Constraining Her to Yield up Her Secrets through the Vexations of Art

Yet I Still Want to be a Catholic, post 13:  Constraining Her to Yield Up her Secrets through the Vexations of Art.


Galileo’s science, for all that he had discovered that the moon was not made of some ethereal substance but was a ball of stone, was born out of a world that believed in Dame Nature.  Nature was the friend of man. Matter was holy because it was animated by and was the container of the Divine Wisdom.  Galileo saw himself not as destroying but confirming this world view by putting it on a scientific footing.  Wisdom is mathematical, and mathematics is the moving force in nature.  Nature, and mathematics, “partook of the Divine”.  But with the killing of Catholic science by the Church, science moved into a very different northern and Protestant atmosphere.   Now the idea that God was within the universe was regarded as idolatry.  The Protestant God was outside the universe and matter was merely cold neutral stuff.  There was no Dame Nature but only the immutable laws of physics that had been infused into the universe by God at the beginning.  Nature is no more  the friend, but the sullen and unwilling enemy of man. Matter had no intrinsic motion but could only be moved by external powers.   Mathematics is no longer a moving force but merely a descriptive language.  There were no immaterial containing forms but only collections of corpuscles, as this science called the smallest particles of matter, which moved each other by bumping into each other.  Galileo’s inertia was no longer mathematically “partaking of the divine, and I am inclined to agree”, but merely an abstract  law of physics.


This reaction against the femininity of the creation was expressed most forcibly in the witch craze which swept over Europe from the late fifteenth to the late seventeenth century, encouraged by none more vigorously than by the Church.   So much for the traditional cosmic harmony animated by the female Wisdom that had been the foundation of the Church’s condemnation of Galileo.   In northern Europe witches were tortured to extract confessions and drowned in ponds, and in southern Europe they were burnt at the stake. According to the Malleus Maleficarum, the Hammer of the Witches, composed by the Dominicans Kramer and Sprenger and published in 1486 at the behest of the Papacy, woman is ‘an imperfect animal, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil…an evil of nature”.


The popular seventeenth century view of witches as a malevolent female

Francis Bacon, the ‘father of science’ and inventor of the inductive method but also Lord Chancellor of England, was deeply affected by the witch craze.   His attitude to scientific experiment is redolent of the tortures that were legally used to extract confessions from witches.  “You have but to follow and hound nature in her wanderings” he wrote to James 1st, “neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating into these holes and corners, when the inquisition of truth is his whole object…so nature exhibits herself more clearly under the trials and vexations of art (he means torture) than when left to herself”.  Nature must be “bound into service” and made “a slave…in constraint” and “molded” by the mechanical arts.   Both man and God are outside nature, nature is a mechanicism, phenomena are to be explained by dividing them into parts.

Franics Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England and originator of the inductive method is science.

The scientific method, invented by Bacon comprised (a) an unprejudiced collection of data (b) hypothesis (c) experiment and (d) peer review.  It is still the procedure venerated by scientists today.  Its whole point is that it is objective.  But as it came out of Bacon’s hand it was anything but objective.  It was saturated in Protestant Reformation theology, and still in these days post-Protestant theology.  It was trapped in its own narrative: that nature is a mechanism, an entirely material phenomenon, a collection of corpuscles marshalled into order by the laws of physics.  It totally failed, and still does, to distinguish facts from meanings, it never even attempted to understand the remarkable facts that science was now discovering within different philosophical matrices other than its own.


If Bacon was the first major philosophical influence on English science, the second was John Locke.  Just as Descartes’ philosophy was founded on an assumption that was so obvious to him that it needed no verification or proof, but was in fact erroneous, so with the philosophy of Locke.  Locke’s founding assumptions are (1) there is no innate knowledge, all we know comes originally through our senses (2) there are no wholes, only parts: you say “there’s a tree” as if it were a single thing, but it is no more than a collection of leaves and branches that are in turn collections of molecules and atoms (3) the phenomena examined by physics – motion, composition of parts, the laws of nature etc. – really exist out there in the world, but our sense experiences – taste, smell, colour, sound etc. – are merely subjective reactions to external phenomena suggested to us by our brains.

For Locke the mind is a tabula rasa.  There are no universal principles    which are already innate in the mind.  Otherwise, he argues, children and idiots would be familiar with the law of contradiction, which patently they are not.  Reason is the faculty whereby we deduce unknown truths from known ones.  If there were innate known principles there would therefore have to be even prior innate known ones from which we had deduced them, which is patently absurd.  On the contrary it is by actually looking at things that we come to know what is true   and learn to distinguish real facts from Aristotelian and scholastic gobbledygook.  ‘…we should make greater progress in the discovery of rational and contemplative knowledge if we sought it in the fountain, in the consideration of things themselves..’

Yet wait. This is indeed true, he says, but only in a sense.  It is perhaps paradoxical, but taking a look is, at first,  precisely what doesn’t give us truth.  It only gives us knowledge of secondary qualities such as sweet and warm and coloured which do not lie in things themselves but in our senses.   What we really have to do is to bypass what is only in our senses and get at the primary qualities which are in the things themselves:  solidity, extension, figure and mobility.  ‘From whence I think it is easy to draw this observation.  That the idea of primary qualities of bodies, are resemblances of them, and their patterns do really exist in the bodies themselves; but the ideas, produced in us by these secondary qualities, have no resemblance of them at all’ .  The problem is that we never see things as purely extended  or moving but always as something which is coloured  and sweet or warm as well as  extended and moving.  The great advance of science is to have found a way of  seeing things as simply extended and moving with the “white noise” of colour and sweetness cut out.  This is why, at last, the experimental methods of seventeenth century science are leading men to what is really true.  Directly before us there is a sweet and warm and coloured world which appears to be true because it is so  immediately and sensibly there.  But actually it isn’t the true world.    Behind it there is an immediately invisible but  mentally knowable world which is the really true one.  Myth has been replaced by science.

In fact, Locke’s basic principles are all  unproven assumptions to say the least.   If you start by assuming that there are no wholes, not surprisingly your science only finds parts.  If science is assumed to be only concerned with material phenomena, not surprisingly it finds no evidence of the immaterial.  Locke may have been right.  But I want to argue that there is no proof beyond its own view of the world.  That there are other, admittedly from the nature of the case equally unproved and perhaps unprovable, that are better and more rational philosophical frameworks within which science can be understood.  How many contemporary atheists and secularists have even dreamt of looking into the Italian Renaissance modes of thought that were Galileo’s background, Kant’s philosophy of nature in his Critique of Judgment, or Goethe?  Certainty? Except for facts, there is none.  For how can we know what they mean?


John Locke:  there are no wholes, only parts.


Photo of a witch uploaded by Enchanteur de Bret …courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Image of Francis Bacon provided by Ann Longmore-Ethridge courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Image of John Locke photo by ONE + ONE courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons







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