Scientism and our new priests

It’s become rather fashionable,  at least amongst some miffed religious people, to say that atheism is the religion of our age. Particularly in response to the vehement and “missionary” zeal of Richard Dawkins, it’s said that he and his ilk are the priests of this new religion. That, if you will, Dawkins (like Kalou in a previous post) doth protest too much. The argument goes that if Dawkins really believed in the self-evident rightness of his position he would not need so extravagantly to unleash his venom on the religious. Surely religion would wither on the vine under the white heat of his rationalism and logic. All the atheist need do is wait, smirking if he wants to, but he does not need to get so worked up about it. Although I doubt that Dawkins is as rational or as logical as he purports to be, I do not subscribe to this “atheism is a religion” hypothesis. But there is something in modern western culture that does operate in a way that is strikingly analogous to a religion, or at least to a religious ideology. It is what I am calling “scientism”. Not, please note, “science”. The process of scientific enquiry is related to scientism, and provides it with some of its organising principles, but they are two entirely different concepts.

The “-ism” ending indicates that scientism is an ideology, while science is a methodology. The methodology of science is resolutely analytical – it proceeds by breaking things down into bits (often literally) and then trying to understand the chains of cause and effect that link the bits together. And crucially, science tests out those connections by experiments of one kind or another. It is always concerned to isolate the chains into the shortest possible links. It wants to arrive at a place where it can say with confidence that this singular cause has this singular, repeatable, effect. It is necessarily and deliberately reductive. It is also stunningly successful and powerful as a source of understanding and explanation. Provided, that is, that it is directed towards answering the right questions, which for science are properly always questions about what and how. The question, for example, “To what purpose?” is not only meaningless to science, but anathema. Science even has a word for it, and it’s just about the most devastating insult that can be directed at a conscientious scientist: to accuse him or her of teleology. Teleology, unfortunately, is exactly what most people are interested in, and it’s incredibly difficult to avoid it in normal speech. The most innocent-sounding statement can harbour teleological shame. Some plants have bright flowers in order to attract insects to assist them in pollination. True enough, surely? Not at all. It is true that some plants have bright flowers. It is true that bright flowers attract some insects. And it is true that insects so attracted will often carry pollen to other flowers. But it is not true, and indeed it is totally ridiculous, to suppose that plants deliberately evolved bright flowers with the objective – the purpose – of inveigling insects to pollinate them. We humans are obsessed with purpose, but purpose is the one thing on which science can never legitimately shed any light.

And this is the crux of the danger posed by scientism. Scientism is the notion that scientific enquiry is the only legitimate way to understand the world, and that by extension those things that science cannot elucidate are unimportant, meaningless, irrational, non-existent, or all four. To think about purpose is therefore to delude oneself; to strain after it is wilful disobedience. Well, analogous to sinful, in fact. This is not the only point of connection between scientism and religion. Because science is necessarily analytical and reductive (good things in themselves because of their explanatory power) it also tends to deal with matters that are increasingly not open to observation by the average person. For example, most of us used to know what we should eat, because our mothers (and usually it was mothers) told us what food was good for us. Now we are dependent on scientists to explain what nutrients we need to consume, and to point to the foods that contain them. Or the pills that contain them. Scientists have become scientism’s priests. We can no longer be trusted to decide these things for ourselves, because truth is hidden from our view, and only the priests have access to that truth. And just as in religion, there is often dispute amongst the priests that only other priests can adjudicate. Today’s report on UEA’s school of climate science was just such an example. The inquisitors of the Scientific Assessment Panel found that no heresy had been committed, so we can breathe easy. The point I’m making has nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of the UEA’s research (I for one am no climate sceptic, and I’m not suggesting that there’s been any whitewash here); rather I’m drawing an analogy between scientism and religion. Scientism also shares with religion a desire to clear the field of competitive ideologies. It’s no longer sufficient that we believe in scientism’s unquestionable truth: we must not be exposed to temptation from rivals. Although I have no truck with creationism, I do feel uneasy about the way in which some of scientism’s priests want to suppress its very expression. Heresy is every bit as live an issue for scientism as it has historically been for religion.

