Scientism Invades Politics, Morality, Religion
What some consider science is really scientism, a worldview that thinks everything in human experience is reducible to scientific laws.
Fairness: Our sense of fairness is just a manifestation of the brain, “neuroeconomists” at the University of Bergen claim, according to Science Daily Oct. 20. Inspired by a 2010 paper in nature that linked inequality to responses in the reward center in the brain, they modified its conclusions somewhat, but not its materialist presuppositions. Is it fair, though, to think that fairness is reducible to neuron firings? Even if the brain sends comfortable signals that produce physical tinglings in response to fairness, does it mean that fairness “is” these signals?
Machine morality: Can we treat robots right from wrong? That’s the question posed by authors of a paper in the Journal of Experimental & Theoretical Artificial Intelligence. A press release from publisher Taylor & Francis discusses the problem of robots becoming better and better at “masquerading” as moral agents, preventing real humans from making proper ethical decisions. But can the words “evil,” “accountability,” and “responsibility” be understood by a programmed entity made of metal? What do the words mean if humans are merely machines made of meat?
Gratitude season: Another psychology study shows that gratitude may be a key to happiness (cf. 11/22/12). U of Tennessee psychologist Jeff Larsen tried to determine if the maxim “it’s more important to want what you have than to have what you want” is true. According to Medical Xpress, he investigated this question by asking students, and then proceeded to offer four bullet points of advice on how to appreciate what you have. Does that belong in a science classroom, or in a pulpit?
Religion: Prepare to meet your ET: David Weintraub is at it again, asking religious people if their religion is ready for ET (see 10/12/14). In his new article on The Conversation, the Vanderbilt U astronomer investigates possible impacts of ET on major world religions and some cults. The group he doesn’t ask, though, is the cult of scientism. What if humans, aliens (if there are any) and the universe as a whole pass the design inference test? “As people work to reconcile the discovery of extrasolar life with their theological and philosophical worldviews, adapting to the news of life beyond Earth will be discomfiting and perhaps even disruptive,” he said, not considering whether his own paradigm might shatter under his feet. PhysOrg religiously published Weintraub’s speculation on its “science” site.
The science of liberalism vs conservatism, I: You can pick out a liberal or conservative by showing them disgusting images, Science Daily claims; it’s a “dead giveaway.” This is based on fMRI scans of the brains of 83 participants shown disgusting, pleasing, or neutral images. The researcher then took the pulpit, teaching people to think, not just react. New Scientist explained that conservatives appear more squeamish about disgusting images. Reporter Dan Jones reasoned that it’s why conservatives tend to “show concern for what they see as bodily and spiritual purity, so tend to oppose abortion and gay marriage, for example.” Science Magazine thought this study was interesting, but cautioned that it’s not clear what the brain scan differences mean, only that political leanings are “at least somewhat mediated by biological factors.”
The science of liberalism vs conservatism, II: Liberals are more emotion-driven than conservatives. Science Daily says so. So does radio talk show host Dennis Prager. Is this a scientific conclusion, or a reasoned conclusion? Israeli psychologists apparently found this out with controlled experiments on self-proclaimed liberals and conservatives in Israel who were mainly asked questions about the Palestianian-Israeli conflict. Can their conclusions be extended to all people of all nations at all times? Did the psychologists rule out investigator interference? Did they consider whether “liberal” and “conservative” might be too general to treat as real categories? A person might be liberal on one issue and conservative on another—to what extent are those positions affected by emotion? The lead researcher “does caution that more research would need to be done to determine if there are cultural factors that may limit or increase observed left-right differences.” Is there any role left for the humanities, or does this question reside only in the science lab? If the latter, who influences the influencers? Who decides if reason or emotion should be used to “nudge” people one way or another? What is reason in a test tube, anyway?
The science of liberalism vs conservatism, III: Duke University psychologists have figured out that when facts don’t fit their politics, people deny reality; that’s why liberals and conservatives disagree so vehemently. Sample from the Science Daily coverage: “For climate change, the researchers conducted an experiment to examine why more Republicans than Democrats seem to deny its existence, despite strong scientific evidence that supports it.” This denial, they explain, comes from conservatives’ political opposition to the “obvious” solution of more government control. They balanced that with evidence that liberals deny the obvious solution to home break-ins: looser gun-control laws. In an attempt to appear scientifically dispassionate, the researchers state, “These divides are not explained by just one party being more anti-science, but the fact that in general people deny facts that threaten their ideologies, left, right or center.” While that sounds fair, onlookers could well ask what these kinds of questions (and solutions) are doing in the science department in the first place.
