The following was adapted from remarks delivered at Franciscan University of Steubenville on Tuesday, November 29, 2022.
When I speak on campus, the libs call me all sorts of names: “racist,” “sexist,” “-phobic.” But the charge they hurl at me most often these days is “anti-science.” It doesn’t matter what I’m talking about: the coronavirus, gender, global warming, etc. The most frequent accusation these days, tantamount to a charge of blasphemy, is that I’m “anti-science.” And to that accusation, I say, “Guilty as charged.”
Many conservatives hate being called “anti-science.” It makes them feel foolish and ignorant. That is why they try to ground all of their arguments in scientific-sounding jargon. When the liberals call us “anti-science” for denying their alleged “breakthroughs” in the science of sex and gender, conservatives hurl the insult right back at them. We accuse them of being “anti-science” for denying the scientific reality of sex. We refer to “biological males,” “biological females” — as if biology were the only thing that mattered.
When the libs accuse us of being “anti-science” for objecting to their taking away all of our rights and freedoms and way of life for over two years, conservatives return the very same insult. We say, “We’re not anti-science! You’re anti-science!” And then we recite a litany of scientific arguments for why hankies on our faces wouldn’t stop a pandemic. As if there were no other reason other than “science” not to give all of our political power to a diminutive technocrat in a lab coat and all of his lackeys.
When the liberals call us “anti-science” for doubting that the world will end in 10 years if we don’t destroy our economy and radically alter the way to eat, work, get around, heat our homes, and do pretty much everything else that we do, what do we say? We say, “Nuh-uh, you’re anti-science!” And then we cite our own statistics on sea levels and storms and temperatures or whatever, as though “science” were the ultimate — nay, the only — authority when it comes to ascertaining truth.
I’m sick of it. I don’t care if the libs call me foolish, or ignorant, or a knuckle-dragging troglodyte. I will not play their game. I will not worship their false god. I will not take their epistemological bait. “Science” is fake. Conservatives may not be “anti-science,” but we should be. We should at least be much more skeptical of the pretenses of science than we are right now.
For starters, as a purely historical matter, science has been wrong about pretty much everything. I refer not only to the past couple of years of COVID incoherence. I’m not just talking about the World Health Organization and the CDC and the NIH and our old pal Dr. Fauci, all of whom made mistakes and told outright lies about COVID, its origins, the masks, the “social distancing,” the vaccines, the lockdowns, and most everything else. I’m not even talking about relatively recent scientific flubs — moments such as occurred in 1949, when the neurologist Antonio Egas Moniz won the Nobel Prize for inventing the lobotomy.
I mean to look more broadly at the category of “science” as a whole. Because virtually every single scientific theory about every single thing has been at some point disproven, upended, or replaced.
There was, for example, the theory of the spontaneous generation of life — widely accepted for millennia that complex life springs from inanimate objects. That was knocked down in the 19th century by Louis Pasteur, who proved “biogenesis,” the notion that life is generated only from other life,” the diversity of which, it was held for millennia, derives from a single act of creation, a theory that was replaced according to scientists of the 17th century by a theory of transmutation and the “genealogical ascent of species,” a theory replaced in the following century by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s theory that organisms pass on traits acquired during their lifetimes to their offspring, a theory in turn disproven and replaced in the following century by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection combined with Mendelian inheritance, which in turn has been complicated if not contradicted by the observation of epigenetics and a return to the formerly discredited views of Lamarck — all of which has been questioned in recent years not only by kooks and cranks but by serious scholars with top academic credentials, such as David Berlinski of Princeton and David Gelernter of Yale, who have argued that the theory of evolution is no longer mathematically tenable.
I do not mention any of these theories of life to endorse one over another but merely to show that “science” is a fickle lady. Yet, though the scientists are frequently wrong, they are almost never in doubt. Which is why today, scientists and their disciples insist that we accept their current consensus on any matter that they deem important. On any topic — global warming, the origin of life, human sexuality, you name it — we must believe precisely the view that just so happens to be fashionable in the year of Our Lord 2022, or else we’re ignorant, idiot science-deniers. Although wildly divergent and contradictory scientific theories have constantly cropped up and collapsed throughout all of human history, today apparently the scientists have resolved every problem and know everything about everything, and that’s never going to change, and only a dummy wouldn’t trust them.
Some might object that I have cherry-picked a particularly controversial category of science. They might suggest that most other scientific theories are not so meandering and contradictory but instead show a story of steady development and progress. Say, for example, our understanding of our own place in the universe.
