Tom McLeish on Science, Wisdom and Interdisciplinarity

For the next few weeks the FiSch blog posts will contain summaries of the talks given at the annual FiSch postgraduate leaders’ conference. The first talk was one of two given by Tom McLeish titled “Science, Wisdom and Interdisciplinarity”.

The general aim of Tom’s talk was to offer a distinctly Christian understanding of science and research that naturally leads to a theoretical foundation, a home, for interdisciplinary research (not, however, to the detriment of single-disciplinary research). He approached this aim by outlining what science is, what a Christian understanding of science is and how this (in contrast to postmodernism) offers a theoretical foundation for interdisciplinary research.

1. Science as natural philosophy.

First, Tom noted that science, contra contemporary culture, is first and foremost “natural philosophy”. Science is a love for wisdom (philo-sophia) about the natural world.  Once one accepts this premise one can begin to find a foundation for a Christian theology of science, since, while Scripture is devoid of the term “science” it is full of the term “wisdom” and, in particular, “wisdom” as applied to understanding (or relating to) the natural world. We, then, must do some digging around to find out what science is doing by looking for references to “wisdom” and the human relation to the natural world. One particularly fruitful place to start, Tom suggested, was the book of Job.

2. There’s a “gap” that’s the result of the Fall

Many thinkers see a gap between our understanding (our love of wisdom) and the world that we are trying to understand. Tom used the thought of Robert Grosseteste (1157-1254) to highlight this gap.  According to Grosseteste, Adam originally had deep knowledge, wisdom and understanding but at the Fall these fell away and all of the higher senses were dulled. A glimmer was left behind, however. Put simply, our senses were left. Grosseteste suggested, then, that our job as Christians is, in part, to use our senses (what we have left) in obedience to God and build back up our “seeing” or understanding of the world. Christian academics are in a prime position, it seems, to do this.

Tom went on to note, however, that an understanding of this gap is not merely a theological concept but is ubiquitous in many areas of scholarship. Tom highlighted that Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, for example, both recognise the gap in their writings. What’s different, however, between the postmodern perspective of writers like these and Grosseteste’s perspective is the methods employed to reconcile our mind to the world. Tom noted four aspects of postmodern worldviews that, by attempting some reconciliation between mind and world, lead to the dissolution of contract and meaning.

2.1 The postmodern “immersion of the self”

First, from Hegel and Derrida we get the concept of the “immersion of the self”. Put simply, this is the idea that the subject (the self) gets immersed into the object (the world). As noted above one, might think that this stands in contradistinction to the Christian worldview that holds a distinction (on some level not discussed) between self and world that, perhaps, facilitates a Christian understanding of scientific research.

2.2 The hermeneutic of suspicion

Second, according to postmodernism one criticizes meanings of text to the point that there is a “seal” between reader and text. This means there is no way in which meaning can be transmitted from a writer through the text to the reader. Rather, we have suspicion that there is any meaning in the text that isn’t brought to it by the reader.

2.3 The openness of meaning

Third, since there’s no meaning in the text, there’s no meaning in the world. If meaning is always something that I bring to the text, then there is a broken relationship between subject and world with regards to meaning. Meaning, as such, is open.

2.4 Challenge of the sublime

Fourth, Tom notes another aspect to postmodernism that contrasts with a more Christian understanding of mind and world. This is the “challenge of the sublime”. I leave it up to the reader to examine this fourth aspect for him/herself.

3. A theoretical foundation for interdisciplinary research

This postmodern perspective meant that the humanities and the sciences are implicit in this fourfold dissolution of contract and meaning. That is, there is a dissolution of the ideas that study of the world can can yield objective results (contract) and that there is, as such, meaning to be found (at least outside of the subject).  These are then manifested in both the humanities and the sciences.  In the case of the humanities there is a dissolution of the object. There’s no object because the subject interprets the object/text how s/he wishes. In the case of the sciences, there is dissolution of the subject. For example, in contemporary scientific circles, the mind, free will and other things often associated with the subject are commonly reduced out of existence.

Tom then went on to notice that when you dissolve from both sides, as contemporary humanities and sciences have done, you break the contract with the world, and, as such, you fragment disciplines. Put simply, since there is no metanarrative about how subject and object relate, disciplines become ever more insular in their search for meaning. They don’t search for a unifying theme – such as is afforded by a Christian worldview.

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