Science in Christian Perspective



Robert D. Knudsen, S.T.M.

From JASA 10 (March 1958): 25-26.

Karl Jaspers on the Meaning of Science

Many thinkers are concerned with the variety, in modern science. Its fields and methods have become so various and the mass of collected data has become so unmanageable that the unification of science has appeared to many to be an outstanding problem of our time.

There have been Nariotis attempts to answer this challenge. We can think of the Encyclopedia of Unified Science. A more general concern has been behind the publication of the S)yntoplican and the great books moveinents. It is hoped that even a contact with -a variety of works of genius may provide some moral anchor. In education the need for a unifying principle is also felt. There is increasing emphasis on general education programs.

Karl Jaspers, professor of philosophy at Basel, Switzerland, is also concerned with the fragmentariness of knowledge, in particular science. Unlike the composers of an encyclopedia of unified science, however, he does not believe that it is possible to find a unifying principle that would give a definite direction and meaning to science. Taken in itself, he says, science can not give us the clue to its own meaning. It can offer us particular facts and explanations; but it is unable to give us a total view of things. It is limited to the observation of particular objects, with particular methods, and from particular standpoints. If science is expected to reach beyond this limitation and to develop a view of what the world and our life in the world is about, it becomes lost in a maze of possible combinations. It is not possible to know either the ultimate origin or the ultimate goal of things, in terms of which the meaning of life - - and thus of science! - - could be obtained. In the attempt to know we can never find rock bottom, an ultimate ground on which to stand. Every attempt in this direction must ultimately shipwreck on the multiplicity, even infinity, of aspects and viewpoints. Any claim to the contrary is a veiling of the true state of affairs. It also means a violent elevation of a particular standpoint into an all-embracing faith. This means the destruction of the genius of science itself. Concerning a knowledge of the meaning of life as such or science as such we must say ignorams and igorabimus. It is not even possible to say as an item of knowledge should be to the glory of God. While it gives us compelling insights, which are generally valid, as to its goals, methods, and results science remains piecemeal, without any ultimate origin and orientation. In fact, if one tries to establish the meaning of science, he must conclude that it is meaningless.

It is Jaspers' view, however, that behind the criticism that leads to this nihilistic view concerning the meaning of science there is a positive impulse.

The negative criticism which denies the possibility of knowing the meaning of science - - which is a radicalization of Kant's anti-metaphysical views - - is the means of giving science its freedom from being bound to "finite" ends. Jaspers would find such a binding in Instrumentalism (Dewey), where the meaning of science is as an instrument in the adjustment of the biological organism to its environment.

As our thought again and again pushes to its own boundaries, Jaspers says, there comes to view the fact that the impulse to knowledge cannot arise simply out of finite impulses or goals. There is a deeper impulse, which Jaspers calls "possible existence Antogliche Existenzo.

(To be continued)