Contrary to popular belief, we’ve pretty much always known that the earth is not flat. Pythagoras postulated a spherical earth 500 years before Christ. But the ancient models placed the earth — and therefore man — at the center of the universe. In the 2nd century AD, the astronomer Ptolemy observed that the planets don’t appear to orbit the earth in perfect circles. Some planets, such as Mars, even appear to move backwards at times. This observation gave rise to the theory of planetary epicycles, which held that planets move around in small circles as they orbit the earth in a larger circle. This theory was replaced in the 16th century by Copernicus and the heliocentric model, which held that the planets, including earth, revolve around the sun, although a preface to Copernicus’ book “The Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” insisted that this model was only for the purpose of calculation and not to be taken literally. Decades later, Tycho Brahe upended all of those previous models by showing that the “celestial spheres” do not exist, since which time various and sundry theories have depicted the universe as finite, infinite, static, and expanding. Today the predominant view is known as the Big Bang, which was proposed by Father Georges Lemaitre, though present-day liberals, unsatisfied with a theory that corresponds so well with the Christian account of creation, have theorized with no evidence whatsoever that we live in a “multiverse” or a “simulation.” In any case, the present conception of the cosmos is one in which earth and man exist as infinitesimally small blips in some far-flung part of cold, dead space.
But does that really represent the truth of man’s position? In a physical sense man is perhaps not the center of the universe. But in a deeper sense, man is in fact the center of the universe. Man is where the physical and metaphysical realms meet. That is not just some flight of fancy. It is not even solely the understanding of Christians or some other religious group. It is a fact accepted by all people without which none of us could do any of the things that we do every day. We all know and behave as though, whether we wish to admit it or not, man is both body and rational soul, flesh and intellect.
Animals exist in body, but they do not have a rational soul. That is why we do not put cats on trial for scratching people. Ideas exist and motivate much of our lives, but ideas do not have bodies. Dreams, joys, and terrors exist. Angels and demons exist, too, though many wish to deny it. But none of those things has a body. Only in man do we see the meeting of the two realms. That is how we and we alone among the creatures in this world can even talk about such a thing.
So between the two conceptions of the universe that we’ve just discussed — the ancient view of man at the center of the cosmos and the modern, scientific view of man as an inconsequential blip in some far-flung random region of emptiness — which is the more accurate representation of reality? Which tells us more about the way things really are?
At this point in the discussion, one of my favorite words usually comes up. One of the most paradoxical words in the English language. “Literally.” People will be tempted to say, “Well, Michael it is literally true.” That is, they mean, it might be figuratively true that man is the center of the universe, but it is literally true that the earth revolves around the sun in the Milky Way galaxy in the Virgo supercluster in the Laniakea supercluster in the Pisces-Cetus supercluster complex, which is located in the middle of God-only-knows where. But is that literally true? What does “literally” even mean?
People tend to think of “literal” as meaning the opposite of “metaphorical” or “symbolic.” But that literally cannot be true because “literal” refers to letters, which are signs and in our inarticulate age symbols. I do not mean to be cute or obtuse. This is not just some linguistic trick or glib observation. The symbolic meaning of the word “literal” tells us something important about the nature of reality. And that sense of the word is not novel. Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and teenage girls everywhere have long used the word “literal” to mean figurative. It is not an error but an insight that nothing is without meaning.
Modern medical science has led to many fine things: longer life, better nutrition, more pleasant dentistry. But it has also etched into our minds a new representation of man as purely physical — a machine to be poked and prodded and tuned up. We reflect this in our language. We no longer become excited; now get a “surge of adrenalin.” We no longer rejoice; we get “a hit of dopamine.” We do not feel sad or blue or melancholic; now we have a “chemical imbalance” — a scientific representation, by the way, that just recently seems to have completely collapsed.
Modern astronomy has led to some wonderful things — satellites, for instance, for smart phones on which to listen to the “Michael Knowles Show” and order my books. But modern astronomy has also created a new representation that makes man appear random and insignificant. The scientific revolution, which has helped to build our modern world, has placed in our collective imagination a representation of reality as fundamentally physical.
Many of the greatest scientists in history have been religious. At least two of the men I just mentioned, Mendel and Lemaitre, were Catholic priests, and Copernicus was at least a Catholic canon if not a priest himself. I do not cast aspersions on scientists. But our modern conception of reality as fundamentally physical is not the result of some nefarious scientist or two. It is a feature, not a bug, of the whole scientific revolution, which necessarily considers the world only as physical.
The philosopher Owen Barfield predicted all of this half a century ago in his book “Saving The Appearances.” Barfield saw that the scientific worldview, left unchecked, would eventually “eliminate all meaning and all coherence from the cosmos.” He saw that it would lose “its grip on any principle of unity pervading nature as a whole and the knowledge of nature,” that it would give rise to “the hypothesis of chance” creeping from “the theory of evolution into the theory of the physical foundation of the earth itself” and, still worse, cause an increasing “fragmentation of science”: “pigeon-holed knowledge by individuals of more and more about less and less, which, if persisted indefinitely, can only lead mankind to a sort of idiocy,” in which the breakdown of meaning will mean that there will be “no means of communication between one intelligence and another.”
Sound familiar? Barfield foresaw our own time, in which the sciences have become absurd and words no longer seem to have meaning. We can no longer even agree on the meaning of the word “woman.” A Supreme Court justice — a woman — in her Senate confirmation hearings, was not able to define “woman.” And why could she not define it? Because, she said, she is not a biologist. Ketanji Jackson is a federal judge with two degrees from Harvard. But she lacks scientific credentials and therefore could not describe even her own identity.
