Science and knowledge: regenerate science, philosophia naturalis, and human ways of knowing

CJSH.name/science

“[Merlin] is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our point of view, confused. For him, every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead—a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases… In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way…”

C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

Is it, then, possible to imagine a new Natural Philosophy, continually conscious that the natural object produced by analysis and abstraction is not reality but only a view, and always correcting the abstraction? I hardly know what I am asking for. I hear rumours that Goethe’s approach to nature deserves fuller consideration — that even Dr Steiner may have seen something that orthodox researchers have missed. The regenerate science which I have in mind would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. While studying the It it would not lose what Martin Buber calls the Thou-situation. The analogy between the Tao of Man and the instincts of an animal species would mean for it new light cast on the unknown thing, Instinct, by the only known reality of conscience and not a reduction of conscience to the category of Instinct. Its followers would not be free with the words only and merely. In a word, it would conquer Nature without being at the same time conquered by her and buy knowledge at a lower cost than that of life.

Perhaps I am asking impossibilities…

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

Put this way, Lewis is advancing the possibility of a regenerate science as a speculation, as a call for something that doesn’t yet exist. But in fact a regenerate science does exist, whether “natural philosophy” or not, and this regenerate science is as old as the hills.

Let me quote first lecture material for a friend who is teaching interns about farming:

Learning with your whole body

I’m assuming that most of you have been to college. Even if you haven’t, you’ve been learning for 12 years in an institution that has taught you that learning is done with the brain, that it comes from words written on screens or paper, and that the way you show what you’ve learned is to write intelligent words on screens or paper.

Here is the first thing I need you to understand: out here in the garden, you do not learn with your brain. You learn with your hands and with your eyes and with your whole body. Your brain is involved, sure. But don’t let it take over. Don’t separate “learning” and “working.” Every moment you’re in this teaching garden, and even a lot of the time you’re working in other parts of the farm, if you pay attention you can be learning constantly.

School teaches us to think of learning as information. It’s such a mistake! Yes, there is information that will help you learn to garden, and I’ll teach you some of it—but if you don’t learn it with your body, it won’t be much use to you.

You’re going to need educated eyes—you’re going to need the ability to look at a plant and know if it’s thriving, to look at a little seedling and be able to see in your mind how big it’ll be so you can give it enough space, to look at a patch of weeds and have a sense of how much bigger it’ll be next week if you don’t kill it now. (The most advanced skill, which I’m still learning, is looking at a row of green beans and estimating—from how thick the blossoms & small beans on it are—how much it’s going to produce over the next couple weeks.) You need educated hands—you need to be able to feel, when you’re swinging a hoe, whether you’re really biting into the roots of the weeds, and you need hands that know how to weed fast and effectively, and how to use a pitchfork, etc, etc. And you need instincts, too—when you’ve just transplanted a plant, you need to have the instinct to check on it till it’s established, same as people have the instinct to check on a baby.

And you learn all that by experience. Writing it down won’t help. Doing it while being aware of it is what helps. Be in the moment, don’t be thinking of something else while you work. (Well, maybe when you’re weeding strawberries!) Get your hands in the dirt and feel it, compare it with how it felt last week, watch and observe the plants as they grow—and watch the weeds as they die! Watch how much quicker they die on a sunny or a windy day, watch how they re-root themselves even from a lying-down position if it’s too wet. At some point it all comes together and you start to develop a sort of instinctive understanding of the garden as a natural system. I’ve been doing this for five years now—I knew next to nothing about gardening before that—and I have a sense now of how all the pieces work together, not in theory but what’s happening in real time in my own garden, and it’s such a pleasure. It has been such a pleasure to go from someone who learned things only with her brain, to someone with hands and eyes that understand my garden.

I know some of what I’m saying you may already know, but I still think it’s worth saying at the start here. I’ve just seen so often how hard it is to get rid of the idea that reality is in our heads or on paper and start focusing on the reality that’s under our feet—to stop going on what you think is supposed to happen instead of looking at what really happens. I know it took me a lot longer than it should have. I still remember my breakthrough moment. I was using the push-cultivator—which I’ll teach you how to use—and it was a new tool for us at that point so I didn’t know its capabilites. The thing is that when the weeds get to a certain height, the push-cultivator doesn’t kill them anymore—you have to use a hoe. But I would push the cultivator on down the row and it would kill a few weeds and knock down the rest and cover them with dirt so the row looked clean, and I never noticed that their roots were still in the soil, and in my head I would make a little check mark—well that row’s done. The next week, we’d be looking through the garden to see what needed doing, and there would be a bunch of weeds in that row again, and I’d go, “Wow! They came back fast!” and cultivate again. I still remember the day the little lightbulb came on in my head and I realized I’d never killed those weeds at all. I felt so dumb. That was the day I learned to look at what I was doing. Not just at what I thought I was doing.

And that’s a lot of what is involved in learning a skill—not just knowing “how” but involving your hands and eyes and brain all together in the process, so that you can feel how the motion is working and you can see whether it’s working—and you remember to double-check the next day whether it worked!

