Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Indeterminate Historian” first appeared in the March 2003 issue of Touchstone.
At the End of an Age
reviewed by Jay W. Richards
As a historian1 John Lukacs is in his God-given domain, blessed with that most desirable of traits: He notices crucial details that lesser historians either ignore or wander blindly past. He is expert at drawing out the risky details of history, at reminding us—or teaching us—that events now comfortably settled in the fixed past were once teetering contingencies. Much of what has happened didn’t have to happen. History, unlike much of natural science, is the domain of the unrepeatable and unpredictable.
Take one of Lukacs’s favorite examples. We tend to believe the cozy half-truth that if Hitler had not risen to power in 1930s Germany, the inexorable course of history would have raised up someone else to fill his role. But perhaps we’re wrong. Perhaps the mass murder and atrocities associated with Nazi Germany were due, at least in part, to the temperament, beliefs, upbringing, and free choices of a single human being. Similarly, in his widely acclaimed Five Days in London, May 1940, Lukacs makes a plausible case that, but for the decisions of Churchill and his cabinet—none inevitable—Hitler might have succeeded in conquering Europe.
At the End of an Age retains this characteristic skill. But it is not a historical book, at least not directly. It is more like a series of philosophical reflections that draw their primary examples from history. The publisher tells us that the book is “a summa of the author’s thinking,” while Lukacs lowers the reader’s expectations, admitting that it is really “an essay, without scientific or scholarly presumptions.” I would say it is the sort of book that scholars earn the right to publish after a long and distinguished career. It is in some ways a loose collection of related thoughts, more like aphorisms than arguments. Nevertheless, it is easy enough to discern the gist of his argument.
According to Lukacs, we in the West are now living at the end of a historical period, a period that began some five hundred years ago in Europe with the Renaissance and birth of modern science and that reached its highwater mark in the Enlightenment and the founding of the American Republic. This “Modern Age” was essentially a European age, and its principal features were democracy, reason, and the rise of the bourgeois, of money, of individuality and the family, of institutional schooling, and of industrial mechanization. Each of these features of modernity has brought with it both profound opportunities and costs.
That age is now ending with an increasing awareness of the limitations and historical nature of all our knowledge, scientific and otherwise. In fact, according to Lukacs, the rise of a historical consciousness is one of the central insights and contributions of the Modern Age, and might rightly be viewed as its completion. Perhaps ironically, this historical consciousness subsumes the heady and arrogant pretensions of the later Enlightenment—scientism, materialism, objectivism, determinism—all of which sought an antiseptic escape from the constraints and particularities of human existence.
Lukacs describes a seminal moment in his intellectual history when he came “to recognize . . . the subordination of science to history—the former being inevitably part of the latter, and not the reverse.” But this is not simply a chauvinistic preference for history over science, since, according to Lukacs, the very discoveries of twentieth-century quantum physics lead us to recognize the inseparable unity of mind and matter, even of the priority of mind over matter, i.e., of our thoughts about the material universe over the universe itself. For Lukacs, this means that there are not two fundamentally different types of human knowledge. If in the hardest of sciences mind is increasingly “intruding” into matter, then we should realize that all our knowledge is imbedded in history, a history that is itself a human construction.
His is not an apocalyptic argument, nor a Luddite jeremiad against scientific knowledge and the technology riding its wake. On the contrary, Lukacs argues that since we now realize that there is no science without scientists, that all human knowledge is fallible and shaped by its historical context, we are led to a conclusion that is both humble and inspiring: “Contrary to all accepted ideas we must now, at the end of an Age, recognize that we, and our earth, are at the center of our universe.” He presumably intends to repudiate, or at least correct, that long historical trend, supposedly begun with Copernicus and embedded in scientific progress, of relegating us to cosmic obscurity. And just in case we miss his point, he repeats: “We did not create the universe. But the universe is our invention.”
Despite affinities between his argument and those of the so-called postmodernists, Lukacs distinguishes his view from what he aptly describes as these “confused excrescences of ‘modernism.’” Postmodernists rightly recognize that our time is post-something, but they usually end up in a relativistic cul-de-sac. In contrast, and somewhat inconsistently, Lukacs insists that “the historicity of our seeing and speaking does not amount to the relativity of truth.”
So far as I can discern, this is Lukacs’s argument, boiled down to essentials. And at this low level of resolution, it has much to commend it, especially as a corrective to the simplistic and reductionistic formulas of late modernism. But the devil is in the details, and a careful reading reveals a book that is, I very much regret to say, deeply flawed and confused. Rather than nitpick isolated problems, however, let’s consider his most troublesome claims, claims that apply to his argument as a whole.
Indeterminism in Science
Lukacs dislikes determinism in all its forms. As a result, he takes comfort in the claims, common in the written and oral traditions surrounding quantum physics, that the material world, at its fundamental level, is indeterministic. This takes paradigmatic form in Werner Heisenberg’s “uncertainty” or “indeterminacy” principle, which states that one cannot know both the velocity and position of a subatomic particle like an electron. Knowing its velocity prevents the investigator from knowing its position, and vice versa.
