the blindspots in our religion of Scientism

There are many. Here are some of the most important:

1) Science is viewed as uniquely trustworthy because it contains a continuously self-correcting mechanism in the form of peer review.

2) For this reason, it constantly evolves over time, getting better and truer in every way. Unlike religion, science is incapable of succumbing to dogmatic stagnation and therefore remains incorruptible.

3) Its practitioners maintain a more-or-less pristine purity – of motivation and integrity, intellectual and moral courage.

4) Even where this is not so, Science’s methods are somehow transcendently “objective,” ultimately enabling it to rise above all human partiality and short-sightedness.

In short, we can confidently cede to Science the same kind of trust and faith we once gave to religion. We may as well even (were it not for the fact that we dislike the word so much) call it “God,” because it serves the same primary function for us, being our source of complete and absolute Truth.

When challenged, apologists for scientism – which is not the practice of genuine, humble science but rather precisely this ideology or religion of Science – can be counted upon to deliver these assertions. Mostly, however, they don’t need to, because these have become thoroughly embedded in our culture. The trouble – the big trouble – is that none of them happen to be true.

Taking them one by one, briefly:

1) Peer review is still trustworthy within certain domains of science. Unfortunately, in other areas – particulary medicine and psychiatry – this process has clearly broken down, as has been demonstrated in many publications of recent years. Big, big money and other vested interests infiltrated it quite some time ago. Pharmaceutical companies maintain various means for influencing the interpretation and reception, even the initial framing and design, of studies. (See an earlier post on this.)

2) The idea that science, a purely human enterprise, must necessarily keep getting better is an impulse of religious faith, and nothing more. We laugh today at nineteenth century science’s forays into phrenology: how could they ever have believed that the shape of one’s skull could indicate “moral degeneracy” or “criminality”? Yet today we see research positing a connection between finger-length ratios or inner ear functioning and openness to same-sex sexual expression! All of these kinds of studies have been picked to shreds by numerous analysts, but they still persist and are even widely believed because … science keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it?

But, of course, this is simply not so. There are wrong turnings, and dead ends. There is wishful thinking, and the need for new paradigms. There are simply no guarantees that at any given moment in any particular area of inquiry we are on track. There is even, and very much so, the possibility that dogma may set in, so that an entire erroneous way of conceiving something becomes stuck in falsehood or incoherence for quite a long period.

3) Once upon a time, “the scientist” represented an ideal type. She (though in fact almost always a he, since science until a hundred years ago or so believed women to be unfit for higher education and in fact damaged by it) was a lone, heroic seeker after truth, wherever it might lead. Humble, radically open, laboring away with purest and most disinterested motivation.

Those days, needless to say, are long gone. Though such people undoubtedly still exist, “science” today is a vast domain of disparate activities, many of which are indistinguishable from pure advocacy or profit-making. The reality is that enormous profits may hang upon the acceptance of one study or another, and that big contracts await those who can persude governments or corporations of future cash potential in a line of research. There is more generally the reality of job-seeking and grant application at all levels, and the all-too-human phenomena of ambition and peer pressure, of competitiveness and factions within research institutions.

Some human beings may be saintly, purely disinterested seekers after truth wherever it may lead them. Most of us would prefer, ideally, to have more influence rather than less, to be revered rather than viewed as an eccentric crank, and so on. On top of this, larger cultural paradigms and expectations inevitably influence how we conceive the “scientific” to begin with. By definition, we cannot see a cultural blindspot until something shifts in the paradigm, revealing what was previously obscured.

4) The notion that Science is somehow separable from the human minds which create, define, and practice it is completely insupportable. This is precisely a transcendent, religious notion – an article of faith.

Materialism – the belief that all that exists is measurable, perceptible to the physical senses of human beings – is inescapably a philosophical, not a scientific, position. It contains a number of difficulties which the best minds of countless generations have grappled with. Indeed, there is something rather comical in the spectacle of human minds getting together to express the idea – no, make the dogmatic assertion – sometimes even in formulations of dense theoretical abstraction, that consciousness as such doesn’t exist! That everything mental is somehow generated from the physical. (The buddhists put it the other way round – but they also don’t claim this as dogma to be believed, rather a way to see which we can each personally investigate.) The fact that the material realm does obey certain formulable rules does not warrant an assertion that we can reduce the nature of reality itself to concept.

“We are nothing but the firing of neurons,” say – somehow – the firing neurons…

All interpretation is necessarily subjective, unless, in the seizing of “objectivity,” we want to proclaim Science as dogmatic religion, as our God: indisputably true, the final arbiter in all and every last meaningful question we might put to it. Not just – for here is the most crucial point – within the sphere of non-sentient matter, but also that of sentience, consciousness, itself.

Look at what happens, after all, whenever the arguments I have made above appear in the national press – when they are even allowed to appear. One is told that as a non-scientist one has no right even to speak on the subject, being so ignorant. Science also commandeers all purity of motivation today; all those who lament the extent of its dominance must be, maybe even secretly, employees or spies of Religion. (The only trouble is that when science PhDs say the same things they too are intimidated or mocked.)

We are told:

Sit down, shut up, and marvel – with genuine religious awe even – at the photos we are going to show you of galaxies and the brain (but wait until we first color them in so that they look as startling and aesthetically pleasing as possible, otherwise, actually, you might be rather unimpressed).

We are told:

Do you see that beautiful orange region right there? That, my friends, is “gregariousness”! And that breathtaking purple underneath it? Hold onto your seats, but, yes, that’s the region which, when activated, causes you to weep with joy when listening to Ravel’s Piano Trio or petting a faithful dog! And one day we will be able to locate the exact region where “addiction-proneness” resides, so that – with enough funding – we can develop forms of surgery which will ensure a population where nobody is addicted to anything! Of course, it’s true, the purple area might also light up when you get some unexpected good news, or in numerous other scenarios, and in fact other regions light up too when you pet that dog, and admittedly we can’t actually conceptually bridge material and immaterial yet – um, at all – but give us more time, and tons more money, and we promise we will eventually be able to tell you how you get from a neuron firing to all the immense richness and complexity of aesthetic experiences and human emotions of all kinds.

You can trust us, for we are the representatives of the living twenty-first century God Who has dethroned wisdom as wimpy new-age ‘woo’ in favor of endless, directionless, value-free accumulation of knowledge. We ourselves, of course, are as wooless as woolessness can be. [Note: “woo” is a technical term used by, eg, Jerry Coyne and his fellow warriors devoted to the death of all religion. It means, as far as I can tell, anything enthusiastically stated using a language other than science, especially if it contains sentiments of awe, mystery, amazement.]

It has all become rather a racket. Good research being done, certainly, mixed in with much that is very badly conceived. Everyone scrambling for money, with fame and honor to be gained if something either pans out or can be made to appear promising. An entire culture desperate to believe in something, desperate for certainty – now that most within it can no longer subscribe to religious dogmatism. Corporations, naturally, ever on the lookout for a technological innovation that will give them an edge. Governments, naturally, searching for more successful means of manipulation, control, power. A public with miniscule attention spans and an insatiable desire for “news,” for non-challenging, easily digestible reductionism, the more sensational the better – turning to the media and its nearly uncritical acceptance of anything that comes out of the mouths of our contemporary priests and bishops – the Scientists.

Wisdom? What’s that? Just a certain quantity of “knowledge,” right? Quaint term, but what does a wise person have to give us anymore, anyway? Now if you’ll just read this new study over here, scientists have discovered (sort of, not quite, well not actually at all, but if you read the fine print they have possibly contributed to the advancement of a suggestion of) the next new earth-shattering Revelation…