“Progress” in Retrospect: Part III

May 28, 2018

Wolfgang Smith

Editor’s Note:  The final installment of a three-part critique of modernity, the following was originally published in Cosmos & Transcendence: Breaking Through the Barrier of Scientistic Belief in 1984.  Prof. Smith’s reflections prove to remain just as timely today as when they first appeared in print.

While it is sociologically certain that science begets technology, it also cannot be denied that in its purest form science is simply the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Like philosophy, it begins in wonder, or in a certain curiosity about Nature; and especially when it comes to the great scientists — an Einstein or a Schrödinger — one finds that the driving force behind their scientific inquiries is indeed worlds removed from any thought of application. One needs but to recall with how much diffidence and anguish Einstein offered his fateful formula to the service of the Free World when the hard exigencies of the time seemed to demand this step. It is one of the great ironies of fate that the most terrible instruments of destruction have been pioneered by men who above all others loved peace, and that the most powerful means of enslavement owe their existence to some of the greatest champions of human liberty.

But let us pause to reflect a little on the idea of “knowledge for its own sake”; our sentiments notwithstanding, might there not be an intrinsic connection between this noble quest and such bitter fruit? Preposterous, the humanist will say; and admittedly it has become an almost universally accepted premise that the unbridled pursuit of knowledge constitutes one of the most beneficial and praiseworthy of human occupations. No one seems to question that “research” of just about any description is a wonderful thing which in some mysterious way is bound to enhance “the dignity of man” or “the quality of life.” Not infrequently one finds individuals of even the most prosaic type waxing eloquent in praise of those who are said to have “pushed back the frontiers of the unknown.” Our libraries are already filled to bursting with the products of this great passion, and yet the cry is always for more. And even when it is recognized that the fruits of this knowledge — the consequences of its applications — have proved to be equivocal or to threaten the very survival of man — even then it is thought that science as such is in no wise at fault. The blame must always be placed at the door of the avaricious entrepreneur or the unscrupulous politician, or it must lie with the short-sighted members of Congress who are held responsible for the under-funding of research. For indeed all ills resulting from “research and development” are thought to be curable, homeopathic style, with yet another dose of R & D; no one seems prepared to weigh the possibility that the malaise may actually be due, not to an insufficiency, but to an excess of this factor.

Come what may, pure science — science with a capital S — can do no wrong. It is astounding that in an age of unprecedented skepticism, when immemorial beliefs are being tossed aside like worn toys or blithely held up to public ridicule, one should encounter this virtually limitless faith in the unfailing beneficence of scientific research.


What lies behind this passion for more and more science, more and more technology — this mania, one is tempted to say, which has taken hold of our civilization? Is it indoctrination? Yes, no doubt; but then, who first indoctrinated the educators and the technocrats?

It is not really quite so simple. Nor can one expect to understand the phenomenon in depth from the typical perspectives of humanist thought. Has not humanism been closely allied with the scientific mentality from the start? Is not the one as well as the other a characteristic manifestation of the contemporary Zeitgeist?  Do they not share a common anti-traditional thrust? Were not both equally implicated, for example, in the French Revolution, when “the Goddess of Reason” was installed on the high altar of Notre Dame? And have not the two — despite the interlude of Romanticism — stood together on almost every issue? It would appear, then, that there can be no searching critique of science which is not also at the same time a critique of humanism. To go beyond superficial appearances and banalities we must be prepared to step out of the charmed circle of contemporary presuppositions and avail ourselves of the only viable alternative to modern thought: and that is traditional thought.

What, then, does traditional teaching have to say on the subject of science? We propose to look at the matter from a specifically Christian point of vantage; and even at the risk of speaking what can only be “foolishness to the Greeks,” we shall attempt to place ourselves in an authentically Biblical perspective. This means in particular that we need to reflect anew on the familiar account in Genesis concerning the “forbidden fruit” and the fall of Adam, his expulsion from “the garden of paradise.” Now in the first place we must go beyond the customary explanation of this event, which is based upon an essentially moral as opposed to a metaphysical point of view. It is all well and good to attribute Adam’s fall to “the sin of disobedience,” and this no doubt expresses a profound and vital truth. But we must also realize that this line of interpretation, valid though it be, cannot possibly cover the entire ground. For one thing it leaves open the question as to why Adam had been commanded to abstain from this particular fruit in preference to all others, and why the tree which brought forth this forbidden harvest is referred to as “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” It is reasonable to suppose, moreover, that “the apple of knowledge” was indeed fatal not simply because it was forbidden, but that it was forbidden precisely because it would prove fatal to man. Furthermore, we must not think that the “good” which was to be known through the eating of this fruit is that true or absolute good which religion always associates with the knowledge of God; and neither must we assume that the “evil” which comes to be revealed through the same act is something objectively real, something which has been created by God. For indeed the opening chapter of Genesis has already informed us many times over that God had surveyed the entire creation and found it to be “good.” The knowledge, therefore, that is symbolized by the forbidden fruit is a partial and fragmentary knowledge, a knowledge which fails to grasp the absolute dependence of all things upon their Creator. It is a reduced knowledge which perceives the world not as a theophany but as a sequence of contingencies: not sub specie aeternitatis  but under the aspect of temporality. And it is only in this fragmented world wherein all things are in a state of perpetual flux that evil and death enter upon the scene. They enter thus, on the one hand, as the inescapable concomitant of a fragmentary knowledge, a knowledge of things as divorced from God; and at the same time they enter as the dire consequences of “disobedience” — the misuse of man’s God-given freedom — and so as “the wages of sin.”