Religion first began to undermine its credibility, and to open itself to ridicule, when it tried to out-science science. When it tried to portray its myths as if they were analogous to scientific explanations. Scientism will do the same job for science it we’re not careful. Science is by far the best tool for posing and answering questions of what and how that we have ever established. Good scientists know, and take pride in, the fact that science is useless for thinking about questions of why, or of purpose. If science allows scientism to tempt it into trying to out-religion religion, it will do the same kind of damage to its credibility that religion has already done to its own.


12 thoughts on “Scientism and our new priests

  1. Quite a deposition! I don’t pretend to understand all of it – I’m woefully uneducated re the various ‘isms’ but I admire the way you’ve put forward the various POVs

  2. I have talked about Technological Voodoo in a good sense over the years. That is, we have a series of steps that fix the problem, but we don’t know why, like turning off the computer and turning it back on again.

    Take the witch doctor trying to cast out the demonic ills from his patient. He chants, he drums, he burns some leaves, makes a tea that the patient drinks, and if he does all these things, in the right order, the patient is healed.

    Now it may turn out that there’s an antibiotic in the tea. It may turn out that the smoke and tea are additive and the *combination* creates the cure. It may turn out that the shaman’s dance has a slight placebo effect that, in turn, bolsters the patient’s mood enough to improve the body’s chance to fight the disease.

    But in science’s hands, you take away all these things until you kill the patient as you try to reach the “real reason” it works. And even if you don’t figure it out, you aren’t going to let some shaman come into your hospital, or worse, take your patient out to the jungle even if empirical evidence shows the patient will get better because all that chanting and dancing is just not good science and “who knows what could happen?!?”

    And there lies the crux of science versus scientism — keeping control. It’s the inability to let go and have faith that something you don’t understand is okay. But I would say that religion does the same thing — the church has done a lot to maintain control in the name of faith. Not in faith of the spirit but faith in the rules.

    It takes a lot more faith to let the rules go.

  3. Having been up half the night working on a website, then awakened too early by an annoying upstairs neighbour playing basketball indoors (really), your treatise has woken my brain and forced it to think. Well said, you!

  4. My thoughts about what you have written and what I have extracted from what you have written:

    I do happen to trust the ancients on this – the world was so different then, a more natural and spacious world, a less distracting world in some ways. A pagan world. So what did some of the ancients who lived in the lands of Greece and Turkey pursue? According to your blog they pursued around a quarter of a full 360 degree circle!

    Our ancients philosophized about the structure of numbers, about the evolution of the planets, about geometry and anatomy. I am still talking about a world that was a pagan world. So what did our ancients derive from those pursuits? My answer to this question is that they derived a sense of time, harmony, proportion, ratio and anatomy through the pursuit of their four loves: a love for the wisdom of metaphysics; a love for the wisdom of epistemology; a love for the wisdom of ethics; as well as a love for the wisdom of logic. These four passions added together [the 360 degree circle] is known as the love of philosophical pursuits – science – as you are describing it being rather similar to what they would have understood as “a love for the pursuit of logic”.

    But didn’t our ancients pursue final causes when they pursued their love of wisdom? I think they did.

    If we ever become tomorrows ancients ourselves, what will those distant children find fascinating about us in the role of their ancients? Whose names will they remember, what will we derive today that we can leave behind for them? What clues about our love for wisdom will they escavate among the archeologies of our artefacts? Whose names will they unearth from our own burrial grounds? Will our science or scientism be unearthly?

  5. Well, I did tweet that the good thing about Richard Dawkins is that he makes me look like a moderate atheist! The more subtle atheist does separate religion from religious institutions, and finds religion largely unobjectionable but some actions of a small minority of religious institutions really very deeply objectionable (for some reason the Catholic church seems to spring to mind repeatedly here).

    I suppose social scientists might argue that they have an insight into questions of why and purpose for people but I’m not a social scientist so I won’t argue that case.