That our knowledge is thus limited is widely recognized, but the meaning of that limitation is widely disputed. Does it simply mean that our methods of observation are inadequate? Are there “hidden variables” we have not yet discovered? Or is indeterminacy a fundamental epistemological wall, which we will never penetrate?
More radically, following the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation, does this uncertainty reveal a subatomic reality in which particles don’t have a location or velocity until they are observed, or at least until they are detected by an instrument? Does it suggest that nature is, at bottom, random or merely probabilistic? Does it mean that observation itself has some causal effect on the reality of the thing observed?
Lukacs comes close to recognizing that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle might simply enshrine the problem of observer interference with subatomic reality. That is, it might be (as one interpretation has it) that determining the velocity of a particle simply prevents us from determining its location, and determining its location prevents us from determining its velocity. The popular analogy is the problem of measuring the temperature of a small body of water, because putting a thermometer in it changes its temperature. If this is the case at the subatomic level, the only thing we have the right to conclude is that some things are difficult or even impossible to verify. That’s significant, but hardly earth-shattering.
In any case, Lukacs seems to forget this idea of observer interference later, when he declares, incorrectly, that uncertainty is not merely an epistemological problem, but somehow a scientific discovery:
But whether or not we have the ability to predict the behavior of a subatomic particle doesn’t tell us whether its behavior is due to some variables or causes that are hidden from us, or whether the subatomic realm follows no cause but brute chance. Lukacs seems unaware of this ambiguity, so enthralled is he with indeterminism and the inseparability of the subject and object:
Now I’m no fan of material determinism, but I fail to see the significance of this. How did Heisenberg’s discovery that we can’t discern certain things about nature undermine determinism?
Lukacs accepts the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics as if it is a scientific discovery, and he interprets it as a vindication of human freedom. But this gives rise to two problems. The first is that the Copenhagen Interpretation results from the positivism of Heisenberg, Bohr, and other physicists who first suggested it. Positivism is a kissing cousin to the materialism that Lukacs abhors. The positivists reduced reality to empirical observation. So, for them, it was an easy step from “We can’t determine the location of that subatomic particle” to “that subatomic particle has no location unless we observe it.”
Still, perhaps it’s possible to extricate the idea of indeterminacy from the positivism of the Copenhagen Interpretation. But even if subatomic particles really have indeterministic features, it’s not obvious that this helps preserve freedom, since mere chance or randomness is no better protector of freedom than is bald determinism. Free agency, the capacity of an agent to choose from mutually exclusive alternatives, is a third reality, a “third mode of explanation,” to quote philosopher William Dembski, which can’t be reduced to either chance or necessity. The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics endorses chance, not freedom. Perhaps one could posit a transcendent free agent, which controls certain quantum-level functions in the brain. But Lukacs gives no hint that such a theory is needed, and he hops glibly from quantum indeterminacy to freedom.
In any event, his greatest mistake is not his understanding of physics, but his understanding of history.
The contemporary Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga famously warned fellow Christian scholars to avoid two distinct but equally dangerous intellectual trends: “reductionistic materialism” and “constructive anti-realism.” Reductionistic materialism treats physics, or some subset of physics, as the ultimate level of explanation, and seeks to explain all of reality in terms of matter, fields, particles, and the like. Constructive anti-realism, or just constructivism, is more complicated, but usually treats those conditions that shape our knowledge and apprehension of truth as if they constituted knowledge and truth.
Constructivism, often called relativism or contextualism, manifests itself differently in different academic disciplines. In sociology, the importance of social setting becomes the basis for reducing all human knowledge and truth claims to particular social settings. In anthropology, the instrument of reduction is culture. In literary theory, it is texts or language. And in history, the constructivist reduces knowledge and truth claims to one’s particular historical setting. This is historicism, and here we find Lukacs. Lukacs, it seems, has chosen historicism—a species of creative anti-realism—over reductionist materialism. In so doing, he has merely traded one bad idea for another.
Most philosophy students know the chief problem with constructivism: It is self-refuting. If every statement one can make is reducible to a parochial linguistic or cultural or historical context, then no affirmation of constructivism can apply universally. Think about it. This problem is widely enough known that scholars like Lukacs frequently repudiate it, at least officially. But their words often contradict their official disclaimers. So consider some characteristic passages from Lukacs:
(One wonders, of course, whether such pronouncements apply to themselves.)
Surprisingly, Lukacs even seems to endorse verificationism, surely the worst offspring of materialism. In the 1950s and 1960s, verificationists attempted to restrict meaningful claims to only two types of sentences: those that were analytically true, and those that could be empirically verified by natural science. As a result, statements like, “God exists in three persons and one essence,” would not be merely false, but meaningless. Similarly, Lukacs opines:
The problem, of course, is that the verificationist dictum is itself neither analytically true nor verifiable by natural science. So it fails to meet its own requirement for meaning, and thus refutes itself.
