Ancient religions and modern sciences rely on fundamentally different ways of seeing the world. Their respective worldviews are so different partly because they implicitly rely on very different controlling metaphors for picturing and interpreting our environments. So a religious fundamentalist and a scientific materialist can experience a great deal of difficulty understanding each other because their mindsets are generally oriented around different metaphors that deeply inform the way they perceive and explain the nature of reality. It’s almost as if they are living in different worlds.
Ancient religions traditionally see our environment as an ontological-ethical “hierarchy,” often referred to as “the great chain of being.” Modern science traditionally sees our environment as a “machine,” sometimes called a “world-machine” or the “clockwork universe.”
The longstanding conflict between religion and science is partly a conflict between competing metaphorical visions of reality which often vie for exclusive supremacy of the human mind and imagination. The fundamental metaphors of both worldviews tend to be deeply assumed and insufficiently articulated, since they operate at paradigmatic levels of the mind that are generally taken for granted. Certain key implications and applications of these deep metaphors deserve to be understood, since they profoundly inform two very different ways of seeing the world.
On Ancient Religion
The great chain of being pictures the world as a hierarchy of value. Jonathan Pageau describes this as a kind of “sacred geography,” which should not be confused with spatial geography, since the sacred is not a discrete, material object in time and space. The great chain is oriented around Absolute Being, or God, which is the pinnacle of the hierarchy. Absolute Being is also the source and standard of Absolute Goodness, and so the hierarchy has both ontological and ethical implications and applications in the traditional scheme of things.
This ancient, traditional outlook is an essentially ethical, meaningful, qualitative worldview that pictures reality as a multi-story, multi-level universe spanning from the absolute heights of Being and Goodness down to the absolute depths of Nonbeing and Evil, with human beings uncomfortably occupying levels in between. According to this ancient scheme of things, all finite forms of being are supported and inhered by Absolute Being. So everything, properly perceived, is a pointer to God. And everything, properly oriented, is aiming towards God. Because everything has a place in relationship to God, Absolute Being, in this ancient view of reality.
In traditional language, created entities tend to be understood in terms of their “formal” and “final” causes: the purpose of an acorn is to become an oak tree; the purpose of a human is to know and pursue God, the highest Good. Notice also that ontology and ethics are tightly correlated and ultimately undifferentiated in this continuum of being. Accordingly, the primary concern of ancient people was ethical. Ancient, prescientific, religious people were instinctively preoccupied with the question, How should we live? How should we live in order to survive and thrive and flourish? And so their essentially ethical concerns are evidenced in their essentially ethical worldview.
Religion’s controlling metaphor of reality as a hierarchy of being and goodness is an incredibly powerful way to productively order, orient, and unify the ethical strivings of individuals and groups towards an ultimately desired end. This worldview also offers psychosocial benefits to adherents. Today we still speak of mental health problems in terms of “disorders,” “disorientation,” and “disintegration.” We intuitively know humans need identities and ends that order, orient, and unify their lives, without which they become disordered, disoriented, and disintegrated, among other potentially terrible things. Now this is not to suggest that our imperfect, humanmade religious traditions have always got the ethical evaluations right all the time. Nor have imperfect human beings, past or present, always lived up to their own ideals. The point is simply that this ancient hierarchical worldview is an essentially ethical continuum that obligates its participants to see and act accountably within a pervasively ethical environment.
This worldview is variously pictured with vertical hierarchies, levels, chains, spectrums, trees, mountains, and ladders that can span from the highest heavens down to the lowest hells. Symbols related to “height” and “depth” easily map onto this worldview. These include the skies, clouds, stars, horizons, and heavens above, which are associated with upward movements of ascending, elevating, climbing, lifting, and rising, as well as the grounds, valleys, pits, ditches, chasms, waters, and underworlds below, which are associated with downward movements of descending, lowering, stumbling, declining, sinking, and falling.
Vertical metaphors and hierarchies of ethical value still deeply permeate our everyday thinking and evaluations. In the face of various problems, we say things like, “Best to take the high road,” or “You’re above that,” or “Don’t get dragged down into the gutter,” or “He’s hit rock-bottom.” We describe our moods in terms of feeling “uplifted” or “downcast.” If a friend is feeling low, we try to cheer them up. And we make wise decisions by considering the upsides and downsides. Hangovers of the great chain of being remain everywhere in our modern lives.