Okay, I have one more story. This one taught me so much. We had a temporary volunteer in the garden for three days. He was this guy who, if you told him how to do something, would look annoyed as if you were patronizing him or something. Because, you know, everybody knows how to hoe, right? Well, I got embarrassed by him being offended and figured he was right, maybe it was rude to try and tell someone how to do such simple stuff. I was a beginner too, at the time. Erin told us to hoe a certain section, and we did it. And we did it backwards. We started at the back of the section and walked backwards to the front as we hoed, so that all the plants we hoed up ended up in a pile in the next bit we had to hoe, covering the weeds there. The result was that at the end of our work all you could see was a pile of dead plants, so it looked great, it looked done. And the next day when those dead plants had dried up and withered away, what you could see was a section that looked like someone had hit it a few times here and there with a hoe—at least half of the weeds were still alive and kicking. The next day Erin took me aside and showed me how to hoe for real: you move forward, and you hoe up every inch of the soil, whether you see a plant there or not. And I’ve never felt embarrassed to teach anyone to hoe since then. It’s a skill.

It’s a huge mistake to think of any part of farming as unskilled labor. A skilled worker can weed about five times as fast as a beginner—if not more. Farming is skilled, complicated, grounded work that involves your hands and your eyes and your brain and your whole body—and at some point you may find it starts to involve your heart. You’re learning something this year that you can be proud of.

(Heather Munn)

My friend is part of an intentional community and comes from a more ivy-like background; she as a writer was perhaps able to put into words what would perhaps have been water to a fish and perhaps too much “just the way things are” to readily put into words. Except, perhaps, in discomfort at city types who do skilled labor with computers and are above the unskilled labor in a farm… but wouldn’t eat except for “unskilled” labor at a farm.

Regenerate Science

But I am interested in this passage as a lettered glimpse into a regenerate science that does not do to vegetables what modern science threatens to do to men. It is not exotic: but perhaps it shouldn’t be exotic in the first place. Acting on plants bears no animistic or occult overtones or confusions, but it is quite naturally a personal operation. It is, humbly and naturally, sensitive to an I-Thou that never dissolves away into mere I-It. The regenerate science Lewis calls for is not waiting to be concocted by some genius of a bookworm; it has been around all along and remains (humbly) accessible even to bookworms like my friend.

And this regenerate science is not just the biology that is experientially known to a farmer, although I would be very cautious about too quickly dismissing this instance. True, it is a biology of very specific life and plants and not a biology of all life forms or even all farms everywhere: but it may be an attribute of the regenerate science that one knows what one has direct experience of and not everything, everywhere. That locality is arguably a strength.

But to shift focus slightly: Lewis talks about not doing to stones and plants what modern science threatens to do to man himself. This does not in its focus mean destruction of the same in laboratory conditions: though the twentieth century saw lethal experiments on prisoners and 21st century America does experiments on human embryos destroyed by the use that is made of them. However, Lewis’s point is somewhat more subtle: “When it explained, it would not explain away.” He goes on to raise the question whether science “must always be a [mythical monster, with lethal gaze] basilisk which kills what it sees and only sees by killing.” And the regenerate farming science with the manifesto above does not have a basilisk’s gaze. Even weeds are not reduced to nothingness, or explained away, or reduced to being a thing that one holds in the head. Live weeds may be literally killed and reduced to being dead weeds: but even as dead weeds they are not reduced to being merely the playing out of impersonal, discarnate ideas that really exist only in scientist’s heads. And the practitioner may be very ready to kill weeds, but in a certain sense she seems to love them in knowing them with a love that science does not apply to mankind.

Psychology is what we now have as our effort to take an empirical sciences approach to understanding mankind.

Psychology, a secularized surrogate for theology

My MPhil thesis advisor, Thomas Dixon, wrote Theology, Anti-Theology, and Atheology: From Christian Passions to Secular Emotions. His basic approach was to look at one concrete instance as an example of a broader pattern: theology being replaced by anti-theology which in turn moves to “atheology” (“a naturalistic quasi-theology without God”) which is alienated from theological roots but is more estranged from theology than actively fighting against it. He writes, “The details of empirical science are atheological in the sense that a recipe in a cookery book is atheological—both are, if you like, just ‘untheological.'”

The specific instance he chose was the nineteenth century moving from the Christian understanding of passions and affections, which exist within an ascetical framework and are understood in moral and ascetical terms as features belonging a fundamentally moral landscape in “pneumatology” understood of a department of practical theology rather than secular phenomena studied by psychologists who are just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-physics, to Darwin’s paper-thin understanding of emotion as discussed in Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and the Animals, where “emotion” is not in particular about something or part of any particular habit, moving to the atheology of today’s psychological understanding of emotions, where emotions may be about something and may be part of a healthy or unhealthy habit (as, for instance, alcoholism), but emotions are not seen as theological in character (and it is not terribly obvious to those within how one would go about associating emotions with theology). Much prior to the nineteenth century, it is not clear how people would react to or translate a statement like, “Feelings aren’t right. Feelings aren’t wrong. They’re just feelings.”

Dixon, as quoted, says, “The details of empirical science are atheological,” and his primary study in the article cited engages the emotions as developed in the category of psychology in the nineteenth century. Even though his point is intended to be an instance of a broader phenomenon or regularity, Dixon, like a good scholar, guards a narrow, tightly focused thesis for his article instead of a sprawling encyclopedia-length book. Dixon in his supervision of me encouraged me to read a book, Mary Midgley’s Science as Salvation, favored by one of my thesis reviewers (although, it seems, not especially foreign to his own interests). Midgley in the chapter “The Remarkable Masculine Birth of Time” talked about what I would call a macho, domineering rebellion against an older understanding of nature (you know, “Mother Nature”) to be merely cold matter as understood by the Newtonian physics that was heralded through vile, lurid rhetoric and imagery of sexual violence to the woman, Nature. Either Dixon’s actual focus of “from Christian passions to secular emotions in 19th century psychology” or a focus he didn’t take of “from a religious outlook on Mother Nature to cold matter in Newtonian era physics” would be better than an article with a combined thesis of “from a religious outlook on Mother Nature to cold matter in Newtonian era physics and from Christian passions to secular emotions in 19th century psychology,” and Dixon holds on to his narrow, focused thesis and explores it interestingly and well.