    As a scientist I don’t recognise your description of the the investigation into the UEA Climate Research Unit, as being about priests adjudicating over priests – in questions such as this nature ultimately decides. Anyone can join in, they just have to demonstrate some basic competence if they want other scientist to pay them any attention, and the answer is genuinely up for debate, not brought down from the top of mountain on tablets of stone.

    I guess my friendly complaint of your post is that I feel you’re mis-characterised how science proffers any advice it might have to give, and I’m a bit bemused as to what your definitions of “why” and “purpose” are since, for example, a tiger kills things to eat and thus live and its purpose is produce as many baby tigers as possible.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ian. Perhaps I could first deal with the UEA CRU point. The trouble with analogies is that they are limited: they have a defined scope. My analogy was not about the ultimate source of authority (nature versus revelation) but about how authority is mediated. It’s obviously not literally true that “nature decides” since unless you take an extreme Gaia-style view, nature is not an entity that can have active decision-making capacity. It is the scientists who decide what has been revealed about nature by the work of other scientists, and it’s disingenuous to suggest that just anyone could contribute. Anyone can take a view about, say, the Virgin Birth, but that’s not going to cut any ice with the guardians of doctrine. In science no less than religion, it’s the “priesthood” as I’ve described it that has the authority to determine who has, and who has not, “demonstrate[d] some basic competence”. My only point is to note that the ordinary punters, whether in science or religion, have to rely on the judgements of those with authority, and that authority in both cases is conferred by others who have already had authority conferred on them. It’s called peer review in science; it’s called a priesthood in religion. I just happen to think that the difference is not immediately obvious!

      You hit the nail on the head when you wonder about the definitions of “why” and “purpose”. It is of course true that a tiger eats things, and by so doing continues to live. It is also true that a living tiger is going to reproduce if it gets the chance. Is that the same thing as saying that a tiger eats with the pre-existing purpose of later reproducing? Doesn’t that imply a degree of consciousness, and an ability to imagine the future, that I suspect most biologists would be very loath to ascribe to tigers? It seems to me that your example of the tiger contains exactly the same teleological principle that my casual statement about flowering plants contains, and is false for the same reason. You may feel I’m being picky, but I prefer to say that I’m trying to be precise, a virtue that as a scientist I’m sure you’d encourage! Purpose in the sense I’m using it is a uniquely human attribute so far as we know. Using it in any non-human context is simply anthropomorphic.

  6. Peer-review is really just a ‘first cut’ exercise in filtering out, it doesn’t decide anything. I’ve about 30 papers in the peer-reviewed literature, their significance isn’t measured by the fact that they’ve passed peer-review – it’s measured somewhat poorly by how many people have cited them (In further peer-review papers). In principle it’s the idea that is cited rather than the person, although in the messy real world this isn’t quite the case. As a member of the “priesthood” I can make whatever statements I like about the world, but if they don’t turn out to be accurate then ultimately they’ll be ignored.

    What I’m reacting to really is being described as a member of a “priesthood” which has overwhelmingly negative connotations for me, in much the same way as my company describing me as a “manager” also offends!

    I think my definitions of the “why” and “purpose” of the tiger, which seem to differ from yours, illustrate the limits of what I consider the “why” and “purpose” of the tiger to be. I’m not convinced that the tiger has a purpose beyond making more tigers, which is the Darwinian solution.

    • Happy to leave the “priesthood” tag out, as offending you is not my purpose at all! But I think it’s hard to deny that scientific authority is a self-perpetuating process that non-scientists cannot participate in. I’m not saying that’s wrong, just pointing out that it’s a fact.

      The point about “purpose” in tigers is precisely as you describe it. But do you have a purpose beyond making more humans? Or is human purpose merely an illusion if it is described in any terms other than that of genetic transmission? I think that if the “Darwinian solution” is that purpose can only be ascribed to the “survival” of genes, and humans are the result of Darwinian evolution, then any kind of purpose (in the active, conscious sense) is hard to explain or justify as a category. But that’s the point about science’s natural (and necessary) reductionism: when it becomes integral to the ideology of scientism, and “spills out” of the scientific domain, then it begins to clash with most people’s experience of their own lives. Just as in the past religion’s claims clashed with people’s experience.

