers, oppressed peasants, and exploited native peoples to pretensions of civilization and progress. An oppressive social order stereotyped the female halves of their own populations. By 1919, their appeal to tradition collapsed in plain sight in war, plague, and totalitarian threat, definitively finalizing a decline that had begun four centuries earlier.
If trust had failed, so too did the reasoning of the war’s apologists who had sought to “make the world safe for democracy.” If popular cultures assumed they could turn away from tradition and seize public direction by the light of their own commonsense reasoning, the World War I era began to show them that there seemed no straight path to public moral comity. Having finally vanquished authority convincingly, modernists standing in the ruins of a shattered order could finally be confronted by the bankruptcy of trust they had long fought to see. But the moment also revealed their own hypocrisies and accommodations to those institutions that had exploited the public trust: crown, church, caste, race, gender, and deference to institutional power. Every exercise of authority was now overripe for the modernist critique, and few saw any difference between participatory institutions that modernism had launched and interrogated and the traditional institutions that operated on trust. Both lay open to private agency. The stage was now set for science to step onto the stage and lead the charge.
The 1920’s were the denouement of the tragedy. At the apex of its public influence, modernism began its century of decline. The wizened diplomats who met at Versailles to hammer out a new world order could not appreciate how literally their intentions would be realized. They were the last generation of authority. The next would be the lost generation, orphaned by the Great War, who would witness a world going mad. It was a decade of frenetic novelty in every field of cultural endeavor, an eruption of novelty in every corner of the arts, humanities, and human sciences. Technology and literacy paved the way for the world consciousness that we take for granted today. Narrative media began their work of framing reality by showcasing a new kind of hero rebelling against a world without meaning (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist”). Nietzsche had seen it coming, and other disillusioned Romantics began to see it too. Who can whisper inerrant divine truths to intuitions if God is dead? Popular art was the vehicle to viscerally communicate this empty horizon. It had begun with the Darwinian reaction against Romantic sentimentality in the last decades of the previous century. Literature called it “realism” and “naturalism.” After the horrors of the war, the nearly universal artistic aim was to wipe away every last vestige of tradition and sentiment. This erasure slowly matured into an aesthetic, alienism, whose intent was to distance the present from the past: to war against traditional norms and forms, self-delusion, and hypocrisy (see “Three Portraits”). It still dominates artistic media today.
Rebellion in the name of personal and artistic freedom was liberating, a clear turning away from dead ends. But what was it good for? In Lenin’s words, “the fire of the revolution” was an efficient way to tear it all down, but what might be constructed on the rubble? The war that had cost twenty million lives, coincidentally the same as were lost in the Reformation wars, was in retrospect an exercise as futile as crossing of the no-man’s land planted in barbed wire against the machine gun, poison gas, and howitzer. These were all products of a science of slaughter. Surveying the carnage, its perpetrators Syllabhad to ask the obvious question: what did the Great War accomplish? What was it fought to accomplish? The answers were such a mystery that the U.S. Congress’s Nye Committee was still investigating it seventeen years later. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 cost another fifty million lives, also cause unknown. The body count of twentieth century slaughters continued through the Russian Revolution, World War II, the Chinese Revolution and too many brushfire wars, anticolonial movements, and civil wars to mention, all of them accumulating to the century’s most accurate neologism: genocide.
It was the era of various “liberation movements” and “rights” campaigns. All were vigorous choreographies of that most fundamental of rights now fully and publicly expressed: the freedom to become what one most values (see “Needs and Rights”). But to value what? Seen in its largest scale and in retrospect, the emptiness of this grand vision of liberation from restraint was fully predicted by premodern nostalgists defending old political, religious, economic, or societal institutions, a process that had begun with Edmund Burke’s warnings on the French Revolution.
Religious traditionalists had warred on science from its infancy, beginning with the Catholic Inquisition and Index and continuing in the Romantic musings of Vico, Dilthy, and Newman. But the culture’s infatuation with modernism prompted such enthusiasm that religious revivalists were forced into to an elegiac tone of nostalgia that resonates in the twentieth century writings of Lewis, Belloc, and Chesterton. We can see it in today’s evangelical movement as a conscious rejection of modernist values and an anachronistic and fragmented embrace of the premodern (see “Theology’s Cloud of Unknowing”). It had long been a knee-jerk reaction to change and an ongoing appeal to the gnostic, and what unifies it even now in its variety is a rejection of modernist warrants — of which empiricism is the clearest example — in favor of one that is utterly at odds with them. Today’s religious nostalgists make the same case that Pope Pius IX made in his infamous “Syllabus of Errors” in 1864 (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”). It never was correct to see tradition as a single authority worthy of trust. It is little wonder that change — political, cultural, or intellectual — has always been seen by religious reactionaries as the enemy and empiricism as the advance guard of the assault.
These efforts were always too little and too late, but they were powerful enough to launch repeated authoritarian movements over the course of the twentieth century in the doomed hope of reviving public trust, or at least public order or common purpose (see “Recent Authoritarianism”). Premodern axioms are by their nature unchangeable. Trust requires the surrender of agency that is definitionally also the acceptance of an external authority. While a materialist, individualistic, and self-directed person is unlikely to revert to a childlike surrender of the capacity to direct her own fate, she also finds herself in a moral quagmire wherein meaning and direction are elusive, self-defeating, and disappointing. Nostalgia has its attractions, though they seem unlikely to be sufficient to overpower the self-agency that is contemporary society’s highest value. Even so, authoritarianism has enjoyed a revival of sorts in the twenty-first century, attesting more to the disillusionment inherent in our moral life than to a willingness to give up directing it. Flirtations with authoritarian order in the twentieth century were short lived and intensely nostalgic. This pattern continues, and it points to the fickleness of a social order enchanted with novelty but jealous of the capacity to switch its attention to whatever it desires whenever it chooses to.
