During a lunch conversation with colleagues I was reiterating something I had said in a class earlier in the day, that the more important or potentially meaningful something is, the harder it becomes to define. For example, defining beauty is almost impossible. Tossing the conversational ball to Paul, a science professor at the table, a colleague who often plays the role in our community of the resident anti-religious agnostic, I said that I understood the physical phenomenon of light was likewise basically impossible to define. Paul responded, yes, not only is its essence as particles contradicted by its essence as waves but, he added, “We are not sure it exists at all.”
As most lunch conversations go so also this one moved quickly into other areas. It was days later that I found myself reflecting on what it means when a scientist says “We are not entirely sure light exists at all.” Questions came to mind: What sort of procedure could prove that light exists? In order to see the procedure you were conducting you would need light, and how can you use light to prove light is real without (a priori) assuming it is real, etc.
I realized that, of course my friend believes, as many others believe, that only that which can be verified by the scientific method is real, meaning that anything which eludes such verification is not. He is saying that outside of scientific inquiry we have no way of knowing reality. Not even light—which we need in order to observe almost everything else is—can be said to exist.
This led me to go back and re-read a portion of John Paul II 1988 encyclical, Fides et Ratio, where he used the term scientism:
88. Another threat to be reckoned with is scientism. This is the philosophical notion which refuses to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences; and it relegates religious, theological, ethical and aesthetic knowledge to the realm of mere fantasy. . . . Scientism . . . which dismisses values as mere products of the emotions and rejects the notion of being in order to clear the way for pure and simple facticity. Science would thus be poised to dominate all aspects of human life through technological progress. . . Regrettably, it must be noted, scientism consigns all that has to do with the question of the meaning of life to the realm of the irrational or imaginary. No less disappointing is the way in which it approaches the other great problems of philosophy which, if they are not ignored, are subjected to analyses based on superficial analogies, lacking all rational foundation. This leads to the impoverishment of human thought, which no longer addresses the ultimate problems which the human being, as the animal rationale, has pondered constantly from the beginning of time. And since it leaves no space for the critique offered by ethical judgment, the scientistic mentality has succeeded in leading many to think that if something is technically possible it is therefore morally admissible.
The community of scientists limits its inquiry to the empirical, the provable, that which subjects itself to the scientific method. And rightly so. But to turn and say that which can not be subject to the scientific method cannot be known to even exist; this is not science, it is scientism.
From a completely different point of view, Joseph Pieper, in The Silence of St. Thomas, speaks of things, physical things, as having “their intelligibility, their inner clarity and lucidity, and the power to reveal themselves because God has creatively thought them. This is why they are essentially intelligible. . . It is this radiance, and this radiance alone, that makes things perceptible to human knowledge.”
I begin to understand the importance of Thomas’s willingness to make the assumption that things that are, are; that what is, is; that being must be assumed before one can ask what it is. Pieper’s credits the nature of being with the ability to reveal itself, the very nature of a thing with an inner intelligibility, an inner clarity and lucidity. This means we can, to a certain degree, trust our senses—what is, is: not because I perceive it, but because it’s nature is to reveal itself.
Pieper finishes the section by addressing the futility of inquiry without any recourse to God’s creative thought; “Do not think that it is possible to do both, to argue away the idea that things have been creatively thought by God and then go on to understand how things can be known by the human mind.”
Assuming that only that which I can prove is real opens the question of whether light even exists, because I cannot prove it does. Light, the one thing I need to make the observations necessary to prove the reality of things, might not be real. We have arrived in never-never-land, a place where logic and reason have no say.
The accusation is made against Thomas that he assumes a priori that what is is, that what is is intelligible (it is its nature to be so). But the positivist who must prove in order to believe (not in God but in reality itself!) also makes an a priori assumption: I cannot trust my senses to perceive what is real.