Science and Scientism, Part Two

“The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshipped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate and beautiful – and it cannot be at war with itself. Only we imperfect human beings can start such battles. And only we can end them.” Dr. Francis Collins, who led the team that mapped the entire human genome. “The Language of God”

Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks as host of the Apollo 40th anniversary celebration held at the National Air and Space Museum, Monday, July 20, 2009 in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks as host of the Apollo 40th anniversary celebration held at the National Air and Space Museum, Monday, July 20, 2009 in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

After the strident coverage of the scandals of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts, televangelists fell on hard times to the point where Billy Graham, who led more people to an altar call than any of the others, made the definitive point that he was not one. To many, televangelism became a punchline. A notable exception is the enthusiasm attained with his followers by one of the most successful of the current televangelists, although he is not a Christian one. His television series was a resounding success, produced by a fellow true believer, Seth MacFarlane, the animator who also produced a widely watched hit commercial series, “Family  Guy.”

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson came to broad public acclaim through the remake of the old Carl Sagan series from the eighties, “Cosmos.” Dr. deGrasse Tyson has it all: engaging personality, telegenic good looks, a pleasing, convincing voice, brilliant teaching skills, along with a great passion for and the certainty of his faith. He fills large public venues on his tours with high production value, entertaining presentations that sell out routinely. Dr. deGrasse Tyson is now a millionaire (and counting).

I have no objection to the science that he so ably teaches (in truth I love and read books on science regularly), but take issue with his other agenda: the aggressive deconstruction of other people’s faith. Joining Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Bill Nye and other apostles of the cult of scientism, he is not subtle, lobbing gratuitous enades right from the start of the Cosmos series using a shop worn atheist meme about Giordano Bruno[i].  He likes to fire up his flock with Tweets mocking anyone naïve enough to fall for the God myth.

Here’s a couple from December 25th, 2014 from a man clearly enamored of his own cleverness.

  1. ‏ On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642
  2. Merry Christmas to all. A Pagan holiday (BC) becomes a Religious holiday (AD). Which then becomes a Shopping holiday (USA).

The irony in #1 is apparent: Newton and many others who were seminal in Western science were deeply religious. #2 is factually wrong on sequence, dates and history (explanation in the article referenced in the footnote).[ii] The point of these was obviously not accuracy, it was self-satisfied mockery of other’s cherished beliefs. They reflect the central narrative of the scientism creed: the long struggle to climb out of the ignorance and mire of religion has finally triumphed, pulling mankind up from autocratic, stubborn ignorance and into pure, breathing-free reason; and, we, the deGrasse Tysons of the world, the enlightened, are its wizards.

“(Moderns) do not know that there are other methods (besides science) of finding the truth, such as honest, straightforward logical reasoning. They are less aware than previous generations of what good reasons are, for the very word ‘reason’ has drastically shrunk in meaning in modern philosophy.” Peter Kreeft,” Fundamentals of the Faith”

Their dogma ignores that modern science grew out of the soil of religion; there is no opposition, only complimentary and necessary perspectives. The founders of modern Western science were educated in church sponsored universities and faith filled, seeing no conflict between faith and reason: Newton, Descartes, Galileo, Pascal and many others. Many scientific advances have been made by priests and religious.  Here’s a few:

  • Father Jean Picard developed the first modern reasonably accurate estimate of the size of the earth. He was a contemporary of and collaborator with Isaac Newton, inventor of calculus and founder of modern physics.
  • Nicholas Copernicus, astronomer and mathematician, who formulated the math and calculations proving a heliocentric solar system, was a third order Dominican.
  • Gregor Mendel, father of gene theory and the science of modern genetics, was an Augustinian friar and abbot of the St. Thomas Abbey.
  • Father Georges Lemaitre
  • More recently, Father George Lemaitre, Belgian priest and teacher of astronomy and mathematics at the Catholic University of Leuven, first formulated the theory of an expanding universe in 1927, usually misattributed to Hubble, who published two years later. Father Lemaitre developed what became known as Hubble’s Constant, as necessary to those calculations, and first proposed the Big Bang Theory. After first challenging the theory, Albert Einstein met with Lemaitre, and after extensive review of the math, became a supporter.

