Beyond Scientism: Retrieval of Excluded Knowledge
In our recovery from scientism, we attempt to retrieve excluded knowledge, addressing the refusal of the transcendent inherent in scientism, including the biases endemic to the new atheists. During the Cold War, the Russians constructed a city map for Moscow which excluded churches, a practice that made it difficult for tourists. They were making a point; they wanted to eliminate knowledge and memory of religion in their quest for the New Man. Charles Taylor offers some very insightful discernment on this problem of the closed or one-sided mind. He notes that transcendence can be read from two opposite angles, both of which involve faith at some level, i.e. the belief goes beyond mere rational argument or evidence.
We can either see the transcendent as a threat, a dangerous temptation, or an obstacle to our greatest good. Or we can read it as answering to our deepest craving, need, fulfilment of the good. … Both open and closed stances involve a step beyond available reason into the realm of anticipatory confidence (Taylor, A Secular Age, 548 & 551).
This is a moral choice with big consequences: do we opt for the open or closed universe? Within today’s Western dominant immanent frame, Taylor points out that things do go both ways for people and this is also true of professional scientists today. Some have a religious faith; others do not make such a claim. What Taylor is most concerned about and resists, however, is the spin whereby someone claims that a closed view (CWS or closed world structure) is taken as obvious and conclusive, i.e. that we exist unavoidably because of science as mere material beings in a material world. This spin of closure although not universal, is often quite hegemonic in the Academy, often rendering the supernatural dimension unthinkable. Taylor challenges this perspective just like current maps of Moscow challenge the old Soviet maps of exclusion:
My concept of spin … implies that one’s thinking is clouded or cramped by a powerful picture which prevents one from seeing important aspects of reality, … [promoting] unrecognized ways of restricting our grasp of things (A Secular Age, 551).
He calls this CWS a horizontal world or way of grasping meaning which can include an intentional self-blindness, partly because of the lack of one’s conscious awareness of the internal background picture to one’s thinking. A world (Wittgenstein’s idea of an unconscious picture which holds us captive) is something which people inhabit; it gives shape to what they experience, feel, opine, see, and controls the way they think, argue, infer, make sense of things. From it, they also take their identity or sense of self (mere matter, animal, machine, an empty zero, cosmic dust, image bearer of God, steward of creation).
But Taylor points out that a CWS is a form of construction, and no mere discovery or simple registration of external reality. It does not derive empirically from the data. He exposes the illusion of the rational “obviousness” of this viewpoint. Sometimes there are real phenomena that we cannot see or respect because of our world picture. For example, he notes that belief in the death of God is not a property of the cosmos that science lays bare, even though many in the West hold to this faulty logic. It is a choice, even if an unconscious one, a value-laden meta-position, a religious stance. Science in itself does not lead us logically to atheism or Godlessness.
In fact, the power of materialism today comes not from the scientific “facts”, but rather has to do with the power of a certain package uniting materialism with a moral outlook, the package we call atheistic humanism, or exclusive humanism (Taylor).
What he proposes is a philosophical turn toward intellectual openness within our current immanent frame, while at the same time, an exposure of the myth that science eliminates the need for God and religion. Good science does not seek to close us off from the world in some tight, immanent reality; instead, it remains open to receiving the gift of complete knowledge and insight, celebrating all kinds of reason. At its best, it is not hegemonic.
Theology and religion are definitely not the enemy of science, as the history of science bears out (Colin Russell, Cross Currents), despite the claims of some popular writiers. Rather, there is an important complementary insight into the world and human well-being (theistic humanism) which is pro-science, pro-religion and pro-human. One can indeed be open to a relationship with the divine while practicing excellent science. There exists a current unwarranted fear even of good religion. The Four Horsemen (Hitchens, Dawkins et al) perpetuate this fear in a very unscientific manner, exhibiting an uncritical closed-mindedness.
Is it possible to improve our map of reality in a way that welcomes Science, careful and relevant Theology, the Arts and Humanities and other insights back into our conversation of important knowledge? Civilization has always advanced along the trajectory of open mindedness and curiosity.
Read Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies, Chapter 3, which offers a critique of the Laplacean closed universe philosophy. David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. (Yale, 2009)
Note the BBC Debate on Science & Religion coming out of the discovery of the ‘God’ particle: