Friday, September 30, 2011

The End of an Era



For the last year or two Fridays have been my most anticipated day of the week, not because they signify the beginning of another weekend but because David Bentley Hart's web column always arrives on Friday (though it usually only does so bi-weekly). It was just announced that his most recent piece -- an excellent précis on the limits of Method as such, especially with regard to modern scientific method and those who refuse to acknowledge its limits -- will also be his final web column at First Things. 

This terrible news was immediately softened by the happy news that he will now be a regular contributor to the print edition of the magazine, with an article on the last page of every edition, where he used to only be published in the magazine occasionally (seemingly about half the time). Presumably, and hopefully, the print column will be of greater length than his web column, given the greater infrequency of publishing.


In any case, the final piece really is quite fine work. Hart reminds us that the hard won precision and clarity of certain methods come at a price:
[M]ethod always remains only a perspective, however powerful it may be: a willful blindness to many things for the sake of seeing a few things with a special clarity.
He goes on to take the naïvely confident materialist -- who imagines that the triumph of modern science can discount, or even comment on, the existence of formal and final causes -- to task:
Even so, it would be worse than naïve to imagine that the sciences have thereby proved the nonexistence of final and formal causes. In fact, by bracketing such causes out of consideration, scientific method also rendered itself incapable of pronouncing upon any reality such causes might or might not explain. Now, of course, the typical reply to this observation (from the aforementioned Daniel Dennett, for instance) is to say, with some indignation, that modern science has in fact demonstrated the utter superfluity of final and formal causal explanations, because the sciences have shown that they do not need finality or formality to understand the processes they investigate.
That, however, is an empty tautology: Of course modern scientific method discovers the kind of reality it is specifically designed to discover; and even in cases where it finds its explanatory reserves overly taxed, it must presume that in future some sort of “mechanical” cause will be found to restore the balance, and so issue itself a promissory note to that effect. But, again, this may mean that it must also overlook realities that actually lie very near at hand, either quite open to investigation if another method could be found, or so obviously beyond investigation as to mark out the limits of scientific method with particular clarity.
After a long string of satirical or otherwise half-serious columns, Hart's final web column is a return to material that he is best known for, which I think is appropriate. I do hope, however, that the end of the web column is not the end of the satirical, whimsical, mercurial Hart, which his web column gave us access to. Much of that work is utterly brilliant in its own right and deserves the widest platform possible. 

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