Rural Jalalabad, Afghanistan: “Too many needles remain for the number of patients you’ve tested for malaria,” the American public health director told the Western-funded Afghan clinician. “Are you falsifying your records?”
“No! No! We’re saving you money!” he proudly exclaimed. “We re-use the needles, at least three or four times!”
And no electricity nor access to clean water eliminated any sterilization techniques.
We cringe at this true story, because science has uncovered the reality of germs, how they spread, and the trail of death that follows them.
Science does not purvey absolute truth, science is a mechanism. It’s a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature, it’s a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match. Isaac Asimov: Biochemistry Professor and Science Fiction Author
I advocate for science, but I reject scientism—which some people compare to religious fundamentalism.
We often confuse the two. Science seeks to explore our natural world using established, clearly defined methods. Scientists follow specific procedures to assure that observations are verifiable, accurate, and consistent.
But stick just three letters on the end, “ism” and now we have a practice, a system, with its own ideology, dogma, moral code, and worldview, similar to what happens with words such as Buddha, Protestant, Catholic, and Hindu. Scientism takes us into metaphysical terrain—terrain which focuses on topics such as the soul or the existence of a supreme being. Scientism is a set of beliefs, which includes those beyond science’s scope of the physical.
Scientism “ . . . identifies the whole of reality with what the natural sciences could study by their own procedures and schemes, the procedures being observations and experimentation” (1). It claims that because of its objectivity, it’s the only way to get at truth; to reveal reality. The only genuine knowledge is that which comes through the scientific method—the collection of data observed through the senses and testing of hypothesis—what we can see, hear, and what we can measure.
There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination. Daniel Dennett: Philosopher, Scientist, and Author
Science for centuries has influenced other disciplines. Under the theories and model of the mechanistic, clockwork universe of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Christian God became the cosmic clockmaker. God wound it up, and the universe runs on its own, with no interference from its creator or interaction with humans.
In today’s milieu, this influence doesn’t come from scientific theories, but from the scientific method as a means of objectively understanding the world. But it’s not the scientific method that’s the issue here—it’s the unexamined philosophical baggage taken on board, which has developed into a philosophy of science called scientific materialism—a cousin of scientism—and makes two claims (2):
1) The scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge, it tells us what is, what exists (an epistemological claim), and
2) Matter is the fundamental reality of the universe (an ontological claim).
It also assumes that science is the ultimate authority.
In regards to Number 1 above, scientism says that it’s the best determiner of what is reality because of its objectivity. If something can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist; therefore, for example, scientism says a soul or spirit doesn’t exist. But science isn’t so objective, as Thomas Kuhn wrote in his watershed and still relevant book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Kuhn was one of the first to challenge the objectivity of science. Others have added their critiques and include:
- Theories are tested in conjunction with other theories.
- Observations are theory laden.
- Sometimes there is only indirect evidence to support a specific theory.
- Equipment to test theories is often based on the theories themselves—eliminating much of what can be seen.
- Models and theories can morph into a paradigm—which determines the questions and the answers.
- The paradigm can be reinforced by institutions and people who receive research monies that support the existing paradigm.
- Metaphysical assumptions are made about nature, such as it has no consciousness, or it doesn’t feel pain.
- Scientists have values that are important to them in support of theories, such as scope, coherence, and long-term fruitfulness. Scientists use these values to choose between theories.
- Scientists—and everyone else—are inherently biased by their cultural experiences, worldviews, and so on.
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious—the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Albert Einstein
The second claim, that matter is the fundamental reality of the universe, an ontological statement, also has issues. Foremost—just what IS matter? We average people hear that word and we think of something of substance, ranging from a hard table to soft cotton. It immediately questions our reality of emotions of love or feelings of awe or last night’s frightening dream. It elevates reason and logic over creativity and imagination, and how I can’t help but dance crazy when a favorite Rolling Stones song is played.
Quantum physics shows us that what we think of is solid matter are waves. Physicists who study the building blocks of our world—the stuff in the atoms such as quarks, bosons, leptons, antiquarks, antileptons—are hesitant to claim with certainty what “matter” is. The topic is under discussion in natural science. Scientism would have us believe they know what it is and that that’s all there is. But scientific knowledge borders on the land of mystery inaccessible to it—the spiritual dimension.
In his book, The Selfish Gene, biologist Richard Dawkins says that natural selection is better understood as the behavior of whole organisms seen as genes seeking to reproduce themselves; organisms are nothing but vehicles for the behavior of genes. This statement claims that there is no purpose in the universe, gene-based descriptions of reality are adequate, and any spiritual explanation would be wrong. This is an unscientific statement. Dawkins in his writings should have distinguished more clearly between the difference between his philosophical speculations—i.e., that there is no purpose in the universe other than survival—and solid, evidence-based science.
Scientism is the progeny of the Enlightenment of the 18th century. It was—and in many cases still is—a backlash against religious authoritarianism. Those who questioned the received ideas of Europe’s monarchs and churches were persecuted and imprisoned (4). The church was primarily responsible for the murder of women accused of witchcraft, the low estimate being 60,000 victims. The Enlightenment period sought to free minds from that control. It was a necessary correction.
Life is a mystery to be lived
Scientism and scientific materialism make claims of reality and truth outside the boundaries of natural science. They describe a worldview: the ultimate reality of the universe and its meaning, along with the best way to think about one’s place in this reality and how to act. They seek to outline human behavior and beliefs, and condemn and criticize those who believe otherwise, forcing humanity into its Procrustean bed of conformity. It claims that the assumptions and methods of research of the natural sciences are essential to all other disciplines, including philosophy and humanities.
Science will influence other disciplines, as it has through the centuries. We must bring these beliefs and values to consciousness versus blindly following them unconsciously.
So go ahead. Experience the reality of the beauty and wholeness and joy you feel in nature and in love and in music and in dance and in gardening and in a child’s smile. Feel compassion and remorse for the pain we’ve inflicted on our natural world and continue to do so.
And wear your mask!
Notes & Sources:
- del Re, Giuseppe. The Cosmic Dance. Templeton Press. 2000:222.
- Barbour, Ian. Myths, Models, and Paradigms. SCM Press, 1974.
- Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 1962.
- Curran, Andrew. Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely. 2019. Other Press, LLC. In 1749, French philosopher Denis Diderot was imprisoned for his atheism.
- Dennett, Daniel. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 1995.
- Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press. 1976.
About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working, and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her spiritual connection at People House and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, focusing on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels, in addition to working in refugee repatriation.