The friend who wrote the above manifesto had earlier talked about trying to understand people. She studied literature in college rather than psychology, and there is something significant in that. One bank president commented that he preferred making literature majors because they made the best bank tellers; in other words, literature majors made the best tellers because they were the best at getting inside people’s heads. And better, apparently, than psychology students. Psychologists may claim to be scientists-and-they-are-just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-physics, but literature in its better moments understands the human person without aping physics—and so much the better. The motive of understanding people is not the only motive one might have for studying literature, but it is an obvious motive, and one of the more important. Not to deify literature departments—they seem to get dumb academic fads thirty years later than everyone else, where the better portion would be simply to abstain—but one of the major currents is a science of understanding the human person, and a science that has some of the attributes of a regenerate science that Lewis seems to expect something very exotic, only to be found in some faroff never-never land. But students of literature who try to understand the human person and fulfill easily half of Lewis’s description of a regenerate science have been right under our noses the whole time, and include C.S. Lewis himself.

The queen of the sciences

Furthermore, theology was once known as the queen of sciences. This did not mean that theologians are scientists; in that sense the claim to be scientists, and especially just-as-much-scientists-as practitioners of some other discipline, is very much a “physics envy” phenomenon. Dorothy Sayers reiterates that theology is a science, meaning for instance that it is the kind of discipline that has a technical vocabulary and it matters if you use the terms correctly. But she makes no envious or wishful claim that theologians are “scientists,” and her usage is somewhat archaic. She does not make the claim, or even seem to betray any particular wish, that theology should be flattered by classifying it with empirical sciences like physics. The older claim that theology is a science should be taken seriously, but with it an understanding that “science” in this usage may be a serious claim, but one tenuously related to whether its bachelor’s and master’s degrees are ‘BS’ and ‘MS’, or ‘BA’ and ‘MA’. The same kind of older usage of “science” is enshrined in the words, “We have it down to a science,” which means “We have mastered some precise technique or skill to approach _______,” and not in particular that it is appropriate subject matter for a scientific journal.

In my mind one of the greatest of sciences is the science of spiritual struggle as articulated in the Philokalia. When I first read it it struck me as strange; then years later I found a book it seemed all I had wanted to read. The best way I can think to explain it is that I liked, and like, books like Oswald Chambers’s My Utmost for His Highest precisely because they contain some of what is concentrated in the Philokalia. Here is the pre-eminent science of sciences; if one looks at the medieval Great Chain of Being of God, Angels, Men, Animals, Plants, Rocks, Nothing, we have the science of God, Angels, and Men. No discipline has a higher ambit, though literature comes closer than some. Physics is the science of Rocks and Nothing; no other discipline has so humble of an ambit. Biology may be appropriately called a hard science and may have an ambit of Animals and Plants, perhaps touching on Men: but I have never read someone flatter himself by saying that people in his discipline are scientists-and-they-are-just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-biology. The envy is always for physics, and I want to ask, “Don’t you find that just a wee bit embarrassing? Don’t you appreciate an ambit of Men which you rightly study? Do you really want your study of Men to be in the image of physicists’s study of Rocks and Nothing? Is that really how you want to try to mediate prestige to your discipline? Even a biological study of Rotting Excrement, teeming with life, would be a nobler and more elevated ambit than the Rocks and Nothing which physics exquisitely delves into.”

Real Empirical Science

I rarely, perhaps only in this piece, use ‘science’ as including theology, at least outside of a grandfathered special case. The older statement that “theology is a science” says something that was, and is, true. However, today the meaning of the term “science” has shifted, and using the term as including theology is liable to cause confusion outside of a historically literate minority, and I am wary of suggesting that theology is a science when I do not have the luxury of explaining what that means besides the obvious implication that theology is a discipline with mathematical and statistical educated guesses about how the world functions that are tested in practical experiments. And I can and do genuinely believe that the ambit of the Philokalia is the crowning jewel of the queen of the sciences, next to which there is relatively little warrant to call physics “science,” but it would just add confusion to call the Philokalia excellent science without further clarification.

Further muddying the waters are the kind of claim that inspired one alleged theology article in my most concentrated course in feminist theology to say, Theologians are scientists, and they are every bit as much scientists as people in the so-called “hard sciences” like physics. The boilerplate, quoted word for word though without attribution (but also, perhaps, without plagiarism as few critics would seriously maintain that the claim is presented as anyone’s original insight), that practitioners of one’s own discipline are-scientists,-and-they-are-every-bit-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-physics, enough so that in my theology education academic theologians sought to include science to mediate prestige and would do what I would later figure out was presenting a journalistically-written, op-ed style article from “science” pages about psychology and free will as representing genuine “science” (I tried quite in vain to say, “If for whatever reason you want to claim to understand science in your theology, get letters after your name in the sciences, and if you want to include scientific findings, quote something in a peer-reviewed journal and not something op-ed—perhaps not the greatest emotional intelligence on my part and probably more intimidating because I did not make any effort at all to incorporate ponderous grapplings with science, and I did have the letters BS and MS after my name), it is not enough to be a gentleman and a scholar: one must also claim to be a scientist, no matter how much one’s real talents may lie in other directions.