That same shallow understanding continues to attend the public fascination with science that celebrates celebrity more than depth of understanding. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Time magazine named the most important persons of the last one hundred years. The winners were two theorists: Einstein and Freud, the thinkers who explained physical and psychic phenomena so complex that they have never been observed directly. Even so, the throughline of the last few centuries confirms this thesis: the less the public could gauge scientific success using ordinary reasoning, the more they seemed to admire it for the technologies that modern life finds indispensable, and the more they looked to it for prescriptions for social progress.
Autopsy on Trust and The Quality Problem
It took most of the twentieth century for the full scope of this new epistemic crisis began to break into popular consciousness. The autopsy for trust, the lifeblood of civilized life since it first stumbled out of its earliest river cradlelands, could not begin until authority lay lifeless on the examining table. Trust had to die to be investigated and its unique qualities as a public moral warrant to be inspected by the same rational agency that had finally killed it. The postmortem occupied intellectuals and artists for most of the twentieth century. It is still happening. What wisdom can we glean from a century of alienation?
The answer involves more than commonsense reasoning. It concerns the epistemic conditions required for one to consider a truth claim true and a preference good. Trust operates by an entirely different process. The difference is the reason why premodernism seems so incredibly remote to contemporary thought.
Trust is unique among public justifications. The same warrant that supports the truth of God’s omnipotence supports the imperatives of the Ten Commandments. Both are sustained by the same submission of private rational and moral agency to trust. What now is an intensely personalized commitment we cannot even articulate was once the grammar of public values and the maker of private identity. Its language was all imperative and fealty that denied interrogatives and dictated declarations. Modernism freed individuals to find their own truth, but the gift in Sartre’s words “condemned man to be free” to also find their own good. The collapse of authority had severed that linkage, and goodness claims were cast into a doubt that modernism had found no means to resolve. So long as authority retained some cultural currency, it could continue to claim the moral high ground but it could not hold it against the challenges of modernist warrants, the smashing of trust by warring religious factions, the contradicting truth claims of natural science, and the piling up of hypocrisies that authority and its Quisling modernist collaborators perpetrated on a rapidly changing social landscape.
The autopsy on trust was conducted by a cadre of mainly French intellectuals between and just after the world wars, but their analysis were fractured by their conceptual disagreements from the start (see “One Postmodern Sentence”). It finally resolved into a working replacement for modernist axioms of commitment by the 1970’s, but this postmodern critique remained more diagnostic than curative. It merely added another epistemic nostrum to a century that required stronger moral medicine to heal its public disorder. Postmodernists found it easy to condemn the ambitions of scientistic modernism and the trust problem of premodernism and merely added its own suspicions that have permeated secular societies. It is science’s fate to be at the center of the postmodern problem as it has been of so many others because the diagnostic language of the postmodern critique borrows the methodology, if not the rigor, of empirical science to frame what is in essence a Romantic protest. If one strips away the gnostic quality of that protest, it becomes very clear that even if this critique describes qualitative truth by a pseudoscientific methodology, it certainly cannot even begin to prescribe the goodness that description must allow. Seeing why that is true will help us understand why science has been so monumentally effective at finding certain kinds of truth but also why it must prove entirely incompetent to define how those truths ought to be exploited.
Confirmation followed confirmation through the glory days of relativistic physics, electron microscopy, radio telescopics, x-rays, functional imaging, and on to computers that can crunch all of their data. These technologies allowed not only discovery but also dramatic improvements in human welfare that deserve the immense praise natural science has earned in public estimation. Toiling away in their fog of focus, empiricists may not fully see how thoroughly their method has touched the general public..
At this point, a favorable history of science might end with sober warnings that might have gotten lost in the paean of praise if only as caution to science’s self-importance. But even these admonitions would contain an empirical appeal. What else can solve global climate change but new technologies and energy sources? What can resolve the threat of nuclear war but better alarms and defenses? What can forestall the dreaded singularity: that moment in the near-future when artificial intelligence machines attain intelligence superior to the persons who programmed them? This last question must stop us cold because its nature is different. Science has offered no answer. It cannot even comprehend the question’s meaning. How does it define “intelligence”? What constitutes “superior” intelligence?
In 1953, IBM scientist Arthur Samuels invented a computing machine that could play checkers. Forty-three years later, its Deep Blue computer defeated the world’s chess champion, Gary Kasparov. Fifteen years after the chess match that shocked the world, an even more dazzling display of artificial intelligence occurred when IBM’s Watson computer defeated all-time Jeopardy champion, Ken Jennings. IBM is now working on quantum computing to increase speed and capacity to challenge the eighty-six billion neurons in the human brain. You would think that by this time and with this sustained effort, some academic researcher would be capable of quantifying just what the singularity is so that we can notice when some AI computer manages to pass it and thereby, it is feared, threaten humanity. But no. The best metric we have is the famous Turing test: can a machine fool a human being in normal conversation? What kind of a metric is that? We might notice that this hardly qualifies as Deep Blue level brainpower. It is kindergarten inductive logic, if that. Why can’t science better gauge what intelligence is or when the singularity will happen?
