The Two Scientific Revolutions: A Conversation with Vittorio Hösle
Vittorio Hösle is the Paul G. Kimball Professor of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame, where he is also a Faculty Fellow at the Nanovic and Kroc Institute, and was the Founding Director of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. Hösle completed his Ph.D. at the age of 21, with a major in philosophy and two minors, one in Indology and the other in Greek; he then finished his Habilitation (a second, post-PhD degree required in Germany) four years later, published as Hegels System, and at 28 he was the subject of a documentary film called Ein ganz gewöhnliches Genie [A completely normal genius]. His work covers a wide array of topics, from the history of Greek mathematics and tragedy to Goethe, contemporary politics, and the climate crisis.
In this, the second-half of our conversation, Hösle discusses science and the climate crisis, Christianity, and the secular theology of the scientific revolution.
We’ve been discussing the origins of science, and what makes modern science unique, and you’ve discussed the role of Greek mathematics, Platonism, and Christian values in the Middle Ages.
I’m going to try to synthesize what you said about the origins of the scientific revolution and then see what you think about the trajectory of this as it pertains to the environmental crisis and the meaning of science today.
The revolution in mechanics that you referenced in Galileo can be contrasted with Aristotle: Aristotle believed that what we think of as strictly science or episteme is essentially those things that study form directly: mathematics, where form is abstracted from the material world, but still has to reference it, though not essentially; theology or First Philosophy is able to study essences in themselves, and then physics studies essence but in a way that’s inseparable from the quality of its material embodiment. And from this standpoint, the problem of mechanics for Aristotle doesn’t factor in because he doesn’t see mechanics as eidetic or connected to his doctrine of form, which is ironic because we often speak of Aristotle immanentizing the forms.
But in fact the mathematical and scientific revolution you’re describing is at the foundation of modern physics, where physics becomes something that assimilates mechanics, the old discipline that was separate from it and was seen as a lowly craftsperson’s discipline, not a proper philosophical discipline.
What happens in Galileo, one could argue, is the final development of the immanentization of form that does not occur in Aristotle, but, arguably, maybe it has something to do with Christian metaphysics, where that form becomes so radically immanentized that it’s present everywhere—that could be a stretch.
And at the same time, and I think there is a connection here, the Greek resistance to infinity is overcome, which is connected also to their doctrine of possibility being different. Possibility, as you said, is something in the world that may not reach its proper actualization.
And the infinitizing of the world is then connected with a lot of the narratives of science that see science as a tragic, unhoming enterprise. You can think of Pascal’s famous quote about the loneliness that he experiences in this infinite world, and also Lynn White’s famous thesis about ecological destruction arising from modern science.
So, I’m curious how you see the connection between, say, the recognition that all of the material world is actually structured by form; and therefore mechanics, which used to be not a properly philosophical or scientific discipline, actually, in a sense, is a kind of laboratory of physics, and now they’re completely inseparable, in the very illuminating idea of experimental science you gave: namely, that experimentation is a type of engine distinctive to modern science, based originally in thought experiments—which Amos Funkenstein also stresses: how the thought experimentation of the medieval scholastics leads to the development of what he calls the secular theology of the scientific revolution. These are all connected, as you said, to very deep metaphysical debates, which often scientists themselves, because they don’t need to understand them to do specialized work, regard as irrelevant.
But in point of fact, from the standpoint of attempting to interpret the nature of modern science, what you’re arguing is we have to understand, in a sense, Christianity, because there’s this new human concern for the welfare of all people, which leads to the industrial revolution; we have to understand Christian metaphysics because there’s some radical change that occurs after Plato and Aristotle, but it does take a long time, and we have to explain why science emerges when it does.
So my very broad and big questions are: how do you see the connection between these themes of the development of the welfare of humanity, the connection of Christianity, and the infinitization of science? Why does it take so long, if you will? In other words, why does it occur when it does? And then do you see modern science as leading ineluctably to the ecological crisis, which assumes science’s power to master the world?
These questions unite the philosophical, the scientific, and even ethical concerns, but I know you’ve done extensive work on all of these topics.