Scientism is not science, but self-defines a schism between science and reason vs. religious faith and superstition.  This impoverished belief system violates a fundamental tenet of true science; by presupposing that no Creator exists, it distorts wide open inquiry to preclude any possibility of the divine. Rather than going wherever the evidence leads, scientism shuts down paths of examination.  If you want to maintain an open mind on the subject, I recommend some reading on this vast subject; it has far too long a history for a blog post. I briefly reviewed the slow devolution of philosophy to the current “enlightened” position of a false dichotomy between faith in a Creator and science in a couple of previous posts: Singularity and Beyond Singularity, but for a deeper look, I’ve included a short suggested reading list in a footnote[iii].

Science offers a valid, but limited understanding of our existence. Science is the specific study and understanding of physical phenomenon, mostly, but not entirely, based in the “scientific method” of observation of empirical and measurable data, then formulating hypotheses regarding those observations. Next it tests and hones hypotheses with experimentation, further observation and mathematics. Science is rooted, however, in broader metaphysical concepts: that we can trust our observations and reasoning, i.e. that our brains and observational equipment (biological and instruments) can be relied upon for accurate observation, and that the scientific method is valid. The foundation of science itself is a metaphysical concept that the universe is intelligible, and that human beings can come to understand that intelligibility. An intelligible universe would seem to indicate an intelligible origin. Great benefits have accrued to humankind through science and its practical cousin, technology, but also concomitant risk and always emerging ethical questions.

“Can,” “how,” “how much and how many,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “who,” “why and why not,” and their relationships are the domain of science, however “ought” and “should.” are the province of ethics, informed by millennia of philosophy and religion. On this ground, scientism has staked its claim as well. Science is, well, a science, but scientism is a faith, a type of religion, albeit a secular and relatively new one. Scientism holds that science is the only reliable guide to truth, and that metaphysics, philosophy, religion, poetry, art and other forms of human understanding are speculative, subjective, relative and not up to the exacting standards of hypothesis, experiment and empirical observation. From this perspective, objective truth is solely contained in the scientific method.

As with all stories, this has no certain beginning; and shrouded in the mists of antiquity, the story begins when we start watching and paying attention. When and where you start watching, dear reader, is what you must determine with some study and thought, and dare I say, some prayer.

“Positivism and existentialism are no longer as popular as they were earlier in this century, but their essential mind-set has taken root securely in our culture, especially the false premise common to both philosophies, namely that reason equals science.” Peter Kreeft, “Fundamentals of the Faith.”

 

[i] Father Robert Barron comments on “Cosmos: A Space Odyssey.”

[ii] Word on Fire Blog, “What Neil deGrasse Tyson Misses About Science and Faith,” Joe Heschmeyer

[iii] This list is far from comprehensive, and many other references are omitted, but they will provide a starting place from a variety of perspectives. I have read them and know them to be clear and well written. There are many others. I apologize for the incomplete references, but Amazon links to all are included. Most are available in inexpensive paperback or Kindle editions:

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9 Comments

Filed under Background Perspective, Culture views

9 responses to “Science and Scientism, Part Two

  1. Anthony Vinson

    Jack, first things first: I loved your last post and thought I indicated so in my response. It was a great story and fun to read. I was only expressing my initial disappointment because I had expected Part II. But I got better.

    The schism you describe has been there a long, long time, simmering for the most part, but fairly recently once again bubbling over into a movement; and not one that could be described as kind or charitable to those of faith. Many of the movement’s members are mocking, antagonistic, and mean-spirited. This is unfortunate. Animosity is unbecoming and accomplishes no good.

    I see your point about the current and curious cult of personality surrounding science and atheism and do not necessarily disagree. I fail to understand the casting of rock star scientists. (Neither do I understand the concept of rock star chefs. Perhaps we’re living in some bizarre Warholian world in which every profession gets its 15 minutes?) I tend to think there’s a line, the crossing of which makes one less scientist and more entertainer. I feel similarly about televangelists, chefs, and carpenters. Not to diminish their bona fides, Tyson and Nye long ago crossed over. There are lots of scientists/science educators who maintain lower profiles and attempt to remain true to their missions, among them Steven Novella, Yvette d’Entremont, Cara Santa Maria, and Sean Carroll.