This Singularity Problem is a challenge for science in the same sense that science has challenged the world it has created over the course of the 20th century. This pivot point concerns quality. So long as measurable truth itself is the goal, the solution to making more reliable judgments is fairly straightforward. Observations are inherently imprecise, so use mathematical language to make them more so. Experience presents a succession of unique moments in the flow of daily life, so carefully structure repetitions and disqualify outlying results. Hypotheses can be tested, narrowed, and tested again. Laws, theories, and paradigms are challenged by new evidence or insoluble anomalies and so are revised or replaced, often in what Kuhn calls a “scientific revolution.” All this is inherent in what has now become “normal science.” But what happens when events are jumbled and unclear, conclusions uncertain, and induction as rough as a carpenter’s callous? In other words, when we judge not the quantity in life but its quality and when we exercise this judgment not in the lab but by the kind of rough-and-ready induction every person uses every conscious minute of every day?
This kind of problem concerns commonsense judgments of truth suitable to conceptualizing the meaning of a concept like “intelligence” based on various private experiences. But the Singularity Problem offers a second and even more difficult challenge that involves what constitutes superior intelligence. Once one knows what intelligence is, one then must make a second judgment about the moment when a machine has more of it than a human being. Or is that better of it? But notice something crucial to this second appraisal. It cannot take place until the first one has been completed. We cannot know what is better until we know what is. And that too is a judgment, but of an entirely different kind. It is a judgment of goodness rather than truth, and as even thinking about the singularity problem shows us, adequate judgments of goodness are much more difficult than those of truth, in part because they rely upon the adequacy of prior judgments that purport to find truth.
Both of these challenges are central to the tragedy of the last century when modernist axioms began to fail just as premodern ones did four hundred years earlier. This difficulty can be subsumed under the umbrella term as the quality problem: empirical science cannot answer questions of qualitative truth or qualitative goodness. For all of its triumphs, the empiricist faces these most difficult problems in human affairs as helpless as a naked, newborn babe. Or more prosaically, by using the same commonsense reasoning on the same kinds of everyday experience the rest of us use. The quality problem is one empirical science cannot resolve, cannot address, and so ought not approach. But because we all mine experience for its truth and then immediately sift that knowledge for its potential goods over and over in every minute of consciousness, scientists mistakenly assume they can bring their expertise to bear on the quality problem as they have on so many other problems of verification. In this effort, they not only must fail, but because of their hubris, they will fail more spectacularly than the most of us will. Here is why.
We are not by nature dispassionate participants in our own lives. Commonsense reasoning is inferior to empirical processes in large part because we are so used to exploiting an experience for its goods, mining the moment for its utility. The quests for truth and goodness are so intertwined in ordinary experience that we frequently don’t even notice that we think it good, for instance, to go on to another sentence after we see the period marking this one. We live in a constant cycle of understanding an experience so as to make use of it, a process that marks almost every conscious moment of experience (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance”). To separate our judgments of the truth of the moment from the good we can derive from it is so alien to our nature that it takes an intense focus just to notice it, much less to allow it. We cannot act on our understanding of an experience until we decide what goods we want to derive from it. And we cannot decide upon their potential to satisfy our desire until we understand what the experience is, what it means to us. First truth, then goodness. Seen in this light, our great reverence for “the truth” as an end to be sought is merely the means to our choosing “the good” as we see it. Most of our preferences are trivial — which shoe ought we put on first — and barely rise to conscious attention. We automate these to habit. Others barely cross the threshold of conscious attention — umbrella or raincoat? Once attentive to the option the situation offers, we choose and move on to the next moment. More momentous choices call for more consideration, which we allot depending on our system of value. But no two moments, no two choices, no two preferences, are ever just the same, even when life seems a treadmill of repetition. We never step into the same river twice because the river is never the same, and neither are we. Time is always the variable in experience.
This freewilling preference for the goods we identify in the moment is undistilled experience, a breathless rush of satisfactions that mark every conscious moment of existence. It is little wonder that we so revere the commonsense operations of reason that lubricate this endless choosing. We seldom notice the linkage between determining the truth of a situation and choosing its goods, and we probably rarely try to unlink the two operations of the mind, to control our preferential freedom.
It is precisely this control that most characterizes the difference between empirical thinking and commonsense reasoning: true science abstains entirely from the judgments of the good so as to avoid biasing its rigorous judgments of the true. Engaging this act of severance between knowing the true and seeking the good has proved the key to the lock of scientific truth. It is only by engaging it that science’s methodology has uncovered so many of nature’s secrets (see “The Act of Severance.”)
You will notice some fundamental differences between judging truth and goodness. The most basic is that every determination of goodness concerns a reality that does not exist. It is in the future and so is contingent, non-material, and indeterminate. These are just the kinds of characteristics that empiricism is least able to engage. They are, in a word, qualitative factors entirely unapproachable by the methodology that has given science its greatest success. The irony is one entirely suited to the twentieth century: popular sanction of science’s capacity to resolve our current moral crisis was founded upon science’s mastery of the act of severance, but this mastery prohibits science from even seeing, much less solving, the moral crisis it helped create and was being asked to resolve.
The self-effacement of science from judgments of quality simply removes such questions from empirical existence, the equivalent of the old joke about the man searching under a street lamp for a quarter he had lost down the street “because the light is better here.” This poses a problem for the strict empiricist who recognizes the act of severance but not the necessity for some other kind of qualitative judgment. For instance, the Nobel laureate physicist Frank Wilczek asks a profound question in his 2021 work, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality. “What is it, in the physical universe, that embodies ‘human purposes’?” He answers his own question thus: “If we try to define ‘human purposes’ precisely, we risk a rapid plunge into the murky depths of vague metaphysics.” For him and for most other natural scientists of the twentieth century, the necessity for qualitative judgments of goodness simply vanish because the act of severance removes it from empirical consideration.
