By Kurt Messick
Faculty Member, Humanities Program at American Public University
Although science and philosophy are considered to be separate disciplines in higher education today, the two have underlying connections that are invaluable to understanding each as well as the world around us. For the past few centuries, academia has lived in increasing separation of disciplines as specialization has taken hold. One result of that is that we are sometimes surprised when the underlying connections which still remain rise to the surface again.
At one time philosophy was an all-encompassing enterprise. To study philosophy meant to study politics, psychology, literature, and science. One of the main claims to fame of Thales, often credited as the first philosopher, is that he accurately predicted the occurrence of a solar eclipse — now the province of astronomy rather than philosophy. Until the days of Isaac Newton, physics and metaphysics were essentially the same kind of study; there are universities today that still refer to the study of physics and other sciences as “natural philosophy.”
These connections can be seen when we study geometry or music. There is an essential harmony in the processes of these that can be explained using the information that science gives us, but there’s a deeper aesthetic resonance that touches us beyond what science describes is happening. The aesthetics of a situation go beyond the mechanics, however complex, and yet the elegance of the mechanics give us a richer insight. It is no mistake that many musicians also have a higher aptitude for mathematics and science, as the understanding of relationships and deeper connections are present in both.
The connection comes out in very practical ways when science becomes applied, such as architecture and engineering. David Nye writes about the “sublime,” both technological and natural, that can touch us deeply in ways that go far beyond the scientific level. For example, the Golden Gate Bridge is a piece of engineering easily explained in traditional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) terms. We can measure the forces of tension at play. We can calculate the strength of materials needed to sustain the bridge platform. We can design the necessarily elements to keep the bridge upright against the forces of the vehicles crossing, the ocean currents and wind flowing past, and even the occasional earthquake.
None of this will tell us why this particular bridge has gone beyond being a transportation mode to become an icon. It is nearly impossible to think of San Francisco without thinking about the Golden Gate Bridge. The community celebrates it. People sing about it. It is mesmerizing. None of this will show up in the architectural plans or mathematical calculations. Yet, change the mathematics of the design of the bridge, perhaps even slightly, and one risks taking away the bridge touches us.
This kind of fascinating development can occur in nature as well. When one sees natural structures such as the Grand Canyon or a perfect spiral shell, we can apply science to describe the features, but as a set of data, it fails to explain the why of such structures, and it does not tell us how it touches us deeply.
This is not a shortcoming of science, simply a difference of task. Philosophy is still relevant as the discipline that seeks to answer those questions science doesn’t address, by design.
About the Author
Kurt Messick attended Indiana University, where he received a B.A. in Political Science and Religious Studies, with a minor in Mathematics. He then got a Jewish Studies Certificate. Kurt studied in the graduate program at the University of London while also working in Parliament for Margaret Thatcher during the mid-1980s. He served as an election agent, campaign manager, office manager, and policy analyst. He received a Master of Divinity degree at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, graduating Summa cum Laude, and served as the seminary’s Director of Communications for two years while pursuing his degree. He is currently in the process of finishing a Doctorate in Theology and History through the South African Theological Seminary.