Philosophy, Religion, Science, Technology

An Immanent Problem

Frontispiece of Sir Francis Bacon’s “Great Renewal,” 1620

I grew up loving science.  I still do.  The radical break I saw in the 1950s and 60s, described in my previous post, was the fruit of a very complex confluence of things driven by increasing scientific knowledge of the world that have led to an ever more rapid transitioning from former ways of life that have bound human beings to place, land and production from time immemorial.  Prior to and even after the industrial revolution, travel and communication was slow and mostly local.  Getting places was by foot or horse or boat, perhaps even by train starting around 200 years ago.   Communications was limited to the range of speaking and hearing aided by writing and the distribution of written material.  A majority of the human population was associated with agriculture and the production of food. 

My grandfather was a part of this former world.  Yet, he saw the first cars come to his part of North Carolina, as well as tractors,  electricity and telephones.  By sharp contrast, my granddaughter has never known a world without cars or rapid air travel or instant omnipresent communication by things such as TVs, cell phones, or the internet.  Yet my grandfather lived in a world still full of meaning, connected to real things.  My granddaughter lives in a virtual Technopolis that can seem increasingly meaningless [1], unhinged by rapid change, rootless, disconnected from reality itself. We should not be surprised that such a Technopolis can drive a politics of similar dis-function.

If the 20th Century was a time of vast and monumental change, for good or for ill, what will the 21st be like?  Will the Humanity 2.0 or 3.0 of transhumanist speculation keep on moving towards life totally unlike anything we have previously known, forgetful of former mysteries and wonders from a presumed childish past?  Will our human future be utopia or dystopia or neither [2]?   Or will the true nature of our inescapable humanity continue to haunt us so that, as Qohelet the Preacher put it in that ancient book of Hebrew wisdom: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1.9)?  I would say there are truly new things under the sun, heretofore impossible, things of promise and things of danger. But how we respond to them is anything but new.   Perhaps it all turns in the end on how we imagine what is, or what human nature really is, or if we think such questions are meaningful at all.  In order to think best about what we will be, we had better think carefully about what it means to be, forgetting not what has been, lest humanity’s Promethean quest destroy us [3]. 

Both trees and civilizations have roots.  Healthy civilizations, like healthy trees, grow from sound roots. My own training in science teaches me that sound science requires sound foundations in understanding the basic principles of things: problems in the foundation imply ongoing problems in working things out.   Perhaps foundationless postmodern people are too focused on just living or on seizing the future to bother much about roots from the past.  Yet the seminal thinkers of any civilization have sought rootedness in something solid, even if mysterious, whether they be the ancient Greeks, the sages of China and India, the Hebrew prophets, Jesus of Nazareth, or many other influential figures from our past.  We forget their words and knowledge to our peril.

How did we get to our present condition of facing a potential postmodern technological dystopia?  To pick one seminal figure, the change that hit our civilization in the 20th Century represents the fruition of Sir Francis Bacon’s proposal in 1620 of an Instauratio Magna,  a “Great Renewal,” driven by the Novum Organum, the “new  logic” and methodology for what came to be the empirical sciences [4].  Of course, there were many more individual and social sources than Bacon to the “great renewal” sparked by the “scientific revolution” of early modernity.  And that very “revolution” had its roots in the centuries prior. 

Yet Bacon gave voice to one of modernity’s most enduring principles: knowledge as power, giving us mastery over the world to control it, as Bacon put it, “for the relief of man’s estate.”  Furthermore, that knowledge required a new way of thinking about things, consciously uprooted from the familiar wisdom from antiquity taught in the universities of Bacon’s era.  The revolution gave a new way of seeing what is and how we know it. Perhaps most seriously, the revolution laid the seeds that disconnect our knowledge of “what is” from “what is good” [5]. The power to do something does not tell us whether it is right or wrong to use that power.

The radical nature of the new way of thinking, or the problematic aspects thereof, is difficult for modern people to appreciate. It seems so normal to us.   But if there was much gain from it, there was also loss.  Ideas have consequences.  If the gains underly a vision of technological utopia born of rational optimism (the Enlightenment notion of “progress”), the loss underlies the prospects of a technological dystopia born of a postmodern deconstruction of all truth (welcome to the “cancel culture” nihilism rampant in modern America).  Could it be that humanity’s attempt to realize the utopia will simply morph into the dystopia? How perilously close are we to that?