Some scholars, including some historians, attempt to use the term “empirical science” to un-muddy the waters a little. There is a legitimate distinction between the enterprise of empirical science and science-as-worldview; science-as-worldview may be very interesting to study, but it is distinct from the immediate enterprise. Secondly, the term cuts out the various disciplines claiming that they are scientists-and-they-are-just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-hard-sciences-like-physics. It may take a rule of thumb that if the members of a discipline are claiming to be full-fledged scientists, they are outside of what is studied in empirical science. And I might comment that, for all the letters after my name, I’ve never read or heard of a textbook or publication in the hard sciences claiming that its practitioners are scientists at all, let alone that they are not one whit less scientific than physicists. One may encounter quaint books like The Art of Mathematics which place mathematics among the humanities, or one may encounter claims that physics properly includes metaphysics (without the counterbalancing nuance that learning competency in physics as taught today does not now include learning competency in metaphysics). But the shrill insistence that one is not one whit less a scientist than physics is really nowhere to be found. Disciplines that are as much science as physics don’t seem to suffer physics envy. And the use of the term “empirical sciences” whittles a very open-ended term down to the point where it is narrow enough to actually be useful for study.

None the less, I have enough foolhardiness to not only state that the mystical theology of spiritual struggle and growth is not only enough of a science that physics’s claim to be science pales in comparison, but that the mystical theology of spiritual struggle and growth is enough of an empirical science that physics’s claim to be empirical science pales in comparison.

Experiment: A term disconnected from its roots

The term ‘experiment’ comes from the same root as ‘experience’; at the birth of early modern science, at the point where there was real contention between Newtonian and Aristotelian physics, an ‘experiment’ could simply mean doing something straightforward and observing what happened. Aristotelian physics said that heavier items fell faster than light items; Newtonian physics said that things fall basically at the same speed regardless of weight (air friction turns out to account for something, but this is a bit of a side issue). At that point it was practical to test one’s experience, dropping a grape and an orange (or a pebble and a fist-sized rock) at the same time and observing whether they both hit ground at the same rough time or whether the heavier item hit the ground much more quickly. I’m going through the muddy spectacles of popularization of history here, but insofar as people were trying to test Newtonian against Aristotelian physics, there was a live possibility of using ordinary means to conduct an experiment where Newtonian and Aristotelian physics would predict appreciably different outcomes. And there can, in fact, be a first-hand knowing, in continuity with a farmer’s practical biology that is known with the whole person, that a pebble and a larger rock will fall through air at the same speed as far as one can tell with the kinds of equipment easily available at the birth of early modern science.

Something has changed along the way. Experiments now regarded as classic and relatively old physics experiments—I can think of the Millikan oil drop experiment and the Michaelson-Morley experiment, are not, in any sense, matters of interacting with the natural world and observing in a straightforward experiment. I have not seen even a very arrogant physics student look at one of those experiments for the first time and say, “I could have done that.” What these experiments instead represent are like devious hacks in information technology, where someone thinks of a clever way to trick the computer to do something that shouldn’t be possible at all (like programmatically shutting down a computer intended not to allow any programmatic shutdown, by continually overwriting the memory physically closest to a temperature sensor so it would read a false positive overheating and shut down). The classic experiments are no longer about observing whether a grape and an orange fall at the same speed as far as you can tell; they are all devious hacks that trick nature into revealing something about its inner workings that you could not tell. And unless you are very wealthy you cannot do experiments on the sort of equipment private people can own; people do experiments at Fermilab on incredibly delicate atom smashers which are just barely adequate to do what physicists are trying to do. When Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity was accepted, apart from possibly the perihelion of Mercury (when Mercury passes the sun, it appears to accelerate and decelerate because its light is bent by the sun’s gravity), there was a time period of decades between when relativity and its experiments and thought experiments could be practically tried out. The twins paradox was in fact pragmatically tried out, decades after Einstein, when scientists brought an atomic clock, which is still as precise a clock as the human race has managed, on board an airplane, and observed that after flying around there was the predicted clock skew against an atomic clock which had stayed on the ground. But absolutely none of the timekeeping devices in Einstein’s lifetime were nearly delicate enough to allow testing the prediction made in the twins paradox. And today there is a somewhat similar position with superstring theory: there is no way that has been projected with today’s technology and resources to do an experiment where the differences between what superstring theory predicts, and what older models in physics predict, are anywhere near big enough to measure. Some experiments have been imagined, but they would require, for instance, more energy than has ever been produced in the history of the human race.

I am probably going on even more shaky ground by suggesting that the term ‘experiment’ no longer applies to significant physics experiments, but I think I can say that the link between experiment in the sense of a physics experiment, and experience in the sense of, for instance, my friend’s knowledge of farming biology, is historical, etymological, and not live. Saying that an ‘experiment’ is something you ‘experience’ is like saying in U.S. English that someone who never drinks alcohol consumes ‘liquors’ all the time, as ‘liquor’, historically at least, can mean a broth that food is steeped with. There may have been a time when people saw ‘liquor’ as more elastic and naturally including both chicken broth and today’s Jack Daniel’s; but now one is apt to get confusion if one speaks of a teatotaller consuming liquor. And in the same sense the historical link between ‘experiment’ and ‘experience’ has been all but severed; precisely none of my friend’s summons to experience practical farm biology is an ‘experiment’ in the sense of the physics experiments I have mentioned, and conversely, precisely none of the modern physics experiments covered in my education constitute a way to have the knowing that drinks. We’re really talking apples and oranges.

