The Cartesian Divide

From the Bring Back Reason series.

The Cartesian divide and the division between the sciences and the humanities today

For educators, the main complication that Descartes introduced is precisely the division between subject and object, between the thinking mind and the mechanical world. Subsequent thinkers built upon this division and we have inherited a situation where human knowledge is divided. On the one side of the Cartesian divide there is the material world, a world that consists of various “modular construction units” which are considered as particles (atoms or smaller sub-atomic particles that are less stable but combine to form atomic structures) and / or as units of energy (waves, photons). These discrete units are combined in mechanical configurations to yield complex structures that function in ways that reflect the order of their combinations. This all behaves according to mathematical laws that govern these units as if they are an all-encompassing field into which the construction units are placed. We know about this material world, which is objective reality, through the methods of the empirical sciences and their handmaid, mathematics. Thus the “hard” sciences are valued above all else, especially physics, chemistry, and biology.

On the other side of the Cartesian divide is what can be loosely called the humanities. Freed from the objective world, the humanities developed according to cultural principles that, among other things, accentuated human freedom and genius. Even in post-Cartesian movements back toward nature, such as the romantic period, nature is not nature as it is objectively in itself but as it is seen through a particular cultural lens. Newton’s flat universe of mathematical laws is not what people trying to get back to nature seek.

So the humanities are subjective in that they are detached from the objective and mechanical world known by the empirical sciences and are rather developed in reference to the interior and cultural world of human subjects. The humanities are thought of as dealing with the finer things in life that people of culture are able to embrace, including poetry, literature, music, art, theater, philosophy, and even religious experiences and sentiments. To say that the humanities are subjective is not to simply assert that all the opinions and sentiments of individual human subjects are necessarily of the same value. Some people have better aesthetic taste than others. Thus we look to art critics to help us to understand the meaning behind great art and public radio shows to help us understand complex human situations.

But however you present it, from this starting point the humanities can no longer claim to be about objective knowledge. Instead, the humanities are about sentiments, at best refined aesthetic feelings shared by those who value culture. Another way to say this is that human reason has been restricted to only the methods of the empirical sciences; we suffer from a perceived need to impose artificial limitations on reason. Human reason can either submit to the methods of the empirical sciences or retreat into the realm of the subjective. It cannot in either case truly apprehend being.

Devaluation of the humanities

Now it is true that the humanities are important to help students develop a moral imagination, an appreciation of culture, and, in short, to develop in an integral human way. The problem is that from this Cartesian object-subject divide the humanities are fighting an uphill battle right from the start. The humanities are not able to awaken the student to a richer life because they have been confined to the realm of the subjective, when they should be integrally connected with the transcendental aspects of being: the true, the good and the beautiful.

Shared experiences and sentiments only go so far toward creating community. As we have seen, culture and has gone through dramatic changes over the years. More significantly, it is difficult for a teacher to appeal to the enduring human value of a work of literature, for example, when the meaning of the values is relative to peoples of different times.

Teachers and scholars in the humanities instead have turned to other means to reach objectivity in the humanities. They end up looking to the methods of the empirical sciences as a model for an objective way to deal with the subject matter of the humanities themselves. The humanities today have become too focused on particular specialized and often technical questions.  Scholars are drawn to examine how particular words are used in ancient texts or how certain political themes are addressed by authors. What can be said about the six uses of a particular verb by Virgil in the Aeneid?  How do the works of Jane Austen reveal particular understandings of women, both positive and negative from a critic’s perspective? Here we see a somewhat foreign application of scientific methods to literature. Techniques patterned on the methods of the empirical sciences are used to dissect the literature in various ways, as a means to be able to say something objective about the texts.  It is as if dealing with literature as a story with deep human meaning is too “unscholarly.”

And it then follows that instead of literature or the humanities more broadly, new sciences, like sociology, are employed to better understand human affairs. Reasoning proper to subjective disciplines – literature, art, music, history (especially considered as a “story” of our past), philosophy, ethics, spirituality and religion – is viewed as inferior to the objectivity reached by the empirical sciences.  In this new division of knowledge not only is faith marginalized and deprived of the ability to say something in the public square (or even to build a community), but ethical and humane concerns are also pushed to the side.  

However we describe the problem – a lack of realism, the banishment of metaphysics, the Cartesian object-subject divide, the self-imposed reduction of reason – this is what is behind the overspecialization and fragmentation in contemporary education.  And most people who have excelled in the current educational system, while recognizing that there are underlying problems in their education, have little understanding of the deeper reasons for this crisis.

Problems with empirical science education today

The problem is not with the empirical sciences per se. These disciplines are good and are able to reach objective knowledge according to their legitimate methods. The problems are philosophical. Metaphysics has retreated from its proper place among the sciences and in its absence the empirical sciences have been inappropriately burdened with answering the broader philosophical questions that we as humans naturally ask.

While there is some truth to characterizing this as a retreat on the part of philosophy – realist philosophers could do a better job of presenting realism in an attractive way and correcting the errors that result when others attempt to address metaphysical questions with inadequate methods – it is also valid to see what has happened as intentional attempts to marginalize philosophy and remove it from its proper place among the sciences. So culpability could be assigned to negligent realists as well as “subversive cultural reformers” trying to do away with realism. It is not important for us, however, to figure out exactly who is to blame, even if this were possible.

That the empirical sciences originally developed at the expense of broader philosophical thinking is an historical fact. Historians of science note that this development took place in the space opened by setting aside formal and final causality. The actual intellectual history is complex but a strong emphasis on efficient causality and mechanistic explanations is a large part of what happened. Whatever the benefits of the epistemological restrictions that coincided with the initial growth of the empirical sciences, it is becoming increasingly clear that an overly mechanized understanding is no longer helping. Some recent developments in the empirical sciences, including quantum mechanics and emergence in biology, are pointing toward the need to be more open-minded about fundamental metaphysical questions. The best contemporary work in empirical science is no longer supported by an outmoded 19th century functional and mechanistic view of nature. So there are good reasons why people with a passion for excellence in education in the empirical sciences should turn toward realist metaphysics and find a strong supporting narrative there.

Our purpose here is to understand how learning the empirical sciences as they are taught today, without an age appropriate training in correct philosophical thinking, contributes to the forming of an incorrect understanding of reality. We need to understand specifically how science education today leads to bad metaphysics.

Next, we will explain four philosophical errors students are likely to pick up from studying science as it is taught today.

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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