Bacon intended the “relief” of his Instauratio to be for the good of humanity.  His vision in fact stands at the center of the motto on the home page of the world’s largest scientific society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS): “Advancing science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people.”  This is not a bad motto. The AAAS, of which I am a member, serves the noble goal of benefiting the world through applied scientific knowledge.  But knowledge, once unleashed, can serve good or evil.  As Richard Feynman pointed out, scientific knowledge, as the culture of science now conceives it, is disconnected from ethics, whatever one might mean by that [6]. How do we determine what is “right” or “good” or, if we are modern pragmatists, the “best use” with respect to people and thing?  Can science unconstrained by any notion of the good raise the specter of Prometheus redux?  Can our technology destroy us, if not one way then another.  What is “good”?  What is humanity’s “benefit?”  Who decides? 

To address such questions is clearly beyond the scope of a simple blog post.   I only wish to make one point: neither “science”, as it is often reductively conceived, nor “religion,” to the extent it is literally and thus also reductively conceived, are adequate to frame a response.  Such reductive fundamentalisms have a poverty of creativity in them.  One needs to go deeper to the ground of things where our imaginative grasp of the world is not bound by our artificial controlling abstractions. That is one thing I like about Jesus of Nazareth: he spoke out of the rooted concreteness of the Hebraic imagination. Yet the Gospels went out in the koine (“common”) Greek of the Mediterranean world. And the Greek imagination, if nothing else, is deeply rooted in abstract thinking. If these two streams that feed our civilization–Hebraic concreteness and Greek abstraction–can be put together well, they make a powerful combination. Let us not put asunder what has been joined together.

There is much in the contemporary scene that is born from a “modern” mindset that “atomizes” reality into separate bits and pieces that have nothing to do with one another.  Such atomizing abstractions, useful though they may be in some cases, easily lead to a failure of vision, of seeing what is going on in reality, since ultimately all things are connected, as sciences like physics and ecology now know.  We live in webs of interconnection, an “implicate order,” to borrow a pregnant phrase from physicist David Bohm [7].  We do live in a “universe” after all– the Latin roots of that word literally mean “turned towards one.”  All concrete particulars have their being within a larger whole. How do we see the unity, the “one” towards which all things are turned?  The world can not possibly be an unconnected collection of atoms, each enacting its random, meaningless and lifeless activity.  The atoms build up too much order in the world for that reductive metaphysics to be plausible. The very existence of science and scientists seems to suggest that a more expansive vision is necessary (see my About section and its footnotes 1, 2, and 4).  For, as I said, the scope of the human mind is all of reality: we can and do take it all in, even if we do not fully comprehend it and can never exclude all wonder and mystery.

If our vision of reality is to be adequate, humanity’s philosophical quest must come into the picture.  The wondrous and surprising fact is that we participate in a reality that is larger than any of us, that we can never capture within the positivity of our abstract “scientific” or grand philosophical schemes to categorize the world.  The Cosmos has a vast scope, and we do comprehend so much about it. Just who are we, after all? Human beings are the kind of beings who are faced with the Seinsfrage [8], the “question of being” and its meaning which no “science” in principle can ever answer fully. In fact, “science” can hardly touch it at all.  There are many ways of framing the question, of pulling out of it other radically foundational questions: the age-old questions of God and humanity, the one and the many, of being and becoming, of identity and difference, of how the bits and pieces fit together into a whole.   Bohm’s idea of an implicate order is of great help here.  Our concrete individual lives are embedded in a wider world of real things and our abstractions of them that shape how we live and move and have our being.

Ultimately, we are faced with the question of immanence and transcendence.  Is our Universe immanently closed in on itself such that all that exists is the eternal becoming of matter and energy as they undergo their pluriform transformations?   Is all flux, as Heraclitus thought? Or is change an illusion, as Parmenides though?  Is it only a matter of atoms and the void, as Democritus thought?  Is it impossible to capture fully in words an ultimate way, the Dao, as the Chinese sage Laozi taught? Or does the immanent reality of our material world participate in a transcendent domain that is its source and end, as Plato, the Hebrew prophets, Jesus of Nazareth and Thomas Aquinas all taught in their various ways?   Or is there only a purely finite transcendence latent in being, effectively immanent, as Martin Heidegger taught [see 8]

Philosopher Charles Taylor rightly characterized the modern age as living in an “immanent frame” [9].  By that he meant that all human activity, whether “religious” or not, takes place in a social enfolding  (or “social imaginary”) where any realist notion of true transcendence is essentially absent: “practical” and public matters leave out “God” or “gods” in their working out, and “religion” is relegated to a “private” sphere of “subjective” life.  Even “religious” people are forced to go about their “religious” practice in this immanent enfolding.  This is just to say that “practical” matters or “utility” take precedence over “theoretical” or “imaginary” speculations about the transcendent domain, which can never be matters of common public knowledge. or “science.”  Just check out the categories on the web sites of any major modern institution or news source.  Can you find anything at all about “transcendence” or “God” except under some “lifestyle” subcategory of various bizarre and exotic things to ponder in your spare time?  Our immanent forgetfulness of transcendence runs deep.   It affects everyone, irrespective of political persuasion. It is as deep as Heidegger’s “forgetfulness of being” that he thought characterized Western thinking in general.  One can make a case that our immanent forgetfulness is correlated with Bacon’s new logic [10]. And it is also a forgetfulness of the logic, the Logos, about which Saint John wrote, the concretely enfleshed self-giving Word behind all the words we could possibly say.