    While happy that science and scientists are receiving a bit more respect, I am chagrined that this newfound esteem is so often linked to animosity and mockery toward theists. That is ridiculous. There should be no division since science is every bit as important to us whether we believe the world is 4.5 billion years old or 6 thousand.

    I, for one, do not worship science. In fact I reject the concept of scientism as you define it. Instead, I rely on the process (science) to [eventually, perhaps, possibly, maybe never] determine what truths it may. The process is flawed and always will be so long as it is administered by humans. We are fraught with all manner of biases. Ego traps capture the best among us. We take short cuts, we cut corners, we make errors in judgment. The “scientific method” (in quotes here only to define it not as a single thing but rather a great big bag of tools), when diligently applied, is the best method we have developed to arrive at what truths we can about the nature of things in the physical world. Philosophy, faith, and art certainly have their places. Religion? Since most of religion’s claims are supernatural, and science has no method by which to test the supernatural, I’m not convinced we can properly evaluate its claims and therefore doubt it has much of a purpose. But I wouldn’t fight to eliminate it so long as it remains its separation from the state.

    I do not mock faith; I simply fail to understand its allure. What a person believes is their business so long as those beliefs do not intrude upon the business of others. Beyond that, belief is personal. I actually know a highly educated person who believes she’s been abducted by aliens. Not once, but multiple times. I think she’s silly, but who’s she hurting? (And no, I am not comparing her irrational belief to those of theists or deists, just offering it up as an example.)

    I could go on, but hey, I’ve taken enough space.

    Bottom line: It appears that we agree about more than we disagree.

    Good series – Thanks for helping me keep my mind sharp.

    Av

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  2. Anthony Vinson

    Almost immediately after posting my comment I serendipitously stumbled across this: http://bigthink.com/videos/why-its-so-hard-for-scientists-to-believe-in-god It’s relevant to the discussion at hand, and I think you will appreciate what Francis Collins has to say. (Sorry, couldn’t figure out how to leave a direct link in Word Press, so you’ll have to cut and paste.

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  3. A few points, Anthony:

    Scientism has been around for hundreds of years (Logical Positivism was expressed in the eighteenth century), but only more recently in the latter part of the last century has become prevalent. Indeed it hearkens back to the philosophy vs. poetry divisions at the time of Plato that morphed into science vs. religion. This question was just not framed as scientism, but is a relatively recent appellation of the twentieth century.

    I enjoyed Dr. Collin’s interview. Saw a feature on him once a few years ago on one of the Sunday TV news magazines (20/20?). Thank you for the link. He is an eminent and celebrated researcher and heads the National Institute of Health. He led the way to mapping the entire human genome. He sees no conflict between religious faith and science. This dichotomy is the invention of the proponents of scientism. Irrespective of his qualifications, his appointment to his current position was adamantly opposed by the scientism true believers, not on the basis of his qualifications as a scientist, which were incontrovertible, but solely because he was an evangelical Christian. It seems witch hunts are not the sole province of fundamentalists, or rather exclusive and excluding fundamentalism among scientists exists as well.

    I never thought you “worshiped” science, only that ignoring the prerequisite for a non-contingent being to explain why there is something rather than nothing is itself an act of faith. Not a religion necessarily, but a circumscribed ideology that functions like a belief system.

    One aside: you seem to indicate (unless I’m misreading) that religious faith is OK as long as it is kept private and under wraps – a harmless hobby like coin collecting or bird watching, innocuous and maybe a bit eccentric, tolerable if it doesn’t intrude into the public square. I agree completely on separation of church and state when it refers to state or government supported and regulated churches. I agree also that no politician should be openly shored up from anybody’s pulpit without jeopardizing tax exempt status. Where I differ, perhaps, is the church or the preacher or the individual speaking out on issues based on informed consciences that are formed in the teachings and moral foundations of their faith. Not only is speaking out allowable, dialogue is commendable, even obligatory, when the conscience perceives evil. As Bob Dylan sang in his “You Gotta Serve Somebody,” our consciences will be formed, either haphazardly and accidentally with the winds of the culture or deliberately with experience and study, as I know yours is. I too prefer the latter.

    Thank you, as always, for your kind and thoughtful comments and additions to the “Great Discussion.”

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    • Anthony Vinson

      Jack,

      A couple of quick clarifications.