For these reasons, mystical theology is empirical in ways that physics hardly touches. Now I should give one caveat, under teaching as a persuasive activity, that at my high school some of the first experiments were intended to dislodge what might be called “innate believed physics” after science education findings had found that it takes a certain number of contrary experimental findings to kill a student’s assumed physics. And I remember that I had an “innate believed physics” and I did not want to let it go. So the physics experiments that set the stage, so to speak, were chosen to give mystical, whole-person knowledge rather than simply convey ideas. But that is at least a somewhat provocative position to take in education, and it was used only at the beginning, simply because even the introductory physics class needed to go much further than experiential “experiments” would show. Such experiments can create trust in the physics being taught; but they can only teach so much of what was really intended to be a class that went far. And the further the class really pushed into interesting physics, the less it built on direct student experience. Now, of course, there were experiences of some stripe. One manipulated things used in the experiments, and read measuring instruments, and analyzed the results, and returned to class. All of this is an experience of some sort, class lectures and tests as much of the labs. But it was not knowledge arising from contact; the experience of reading a measuring instrument was irrelevant to what was being learned, and a teacher who asked, “How’s your experiment going?” to a student reading out an LED display would probably not be happy with an answer of, “There are LED digits that are red, as opposed to green, or dark digits on a silver background, and the background is dark, and they flicker a bit when they change. It looks kind of 80’s. Also, the top LED is a bit dim, and there’s a dent in the left side. Also, the battery might be starting to go dead.” A teacher in the classes wants the student to see past the experience to whatever point of physics was being addressed; the farmer’s practical biology knows by seeing through the experience.

By contrast, the knowing of regenerate science, pre-eminently present in the Philokalia, knows by participating, by drinking, by experience, and knows with the whole person. The farming manifesto of this knowing may speak of knowing with the whole body, and get around to knowing with the heart, while the Philokalia may deal with the heart front and center, although its most concentrated attention to the spirit always, always includes the body. But they are two parts of the same organism, and the knowing in one and the other is empirical in the deepest sense, whereas by comparison, physics is knowledge by hearsay. In physics, even if what you know from your own experiments is experienced or empirical in the proper sense—a point which I am slightly reluctant to grant except perhaps for the sake of argument—a very large portion of your bearings are from the authority of other scientists. The physical theories one works with may be the best provisional educated guess as tested by the scientific enterprise, but the picture I was told of science being distrustful of authority, and mentioning two high school students correcting a calculation by ?Newton? and being accepted in that, is dodgy at best. In both theology and physics there is a great deal that is accepted on authority, but the amount of theology that one knows with one’s whole person greatly exceeds the amount of physics one has by oneself corroborated through experiment, whereby the knowing of theology greatly eclipses that of physics, and furthermore the kind of knowing between the whole person and experiments one has performed is one where the knowing of theology eclipses that of physics. Theologians can say that the sin of an idle word is in anything one says that one has not learned with one’s whole person: woe to the physicist who says (even by analogy) that believing what one has not corroborated by one’s own personal experiments is simply forbidden.

Knowledge is intimate: Understanding feminism

I have another friend, Heather’s brother Robin, who in every other context but one has shown good character and in communication been entirely honest and straightforward. My earliest memories of feminism were of having a sense that it was necessary for Christians to agree with. Later, at one point after some drifting and still assuming feminism was largely true, I was squarely sitting on the fence regarding egalitarianism, he came back from an extended visit with a male relative, and began a rather vile argument that stated in heavily loaded language that we should believe that passages in Paul that feminists like should mean as much as possible what a feminist would mean by them, and passages which the same feminists found inconvenient were problems that should presumably be dealt with as problems. And I replied, in essence, “Whoa. Wait a minute. That’s loaded language… Why don’t you repeat what you just said with the language loaded in the opposite direction?”

Later on I would go to write my first little dissertation in theology as Dark Patterns / Anti-patterns and Cultural Context Study of Scriptural Texts: A Case Study in Craig Keener’s Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. My advisor, who was enough of an egalitarian to be a plenary speaker at a Christians for Biblical Equality conference, advised me to compare Keener’s text, chosen as an example of highly inappropriate persuasion, with a feminist / egalitarian treatment that did not pull dirty tricks. The suggestion was wise enough, but both of us searched through Tyndale House in Cambridge’s quite literally world-class library on the subject of New Testament Christianity in the Graeco-Roman world, and neither of us could find anything in a passel of feminist texts that didn’t pull dirty tricks (though I found one properly feminist treatment that was a little less forceful in shady communication). The closest thing I found to what my advisor suggested was a bit of an outlier of a commentary written by a postmodern, secular Jew who commented on the New Testament text but did not have even the pretension of receiving it as authority or Scripture.

