Posted by: gcarkner | October 2, 2012

Scientism Investigation continued…5

5. Scientism Impoverishes One’s View of Humans

Our ongoing investigation and critique of the ideology of Scientism continues here in Part 5. Ideas are not neutral; they have consequences. They affect how we live and treat each other in social and political theatres. Ideologies like scientism can put tanks and bombers in motion, justify militant imperialism, or selfish consumerism. We contend that scientism is not conducive to a holistic or healthy view of humans and society. It contains an anthropological defect and deficit; its reductive character has contributed to the devaluation of people. The consequences can be seen through the lens of  a number of ideologies and failed political experiments in the twentieth century (Paul Johnson, A History of the Modern World: from 1917-1990s). Will we fair better in the twenty-first?

Dehumanization of people, which removes or ignores their personhood (image of the divine) and their individual worth, is the result of treating them in terms of their machineness or their biological being alone. There is a loss of awareness of the relational I-Thou character of being human. In a very poignant sense, modern culture deprives us of some of the richest interpretations of the nature of our humanity that history has available; we have indeed lost part of our heritage because of metaphysical naturalism and ideological scientism.  The language about homo sapiens sapiens has been devalued. E.F. Schumacher (A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 45) captures the problem of scientism for personhood in rather stark but honest terms.

The Universe is what it is; but he who … limits himself to its lowest sides—to his biological needs, his creature comforts or his accidental encounters—will inevitably ‘attract’ a miserable life. If he can recognize nothing but ‘struggle for survival’ and ‘will to power’ fortified by cunning, his ‘world’ will be one fitting Hobbe’s description of the life of man as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.

While many volumes have been written on the subject, we briefly underline here the distinct lack of wisdom in viewing humans as mere animals, mechanisms or items to be calculated, or manipulated either overtly or subtly (the I-it relationship).  This is the kind of outlook that leads to exploitation, alienation, breakdown of trust, cynicism, and even the angst of nihilism. Early twentieth century eugenics followed through with the ideology creating a racist science. We ought to remember the oppression by malevolent dictators such as Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, or Pinochet. Naturalism and scientism played nicely into their agenda.The movie The Way Back based on a true story depicts brutish conditions of Stalin’s Siberian Gulag labour camps. Russian literary genius Alexander Solzhenitsyn (A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) wrote extensively about Stalinist political oppression and cruelty, the reduction of life to drudgery (loss of colour and creativity, the emotional damage) in the former Soviet Union. The psychological hangover from such experiments is still evident twenty years after the end of the Cold War. Solzhenitsyn was so desperate to get the truth out to the West, that he hid pieces of his manuscripts in the floorboards of his residence.

We also see the problem depicted recently in the cynical narcissism of the corrupt CEO who walks away (raiding company assets while expecting government bailouts) with a $20 million severance and four or five luxurious houses as his corporation goes bankrupt, and thousands lose their jobs and their pensions. Is this the genius of 21st century business leadership?  Take note of John R. Talbot’s Survival Investing if you want to know just how cynical people can become (such disdain for ordinary hard working people). The way we view fellow humans makes all the difference in our real ethics and our engagement with standards of governance. This is a conversation that matters immensely.

Scientism is easily exploited by or interwoven with a social, political or economic ideology. This ideology is usually disconnected from the moral good (or focuses on a narrow good of self-interest)  and from the needs of the people with less power, those which leaders are meant to serve. It carries the potential to be used in the most destructive ways, promoting a nihilistic anti-humanism (Nietzscheor trans-humanism (Simon Young).  Truth is exploited and manipulated by power if we withdraw love and concern for others from social and political reality in the name of scientism, efficiency or technological brilliance.

Post-Romantic philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas reveals a tremendous gap in contemporary education, social science and humanities discourse to talk about responsibility for the Other. He sees too much focus on self-construction, self-determinnation and  self-love. Should it be surprising that we have a crisis of identity if we look to the beasts, our evolutionary ancestors or the machine to find our truest and best selves? Can impersonal nature show us how we are to live and treat other persons?

Scientism can justify violence, bullying, the removal of rights and freedoms; we are vulnerable to its insidious machinations. If one views other people  as things or commodities, when they get in one’s way (and especially when there is a lack of accountability), it is easy to victimize others and commit disrespectful and cruel acts. People are so concerned that they are expendable in today’s workplace. Notre Dame history scholar Brad Gregory speaks out on this point in The Unintended Reformation (p.224):

The commitment to metaphysical naturalism and ideological scientism that today govern “public reason” dictate a concept of reality that prevents the grounding of any morality at all.

He concludes that if metaphysical naturalism is true, there is no real philosophical ground for human rights. That should catch out attention.

All philosophy is a participation in humanity’s common struggle to attain the whole truth (more than mere facts) about ourselves and our world. It is well known that there can be no freedom without a strong quest for discernment, for truth, for public transparency and accountability of our elites. All forms of terror and oppression involve manipulation, falsehood, deception, and often paranoia–a refusal to take responsibility and be responsible. We ought not allow postmodern ambivalence about power/knowledge to separate us from our quest for genuine truth, and an exposure of the fake or the ideological. This series on scientism has been grappling with a language deflation, a reductive use of language which over-claims its own veracity. At this juncture, we are searching for fresh, engaging metaphors, a new language in order to map the plenitude of life, the plenitude of what being human can mean.

Scientism as discussed so far, although often quite popular, is intensely problematic. Moreover it has been discredited and even shown to be destructive in its scientific, intellectual, human and cultural consequences. What constitutes a more positive and fruitful outlook? What is a more integrated and robust stance with respect to the wonders of science and the mysteries of the self? What is our full context and where lies the creativity of the human imagination? What is science’s place in late modernity amidst beauty, goodness, spirituality, humanism, and other forms of truth?  Is there something deeper to tap into to inform our conversation about how to become human after all?

Gord Carkner


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Irish myth, salmon swam in the River Boyne where there was an overhanging hazel tree. The nine nuts of poetic wisdom fell from the tree and were eaten by the salmon who absorbed and internalised wisdom. Where are those nuts of poetic wisdom to be found today? Are we swimming up the right river?

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