Books / Digital Text

Chapter 7: The Epistemological Roots of Monism

2. The Historical Setting of Positivism

One does not satisfactorily characterize the problems of human action if one says that the natural sciences have—up to now, at least—failed to provide anything for their elucidation. A correct description of the situation would have to stress the fact that the natural sciences do not even have the mental tools to become aware of the existence of such problems. Ideas and final causes are categories for which there is no room left in the system and in the structure of the natural sciences. Their terminology lacks all the concepts and words that could provide an adequate orientation in the orbit of the mind and of action. And all their achievements, however marvelous and beneficial they are, do not even superficially touch the essential problems of philosophy with which metaphysical and religious doctrines try to cope.

The development of the almost generally accepted opinion to the contrary can easily be explained. All metaphysical and religious doctrines contained, besides their theological and moral teachings, also untenable theorems about natural events that, with the progressive development of the natural sciences, could be not only refuted but frequently even ridiculed. Theologians and metaphysicians stubbornly tried to defend theses, only superficially connected with the core of their moral message, which to the scientifically trained mind appeared as most absurd fables and myths. The secular power of the churches persecuted scientists who had the courage to deviate from such teachings. The history of science in the orbit of Western Christianity is a history of conflicts in which the doctrines of science were always better founded than those of the official theology. Meekly the theologians had finally in every controversy to admit that their adversaries were right and that they themselves were wrong. The most spectacular instance of such an inglorious defeat—perhaps not of theology as such, but certainly of the theologians—was the outcome of the debates concerning evolution.

Thus originated the illusion that all the issues theology used to deal with could be one day fully and irrefutably solved by the natural sciences. In the same way in which Copernicus and Galilei had substituted a better theory of the celestial movements for the untenable doctrines supported by the Church, one expected future scientists to succeed in replacing all other "superstitious" doctrines by "scientific" truth. If one criticizes the rather naive epistemology and philosophy of Comte, Marx, and Haeckel, one ought not to forget that their simplism was the reaction to the even more simplicist teachings of what is today labeled Fundamentalism, a dogmatism that no wise theologian would dare to adopt any longer.

Reference to these facts in no way excuses, still less justifies, the crudities of contemporary positivism. It merely aims at a better understanding of the intellectual environment in which positivism developed and became popular. Unfortunately, the vulgarity of positivistic fanatics is now on the point of provoking a reaction that may seriously obstruct mankind's intellectual future. Again, as in the late Roman Empire, various sects of idolatry are flourishing. There are spiritualism, voodoo, and similar doctrines and practices, many of them borrowed from the cults of primitive tribes. There is a revival of astrology. Our age is not only an age of science. It is also an age in which the most absurd superstitions are finding credulous adepts.

Shield icon library