A response to such a radical problem as immanence without true transcendence, a problem at the very roots of things, takes radical thinking, which needs to be truthful thinking about what is. If the effective immanentization of all knowing and doing lies at the heart of the cultural and political dis-function of our contemporary Technopolitan civilization, I hope I can help you think radically enough to overcome its all-encompassing enframing (see footnote [11] below). All thinking, including scientific thinking, should seek to be truthful, faithful to what enables knowing, indeed “for the benefit of all people.” We succumb to a blinding positivism if we think truth is only about the correctness of propositions. We must not forget that the linguistic root to the Greek (and New Testament) word for truth, ἀλήθεια (alethia), is a compound word bearing the sense of uncovering, unhiding, making manifest [11]. Truth has the dimension of a revelation of being, an epiphany of what is.

Perhaps the most wondrous act in all of reality is that act of transduction from the things in the world to the apprehending mind by which one knows the world (again, see my About section). The world is actually there in all of its resplendent sensible and intelligible actuality (but we must never deny the apophatic dimension of knowing). Such an act of sensible cognition of entities in the world is a participatory act of transcendence-in-immanence as well as immanent transcendence. While that way of seeing can not be unpacked here, the commonplace concrete reality of cognitive perception by all of us offers an escape from the metaphysical prison of the immanent frame, if we only have eyes to see. We do come to know the world quite well, after all. That is an actuality we should not forget. Science could not be successful otherwise, nor ordinary living. The title of Michael Hanby’s recent book put it quite well, No God, No Science. See my note [10] for some hints on how one might escape imprisonment in the immanent frame, including a penetrating insight by the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, given in his aptly titled 2011 book The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.


[1] Science can not tell us about the meaning of things, as explained in my previous post, The Feynman Challenge. The “logic” inherent in technology, however, does push us to look for meaning only in human making, in production, in controlling things. But what if human making is only part of the story? What if the “ethics” implied by the “logic” of technological pragmatism is radically flawed and dehumanizing, a way of ensuring we can only move ever away from true human flourishing?

[2] in 1516 Sir Thomas More published his book about the fictional island Utopia, derived from the Greek words which literally mean “no-place.” A utopia is an impossible place at which we will never arrive; its opposite is dystopia, a place of dis-function, a place of profound mental dis-ease and dis-tress at which it is all too easy to arrive.

[3] In the celebrated Greek myth, Prometheus suffered unending punishment for stealing fire from the gods and bringing it to humanity. Can humanity bring about its own destruction by imagining it can steal its autonomy from reality? C. S. Lewis used a different tact in his little book, The Abolition of Man: what happens if humanity forgets its obligation to the Dao (need I say that Dao translates Logos in the Chinese version of John’s Gospel)?

[4] Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) planned a 7-part book on his proposal for a Instauratio Magna, a “great renewal” of human knowledge of nature and its practical applications. He never completed the full project, but the volume he published in 1620 did include the “new logic of science,” or the Novum Organum Scientiarum that he advocated. Bacon intended his “new organon” of scientific empiricism to replace the 6 books of Aristotle’s works on logic, the Organon of the medieval universities. “Organon” is a transliteration of the Greek word meaning “instrument,” “tool,” or “organ.” Bacon’s work was highly regarded by the thinkers of the English and European Enlightenments. You will find a copy of the frontispiece to Bacon’s 1620 book at the start of this post. It shows ships sailing out from the “Pillars of Hercules” separating the Mediterranean and the Atlantic on paths of new discovery and adventure. 1620 was a hopeful time.

[5] For a fuller explanation, see Peter Harrison’s book, The Territories of Science and Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Harrison was the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University and is now the Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland, Australia. His book examines how the understanding of the terms for “science” and “religion” have changed from antiquity to modernity, and why these did not have to change the way they did.

[6] For example, I quote from Richard Feynman in my previous post: “… even the greatest forces and abilities don’t seem to carry with them any clear instructions on how to use them.  … The sciences do not directly teach good and bad.” Virtually all other great scientists will say the same, including Albert Einstein.

