September 14, 2020
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Scientism: Trusting in a Fragmented Totality

Scientism: Trusting in a Fragmented Totality

When philosophical inquiry was being experimented with in ancient Greece, philosophers often did not make distinctions between the sciences and the other fields of thought which they debated. Some of the same thinkers pondering atomic structure were also formulating a moralistic code.

To the Greeks, all knowledge was attractive. These were minds interested in both the natural world and in deeper questions pertaining to the reason for existence itself. They sought above all else an understanding of the truth.

From philosophy sprung the urge to apply science to the various facets of the daily grind. Applied science and mathematics resulted in technological advances. Spanning across a period of centuries, it was gradually understood that (at least some) scientific research was beneficial to the common worker. After all, a culture of ingenuity that tapped into scientific examination usually witnessed the development of prideful monuments and devices that improved labor.

Perhaps it was advancements such as these that brought about a change in the priorities of philosophical pursuits. The mindset of popular philosophy shifted in favor of empirical treatment over theoretical musings, whereas the Greek Fathers spared room for both – empirical in observing visible nature and theoretical in considering elements like the First Cause of the cosmos.

Why Science Is Held in High Esteem

The empirical frame of thought is hinged upon the capability to observe and evaluate data. This nicely accommodates the endeavors of science. In fact, it can be said this is a scientific way of seeking knowledge since observation is central to its methodology. Thus, there was a rise of empirical philosophers such as David Hume during the 17th and 18th centuries.

In fact, many philosophers of the day also took up scientific pursuits. The earliest members of the American Philosophical Society, founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin, were highly devoted to exploring earth sciences.

This movement toward empiricism coincided with a broader cultural movement with which many scholars are familiar – the Age of Enlightenment that swept through Western civilization. A rapid social and technological evolution occurred via ideals championed by fundamental figures the likes of John Locke. However, another philosopher – Immanuel Kant – offers the quote which is often used to sum up the movement’s mentality: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.”

By “self-incurred immaturity,” Kant is referring to the freely chosen disposition to heed the sociocultural beliefs issued by another. The goal of the “Enlightenment” then was to do away with the imposed ideals of others and to aspire to be an autonomous thinker. Certain institutional authorities were frequently looked upon as threats to such autonomy, especially the Church and its clergy. The movement always put religion under suspicion.

So communities turned to science, which inevitably took the place of religion in numerous instances. In denial of an unseen higher reality, scientism developed – holding that science was the only absolute and undeniable method to reach the truth.

The Dangers of Science

There are a variety of potentially dangerous outcomes when science is applied to a dilemma, the first of which is laziness or unintentional human fault. For instance, this can manifest itself as a lack of proper testing in a new drug.

Beyond that, there’s a slew of dangers which science breeds in relation to the value of the human person. In everything from propulsion to genetics, science has been misused with malevolent intentions, demeaning human dignity. In this regard, it is no different from any other skill or profession – its fruits can be marred by pride and greed, and it can hurt others.

But all in all, the chief threat of science is scientism. Making science-based data the only source for truth undermines law and justice. Unlike classical philosophy, scientism holds no room for a moral code of any kind.

So, it can certainly be said that science has steered us toward saving a person’s life in numerous occasions. But, in the same scenario, science could never calculate a reason as to why it is right to save said person’s life.

For all its technical knowhow, science has its limits. Its pertinence ends wherever spiritual matters are concerned. And because it cannot account for such things as morality and spirituality, it oftentimes dismisses them. This is the very pinnacle of scientism. Science is the absolute truth; the answer it produces is the final word.

While it is inaccurate and presumptuous to accuse public figures such as William Sanford Nye, or “Bill Nye,” as not being true scientists, it is difficult to argue contrary to the understanding that Nye is among the proponents of scientism. The 21st century is not merely one which thrives on science but one which is quite willing to cling to the gospel of scientism. It has become indoctrinated into our culture.

When we see morality so easily thrown to the wayside, it is not hard to imagine science, for all its noble aspirations, evolving into a merciless power. Scientism misses the point of science, trying to substitute its meaning with absolute truth instead of a constantly growing comprehension. Scientism believes it has all the answers when, in point of fact, it is a metaphorical fabric filled with moth holes.

Scientism is rooted in science, and scientists are continuously learning about our cosmos. All the answers will never be recorded. Scientism misses this, having faith only itself – even as insufficient and flawed as it is.

Are Science and Faith Compatible?

Science is a beautiful thing that has the potential to bring about terrific good in the world. Ultimately, its biggest threat is its mutated offshoot scientism, which puts science on a pedestal claiming it as the sole diviner of truth. It is frequently not pure science that fails – but scientism.

Science, on the other hand, can be of great benefit both physically as well as spiritually. Outside of bodily and environmental health, science allows the mind to explore Nature rationally, analyzing all of its intricacies. It can allow us to understand the marvelous and diverse forms in which life has been crafted. It can help us better understand the world and the universe, and it can instill awe and wonder and hope within us.

Yet, too many scientists – often through personal trial – deny themselves the belief in morality, let alone the higher cause of a Creator. Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie, renowned as the co-discoverer of radium and polonium, disassociated herself from religious ideologies and embraced agnosticism, though her own mother had been culturally Catholic.

Curie could not prove the existence of God through scientific observation. So she dodged the inquiry, the scientific mind becoming content with non-confrontation. Indeed, the seeds of scientism have been with us during many of our modern achievements.

In regards to the apparent conflict between faith and reason, many often point to the flawed decision on the part of the Church concerning teachings of figures such as Galileo Galilei. Once upon a time, it also looked upon certain procedures like the dissecting of bodies (in which Leonardo da Vinci actually participated) with reverent scrutiny.

Over the years, however, as applied science has grown, the Church’s response to it has likewise changed. By the 20th century, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences had been formed: a Church institution that has gathered together the sage intellects of, among others, astronomer Vera Rubin and physicist Stephen Hawking.

Pope John Paul II, hailed as a Catholic saint, perhaps best puts the relationship between faith and science into words:

“Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”

The “idolatry” and “false absolutes” John Paul II refers to are directly applicable to scientism. This is because scientism is a form of idolatry – setting up a single icon to which one comes to know all things. And it is also an absolute, as noted earlier.

Scientism is the chief injury to the endeavors of authentic science. Science itself holds no threat in contrast with faith. On the contrary, as John Paul II suggested, faith and reason are obliged to engage in healthy dialogue, thereby strengthening both the Church and the sciences. Faith and reason are not just compatible; they are complementary.

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Written by
John Tuttle