Positively No Absolutes?

It is widely accepted that scientific advances have had a dramatic impact on technology. What is rarely observed, however, is how science and the scientific method influenced 20th-century philosophy.

Our serialized survey of some of the dominant formative ideas of the modern world has shown that speculation dressed up as scientific truth can often have serious consequences when applied to the human social sphere.

The common acceptance of Charles Darwin’s unproven ideas about the origin of species, in conflict with his own religious upbringing, pushed God as Creator into outer darkness for most people. The theory of evolution stripped many of any possibility of belief in the biblical Maker and introduced raw competition and bloody survival of the fittest as par for the course in human society.

What Darwin attempted in the biological sciences, Karl Marx tried in the economic realm. His proletarian, political fantasy ruined the lives of millions as Marxist-Leninism took hold of vast areas of the world in the 20th century. Marx had also promised freedom from the druglike addiction to Western religion and its God. Sadly, the bankruptcy of Marx’s violence-prone atheistic system did not play out until at least a hundred years of bitter experience had passed.

Much as Darwin and Marx aspired to the title of scientist-hero in their vocations, so Sigmund Freud saw himself as pioneer prospector of humanity’s inner world. Unfortunately, Freud allowed personal ambition for public acclaim to overcome critical self-assessment of his so-called science of the mind. Nevertheless, his narrowly based notions have become the world’s most popular wallpaper when it comes to understanding early life, parental influence, and our innermost feelings and emotions. Armed with the belief that primitive sexuality was the dynamo for human behavior, Freud had no use for the moral rules of a divine being. Despite his Jewish heritage and childhood Christian influences, he came to see God as nothing more than a fantasized father figure.

Darwin, Marx and Freud were all practitioners of the scientific method. They purported to be delivering new knowledge in an objective and reliable way. Yet the impact of their ideas has been hugely damaging when it comes to human understanding of the subjective and spiritual realms. Science, with its required pursuit of physical phenomena, soon shuts out subjective or metaphysical experience. It says that such experience is not based in reality. The odd thing about scientific enquiry is that it begins with subjective musings. Darwin, Marx and Freud began by meditating about aspects of the world around. Their meditations were in the subjective, metaphysical realm.

Not surprisingly, and despite the uneasy origin of scientific speculations-become-truth, many who claim the title “scientist” lower the boom on the place of the metaphysical in life. The result is that, for many, science and religion have arrived at a standoff, a prickly truce at best, an unhealthy exchange of insults at worst. Take the case of the Oxford professor and evolutionist Richard Dawkins, who has written, “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”

Albert Einstein commented on this kind of unhappy impasse back in 1937. Troubled by the collapse of relations between religious and cultural bodies, he wrote, “The essential unity of ecclesiastical and secular cultural institutions was lost during the 19th century, to the point of senseless hostility.” Arrogance and intolerance only force discussion into an ugly cul-de-sac. It is an approach that makes human life a barren experience, where everything is about know-how and nothing can be said about meaning and purpose in life.

How to Be a Positivist

The two remaining dominant perspectives in this series about ideas that have dramatically changed modern ways of thinking have a strong and a weak connection with scientific endeavor. These two interrelated “isms”—positivism and relativism—have deprived most people of belief in anything beyond what can be observed with the five senses and steered them away from the idea that there are absolutes.

Positivism is the philosophical underpinning of the scientific method. It is based in empiricism. In that sense it has defined the most widespread scientific worldview. The positivist wanted nothing to do with the metaphysical, the subjective, the nonphysical. Only that which is observable by the senses is real; anything else exists only in the realm of the imagination—it is not knowledge. Though positivism has had its heyday, replaced in large part in the mid-20th century by postpositivism, its emphasis on the centrality of physical observation remains a widespread conviction.

Three streams of positivist thought developed over time. The first is associated with French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857), the father of positivism and originator of sociology as a science. Comte made a coherent whole out of the earlier approaches to scientific thought of Francis Bacon, George Berkeley and David Hume. His contemporaries in the United Kingdom were John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer who, beyond philosophizing about the acquisition of knowledge and logic, focused on the application of the positivist approach to the creation of a just social order.