But not every physical scientist recognizes the quality problem and thinks questions of goodness invisible to science. A typical approach is neurologist Sam Harris’s promise of “a science of good and evil” as a chapter title in his 2004 bestseller The End of Faith. His conclusion is that “a scientific understanding of the link between intentions, human relationships, and states of happiness would have much to say about the nature of good and evil and about the proper response to the moral transgressions of others.” If you are unfamiliar with the problem of quality and sympathetic to the golden thread of scientistic progress, you will nod in agreement at Harris’s optimistic prediction that empiricism will navigate humanity to “states of happiness.” And if you have not considered the act of severance as Harris obviously has failed to do, you will look forward to the era when a science of morality will establish codes of ethics for all of us just as it has for the many medical specialties with which he is familiar. And you will defer to scientists even when their decisions have nothing to do with the empirical process.
Some brain scientists predict the era of FMRI machines and advances in mapping the brain’s workings will prove the mind simply an illusion and self-agency an impediment to progress. All such metaphysical suppositions would be shown to be as illusory as the music of the spheres once that pesky “hard problem” of felt human freedom could be explained by deterministic science. Harris has something to say about that as well. “Although we can find no room for it in the causal order, the notion of free will is still accorded a remarkable deference in philosophical and scientific literature, even by scientists who believe (sic) that the mind is entirely dependent on the workings of the brain.” Think of the mental knots one has to tie to imagine that scientists will one day decide to say their power to decide is a self-delusion.
Scientists deeply immersed in their specialties, spending their entire lives deciding upon empirical truths, can perhaps be forgiven for forgetting that their hypotheses are proof of what the experiments that prove them deny. The “philosophical literature” Harris disparages has engaged the free will problem, in some cases with frankness and subtlety. Immanuel Kant’s famous third antinomy explores this paradox clearly. Kant demonstrates convincingly that felt human freedom, what Kant calls “spontaneity,” will never yield to deterministic prediction (see “The Essential Transcendental Argument”). This is not, of course, an empirical judgment. It is a judgment of quality, but anyone who reads Kant must be aware it is based on something other than common sense.
If it is not empirical and it is not commonsense reasoning, what can we call the kind of thoughtful yet non-empirical judgment that Kant employs? It seems deeply inductive and yet is not quantitative. Rather it probes into both quality and experience but without empirical rigor. Kant’s thinking seems to be the opposite of the painstaking elimination of variables that the laboratory employs in isolating the essential elements of a single experience. On the contrary, Kant’s brand of reasoning seeks essential elements of all of experience, meaning of everyone’s. But how can the phenomenological particularity of each person’s particular experience be somehow assimilated into any composited — and more importantly, warranted — truth about experience itself? Would such a sentence be meaningful despite the warnings of the philosophers of language like Wittgenstein, pragmatists like William James, and skeptics like Wilzcek?
If we have any hope of finding public moral guidance, we must seek some thinking space between the limitations of undistilled reasoning and of empirical science, of private realities and scientistic probability. That effort must begin with improved clarity about the conceptual nature of the conversation that will produce usable results, one that respects the potential of modernist axioms of universal reasoning and private experience. The alternative is the one postmodernism advocates: individualists trapped in private realities of their own experience that anchors private reasoning to strictly private moral codes, with inevitable conflicts with other moral values to be resolved by force or threat of it.
So let us try using some inductive analysis and conceptualization to investigate the nature of the problem of quality and the act of severance for science. This is not empirical rigor nor even expert judgment, but if conceptual limits are rationally complementary, it can be thought a competent judgment by a preponderance of the evidence. As a correspondence judgment, competence is sited well below empiricism and even beneath expertise, but in the spirit of matching the topic to the means of warrant, it seems the appropriate standard of judgment. In matters of public morality, competent thinking will have to be sufficient to be warranted by a preponderance of reasoned evidence.
On the one hand, some empiricists recognize the quality issue and consider it insuperable. They endorse Wilzcek’s view: natural science cannot find goodness, and if it cannot find it, it either does not exist or cannot be found. Others ignore or minimize science’s qualitative limits and the act of severance as illustrated by Harris’s plan for a “science of morality” that replaces commonsense reasoning with research-based guidance.
Something interesting happens as soon as the observer seeks to utilize results rather than simply know them: she must choose a desirable outcome, decide upon some use for the truth she has uncovered in the natural world. But nothing in that world nor in her efforts to this point can impart what outcome she ought to seek. No matter how well she comprehends the truth of an experience or how deeply she analyzes its constituents, nothing in physical reality can tell her what to do with what she discovers. To put it bluntly, nothing in the scientific process can transform a description into a prescription. Or even more simply, we can find no ought from is. The researcher must introduce some qualitative good into the process that has served her so well to find the truth, and that judgment can never be empirical (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?”).
The implications for this step away from empirical methodology is seldom appreciated for the chasm that it is even by practitioners. Frequently it is such a small step that it goes unnoticed. For example, applied science is distinct from pure science because it seeks to improve the world rather than simply know it. And while this task may appear a natural consequence of the scientific process, it is not at all empirical. Metallurgy, chemistry, and physics may provide the knowledge the materials scientist needs to construct a suitable elevator cable, but sizing the cable can happen only after an architect decides that an elevator of a certain size would be good to install for the building’s purpose. The physician values her patient’s health but none of her medical acumen can inform her that health is worth valuing. Even the scientific method itself is simply a convenient tool for finding quantifiable truth whose practice can never be verified by its own standards. Should some other means prove better, scientists would come to adopt it (see “The Latest Creationism Debate”). But deciding upon what is better cannot be an experimental result. “Better” is a goodness term. This much is clear: every good is imported into the empirical process. None is found by it.
