Scientism is Injurious to Your Intelligence
Our world is filled with impressive technological advances coming from science. Naturally, science has a place of prestige in our society.
Atheists misappropriate this prestige to propagate their belief system by foisting on people the notion of scientism: the belief system that science alone is the source of reliable knowledge. By thus ascribing omniscience to science, atheists try to make people skeptical, even cynical, about things such as spirituality that rely primarily on scriptural, not scientific, sources of knowledge.
The word science can generically refer to “a systematic method or body of knowledge in a given area” (Source: American Heritage Dictionary). In this sense, even spirituality, especially spirituality based on the Vedic wisdom-tradition, being systematic and rational can be considered scientific.
But scientism operates on a narrower definition of science as the study of natural order of things. In the narrowest sense, such natural science restricts itself only to the hard sciences such as physics or chemistry, leaving out soft sciences such as economics or sociology. As this article deals with scientism, it uses the word science in the scientistic sense of the word, that is, science here refers to natural science.
Advocates of scientism imagine an innate and irreconcilable hostility between science and spirituality. However, such hostility is not warranted by science because:
1. Science is different from scientism;
2. We can be scientific without needing to be scientistic (believers in scientism);
3. Science leaves us enough room to be spiritual.
To better appreciate these points, let’s take a close look at scientism. The belief system of scientism is not only inherently problematic, but it also problematizes humanity and science itself. Let’s see how.
Scientism is Self-contradictory
Scientism claims that all valid knowledge has to come only through the hallowed lanes of science – whatever comes from anywhere else is corrupted by the cardinal “sin” of being unscientific and so should be rejected as “untouchable.”
Ironically, the core claim of scientism that science has monopoly on human knowledge doesn’t come from science – there’s no scientific theory or experiment to substantiate it. Here’s why.
Science is essentially the investigation of and the theorizing about the natural order of things. Whether anything exists beyond nature or not is not a scientific question – it is a philosophical question. Those who believe there’s nothing beyond nature are known as naturalists. Naturalism and scientism are close cousins. Some, even many, scientists may be naturalists, but that is their individual philosophical position, not science’s universal presumption. Naturalists disingenuously masquerade their philosophy as if it were science and thus attempt to misappropriate the prestige of science for their own belief system. Such misappropriation ends up becoming a disservice to science, because it creates unnecessary hostility between science and non-naturalists who comprise the vast majority of humanity.
Nobel Laureate Sir Peter Medawar, despite being an atheist himself, strongly warns scientists against unwittingly playing into the hands of those who would harm science thus. In his book Advice to a Young Scientist, he writes: “There is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself and upon his profession than roundly to declare – particularly when no declaration of any kind is called for – that science knows, or soon will know, the answers to all questions worth asking, and that questions which do not admit a scientific answer are in some way nonquestions or pseudo-questions that only simpletons ask and only the gullible profess to be able to answer.”
Given that science doesn’t have a monopoly on knowledge, which is the core claim of scientism,
Exposed as not just faulty, but also self-contradictory.
Because the only way scientism can be true is if it were untrue.
Scientism’s defining precept “science is the only way to knowledge” can’t be known through science – it needs to be known from some other way, namely, the belief system of those making the statement. And as that belief system is outside the scope of science, scientism requires that there be some other way to knowledge apart from science. Thus, scientism’s core claim falls squarely in the genre of standard self-contradictory statements such as “I don’t exist” (I need to exist to say that).
Scientism Destroys Rationality, the Foundation of Science
The success of science, indeed its survival, is based on a presumption and a precondition. The presumption is that nature has a rational order discernable through human investigation. And the precondition is that we have minds capable of such rational contemplation.
But what is the basis for this presumption and precondition? Why does nature have a rational order? Why are our minds capable of rational thinking?
These questions have occupied thinkers and scientists for centuries. When faced with such perplexing questions, scientism usually hides behind the back of its twin: reductionism, the notion that everything can be explained by reducing it to its smaller constituents and their interactions.
Reductionism posits that everything has evolved from a primeval soup, which in turn has emerged from a big bang. And that bang came from a singularity that somehow singularly existed and suddenly exploded.
Given the immense complexity of the mind and the world, the probability of their having come about thus is infinitesimally, even impossibly, low.
But even granting that this somehow squeezed through that ultra-microscopic portal of probability, a bigger roadblock awaits. Darwin confessed it thus in a letter to William Graham (3 July 1881): “With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy.”
If our mind is unreliable – and reductionism gives us no reason to believe otherwise – then whatever beliefs our mind comes up with are also unreliable. Much as atheists would like to give a pejorative taint to the word belief by labeling theists as “believers,” the fact remains that even their own ideas such as scientism and reductionism are also beliefs. And since such beliefs have come from an unreliable mind, they, like all other beliefs, will come with the warning tag: unreliable. Thus, reductionism reduces, even ruins, its own reliability.
