The Limitations of Scientism

“Whoever appeals to any science in order to justify his basic convictions inspires distrust of his honesty or his intelligence”
-Nicolas Gomez-Davila

It seems that in this age of ours, defined as it is by an unsettling uncertainty of our most cherished assumptions, and a fashionable postmodern relativism, it is paradoxically not so much conducive to a public discourse marked by pluralism and openness to outside viewpoints as it is one marked by a new multiplicity of dogmatisms, ones which more than opening venues for discussion appear to close down on limited and fragmentary aspects- which then go on to assert themselves in a totalizing conquest of debates.

Particularly in some modern debates, on questions of truth, morality, and politics, what emerges uncontroversially as the solid point of reference from which to draw authority is science or rather, scientism. This is an important distinction, as science is a discipline which in its own purview has indeed the most apt conceptual tools and terms which allow its internal development to proceed, yet which are often transplanted out of their respective areas to effect a form of ideological colonization of other forms of discourse- whereby the field loses all familiar appearance to become a caricatures of itself, buttressing positions beyond its capacity to judge.

Scientism emerges as a prominent surrogate bastion of authority, which cloaking itself as neutral descriptive observation of discrete cause-and-effect relationships in the natural world, in fact constitutes a particular philosophical outlook of ontological materialism. It is the metaphysical claim that, in its own terms, the only truths to be found are those which can be expressed in the language of the natural sciences, and through their methodology.

For instance, a philosophical illiterate will enter a debate on societal mores and norms and attempt to draw conclusions on what constitutes appropriate human behavior by pointing to the mating habits of chimpanzees or the curious power dynamics within groups of lions. In another case, a discussion of the merits of certain works of literature will be judged to be best evaluated with the aid of fMRI scans and a talk on what goes on in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, in a new lauded “discovery’’.

In both cases, and many others which if I were to go on citing would be merely a tedious laundry list of sensationalist headlines and the misguided reactions to them, what is at play is a form of epistemological imperialism, whereby the lack of acquaintance or discontent with reasoning proper to a given field of inquiry, in our examples, ethics and literary criticism respectively, some will merely try to beat these fields into being submissive sub-sections of the natural sciences- under the guise of bringing “innovation’’ or getting at the “real truth” of a given topic.

Academia it can be said, in many departments, appears in thrall of these reductionist pseudo-explanations of various areas and subjects, even in the humanities which is most ironic. We can recall for example Daniel Dennett’s boastful work Consciousness Explained, which could be best summarized as being a piece dedicated not so much to explaining consciousness as denying its existence. The area of consciousness in fact is particularly notorious for the triumphalism of its experts in their denialism of the very thing they seek to explain, and which presumably must endow them with the power of explanation in the first place unless they are automatons indistinguishable from inanimate matter. This however is a topic which ought to be explored more fully at a later date, as to do it justice.

In any case, it remains a temptation for certain experts, so-called, to chase a somewhat Gnostic ideal of ‘truth’ behind certain questions which involves a stripping away of layers and qualities which define said questions as to arrive at basic fragmentary facts and then suggest one understands the whole phenomenon by virtue of these. In many ways, this is the modus operandi of many evolutionary psychologists for example, who will attempt to explain a particular action by an individual in a specific context, by pointing to an imagined reconstruction of what his Savanah-dwelling distant ancestors were doing, a hopelessly specious and abstract line of reasoning which nevertheless, if couched in the language of science, will sure enough make a popular clickbait article in major newspapers as is often the case.

I refer to it as a somewhat Gnostic mindset not merely because it is predicated on localizing the “real” nature of things by appeal to an abstract esotericism, but also because scientism in its many manifestations ultimately seeks to suggest the visible, natural world is so irredeemably crude and flat that it couldn’t possibly give rise to, or serve as the medium to the complexity and nuance which human beings have access to. To the Gnostic, as to the adherent of scientism, the cosmos is but a barren land where the fruit of the sublime doesn’t grow, and if it appears to do so, it’s because we’ve been terribly deceived. If the Gnostic held the world to be merely the accumulations of illusions by a Demiurge, the adherent of scientism seeks to list out in more detail what the illusions are, namely such things as “free will”, “consciousness”, “meaning”, “reason”, and ultimately humanity itself. All which, as Dennett once put it, are dissolved by the universal acid of Darwinism.

