Posted by: gcarkner | March 8, 2022

Scientism Revealed

Scientism & its Cultural Discontents

Epistemological Claim: No knowledge is deemed valid or justified unless its claims can be tested and verified empirically through experimentation, observation and repetition. This criterion is part of an intellectual house of the mind which controls the way people think, argue, infer, and make sense of things. Truth claims that do not submit to this kind of scrutiny automatically become irrelevant, invalid, implausible, or unacceptable. This principle of knowledge is heavily weighted or biased towards the instrumental and mechanistic. Its attraction is to greater certainty, especially of the mathematical/statistical type.

The Utopian Sentiment: Science is the futuristic guide to human progress, both intellectually and culturally. Past tradition, especially that influenced by Christian religion (any religion really), is taken as false opinion or superstition, even dangerous (Yuval Noah Harari). The growth of scientific knowledge is thought to guarantee social and political progress. Scientism entails a warfare model in the science-religion relationship, a posture that began in the mid-nineteenth century (C. A. Russell, Cross-currents, 1985). Secularity 2 (Charles Taylor) assumes that, as science advances religion will be culturally displaced, demoted in importance. This extreme optimism is found in the transhumanism discourse, and is the tone we often find in Wired Magazine, or the Humanist Manifesto. Quentin Schultze speaks to this in his Habits of the High-Tech Heart (2002). 

The next century can and should be the humanist century. Dramatic scientific, technological, and ever-accelerating social and political changes crowd our awareness. We have virtually conquered the planet, explored the moon, overcome the natural limits of travel and communication; we stand at the dawn of a new age…. Using technology wisely, we can control our environment, conquer poverty, markedly reduce disease, extend our lifespan, significantly modify our behavior, and alter the course of human evolution. (Humanist Manifesto II, 5) 

Intellectual Exclusion or Hegemony: Insights from the humanities, philosophy and theology are treated with suspicion. The poetry of life is removed. Scientific rationalism dismisses faith as mere fideism (belief without good reasons, non-evidential). Scientism’s inherent materialism entails that “science” refuses mystery, the metaphysical or anything transcendent, the miraculous, even the mythic, metaphorical or epiphanic. Certain common human ways of knowing are simply written off, ignored or treated with contempt. Example New Atheists.

Anthropological Consequences: People are viewed as sophisticated cogs in the cosmic machinery, or simplified as merely the most intelligent animals (higher primates). All human characteristics, including the mind or the soul, are believed to be explicable in terms of bodily functions (neural networks, DNA makeup, biochemistry or physiology, or at bottom physics and chemistry). A philosophical (ontological) reductionism is at work: methodology morphs into ontology: the phenomenon of ‘nothing but’. The higher order is explained in terms of the lower, mind in terms of brain, human social behavior in terms of ant colonies (E.O. Wilson). Humans are appreciated for their instrumental value: their earning capacity, socio-political usefulness and their excellence of giftedness (E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, 1977; Craig Gay, The Way of the Modern World, 1998Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, 2012).  

Scientism and Ethics: Science is seen to normatively provide a more reliable and superior decision-making guide. It becomes the new alternative to religion and traditional morals in discerning the good and shaping the moral self, moral discourse (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: how science can determine human values, 2010; Compare James Davison Hunter & Paul Nedelisky, Science & the Good: the tragic quest for the foundations of morality). Science asserts dominance as a culture sphere, absorbs and redefines morality in scientific categories, meeting a scientific agenda. Scientism claims that the scientific principle, scientific rationality is applicable to all things, all arenas of life, all culture spheres. Religious or personal moral values are to be kept to the private sphere of one’s life, but not to be part of public discourse (Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, 1986).

Weakness of Language: Within the scientism frame/map of reality, knowledge depends on a designative (versus an expressivist-poetic or constitutive) tradition of language (Taylor, 1978, 2007, 2016). Designative language (Hobbes to Locke to Condillac) traps the pursuit of wisdom within language and confines it to immanence where language and its relationship to truth are reduced to pointing or representation. Language primarily designates objects in the world. The object is held and studied at a distance, observed but not participated in. One assumes a use of language based on quantitative judgments that are non-subject dependent (objective). This view of language contributes to scientism’s mechanistic understanding of the universe, rendering it disenchanted (without soul or mystery). For a fuller treatment of the two major types of language, see Charles Taylor’s tome The Language Animal (2016). In my book, The Great Escape from Nihilism, I also compare the epistemological to the hermeneutical way of seeing and understanding the world.

Our language has lost its constitutive power: denotative versus expressive. This means that we can deal instrumentally with realities around us, but their deeper meaning (the background in which they exist), the higher reality which finds expression in them, is ignored and often invisible to us. Our language has lost the power to Name things in their embedding, their deeper, richer and higher reality. The current incapacity of language is a crucial factor in our incapacity of seeing well and our flourishing. Our language, our vision and our lives often remain flattened in late modernity. (C. Taylor, A Secular Age, 2007, 761; The Language Animal, 2016).

Scientism Acts as a Prison of the Mind: This ideology is a picture of the world that holds our minds captive. For some of the reasons above, scientism can lead us to nihilism, cynicism, addictions and despair (the malaise of modernity—Charles Taylor). There is a logical progression from the epistemology, ontology and anthropology of scientism to the moral confusion and identity crisis of late modernity. Scientism alienates and oppresses us, makes us less than we can be. We intuitively see ourselves as more than machines, more than animals, beings with purpose (telos). The dogma of scientism stifles, and even questions our very freedom and agency. It cramps and constricts our imagination, even in the practice of science itself. Ultimately, it threatens the human quest for meaning. Transhumanism seeks to remake humans in the image off the algorithm and the machine.

Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Meta-Educator with UBC Postgraduate Students, Online Webinar Producer, Author

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