Would René Descartes care about watching Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos? Would Galileo? Aristotle?
The question struck me when trying to find a cultural reference point to help place my subject in more familiar terms. I do not mean to investigate its answer seriously, only to use it to point out the ground for my topic. Enough, then, of this opening gambit.
What we need to discuss is our reception of the project of science and its practical consequences. Is there a way to properly integrate, with intellectual virtue or skill, science and its claims into our moral lives, and is there a way to do this improperly? The answer to such questions is implicitly presupposed by many discussions in the public square of internet forums as well as the inner forum of our own souls. The answer involves a proper education (a subject also addressed elsewhere, in various articles such as these).
The problem can be categorized under the heading of “scientism.” It is important to realize that this is not a merely academic issue. It occurs at an everyday level. I will refer to it as “street-level scientism.”
Street-level scientism is an intellectual habit: the illiberal submission to science due to its authority. The man suffering from street-level scientism is the one who often, in effect, equates “science” with “magic.” (If you can’t explain how a microprocessor works, then that includes me and you.) Yet its lettered cousin makes the opposite mistake and equates the non-scientific with irrationality or superstition. “Until we take science for what it is” we will fail to fully benefit from it.
The academic problem diagnosed under the name of scientism is related to problems nesting within the broader umbrellas of the justification of knowledge. It is one front of the debate between the scientific mind and the philosophical intellect as paradigms of human inquiry (a debate to which Tyson himself is no stranger).
Of course, the very existence and meaning of the term scientism is debated. The growth of the scientistic way of thinking has deep historical roots. Yet symptoms of scientism crop up daily. For instance, consider the brouhaha over Pope Francis’s recent comments on evolution. Even some scientists, to say nothing of the media, stand in need of a way to evaluate and integrate scientific claims with claims made by other types of knowledge (such as religious and philosophical claims).
How exactly does “street-level scientism” differ from its academic kin?
Academic scientism is a claim about types of warrant or evidence and the classification of methods that obtain such evidence. In this form, scientism is “the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything” (Rosenberg, p. 6). Putting on our Socratic togas, we can quickly sample some of this position’s philosophical difficulties. Readers interested in expanded treatments of this line of argument are urged to consult a treatment such as Edward Feser’s, from which I borrow ideas here.
Feser notes that science cannot appeal to its own practical success as proof of scientism. A false theory can yield true practical results: For instance, geocentrism is a sufficient, practically true theory for the purposes of the celestial navigation of ships at sea.
The scientistic claim is also self-refuting. If we ask “What type of knowledge is it by which we know for certain that the claim made by scientism is true?” If the claim itself is a piece of certain knowledge, then either science proves this claim or some other type of knowledge does. The first option leads us to a problem of circularity, and it is plainly impossible to subject the claim itself to experimental verification. The second option leads us to the existence of another type of certain knowledge. Indeed, our very ability to perceive this self-refutation is itself an act of knowledge belonging to a type broader than science itself. This type of knowledge—the one that examines the consistency of the claim of scientism—must be such as to judge science and its claims.
Such lines of reasoning have not prevented some scientists from making the claim that philosophy is “dead” and that science has replaced it (yet, see the following astute reply). When scientists speak this way, they accomplish nothing more than stepping outside of their work as science; they begin doing philosophy.
If science cannot be the only type of certain knowledge, why is it so commonly taken to be such? This disposition to accept science, without discretion, as the sole or ruling source of knowledge is a common malaise. It is street-level scientism.
Street-level scientism is the philosophy that the everyday person, and persons every day, adopt in an unreflective manner. It is not an explicit theory, but rather a practical attitude. Indeed, it even afflicts scientists themselves insofar as they are similarly situated to laymen with respect to those sciences that are not their specialty.
Examples of street-level scientism all take on the cast of various types of cognitive dissonance. For instance:
– The human person is treated as a duality: the body is treated as a machine in the light of medical practice, or a unit disposable at the whim of the self, sans ethical consequences, when the going gets too rough to understand the meaning of soul-embodied suffering. There is a disjoint between the bio-technê of modern medicine and the ethical subject that the expertise seeks to “repair,” not meet face-to-face as a person.