No one graced by the wealth of technology in contemporary life would deny that science’s products’ utility is the real reason it is regarded as the greatest success of modernist axioms of commitment. Technology made life better by lessening manual labor, producing affordable products, improving human health, speeding transportation, and by the thousand other ways that technology has enriched our lives. Of course, it has not been an unmixed blessing, but nothing in the science that produces that technology allows us to make that judgment. Without this input of judgments of quality, natural science would be an inert observational process producing nothing but a clearer picture of the material reality that surrounds us. Every scientist would resemble the astronomer peering at some unimaginably remote galaxy: a reality to be seen but not affected, studied but not made use of.
This separation between reality and its uses was initially ignored for two simple reasons. First, proto-science had no real methodology, so no guardrails were at first available to limit its practices, as has been discussed. Second, in its early applications, the need for discovery and invention was more obvious than the means to satisfy it. Early technologies were responses to the most obvious of human needs in health, labor, and safety, and were moved by common sense and pragmatic motives accessible to anyone inhabiting the experiences they improved. If a sailing rig or a hull’s shape allowed cargo to be moved more quickly or safely, if a plow could be fashioned of a stronger material that would less often break upon the buried stone, if an infectious disease might be averted by sweet-scented herbs, the simplest inductive reason alone could make the obvious connection between the truth thus known and the good it satisfied. All science at first was applied science.
Its professionalization began to break that simplest of bonds between knowing the truth and exploiting the goods it offers to preferential freedom.. As discovery piled upon discovery and invention upon invention in an ever-increasing spiral of complexity and as disciplines began to deepen and separate and practitioners to immerse their entire lives into their fields of study, few thought to question their own competence to use the same methodologies so valuable in finding truth also to find its utility. This gradually led to a covert and largely unnoticed failure that we now call scientism. It is not a truth-finding — but is instead a goodness-seeking — assumption deeply buried within emerging scientific practice. It has haunted the last two centuries of scientific progress. It increased in importance as scientific advancement began its long process of professionalizing in the nineteenth century, and in that process proving the inadequacy of common sense. In one of those tragic historical coincidences that has produced our present crisis, it emerged just as authority began its final decline in the last half of the nineteenth century. So it was a predictable response to a society starving for public moral direction and a resounding smack-down to traditional authority’s hostility to empiricism’s reliance on rational autonomy. It also was an answer to the Romantic movement’s absurd reliance on a pantheistic God breathing inerrant truth into sincere hearts, and imparting certain moral clarity while doing it. But here is the rub: both traditional authority and Romantic pantheism could not be refuted by the methods that employed them. They were coherent truth-and-value-seeking systems. Scientism is not scientific and is actually refuted by the science it seeks to set up as its arbiter of value. Only the long slow adolescence of natural science and the simultaneous wasting away of public moral authority permitted scientism to expand like a heated gas to inflate its role to public moral prescription.
But that fundamental incapacity was enormously complicated because one particular sort of science did promise to guide persons to moral truth, to ignore the problem of quality and the act of severance, as well as the black box of human free will. As the twentieth century unfolded its successive technological triumphs and societal catastrophes, true empiricists continued their retreat from prescription even as they continued their descriptive triumphs. But another branch dove right into the empty pool of moral vacuity. This bundle of studies explicitly concerns what deterministic natural science must ignore or deny: human freedom. While it is indisputably true that this is the proper concern of moral prescription since moral preference must involve those same faculties, I hope it is obvious that it is not at all available to empirical science. Viewed in the light of natural science’s self-imposed restrictions, it is understandable that these human sciences stepped in to fill the moral vacuum. Tragically, that does not make their intrusion any more beneficial (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”). Because science’s limitations took so long to be understood even by practitioners, recognizing qualitative limits and the act of severance for the human sciences took even longer for the human sciences. Their unavoidable dependence on scientism is still not fully appreciated by practitioners, who bask in the reflected success of natural science, nor is it acknowledged by the public.
In part, this failure can be traced to the birth of natural science in the seventeenth century. Remember that it began as a simple, systematic search for knowledge, so all sorts of subjects were considered suitable, and the search for moral improvement was a “science” of systematic study from long before real science began. It seemed natural then that the Scientific Revolution had its echo, the Enlightenment, whose clear promise was human perfection, “the science of man.” Even in these early stabs at modernism, these subjects confronted moral questions far better served by philosophical inquiry than by empirical methods, especially as the meaning of “empirical” evolved. As Victorianism witnessed the constriction of empirical standards, it saw correlative efforts to develop “human sciences” as reliable as natural science.
In economics, sociology, criminology, anthropology, education, ethnology, and especially psychology, these fields attempted to develop the expertise and the experimental processes that would yield reliable knowledge of truth on a par with those produced by empirical studies. Their practitioners modeled their disciplines on the hard sciences, and they assumed their place in university curricula and shared science’s growing prestige. But they saw their function a bit differently. They thought themselves always on the cusp of fulfilling Enlightenment dreams of progress and perfection. These are moral goals whose attainment requires defining moral ends (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?”). They practiced what would become human sciences, as did the founders of great social movements like Marxism, fascism, and utilitarianism. In the post-World War I climate of moral desperation, their theories permeated the culture through and through. If hard science could find truth in nature, then surely the human sciences could do the same where it really counts, in human nature, all in pursuit of mental and social health. The natural turn to the human sciences began well before World War I, but in war’s awful wake they promised to fill in the empty space left by the growing rigor of the natural sciences, the collapse of common sense, and the final collapse of religious authority.
