Posted by: gcarkner | March 4, 2014

Who Gave us Scientism?

The Historical and Philosophical Roots of Scientism

The scientific revolution in the seventeenth century owes much to the new techniques of empirical science: important advances in mathematics and the telescope are just two impressive examples. Radical empiricism, on the other hand, derives from John Locke and David Hume of Britain in the eighteenth century. This is the origin of sentiments towards scientism. Hume claimed that an idea was meaningless unless it had empirical grounds. He attempted to reduce all knowledge to scientific knowledge and even suggested the burning of all books that contained no quantities or matters of fact. The irony here is that Hume was also the first skeptic of scientific induction.

Our brief historical overview next finds us in the late nineteenth century with the positivist philosopher Auguste Comte, probably the most significant representative of scientism. The father of modern sociology, Comte claimed that humanity had entered a new age—the age of science. Thus, he ruled out anything of a theological or metaphysical type, which he saw as passé. Science was seen to be the door to the future and it must replace religion, in Comte’s view. He also contributed much to the myth of progress. He (and others such as sociologist Emile Durkheim) looked forward to a day when religion would actually disappear (See British Victorian Naturalist T. H. Huxley and German Materialist Ernst Haeckel as two who saw science as the new religion of the late nineteenth century). Current scholar Mikael Stenmark of Uppsala University in Sweden wonders whether scientism isn’t taken as some sort of religious oultook by advocates of New Atheism (E.O. Wilson for example thinks science should replace religion as a framework of meaning).

The twentieth century formulation of scientism is best seen in A.J. Ayer (the father of logical positivism) with his famous Verifiability Criterion of Meaning . Briefly stated, this meant that we should treat as nonsense or irrelevant any statement which transcends statements of fact about the physical world (i.e. all ethical, metaphysical and theological statements). What we notice here is the development of scientism’s superiority complex or epistemological imperialism. Science is elevated and praised as the only way to solid, reliable truth, with a corner of the market (hegemony) on valid knowledge. Ayer later recanted from this kind of naivete. Philosopher Thomas Nagel more recently has raised serious questions about science as the last word on knowledge.

The spirit of the early twentieth century welcomed science as the cure for all evils and the ripe solution to all religious and political questions. It became a kind of ‘comprehensive scientism’. Astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell captures the ethos of the day. “For people of the interwar era, science and technology became the God through which man was seeking the road to economic and intellectual salvation.” (Sir Bernard Lovell, In the Centre of Immensities. (Harper & Row, 1978, p. 157).  Scientists were venerated as gods. The faith in science was very high, exhibiting a hard core scientism.

This optimism about science and its powers lasted until the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima, the bloodshed and massive carnage issued in by technological advances in World War II, where cities lay in ruins and some 50 million lives were cut short. There were huge advances in technology and science during the war to help both sides get the edge on the global battle (radar, code-breaking, rocket engines, tanks, ships, submarines and incendiary bombs, and finally at its apex the nuclear bomb). It was as if we humans re-invented evil on a mass scale using our brightest scientists. People were left in utter shock at how destructive science’s powers could be, especially when backed by a huge political agenda of imperialism and conquest. A recent review of some World War II film footage sickens the stomach at the terrible losses on all sides. The world witnessed graphically and first hand how instrumental reason could reduce human beings to cattle, slaves or objects of experimentation, and ultimately elimination in the Buchenwald and Auschwitz concentration camps. It could reduce their life’s work to rubble. This was scientism at its worst. It led many to nihilism, giving up on humanity in toto.

In the early 1990’s at the end of the long Cold War, we took a deep breath, stepped back from the abyss of nuclear holocaust, and took on more awareness of the tremendous environmental costs of science, technology, industry and excessive Western consumerist lifestyles. The environmental movement made significant advances in this decade. We became acutely aware that, just because we could do something with scientific know-how, it did not necessarily imply that it was good for us and good for the planet. It often was not. Postmodern sentiments grew strong in this decade with heavy questioning of the scientific outlook and perceived hegemony in culture. This is when for many, science began to look more like a poisoned chalice. We became ambivalent; science was good but no longer a panacea; it could be employed to produce both good and evil. And look at how much damage it can do so quickly.

In the early twenty-first century, we have seen the rise of religion rather than the demise predicted by Durkheim. No longer can we say, after the tragic events of September 11, 2001 that religious discernment is not both relevant and vital. We have also witnessed some of the worst corruption and greed in human history; this was achieved by powerful people of a utilitarian, self-interest mindset (e.g. the Enron and Worldcom fiascos and sub-prime mortgage scandals erupting in a massive recession in 2008). Mathematical geniuses exiting Cold War nuclear weapons jobs offered to show us the magic of logarithms applied to the stock market and derivatives were invented to insure against losses.

Thus, over three centuries, we have moved from elation over the power and advances of science to the sheer arrogance and hubris of scientism, to the dogmatic, closed philosophical worldview spin of Naturalism. Early in the twenty-first century, scientism is held under hermeneutical suspicion, heavily questioned and deconstructed, shown to be wanting. There exist many who believe that science is not sufficient and that religious, aesthetic and ethical questions must be raised and examined once again, and that science needs ethical checks and balances. Postmodernists have revealed the destructiveness of scientism’s outlook, although they often go too far and question science as a whole, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water: i.e. that all claims to truth are suspected for power-interest. Some writers reduce science to a sociology of knowledge; others reduce it to an aesthetic enterprise–both are extreme views. A whole group of scholars today are asking whether good reason requires scientific materialism in our post-secular age. (Philip Blond (ed.), Post-Secular Philosophy. Routledge, 1998.) Top philosophers do not believe that a secular outlook is a necessary consequence of scientific discovery (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 2007).

Where do we go from here? Senior Political Science Professor John Redekop notes that the preservation and accumulation of knowledge and the transmission of a common heritage (including the moral-social-political) is the work of both the contemporary church and university. He welcomes all that science can offer us and all the ways that it can sharpen our epistemic skills, but appeals that academic openness to supernatural sources of knowledge is also a high priority in the road ahead. We should face all the important questions of our human existence.

~ Dr. Gordon Carkner


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