Educating for Realism

From the Bring Back Reason series.

The Shortcomings in Mainstream Empirical Science Textbooks

The problem we face is not with the empirical sciences when they function according to their proper methods, which are good and useful. The problem is that the empirical sciences are taught as if they are the only sciences. This isolation forces philosophy into retreat. Philosophy has been excised from contemporary education and needs to be restored in an age-appropriate way. Thus, I have found mainstream empirical science textbooks to be misleading on some philosophical matters for two main reasons. First, the empirical sciences are taught in our contemporary educational context as the highest and most certain truths. Second, the textbooks themselves often introduce philosophical errors because of omissions, mistakes, or poorly chosen examples.

What I take to be the four most significant problems have already been mentioned. To review, I’ll summarize them below:

  1. Chemistry books assume a particulate model of material reality that is not in accord with the most recent advances in physics, presenting a narrative that goes from Democritus to Dalton, providing an overly simplistic analysis of matter.
  2. This oversimplification prevents us from seeing substances; instead we only observe how the parts interact with each other without ever stepping back to admit that the whole exists on its own.
  3. The denial of substances logically prevents anything from having a fixed and understandable nature. Everything in the universe becomes not something for us to know, but something for us to use. The utility of science becomes its highest aim and all the knowledge it produces is tested against this measure.
  4. Biology books fail to define life, instead present characteristics of living things, and then go on to treat living things in nearly exclusively mechanical ways. Even in physics there are difficulties that have emerged from relying on Sir Isaac Newton as the foundation upon which Albert Einstein and other modern physicists build. Some excellent work in this area has been done by Dr. Anthony Rizzi, who has a book called Physics for Realists, a calculus-based physics textbook that integrates Aristotelian physics with Newton and advances from the 20th century.

At The Heights School, we have come to realize that it is very difficult to correct the errors in empirical science textbooks without first teaching students the more expansive scientific approach. Students need to be taught how to properly think about reality from a broad perspective before they are able to understand such questions as those we have been considering. So the first step is to teach some elements of classical logic as soon as the students are beginning to transition from nature studies to earth science, life science or physical science as is typical in middle school. Most of this can be done by supplementing the curriculum of middle-school science classes with some philosophical context. An appendix at the end of this post shows how we transition from our natural history program to earth science in 6th grade.

Once classical logic is in place there will still be some work necessary to correct the errors in mainstream empirical science textbooks. The key here is training the science teachers. A few faculty workshops on this topic may be all that is needed. It is my hope that these reflections could be of help in such an effort.

Given that the information presented in mainstream empirical science textbooks is mostly correct, it is not necessary to avoid using these resources. Finding alternatives is difficult. We have not been able to find much for adequate non-mainstream textbooks in the empirical sciences. Some books, written from an Intelligent Design perspective, emphasize that God is the author of the mechanical complexity of living things. This is a distraction from the real philosophical problems we are highlighting. It also can be a distraction to try to locate debates about creation and evolution as part of a dialogue between faith and empirical science, when the most important issues are philosophical rather than faith-related questions. I recommend that teachers not try to help students sort out what is legitimately known by modern evolutionary biology until the students first learn a fair amount of classical logic. This debate is made far too complicated by the fact that both those who argue for evolution and those who argue against it often fall into the same overly mechanical understanding of the physical world.

A tremendous project that could do a great deal of good would be to develop a set of empirical science textbooks that are rooted in philosophy at the bottom and open to humanities at the top. Such a project would be of great service to philosophy as well as education in the empirical sciences and more broadly all STEM education. Students who learn about empirical science in a way that is open to the full scope of human reason will, as persons, be more interested in what they learn. They will also be more likely to use this knowledge in a humane way, seeing integral connections between the empirical sciences and the humanities. Such a project will take time and resources, as success would require collaboration between a university, including faculty from both philosophy and empirical science departments, and one or more secondary schools. Even so, I believe that such a project is worthwhile and would do a great deal to improve education today.

Classical philosophy helps open the humanities to transcendence

Teaching realist philosophy in an age-appropriate way restores the humanities by allowing them access to reality, to being, once again. Realism frees the humanities from being locked in a subjective Cartesian prison from which they are not able to concern themselves with the real.

The real world, being itself, is a rich source for human culture and values. Realists know that being has transcendental aspects, specifically the true, the good and the beautiful. To the extent that something is, it has truth, goodness, and beauty. The richness of being invites profound reflection and realization of these aspects in all creation.

The human heart has been made to resonate with the natural world. People flourish when they are rooted in what is natural, when the heart sees the vast array of goodness present in the natural world, from the soil out of which plants grow, to the horizons and night skies that invoke awe, as well as great works of art that reflect and accentuate different aspects of the true, good, and beautiful. This does not mean that all works of art need to be poems celebrating nature like those by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Many great works of art point toward the real by showing its absence. We learn to appreciate the real from tragedy and even from dystopian works like Brave New World or 1984.

