The Straw Man of Scientism

Friday, October 07, 2005

A Package Deal

A term I've seen bandied about quite a bit lately by social conservatives is "scientism", which, in their hands, seems often to be a package deal between the following two ideas:

1. Actual Scientism: The idea that science, here used in the common sense of "natural science", can explain anything. Clearly, natural science cannot do this as the approach used to gain scientific knowledge, known as the scientific method, is derived from a realist metaphysics and a rational epistemology. In other words, natural science follows from philosophy and ultimately depends on philosophy for validation. Science has nothing to say, for example, on whether the law of non-contradiction is valid. (It assumes that this law is true.) In this sense of the word, scientism, denotes the mistaken idea that science can questions such as "Is there a god?" Clearly, natural science cannot answer every type of question.

2. Reason in General: The notion that reason can be used to answer nonscientific questions, and by extension, any secular outlook.
Merriam-Webster gives two definitions for the term, the second of which is closest to the first, valid portion of the above package deal: "an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences , and the humanities)".

Science vs. Reason

Is this use of the word scientism (the one in M-W) even a valid concept? It is, and because it is, we must briefly explore it to understand how the term is being misused by the religious right. We have already covered one example: Science, a discipline derived from the answers to certain philosophical questions is not able to address philosophical issues. But what of other branches of the humanities? History, for example, presents us with all manner of questions we simply cannot answer via the scientific method. Quick. Name me a series of experiments we can run to explain why the Roman Empire fell. Or if we consider the data set of all past fallen empires and use this data to form a hypothesis, what experiment will we run to test said hypothesis?

Having noted the unsuitability of science to answer certain kinds of questions, it is worth noting that the unsuitability of the methods of natural science to answer them does not mean that reason cannot be applied to gain an understanding of such questions. Consider a simple, everyday example this time. A boy tells his father he was jumping on the trampoline at his friend's house during the hour he was late for dinner. His father, without conducting a single scientific experiment, concludes that he is lying. It just so happens that his father helped this friend's dad disassemble the trampoline for someone who had bought it and arrived to pick it up -- just before the activity was supposed to have occurred. Since it was impossible for his son to have been jumping on the trampoline, the boy is caught in a lie. The boy's stated activity contradicted a fact of reality: the missing trampoline.

People use reason every day without employing the scientific method. This, astonishingly, appears to be what some on the religious right would like you to forget. This is partly because there are some areas -- like religion -- that will not stand up to rational inquiry and they want to make sure you don't think your mind is fit to examine them. So the religionists know they cannot argue their case. But the religionists also have an interest in your equivocating between religion and other philosophical outlooks so that you will be off guard when they attempt to inject religion into politics. They'd love you to take what they say on faith. Failing that, your indifference to a greater role of religion in government will do. The end result -- their control over your life -- will be the same anyway.

A spoonful of humor makes the arsenic go down....

What better way to do this than to mock scientism, while passing off a few philosophical errors of your own as common sense? And how much better if you can claim that "scientism" is just another religion?

This is exactly what one Jonathan David Carson does today at the ironically-named American Thinker.

First, he warms up his audience by reminding us how loony our culture has become after decades of bombardment by leftist, Chicken Little type intellectuals and the mass media that sheepishly follow them.
We're like a condemned man who worries about the preservatives in his last meal or its cholesterol content. We'll worry about anything but our real worries. If we lived in Sudan, we'd worry about cell phone radiation or the wrinkles around our eyes. The worse our problems are, the more we agonize about something else.

I exaggerate? We live in by far the richest country in the history of the world, and what do politicians talk about? Money. We have cocaine addicts who eat organic foods, animal rights activists distraught over the deaths of gorillas in Uganda, and people terrified that Bush will discover what books they are checking out of the library and put them in concentration camps. Divorced couples fight in front of their children and are horrified by accounts of child abuse. Teachers complain about the stultifying effects of rote learning as their students learn nothing. Educators worry that their charges have read too many literary classics and not enough trash.
Now that he's warmed us up, he slips in a couple of things we really do need to watch out for -- as if they're equally absurd. Here they are. (Objectivists will note that faith and force are covered. Interesting.)
Civil libertarians warn of a police state when most of us see police officers only when driving past them as they ticket speeders. We go years, decades, with no contact with the police whatsoever.