Comte’s pursuit of positivism led him down a path that seems strange, given his belief that metaphysical ways of thinking had been surpassed. Later in life he became involved in mysticism and aimed to replace traditional Christian religion with his own religion of humanity.

The second phase of positivism was the empirico-critical work of Austrian physicist Ernst Mach (1838–1916), who said that all knowledge is derived from sensation or sensory experience. All statements in science had to be empirically verifiable, and any metaphysical idea, such as the absolute nature of space or time, was unacceptable. It was Mach’s revolutionary ideas about time and space that set Einstein thinking about his general theory of relativity.

Positivism had a widespread influence in the 19th century. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “the principles and spirit of Positivism pervaded the scientific and philosophical thought of the nineteenth century and exercised a pernicious influence in every sphere. They had their practical consequences in the systems of positive or so-called scientific morality and utilitarianism in ethics, of neutrality and naturalism in religion.”

The third stream in positivism’s development—neopositivism—is associated with the Vienna School of philosophers and Rudolf Carnap (1891–1970). They tried to combine philosophical studies in language and symbolic and mathematical logic to clarify the nature of scientific investigation. English philosopher and logical positivist Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) summarized the skeptical perspective of the neopositivist school well when he said that even mathematics is a subject “in which we never know what we are talking about or whether what we say is true.” Unfortunately the idea that we cannot know what we are talking about with any certainty in various areas of life—especially the moral and ethical—has become terribly debilitating to society.

Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations.” 

Bertrand Russell

Russell was well known for his opposition to religious belief. In one famous address, he explained why he was not a Christian. He said in part, “In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by the help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts. Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it. . . . The whole conception of a God is a conception derived from the ancient oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings.”

Yet as we shall see, not every brilliant scientific mind took such a jaundiced view of the “ally in the sky.”

Is Everything Relative?

The other “ism” that has greatly influenced the thinking and lifestyle of so many in the past hundred years or so is relativism—the notion that there are no moral absolutes. This concept is connected only marginally with science. In a curious twisting of Einstein’s revolutionary conclusions about time, length and motion, his empirical findings about the relativity of these concepts became confused in public perception with moral relativism. Yet the Swiss genius believed strongly in absolute standards of right and wrong. There was no moral equivocation for him: “Relativity applies to physics, not ethics.” In fact, he said that his theories brought with them no philosophical implications. As he noted, “The meaning of relativity has been widely misunderstood. Philosophers play with the word, like a child with a doll. . . . It does not mean that everything in life is relative.”

Einstein said that his theories brought with them no philosophical implications.

It was true that he had shown that in the objective world of science, familiar concepts were not absolute. But Einstein never allowed relativity, far less relativism, to gain entrance to the subjective inner world of human beings. It seems that he was happy to maintain the distinction between subjective and objective. His interest in relativity put his theorizing in the objective sphere. His personal conviction was that moral relativism was a disease and unconnected with his life’s work on relativity. He was very unhappy that his findings had produced unintended moral consequences. He said, “The content of scientific theory itself offers no moral foundation for the personal conduct of life.”

The furor over his ideas made him wish at times that he had been just a simple watchmaker. According to Paul Johnson, it was not Einstein’s findings about the nature of the universe that helped “cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture.” It was the public’s ready acceptance of the unrelated idea of the absence of absolutes in the moral sphere. Many people heard what they wanted to hear and gave themselves permission to create a new morality in their own image.

British author and intellectual Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) is a case in point. He made a telling admission about such self-created morality in his autobiographical work, Ends and Means. Describing the freedom that he and his youthful colleagues sought from Christian ideas, he wrote, “For myself as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. . . .”

In order to justify their own behavior, Huxley and his peers chose to say that life had no meaning. 