These are great questions. First, why did it take so long to get there? An important factor was the collapse of the Roman Empire at the end of antiquity. Let’s not forget that the number of illiterates grew dramatically from the fifth to the eighth century. A lot of juridical, diplomatic, technical innovations were completely lost. There was nobody in Western Europe in the tenth century who would have been able to understand Archimedes. The mindset was not there. And it took a long time to develop, by the way, mediated by Arab science. And one of the really great questions in the history of science is why Arab science, which was far superior to medieval Western science, was not able to develop further and to bring forth something like modernity. It’s a very interesting question, but I’m not competent to discuss it. Certainly, the reception of ancient science in its richness was necessary before Western Europe could try to go beyond it. Euclid is translated in the twelfth century from Arabic into Latin. That is when people begin to be able to read Euclid, but to really understand and develop him further needed much longer.
At the same time—we spoke first about Descartes’ geometry—there’s little doubt that one of the great innovative achievements of the Arabs was the development of algebra, which through Fibonacci, whose father was a merchant who had offices in Northern Africa, came into the knowledge of the West and prepared new mathematical ideas that could then combine with geometry in the Cartesian enterprise. Note that algebra is much more abstract than geometry and that the classical Greeks had treated algebraic problems in geometrical garb (so in the second book of Euclid’s Elements).Only Diophantus of Alexandria in late antiquity developed basic algebraic concepts as such and laid the foundations for number theory. Even if far from being precise, Oswald Spengler’s reflections on the peculiar limits of classical Greek mathematics in the first chapter of The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes) capture something interesting.
Another factor that slowed down the intellectual progress was that in the medieval world, the main issue is human salvation, and since this is absolutely crucial, one doesn’t really think it’s so important to try to improve the lot of people on earth. What ultimately counts is what will happen in the afterlife. The decline of this conviction helped the rise of the Scientific and the Industrial Revolutions. Another factor which I think was very important was that the confessional split between Catholics and Protestant in the early sixteenth century led to a skeptical crisis, which said: we cannot really trust anymore in any religion, because we have several religions and each condemns the followers of the others to eternal punishments, so how do we know what is true? Montaigne’s work is the most intelligent expression of this so-called Pyrrhonian crisis, and Descartes’ enterprise is based on the desire to overcome the skeptical challenge. So we had to go through a lot of developments to get to Descartes’ project to build metaphysics and science on a conclusive rational foundation.
The Apocalyptic Potential of Modern Science
Now let me address again the issue of differences between ancient and modern science. In order to understand the destructive tendencies of modern science, we must recognize the elimination of teleology as a crucial factor – suffice it to mention Spinoza, whose new metaphysics wants to offer an ontology that fits with the project of modern science. Both a transcendent God and a substantial individuality are eliminated and he clearly anticipates the Hempel-Oppenheim model of causal explanation by general laws and antecedent conditions. Already Henri Bergson in Creative Evolution(L’Évolution Créatrice) develops a theory that the radical difference between ancient and modern science consists in the fact that the ancient science is eidetic; it tries to find out Forms, while modern science wants to find out natural laws. By the way, you find the term lex naturae already in Lucretius, but, obviously, he means something completely different from what we mean today, because he doesn’t mention any laws of nature that we would consider such. He simply means the makeup of the cosmos by lex naturae. But the modern concept of natural law presupposes a functional relation between different parameters, which is universally valid. Matthias Schramm has rightly pointed out the decline of teleological thought as one of the crucial features of modern science. I consider him, by the way, one of the greatest German historians of science of the late twentieth century because of his enormous disciplinary and linguistic range that almost matched that of his extraordinary teacher, Willy Hartner (Schramm published important books also on Greek and Arabic history of science). I didn’t study with him, but we met several times; I was several times at his house, and I studied thoroughly his book Natur ohne Sinn?[Nature without Meaning?], a book that I would very much love to see translated into English because it’s one of the most erudite and at the same time profound books on the evolution of modern science.
