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Science and the Quest for Meaning

Alfred I. Tauber
Published by Baylor University Press in 2009

In his book, Science and the Quest for Meaning, Alfred Tauber draws from post-positivist studies of science in an effort to bring coherence to the worldview of secular humanism. His “integrative project” abandons the fact-value dichotomy that served once as positivism’s central tenet and sets out to reconstitute the relationship between knowledge and meaning. As Tauber would have it, this mission is aimed not only at the reunification of intellectual territories but also at the restoration of a sovereign human moral sense. For scientific epistemology has always been “shaped by a deeper set of values governing science’s rationality”(42). Values must reign over and give marching orders to the “various forms of reason and the diverse faculties of knowing that make science, science” (19).

Tauber emphasizes the dependence of scientific endeavors on wonder, imagination, social interactions, and moral sensibilities. His survey of these factors is a welcome corrective to a caricature that lives in the popular imagination, in which the superhuman oracle of science speaks objective and absolute truth to those who have been initiated into a secret theoretical language. While occasionally this figure haunts Tauber ’s narrative still, the book brings together an impressive set of philosophical resources to frame a usefully humanized “creation-fall-redemption story” of science. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Henry David Thoreau serve as exemplars of an integrated rationality inspired in equal part by humanism, naturalism, and romanticism. This rationality gets sundered by positivism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Eventually, thanks to the work of philosophical heroes including Michael Polanyi, Willard van Orman Quine, and Thomas Kuhn, the positivist siege is lifted. But thereafter, a crisis of intellectual authority ensues, leading to skirmishes between balkanized faculties of reason, as witnessed during the science wars of the 1990s. Tauber’s humanism aims to heal the intellectual divisions and to usher in a peaceably integrated kingdom. For with reason’s reunification, or repristination, humans will know themselves as part of the known world once again.

Humanists, even those in the Christian tradition, will agree that there is a lot at stake in our cultural understanding of science, as well as in our scientific understanding of human nature. In Tauber ’s words, “scientific explanations are inseparable from definitions of who we are, prescribing what we do and explaining why we do what we do” (137). He is right, I think, to suggest that humanist concern cannot be confined to philosophy of science per se but spreads into the whole of philosophy. Questions about what we know and how we know are related intimately to questions about how we think, judge, and find motivation. For the sake of coherence, Tauber suggests, our epistemology should be seen in light of our moral philosophy:

[M]y orientation is based on a moral appraisal of who we are and what we might become. Thus I am making a choice: I select a way of “being-in-the-world.” On the integrative view, science shifts from its role as a wedge between humans and nature to an instrument that helps to bring us into the world. (167)

This is not the first time someone has called for a reining in of science, and certainly there are better starting points for a first-time reader in the area of science criticism. Tauber does provide helpful descriptions of key landmarks in the philosophical landscape, but not for the sake of offering an introductory textbook analysis. Rather, his contribution is sweepingly synthetic. He pieces together his storyline from an extensive and substantial bibliography and offers his reader an intellectual vision, or what he calls a worldview. Therefore the book takes on the feel of a manifesto, and it may have a bedazzling effect if one forgets that the author, by his own admission, is telling his story selectively and choosing to explain it in away that serves his agenda. His is a quest for the kind of intellectual coherence that he imagines to be possible within a liberal democracy undergirded by secular humanist values. This kind of value-laden, scientifically inflected coherence is what he means by meaning. While the discussion contributes an important perspective to science studies, it is very nearly saturated with an ideology that is allowed to determine what science studies entail. Critical reading of Tauber ’s non-neutral account is required if one wishes to sort out which of its elements are objective enough to transcend the ideological message.

It makes sense that Tauber confesses his ideology and finds resources within the philosophical tradition of pragmatism, which has always served ideological values of one kind or another. In my own reading of this tradition, its association with secular humanism and philosophical naturalism is merely an unfortunate historical development. There is nothing in the substance of pragmatism that necessitates a naturalist commitment or a dismissal of the possibility of divine revelation. As a no-nonsense application of rationality toward some end, pragmatism requires only a notion of what kind of “nonsense” is proscribed. That is, it requires that humans be able to recognize when something does not make sense (or when something that makes literal sense does not matter in the broad arena of values). Under pragmatist lights, positivists bankrupted themselves by attempting to distill purified, factual knowledge from the value-tainted world of human experience. For facts without values have no way of mattering to people. Pragmatism allows for science to reconfigure the way fact depends on value, but it does not allow the dependence to be eliminated. Thus, we hear echoes of John Dewey and Richard Rorty in Tauber ’s anti-positivist declaration that “facts become facts because of the values attached to them, their meaning and significance are determined by the context in which they are formed, appraised, and employed” (47). A Christian pragmatist—along with St. Augustine—could say as much.