I sympathize with her. We conservatives all mocked Justice Jackson, but our answer has not been all that much better than hers. Our answer to the question “what is a woman” has more or less been “genitals” and “chromosomes.” We have said, “A woman is a person with a womb and two X chromosomes.” Justice Jackson’s answer — or rather non-answer — is that “woman” means more than just a womb and two X chromosomes. In a way, she is closer to the truth than we conservatives are. Justice Jackson is mistaken if she believes that hulking men in miniskirts are actually women. But she is right to acknowledge that women are more than their chromosomes. Ironically, when conservatives define women in that purely physical way, we accept the very soul-destroying scientism that the libs have peddled to get us into this mess of meaninglessness in the first place.
When I was a child, I was taught that women are made of “sugar and spice and everything nice.” Today I am told that women are made of “X chromosomes” — whatever those are. Which representation gets closer to the truth? It is not even close. “Sugar and spice and everything nice” conveys much more clearly the reality of what a woman is than “x chromosomes” does. “Man is the center of the universe” conveys much more clearly the reality of our position than does “a rock around a ball of gas in the Pisces-Cetus supercluster complex.” “The image and likeness of God” conveys much more precisely the reality of who we are than does “carbon, oxygen, and 80% water.”
It is not the case, as many people today mistakenly believe, that the scientific view of things is objectively true while the philosophical and religious views are mere interesting representations. They are all representations. They are all just models, just pictures. Whatever image you have in your mind right now of what the universe looks like is only that: an image. Even according to the most modern scientific models, only 5% of the universe is even visible. All the stars, planets, galaxies — everything that you imagine when you imagine the universe — constitute just five percent, according to the newest models. Twenty-five percent of the universe — so, five times all the stuff you’re thinking of — comprises “dark matter,” whatever that is, and a full 70% — 14 times all the stuff you picture — is something called “dark energy,” whatever that is. But again, it is all a moot point because whatever picture you have in your mind of the visible universe — the atoms, the protons, the photons, and all the rest of it — is not really what the universe is made of. It is just a picture, and one doubts that it is a particularly accurate picture at that.
Whatever we picture in our heads is necessarily a representation: scientific, religious, anything in between. That is not a bad thing. Representations are necessary for making sense of the world — for “saving the appearances,” to use Barfield’s phrase. But representations become idols when we mistake them for ultimate reality. And while we easily recognize idols in the context of religion, the scientific revolution — with its attendant magic and wonders — has rendered us oblivious to the ubiquitous idolatry of science.
This is not only true of the libs but also of us conservatives. It is not just the libs who leap to wrap themselves in the mantle of science but we conservatives too who reach for “scientific” observations to prove our points. When conservatives object to transgenderism, it is not usually on the basis of the complementarity of the sexes or the purpose and duties that accompany sex; no, it’s usually on the basis of “science.” We say “so-and-so is a biological male, so-and-so is a biological female,” as though one could simultaneously be a biological male and, say, a spiritual female” — as though biology, that is the scientific representation, were the ultimate authority.
We more readily mistake the scientific representations for ultimate reality because we flatter ourselves with our advancement in technology. We have Teslas and iPhones, so we delude ourselves into thinking that we’ve demystified the universe, as if by virtue of our ability to doom-scroll on the little portal to Hell in our pockets it somehow follows that we have comprehended ultimate reality. But that is nothing but flattery. Yes, we can tweet and drive and fly around on planes. But even our most sophisticated scientific perspective leaves us unable to answer fairly basic questions.
Consider, for example, the three-body problem. We have the sun the moon and the earth. We know the initial position and velocity of all three bodies. It is a simple enough setup, and yet the subsequent motion of the bodies eludes us. The problem reveals not only what we do not know but also what we cannot know, as the chaotic system precludes any general closed-form solution for the motion.
Or consider Hilbert’s problems: twenty-three problems in mathematics put forward at the turn of the twentieth century by the mathematician David Hilbert. One-hundred-twenty-two years later, not only do many of the questions remain unresolved or only partially resolved, but the first two — the continuum hypothesis and the consistency of the axioms of arithmetic — have been proven impossible to prove.
I mention these problems, not to discourse on Kurt Gödel or Georg Cantor or any other mathematician of whose work I understand nearly nothing, but rather to point out the severe limitations of human knowledge. The scientific worldview, more than other representations, has flattered us into believing that we can comprehend and therefore control ultimate reality. It is the pretense of the mad scientist in the laboratory and the serpent in the Garden of Eden — the lie that we shall be as gods. In reality, that appeal to our pride has brought with its technological trinkets disenchantment and confusion about who we are, what we’re for. “What is a man?” we wonder. “What is a woman?”
The scientistic liberals call us “ignorant.” We are — though perhaps not quite so ignorant as they if at least we know it. They call us “anti-science.” Fine. It is good to see that the earth revolves around the sun; it is better to see “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”