The topic of the book is the elimination of teleology from modern science. It doesn’t deal, by the way, with the elimination of teleology in biology with the Darwinian revolution, because it stops at the end of the eighteenth century. It focuses particularly on teleology in the inorganic world. That idea played a very important role in eighteenth-century physics, for example, in the extremal principles, such as the principle of least action defended by Pierre Louis Maupertuis and Leonhard Euler, and he shows how Voltaire’s ridiculizing of teleology in science was one of the factors that destroyed its intellectual credibility. At the same time, Schramm defends an ultimately Kantian reintroduction of teleology in our understanding of nature.
With the Darwinian revolution, even organisms are no longer understood as teleological structures; it is not denied that the organs have a function for the preservation and reproduction of the organism, but there is a causal explanation why there are such things in the world, and natural selection can explain why organisms with superior adaptation expand at the expense of less adapted ones. And this then can lead to a world without any meaning and without any purpose. Such a worldview became stronger and stronger in the course of the twentieth century.
My position is certainly not that science is wrong, but that science is unilateral. Therefore, a mature worldview presupposes, besides the scientific understanding of nature, an understanding, for example, of our capacity to reason. I cannot take myself seriously if I think that my thoughts are nothing else than an epiphenomenon of electrochemical processes in my brain. For then I cannot ascribe to them a legitimate truth claim—at least, if I do not assume that the electrochemical processes have been created by a mind not completely different from mine, in order to bring forth organisms that can, while their thoughts supervene on these electrochemical processes, grasp truth.
And in this sense, I do think that science, as grand as its achievements are, has a tendency to be self-destructive. And I also think that science has a tendency to not be able to understand normative questions, because science after all is about what is. And the ultimate end result of this is that you no longer have ethics, but only a natural-selection explanation, in the shape of sociobiology, for why certain social norms have developed in the animal and in the human realm. You may perhaps give an explanation for why they are there, but you can no longer answer the question whether they are valid or not. And, clearly, modern science has to a large amount driven away the capacity of looking at normative questions. And therefore, it has proven very, very difficult to try to put moral brakes onto the scientific and industrial progress, which on the whole we all have to support. One example suffices. In 1950, the life expectancy on this planet was around 45 years. The average life expectancy now worldwide, not in the rich countries, is more than 70. There has never been such an increase in life expectancy. In less than 75 years, life expectancy has increased by more than 25 years. That is of course not possible without the scientific, technological development. But at the same time, it is very well possible that this same scientific, technological development will transform our Earth into an uninhabitable planet and that it will lead to a catastrophe whose magnitudes will be far, far greater than catastrophes known to other people. And so, the great question is: how can we reinstall into our worldview a strong ethics that, for example, takes our duties toward future generations very seriously? I am on the side of the moderns. I’m not at all nostalgic for the medieval world. I wouldn’t have liked to live in the Middle Ages, even if one of the greatest works of the human mind that I revere is Dante’s Comedy; a book of this aesthetic complexity has never before or since been created. But still, I’m happy that I have the easier and longer life of modernity, and my position is that we should not reject the creators of modernity, but see that many of them had very important insights that could have led modernity into a less destructive path. What we certainly must avoid is embracing irrationalism, whose spread is clearly caused by an increasing fear of the negative consequences of the Scientific and the Industrial Revolutions (the ecological ones are not the only ones). But the rejection of reason based on the mistrust of science is not only suicidal – it accepts scientism’s identification of science and rationality and is therefore only an expression of its triumph.
The two greatest creators of a modern philosophy are Descartes and Kant. From Descartes, we can learn that there is a realm of the mind that is irreducible to the realm of the physical. Perhaps the former supervenes on the latter; I don’t exclude it. For I’m not convinced at all that the interactionism of Descartes is the best solution to the mind-body problem. But even if it supervenes, one must accept a form of parallelism that assumes that the two things are connected in such a way that the autonomy of the mind remains possible; this is necessary if we want to take ourselves seriously. And I am a strong admirer of that greatest Cartesian philosopher of the twentieth century, Edmund Husserl, who developed an account and a language for describing the life of our mind that is unsurpassed. And, on the other hand, in Kant, there is the clear insight that beside the world of the facts, including the mental facts, there is a normative realm, which is irreducible to it, and that a mature person under conditions of modernity must have, beside an understanding of the scientific worldview, a clear commitment to an objective, intersubjectively valid ethics.