Besides that little problem, verificationism is obviously false. I can say, “There is at least one planet orbiting Polaris.” Whether I know this, or whether anyone will ever be able to verify it, has no effect on whether it is true or false. Similarly, contrary to Lukacs’s claim above, there’s no reason to suppose that the number of planets orbiting Polaris, that is, the fact of the matter, depends upon how or when I express that fact. Finally, the statement is clearly meaningful.
Such problems eventually helped consign verificationism to a brief chapter in intellectual history. To see Lukacs breezily resuscitate it would be quaint if it weren’t so perplexing to see it coming from the pen of a Christian theist. It’s also utterly unnecessary. One can recognize the significance of history for other spheres of thought without any help from verificationism or historicism.
The Center of the Universe
Although much of Lukacs’s book is, well, deflating, he seems to end with an encouraging tone; but that tone quickly fades:
This bears a striking affinity to Kant’s “resolution” of Hume’s skepticism by giving us certainty of those aspects of the world that conform to our own conceptual categories, while relegating reality as it is in itself to the netherworld of unknowing. But this was a Pyrrhic victory. The same is true for Lukacs’s anti-Copernican reversal. We’re not in any robust sense the “center of the universe”; we’re simply, by definition, the “center” of the universe we construct.
That’s troubling. But equally troubling is the fact that Lukacs’s effort to return us to the “center” of the universe rests on a false interpretation of the Copernican revolution, a myth that a historian like Lukacs should be debunking, not reinstating.
We’re frequently told that the ancients and medievals put Earth and its inhabitants at the physical and metaphysical center of a small, anthropocentric, that is, “human-centered,” universe. The benighted masses thought the Earth was flat,2 while the educated elites, following Ptolemy and Aristotle, imagined it as a sphere, with the moon, planets, sun, and stars revolving around it.
Copernicus, according to this story, demoted us by showing that ours was a sun-centered universe, with the Earth both spinning around its axis and revolving around the sun like the other planets. The long march of science up into the present has continued this trend, so that we now know we are on an insignificant speck of dust around an average star, which is one of a hundred billion stars in a single galaxy, which is itself one of a hundred billion galaxies in a very large, very old, universe. In short, unlike the medievals, we now know we are insignificant.
The main problem with this story is that it is wrong. The “center” of the universe in the medieval Ptolemaic/Aristotelian cosmology was considered no place of honor, any more than we think of the center of the Earth as being such. Quite the opposite. The sublunar domain was the mutable, corruptible, base, and heavy portion of the cosmos. Things were thought to fall to Earth because of their heaviness, and the Earth itself was considered the “center” of the cosmos because of its heaviness. The modernist interpretation of geocentrism has it essentially backwards. In our contemporary sense of the words, the Earth in pre-Copernican cosmology was the “bottom” of the universe rather than its “center.”
When Christian theology was added to the mix in the Middle Ages, the center or bottom of the universe became, quite literally, hell. Dante’s Divine Comedy immortalized this vision, taking the reader from the Earth’s surface through the nine circles of hell, which mirror, and hence reverse, the nine celestial spheres above. Man, composed of both earth and spirit, occupied an intermediate state in which he was a sort of micro-cosmos.3 He could ascend to the heavenly realm, or descend to the realm of evil, death, and decay. Other purely spiritual beings populated the wider created reality, and God dwelt “above” the outer “empyrean” sphere as the Unmoved Mover of everything else. Metaphysically speaking, reality in the medieval scheme is God-centered, not man-centered. It’s false, then, to say that the pre-Copernicans gave the Earth and human beings the position of highest esteem, while Copernicus relegated us to an insignificant backwater.4
It’s baffling that a historian of Lukacs’s stature would perpetuate this false stereotype rather than deconstruct it. Of course, so long as we avoid the muddle about the “center of the universe,” we can still wonder about design and purpose in nature, and about the uniqueness and significance of Earth and its intelligent inhabitants. And the recent work by Intelligent Design theorists and others on these topics is quite encouraging; work of which Lukacs seems unaware. This is regrettable, because he could have discovered allies prepared to join him in defending the significance of man in the universe, allies who would have urged him to abandon the ill-conceived dogmas of positivism and historicism, both of which subvert that purpose.
1. John Lukacs is a familiar name, especially in conservative circles. Hungarian by birth, he immigrated to the United States in 1946, and shortly thereafter began teaching history, a profession he continued for more than four decades until his retirement. The author of more than twenty books, he is known especially for his historical treatments of Europe, World War II, Hitler, and modernity.
2. The myth that most ancients thought that the Earth was flat seems to have been started by Washington Irving in the English-speaking world. For analysis and critique, see Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (New York: Praeger, 1991).
3. Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957, renewed 1985), pp. 112–113.
4. For all the talk about the Earth’s removal from the center of the cosmos, it is ironic that the claim of both the infinite Newtonian universe and the finite (even if boundless) universe of Big Bang cosmology is quite different. It’s not that we have been displaced from the cosmic center, but that there is no cosmic center.
Jay W. Richards is vice president and senior fellow of the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He is the author most recently of The Untamed God (InterVarsity, 2003) and co-author with astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez of The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery (Regnery, 2004).
“Indeterminate Historian” first appeared in the March 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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