The fact-value dichotomy is largely responsible for the survival of the science-as-oracle conception in our cultural imagination. It is imagined that science tells the plain, unadulterated truth about the world, providing hard facts for us to use as we may. But Tauber points out that “what science says” is shaped by scientists’ ways of asking questions; its ultimate source lies in the personal knowledge and communicative action of human beings. He wants to reserve “saying” as a privilege proper only to persons, and with other pragmatists he rejects the notion that science has an essence. It is therefore surprising that he falls into the inconsistency of personifying science. At different points in the book, science is said to make claims, to find itself, to have an agenda, to have health, to place value on certain kinds of knowledge, to participate in politics, and to be a powerful ally. In so speaking, Tauber seems to commit a double transgression against his own philosophical sensibilities. Not only does he give in to the temptations of essentialism, but also he attempts to assign characteristics of individual intentionality to a collective, social entity. This move can only be interpreted as away of crystallizing the notion that science, in its person if not in its essence, lays claim to the lineage and interests of secular humanism. I would have hoped Tauber could recognize that this notion, while popular, has as much basis in fact as does the science-as-oracle image.

Tauber’s confidence in the alliance between science and secularism is buoyed by his slant on history and his low view of the compatibility of religion and science. For instance, he states: “The rise of science helped pave the way for secularism’s triumph and the ascendancy of liberal political societies … [T]he values at the foundations of scientific inquiry are often at odds with those of religionists” (68). I do not have the space here to discuss the flaws in this outlook; the bibliography for such a discussion would rival Tauber ’s in both length and breadth. I will only recommend two philosopher-historians whose work could provide a helpful course of remedial reading. Charles Taylor has provided probing accounts of secularization, most notably in A Secular Age. And Peter Harrison’s books and articles give a nuanced view of the history of science and religion. Tauber actually makes passing reference to both of these authors, but he seems to disregard their most important points.

Ultimately, the imagined science-and-secularism alliance forces Tauber to forsake his own preference for distinguishing objectivity from neutrality. At one point in the book, he offers an insightful discussion of the role of teleology in biology and its subtle misappropriation in the environmental movement. He asserts that “teleological descriptions are, by their very nature, interpretative. In a strict biological context, they are used to define end-seeking function. The category mistake occurs when one proposes that purpose has moral standing” (159). Do we not see a similar category mistake in Tauber ’s rhetoric of personification? Has he not breathed a telos into science, and is that telos not discussed in terms of its moral standing? Is not his book intended to focus precisely on the moral purpose of science? Indeed, the book’s own structure demonstrates how notions of objective purpose can be molded by the non-neutral agenda in which they are to play a role. Tauber has to define science as part of a secularist realm, so that it can be annexed into his humanist state of mind. In building this implicit definition, he down plays the lesson that he learned from Thoreau, for whom the “aesthetic and spiritual were not attached to objective seeing, but were rather constitutive to it” (177).

This leads us back to the book’s first chapter and the question, “What is science?” Though Tauber never answers this question directly, he embraces the terms set out by Martin Heidegger ’s suggestion, “Science is the theory of the real” (34). However, in the essay where this phrase appears, Heidegger intends not to define science but to point out the strangely inconspicuous, “real” state of affairs in which questioning becomes both possible and worthwhile. He describes science as a templating, or a carving-up and grasping, of the real, an activity aimed at formulating questions and answers. He also describes an activity that he calls “intellectual cultivation,” which involves scientific objectification but is guided by an image of human beings as self-determining and self-improving. This seems a fitting characterization of the project that Tauber adopts. In fact, Tauber ’s book provides confirmatory evidence of another Heideggerian claim: that intellectual cultivation can be carried out only if the power of reason and its principles are believed beyond question. Ultimately, Heidegger distinguishes both science and intellectual cultivation from the activity of reflection, which abandons the pre-conceived images of science and human reason to acknowledge the need for a different kind of response to the reality before us. Near the end of the essay he makes this appeal:

Even if the sciences, precisely in following their ways and using their means, can never press forward to the essence of science, still every researcher and teacher of the sciences, every man pursuing a way through science, can move, as a thinking being, on various levels of reflection and keep reflection vigilant.1

Tauber may sound as if he has taken this suggestion to heart, but I suspect that he has notfully understood it. For Heidegger, reflection is the quest for meaning, and it involves human surrender to the real, not the conquest of coherence through a reunification of intellectual faculties. Thus, for all its philosophical insight into the humanness of science and the importance of moral reason, Tauber ’s book still seems insufficiently reflective.

Cite this article
Matthew Walhout, “Science and the Quest for Meaning”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:1 , 114-117


  1. Martin Heidegger, “Science and Reflection,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 179.

Matthew Walhout

Matthew Walhout is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College.