“Man’s nature cannot carry the affliction nor the fear.” (King Lear, Act III, scene II)
Scientific disciplines and the culture at large are equivocating on the nature of science: in one dominant view, science is infallibly objective. In the other, scientists’ biases can severely color science. This essay seeks to clarify the nature of science. It examines popular approaches to science, these approaches’ potential effects, and the perspective that theology can provide to our potential misunderstandings of science.
Without a nuanced understanding of science, we can subject science to a false kind of faith, hoping it will answer all our existential questions. This risks science’s enormous and fruitful contributions to contemporary life, seeking certainty from a rational discipline in a less than rational way.
We might look to Newman’s understanding of certitude: “active recognition of propositions as true, such as it is the duty of each individual himself to exercise at the bidding of reason, and, when reason forbids, to withhold.” We need a deliberate process of assent or denial to propositions about science and theology. We also need integration, looking to principles both in science and in theology that will help reveal what is real.
The conflict between the two dominant views of science is implicit on the lawn sign that proclaims, “Science is Real.” If science is objective, monolithic, and manifestly true, then it does not particularly benefit from the support lawn signs provide. At the same time, that anyone senses the need to assert science’s reality is telling.
Notably, people are insisting that science is real as our culture also realizes that science’s human practitioners can impute their own flawed hues to it. Just one example might be algorithms’ role in everything from online shopping to criminal justice, and the way those algorithms could reflect existing social inequities.
In fact, science is both objective and practiced by fallible human subjects. Further, “science” is really “the sciences,” a set of divergent but related fields with varying assumptions and practices. The sciences offer a methodology for determining facts about physical reality. By controlling variables, repeating tests and results, the sciences can verify and reveal a knowable order in the physical universe. And this method really works.
On one hand, it is a relief that culture within and beyond scientific disciplines is finally able to acknowledge science’s subjective frame. For too long people have labored under the false assumption that unprovable and subjective “faith” has given way to “science,” presumably surer and more solid.
However, there is also a danger in how we respond to our awareness of science’s subjective limits. What can happen is exactly what has happened: popularly, we project our blind spots into our perception of science. We can treat science with a new fideism, instead of as a method for testing hypotheses. In that case, science becomes an ironic god of the gaps: gaps not in human knowledge as a whole but in popular understanding of what scientists apparently know. We may in some way “outsource” our understanding of the natural world, as though science consisted of arcane principles accessible only to the elect.
Our confusion may come from a fear of uncertainty, a fear of not being fully in control. Part of the danger is that we may exalt science as a reaction to our own unrecognized fears and motives. Human beings desire certitude and security. Many of us would prefer touting partial knowledge to admitting our lack of full control in front of the unknowable. We scramble for certitude perhaps because our nature “cannot carry the affliction nor the fear.”
Our confusion often romanticizes science and births equivocation on scientific matters. Increasingly, both science and religion are suffering from what Charles Taylor has called “fragilization.” For Taylor, cultural trends and pressures create a state of fragilization, where previously unquestionable positions or aspects of identity become optional. Rather than expanding the mind’s horizons, culture is squeezing science into the supposedly small boxes science was supposed to replace. Science is filling the cultural role not of faith but of something like magic.
This disciplinary foreshortening also disfigures our intellectual and imaginative world. We blindly assume: the realm of science is what is measurable, the world we see is measurable, so all that exists must be measurable, and the only way to know the world is by measurement. But then we realize that human subjects—who can be racist, sexist, or biased in innumerable other ways—perform, govern, or at least initiate these measurements. Has our lives’ measurement not measured up? As science’s grand stature shrinks, positivism implodes. Alasdair MacIntyre saw that “a moral philosophy … characteristically presupposes a sociology.” Likewise, every science presupposes a metaphysics. As scientists vigorously hold, unquestioned presuppositions are dangerous.
Even if we cannot consciously identify or acknowledge this tension, it cannot hold in the long term. The cognitive dissonance of harboring a violation of the law of non-contradiction must either resolve into harmony or collapse into irrationality. When the first does not happen, we resort to creedal formulae: “In this house, we believe!” We buy healing crystals.
What contemporary trends intuit is that despite Enlightenment promises, science has not shown itself a superior form of knowledge. It has borne enormous fruit—space travel, engineering, modern medicine—but it has not replaced supposedly paltry faith with something more reliable. That is because the sciences are a method for determining facts about physical reality. If reality is more than solely physical, the sciences cannot tell us everything about reality.
After years of science’s growth in the public eye, subjectivity is suddenly bracketing not just faith but science, fragilizing science and bringing a new kind of secularization. This is the ironic postlude to science’s uncovering of space and time’s relativity. For centuries, a unit of time (the saeculum) increasingly relativized a life once infused by apparently timeless and transcendent religion. But now the secular is relativized and the new measurement of subjectivity frames science’s role in culture. The world suffers a new disenchantment, not from rational knowability but from hopeless unknowability.