Worse still, reductionism destroys rationality too. Physicist John Polkinghorne explains in his book One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology the logical consequences of reducing the mind to the signals in the brain: “Thought is replaced by electrochemical neural events. Two such events cannot confront each other in rational discourse. They are neither right nor wrong. They simply happen… The very assertions of the reductionist himself are nothing but blips in the neural network of his brain. The world of rational discourse dissolves into the absurd chatter of firing synapses. Quite frankly, that cannot be right and none of us believes it to be so.”
In other words, scientism sentences us – and our science – to the scrapheap of irrationality.
Scientism Fosters Disrespect for Humanity
The claims of scientism notwithstanding, science cannot encompass the subjective relishable aspects of many cherished human fields such as poetry and music. Science can count the length of the words or the frequencies of the letters occurring in a poem and accordingly give us some pointers towards the quality of the poetry, but even the most scientifically advanced data processing devise can’t relish a masterly poem or feel bored with a mediocre piece. The same applies to music. Science can measure the decibel levels of the sounds and the rate of their modulations in a musical composition, but we need to use, not science, but our transscientific capacity for sentience to discern whether the piece is shoddy or superb.
Some extremist reductionists try to reduce all aesthetic phenomena down to neurochemical firings and ultimately the random oscillations of unconscious fundamental particles. But Nobel Laureate physicist Erwin Schrodinger in his book Nature and the Greeks encourages us to treat such explanations with the strong skepticism that they deserve: “I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.”
Some scientistic extremists may argue: “Fields such as poetry and music are inconsequential; they don’t lead to any human progress – as does science. In things that really matter, science alone can provide knowledge.”
Given that poetry and music have enriched the human heart for millennia, dismissing them as inconsequential amounts to disrespect of humanity.
Anyway, let’s focus on the area that even scientism deems important: science. Consider the critical question: How do we determine what are the proper and improper uses of science?
Science can’t provide the answer.
Because it operates by the principle of amorality. To promote its purpose of studying nature objectively, science stays silent on moral issues. Schrodinger in the same book states: “The scientific worldview contains of itself no ethical values.”
For example, science can tell us the results of putting arsenic in our grandmother’s breakfast, but it can’t tell us whether doing this to quickly get her property is right or wrong. Most people would hopefully find such a scheme revolting.
But where would that revulsion come from?
Not from their science, for its amorality would keep it deafeningly silent.
That revulsion would come from their ethical and spiritual fabric – something that scientism dismisses as an invalid or nonessential source of knowledge.
But such dismissal can be catastrophically consequential.
The absence of morality amidst the ascendance of science paved the way to the worst manmade horror in recent history: the Holocaust.
Hitler’s Nazi Germany prided itself on its scientific progress, yet it (ab)used science to exterminate six million Jews in its gas chambers. What can be a greater disrespect of humanity than the cold-mass murder of millions?
The partisans of scientism will protest: “Nazism caused the Holocaust, not scientism.” Agreed. But would scientism have given any reason for stopping it?
It would have relied on science alone, and science would have stayed amorally mute.
Nowadays it has become fashionable among reductionists to invent explanations of the origin of morality in terms of psychoevolutionary processes that supposedly operated on a nonexistent mind in an unrecorded past through unknown mechanisms in non-demonstrable non-repeatable ways. But such explanations are pop psychology that is not science – it is science fiction. And, as Schrodinger put it, such explanations are “so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.”
A genuine scientist, unlike a scientistic zealot, appreciates humanity’s all-round potentials and accomplishments. In fact, Albert Einstein recommended such due deference in the essay ”Moral Decay” in his book Out of My Later Years: “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.”
Scientism Demands Belief in Poor – and Pure – Fiction
Scientism is founded in naturalism. One of the tenets of naturalism is that the laws of nature alone have brought into existence the whole universe and all the life in it.
But laws are never creators or ultimate causes – they are simply modes describing how causes act. When we add two thousand-rupee notes to the three thousand-rupee notes in our pocket, the law of arithmetic explains rationally how our pocket contains five thousandrupee notes. The law of mathematics can’t increase our pocket balance. To imagine that the law of arithmetic can make a pauper into a millionaire is poor fiction.
Similarly, the laws of nature describe the mode of interaction between different material objects. But they are never creators or ultimate causes. Thus, Newton’s laws can describe the trajectory of a cricket ball when a batsman hooks it over the boundary. But it is the batsman who sets the ball in motion, not the laws. To imagine that the laws of motion can make a neighborhood street batsman into the next Sachin Tendulkar is poor fiction.
And the scientistic fiction is not just poor, but also pure. Why? Because it asks us to believe that the laws of nature created the cricketer and the ball – in addition to somehow creating themselves too. Having no semblance with reality or even rationality, such scientistic fiction causes credulity to stretch beyond breaking point.
Best to honor one’s intelligence and bid scientism “Goodbye and good riddance.”
Caitanya Carana Dasa is the associate-editor of Back to Godhead (US and Indian editions). To subscribe for his daily Bhagavad-gita reflections, please subscribe for Gitadaily on his website, thespiritualscientist.com.