Thus Adam fell. “The link with the divine Source was broken and became invisible,” writes Schuon; “the world became suddenly external to Adam, things became opaque and heavy, they became like unintelligible and hostile fragments.”1Light on the Ancient Worlds, p. 44. In other words, the world as we know it came into existence: history began. But that is not the whole story. The Biblical narrative has in fact an extreme relevance to what is happening here and now; for as Schuon points out, “this drama is always repeating itself anew, in collective history as in the life of individuals.”2Ibid. The fall of Adam, then, is not only a primordial act which antedates history as such, but it is also something which comes to pass again and again in the course of human events. It is re-enacted on a smaller or larger scale wherever men opt for what is contingent and ephemeral in place of the eternal truth.

It appears that a “fall” of major proportions has in fact taken place roughly between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries. Even the most casual reading of European history reveals the contours of a gigantic transformation: the old order has crumbled and a new world has come to birth. To be sure, this is the cultural metamorphosis which we normally behold under the colors of Evolution and Progress; what we do not perceive, on the other hand, is that we have forfeited our sense of transcendence in the bargain. In other words, we have become sophisticated, skeptical and profane. Much as we might wish to be enlightened, the wisdom of the ages has become for us a superstition, a mere vestige of a supposedly primitive past; or at best it is seen as literature and poetry in the exclusively horizontal sense which we currently attach to these terms. Like it or not, we find ourselves in a desacralized and flattened-out cosmos, a meaningless universe which caters mainly to our animal needs and to our scientific curiosity.

Admittedly there are compensations. Energy has been diverted, so to speak, from higher to lower planes, and this accounts undoubtedly for the incredible vigor with which the modernization of our world has been pressed forward and everything on earth is being visibly transformed. At last man is free to devote himself entirely to the mundane and to the ephemeral portion of himself. And this he does, not only with Herculean effort, but with a kind of religiosity. It is one of the salient features of our time that ephemeral goals and secular pursuits — down to the most trivial and inglorious — have become invested with a sacredness, one could almost say, which in bygone ages had been reserved for the worship of God. But why? What is it all about? “Equipped as he is by his very nature for worship,” writes Martin Lings,

man cannot not worship; and if his outlook is cut off from the spiritual plane, he will find a “god” to worship on some lower level, thus endowing something relative with what belongs only to the Absolute. Hence the existence today of so many “words to conjure with” like “freedom,” “equality,” “literacy,” “science,” “civilization,” words at the utterance of which multitudes of souls fall prostrate in sub-mental adoration.3Ancient Beliefs and Modern Superstitions  (London: Perennial, 1965), p. 45.

Everything depends on how we perceive the world, on the quality, one might say, of our knowledge. Is our vision of the universe centripetal? Is it oriented towards the spiritual center? Is it informed by a sense of verticality, by an intuition of higher spheres? Or is it, on the contrary, horizontal and centrifugal, a knowledge that faces away from the origin, away from the Source? Now that is the kind of knowing which perpetuates the Fall. Always mingled with delusion, it is a profane wisdom that scatters and leads astray. Moreover, it is something to which we have no right by virtue of what we are; like unassimilable food, its very truth becomes eventually a poison to us. Such a knowledge never enlightens us but only blinds our soul; it shuts the gates of Heaven and opens instead the way to the riches of this earth, along with the untold miseries thereof. The terrible fact is that a Promethean science, a science that would make man the measure and master of all things (“ye shall be as gods”), becomes in the end a curse (“cursed is the ground for thy sake, and in sorrow shalt thou eat of it”).

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1. Light on the Ancient Worlds, p. 44.
2. Ibid.
3. Ancient Beliefs and Modern Superstitions  (London: Perennial, 1965), p. 45.