We may try to use science to fill the epistemic and anthropological need for faith, but it cannot fulfill the role. We need both vigorous reason and rigorous faith. Science and faith both reveal reality. They complement one another. They are betrothed.
In the fog it is important not to conflate science’s subjective coloring with the fact that science is still very much real. For this reason, people of faith are right to question an extreme relativization of science: that relativization is part of secularity. It disintegrates the healthy union of subjective and objective, spiraling toward a shattered and infinitely subjective shard of worlds. Theology, queen of the sciences, helps cut open our knotted claims about knowledge, science, and revelation.
Poems by Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas shed light on science’s subjective-objective “problem.” Contemporary science may seem like no place for medieval hymns, but Bernard and Aquinas appreciate objective scientia’s subjective dimension in a unique and timely way.
It is common to paint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) as a “subjective” figure, the last of the writers in the patristic scriptural tradition, inviting his monks to a personal appropriation of mystical texts. Some portray Aquinas (ca. 1224–1274) as “objective”—heady with scholastic distance from experience. Yet these writers’ most famous poems make similar points about scientia’s interwoven subjectivity and objectivity.
Bernard of Clarivaux’s mellifluous Jesu dulcis memoria exclaims: Nec lingua valet dicere, / nec littera exprimere: / expertus potest credere (“Neither can the tongue confess / Nor the letter here express: / the one who’s tested can believe”). Expertus here points to the paradoxical origin of our word “expert.” Expertus is a noun, but also a past participle of the infinitive expiri: the expertus has “tested” or “experienced” what he or she believes. The poem does not say, the expert can be believed. It says the expert is able to believe. That gives objective experts an oddly subjective turn: their knowledge bears fruit because of something they have seen, witnessed, tested, and now testify to. But this means acknowledging that there is objective reality.
In his hymn Adoro te devote, Aquinas holds: sed audito solo tuto creditur. Only what is heard—versus visus, tactus, gustus, seen, touched, or tasted—can be totally believed. Knowledge begins in the senses, as Aristotle held (Posterior Analytics ii, 19) and Aquinas affirmed (Disputed Questions on Truth, q. 1, a. 11, respondeo), so professing an objective fact means some subjective experience of it. “Faith comes through what is heard” (Romans 10:17), says Saint Paul. Even theology in part requires the senses—it is, after all, a science.
Aristotle begins his Metaphysics with a positive desire: “All men by nature desire to know” (i, 1). But Shakespeare identifies a negative desire: “Man’s nature cannot carry / the affliction nor the fear.” Taken together, these desires have the ability to uplift or destroy our longing for truth.
At the height of New York’s coronavirus outbreak in the spring of 2020, I received a number of calls from a local hospital asking me to administer last rites. Its COVID wing had expanded significantly; many of the COVID patients were overflow cases from New York City that hospitals and makeshift wards there simply could not handle. I would be asked to give last rites, arrive and don PPE, only to be told at the room entrance that I could not anoint the patient.
Despite assurances to the contrary, someone would have to call someone’s boss, who would either contradict what the hospital system previously said (that, under strict and predetermined guidelines, I could enter the room and anoint the COVID patient with a Q-tip) or turn out to be unavailable, leading someone to turn me away. At a certain point, a floor manager told me I needed an N95 mask, which I had; then told me that, regardless of whether I was already wearing one, I needed the hospital’s training on how to wear an N95. When I tried to register for the training, I was turned away. It was soul crushing, for patients and priests alike, I suspect. More than anything else, it made me pray. But it also made me ponder how our notion of science had led us to quarantine the spiritual from the material.
Newman came on the scene during the nineteenth century’s apparent crises of theology and science. His category of “real assent,” assent to actual things as opposed to inferences, reinforces both the sciences and in theology. For Newman the “illative sense” allows assent to the reality of any truth: truths about the visible world and the truths of revelation. They are both part of what is real. As a result, science requires the sanction of a personal, individual, God-given sense.
With calm and rigor, Newman’s view of reason and revelation moved past false dichotomies. His evenness is worth our time today. We would do anything—even substitute science with the totally irrational—to find the security of safe harbor, the truth where the intellect comes home. We might plant lawn signs, craft slogans, argue, and publish; anything but rest in the truth. That itself testifies to our bewilderment and to our marvelous, bewildering humanity. Will we see the Subject who makes such a marvelous creature?
“What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
 Newman, GA, ch. 9.
 King Lear, Act III, scene II.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 331.
 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), ch. 3.
 Author’s translation.
 Hamlet, Act II, scene II.
Fr. Samuel Bellafiore is a priest of the Diocese of Albany, New York.