– Research into our race’s evolutionary origins are the subject of such heated fray of public dispute and lack of light that careers are ended for the slightest misstep and whole belief-systems mocked for not blindly conforming. Any via media between evolutionary naturalism and transcendent origins is a path rarely heard seriously.
– Advances in the analysis of the human brain likewise advance our misunderstanding of the human person as a locus of responsibility and specifically human achievement—Raymond Tallis has brought this danger to our attention in Aping Mankind.
– Our public policy and lawmaking takes less advantage of reflection on the natural law, the ius gentium, and more cues from studies that reflect the experience of a margin of the world’s heritage of moral traditions.
– The authority of scientific studies is used to cow the non-expert into agreement concerning environmental stewardship or the definition of marriage, when well-reasoned philosophies and legal traditions could carry more relevant and useful insights.
The method by which scientific results are produced cannot be the method of their broader interpretation, as shown above, and hence much less the method of their implementation into the moral life of a nation. Any method that reduces the human experience to teleologically indifferent quantitative analysis cannot then produce results that pass judgment on the good life that its maker desires.
Street-level scientism is the inability to discern the valence of scientific claims when they enter public discourse and the tendency to grant them too much weight. The scientifically-presented argument arrives with an air of unquestionability. Such is the intellectual custom of our age. Like those men described in Aristotle’s Metaphysics II.3, our minds will submit to arguments only when they’re garbed in the proper clothing.
Scientific literacy as such is not a sufficient cure. Why not? This is the corollary from the argument above. The methods of science cannot provide a holistic picture of human knowledge, so more education in those methods cannot provide that for which they were not designed, or remedy their misuse.
Customarily, holistic knowledge of reality is the ambit occupied by religion or philosophy, particularly (for the latter) in metaphysics. Yet that level of contemplative achievement is within the range of few, as St. Thomas famously argues in Summa contra Gentiles, I.4. How do we scale back the intensity of the cure such that a whole society can benefit from it?
One might think a liberal education would fit the bill. Yet can current variations of the American liberal arts education provide students in our society with the comprehensive sight necessary to understand, or even approach an understanding of, the integrity between distinct domains of knowledge? Arguably not—the disciplines of the humanities and the sciences have been defined in a quasi-opposition to each other, an opposition that continues to increase. We still have those two cultures. The curricula with which to mend the divide are not largely in place, nor are the teachers commonly present to teach it.
This curricular problem would require further reflection than I can provide here. A clue will have to suffice for our present conclusion.
In an endnote to his “On Fairy-Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkein tells us:
Children expect the differences they feel but cannot analyse to be explained by their elders, or at least recognized, not to be ignored or denied. I was keenly alive to the beauty of ‘Real things’, but it seemed to me quibbling to confuse this with the wonder of ‘Other things’. I was eager to study Nature, actually more eager than I was to read most fairy-stories; but I did not want to be quibbled into Science and cheated out of Faërie by people who seemed to assume that by some kind of original sin I should prefer fairy tales, but according to some kind of new religion I ought to be induced to like science. Nature is no doubt a life-study, or a study for eternity (for those so gifted); but there is a part of man which is not ‘Nature’, and which therefore is not obliged to study it, and is, in fact, wholly unsatisfied by it (“The Monsters and the Critics,” p. 159).
To follow Tolkein’s thought, the real vice of street-level scientism would not be its valid and valuable desire to introduce a student to the world of science. The harm comes from that myth—a new religious creed—which pedagogy and culture together weave to counteract the natural yearning for the mythical and the wonderful. Aristotle observes in his Metaphysics, I.2: “Even the lover of myth is in a sense a lover of wisdom, for myth is composed of wonders.” That is, myth is composed of wonders just as is the cosmos, about whose genesis the old Greek physicists were moved to wonder.
If the reader suddenly worries that I end by unreflectively placing the myths of Faërie and the theory of general relativity on a par, that is a symptom of the malaise. Our street-level scientism needs a cure: a liberally educated approach that sees the harmony in the whole of truth toward which we run both by the love of myth and by love of wisdom itself.