So my opinion is that we should try to develop a worldview in which the scientific understanding of the world plays an important role, but which has a language for analyzing the life of the mind and which offers a normative theory, which is inevitably teleological. What are humans here on earth for? What should we do in order to make this world a better, at least a sustainable, place for other human generations? And I don’t think only for them, but I believe there’s also an intrinsic value to be ascribed to organisms that are not human. So my own position is to accept modernity, but to try to integrate into it aspects that are often eliminated by the triumph of science and particularly vulgar Darwinism. I’ve written together with Christian Illies a book on Darwin, whom I highly respect not only as a biologist, but also as a human being. He was a very wise man. But vulgar Darwinism has offered a pseudo-scientific explanation of human behavior, of human mental life, of human norms, which doesn’t solve any of the problems that we are asked to solve in this world; and, therefore, a big task will be to try to offer again to humanity a worldview, which balances the various validity claims that as rational beings we have to advance: some validity claims are of normative nature, not only concerning ethics but also epistemology; some have to do with a correct description of our mental life and its inner logic, and some have to do with a correct image of nature, which must be conceived as being hospitable to mind if we are supposed to trust the scientific exploration of nature.
How to make these accounts consistent among themselves is a difficult issue. And here, First Philosophy comes in. And the tragedy of our time is that we do not have any First Philosophy that is offering an answer to this question, and therefore the danger is very real that the initially positive alliance of science, technology, and capitalism leads to a consumerist behavior inspired by the infinitist inclinations of modernity, which have rejected any idea of limitation, and that this will render this earth no longer habitable by the end of the century. That would be my more apocalyptic view of how an enterprise may end for which I have in the whole the greatest admiration.
So, to summarize, what you’re saying is: you respect the progress and nature of modern science; you’re on the side of moderns. But you also recognize that there’s this very important religious dimension, a metaphysical dimension.
What you’re essentially arguing is science—which we know as philosophers and historians of philosophy—only came to have this term in English quite recently, in the nineteenth century. It used to be part of one single enterprise called natural philosophy. The issue now is actually what science is itself and how it’s related to philosophy.
So the question is, how do we recognize that science itself—I take it you’re arguing—is part of a broader history of rationality, let’s say the history of philosophy? Do you have any thoughts about the separation of science and philosophy and how you would see their integration in the future or present?
You’re completely right that long into the nineteenth century science and natural philosophy were connected, and that one of the great events in the twentieth century is the separation of science from philosophy—also, by the way, the separation of the humanities from a philosophy interested in the foundation of the humanities. What are the reasons for that? Well, I think there are various reasons. One is, of course, that science has become much, much more difficult. I myself have no mastery of modern mathematics. But I can understand Greek mathematics. I know more or less what the basic ideas and also some of the decisive proofs in Euclid are, to a lesser degree in Archimedes or Apollonius. We can have an overview of that because science in the past was much, much easier. You can achieve that without having to dedicate all your life to it—which is necessary if you want to understand the modern scientific world. So philosophers have been left behind by the enormous evolution of science.
The other factor, however, is that philosophy itself in my eyes has gone in a wrong direction—in various aspects in wrong directions. But one of the various wrong directions is that philosophy has thought that ultimately it can only gain respectability by trying to be a little bit like a science. And it doesn’t work because philosophical problems are not problems that have much to do with empirical testability, and the possible mathematization of philosophy is modest. It doesn’t bring us very far, that is, it does not allow us to infer many interesting consequences because philosophy is not the realm of quantities. And that is one of the reasons why, for example, an enterprise like Reichenbach’s scientific philosophy is for me hilarious. Reichenbach was an excellent philosopher of science. His book on spacetime and relativity is a brilliant book; I’ve taught it with enthusiasm. It was one of the great interpretations of the special and general theory of relativity. But his book Scientific Philosophy is ultimately nothing else than the claim that philosophy should recognize that the only valid epistemic system is the system of natural science, and I think this claim is absurd. It’s self-defeating, because one cannot explain how this claim, which is itself not a scientific claim, can be justified; and it cannot explain how our mind is able to have knowledge.
