Why Do Science and Reason Transcend the Material World?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

We live in an era where science and reason are highly valued, but at the same time many intellectuals doubt the existence of anything but matter and energy. Philosophers, such as Thomas Nagel, have pointed out the  built-in contradiction of the worldview that says only physical matter exists, and that reason and science tell us that.

Thomist Joseph Owens provides a useful explanation, from metaphysics, of why science and reason require more than the existence of matter. Owens first recalls the amazing progress of human science and reason:

The freedom from limitations to a particular space and a particular time makes possible the astounding progress of human knowledge through the arts and sciences. Knowledge gained in one piece of research or one experiment is communicated to thousands of other minds and is handed down to succeeding generations. The scientific reasoning of one man becomes the common property of all who pursue the science from one generation to the other. The enormous body of knowledge is not lost with the death of the individuals who so far have been bringing it into being. It is not limited to the conditions of individuation and change, conditions inevitably imposed by matter.

What Owens is saying is that matter is necessarily characterized by individuation and change. If this is the case, then how are the universal and fixed truths of science and reason discovered or communicated?

Scientific progress, accordingly, requires that the intellects through which it takes place function in a way that is independent of the strictly material principle in the knowing subjects. Even the very process of reasoning itself could not take place without this independence from material limitation.

In deductive reasoning, the argument features a major term, minor term, and middle term. How does this process work if everything is material?

The universality that allows the major notion to include the middle one, and the middle to include the minor, would be impossible for any operation that was determined to individual conditions. The inclusion of one term in the other, moreover, is an inclusion in being; for instance “A man is an animal.” If the object “animal” were individuated, it could not share the one being any more than Khrushchev could be Kennedy.

Likewise, in passing from one judgment to another in the process of reasoning, the notions have to remain the same. If they were liable to change, demonstration would be impossible. What was established in the predicate of one judgment could be changed when carried over to function as subject in the next combination.

But it’s not just deductive reasoning that requires the transcendence of the material. Owens claims something much more basic is at stake: communication itself.

Communication in speech, further, is based upon this same immunity to change and transcendence of individuating dimensions in the intelligible objects. Culture and civilization, accordingly, provide ample evidence of the human intellects functioning in ways that break through the limitations of matter.

If you are a materialist, someone who believes that all that exists is matter, then your worldview completely undercuts science, reason, and even communication. You need to add some beef to your ontologically thin soup.