My reason for mentioning that is this. All participants in the conversation, across the board, try to present their case in as powerful a fashion and as compelling a light as they can. This goes for conservatives, moderates, liberals, radicals, monotheists, polytheists, atheists, agnostics, and includes Yours Truly. And if egalitarians and feminists consistently and repeatedly communicate in a treacherous fashion, it may well turn out to be a message that goes flat if it is communicated on its merits in a straightforward fashion. I do not say that feminism cannot be communicated without manipulating the audience: but I do say that I have searched for years and not found examples of feminism communicating without manipulating the audience. And I am concerned, less for the immediate affront of an honest and straightforward friend suddenly communicating in a treacherous manner, than a red flag for “What kind of thing, really, is feminism if people only persuade others of it via vile, shady, manipulative communication?

But that is at best the outer shell of the knowledge I have gained of feminism; it is an intimate knowledge, a knowledge of the heart, a knowledge of the whole person. It goes beyond logical speculations of what feminism must be if it communicates as it does. And this heart has everything to do, for instance, with feminist fairy tales, on which point I realized that I did not realize how wholesome and true traditional fairy tales were until I had grasped feminist fairy tales, from the time when a group of college students who read children’s books aloud chose Patricia C. Wade’s Dealing with Dragons, a feminist fairy tale that like other feminist fairy tales is based on the realization that girls cannot be cured of wanting fairy tales, and so provide something with the external ornaments of a fairy tale that wages all-out war on what is right with fairy tales (Dealing with Dragons says, in a well-chosen dust jacket quote, something like “Once upon a time, there was a bad princess,” which is at the heart of what the book delivers). I was moved to strong nausea when I tried to accept that that was what the group was reading next. Again, knowledge of the whole person. I do not say knowledge is primarily a matter of what you feel, or that it always or even often causes one to feel XYZ intensely. But I do say that this is within how whole-person knowledge can express itself at something that warped.

C.S. Lewis opened The Abolition of Man with an exposé of something highly problematic placed in a children’s textbook to educate children; this serves as a springboard which launches into a broad-scale argument about morality, society, and efforts to engineer the abolition of man. However, it is significant that the concrete springboard Lewis chose was the materials society chooses to educate and inculturate children: the hand that propagandizes the cradle is the hand that rules the world.

In that sense, I watched Frozen at a friend’s house (the second time through I sat through the whole thing), and saw tradition unravelling in Disney just a little bit more. I noticed with some distance the standard, formulaic, codependent version of fairy-tale love: it can and does happen that there will be a roomful of people of which the vast majority are emotionally healthy and two are codependent, and the two codependent people’s eyes meet from across the room and they fall head over heels in infatuation and are convinced they have both found True Love and enter a relationship in which both are suffering mightily and struggling to breathe. And, perhaps showing my insularity, I don’t remember too many examples of Hollywood films, certainly not children’s films, where a man and a woman make friends and slowly realize that they want more than friendship. Now I do believe that years of love in a family represent something much deeper than instantaneous infatuation, that infatuation doesn’t last even in a blissfully happy marriage, and I believe various other things, but in Disney’s Frozen all these had the spiritual shape of winning a battle and losing the war. I was left wondering how close on the heels of Frozen will come the Disney version of Brokeback Mountain, and was sure that the first queer fairy tale will be something you have to be a complete heel not to make a little accommodation for—and ones coming after it the claws will come out, the same claws that ended the career of a distinguished open-and-free Mozilla employee after it came out that he had made a donation years back to some cause in favor of defending traditional marriage.

Frozen intruded with a literal level on what is archetypal in fairy tales; the glimpses of the princesses guiltily snarfing a bit of chocolate were A Didactic Lecture In Sensitivity. And Disney used the external shapes of codependent fairy tale romance while subverting them. And on a literal level, a sister’s hold and embrace wrought with deep sorrow is in fact more of true love, classically and analytically speaking, than an infatuated smooch. And could even be felt more, even if that is beside the point. But this is winning a battle and losing the war.

I tried, before my project was shut down by the leadership at Cambridge’s theology department, to write a thesis about the holy kiss as my second master’s thesis. I remember with irritation one point where my advisor, claiming to help me, suggested I narrow my thesis down to the differences between Jewish and Christian understanding of kissing in the Song of Songs. And I was irritated; I wanted to do a doctrinal study of a non-sexual kiss, and not only was his proposed narrowing down of my thesis not a narrowing down of what I had proposed, but it did not overlap what I wanted to research. And then the University decided two thirds of the way through the schoolyear that my thesis topic, which I had declared explicitly at the beginning of the year, did not belong in my philosophy of religion seminar.

Before that thesis got shot down, I read some very interesting scholarship, found out that the holy kiss (“Greet one another with a holy kiss”) was the only act that the Bible calls holy, and found statements like “Examples of the kiss as a means of making or breaking enchantments have been found in the folklore of almost every culture in the Western world.” And what I found about the holy kiss and its cultural contexts only made things stand out in much sharper relief. This isn’t the practice in most of the world now, but the holy kiss was in ancient times a kiss on the mouth, and it is doctrinally significant that the kiss of communion, with which we kiss Christ as well as fellow faithful, is planted on the “gates and doors,” the lips, that receive Christ himself in holy communion. Not specifically that that is what we should do today, but there is something powerfully archetypal in the holy kiss that exists in continuity with fairy tales’ breaking enchantments with a kiss of true love. And Frozen, which is careful not to disturb certain assumptions on the listener’s part (for instance, that their-eyes-meet-across-the-room infatuation is True Love, or that an act of True Love will be a sexual kiss), left me feeling cheated. As much as I cared about the holy kiss as specifically not being sexual, the fitting icon for breaking enchantments in a fairy tale is not a sexual kiss, even though a sexual kiss between the who the prince appeared to be, and the princess, would on a literal level been nowhere near the depth of an embrace of sisters’ love. On a literal level. But not on the archetypal level of fairy tales. And Frozen uproots a couple more pillars of archetypal fairy tale truth by “correcting” it on a literal level.