The rhetoric of scientism can be said to be more exuberantly employed in the modern debates on religion, it is here that perhaps we see more clearly the kind of intellectual poverty that has become so popular nowadays, especially manifested in what is referred to as “New Atheism”. If atheism was once a respectable philosophical tradition, from the time of the Epicureans, to Nietzsche (perhaps the last great atheist), it is now characterized by a carnival parade of scientists, philosophers, journalists and commentators who’ve turned willful ignorance and a penchant for basic category errors into a veritable art form. While here I could present the reader with some thoughts on the familiar litany of this religions’ most famous saints, Dawkins, Hitchens, Grayling, Dennett, etc, I need not bore you with that, it’s necessary only to consider Lawrence Krauss’ latest article on The New Yorker, in which the esteemed luminary argues , presumably in earnest, that “all scientists should be militant atheists”, the reason for this evangelical peddling of his faith being that in specific scientific questions God doesn’t come into the equation. As philosopher Edward Feser puts it, what passes for an argument in these kinds of pieces is not unlike “an artist who confines himself to using black and white materials and then concludes that, since color doesn’t show up in his drawings of fire engines and apples, it follows that fire engines and apples are not really red.”

Krauss’ embarrassing proselytizing aside, New Atheism’s missionaries are a great representative sample of what I refer to, of the co-opting of science as a surrogate bastion of authority in questions which have nothing to do it, as the launching pad for dubious ideological flights of fancy.

In a sense it can be surmised that perhaps this is merely a manifestation of an unconscious reaction to poststructuralist attempts to do the same, but the other way around, in the politicization of non-political fields, we can recall Michel Foucault’s and his followers and fellow travelers’ movement to cast doubt on the whole enterprise of the natural sciences by associating it with hidden edifices of power and the oppression of marginalized groups. Yet in a sense, what this variety of scientism involves is necessarily the same form of colonization, of attempting to fit other fields into the straitjacket of one’s own all-embracing totalitarian discourse, now removed from any constraint as to the limits of its conceptual reach.

This is an intellectual malaise which reoccurs time and time again in the West, as we can’t forget the earlier case of Marxism, which sought to interpret the whole of reality through the lens of the class struggle- or for that matter that other great religious movement, of Freudianism, which again with the Gnostic instinct, endowed the enlightened to see the “real” motivations behind everything as relating to unresolved childhood traumas and sexual fixations of many kinds. The more recent wave of scientism, as manifested in what neuroscientist and philosopher Raymond Tallis referred to as instances of ‘Neuromania’ and ‘Darwinitis’, or what theologian Conor Cunningham calls ‘ultra-Darwinism’, are but the latest incarnations of this same fundamentalist mentality.
I presume that ultimately, what is at the root of the recurrence of this malaise is the perpetual search for a surrogate grand narrative to provide life with meaning, in the aftermath of Nietzsche’s declaration of divine death and the abyss of nothingness it revealed.

It is something that has been noted elsewhere, that in the divorce of philosophy with a world imbued with meaning, which upon inspection and contemplation reveals in its order truth, beauty, and good, it merely became an exercise in self-referential navel-gazing, first marked by logical positivism as a kind of self-imposed limitation on how far the horizons of language could go. With this myopia firmly established as orthodoxy, scientism and other fundamentalisms of partial descriptions had to follow, or else, we’d risk again, gazing at the existential abyss where not even reason had a reasonable world to interpret, but merely an infinite collection of succeeding acts in one cosmic Theater of the Absurd.
Ecclesiastes was right, there’s nothing new under the sun, and the fads are all the same though they come in different clothes at different times. There’s nothing the adherents and missionaries of scientism have said that wasn’t said by Lucretius, the Epicureans, or for that matter the Gnostics in their own way, the novelty of the fad is unwarranted, save for what is a modern stupid reverence for what is dressed up as science.Facebooktwitter

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