      1. I do not presuppose the nonexistence of a god or gods. I am open to the possibility that one or more may exist, but have yet to be presented with compelling evidence that they do. Nor do I assert that something came from nothing. I am comfortable saying that I don’t know how the universe came into existence. Beyond Planck time, who knows what forces were at play? (At any rate it is almost certain that the laws of physics as we understand them today would not have applied.)
      2. I am comfortable with religious faith and the faithful. Faith and religion are important to many people and I would stand to defend their right to believe, worship, and peaceably congregate. I view religious faith not as an eccentric hobby, but rather a philosophy and a way of life for those who choose it. I do not scoff at the faithful or try to change their minds. Who am I to question their faith or their choices? Do I find some religious ceremonies and traditions odd and a bit wacky? Yes, but I do not speak negatively about them when in public or social settings.
      What I am uncomfortable with is the tyranny of the majority, which is one of the many things the Constitution cleverly guards against. I am convinced that our Constitution is secular by design and that the framers were wise to make it so. When religious organizations creep too close to the wall of separation or attempt to circumvent it, we should all, faithful and apostates; believers and non-believers alike stand together to repel them. It’s in our mutual best interests.

      Thanks again and Be Well!

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      • Well put. I think the ideologues on both sides could learn about dispassionate and well reasoned positions that help all of us to better understand each other without derision. And the first step to mutual respect and living peaceably in a multicultural society is understanding without anger and cynicism. Thanks again and all the best to you and yours. On Jun 15, 2016 2:25 PM, “Quo Vadis? Jack's Blog” wrote:

        >

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  4. Bob Cormack

    Having worked with scientists (as an engineer) for the last 30 years or so, I’m well aware of the prevalent attitude among most about religion and particularly the existence of a spiritual world — that is that there is absolutely no evidence that such exists. Interestingly, all the scientists I have had conversations with on this subject were also completely ignorant of the long history of scientific studies into just this question. Naturally, they also had no idea that there are currently a small set of scientists who are studying the spiritual question; For example: http://www.adcrf.org/ and http://www.after-death.com/ . When apprised of the existence of this research, they (nearly) uniformly claim that there is no proof at all of the existence of any spiritual phenomena, that it is all trickery and/or delusion. Clearly, to make such a declaration in the absence of data is an act of faith, not evidence-based science, and thus qualifies as a type of religion.

    Science can be considered a method (or algorithm) for studying the world. As such, there is no question that can’t, in principle, be investigated using some version of the “scientific method” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_method).

    “Scientism”, as you define it (and I agree) can be stated as the belief that everything possible in the world is (potentially) contained within the current physical theories. Many details are unknown and not worked out — even major discoveries, perhaps — but nothing can exist that is completely outside of current physical theory. This belief is not provable; is based solely on faith; and thus is a brand of religion. The fact that this belief has been repeatedly falsified through history by various theoretical and experimental revolutions seems to be lost on the believers in Scientism. Now, they are sure, we have the (essentially) complete picture.

    One example frequently run into (at least in the books I tend to read) is that when a scientist, who adheres to the religion of Scientism (A “Scientismist”?) tries to explain the universal (among Human societies) existence of religions, it is “explained” as a response to the fear of death. (Perhaps this is simply projection on the scientist’s part of his/her own fears?) Polls have revealed (see links above) that at least 20% of the population believes that they have experienced communication with deceased loved ones, and this seems to be universal in human societies. A more likely (and rational) reason for the rise of religion therefore is the attempt to explain this extremely widespread experience. Of course, whether this experience is always a delusion is a question open to scientific exploration, which past and present scientists were eager to address. The common Scientism claim that this experience is (always) nothing but delusion is actually falsified by much of the scientific research into the subject — which the “Scientismists” won’t even acknowledge exists, and refuse to look at when it is brought to their attention.

    That no one has supplied a proof of the existence of God is, I believe, completely beside the point. The existence of a spiritual world and the existence of God are completely separate issues — one does not necessarily imply the other. IMO, the existence of a spiritual world has been proven by sufficient evidence. That there is no current theory to explain this fact is no reason to deny the evidence. (A lot of significant engineering would be difficult, if engineers demanded that everything known to work be explained by a theory: For example the detailed construction of aluminum refineries — where electro-magnetic forces not predicted by the Lorenz force law must be accounted for — and the use of the non-rotating Earth center as the absolute reference for the GPS system clocks — which is explained by no currently accepted theory..)