Sometime later, I wrote:

Barbara’s Tale: The Fairy Prince

Adam looked at his daughter and said, “Barbara, what do you have to share? I can hear you thinking.”

Barbara looked at her father and said, “You know what I’m thinking, Daddy. I’m thinking about the story you made for me, the story about the fairy prince.”

“Why don’t you tell it, Sweetie? You know it as well as I do.”

The child paused a moment, and said, “You tell it, Daddy.”

Here is the tale of the fairy prince.


Long ago and far away, the world was full of wonder. There were fairies in the flowers. People never knew a rift between the ordinary and the magical.

But that was not to last forever. The hearts of men are dark in many ways, and they soon raised their axe against the fairies and all that they stood for. The axe found a way to kill the dryad in a tree but leave the tree still standing—if indeed it was really a tree that was still standing. Thus begun the disenchantment of the entire universe.

Some time in, people realized their mistake. They tried to open their hearts to wonder, and bring the fairies back. They tried to raise the axe against disenchantment—but the axe they were wielding was cursed. You might as well use a sword to bring a dead man to life.

But this story is not about long ago and far away. It is about something that is recent and very near. Strange doings began when the son of the Fairy Queen looked on a world that was dying, where even song and dance and wine were mere spectres of what they had been. And so he disguised himself as a fool, and began to travel in the world of men.

The seeming fool came upon a group of men who were teasing a young woman: not the mirthful, merry teasing of friends, but a teasing of dark and bitter glee. He heard one say, “You are so ugly, you couldn’t pay a man enough to kiss you!” She ran away, weeping.

The prince stood before her and said, “Stop.” And she looked at him, startled.

He said, “Look at me.”

She looked into his eyes, and began to wonder. Her tears stopped.

He said, “Come here.”

She stood, and then began walking.

He said, “Would you like a kiss?”

Tears filled her eyes again.

He gave her his kiss.

She ran away, tears falling like hail from her eyes. Something had happened. Some people said they couldn’t see a single feature in her face that had changed. Others said that she was radiant. Others still said that whatever she had was better than gorgeous.

The prince went along his way, and he came to a very serious philosopher, and talked with him, and talked, and talked. The man said, “Don’t you see? You are cornered. What you are saying is not possible. Do you have any response?”

The prince said, “I do, but it comes not in words, but in an embrace. But you wouldn’t be interested in that, would you?”

For some reason, the man trusted him, and something changed for him too. He still read his books. But he would also dance with children. He would go into the forest, and he did not talk to the animals because he was listening to what the animals had to say.

The prince came upon a businessman, a man of the world with a nice car and a nice house, and after the fairy prince’s kiss the man sold everything and gave it away to the poor. He ate very little, eating the poorest fare he could find, and spent much time in silence, speaking little. One of his old friends said, “You have forsaken your treasures!”

He looked at his friend and said, “Forsaken my treasures? My dearest friend, you do not know the beginning of treasure.”

“You used to have much more than the beginning of treasure.”

“Perhaps, but now I have the greatest treasure of all.”

Sometimes the prince moved deftly. He spoke with a woman in the park, a pain-seared woman who decided to celebrate her fiftieth wedding anniversary—or what would have been the fiftieth anniversary of a long and blissful marriage, if her husband were still alive. She was poor, and had only one bottle of champagne which she had been saving for many years. She had many friends; she was a gracious woman. She invited the fairy prince, and it was only much later that her friends began to wonder that that the one small bottle of champagne had poured so amply for each of them.

The prince did many things, but not everybody liked it. Some people almost saw the prince in the fool. Others saw nothing but a fool. One time he went into a busy shopping mall, and made a crude altar, so people could offer their wares before the Almighty Dollar. When he was asked why, he simply said, “So people can understand the true meaning of Christmas. Some people are still confused and think it’s a religious holiday.” That was not well received.

Not long after, the woman whom he met in the park slept the sleep of angels, and he spoke at her funeral. People cried more than they cried at any other funeral. And their sides hurt. All of this was because they were laughing so hard, and the funny thing was that almost nobody could remember much afterwards. A great many people took offense at this fool. There was only one person who could begin to explain it. A very respected man looked down at a child and said, “Do you really think it is right to laugh so much after what happened to her?” And then, for just a moment, the child said, “He understood that. But if we really understood, laughter wouldn’t be enough.”

There were other things that he did that offended people, and those he offended sought to drive him away. And he returned to his home, the palace of the Fairy Queen.

But he had not really left. The fairy prince’s kiss was no ordinary kiss. It was a magic kiss. When he kissed you, he gave his spirit, his magic, his fairy blood. And the world looks very different when there is fairy blood coursing through your veins. You share the fairy prince’s kiss, and you can pass it on. And that pebble left behind an ever-expanding wave: we have magic, and wonder, and something deeper than either magic or wonder.

And that is how universe was re-enchanted.


Adam looked down at his daughter and said, “There, Sweetie. Have I told the story the way you like it?”

