The Alchemy of Science
Jennifer Trusted, Physics and Metaphysics: Theories of Space and
Time. London: Routledge, 1991.
Allen W. Palmer
The premise that science and metaphysics are not entirely incompatible
spheres of knowledge and activity is heresy among many true believers of both
orders. Hume said of metaphysics, "Commit it then to the flames: for it can
contain nothing but sophistry and illusion." Adorno wouldn't even have dignified
metaphysics with respectable terms; he called it "witchcraft." They would
separate fact from fancy, the real from the unreal, truth from error, all of
them worthy goals.
Of course, there are those who would try to reconcile
incompatibilities, but they haven't been very successful over the past
centuries. For one, the claims of reconciliation do not make very good headlines
(outside of the tabloids). We thrive on oppositions, on dualisms.
Yet, there is a tradition of reconciliation that is difficult to
gloss. Consider, for instance, that Max Weber observed once in The
Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: "Religious belief which is
primarily mystical may very well be compatible with a pronounced sense of
reality in the field of empirical fact; it may even support it directly...
mysticism may indirectly even further the interests of rational conduct."
Following Weber's lead, Jennifer Trusted does us a service in this
volume by looking back through the history of science to trace its roots in
non-science. She begins by classifying three kinds of metaphysics - (a)
speculative conjecture, (b) basic presupposition and (c) mystical belief. Only
mystical belief is widely understood to be at odds with science. But how to
separate the three categories presents an interesting problem, one which the
author doesn't entirely resolve. However, she does affirm: "There is more to the
relation of religious faith and scientific inquiry than the apparently
contingent fact that many scientists have been motivated by their religion and
some Christian clergy have been scientists. Certain fundamental tenets of
Christian doctrine support presuppositions that have been, and still are, of
prime importance for science."
These premises hint at the intriguing notion that science would not
have been possible without religious tenets, because to strive toward
understanding is itself a rationalizing goal that might have begun in theism. If
so, why would the offspring rise up and bite off the head of its master?
What makes Trusted's approach to these kind of questions useful is her
explicit treatment of the dominant beliefs of each period of historical
development of science. She suggests that the great challenge to metaphysics
began in the Enlightenment and was solidified in positivism, although they were
inherently multidimensional developments.
For instance, Trusted details the dominant "medieval beliefs" in a
list of 10 principles, beginning with God as the creator of the cosmos and
ending with the affirmation that all final explanations must be teleological
explanations. She notes, along the way, that resistance to the idea that the
earth is the center of the universe was not so much the fault of the Roman
Church, as it was of deep-rooted general beliefs in Western culture about
humankind's status in the universe. In her account, the history of science is
closely linked to the history of Virtual God. God and Science are flip sides of
the same coin. Consider this brief history of the deep entwinement of Science
and the "Christian" God.
By the early 17th Century, the dominant medieval beliefs had evolved:
although there were still strong religious presumptions that God was in charge,
earthly religious institutions were being challenged. In the realm of science,
matter was beginning to be regarded as inert. Animism and alchemy, which had
been so widely accepted, were diminishing in importance although they were
widely accepted by many people, including proto-scientists.
By the late 17th Century, the popular credo rested on a new
mechanistic philosophy, one that recognized a laissez-faire God, a God that did
not interfere in human affairs.
At the close of the 17th Century, there was a conviction that
knowledge was immutable and certain, and could be obtained through reason. The
Christian God remained, but was now more of a mathematician and designer,
guaranteeing order and consistency.
By the close of the 18th Century, the virtualization of God was well
on its way to its completion, which is to say God's disappearance was imminent.
Lip service might be rendered to God, but science itself had become a secular
activity. Human reason and the rational justification of truth were sovereign.
By the end of the 19th Century, science had lost its overt religious
motives and was regarded as independent and secular. It was also accepted that
science ought to be free of the influence of metaphysics and speculation. In
other words, God was fully sovereign in the form of so-called positivistic
Finally, the 20th Century privileges a lack of confidence in the
ability of science to provide a definitive account of the world. Although
science is a secular activity, the natural world cannot be adequately explained,
or described, in terms of human sense experience. Virtual God is ready for a big
The clues to such a complex search for connections are rooted partly
in the thought of, among others, Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Plato, but also in
Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Bacon and Newton, as well as in Hume,
Locke, Comte, Mill, Einstein and Hawking. Their ideas are linked in a sweeping
movement toward the present, but what we get in the present belies any faith in
science as an extra-human enterprise, leading toward ultimate (virtual)
explanations of life.
Consider that the new scientific outlook produced in the age of
Descartes and Newton, among others, absolutely rejected animism and teleological
explanations in favor of immediately preceding physical events and empirical
causal laws. More broadly, the universe was finally seen as a vast machine
operating in an orderly way through physical laws. However, for Descartes and
Newton, God was not constrained by the causal nexus of this machine-like
universe. He was still the First Cause.
For Descartes especially, humans were machines, subject to the same
mechanistic laws of nature... but also subject to influence by the mind (spirit,
soul), not otherwise governed by causal laws. Bacon pushed further, arguing for
freedom from intellectual constraints imposed by authority and stressed the need
for validation by direct observation and experiments. What sensory experience
produced, however, was not the separation of fact from fancy, but a kind of
solipsism or a kind of idealism that undermines faith in rational inquiry. Such
idealism ends in the tendency of both Einstein and Hawking to place explanatory
theory higher than observation. But explanatory theory must rest on some premise
that resembles again one or more of three categories of metaphysics.
In Trusted's explanation: "If metaphysics is overtly rejected either
there must be complete skepticism as to knowledge of anything but personal
sensations or else metaphysical beliefs will be covertly smuggled into the
purportedly metaphysics-free system."
Of course, where all of this leads is towards the social construction
of science, an increasingly popular perspective (e.g. Bruno Latour), which
places scientists firmly on the same (virtual) ground as everybody else. They
are, in Trusted's words, smuggling in their metaphysical beliefs while promoting
their value-free search for universal objectivity. The gap is probably as much a
shortfall in idealism as it is in surreptitious practice. But, finally, today's
science is probably more like alchemy than practicing scientists would care to
admit. The wrinkle is that science's products are sometimes much more terminal
than previous ages, due to the merging of technology and public policy, and the
reluctance of scientists to accept their (collective, not individual) ethical
But what of the original premise - that metaphysics is an inherent,
even if implicit, feature of contemporary science? Trusted does not offer the
final word on the issue, but she sheds some worthwhile light on what has been
unnecessarily portrayed as an oppositional and acrimonious discourse.
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