The Exhaustion of Secularism pt. 2 – Faith Seeking Understanding

As we discussed in the previous post, in Western society we have committed a philosophical error in the way we describe the nature of reason which had led to the false claim of the triumph of secularism. The failure of secularism comes in its assumption that knowledge is neutral, dispassionate, and without perspective. Knowledge is always interpretive. We gather various fragments of knowledge into a more or less meaningful whole through a complex grid of intuitions, received ideas, social practice and conventions, likes and dislikes. The sciences and the humanities do have different ways of looking at knowledge however, the interpretive nature of that knowledge is true for both.

It is important that we first recognize what we as an individual with a history, with preconceived notions about life, with a certain cultural upbringing and education, carry assumptions with us that influence our interpretations of knowledge. Scientific experimentation begins with an assumption that the universe has a certain makeup that is rational enough in order for science to be possible. Such basics as measurements, computations, and algebraic equations make sense only within a predetermined framework that scientists cannot question if they want to arrive at any knowledge at all.

Philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi, has written extensively on the nature of meaning and in particular, the interpretive nature of scientific knowledge. In order for scientific experimentation to make sense, scientists must commit whole heartedly to the idea of a rational universe that is bound by a predetermined set of laws governing matter. As Polanyi says, ‘two functions of the mind are jointly at work from the beginning to the end of an inquiry. One is the deliberatively active power of the imagination; the other is a spontaneous process of integration which we may call intuition.’

Imagination and intuition are at work in scientific experiments as well as in literary interpretation. As Polanyi observes, ‘If personal participation and imagination are essentially involved in science as well as in the humanities, meanings created in the sciences stand in no more favored relation to reality than do meanings created in the arts, in moral judgments, and in religion . . . since the dichotomy between facts and values no longer seems to be a real distinction upon which to hang any conclusion.’ This means that we need to view how we know scientific knowledge in the same way know religious knowledge. It is faith seeking understanding where we take the facts that we are studying and incorporate these facts into an already existing framework based on our particular tradition and cultural awareness. Our desire to know things is inseparable from our desire to know what they mean and because of this, there can be no “neutral” knowledge that we discover through scientific experimentation or any other academic pursuit for that matter.

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