[7] Bohm is known for proposing an alternative way to understand the meaning of quantum physics, which is not my interest here; I will tackle that later.  I am not endorsing all of Bohm’s views, but there is much we can learn from him. One concept he championed was that we live in an “implicate order,” an order where everything is related and connected to everything else; this idea has applications beyond physics.  I will be writing more about this.  Complex ecosystems provide examples of implicate orders, as does human language, where words are not simply ciphers that point to clear meaning but are embedded in semantic fields of vast reach across all of human knowledge. Any poet will know this. Martin Heidegger knew the same when he wrote (in his Letter on Humanism) “Language is the house of being.” Michael Polanyi touched upon a related idea in his discussions of tacit knowledge, the tacit dimension to all human knowing.

[8] The German term Seinsfrage (“question of being”) is one associated with the problematic but brilliant thinker, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).  The question of being is also a long-standing one of all philosophy from the time of the ancient Greeks through the Christian era and, especially, even now.  What is? Who are we? It does no good to sweep the question under the rug. That would already be to answer it unwisely. Science blinds itself as it turns away from it. There are good answers, but never if we try to dispel all mystery in a positivist fundamentalism, scientifically or theologically. The positive can not live without the negative, although in the end, the negative can not overcome the positive just as the darkness does not overcome the light. Unfortunately, Heidegger, brilliant though he was, had too much aversion to the clearing that the light we have affords for us.

[9] Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007), lays out his thesis.

[10] No God, No Science, by my friend and teacher Michael Hanby, a philosopher and thinker at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute, Washington, DC, lays out the case. This is a long book of philosophical theology exposing the frail and inadequate metaphysical assumptions of the modern sciences. What the sciences actually know about our evolutionary cosmos can be much better accommodated within the framework provided by the classical philosophical/theological tradition that includes the radical concept of creation ex nihilo. This is a vastly different understanding than that of the unnecessary and needlessly destructive modern conflicts over various fundamentalist renditions of “creationism,” which fail to do justice to either science, theology, or philosophy. I explore creation ex nihilo in my series of introductory classes about Anglican perspectives on science and faith, even relating concepts from contemporary physics to those of the classical philosophical tradition. In the end, an evolutionary cosmos is fully compatible with a robust Christian orthodoxy, providing one avoids the incoherent naturalistic metaphysics which deconstructs science itself. My final class summarizes how the story of Christ enables us to overcome the immanent frame; see this penetrating insight by Rabbi Oliver Sacks. Clicking through the class slides helps too. I will develop these ideas as this blog progresses, but include this note as a pointer to where we might be heading. Prof. Hanby’s book is very insightful but difficult for those without some knowledge of philosophy (I embarked on a multi-year study of philosophy to try to understand it). Rabbi Sacks’s book is accessible to anyone. I will try to write in an accessible manner.

[11] As Martin Heidegger never tired of reminding us. I have added an amplification of this and Heidegger’s thought in a separate page entitled “Escaping Immanence,” which is attuned to a “philosophical” way of thinking.

1 thought on “An Immanent Problem”

  1. There is a lot said here. The simplistic and profundity of this line stood out: “Both trees and civilizations have roots. Healthy civilizations, like healthy trees, grow from sound roots.”

    I would argue that one of the central “roots” of the Hebraic culture is the value of vulnerability, trust, and fruitful relationship over that of force and exertion of power. The nation of Israel lived not by force and technological greatness, but most fundamentally out of trusting relationship with their God, who was the source of their being and the world they existed within. Mary, the Theotokos, epitomized this stance towards reality. Those who embraced the faith that she did were also called to embrace the “foolishness of the cross” in which the vulnerability of trust, love and relationship with the Creator was made fruitful the world.

    I see in Bacon’s project and the spirit underlying it as having fundamentally abandoned this root of trust, vulnerability, and fruitful relationship with the Creator. Instead it seeks to seize a level of power and control that exceeds anything we have seen in human history before. That is not to say that the scientific project or individual scientists take this view or participate in this way, but there seems to a “taproot” in Bacon’s assumptions and articulations that informs our culture in a way that transcends individuals and even science itself, but that hides under the cover of the value of helping humanity.

    If we lose transcendence and trust in that transcendence, then it becomes only us, only humanity. Then, as you say, we are left with the questions of “What is “good”?  What is humanity’s “benefit?”  Who decides?” When there is no transcendence or transcendent accountability, then only those who have power can decide, and power becomes the highest good. History tells us that this is a very dangerous thing indeed for unaccountable human beings.


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