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Review of Saving Leonardo

We often focus on individual issues: The latest headline on faith in science in public schools, the latest research paper on biological systems, or the latest book on evolutionary theory. We live in a world of fast-paced news and sound bites. How often do we step back and think about why these issues are in the news?

Why is there a debate over intelligent design and Darwinism? Why are people more passionate about how some scientific theories are taught and not others? And perhaps, an even broader question, are these debates new or is it the same debate dressed in different trappings? Nancy Pearcey’s latest book, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning, takes a bird’s-eye-view of the history of ideas revealing a tapestry of thought dating back to the Enlightenment that provides impeccable insight into why we think the way we do today.
Part one begins by discussing worldviews and cultural commentary, which carries on Pearcey’s work in Total Truth. In this book, she has developed and refined the ideas presented in Total Truth and provides excellent cultural commentary for both the culture-at-large and to the Christian sub-culture. Part two begins an exploration through a history of ideas that have lead to the secular worldviews dominating the marketplace of ideas today. Pearcey traces two paths that were born out of the Enlightenment (materialism) and Romantism (idealism). Each path epitomizes the dualistic thinking that was planted by the Greek philosophies, cultivated by Descartes, and harvested by Kant.
Kant proposed that rational man can only obtain knowledge on things that he can see, feel, taste or touch. He asserted that human reason is incapable of knowing anything beyond the natural world. In other words, humans cannot obtain knowledge about anything that cannot be determined through empirical science. (92) It is from these philosophical ideas that science gained the monopoly on knowledge that it held during much of the twentieth century. As Pearcey explains,

Many thinkers were so impressed by the scientific revolution that they began to regard science as the sole source of truth. Whatever could not be known by the scientific method was not real. Science was no longer merely one means for investigation the world. It was elevated into an exclusivist worldview — scientism or positivism. (91)

In one fell swoop, the history of Western thought had been dismissed. (92) Before the scientific revolution knowledge could come from philosophy, theology, literature, or art. Afterwards, knowledge was confined to what can be empirically verified. Our culture and its high regard for science is a product of Kant’s ideas.
Ironically, Pearcey offers much insight into the scientific endeavor today by looking at a history of ideas through art, literature, and philosophy, disciplines that had lost their epistemological legitimacy to science during the Enlightenment. The book actually traces ideas through the art and philosophy of both the Enlightenment and Romantic lines of history. In the end, we end up in the strange dichotomy that is the twenty-first century man. Much like Leonardo da Vinci, he is torn between two worlds.
This review focuses on one of those worlds. Honing in on the Enlightenment line of history, we see a very clear picture of how science and the study of nature was at one time a deeply spiritual and meaningful endeavor, but eventually became a meaningless, exercise of manipulation and control. For example, technological advancement was seen as a way to alleviate people, who had inherent value and dignity, from tasks that were monotonous or dangerous. This view of technology was influenced by a Christian worldview, which assumed man was made in the image of God. The machine did the menial tasks that were not worthy for man to do. It was recognition of man’s dignity; that is, until the machine usurped man’s dignity. (107)
Empiricism became the dominant philosophy of the day. While it is true that some knowledge can be gained from the senses, empiricism claimed that knowledge can only be gained through the senses. Therefore what we see, feel, taste, and touch is real; everything else is meaningless. In their mind, there was no spiritual realm, no mind, and nothing of meaning beyond the physical world. This idea led to the machine becoming a metaphor for man rather than a tool for his use. Man was a machine, and nothing more, a mere compilation of parts. Art, at this time, changed from praising the machine for how it helps man, to a dark, cold, mechanistic world.
The natural consequence to this idea of man being nothing but a machine is that he must act according to his programming. He is reduced to parts and he is robbed of his freewill. And thus, the epistemological debate that is carried on today is born: Did mind create matter or did matter create mind? Or put concretely, are man’s thoughts nothing but a bunch of firing neurons?
Artwork portrayed this amoral determinism. From of the empiricist perspective emerged a type of art called realism. Realism does exactly what empiricism says: the artist paints only what he sees, no story, no interpretation, no morality. It is like a snapshot of life devoid of deeper meaning with no purpose other than to take a snapshot and see what it looks like. (117) Later the impressionists took this idea and turned art into a montage of brush strokes that represented the philosophy of the time. They thought that perhaps the only thing that is real is sensory data, the colors that we see. Our interpretation of those colors as distinct objects is subjective. (119)
It is easy to identify echoes of these worldviews in our thinking today. The high regard for the scientific method as a source of reliable knowledge was born in the empiricist thinking. Empiricism moved to rationalism where instead of sensory knowledge, true knowledge could be found in mathematics. Today mathematics is still regarded by many as the ultimate source of knowledge about our world. Cosmologists such as Stephen Hawking or Leonard Susskind consider string theory to be a type of metaphysical mathematical model that may provide “the theory of everything” that scientists have been seeking. The field was philosophically rife for the introduction of naturalism in the form of Darwinian Theory.
Pearcey describes naturalism as an outgrowth of realism, only “…grittier, harsher, more pessimistic. It portrays humans as nothing but biological organisms, products of evolutionary forces.” (145) The Darwinian influence was most noticeable in literature. This literature was rugged, harsh, and at times blurred the lines between man and animal. Jack London was profoundly influenced by the writings of Darwin and Herbert Spencer, and we see in his writings a harsh, unforgiving world where survival of the fittest reigns supreme. (144, 150)
This is a small sampling of how Saving Leonardo traces a history of ideas to where we are today. This review hardly touches the surface of Pearcey’s analysis of the Enlightenment perspective. Yet we can see in even this small selection how Enlightenment thinking has had a profound influence on our views of science. We hear echoes of each of the dominant Enlightenment worldviews today: empiricism, rationalism, Darwinism, naturalism, logical positivism, and linguistics. As we deal with the specific issues and headlines underlying the debates between Darwinism and intelligent design, perhaps it is important to remember that “…once positivism was accepted in philosophy, then Darwinism — or something very much like it — was all but unavoidable in science.” (159) These debates go beyond weighing evidences on a scale and seeing which side is the heaviest. Most people agree on what they see, but they disagree on what is the correct interpretation, which is a matter of philosophical perspective.

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