Posted by: gcarkner | October 8, 2012

Paradigm Shift: Beyond Scientism

A Paradigm Shift in Understanding Reason

What is the way forward beyond the narrow thinking of scientism? Is there a path towards a more integrated and whole understanding of reason and reality itself? It is our conviction that science must be more engaged with, tempered by wisdom. Philosophy, of which science is traditionally a sub-discipline, by classical definition is the love of wisdom about natural things. This is a posture that prompts persons to use all the skills of reason in the quest for truth, goodness and beauty. Rationalism unfortunately pits truth against beauty and goodness, and this is epistemologically dysfunctional as we have seen. French philosopher Jacques Maritain boldly cautions that ‘science without wisdom is blind’, meaning that its explorations and usage requires insight from something other than science qua science. What are the new possibilities of a re-aquaintance of sapientia  and scientia  wisdom and science/knolwedge?

If we step back and  reflect, genuine knowledge is the cultivation of the virtue of wisdom, which entails that all knowledge must have a relationship with both the intellectual and the moral virtues. Science within its appointed limits attends to matters of fact, quantity, cosmic order, matter and anti-matter, the physical forces and the realm of stars and galaxies (the what and how questions). Wisdom, however, has a large vested interest in the qualitative conditions of life and research (the why questions): relationships, meaning, purpose, value, idea, narrative, appropriate application of knowledge and other meta-issues. Neither should be ignored if we are to attain a whole, integrated and constructive truth. The two types need to be reconnected and interwoven for strength and balance. Both are key if we are to make sense of the universe’s richest intelligibility.

Albert Einstein  in a pithy statement once wisely countered scientism with a bit of balance: “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” It is valid to ask whether the universe has a purpose beyond the mere fact and functionality of its existence (wondrous as that is), whether in all its vastness and complexity it dwells within a larger context of meaning and purpose. We humans possess within us this intense need and legitimate passion to know everything about our world and ourselves, and not to settle for partial, narrow or one-sided answers.

As we have seen from rude and brutal experience, science and technology employed without a conscience can be soulless, dangerous and even death-dealing on a massive scale. Science is not ethics, but a completely different culture sphere. Einstein felt this worry very existentially as he worked with other scientists on the breakthrough physics that lead to the first splitting of the atom, and ultimately to the first mass killer atomic bomb. This is to say nothing of the subsequent costly (lives and money) and politically debilitating decades long arms race with its MAD (mutually assured destruction) threat. The 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a terrible way proved Einstein’s gut suspicions correct. This much power is very dangerous and must be handled delicately and appropriately. Science employed to its best ends, like other forms of philosophy, is geared to improve the common good of humanity, not to destroy persons or deprive people of their very personhood (James Houston) or their lives.

Wise scientists and bureaucrats have to take responsibility for the human and environmental consequences of new research and technology and they ought not to hide behind mere collections of facts about the physical realm.  The DVD series Test of Faith from the Faraday Institute Dialogue on Science & Religion in Cambridge, England raises many of  these important why questions (larger context questionsat the cutting edge of research, through a documentary dialogue with top UK and American scientists and historians of science. It involves a mature reflection, which acts as a helpful follow-up to this discussion series.

What grounds science ideologically and culturally? Whence comes the mathematical order? Why is there something rather than nothing? Are science and Christianity in a deadlock conflict, or is there possible synergism between science & faith? Does the Big Bang eliminate the need for God? Can humans be explained fully according to their genetic template? Does one transcend one’s neural networks in making moral decisions? Does one’s biology determine one’s value and destiny?

These top contributors such as Sir John Polkinghorne, former president of Queens College Cambridge, strongly respect science, but realize that it is not the only necessary form of question or important insight. Nor does it exclude the legitimacy and importance of good religious and theological reflection. They also participate in the current significant and robust dialogue between religion and science. Much highly respectable scholarly literature is available to peruse on the subject. Polkinghorne, Denis Alexander, Owen Gingerich and Alister McGrath represent depth and breadth of insight on this dialogue.

Wisdom is a virtue prior to and necessary to good scientific insight, a valuable companion in the application of scientific discovery. Science is dependent on the best human and divine wisdom for direction, application and meaning. It operates with a set of underlying metaphysical assumptions that it cannot prove or demonstrate scientifically.

