Between the Knower & the Known

Laudato si & the Limits of the Scientific Spirit

While many readers of Laudato si’ have noted Pope Francis’s reliance on the thought of Romano Guardini (1885–1968), few have emphasized that the influence of Guardini on the encyclical is above all philosophical rather than theological. Indeed, while Laudato si’ periodically underscores the relevance of the doctrine of creation to its themes, it tends to develop these themes primarily in a philosophical mode. That strategy seems entirely consistent with the pope’s intention to offer the world a document of universal appeal, even while it clarifies the resources of the Christian tradition for addressing problems that are universally recognizable, if not, alas, universally recognized.

The encyclical’s philosophical critique applies not only to the applications of techno-scientific power over nature, but also to the very foundations of the way modern science understands our knowledge of the world. Guardini belongs to the philosophical tradition of phenomenology, developed especially by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger and their students, which has provided some of the most penetrating resources for such a critique. Francis is the third consecutive pope whose thought has been shaped by this tradition. All three pontiffs have drawn on the valuable resources of phenomenology for critically examining the human relationship to nature that has taken shape in modernity, but Pope Francis is the first to make this the prominent focus of a comprehensive critique. 

Laudato si’ highlights three manifestations of how we moderns relate to the natural world: first, our economic exploitation of raw materials and labor-power; second, the technological imperative to transform the “raw resources” of nature according to our own wills and fantasies; and third, the very assumptions about human knowing and desiring that shape the methodology of modern science. It is this final dimension of the critique that is most difficult to hear, especially in the United States.

Philosophy lacks a recognized place in the American cultural conversation. Accordingly, the United States is one of the countries least critical of the culture of scientific expertise and least able to entertain challenges to the authority of the “scientific method” as the only paradigm of real knowledge. Such challenges—articulated in philosophy, theology, and literature—generally lack credibility in the eyes of the experts in the various scientific fields. While these experts are granted the authority to interpret the meaning of their findings for the culture at large, they usually lack the education and intellectual resources necessary for such interpretation.

An example: Former students of mine have spoken to me of their frustration with an astrophysics professor who harps incessantly on the so-called conflict between science and religion, which he sees as irreconcilable with each other. At a Catholic university like Villanova, faculty really ought to know better—and teach better. But the other thing my former students tell me is even more disturbing. One of this professor’s fixations is a contempt for Aristotle, and a kind of triumphant glee that modern science has proven the ancient atomists right and Aristotle wrong.

Why is this so disturbing? Because it demonstrates that a physicist doesn’t understand the history of his own discipline or the meaning of its discoveries. The claim of the classical atomists was that everything is made up of microscopic particles that are indivisible (the literal meaning of the Greek a-tomon) and are thus the bottom level of material order. In this sense, the best science supported atomism for only a hundred years: from 1811, when Avogadro made a clear distinction between molecules and atoms, to 1911, when Rutherford proposed his model of orbiting electrons. In fact, Einstein’s establishment of the formula for the conversion of matter into energy shows that Aristotle was right all along: what we call bodies are, on every level, only real and really knowable as forms of activity. We can no longer believe in a bottom level of solid bodies. To use a word Aristotle invented, it’s energy all the way down.

The resources scientists would need to understand the larger significance of their research would thus include a more sophisticated understanding of the history of their own discipline and of the metaphysical questions at stake. These are exactly the resources Pope Francis brings to bear on the question of how the methods of modern science have affected our relationship to nature. The dismissal of Pope Francis as lacking authority on scientific questions is not only a way of avoiding the practical and theological challenges he poses, as Rowan Williams has noted in these pages (“Embracing Our Limits,” October 19, 2015), but also an excuse for refusing to consider his philosophical critique. That critique is formulated most succinctly in chapter three of Laudato si’, “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis,” especially in section 106:

The basic problem…is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery, and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation. Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers, and experts in technology.

For Pope Francis, the basic problem is the paradigm of the human subject as mastering an objectified nature. In treating knowledge as power over nature, this paradigm manifests an ethic of dominion and possession—an ethic shaped and reinforced by modern science’s methods of objectification. Confinement to and habituation in these methods has damaged our relationship to nature in the technological and economic spheres. By promising to increase our control of nature, such methods can blind us to the claims nature makes on us. They encourage us to understand and appreciate the natural world only insofar as we can make use of it.