One of the favorite worries of the professional worrying class is the establishment of religion.
In the original, "Civil" follows "trash", uninterrupted by a pause or, Carson hopes, any thought. This is too bad, for one of the "worries" our "worrying class" and the founding fathers had in common is the establishment of religion. To discount this valid concern just because modern day liberals seem unable to distinguish between their own foamy-mouthed hostility to religion (which flows from their own confused disdain for America) and the dangers posed by theocrats with guns is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

One of the beauties of being able to enlist scientism to the cause of trashing the idea of keeping our government secular is that those guilty of scientism are such fat targets for ridicule. This is no trivial point. Robert Tracinski once made the following criticism of certain types of opinion writing.
[T]his approach tends to produce writing that sounds brilliant or witty on a superficial level, but which doesn't deliver a clear message. A standing example of this problem is provided by conservative college newspapers; in my experience, these papers habitually rely on ridicule of the left's gaudier absurdities (which is not difficult) in place of substantive arguments.
Carson's main point is that separation of church and state is a fiction because "scientism" and religion are both ... religions. In fact, reason and faith are opposite epistemological approaches. It is arguable that scientism -- in the correct sense of the term -- is guilty of the same fundamental epistemological sin (i.e., faith) as religion. In fact, Carson does seem to agree with this argument ("Science rejects hypotheses on the basis of evidence; scientism, for which there is not a whit of evidence, nor could there be, is the a priori rejection of contrary hypotheses. "), but this is not his larger point. Remember: He uses scientism as a package deal to attack separation of church and state, an attack for which there is no argument that will appeal to any thinking, freedom-loving American.

Enter the device of ridicule. Humor, such as the lampooning of leftist absurdities, relies on the implicit acceptance by the humorist and his audience, of certain common premises. As such, humor can be used properly or not. Properly, humor can be used to establish a rapport with your intended audience in order to make them interested in your topic and more likely to consider your argument. Once, writing against environmentalism for a college audience I knew was somewhat sympathetic to that movement, I opened with a humorous take on beer advertising. (This was also, incidentally, how I introduced the concept of "package deal", which was important to my point.) This led beautifully into my main argument. Improperly used, humor can be used to avoid making an argument altogether.

For example:
Making fun of such obvious buffoons as Hawking as God, the Skeptic, and the Orator is good sport and, what's better, easy, but their buffoonery conceals an evil stratagem. Trusting them is a lot more dangerous than trusting shamans to cure serious illnesses. The Skeptic may pretend to give a lighthearted look at the adulation accorded Hawking, but he has a serious point:
"Scientism is courageously proffering naturalistic answers that supplant supernaturalistic ones and in the process is providing spiritual sustenance for those whose needs are not met by these ancient cultural traditions".
Translated into English, this means that scientismists are fanatically ("courageously") striving to crush ("supplant") Christianity and Judaism ("these ancient cultural traditions") and replace them with a state religion, the state funding it under the guise of science and repressing its rivals on the pretext that the Constitution prohibits an establishment of religion.
We're not even done laughing at Hawking yet when Carson slips in the idea that these loons have established themselves as the state religion and want to wipe out Christianity. (This implication is made more explicit later. e.g.,
"Scientism is not the whole of the established religion of the United States, which is called 'secularism'....")

Carson is correct to be alarmed at the prospect of a religion having control of the apparatus of the state, though he curiously fails to consider how disentangling the state from most scientific research and from the education system might lessen the danger. This is curious -- unless Carson would turn a blind eye to the apparatus of the state serving another religion: his own.

State Religion: A Question of Whether, Not Which

Would he do this? The title of his article and one of its main arguments are that "scientism" is already the established religion of the United States. And he is right in the sense that the educational and scientific establishments are pretty much owned by the left. But is that his only point, or does he slip something else in? Is Carson merely unhappy about the fact that America has a de facto state religion or is he merely unhappy about which religion that is?

Consider the following. And consider that the remainder of the essay is devoted to more favorite idiots from the left, like Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, rather than an examination of ways to, say, get the state out of the business of promoting ideas. Also consider that his essay ends with the following: "Al Gore, a few chads short of a presidency; the United States, a few hanging chads short of a religious tyranny."
Current events, including the debate over the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, make a lot more sense if we stop taking at face value claims of the Court majority that it is preventing an establishment of religion and recognize that it is instead defending an establishment that has already taken place. How else can we explain what otherwise appears to be a paranoid fear of an establishment of Christianity despite the near total lack of advocates of a state church? The Court is not afraid of an establishment of Christianity; it is merely doing what established religions do, which is to wipe out the opposition.

Recall the Terri Schiavo case. Suppose you wanted to "have the tube pulled" under similar circumstances, but with the addition of several conservative Christians to the Supreme Court (a distinct possiblility given that the ages of four of the justices, excluding O'Connor, are at least 69), a majority of conservative Christians sat on the court. In the unlikely event someone disagreed with your decision strongly enough to try to take it to the Supreme Court, might the court act the same way again? Might such a majority make the filing of such cases more likely? Would you end up in a state of living death? Christians are already free to choose this for themselves if they wish.