Truth test: Science Magazine took offense at conservatives who raised concerns about a federal-government-funded algorithm named “Truthy” that sorts through social media, looking for trends. They suspect that Filippo Menczer, Indiana University is using (or could use) the nearly $1 million grant money from the NSF to spy on conservatives. Science’s reporter Jeffrey Mervis quotes only Menczer to allege that conservatives misunderstand the project and are essentially paranoid over nothing; the charges that the Obama administration is using the tool to create a database of hate speech is “completely false and fabricated,” Menczer says. Of course the recipient of the funds is going to say that. Where is the investigative reporting here? Is it scientific to skew the story to only one side?
Space scientism: “We must keep exploring space to answer the big questions humanity faces,” Chris Arridge of Lancaster University preaches in The Conversation. He doesn’t argue that space discoveries can help answer the questions, but that there is no other way to do it. After recounting the glorious history of space exploration of the planets, he ends,
But it will provide a new window into a largely unknown alien world. What will we discover? What will we learn about the origins of the solar system? What will we learn about ourselves? Continued space exploration is the only way we can answer any of those questions.
The science of youth pastoring: Someone at Baylor University decided that the majority of youth pastors feel ill-equipped to help youths with mental health issues,* according to Medical Xpress. That may well be how youth pastors feel, but it’s a separate question whether they are ill-equipped to help such youths, and it raises another question: ill-equipped compared to whom? As we have reported, psychology and psychiatry have a pretty bleak record themselves (“Psychology struggling to regain scientific image,” 5/22/14; “Secular psychology as abuse,” 3/20/14; “Psychiatry is not (yet) a science,” 5/10/13). It’s possible that every human being on the planet feels ill-equipped for dealing with complex issues facing youth. The researchers recommend that “mental health professionals” reach out to help youth pastors, but maybe they should first determine if psychologists “feel” overconfident in helping youth with mental health issues—and more importantly, whether their counsel works any better than the Bible.
*Note: physical causes of behaviors like depression are medical issues, not “mental health” issues, and might benefit from medical expertise beyond the training of most pastors.
As you (hopefully) noticed, the folly of the purveyors of scientism is in assuming that these are scientific questions. Keep in mind the clarity C.S. Lewis brought to definitions of science:
If popular thought feels ‘science’ to be different from all other kinds of knowledge because science is experimentally verifiable, popular thought is mistaken. Experimental verification is not a new kind of assurance coming in to supply the deficiencies of mere logic. We should therefore abandon the distinction between scientific and non-scientific thought. The proper distinction is between logical and non-logical thought. (De Futilitate)
Science can do good things with space travel and medicine, but figuring out human beings with all their complexities is demonstrably beyond any scientific “method.” Why? Because subjects can lie and deceive themselves, and scientists can lie and deceive themselves. Humans act from a welter of complex motivations, experiences and desires that cannot be distinguished through the methods of qualitative or quantitative analysis, like chemicals in solution.
We called scientism a cult. That’s because it is irrational and self-refuting: irrational, because it ascribes mind to matter; self-refuting, because scientism itself implodes under the scientific method (i.e., it cannot be validated by observation and testing). It also presumes to provide answers to everything in the universe, but as J. P. Moreland points out, the question of whether science can provide truth about everything in the universe is not a question of science—it’s a question of philosophy about science.
Big science is like big government; the more it gives you what you want, the more it can take all you have. We laugh at movies and cartoons about mad scientists like Dr. Frankenstein, but there is no mad scientist more dangerous than a materialist. He deceives himself and the world, arrogating to himself the power of knowledge while shooting his own brain. For if his mind is merely a material entity, it evaporates into a sea of colliding particles. It becomes like the robot masquerading as a human that cannot be trusted. Trust requires logic, truth, and integrity—three things that are immaterial, three things that theology alone provides.
As you also (hopefully) noticed, the way to unmask the pretensions of scientism is to ask the right questions. (Thank you, Dr. Phillip E. Johnson, for your important book by that title; God bless you and good health to you. Your important books refuting scientism leave a profound and lasting legacy in the tradition of C.S. Lewis.)