    The fact that current physical theory denies the (proven) spiritual component of the universe simply means that these theories are incomplete and possibly seriously wrong about some things. At some point progress in physical theory will stall (if it hasn’t already) until it expands its scope to include what is known to exist.

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  5. Perhaps waiting for or even debating a scientific proof of God’s existence cedes ground I’m unprepared to surrender. God, at least the Christian and Jewish God, exists by definition outside of time and space or anything measurable. The classic understanding of God (if to pretend we understand God’s existence in any complete sense is not hubris of the first order) is that time, space, energy, the beginning and the end exist within God’s mind – once, whole, true and beautiful. God is not our invention or dependent on humanity in any way.

    We are not needed by God; God is needed by us. Science does not and cannot see past the veil, the separation between God and mankind, so there can be no conflict. Science is simply not competent in this regard. Science investigates one aspect of our humanity and our innate drive to comprehend truth, but the greatest truths, it seems to me, lie beyond its reach.

    Can science answer the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” If the answer science comes up with is that inherent within the nature of the intelligible universe itself is the predisposition to existence, then the next question is, “Why is that so?” A long series of homing in questions about the universe – from sub microscopic to macro – ultimately ends with a non-contingent cause. Aquinas and others postulated “proofs” of God’s existence through the study of the nature of things, logic and epistemology. What is the nature of truth? Can it be known? How do we understand these things?

    Aristotle explained that all things have four causes, which encompass the nature of every person, place, thing, dimension or time itself: efficient, material, formal and final. Material: the “stuff” of which everything is made – for us nuclei, mitochondria, cells, tissues, organs, etc, and their own concomitant “parts.” Formal: the commonalities which define a thing; what is “dog-ness” or “tree-ness” or “star-ness” or “human-ness” that while varying greatly within individuals in the group, still have sufficient common features to distinguish them as a type of thing. Efficient: what is the cause or what causes the creation of a thing: “From whence does it come?” and receding back in time, what caused its cause, etc. Biologically, our efficient cause is the sperm and egg from our parents. But what before that? Non directed, accidental, evolutionary? And what before that? Before the Big Bang? Before time?

    Final is the most metaphysical of causes: “What is a thing for?”, what is its ultimate goal and perfection? For humans, outside of the common nature with all animals having a final cause to survive, propagate and continue in existence as a species, the final cause is happiness. For Aristotle, it is not just as rational animal we are distinguished; our final cause, the goal of our very nature is happiness, and that happiness can only be found by understanding truth, conforming our life to that truth and to understand that truth and beauty are the same thing.

    This intrinsic need to understand truth is not circumscribed only within the strictures of the scientific method; beyond these useful, but limited, means are other, deeper understandings of our existence, our final cause, and ultimately our happiness. In those inquiries, outside of science, is found our end, our home, our stillness within.

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  6. Thank you Bob and Anthony. Just to have these brief encounters of understanding help me to more fully define and understand what is imporant (at least to me) to define and understand. It is for me the best and really, the only, reason to do this. Most grateful for your time and contributions. i am truly humbled that you would spend your precious time here.

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  7. Bob Cormack

    Hi Jack,

    To briefly clarify — I would never claim that one has to (or even should) wait for a scientific proof to believe in something. Heck, lots of things are known to be true about the physical universe without the benefit of being described in a physical theory — and sometimes in spite of being contradicted by current physical theory. (See my previous comments on engineering.)

    In a more philosophical vein, it can be persuasively argued that scientific theories will never (and can never) explain everything: It was shown by mathematician Kurt Godel, in 1931 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurt_G%C3%B6del#The_Incompleteness_Theorem), that no (non trivial) system of statements that are consistent and related by logic (such as a scientific theory) can be complete — that is, there are many (probably infinitely many) valid questions within the domain of the theory which can not be answered by the theory.

    Still, the apparent fact that there are infinitely many facts about the universe which can’t be explained by scientific theories (however much elaborated) doesn’t mean that the scientific method can’t be applied to any question, and may reveal many useful and interesting facts. The necessary incompleteness of logical methods, however, practically begs one to assume that there are other ways to explore and discover these facts.

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