And what of stem cell research? Even its critics admit that it has tremendous potential for saving lives. Someone whose life could be affected (saved or prematurely ended) down the road by how the court rules on a stem cell case might have a reason to be "paranoid" about someone who thinks stem cell research is "playing God" and would -- to borrow a conservative phrase -- legislate from the bench to ban it altogether. Christians are already free to forgo treatments based on stem cell research for themselves if they wish.

And let's get to the holy grail (or one of them, anyway) of the religious conservatives: abortion. A unmarried woman who wants the option of terminating an early pregnancy might also get a little "paranoid" about the fact that Bush has nominated someone who, not content to let God send her to Hell Himself for having an abortion, would ban this practice? Christians are already free to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term if they wish.

The ideas that animate a judicial nominee will affect her rulings, and these rulings will affect lives. The ideas of a judicial nominee have consequences. In each of the three types cases I have mentioned above, the likely rulings of devout Christians would be enough to make anyone affected by them "paranoid" enough, and the question of the establishment of a state religion hasn't even been reached!

But according to Carson, "[There is no other way to] explain what otherwise appears to be a paranoid fear of an establishment of Christianity despite the near total lack of advocates of a state church?" Paranoia about conservative Christians, yes. But what of the establishment of religion?

There are court cases in the pipeline about whether Creationism has to be taught alongside evolution in science classes. If Carson wants to credibly claim that science can't answer all questions, he must concede that it can answer some questions. If the state is to pay for the teaching of science rather than mythology, is it not of some valid concern how a future Supreme Court Justice might rule in such a case? (As a mental exercise, replace the Judaeo-Christian creation myth with that from some other religion and ask whether that should be taught as well.) Christians are already free to read the Bible to their own children or even home-school them altogether if they wish.

The Creationists want to have the Biblical story of creation taught, or at least mentioned as an equally valid alternative to evolution) at government expense in our public schools. While this would not alone constitute the full establishment of Christianity as a state religion, it would be a law respecting the establishment of same and it does two other undesirable things. (1) Like the promotion of any other ideology by the government, it is something the government has no business doing. (2) It is a "foot in the door", a precedent for future encroachements of Christianity into public life.

School prayer is another goal of the religious right. It would likely be less upsetting to many in the public to attempt to reinstate school prayer if they were already used to having Genesis read to their children as "scientific" theory in science class already. And a court that would permit the one would be much more likely to permit the other. Note that Christians are free to encourage their children to pray quietly at free moments while they are at school, send them to religious schools, or home school them altogether. They are not "free", however, to make the children of others pray, nor should they be.

So far, in just thinking through this out loud here, have come up with numerous public policy positions which would likely be affected if the right lawsuits were filed and a majority of conservative Christians were on the Supreme Court to -- ahem -- legislate from the bench: living wills concerning the removal for life support measures from the terminally ill, stem cell research, abortion, the teaching of science in public schools, and forced prayer in public schools.

Look at how much your life could change if Christianity even got on the road to becoming the de facto state religion -- as Carson claims "Scientism" is now -- of the United States! Who even needs to call this "establishment", Dr. Carson? If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. The subordination of our secular republic to Christian dicta is the establishment of a state religion. You fault the "scientismists" for not calling their religion a religion and damn them for establishing it, but you fail to call what the religious right is doing "establishing" their religion and imply that I am mental for being apprehensive about it!

I am not an adherent of scientism. I am also not a Christian. I frankly could do without the babblings of new-agers or the "concern" for my soul of the Christians. I leave you alone, Dr. Carson. Please leave me alone. That includes the following: Quit trying to make the government able to force me to live according to your beliefs. You are already free to live by your own lights.

One Legitimate Point

Having said this, I would add that Jonathan Carson does halfway make a valid point. It is the point that was made far better by one of our founding fathers when he told someone what form of government his new nation was going to have: "A republic, if you can keep it."

Our government does not exist in a philosophical vacuum. Its laws do reflect the philosophical consensus, more or less, of its people. While ideally, the government would never be in the business of actively promoting a given religion or philosophy, its officeholders act upon their personal beliefs and the people will hold to some general consensus in these spheres. Our form of government exists to protect the rights of the people, rights which are derived from the need of each individual to think in order to live. In a republic, then, each man has, through his vote, the ability to weigh in on the public debate.