The child said, “Yes, Daddy, you have,” climbed into her father’s lap, and held up her mouth for a kiss.

This story represents a mixed success, and it creaks on a literal level. But it is at least an attempt to be faithful to the archetypal level. And its heavy hand shows what the reader is cheated of in the Act of True Love that Frozen offers.

Winding Down…

There are other things to be said, notably that while feminism claims to promote the good of women—and, more recently, gender studies claims to promote human flourishing—critiques of them are not thereby assaults on the dignity of woman. It may not be obvious how one could be for the good of women, and not for feminist reforms in the name of the good of women, but those thinkers I am in sympathy with are doing a better job of being for the good of women, and the whole human race. “Gender studies” may well pat itself on the back for being the discipline that promotes human flourishing, but it may be closer to the truth to say that the targets of gender studies attacks are usually attacked for something that is part and parcel of human flourishing. And that is true even if feminism arose in response to some genuine deteriorations in Western culture.

Feminism is more than anything else the one force that I personally have worked to critique (see partial list of works to the right), and my knowledge of it is intimate, a knowledge of the whole person. C.S. Lewis described regenerate science as something that while it explained would not explain away, would attend to the It without losing track of what Buber would have called the Thou-situation, would not be free with the words ‘merely’ and ‘only’, and would not reduce minerals and vegetables as modern science threatens to reduce man. I do not believe that my work as regards feminism is what Lewis had in mind when he speculated about a regenerate science, for the simple and boring reason that it is not science, at least not in the sense of empirical science, and I can only see contorted ways of including it under the heading of ‘Natural Philosophy.’ I can quite directly offer my friend’s words about the regenerate science in farming as a candidate for regenerate science; my own work as regards feminism (not necessarily other topics) has the attributes Mr. Lewis would like to see added to Natural Philosophy, but it only strainedly can be forced under the umbrella of Natural Philosophy.

But I submit that my knowledge of feminism is interesting. It has, point for point, all of the things Lewis said he wanted to see in a regenerate science that science, as we now understand it, lacks. And that bears a significance that would not be obvious from saying that the Philokalia represents the science of sciences and has those attributes Lewis projected in asking for a regenerate science. It is not just the knowledge of those things I most admire that have the attributes of a regenerate science. It is also my knowledge of those things I work hardest to critique that is an intimate knowledge affecting the whole person. This is not something that is automatically true or available. One article Lewis wrote, Bulverism from God in the Dock, talks about the fallacy of starting by assuming that your opponent is wrong and then speculating about problems in your opponent’s history that would account for the defect. (Mr. Lewis does not completely exclude investigating an opponents’ background; he only claims that first you have to show that an opponent’s position is wrong through addressing the position itself, and only then may you investigate reasons why your opponent has embraced a false position.) Bulverism is a way of explaining away, and I do not believe that I do it. I may assert that specific feminist claims are wrong, or do not in fact help us, in an attempt to treat them on their merits, and while my arguments are certainly not perfect, they represent a serious attempt to engage feminism on its merits. Perhaps feminists’ personal histories are relevant to the discussion, but I do not recall ever arguing that some detail of feminism is wrong because of some defect that I speculate exists in a feminist’s personal history. I may argue that some aspect of feminism creates a problematic future: but I critique from what is out on the table, in plain view, not from my speculations about what is wrong with feminists’ personal lives. I believe that even in my most serious and concerted critiques there is a personal and intimate knowledge at play, a knowledge that has the attributes that Lewis requests of a regenerate science. This makes the case more strongly that something of regenerate science is present than if it were only demonstrated that my knowledge of things I admire and most seek to emulate has, for instance, what Buber would call a sensitivity to the Thou-situation.

Should “science” dissolve into “knowledge”?

As an undergraduate I enrolled in a “philosophy of science” class that I was in love with from the time I learned about it until the time I read the front matter for a reader with material from classics in the philosophy of science.

What was so off-putting to me is that it said that to say that a study, for instance, was done “scientifically” is a compliment, and go on to state that essentially science and scientific ways of working were standards for excellence in all disciplines, even disciplines that did not have the pretension of being sciences. And while I was very enthusiastic to learn about science as one domain of excellence alongside other ways of excellence, I was dismayed to read a text that established science as the paradigm example of excellence in any discipline.

The conception, cultural placement, and status of science we have is problematic. Sciences are today’s prestige disciplines; but they are a way of knowing what is lowest on the Chain: Animals, Plants, Rocks, and Nothing. The idea that empirical sciences should be the most exalted and enviable disciplines is a bit like having a culture where dieticians mostly know the relative merits of eating Doritos, Velveeta, and microwave pizza, and do not really have much to say about avoiding most processed food, let alone eating Paleo. “Science” connotes a class all by itself, one that is better than non-science discipline, which is part of why some disciplines with a superior area of study, Man, try to mediate prestige to themselves by inculcating that they are scientists-and-they-are-just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-physics.

The concept of knowledge, as opposed to science, is perhaps in a better place. There is specific knowledge of Animals, Plants, Rocks, and Nothing. There is natural philosophy. Heather does, in fact, represent a regenerate science that, however modest it may seem, fits the bill of regenerate science very well. But this regenerate science is a department of knowledge, not something superior to the regenerate science by which she also tries to understand other people. And it may be helpful, instead of thinking in terms of “science” and “non-science,” to think in terms of “knowledge,” of which one department is the humble knowledge of a humbler domain.

Thoughts?