Avoiding the Religion of Scientism

Several weeks ago, I posted a blog about my entry to Discover Magazine’s “Evolution in Two Minutes” contest. Developmental biologist and outspoken atheist PZ Myers is judging the entries (still no word on the winner), and out of curiousity, I decided to visit his blog Pharyngula. Though it is supposedly a science blog, Myers posts little about his field of study: evolutionary development. The few posts he did make over the past month about biology were fascinating, and I learned quite a bit. Evo-Devo is a research program attempting to fill in the gaps in neo-Darwinism, which originally assumed the development of organisms had little to do with the evolutionary process. I’m quite interested in Evo-Devo, as it calls neo-Darwinism out on its greedy reductionism. Organisms cannot be understood based only on the differential survival of genes. But Evo-Devo isn’t in any way in opposition to the basic approach of theModern Synthesis, unlike Developmental Systems Theory, which aims to totally overthrow the neo-Darwinian paradigm in favor of a more holistic account. Not genes or isolated organisms, but whole organism-environment systems become the focus. All this takes us far afield from the point of this blog, but suffice it to say that Myers’ biological work fascinates and excites me. The point of this blog, however, is about Myers’ (and the watchdogs policing his blog’s) militant brand of atheistic materialism. I can understand the frustration many scientifically-educated people express concerning the widespread denial of the common descent of species among fundamentalist Christians in America. But accepting evolution, and all of contemporary science for that matter, does not necessarily religate all forms of spirituality to a superstitous past. For me and a growing number of others, the scientific cosmological story provides a more numinous background to earthly existence than any ancient religious cosmogony to come before it. Matter, energy, space, and time have been on a 14 billion year adventure that has inexplicably lead to the creation of an intelligent species of ape capable of knowing so. It’s quite astounding.

The most pressing challenge of the 21st century is to develop a planetary mythos, a global spiritual worldview that allows all human beings to become integral with the ongoing process of creative expression that brought us into existence. Science must play a central role in any such development. Myers and his cheerleaders seem to go wrong not in their enthusiasm for science, but in their dogmatic insistance that the observations of science must be interpreted in a materialistic fashion. There are many complex arguments for a materialistic or physicalist interpretation of scientific facts, but none that I am aware of can coherently account for human consciousness. There is plenty of hand-waving, plenty of “just-so” stories pretending to explain how an entirely mechanical process could lead to sentience and volition, but so far as I know, no convincing solutions to the hard problem of consciousness have yet been devised. If anyone disputes this, please comment below and fill me in!

Many materialistic atheists would dispute the idea that our species still needs myth in a scientific age. This amounts to saying that consciousness can exist entirely independent of the unconscious. There is no hubris greater than this conceit, and none more dangerous. As William Irwin Thompson writes, “That shoreline where the island of knowing meets the unfathomable sea of our own being is the landscape of myth,” (The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, p. 87). Science is an epistemic activity, a way of knowing. All our human attempts to rationally know the full extent of our cosmic existence are limited for the simple reason that we are that which we are attempting to know.

Alfred North Whitehead expressed a similar sentiment: “Every philosophy is tinged with the coloring of some secret imaginative background, which never emerges explicitly into its train of reasoning.” No amount of scientific progress will ever change this basic fact about human psychology. Knowing is not a disembodied, purely rational activity. What we know is always already shaped by our imaginative and intuitive faculties.

The danger of supposing science can totally rationalize our society is already apparent. The mechanistic model of nature has made possible the current global religion (at least in the West): capitalist consumerism. It’s a myth that has grown out of the assumption that the only truly real, truly powerful thing in the world is money, and that the non-human earth community is ours to exploit as we see fit (since it is nothing but blind matter in motion, anyways). There can be no solution to the current ecological crisis until this self-destructive mythos is totally re-imagined.

But the mechanistic/materialistic myth is not only dangerous because of its ecological implications; it also degrades human life. Prior to the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, humanity had a system of values based on more than a merely horizontal scale. As E. F. Schumacher explains in his wonderful little book A Guide for the Perplexed, this flattening of value reverses the vertical conception humanity has held for the vast majority of its existence. The result is moral relativism and/or utilitarianism. The Good is measured solely upon what feels good at the time for me, so long as it doesn’t prevent others from getting their cheap pleasures, as well. Schumacher outlines the Great Chain of Being, which begins with matter and progresses through the plant kingdom, the animal, the human, and continues to God, the ideal Person. Natural science focuses only upon the material level, and so long as it doesn’t overstep its legitimate bounds by claiming to explain all other levels by reduction to matter, it remains a tool of utmost value to the human endeavor. Science is an empirical enterprise, and so fittingly studies only that aspect of nature that is visible. As Schumacher makes plainly evident, however, all of reality above the material level is invisible. To know anything about these higher levels, we must become internally adequate to them. This is where the vertical chain of being becomes so important. If you want to know what life is, or what consciousness is, or what self-consciousness is, you’ve got to develop your instrument of knowledge. The reason science is so successful and produces so many incontrovertable theories about the physical world is that any normal adult with fully functioning senses is adequate to understand it. When it comes to truths about higher levels of being, something more than simple logic and sense perception becomes necessary: namely, wisdom.

Schumacher writes:

“There is nothing more difficult than to be aware of one’s thought. Everything can be seen directly except the eye through which we see. Every thought can be scrutinised directly except the thought by which we scrutinise. A special effort, an effort of self-awareness is needed – that almost impossible feat of thought recoiling upon itself: almost impossible but not quite. In fact, this is the power that makes man human and also capable of transcending his humanity,” (p. 54).

Science is one of the most valuable tools the human spirit has ever developed, but if all human knowledge is reduced to the empirically verifiable sort, most of reality is placed entirely beyond our reach. Further, a reductionistically naturalistic picture of the universe puts the cart before the horse by forgetting that all knowledge of the cosmos comes through experience (therefore, attempting to derive experience from nature conceived of as entirely physical is incoherent from the get go; read my essay Unearthing the Earth for a more developed explanation as to why). There is no conflict between faith and reason, nor between science and religion. The only conflicts arise when science is adopted as a religion, thereby becoming scientism, or when religion begins making scientific claims, thereby becoming creationism.

As Galileo put it: “The Bible [<—insert your spiritual tradition of choice] shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”

And Kant: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Let us not obscure the difference.


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