Diverse and even contradictory lessons were to be gleaned from the work of these inquiries because of their generality and explanatory powers. Capitalists looked to the inevitable rise of social Darwinism while communists embraced its inevitable fall. Relativity taught that spatial relationships were affected by the observer’s position, so phenomenologists argued that subjectivity was just as situational, while Constructivist educators pushed for making every classroom a laboratory of societal adaptation. Never mind that these and a thousand other prognoses of the human sciences inevitably conflicted. Paradigms proliferate. If truths in space and time are relative to the observer, why should moral truth not be relative to culture or a mysterious upwelling from the dark depths of the unconscious?
It is impossible for the human sciences to avoid stepping over the act of severance for the simple reason that the central concern of each is the human person whose felt preferential freedom is her most precious possession. So it was impossible for them to avoid scientism. At a truth-finding level, they have always been stymied by the quality problem. Discoveries in the natural sciences only set the table for preferential freedom to satisfy itself. Finding truth is the necessary prelude for choosing its possible goods closed to empirical inquiry and too situational to be open to expertise. So if human science has to step over that chasm separating truth and goodness, it are sure to stumble if it thinks it can use the methodology of true empiricism. The “black box” of human will can never be open to perceptual study except in a neurological sense that might fully interpret brain without ever touching upon mind. Human science might experimentally confront motivation but it always must be blind to intention. Every human science must face the unpredictability of individual free will in experience, a force not even its possessor may be said fully to understand and control and one whose operation can never be perceived or individually predicted from the outside in advance of preference (see “A Preface to the Determinism Problem”). This same mystery motivates human behavior in ways that must stymie causality and therefore prediction.
The sweeping generalizations of the human sciences as a result are not empirical because they violate the determinism that allows prediction and so can neither be predictive nor verifiable. Unless severely restricted in scope, they do not even qualify as available to expertise (see “Expertise“). They attract us with their broad explanatory power, but built into their theories is the escape hatch of human agency and its resulting unpredictability. Most crucially, they are not falsifiable. They are constructed so that contradictory evidence can easily be incorporated into hypotheses flexible enough to accommodate any evidential anomaly introduced by the black box of human freedom. And practitioners find that elasticity of theory an irresistible lure to their biases. That same lack of rigor allows a constant churn of theoretical structures, all abetted by a professionalized atmosphere that rewards novelty and dispute. The Germanic model of scientific progress that first structured postgraduate academia rewarded competition within the accepted paradigms of each discipline. What happens when theories are limited less by laboratory rigor than by imaginative possibility? As theories multiply, they make space for the intrusion of external norming that corrupts findings and skews preference. can never be empirical. In the end, human science paradigms inevitably fracture into competing and contradictory explanations because evidence is ambiguous, theory is amorphous, and hypothesis unfalsifiable. It is only human to see what verifies and ignore what contradicts our understanding. Empirical science took four hundred years to combat these prematurities, however imperfectly, but human sciences are only beginning to in our own day.
And there are practical obstacles also. There are no “pure human sciences” because the human will that is their focus can never be seen purely and the experiments that might test it would violate the moral dignity of the potential subject. Because they are poorly predictive of individual will, they also lack the utility that makes natural science discoveries so potent. I doubt we could name a single unambiguously useful product of human science paradigms but can name a thousand errors and societal harms. Their work provokes contention rather than gratitude, in part because they thrive in academic environments that fertilize creativity and dispute. Their manifold failures should have discredited them sooner and would have if a moral vacuum had not permeated Western culture.
They concern ends of choosing that are moral, not perceptual. But because they have always concerned human interests, practitioners in the human science have never been able to see that, permeating their theories with premature closure shaped by their prior moral preference and tainting their hypotheses with untestable assumptions. They will deny this, but their manifold paradigms cry out for a preference of the conceptual over the empirical in theory and their sloppy observations of human behavior beg for a fill-in-the-blanks supposition of human intent in practice.
The broadness of their disciplines inevitably touches upon related but equally mysterious aspects of individual agency, adding further variables to their studies. Because they wish for their theories to be true, they nudge observation and evidence so as to make them so. Like the believer who sees God’s mercy in the one survivor of the church collapse that kills hundreds, they see the proof of their chosen paradigm in the evidence they cherry pick from their observations and in finding it, they contend with other practitioners advancing other paradigms in the same field with the same kinds of evidence. So do the human sciences more resemble religion than natural science? They do in binding their truth claims to prior determinations of moral goodness. No one can read Marx without detecting his nostalgia for a lost medieval corporatism or Freud without seeing his hostility to religion. Durkheim’s lust for academic acceptance, Mead’s admiration for sexual freedom, von Mises’s fear of communism: human scientists not only cannot enter the black box of others’ human will but cannot escape its intrusion into their own theoretical frameworks. Nevertheless, their theories became the unreliable moral guides of the twentieth century and their contentious “expertise” the director of its public life. Their scientism has misdirected public morality for a century.
We have suffered through so many of these depredations that it is difficult to choose a single example. But we can find human pseudoscience sparking all the great tragedies of the twentieth century. Which view of “human perfectionism” should we pluck from history to illustrate its failures? Examine Marxism’s grand narratives built upon historicism and sociology, or Freudianism’s utterly fascinating but by now thoroughly discredited theories of staged development, fascism’s biased ethnology and anthropology, capitalism’s blasé acceptance of boom/bust cycles and inevitable wealth disparities as the price to be paid for material advancement. Each example elevates some dream of personal or social perfection unmoored from empirical evidence under the scientistic heading of “progress.”