Our founding fathers knew that the risk of freedom is that of making the wrong decision, but that is the risk inherent in one's very nature as a rational being. The founding fathers also knew that a refusal to take that risk meant certain tyranny or death, hence their willingness to risk death for freedom. To lessen the inherent risk of freedom for their young nation, they made our government very difficult to change quickly. Through its system of checks and balances, the founding fathers also made our government into something particularly ill-suited for establishing tyranny: it was made specifically to get in its own way, keeping ambitious individuals in check.

But at least one of the founding fathers still issued the warning I cited above. Enough bad decisions over a long-enough period of time will destroy our form of government and in doing so, endanger the freedom it was built to protect. If there is a legitimate context for speaking of a "state religion", it is not in the sense of a belief system forced upon the citizens by tyranny, but in the sense of this general consensus. If this "state religion", this general consensus of the people, favors, say, the enforcement of unproveable dogmas more than the protection of individual rights, that is what the people will eventually get, and they will deserve it. Our founding fathers knew that they could not save us from ourselves, but they did the next best thing: They made radical political change into a long, drawn-out process. One is much less likely to make a bad decision if one thinks about it for a long time, than if one makes it in an instant.

So yes, I am paranoid about the establishment -- in word or in deed -- of Christianity (or any other religion) as the state religion. The only way to accomplish this is to have people like Jonathan Carson laugh at people like me as paranoids while they pretend that they are being persecuted because the "state religion" isn't their own. Over a long enough period of time, while they keep laughing and everyone slowly gets used to less freedom and more bullying around, they will get what they want -- if they can keep it up long enough, and if the people stay asleep long enough.

The bad news for Jonathan Carson is that we have our minds and the founding fathers have given us time to use them.

-- CAV


3-29-06: Added hypertext anchors to section titles.


Anonymous said...

Great article. You should edit it down to submit it to undercurrent. Really stressing your examples, conservatives can avoid getting an abortion but what they really want is to keep you from having the freedom, etc.

Unknown said...

Yo, Gus, you write: "We have already covered one example [against scientism]: Science, a discipline derived from the answers to certain philosophical questions is not able to address philosophical issues. But what of other branches of the humanities? History, for example, presents us with all manner of questions we simply cannot answer via the scientific method." It's beside your point, but since the humanities and the historical sciences are my bailiwick, I'll add a couple of comments.

First, you have a basic difference between experimental and historical sciences. Historical sciences are those like paleontology, evolutionary biology (not entirely historical), geology, and historical linguistics (which gets very close to the humanities), in which the methodology is to use our knowledge of the regularities of the world (known in part through the experimental sciences) to reconstruct the past in the light of historical evidence. The actual danger of scientism here is of misusing the results of the experimental sciences. You interpret the evidence about the past on the basis of the experimental sciences, but this evidence in turn is used to test and refine those interpretations (and thus indirectly to test the conclusions of the experimental sciences involved). In short, the actual problems you see are of experimental scientists unfamiliar with the evidence, methodology, and the various distinct lines of evidential reasoning in these fields drawing oversimplified conclusions that do violence to what is known about the past.

In history proper, what you must do just as much as in the historical sciences is reconstruct the past on the basis of the regularities we know about the subject--only here the most basic fact is that humans are rational beings with free will. This is what makes history a branch of the humanities and not one of the historical sciences. History must be based on several basic facts about human beings: Human action is motivated; people are rational beings; people can choose among competing means to accomplish their ends; in society human actions virtually always have unintended consequences. This is what must be assumed to be able to reconstruct historical events. Other sciences can supplement this (particularly economics, and if you're dealing with a foreign culture or an era that's fairly distant anthropology can be quite useful), but they can never replace it. The danger of scientism here is not from the hard or experimental sciences (scientistical types like Auguste Comte like to natter on about deterministic laws of society, differential equations describing social change, and so on, but that's just wishful thinking that few of them seriously attempt) but from the soft or social sciences when they adopt a view of man that ignores his nature as a rational being. (Of course, there's the secondary problem of scientism shared with the historical sciences of a failure to understand the intricacies of historical methodology, an impatience with dry and dusty philological or archival spadework, slighting the need to know as much as possible about the historical context which you can only get by a long immersion in the records of the period, an impatience with history as an interpretive study in which misplaced emphasis can be as misleading as wrong facts, and so on, but that's less dangerous to the field.)