In order to justify their own behavior, Huxley and his peers chose to say that life had no meaning. According to Huxley, neither Darwin nor the positivists were able to provide such justification, even though their heroes—the enlightenment thinkers—had given them the grounds to do so. The fact is that Victorian respectability had kept the lid on the implications of life without meaning. So it was not until just after World War I that Huxley was able to justify himself in what he termed his “political and erotic revolt.” This approach, then, grew out of positivism, which invited the conclusion that since the observable is all that is valid, the metaphysical or nonphysical, such as religious principles, is without meaning.

When it comes to the abyss that has been set between science and religion, again Einstein offered some wisdom. Seeking to explain how those engaged in scientific endeavor are obliged to proceed, he wrote, “For the scientist, there is only ‘being,’ but no wishing, no valuing, no good, no evil; no goal.” According to one of its greatest geniuses, the nature of scientific enquiry as commonly practiced removes it from the realm of good and bad. Ethically and morally we are on neutral ground when we are seeking scientific truth.

Thus Einstein went on to say, “As long as we remain within the realm of science proper, we can never meet with a sentence of the type: ‘Thou shalt not lie.’” Unfortunately this is where most mistakes are made when the morality of a scientific approach is questioned. Such questions are ruled out of bounds in the search for scientific truth.

Einstein, however, was not afraid to state that commands such as the biblical one prohibiting the uttering of falsehoods have substance and are defensible: “We do not feel at all that it is meaningless to ask such questions as: Why should we not lie?’ We feel that such questions are meaningful because in all discussions of this kind some ethical premises are tacitly taken for granted.”

He knew that if lying were not prohibited, then no one could trust anyone else. It would signal the breakdown in human communication and cooperation. In his view, the rule “Thou shalt not lie” was based in the natural human desire to preserve life and to limit pain and suffering. Linking scientific enquiry with the search for ethical truth, he said that “ethical axioms are found and tested not very differently from the axioms of science. Truth is what stands the test of experience.”

Experiencing Absolutes

From a biblical perspective, nine other absolutes accompany the one Einstein chose to illustrate his wisdom about the similarity of scientific and ethical enquiry. In toto we know them as the Ten Commandments.

What do these principles that are said to emanate from a Supreme Being teach us? The first four relate to the relationship of humans with their Creator. They set the standard for how the created should respond to the Creator.

The New Testament writer Paul discussed the implications for the philosophical thinking of his time with respect to the created world. He said that by willingly ignoring the evidence of the Creator in the natural world, people had “suppress[ed] the truth in unrighteousness.”

For Paul, the evidence of God’s existence was available to human intellect: “What may be known of God is manifest [among] them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:18–20).

Ironically, it is by observation of the natural world that Paul says we can arrive at knowledge of the Creator. 

Ironically, it is by observation of the natural world that Paul says we can arrive at knowledge of the Creator. He believed that those who would deny the evidence of creation all around them were utterly foolish. In their attempt to be wise they had exchanged the magnificence and truth of the Creator God for images copied from the natural world. They had ended up worshiping creation rather than Creator. Hence the first four commandments define our relationship to the Creator, respect for Him, and avoidance of idolatry—that is, the substitution of anything for the primacy of God the Creator in human life.

The last six commandments define relationships among humans. As Einstein observed, to prohibit lying is a good act for the sake of social cohesion. This ethical principle has a positive and self-evident effect in human life. Similarly it can easily be demonstrated that respect for parents and prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft and covetousness make for the preservation and protection of a human society that is worth living in.

We began this series with an acknowledgment that some thinkers have recognized the destructiveness of these six dominant ideas in modern Western civilization. One such thinker was E.F. Schumacher. He also said that the truly educated person is not the one who knows everything about everything (if that were possible) or even a bit about everything, but rather the one who is in touch with the center. The center is the metaphysical and ethical core of life, those ideas that form our convictions, that are beyond the world of facts and outside of science and the observable, yet true to reality.

I submit to you that the Ten Commandments are just such a core of absolutes, inspired and given to humanity by an all-wise Creator God who knows exactly what we need in order to live in harmony with Him and our fellow human beings.