Hustom Smith has offered the following visual model for understanding the three primary dimensions of this ancient world view in his book, Forgotten Truth.
Smith explains, “The supreme plane from which the vertical axis descends is the Infinite: Being exempt from every mode of limitation and restriction. From this pinnacle all lesser being derives. We can picture the vertical axis as a line which, tapping into the infinite reservoir of Being at its summit, transmits a portion of its store to the subordinate planes.” Smith adds, “If it be asked, ‘But what did the nonscientific approach to man and the world give us?’ the answer is: ‘Meaning, purpose, and a vision in which everything coheres’… The belief, normal to mankind, that meaning inheres in everything that exists and everything that happens derives at depth from the fact that the Ultimate, or Infinite as we are calling it, is omnipresent.”
On Modern Science
The scientific revolution created such dramatic, historical shifts partly because it offered a new paradigm for interpreting our environment with new controlling metaphors. Arguably the most dominant metaphor was to picture nature as a “machine.” This world-picture is sometimes referred to as the Newtonian “world-machine” and the “clockwork universe.”
Early scientists embraced and promulgated these machine metaphors because they fit exceedingly well with their new scientific methodologies and programs. The first scientists were intentionally interested in carefully examining the “efficient” and “material” causes of nature, apart from any “formal” causes or “final” ends. They generally did not deny the existence of formal or final causes. They simply chose to exclude these factors from their consideration to examine our environment in a largely unprecedented way. And the results were revolutionary!
Using mechanistic metaphors of “machines” was entirely appropriate and helpful in guiding their endeavours, since these metaphors picture nature as a law-abiding machine that functions much like a clock. At the time, clocks were machines that operated without the constant supervision or intervention of a clockmaker. A clock’s mechanisms and materials, its inner workings and outer designs, could be examined and described without reference to any clockmaker, or the purposes for which a clockmaker made the clock for that matter. Hence the rise of theological deism followed by atheism over the course of modern history.
Science’s metaphors offer an incredibly powerful way to interpret natural phenomena in ways that allow us to increasingly understand, predict, and control our environment for our own nonscientific ends. Gaining mastery over nature was indeed a primary motivations from the early stages of the scientific revolution. The results of history attest to this. Even though the machine metaphors of science have been increasingly appearing to be inadequate models for comprehensively representing nature in light of more recents advancements in fields like quantum physics, the machine-based paradigm of science still largely possesses the popular scientific imagination, not unlike a religious and ethical worldview.
For scientists, this way of picturing nature was a huge breakthrough that permitted humans to interpret and interact with the world in new and productive ways. Many overlooked features of nature became increasingly noticed and known as scientists were guided in their efforts by these new machine metaphors. Initially these metaphors informed the methodological program of early scientists to exclude all qualities, values, ethics, purposes, and ends from their field of concern, so scientists could exclusively attend to the publicly observable and verifiable features of human experience.
Smith writes, “The [traditional] view of reality as consisting of graded levels of being dominated man’s outlook until the rise of modern science… There may be no better way to summarize the scientific view of things than to say that reality is a stupendous spatial hierarchy, a hierarchy of size.” By design, modern science operates with an essentially nonethical, meaningless, quantitative worldview that intentionally excludes ethical values and meanings from its field of concern—or at least that’s the methodological goal.
Science’s mechanistic philosophy effectively flattened reality to one level of being: matter. The material world functionally replaced God as that which is “most real” and simultaneously levelled the great chain of being in the process. What began as a methodological proscription gradually evolved for some into its own religio-ethical materialist worldview, as the implicit metaphors informing the scientific movement were to assumed to fully reflect our ultimate environment. Over time, science’s metaphors came to be accepted as comprehensive representations of ontological reality, leading to the mechanization of nature and the modern rise of the scientific materialist worldview.
In contrast to the ancient paradigm, the scientific paradigm looks out to a one-story, single-level universe consisting of valueless material objects. “Itself occupying no more than a single ontological plane, science challenged by implication the notion that other planes exist.” Smith further explains, “As its challenge was not effectively met, it swept the field and gave the modern world its soul.”
