A Journal for Western Man




Is Modern Science Rational?

Dr. S. R. Bongale

Issue XLVII- January 13, 2006





To be rational is to show wisdom in our judgments concerning our understanding of physical nature, with which science is concerned. In connection with the judgments of understanding of nature and reality, wisdom and reason are our guides. Reason is a harmonizing agency. The essence of reason is coherence among all our cognition. Reason stands for a synthetic and synoptic outlook in our pursuit of truth. That is the bearing of one form of cognition on another. Reason stands for a harmony of different forms of cognition. This is because a particular form of cognition--being an abstraction from the notion of a complete fact--cannot by itself give meaning to our understanding. In the interest of a fuller and complete understanding, it must cohere with other forms of cognition. For example, physical science--which can give only the mathematical structure of physical fact--is not meaningful apart from its role and function in the activity of events in nature. Disconnection between cognition not only lacks reason, but gives rise to insoluble problems in the epistemology of both science and philosophy.

In this essay, I am following Whitehead's criticism of modern science. He has also shown how the traditional technology of historic religions has given us a creator God who has imposed his will on the course of nature, which has resulted in an irrational cosmology; since God becomes the author of all evil in the world. For this reason, the philosopher Shankara rejected the conception of a creator God in philosophy.

In traditional theology, the laws of nature are due to deistic imposition--which is an essentially irrational conception. For this reason, traditional theology and modern science are equally irrational. But in this essay, we are only concerned with the arguments to show why science is irrational.

1. Modern science is based on the metaphysical dualism of Descartes, who inherited it from Neo-Platonism. We must always remember that, both in science and philosophy, facts are made by theories. Our criticism of science will be misunderstood unless we remember the truth that modern science began with a study of nature as a mechanism in which life was suppressed. That is, in modern science, nature is conceived as lifeless, and so it is not a locus of developing organisms which involve self-organization on their part. In the very nature of the facts given by modern science, a rational cosmology becomes impossible.

2. As of the present, modern science is still deeply influenced by the historical revolt of science against the unrelieved rationalism of the later Middle Ages. As a consequence, it refuses to understand that metaphysical analysis of nature is relevant for a satisfactory explanation and understanding of physical nature. This is why Whitehead has said, "The anti-rationalism of the moderns has checked any attempt to harmonize the ultimate concepts of science with ideals drawn from a more concrete survey of the whole of reality. The material, the space, the time, the various laws concerning the transaction of material configurations, are taken as ultimate stubborn facts, not to be tampered with. The effect of this is [the] antagonism [between] philosophy and science.... Philosophers are rationalists. They are seeking to go behind stubborn and irreducible facts: they wish to explain in the light of universal principles the mutual reference between the various details entering into the flux of things. Also, they seek such principles as will eliminate mere arbitrariness; so that, whatever portions of fact are assumed as given, the existence of the remainder of things shall satisfy some demand of rationality. They demand meaning". (1)

In the words of Henry Sidgwick: "It is the primary aim of philosophy to unify completely, [to] bring into clear coherence all departments of rational thought, and this aim cannot be achieved by any philosophy that leaves out of its view the important body of judgments and reasoning which form the subject matter of ethics". (2)

3. It is a fact that modern science made possible the development and progress in the fields of dynamics, physics, and chemistry for about ten generations. By using its own method, it formulated a priori laws which are all subjective. It enlarged the area of knowledge in several ways. Whatever its achievements in several fields of knowledge using its own methods, it has significantly failed to satisfy the demands of rationality in its refusal to accept intrinsic connections between our various forms of cognition. The demand of rationality is the requirement of coherence. The essence of rationality is to satisfy the criterion of coherence--which demands this criterion to be extended and made applicable beyond the frontiers of any and every discipline in its pursuit of knowledge. The criterion of coherence, which science makes use of within its own fields, must be extended and made applicable beyond the physical to the aesthetic, moral, and religious demands of our experience--which form a harmony. Here, coherence with experience mean propositions based on our experiences, that is, with all direct cognition in general. It must be realized by scientists and philosophers that all forms of cognition mutually imply each other. The pursuit of this ideal is the meaning and essence of rationalism.

Any violation of the criterion of coherence results in arbitrary disconnection of the first principles. If there is a disconnection between the various forms of cognition, a reason must be given for this disconnection. But incoherence can never furnish any convincing reason. It can only result in dualism and solipsism.

4. Just as traditional technology is based on the deistic imposition of the laws on nature, so also modern science is based on the concept of imposition. The failure in the possibility of understanding nature is inherent in the very nature of modern science--based on the conception of the doctrine of law as imposition with its notion of external relations which it inherited from Newtonian cosmology. And this imposition is continued in Einstein by the role he assigns to physical concepts as "free creations of the human mind". Modem science is based on the "commonsense" view of things, with their simple location. It did not adopt the 'law of immanence,' by reason of which internal relation between facts is established through causal interaction, in which cause is a potential for the effect. This law is the only law which makes for the possibility of understanding nature. For this reason, all the laws of modern science, being a priori, can only be mental constructions. They do not describe the 'formal' nature of things and events in nature. The actual workings of the nature of space and time are beyond the comprehension of science. This means that science does not give real knowledge of nature and cannot promote our understanding of it. The mere fact that science has given us a priori laws and enlarged our knowledge of a particular kind is no reason for saying that it is rational. So have religion and theology given us several true propositions concerning God and ethics. But this does not prove that traditional theology is rational.

