On Scientific Pursuit

It is a truth universally acknowledged that one ought to query Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics when one wishes to develop his own ideas on any subject. If Bavinck hasn’t written on a given subject directly, he’s at least put some time into developing a proper foundation from which a man can begin his own inquiry.


In the last post, Médaille and Mises agreed that diminishing man as a way of practicing economics could only end in disaster. But what’s the right way to do economics? Or, broadening the question, what does it mean for a man in full to engage scientifically? How does that work? These paragraphs from Bavinck’s section on empiricism begin to answer those sorts of questions. (Note especially his reference to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 at the end of the second paragraph: “proficient and equipped for every good work.” We would be fools to put Scripture to the side in our pursuit of scientific knowledge and hope to be equipped to have success in our pursuits.)

Empiricism’s…view of science is also subject to serious question. Science, after all, is by its very nature interested in knowledge of that which is universal, necessary, eternal, and logical. Knowledge of phenomena, persons, facts, etc., though good, is still only preparatory; analysis comes first but synthesis must follow. Scientific knowledge exists only when we see the cause and essence, the purpose and destiny of things, when we know not only the that (ὅτι) but also the wherefore (διότι) and thus discern the causes of things (rerum dignoscimus causas). Empricism, however, is compelled to deny the name of “science” to all sciences except the exact sciences. But this restriction is impossible for two reasons. First, because aside from the purely formal sciences (logic, mathematics, mechanics, astronomy, chemistry), and then only in a certain sense, there can be no science without a philosophical element. In every science, inventiveness, intuition, imagination, in a word, genius (and in this connection the scientific hypothesis) play a most important role. And second, because then the name of “science” can finally be reserved only for a few subsidiary disciplines, and precisely the knowledge that is most important to human beings and that in their research is their primary interest is banished from the domain of science. Thomas’s maxim, in which he follows Aristotle, remains true: “The slenderest acquaintance we can form with heavenly things is more desirable than a thorough grasp of mundane matters.” And Schopenhauer made a similar statement: “People never stop praising the reliability and certainty of mathematics. However, what benefit is there for me in knowing with ever so much certainty and reliability something which I do not in the least care about?”

In addition to this, the world of nonmaterial things, the world of values, of good and evil, law and custom, religion and morality, of all that inspires love and hatred in our hearts, lifts us up and comforts us or crushes us and grieves us, that whole magnificent invisible world is as much a reality to us as the “real world” that we perceive with our senses. Its impact on our lives and on the history of humankind is still much greater than that of the visible things about us. Human beings may be freely asked, then, to limit themselves in their research since in this domain no knowledge is possible, but this demand bounces off what Schopenhauer called the metaphysical need of the human spirit. Man is not only an intellectual but also a willing and feeling being; he is not a thinking machine but in addition to his head also has a heart, an [inner] world of feelings and passions. He brings these with him in his scientific research. In his activities in study and laboratory, he cannot lock himself out. It cannot rightly be demanded of man that in his scientific labors, that is, in one of the noblest activities of his mind, he silence the voice of his feelings, his heart, the best part of him, and thus cripple himself. Only this may always–and therefore also in the case of the practitioner of science–be demanded: that he be a good, a true man, a man of God, proficient and equipped for every good work, including this work of pursuing scientific knowledge.

If, however, the pursuit of science is both subjectively and objectively restricted, the only outcome will be that people will seek the satisfaction of their metaphysical needs in other ways. Kant took the road of practical reason; Comte introduced the cult of humanity, consecrating himself as its high priest; and Spencer humbly bowed down before “The Unknowable.” In one way or another–including even spiritism, magic, and theosophy–they all seek compensation for what science will not give them. And religion, along with all spiritual knowledge, having first been shamefully dismissed through the front door, is again admitted through the back door but now frequently in the form of superstition. “You may expel nature with might and main; it will nevertheless always come bounding back” (Horace). Only, the inevitable result is that science is then left, undefended and unarmed, to materialism. And, in fact, this is what empiricism has led to. If the content and, soon, the intellectual faculty of the soul as well proceed altogether from the external world, why then could not the soul itself be explained in terms of it as well? But over against this still always stand the “seven riddles of the world” as a source of torment and vexation to the materialistic mind. The spiritual still has not yet been explained in terms of the material, any more than rationalism has succeeded in deriving “being” from “thinking.” No passage between the two has been found. Here is a gap that neither idealism nor materialism can bridge. It is not too daring even now to say not only “we do not know” (Ignoramus) but also “we shall not know” (Ignorabimus). But when we see that, despite the great promises made and the still greater expectations entertained, empiricism and rationalism in this century ended up in mere materialism and illusionism, we wonder. Despite the opposition between materialism and illusionism, they still advanced and aided each other–in the case of Feuerbach and Strauss, Hegel’s idealism ended in materialism, and in the cases of many natural scientists, materialism is turning into full or semi-idealism. So there is good reason to ask some questions. Does not the whole of modern philosophy, in its Cartesian as well as in its Baconian expression, need revision? Are there not other and better principles of science, principles that protect us from materialism as well as idealism? (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. I, 221-222)