  7. Isn’t any area of skill or expertise (football, plumbing, accountancy, priesthood, literary criticism, brain surgery) “a self-perpetuating process that non-[whatever] cannot participate in”? Science is fairly open to outsiders in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality and it’s treatment of dissenters is fairly mild.

    My biological purpose is making more humans, any other purposes* I have are my own. Is this our point of agreement? I don’t feel that science gives me any purpose beyond the biological but I think it informs it since it’s part of who I am, religion informs me too, even though I’m an atheist.

    *Not revealing what my other purposes are since I don’t know!

    • Of course you’re right that any expertise is exclusive of those that do not share it. That’s inevitable and unobjectionable in itself. The problem arises when an area of expertise begins to claim for itself an authority over those outside its limits. Science does not make that claim, but my case is that “scientism” does. Scientism claims the right to establish what can, and can’t, be taught in schools; what is, and what isn’t, legitimate discourse; what is, and what isn’t, a reasoned world view. These claims strike me as identical in form and type to the claims traditionally made by religion. Hence my jibe about priesthood!

      I doubt very much that your agnosticism about your personal purposes is as complete as you suggest! Be that as it may, I’m more interested in whether or not it is legitimate to talk about purpose at all. The more extreme “selfish gene” theorists seem to me to be getting very close to saying that human purpose is either illusory, or only about reproduction. Neither conclusion appeals to me, even if the means to reproduction has its attractions!! 🙂

  8. I’m a bit puzzled to your reference regarding scientism trying to determine what can and cannot be taught in schools, given your comments on creationism. My view is that creationism can be taught in religious education lessons, but really should not be taught in science lessons. And I think this is a common view for atheists. As for scientism determining what is and isn’t legitimate discourse and a reasoned world view – can I point out that the only possible equivalents of a scientism blasphemy law are in equality legislation? And I think you’d find there wasn’t unanimity amongst atheists as to whether equality laws were appropriate.

    I can assure you my *atheism* is as complete as I suggest! To me the “purpose” we’re talking about requires mind, and if you don’t believe in the existence of God (defined quite broadly) you can’t believe you have a purpose beyond what you define for yourself with your own mind (other people may try to give you a purpose, but that’s none of their business). I describe myself as an atheist because I’d require proof of the existence of God, agnosticism is a copout for people without the courage of their convictions 😉

    • Whoops – something of a miscommunication there! I was only frivolously responding to your asterisked comment that you couldn’t reveal any purposes beyond reproduction as you didn’t know what they were! I didn’t mean to suggest that somehow your clearly professed atheism was really only agnosticism. There’s nothing more irritating than being told that you don’t really mean what you say, and I have no truck with the religious argument sometimes put forward that atheists don’t really mean it! So rest assured that I truly believe you are truly an atheist. 🙂

      I don’t think I claimed that scientism had set up the equivalent of blasphemy, although it’s an interesting idea. I’m trying in this post, and the comments thread, to think about the principles as independently as possible from the things I actually believe or subscribe to. I think creationism, as an attempt to create an alternative “scientific” and literal explanation of the origin of species, is the purest bunkum. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t see some problems about the state aligning itself with a specific philosophical perspective to the exclusion of others. We’ve tried doing that when the alignment was with a specific religious perspective, and I suspect we both agree that that didn’t turned out to be entirely unproblematic! Perhaps I’m saying nothing more profound than that unbridled hegemony, backed by the state, hasn’t generally produced pleasant outcomes, whether in Stalinism, Nazism, or the Inquisition. I’d rather have faith schools, even creationism-teaching schools, and plurality even where I find some of the threads of that pluralism distasteful, plain wrong, or stupid, than an imposed belief system even if it imposed a belief system that coincided with my own. All I’m saying is that in what I’ve called scientism, I can detect some echoes of just such totalitarianism. I’ve been careful though to draw a distinction between science (which I embrace) and scientism (which may not even yet exist, but which is perhaps emerging in Dawkins et al, and which I want to resist).

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