Beyond the metaphor of mere empirical fact to new metaphors: Poetry, the language genre in which wisdom often appears to us, proceeds from the totality of human sense, imagination, intellect, love, desire, instinct, blood and spirit together. The metaphors of wisdom are equally important to the metaphors and discourse of science. Prudence, courage, justice, self-control, honesty and other virtues are deeply relevant to both daily life and the scientific enterprise. It is clear to major decision-makers, judges, and managers that technological, statistical and scientific expertise is both necessary and helpful.

This expertise alone is nevertheless incomplete for adjudicating many issues that they face and on which they must pass judgment. Science, while it is a good method for investigating and manipulating the material world, is of much less value for deciding what to do with the knowledge, the expertise and the power thus acquired. In light of this, twentieth century physicist, philosopher and historian of science, Pierre Duhem provocatively argues for the priority of metaphysics and religion over physics. Metaphysics may have a bad name among some scientists today, but it is far from dead or irrelevant.

Scientific epistemology is no substitute for metaphysics. Canadian Philosopher Calvin Schrag (The Self After Postmodernity, pp. 133-35) urges respect for the significance of all four culture spheres: aesthetics, ethics, science and religion. Scientific reason is only part of the human economy of knowledge and should not dominate, oppress or eliminate the other culture spheres. It should interact with them in balance and tension, and benefit from their checks and balances, as well as their creative questions and contributions. Schrag suggests that Immanuel Kant is responsible for the splintering of, or disconnection between, these spheres.

Science in its study of the cosmos is master of one important theme in the story of life, but not the whole story. Some of the most important issues and decisions we struggle with are relational, moral, issues of beauty, human character and our religious character. Many scientists now realize the importance of value judgments in the economy of scientific reason because of the groundbreaking work of Michael Polanyi (Personal Knowledge) mentioned in an earlier post. There are stunning reflective resources available in the world’s great wisdom literature, such as the Classics (Plato, Aristotle, etc.), the ancient Hebrew literature of Job, Proverbs, Psalms, ancient literature that has stood the test of time, contributed to democracy and lawfulness; it resonates deeply with our human condition, our experience. The way of wisdom is a well trodden ancient and modern path.

There is currently an exciting revival of interest in virtue ethics (an exploding field) applied to academic work, as in Linda Zagzebski’s Virtues of the Mind. To name a few, a good scientist is guided by a genuine search for truth, a humble willingness to change her theory when new evidence challenges it significantly, humility in view of the limits of scientific knowledge, honesty in reporting and interpreting data and credit for the person who did the actual work, respect and care for the subject or object under study, collegiality to share rather than hoard information, respect for the larger scientific community, generosity and benevolence for the good human use of the research, gratitude for the opportunity to be in this field of discovery. Wisdom indeed is relevant to good science.

Many excellent scientists will agree that they would also add gratitude to the God who created the wondrously beautiful and complex world, this cosmic gift we study and through which we make our livelihood. In fact, some 40% of American scientists claim a religious faith, as well as many who gave birth to science in previous centuries (Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Newton, Pascal to name only a few). There is a way of wisdom appropriate for the scientist as well as the sage; the love of wisdom is appropriate to both vocations. Perhaps we should call on our sages once again to inform our science and bring new humility, new levels of servanthood to the various research areas. The same wisdom is appreciated for stewardship of scientific resources and discovery.

Gord Carkner (with appreciation to Dr. D. Stephen Long, Marquette University, for his insights on epistemology and language)

Listen to Bruce Cockburn “Maybe the Poet”

See Tom McLeish, Faith & Wisdom in Science (OUP, 2014); and Gordon Carkner, The Great Escape from Nihilism: rediscovering our passion in late modernity. We need more history on science and a broader sense of language than scientism allows.

Faraday Institute on Science & Religion: Brilliant variety of lectures available for download; they also have summer one week courses. Below Sir John Polkinghorne, Cambridge Physicist & Theologian, leading innovator in science-faith discussion.


Sir John Polkinghorne

Sir John Polkinghorne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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