On Religion & Science
So in what ways does the ancient religious worldview endure and how does it relate with the modern scientific worldview? Jordan Peterson has offered the following relevant contrasts of the ancient and modern worldviews:
“The world can be validly construed as forum for action, or as place of things.
The former manner of interpretation—more primordial, and less clearly understood—finds its expression in the arts or humanities, in ritual, drama, literature, and mythology. The world as forum for action is a place of value, a place where all things have meaning. This meaning, which is shaped as a consequence of social interaction, is implication for action, or—at a higher level of analysis—implication for the configuration of the interpretive schema that produces or guides action.
The latter manner of interpretation—the world as place of things—finds its formal expression in the methods and theories of science. Science allows for increasingly precise determination of the consensually-validatable properties of things, and for efficient utilization of precisely-determined things as tools…
No complete world-picture can be generated without use of both modes of construal. The fact that one mode is generally set at odds with the other means only that the nature of their respective domains remains insufficiently discriminated.”
The controlling metaphors of religion and science are often thought to be mutually exclusive. Hence their longstanding conflict. But each worldview privileges and prioritizes certain aspects of the totality of our human experience for different purposes. The traditional religious outlook sees an inherently ethical, meaningful world as a sacred hierarchy of Being and Goodness that orients and obligates the moral action of human beings. The modern scientific outlook, by design, sees a meaningless world of valueless objects in time and space by excluding non-empirical purposes or ends from its field of concern. Religion and science can therefore be compatible if we recognize their dominant, controlling metaphors are both useful, necessary, and complimentary ways of seeing and interacting with the world. Each are specialized modes of inquiry and being.
Not only that, scientific inquiry necessarily operates within pre-empirical, prescientific ethical evaluations that are assumed. One of the most common, prescientific evaluations is that developing more advanced scientific technologies is good, because they can be used to preserve and improve our quality of life. Another common evaluation is that our scientific pursuits of truth are good, because knowing the truth will em from harmful illusions and falsehoods that diminish our quality of life.
As powerful and helpful as it is, seeing and thinking scientifically also happens to be very unnatural for human beings. We like to see ourselves as highly “scientific.” But we’re really not, or at least not most of the time. The most common and natural way we perceive our environment is to instinctively evaluate everything we see in terms of how useful or good or irrelevant things are to us in relation to our desired goals. It is essentially a pragmatic, ethical, nonscientific way of perceiving the world. This worldview so profoundly informs our perceptions that we almost always—if not always—take it for granted. And generally we should.
If we were constantly devoting conscious energy towards evaluating our environment, we be far less efficient and productive in doing activities, including basic ones needed for our survival. Better if a lion is chasing me to instinctively run instead of pausing to scientifically examine the situation. But this motivated, evaluative perceiving operates even when the immediate stakes aren’t life or death. When I’m hungry my perceptions and desires instinctively order themselves around eating. I see my environment in terms of food that will satisfy my appetite, and objects that either facilitate (useful tools) or inhibit (annoying obstacles) my pursuit of eating food, while everything else becomes functionally irrelevant and ignored. This kind of motivated, goal-oriented perceiving and thinking informs the vast majority of our human activities. Scientific thinking actually occupies a very, very small portion of our thinking in general.
We do not naturally look out onto a world of value-less objects. Just the opposite: we are constantly, instinctively evaluating our environments in order to act productively and morally within them. Perceiving and thinking scientifically is such an unnatural way to view and examine our environment that it generally requires a great amount of education, training, and practice to become a competent scientist. And research scientists still participate in a community of scientists who constantly peer-review one another’s work, partly because no single person can achieve a purely neutral, objective, God’s-eye-view of things, so scientists must constantly check and challenge one another.
So what are the implications of all this? Simply put, the ancient religious worldview and modern scientific worldview, properly understood, are both useful and complimentary ways of seeing the world. In fact, scientific inquiry is nested within and built upon deeply religious, ethical evaluations. Science cannot operate outside of some prescientific, ethical tradition. And humans cannot live in an exclusively scientific manner, for our most basic mindsets that aid our survival are nonscientific, evaluative modes of living. Religion and science can therefore be compatible if we recognize their dominant, controlling metaphors are useful, necessary, and complimentary ways of seeing and engaging with the world. Because when religion and science are seen in proper perspective, there is no inherent conflict.