But regardless of the work of literature, painting, sculpture or musical piece in question, it is necessary for one’s reason to be open to being for this work to be about anything other than a subjective experience. If the world is a flat, deterministic field into which modular construction units are placed and people are left with the task of creating meaning out of subjective inward experiences then all values in the humanities are tenuous, unstable and not easily transferrable from one time to another, or even from one person to another. When reason is open to being and the heart is in tune with the real, we will be able to encounter great works from our past as having profound human meaning for us now. 

Order Restored: All Academic Disciplines Educating for Realism

Reintroducing realism, especially through teaching classical philosophy, contributes order to all other academic subjects and integrates the entire education. There are excellent resources available on how best to teach these subjects, especially materials developed by those interested in classical education. Here are a few comments on each subject specifically from the perspective of realism:

Literature

With the restoration of realism in education literature becomes a profound and fitting entry into the mystery of human experience as it is connected to the real, to being. It becomes a vehicle for connecting with the true, the good and the beautiful, even if by highlighting their absence in a fallen world. The mystery of the human person as a knowing subject is considered in the totality of the real, by which is included the drama of life in this fallen world, with suffering, sacrifice, love, infamy, and heroism.

History

History again becomes primarily a story, a profoundly human story with real actors working for noble or pernicious ends. Other ways to analyze the past, looking at economic, social, political and geological factors, are admittedly important. But these paradigms are not absolute. We should not reduce history to the economic struggle between different social classes or view it only in terms of some contemporary concern such as gender roles. These factors should rather be integrated into the narrative of history, adding an additional dimension to understanding the human decisions and actions that should have primacy of place.

Mathematics

Rather than serving a merely utilitarian purpose, supporting the work of the empirical sciences, math is the science of quantity. Recall that quantity is one of the ten Aristotelian categories. Math is only about this one aspect that we can abstract from being. A quantity does not exist in itself. When taught properly math is a contemplative exercise that trains the mind to appreciate order, harmony, and beauty. It is foundational for developing clear thinking and, for this reason, has been seen as necessary for preparing for later studies in philosophy. It has been reported (though some doubt the authenticity of this) that engraved on the door of Plato’s academy in Athens was the saying “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter.” Even if this is a legend, the spirit of the inscription highlights the classical approach to math education.

Grammar and languages

Early in one’s education students should be taught the grammar of their own language, their mother tongue. This should be followed by the study of one or more foreign languages, including Latin and even Greek if possible. The structure of language is foundational for realism, as it is rooted in the structure of reality. Nouns are our attempts to name substances and verbs describe modes of existence and change. As we have seen, these concepts plumb the metaphysical depths. Frederick Nietzsche, an atheist and critic of realism, recognized the foundational value of grammar in writing, “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.”

Music

Music powerfully resonates with human experience, enhancing one’s appreciation of the beauty, truth, and goodness present in being. Plato, in particular, recognized the importance of good music for the proper education of free citizens. Conversely, bad music has a parallel but harmful impact. Allan Bloom’s chapter on rock music in the already mentioned book The Closing of the American Mind powerfully critiques its broad appeal to base passions.

Art

Like music, good art portrays aspects of human experience that lead one to connect with the real, either through a transcendental aspect of it present or through an absence that tactfully points toward a human capacity in need of fulfillment. Thus there is value to classical art (Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and others) that obviously accentuates transcendental aspects of being. And some modern art also honestly explores important themes and is able to point, by both deficiency and order, toward the real.

Empirical Sciences

When following their particular methods, the empirical sciences by themselves do not reach the level of the being of the objects studied. Even so, students of the empirical sciences can look at reality in a more expansive way, a way that is open to being. For this reason, a student can be led by better understanding the workings of nature to see more accurately and thoroughly what is there.

Philosophy

Beginning in grade 11 or 12 a student is ready for a comprehensive study of the history of philosophy. This study should come after the student has learned logic and natural philosophy. The focus here is not so much on doing philosophy in the sense of dealing with philosophical questions systematically. The study of the history of philosophy helps develop a broad perspective of the metaphysical project of the West, with its victories and its losses. As students compare the positions of different thinkers and different times they are preparing to examine the evidence for themselves.

Theology

The science of theology is based on God’s revelation to humans. As such it is the highest science and the science that rightly judges all other knowledge. Even so, theology does so cautiously, so as not to interfere with the principles of other sciences. These principles come from the real world, from created reality. Since God is the source of both the natural world of creation and the author of a specific revelation to humans there can be no contradiction here.

Michael Moynihan

About the author:

Michael Moynihan


A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan earned B.A. degrees in history and science pre-professional studies with a concentration in the Honors Program from the University of Notre Dame. He graduated Summa Cum Laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America, he joined the faculty of The Heights School in 1995. He has taught chemistry, Advanced Placement chemistry, eighth grade science, ethics, math and religion, has coached The Heights’ cross-country team and founded The Heights Mountaineers program. Michael was named Head of the Upper School in 2002. He and his wife, Angela, have eleven children, with four sons here at the School.

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