5. Modern science claims autonomy for its doctrines, and so far it has asserted itself at the expense of the older points of view, like aesthetics, ethics, and religion. It is this autonomy--claimed by science with its exclusive reliance on sense perception as the sole source of cognition for our understanding of nature--that has resulted in its obscurantism and irrationalism. At the present day, it has come under the increasing influence of positivistic philosophy, which repudiates the general ideas or principles of metaphysics. We must note that "Irrationalism involves the denial that 'reasons' or general principles are attainable, either at all, or beyond a certain point--usually that, which the special sciences happen to have reached. This is the core of 'positivism', the doctrine so widely accepted today in almost all intellectual spheres. It is the basis of the positivistic rejection of metaphysics. Because of its essential irrationalism, Whitehead has attacked positivism as treason to philosophy and science alike. It is evident that there can be no 'rational' defense of 'irrationalism'. (3) Under the influence of Bacon's method of rigid empiricism, science has continued to repudiate the possibility of general ideas of metaphysics giving us knowledge worth pursuing.

6. However, science exhibits a curious mixture of rationalism and irrationalism. Whitehead says "[i]ts prevalent tone of thought has been ardently rationalist within its own borders and dogmatically irrational beyond these borders". Science is dogmatically irrational, because it refuses to cohere with other forms of knowledge. To the question, "What is rationalism?" Whitehead answers by saying, "Faith in reason is the trust that the ultimate natures of things lie together in a harmony which excludes mere arbitrariness. It is the faith that at the base of things we shall not find mere arbitrary mystery." The concept of rationalism is clarified further when he says "[t]hat we fail to find in experience any elements intrinsically incapable of exhibition as examples of general theory, is the hope of rationalism. This hope is not a metaphysical premise. It is the faith that forms the motive for the pursuit of sciences alike, including metaphysics. The preservation of such faith must depend on an ultimate moral intuition into the nature of intellectual action; that it should embody the adventure of hope. Such an intuition marks the point where metaphysics and indeed every science gains assurance from religion and passes over into religion. But in itself the faith does not embody a premise from which the theory starts; it is an ideal which is seeking satisfaction. In so far as we believe that doctrine, we are rationalists". (5)

7. Science does not aim, unlike the thinkers of the Middle Ages, at "the ideal of attainment of a harmony of the understanding". (6) At present, it has no such aim. But the function of philosophy is to be a critique of abstractions. As Whitehead says, "Thus one aim of philosophy is to challenge the half-truths constituting the scientific first-principles. The systematization cannot be conducted in watertight compartments. All general truths condition each other, and the limits of their application cannot be adequately defined apart from their correlation by yet wider generalities. The criticism of principles must chiefly take the form of determining the proper meanings to be assigned to the fundamental notions of the various sciences. These notions are considered in respect to their status relatively to each other. The determination of this status requires a generality transcending any special subject matter". (7)

8. The word, autonomy, as used in this essay, means the claim of science that it can explain the meaning of its concepts satisfactorily, without the need to refer to the basis principles of metaphysics. It is not enough for science to explain its facts in terms of its own general principles. It must also recognize that general principles of wider generality are relevant for a rational explanation and understanding of nature. The present-day scientific philosophy has so far repudiated metaphysical principles such as 'final cause' and 'purpose' as outside its domain. For this reason, science can give no meaning to the activity of events in nature, except purposeless and aimless adventures of energy. It is obvious: such a conception cannot promote understanding of nature. It makes no sense and hence is irrational.

9. In the place of matter, according to modern view, "We are left with the notion of an activity in which nothing is effected". (9) Further, why this activity takes place in a coherent manner, remains a mystery. "There is merely a formula for succession, but there is an absence of understandable causation. At the present day, positivistic science has worked itself into a state of complete contentment with an ultimate irrationality". (10)

Modern science is irrational, despite a widespread belief to the contrary among scientists and many intellectuals. A like answer must be given to all cognition such as religious theology, ethics, and aesthetics, which refuse to apply the criterion of coherence beyond their frontiers--despite the fact that they, like science, have enlarged knowledge by making vital contributions to it.


  1. Science and the Modern World,Cambridge 1933 p. 175-76, By A. N. Whitehead.
  2. Ibid., p. 176
  3. Whitehead's Metaphysics Page 35. The Macmillan Company New York, 1958, By Ivor Leclere.
  4. Process and Reality, The Free Press, Macmillan London 1979 p. 35, By A. N. Whitehead.
  5. Ibid., p. 42
  6. Science and Modern World, p. 94
  7. Process and Reality, p. 94.
  8. The Function of Reason, A. N. Whitehead p. 25, Princeton Univ. Press, 1958.
  9. Modern of Thought, A. N. Whitehead Cambridge 1938 page 202.
  10. Ibid., 202-

S. R. Bongale is a Professor of Philosophy at Anantacharya Indological Research Institute, Somani School, Mumbai, India.

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