The excellent Preston Garrison, apart from alerting me to the review of a new book on Babylonian science that led me to a whole series of posts on the ANE and Hebrew pictures of the world, recommended an old and little-read book by C S Lewis. Studies in Words, published in 1960 just three years before his death, is a philology text for students, so not the most obviously relevant book for thinking about either “biblical science” or modern science. But it actually has some useful light to cast on both.
What Lewis does is to take examples of English words like “sad”, “wit”, “simple” or “sense”, and trace how their original meaning has evolved over the centuries both in English and in its source languages – Anglo-saxon, Latin, Greek and so on. The stories are fascinating, and a salutory reminder to us all that to use ancient etymology as the arbiter of current meaning is fallacious. Every preacher should remember that when pontificating on the difference between “agape” and “philia” in John 21 (as Don Carson points out in the indispensible Exegetical Fallacies – incidentally even Lewis fell down here in his study The Four Loves). And likewise every TE interpreter of Genesis 1 when basing their case for the solid firmament on “raqia” being derived from a verb that could originally mean “to beat out”.
Before getting down to brass tacks, I must just mention a pithy saying very apposite for a project like The Hump. In Lewis’s chapter on the word “life”, that word had in his time, and probably up till now, become such a buzzword that it was often used without any real meaning at all. He deconstructs a sentence from Nietsche, “the orgiastic, mystical sense of oneness, of life as indestructibly powerful and pleasurable” by reminding us that “to make Life (Biological) ‘pleasurable’ is like putting ‘drawn in chalk’ or ‘equilateral’ into your idea of Triangle,” or “like calling a chessboard and a box of men a good move.”
Anticipating that he was offending many devotees of “Life with a capital ‘L'” he ends the chapter:
It is more dangerous to tread on the corns of a live giant than to cut off the head of a dead one: but it is more useful and better fun.
Think of current buzz-words words like “fundamentalist”, “freedom” or “diversity” and you’ll realise there are still plenty of giants with tender feet around to annoy.
One word that ties in nicely with the post linked above is “world”, which as I discovered in preparing the ensuing blog series, derives in most languages either from words meaning “ground” or “soil”, or from more surprising ideas like “age”: the Old English word “woruld” itself means something like “time of man”, meaning an individual life long before it became generalised to the lives of many men, or all humanity.
Lewis says nothing about the Babylonian concept, partly because he’s concentrating on the direct roots of English and partly because the ANE wasn’t his field. But he does endorse the idea I gained from the review of the new book by Francesca Rochberg, that the whole idea of a circumscribed entity which would be understood to have a shape, a position in space and so on is a late, Greek idea.
“Cosmos” was a mental concept neither available to, nor needed by, earlier writers. It was therefore not available to the writer of Genesis either, which means we have some work to do to understand what the text really means to say about “the heavens and the earth”. Yet oddly enough, the radical concept presented by Genesis that everything was created by one God who stands apart from what he has made in itself paves the way to the whole idea that there is a “world” as we understand it. Lewis mentions none of this, but the chapter is worth reading to show just how flexible, and thoroughly mutated, the apparently obvious word “world” is in reality.
If Lewis has somewhat to say on biblical interpretation, he has a word for contemporary science too, and that is in his chapter on “nature”. Like “world”, this word has made steady progress from the specific to the general (and beyond that into the merely vague!). In all the languages he cites, it originally meant simply “what something is like”.
Because some things are like other things, it became quite quickly applied to things like the “natures” of trees, hats or people. But the big move – quite parallel to the development of “world” as “cosmos” and in the same general period – was to begin to imagine that, if one lumped all the natures of absolutely everything together, one could have a catch-all concept of “what everything is like” called “Nature”. And this could, in time, become quite metaphorical and personal, so that “Nature” can abhor vacuums, or teach us that men shouldn’t have long hair, or be red in tooth and claw. None of those mean quite so much if you remember Nature means no more than “the sum total of everything”.
Lewis’s most interesting point, though, is that, almost as soon as this idea of “everything” arose, people started to make exceptions to it, so that it didn’t mean everything after all. Aristotle, for example, said that neither mathematics nor God should be considered part of Nature. Plato hived off the non-material world of forms from Nature. And such distinctions are still maintained today, if not universally, not only by theists insisting (as we rightly do) on the radical duality between the transcendant God and his Creation, but by perhaps a majority who think that mathematics was necessarily true even before the Big Bang.
Most amusing among these exclusions, though, is Lewis’s four page analysis of the modern distinction between “natural” and “supernatural.” He points out that a ghost (assuming it exists) cannot be said to be outside nature, for that would simply mean it didn’t exist. But phlogiston doesn’t exist either, yet isn’t by that token supernatural. And ghosts are not Platonic forms, nor mathematical concepts nor, being created beings, God.
If demons and fairies exist, Lewis points out, no doubt they have their own natures and act according to them. In the end, the only valid meaning of “supernatural” (and Lewis agrees it is valid linguistically) is a purely emotional one:
…the beings which popular speech calls supernatural, long before that adjective was applied to them, were already bound together in popular thought by a common emotion. Some of them are holy, some numinous, some eerie, some horrible; all, one way or another, uncanny, mysterious, odd, “rum”…
…I think the learned word, on the strength of a very superficial relation of meaning to the thing the plain man had in mind, was simply snatched at and pummelled into the required semantic shape, like an old hat.
Now, all this would be fine in common conversation, but this purely emotional word has now become the basis of the entire way we do science: we practise “methodological naturalism” only by sharply distinguishing “natural” from “supernatural” – which as Lewis has shown, means no more than baptizing a popular emotional category as a rigorous philosophical foundation for the study of reality.
He mentions this aspect only in passing (it is not his main interest, and in any case the term “methodological naturalism” had not, I believe, been coined in 1960). He does this by employing an accurate but somewhat cynical category used throughout the book, that of “the methodological idiom”, whereby something is defined purely on the basis of which department of the university has it on its curriculum. Thus such creatures as ghosts
are not part of the subject matter of ‘natural’ philosophy: if real, they fall under pneumatology, and, if unreal, under morbid psychology. Thus the methodological idiom can separate them from nature.
You will realise that this adminstrative boundary is no more rigorous a criterion than the popular one of getting, or not getting, shivers down your spine. And it’s an entirely malleable distinction, too, as Jonathan Bartlett pointed out in his recent talk at the Alternatives to Methodological Naturalism conference. In the century of pure “mechanical philosophy” before Newton, spooky action at a distance gave scientists shivers down the spine, and so were excluded from science. Once Newton demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that gravity was just such a force, the action was no less spooky, but less prone to cause shivers, and so it became science.
But it is an entirely arbitrary distinction, based on a word whose definition is no more than emotional. Philology, in the end, rather than reality, turns out to be what determines the boundaries of legitimate science. Sends shivers down your spine, doesn’t it?