Freudianism was one such model of humanity, but it never caught on very much among historians proper. Marxism was another such model, which was rather influential indeed among some historians (but it's probably the historians, and not just the economic historians, who earliest dismantled the empirical case for Marxism). I've run into some evolutionary psychology drudges who make the same broad claims for their fanaticism as the Freudians and Marxists did, and because they too reject free will and human rationality, they won't be any more successful in the long run than the Marxists (and probably not as successful as the Freudians) in making truly "scientific" history. (In a nutshell, history will not be revolutionized by those approaches because it is, along with anthropology, their ultimate empirical test.) Thus, on one view, the danger of scientism in history is not from the physical or experimental scientists but from the social sciences who reject the very basis of historical methodology. On the other hand, that threat is made possible by the physics envy of the scientistical types in the social sciences who view determinism (conflated with causality) as the basic model of all true science. That is the fundamental error of scientism. The trouble with the religious conservative argument you've discussed is not that it replaces determinism with causality, but that it dismisses causality.

Gus Van Horn said...

I thank both of you for stopping by!

Thanks, Adrian for making this valuable contribution.

In mulling this over, I considered what an "experiment" in my fallen empires example might entail and realized that free will would make any such attempt impossible, but didn't see exactly where to go with it.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for going to so much trouble over my essay in The American Thinker.

Speaking of straw men, I see that I am accused of advocating the teaching of the literal Genesis account as science, of desiring an establishment of my own religion, and even of denying causality. Nothing I said remotely suggests such views, which are completely antithetical to my own.

The truth is that I carefully distingushed between science and scientism and criticized only the latter.

The fundamental error you make, Gus, is that you think that science is what it should be instead of what it actually is, which is highly politicized and New Age. Try and study the issue carefully, and you'll have to conclude that what you think of as science is a mirage.

Adrian Hester got it mostly right when he stated very well my objection to "social sciences." The problem goes deeper, however, because not only are the humanities trying to take advantage of the prestige of science, now the so-called sciences are claiming to be scientific, when they are increasingly the products of politics, megalomania, and New Age religion.

Gus Van Horn said...

Dr. Carson,

Thanks for taking the time to reply.

You state: "The fundamental error you make, Gus, is that you think that science is what it should be instead of what it actually is, which is highly politicized and New Age. Try and study the issue carefully, and you'll have to conclude that what you think of as science is a mirage."

When you contend that I make the mistake of thinking that science as it is practiced today is what science should be, you are wrong. In fact, at the very outset, I say that the term "scientism" does in fact describe "The idea that science, here used in the common sense of 'natural science', can explain anything."

But I have to call "science as it should be" something, so I use the term "science". "Scientism" refers to the New-Agey stuff like that advocated by the neurobiologist Sam Harris. So that's what I did.

And as for visiting, my regular readers already know that I do so frequently. I am delighted to learn that you, personally, do not advocate Creationism. (I would feel even better if you were not an advocate of "Intelligent Design".) You will be happy to know that I regard global warming as a scientific controversy (and regard it as likely non-anthropgenic if it is happening at all), look at the various food additive scares with a jaundiced eye, and laugh out loud when I hear talk about power lines causing medical problems.

But I am an atheist, so I am supposed to believe these things, right? I must be a lousy atheist, then, for I am also very strongly pro-capitalist. And I think Stephen Hawking is a twit.

Bet that as it may, I said essentially nothing, in fact, about your scientific beliefs and they are largely immaterial to the discussion at hand. It is your political beliefs that I find disturbing.

To hit on the two most salient points again.

(1) After providing a litany of silly things about which the MSM tries to whip the general populace into hysterics, you then end -- by including on the list, "Civil libertarians warn of a police state when most of us see police officers only when driving past them as they ticket speeders. We go years, decades, with no contact with the police whatsoever.

One of the favorite worries of the professional worrying class is the establishment of religion."

Our Founding Fathers were concerned with each of these. Why are you, apparently, not?

(2) You state, "How else can we explain what otherwise appears to be a paranoid fear of an establishment of Christianity despite the near total lack of advocates of a state church?"

I addressed this at greatr length and will not rehash what I already stated other than to say that just because no one is explicitly calling for some Christian sect to become America's state religion, it doesn't mean that this is what the efforts of many in the Conservative movement will fail to produce if successful.

If you are not deliberately helping religionists turn America into a theocracy by helping them pretend that this is not what they are trying to do, then it sure looks like it to me. And if you don't know what I am speaking of, I recommend re-reading the section of my essay called, "State Religion: A Question of Whether, Not Which".

What makes America great? The fact that we are all free to hold our own beliefs and to express them without fear of persecution. The protection of this freedom is rooted in te prohibition of our government's sponsorship of any religion, Christian, Buddhist, New Age, or otherwise.