In From Dawn to Decadence (2000), Jacques Barzun discusses the scientific revolution that occurred between the seventeenth century and the present. In his description, this is not just a matter of learning to observe natural phenomena. Our medieval forebears were meticulous observers of their world—it takes only a look at their exquisite engravings of plants to convince oneself of this. But until a certain intellectual shift they could not derive general laws from what they saw. We moderns do this every day, rising from raw observation to abstraction. Then we treat the abstractions as things in their own right. Note the word rise.
Scientific language is equipped to treat of geometry, physics, chemistry, biology, and more. Finding meaning in the world is another matter. That belongs to poetry, morality, belief, and faith. Its operant language is not merely descriptive, but constitutive of reality. The two things do not operate wholly independently, which is why we have a postmodern debate about how much of science, especially the studies of human being, is comprised of social constructs. However that may be, when western culture developed a scientific world view, we found ourselves in a world divorced from many of its previous meanings.
This is practically universally seen as a defeat for religion. In one sense, it is a defeat for religion—the pagan religion which locates godhead in things. If that were the case, then to speak capital-T Truth all we would need is to let our language be governed by the things to which it corresponds. So much for the meaning we seek in faith, prayer, poetry, love, and practically everything we mean by culture. Such impoverished religion as that offers no freedom to God or humankind. If there is such a thing as God’s meaning—vocation, command, living for others, it is utterly lost.
Happily, the scientific world view is very different from what most people suppose. The discipline of a scientist is not to know a lot of stuff that is empirically verifiable; and even less to assert that empirical verification is the only way of knowing. The scientist’s discipline is to derive abstractions, generalities—products of mind controlled by observation—and to be ready at any moment to abandon the most cherished theories upon finding the slightest empirical evidence against them. If anyone is acutely aware of the limitations of mind, and of our ability to observe accurately, it would be a scientist.
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But the meaning-full world never went away. Alongside the world presented to us by our senses we still have love, poetry, culture, and religion—always corrupted and misunderstood, with or without science. These meanings too are products of mind. We decide and undecide what shall be the meaning of things, constantly. The story of these decisions is what we heirs of western tradition mean by history.
This comports with the authentic Christian idea that humans are a special creation of God; the one with dominion over Creation, able to name things. (Genesis 2:19–20). Unlike any other creature, we confer meanings on things. Meaning (or Truth, as Richard Rorty entitles it in his book, contingency, irony, and solidarity) is not a force of nature; it is made, not found. By itself, nature is meaningless; it has no impact, except perhaps what impact storms and disasters have on any helpless creatures. (Indeed those things, personified as Ba’al and his cousins, were the gods of Canaan before the Hebrew people occupied the land.)
Rorty’s way of saying this makes it hard to grasp; he knows it does, and likes to have his fun with us. Meanwhile, Christians and scientists agree on this much without contradiction: Man makes what meaning there is. The Creation is the crucible in which we live out the covenant between JHWH and his creature, both sides free. Meanwhile, given the limitations of human thought and language, it is necessary to question all human talk about God’s meaning. That is the stuff of neither natural science nor cultural anthropology; what is properly called theology, and always to be done with the greatest circumspection.