Perhaps the most pertinent example of the attempt to mingle scientific principles with moral weight is one that entered the culture at the dawn of the twentieth century, an effort that still permeates and corrupts contemporary educational efforts. Pragmatism was launched in that crazed frenzy of novelty between the world wars. At least in the form advanced by William James, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey, its solution was to view life as a cycle of experimentation, each moment of which might contain its hypotheses and clinical trials. Even should we think commonsense experience capable of this absurdity, there is more. Since animal adaptation to environment is a Darwinian hypothesis, Pragmatists argued the true purpose of education to be “societal adaptation” rather than critical thought, thus facilitating a cultural conformism deeply at odds with the alienist aesthetic of popular cultures. This approach was arguably most influential in American educational theory, for it coincided with the spread of compulsory high school education and the founding of teachers’ colleges. It entered American life as Progressivism and Constructivism, permeating American classrooms and every American mind in the second half of the twentieth century.
Pragmatism sought to perfect utilitarianism, a popular Victorian consequentialist value system that sought to quantify goodness in a ludicrously pseudo-scientific effort to lend moral gravitas to random desire (see “Three Moral Systems”). Its empirical trappings notwithstanding, utilitarianism was merely subjectivism in fancy dress. Pragmatists recommended adopting a focus on moral flexibility and perfecting it through the application of empirical principles to determinations of use, so that persons might frame their experience as the scientist might and so make choices more productive of their happiness. It was a clever integration, but it managed to combine the worst elements that it sought to synthesize. Utilitarianism had failed for the same reason human sciences in general fail: because its champions could never isolate their prescriptions from their biases and preferences, could never base its “experiments” on quantitative data or find the means to isolate variables to perform experiments on their human subjects. The resultant theories were so elastic that persons in practice felt free to choose in the moment whatever immediate outcome they desired without overall self-direction or full awareness of consequences. Think about millions of adherents operating from the conflicts produced by such a system of morality. In practice, it was neither moral nor systematic. Like utilitarianism, pragmatism accepted the “cash value” of whatever ends persons happened to choose by whatever they happened to desire at they moment they were observed. It dignified such randomness as a “science of happiness.” But such an effort in ordinary experience must be refuted by the entire history of nineteenth century science that had refined experience so as to more solidly ground its truth claims and in that process had excised moral considerations from its perceptual study.
Because it ignored the act of severance and the problem of quality while posing as an empirical approach to happiness, pragmatism as a moral system proved itself anything but practical, at least if persons wished to either direct experience to some consistent end or evaluate it by some means beyond their present desire. Without an external guiding moral principle and in the chaos of experience that in no way resembles the laboratory, how could persons either choose what they consider good or act with the dispassionate distance required of the scientist? Wouldn’t they more likely mingle their preferences with their judgments and operate from a perpetual state of confirmation bias and in the tumult of unanticipated consequences utterly fail to achieve the goals they might desire at one moment but might change in the next? It is hard to say whether such a plan more insults morality or science, but it is certain that pragmatism as an ethical system was neither.
Dewey and James thought more as philosophers than as social scientists and more as social scientists than as empiricists. Pragmatism could claim only one point in its favor: it was well-suited to a materialist culture of kaleidoscopic preference and moral neutrality (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”). It worsened the moral vacuum in the public square while contributing to the failures of twentieth century American education, or rather it justified such failure by removing the means to identify the moral goods culture and education should pursue. The effort to produce an “empiricism lite” was assimilated as just one more modernist failure into postmodern theory after the 1970’s (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”).
Fast forward to our own day and our own crying need for moral clarity. The human sciences have retreated somewhat from the grandiose promises of the last century, in doing so still parroting natural science’s adolescent scientism. The soft sciences are increasingly absorbed into the hard or have learned to restrict their focus to the observable and statistical. In essence, they are more successful as statisticians of large numbers than as analysts of individual agency. This shift forces many but not all such disciplines to avoid the grand prescriptions that have so misguided popular morality. Practitioners who are willing to narrow their fields to closely studied and repeatable experiences can develop a real expertise about some issue relative to human will and produce statistically valuable truths, though their theories can never be predictive for any person regardless of how thoroughly applicable they may be to groups. So it should be equally apparent that they cannot be employing empirical methods to direct individual preferential freedom to the good.
It is surely true that human scientists, like empiricists in the natural sciences, are frequently granted a superficial authority in moral matters even today by non-specialists. But if you have followed the story of authority’s decline, it ought to be clear that whatever trust authority now permits is superficial and easily overridden in an atmosphere of individual autonomy and private agency. Persons often incorporate “commonsense” distortions of scientific principles to backstop preexisting desires and then assume them to be “on the authority of science.” Because scientism is not generally understood, its vacuity is not limited to uneducated persons in Western societies but is generalized in cultures wherein persons are always hungry for pragmatic justification for their own desires.
Natural science is our most powerful truth-finding process, one which forces moral vacuity. But its success poses a real threat if that power is not subject to external moral guidance. The history of the last century reinforces that danger. Science is a blind beast of enormous power, at the moment one without reins. We cannot expect it to exercise restraint or wisdom in directing its own pursuits. Those rely on moral decisions imposed upon it that it must be blind to as a condition of its competent operation. It certainly cannot be guided by human sciences and must not be allowed to revert to the scientism that marked its adolescence. In the face of its moral blankness, we should ask the obvious: what moral goods should it pursue, what moral limits should direct its great power, and what moral values should interpret its results? We can only answer with the same universal principles that guide other activities that produce laws and mores, but aren’t these sources equally tainted by the collapse of institutional authority, the resultant loss of public comity, and the weaknesses of ordinary reasoning science has revealed?