The pope’s alternative notion of human beings and nature extending “a friendly hand to one another” will no doubt provoke accusations of “romanticism,” and such accusations would not be entirely wrong. The critique of a scientific method based entirely on the opposition between subject and object goes back to one of the great figures of the Romantic era, the poet and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In his studies of color and of animal and plant morphology, Goethe tried to rescue some important dimensions of our knowledge of nature from the constraints of scientific abstraction. He worried that a reductive methodology was getting in the way of our fidelity to phenomena, to what we actually apprehend. We were learning to overlook whatever we could not measure—for example, the experience of beauty that is inescapably a part of our apprehension of colors and the dynamic forms of living beings. This beauty evokes a kind of wonder and love that is constitutive of our relationship to the things we seek to know. Goethe suggested that we must approach knowledge of the natural world as a kind of conversation between friends, in which we accept the possibility that the relationship will reveal us to ourselves and change us in ways we did not anticipate.

In other words, Goethe, like the classical philosophical tradition that informs Catholic thought, understood knowledge more in terms of love than in terms of power, more in terms of attentiveness, receptivity, and intimacy than in terms of abstract quantitative analysis and manipulation. Goethe also saw, quite as vividly as Pope Francis does, that what is at stake in these conflicting understandings of what it means to know is nothing less than our humanity.


DEFENDING ALL OF THIS in lucid philosophical terms is a large undertaking. Even bringing people to the point of recognizing the need and requirements for such a defense takes a lot of work. It’s much easier for this contemplative alternative to get some purchase through poetic and essayistic writing. That shouldn’t surprise us, though, given that what is needed is a recovery of attentiveness, delight in beauty, and the experience of knowledge as a kind of intimate involvement between the knower and the known. As Pope Francis puts it: “Realities are more important than ideas.”

Unfortunately, our enthusiasm for scientific models that promise technological mastery of nature encourages scorn for the humanistic paths that would seek to restore a humbler and more intimate vision of the given world. (Leon Kass discovered this when experts ridiculed him for preparing members of President George W. Bush’s Bioethics Council by having them discuss a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne.) Only by such humane reflection, however, can we maintain a vision of how science and technology—and markets—can serve the dignity of human life. Pope Francis and Guardini are clear and explicit on that point.

To accomplish what the encyclical identifies as one of the main tasks necessary for restoring our humanity—namely, the recovery of “our human capacity for contemplation and reverence”—the Catholic faith has an additional resource: its understanding of the world as created. This is the cornerstone of the entire faith, and understanding it is crucial for the change of heart and mind the pope has called for. Properly understood, the doctrine of Creation is one of the most rational claims ever made: it tells us that the world is orderly and coherent, coming from a single source who speaks it into existence. Speech and reason (logos) are thus at home in this order. This is the faith that has animated much of the scientific spirit of the West.

But the doctrine of Creation also tells us that this order is freely given in love, that it is good and reflects the Creator’s own goodness, and that it is therefore lovable. Gratitude for Creation is a central part of the love we owe the Creator. As Pope Francis puts it: “Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system.” To the extent that we lose the ability to see and feel this, we lose our humanity and end up destroying both ourselves and the created order to which we belong. Like his predecessor Benedict XVI, Francis sees the loss of a sense of gratitude for Creation as the ultimate root of the moral crisis facing the modern world. Both popes have warned that such ingratitude leads ultimately to a kind of nihilism.

In choosing Saint Francis’s great poem “The Canticle of the Creatures” as the point of departure for Laudato si’, Pope Francis acknowledges the importance of poetic speech that gives loving attention to created beings in grateful praise to their Creator. At the same time, the succinctly drawn philosophical critique at the heart of Laudato si’ appears to express the hope that reasonable persons of good will, including non-Catholics, can see more clearly into the depths of our civilizational crisis and thereby become more receptive to the light that the Catholic intellectual tradition can shine into those depths. As one who believes that all such light derives ultimately from the Creator and Redeemer of the world, I find in this encyclical a useful plan for an apologetics that can help make the joy of the Gospel more visible. The resources have been available all along, but the church has not spoken loudly and clearly enough on this topic. The time has come. 

Published in the March 25, 2016 issue: 

Mark Shiffman is associate professor of humanities at Villanova University, and translator of Aristotle’s De Anima (Hackett).

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