The Absurdity of Scientism

In the latest issue of the New Republic, Editor Leon Wieseltier does a scathing review of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions by Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher of science at Duke University. Wieseltier notes the primary flaw of the book (indeed, the primary flaw of New Atheism) is its overt reliance on scientism – a philosophy that contradictorily purports that philosophy (and all of other forms of knowledge) is irrelevant in the light of scientific knowledge. As Wieseltier puts it:

Rosenberg arrives with “the correct answers to most of the persistent questions,” and “given what we know from the sciences, the answers are all pretty obvious.” (I have cited most of them above.) This is because “there is only one way to acquire knowledge, and science’s way is it.” And not just science in general, but physics in particular. “All the processes in the universe, from atomic to bodily to mental, are purely physical processes involving fermions and bosons interacting with one another.” And: “Scientism starts with the idea that the physical facts fix all the facts, including the biological ones. These in turn have to fix the human facts—the facts about us, our psychology, and our morality.” All that remains is to choose the wine.

IN THIS WAY science is transformed into a superstition. For there can be no scientific answer to the question of what is the position of science in life. It is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. The idea that physical facts fix all the facts is not an idea proven, or even posited, by physics. Rosenberg does not translate non-scientific facts into scientific facts; he denies that non-scientific facts exist at all. But in what way is, say, The Jewish Bride a scientific fact? It is certainly composed of fermions and bosons, but such knowledge, however true and fundamental, casts no light upon the power of the painting, or the reasons for its appeal. The description of everything in terms of fermions and bosons cannot account for the differences, in meaning and in effect, between particular combinations of fermions and bosons.

Indeed they cannot. Advocates of New Atheism-cum-scientism don’t limit themselves to mere science as they consider various issues, but also utilize the full range of knowledge human reason typically employs. I have thought of this as I have been reading Pinker’s book on the history of human violence. While he employs stats and cites empirical data on various phenomena, he also notes philosophical trends, social practices, beliefs and realities about ‘human nature’, that most ephemeral aspect of humans. It would seem when push comes to shove, New Atheists don’t even believe their own b.s. about Scientism.

And b.s. it is – the claims to reductionist materialism as a means of comprehensive explanation has almost nothing to do with humans explaining or understanding anything. It is merely a self-serving strategy to diminish the importance of philosophy, history, revelation and personal experience as ways of understanding the world so as to advance atheism.

And strategies aren’t forms of knowledge, they the means to win a battle – and that is ultimately what the New Atheists are about.

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One Response to The Absurdity of Scientism

  1. Mike D says:

    It is merely a self-serving strategy to diminish the importance of philosophy, history, revelation and personal experience as ways of understanding the world

    I was with you until you said “revelation and personal experience”.

    Here’s the thing: philosophy is empirical. Take the most basic logical principle, modus ponens, or A, therefor B (also if A, then B). This is based on the empirical phenomenon of cause and effect. I let go of the object in my hand, therefor it will fall. Anyone can replicate this experiment and duplicate the results. We only know A not to lead to B when the proposition doesn’t match observation. Philosophy is an abstraction of physical experiences – any philosophical proposition requires empirical analysis to be demonstrably in/valid.

    History is also empirical. We construct historical narratives based upon writings, archaeological findings, forensics, etc. We can amend them as we find new evidence, correcting or discarding previous narratives in the process. But we always have to follow the physical evidence.

    Personal experience and ‘reveled knowledge’ may be valid – atheism does not require one to assume either way. But in order for those experiences to be demonstrably valid, they must be corroborated by evidence.

    Say you claimed to have experienced the Holy Spirit in some way. How do I know your claim is ontologically valid? How can you methodologically rule out things like confirmation bias, groupthink, and wishful thinking to objectively demonstrate that it was in fact a supernatural experience? I don’t think you can. I think that because of your personal, familial and social attachments to those beliefs, you want such experiences to have the same epistemological legitimacy as empiricism without doing all the legwork.

    No ‘new atheist’ I know of is, in principle, opposed to the possibility that non-empirical things exist. The question is, how do you study non-empirical things? How do you tell the difference between claims to ‘revealed knowledge’ that are true, and ones that are just made up? What’s the methodology for identifying and discarding false claims? That’s where the dilemma lies.

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