We must look elsewhere to fill our missing public consensus, for moral agency is inevitably rooted in individual rational agency. We know this is unlikely to be surrendered and if threatened by the need for public order, will likely defend its prerogatives. Before we utterly forsake hope that empiricism, for all its truth-finding prowess, can offer any assistance at all in our search for public moral consensus, we need to draw from it one final and feeble hope. Could its strict subservience to the utility of its methodology and its deferment of goodness considerations somehow assist constructing a universal moral framework that might learn from its methods even if it cannot be found by employing them? The question only echoes in the laboratory, for science’s credo must always be to pursue its truths by the strictest rational methods and the best available evidence. When Newton was asked what forced gravity to obey its laws, his answer proved most prescient: “I make no hypotheses.”
But because we require public comity, we must make hypotheses that will allow public consensus while respecting private human dignity. And since private morality must be a “systematic end of preference,” the only resource persons have to locate it is their reason, Romantic intuitions notwithstanding (see “The Tyranny of Rationality”). If Romanticism’s fate in the last half of the nineteenth century and all of the twentieth has not convinced today’s Romantics, the existentialists, of its failures, they must prove impervious to understanding. The only way reason can hope to come to the public consensus that is so desperately needed in our civic life is if it aligns private morality with a public one open to universal assent (see “Functional Natural Law and the Universality of Human Rights”). That will require a far better understanding of justice (see “Justice Is Almost Everything.”) Some moral principle must shape and guide these efforts, must not only shape one’s own experience to fulfillment but also must resolve conflicts with others in public spaces A rational examination of empiricism cannot find that principle, as has been shown, but it can reveal two lessons that should assist the search.
First, it proves that reasoning about experience has the capacity to be not only intersubjective, meaning understandable to others, but also objectively true and universally assented to. Science’s core process, language, and products are intersubjective and intercultural. Empiricism’s matchless success has demonstrated its universality through its reliance on quantification and the standardization of its methodology. It is possible to view mathematics as a sterile and artificial game. Even so, that every human mind can play it speaks strongly to the common operating system of human reasoning. Any mature mind can comprehend it by applying reason to its rules of operation. The same may be said for the powerful interconnectivity of the empirical sciences revealed by natural scientists working from Rome to Rio and from Boston to Beijing. As Kant said, these interlaced interpretations owe more to the structure of the human mind than to the shape of the universe, but we must remember that Kant regarded that mind as having a species-specific functionality. The evidence goes beyond a common mental framework that humans may share and that mathematical reasoning and the universality of the scientific method has proved. Technology reveals not only that these empirical structures accord with human reasoning but also that they interact with reality itself in ways that are predictable and transformative. This proves modernism’s stated premise that human reason can reveal truths about the world. Because they are perceptual, these truths cannot be moral. Science’s success comes by severing its practices from moral goodness, but that same success makes rationalist articulations of moral goodness to direct science necessary, though it does not prove them possible. All science has proved is that reasoning applied to experience can reveal descriptive truths about the world. Unfortunately, it has also proved that reasoning must be highly refined and experience highly limited for those truths to be fully warranted. And since this same demonstration has also shown the incompetency of commonsense reasoning about everyday experience, we have lost any confidence that universal truth can be found outside the laboratory. And since moral truth cannot be found inside it, we have fortified our private beliefs and abandoned the search for public moral consensus.
This has been an unforced error caused by accidents of history and human failures. It cannot be repaired until private beliefs are understood to be entirely inadequate to warrant public commitments and that the kinds of justifications cobbled together as the Reformation began tearing apart society are too crude and expedient to withstand sustained scrutiny or induce moral reasoning (see “Why Invent a Social Contract”). Even just law is now regarded by political libertarians as an indefensible imposition on private freedom (see “When Is Civil Disobedience Justified?”). Even this last bastion of civic identity can boast of no unifying moral foundation (see “Foundations of the Law: an Appetizer”). Natural science has washed its hands of goodness claims as the price of its success and both human science and ersatz expertise have wreaked sustained disasters on the twentieth centuries as they failed to cope with the axiomatic divisions now working through worldwide cultures (see “My Argument in Brief”). The present social disorder is making these issues more obvious. There is some danger that this realization will stimulate a nostalgic turn to authoritarian rule to restore order and moral direction, and we do find states that have reached the crisis point making that turn over the last century. It is not a return, however. Recent authoritarianism has been revived in the shadow of empirical success, which shows the value of retaining rational autonomy. Contemporary authoritarians have had to adapt to a social climate that is inimical to trust of any stripe and to the reliance on private beliefs that have accompanied materialism, pragmatism, and postmodern aesthetics. Trust is not inherent to the virtual circle mentality that is necessarily self-referential to the point of solipsism (see “Belief in the Public Square”).
Because empirical science must be blind to these issues of value and social utility, it cannot rescue us from the present moral crisis. But we need not be blind to its second lesson. Its dedication to the act of severance, the careful separation of judgments of truth from judgments of goodness that result from finding truth, is science’s unheralded contribution to this moment in history. This is the antithesis of the scientism that so corrupted twentieth century moral consensus, the human sciences, and the substitutes for public morality like materialism and Pragmatism that now suffuse contemporary cultures (see “Cultural Consensus”) So we must not think we can fill our moral vacuum by a simple inversion of science’s process but rather by the two lessons it has to teach seekers of public moral consensus. It is ironic that empiricism could only succeed when values were sucked out of its process, and the larger society that empiricism has so affected can only succeed when values are injected back into it (see “A Utility of Furthest Ends”).