So the move from the philosophy of science—which is a very important discipline and in order to be done on a high level presupposes an awareness of the long evolution of modern science—to the so-called “scientific philosophy” is a shortcut that is deleterious. It’s a shortcut that doesn’t lead anywhere. And so, I see again dangers both in the enormous development of science and in a type of philosophy that is no longer familiar with the treasure of good arguments that philosophers from antiquity on have developed, but tries to ape the sciences and thinks that it is enough for a philosopher to say that science is the gold standard of all epistemic systems and we do not need to recognize any other epistemic systems.
That is extremely helpful. You gave Hans Reichenbach as an example, but one could think also of Quine’s naturalization of epistemology, a return in a sense to a kind of psychologism from the nineteenth century—where philosophy essentially becomes an outer court of whatever science the philosopher is most aware of or sympathetic to—in Quine’s case, something like Skinner’s behaviorism, but this vision of philosophy and science doesn’t work.
It’s an internally incoherent project, because it can’t explain the grounds of philosophy’s own validity or of science’s own validity. And in the future, we need to recognize that philosophy can’t be scientific, like the natural sciences, but it has to be scientific in the broader sense of being rationally able to account for science, and to account for the space of intelligibility that it inhabits. And that’s in a way what your own work is seeking to do.
But you also recognize that the main course of academic philosophy has not taken that path.
That’s exactly right. I completely agree with all that you have said. That is the challenge. And again, the challenge is not simply a theoretical challenge, because in the moment in which the vision of the world is as unilateral as it is today, the chances that we’ll be able to render this earth less uninhabitable decrease. And we have not even spoken about one factor, which is, of course, another very dark factor of the enterprise of science and technology: it is the development of weapons technology. For the first time in human history, since the second half of the twentieth century, we have enough weapons, nuclear weapons, to destroy the whole world. We don’t even need an ecological disaster; we can simply destroy all higher forms of life. What we have suffices. And this is a terrible problem that didn’t exist in earlier times. Certainly, it cannot be a solution that one side decides to give up all nuclear weapons because the other side will abuse the situation. But it shows us how much more at risk modernity is than it believes itself to be, and I think it is important that even if you recognize the objective progress that has occurred in science, you recognize the enormous side effects that go hand in hand with that. And while we do not want to return to earlier times, we must try to develop again a worldview in which scientific and ethical and, in order to explain the connection between science and ethics, religious thinking have a legitimate place. And again, I don’t see this institutionalized in the current forms of philosophy, and therefore I see the prospects of humankind in a relatively bleak way.
Well, thank you, Vittorio. It’s a very sobering ending, but I think a really extraordinary gift that you’re giving us with this integration of perspectives that recognizes the role of ethics, the role of science, and the broader role of philosophy.
Vittorio G. Hösle is the Paul Kimball Professor of Arts and Letters, Department of German and Russian Languages and Literatures, Concurrent Professor of Philosophy and of Political Science. His scholarly interests are in the areas of systematic philosophy (metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, political theory) and the history of philosophy (mainly ancient and modern). He has recently published a book on philosophical literature, Philosophische Literatur-Interpretationen von Dante bis le Carré (2023), and one on the Ukraine War, Mit dem Rücken zu Russland. Der Ukrainekrieg und die Fehler des Westens (2022). This year he has published with Jieon Kim a translation of the Commentary on the Song of Songs by Rupert of Deutz. Hösle has written or edited 57 books and published nearly 200 articles. His work has appeared in 20 languages. Among other prizes and awards, he received the Fritz-Winter Prize of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and has had visiting professorships in many countries and fellowships at various institutions, such as the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
Samuel Loncar is a philosopher and the Editor of the Marginalia Review of Books. He is writing a book on science as a spiritual revolution for Columbia University Press. Learn more at www.samuelloncar.com. Tweets @samuelloncar