What’s Wrong with the World

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Scientism isn't science

As I so often do when coming up dry on blog post ideas, today I'm going to ride on Wesley J. Smith's coat tails. He has an excellent post here in response to Steven Pinker (yes, that Steven Pinker, the one who supports infanticide) on scientism. Some quotations from Smith:

Humans have always looked out for their own welfare and negotiated codes of conduct. But why should we care about the thriving of humans or sentient beings? What, in “science” tells us that is important? The Judeo/Christian worldview tells us to love our neighbor. I suspect Pinker would agree, but one is left to question why. It’s merely an assertion.
Based on science, what is wrong with slavery? It’s just the powerful prevailing over and forcing their way on the less powerful–a common feature of the natural world.
Of course, science isn’t the enemy Nobody said it is. (In fact the title gets perilously close to “the anti-science canard.”) Indeed, it’s a wonderful tool, as Pinker illustrates abundantly throughout the article (along with a helping of straw men). It can inform–but absolutely not replace–philosophy, ethics, values, and yes, religion in crafting a humane and beneficent society.

The naturalists' increasingly strident attempts to tell us that there is one and only one rational worldview, that it is theirs, that it is dropped down graciously to us from the god Science, that it gives us all the ethics and morality we could ever need, and that all dissent from this worldview should be silenced as irrational hate or even as mental illness have an air of desperation about them. Too many people know that the emperor has no clothes.

The question then is--what next? All non-naturalist or even all explicitly religious worldviews are not created equal. Christians need to be ready with our own clear and positive account. What is man? Why is man here? How shall we then live? And we need to be ready with evidence for that account. When the dystopian world given to us by scientism leaves man unfulfilled, we need to be ready with the true answers.

Comments (24)

This discussion may be interesting. I am not that verbose today. Perhaps this is related to David Hume's "is/ought" problem.

Arguing against Pinker on this issue is just mugging cripples. He's another stupid scientist - another scientist who's presumably good at what he does, but just says lots of stupid stuff whenever he ventures out of his field.

If you want to argue against scientism, I think you should argue against the best scientismists, or whatever they're called. I don't know who the best ones are (Alex Rosenberg?). But Pinker is an idiot.

The loss of tradition is the loss of the moral language of a society, and this makes the question, "What then shall we do?" very difficult to answer. In the absence of a formula or a technique, most modern people have no way of talking about basic things and, it must be said, some things just are too basic to be argued for in the face of determined skepticism.

This is where Scripture comes in, I think, and if there is going to be a light in the coming darkness, it will emanate from the Word. When all things are returned to their beginning, the Imagination will remain. Within a hundred years, all the visible forms of Christian society will have vanished irretrievably, with the exception, we may hope, of the Word of God, which was the Beginning.

Of course that sounds very far-off and pessimistic, but that's the only real way out that I can see. Probably not a very practical contribution, and a vague one too, I know, but the short run does appear to me to be entirely hopeless, and in the absence of any lived tradition to inform the hearts of the people, and with the last links to our history finally severed, it would seem that we will have to begin the long, slow climb up from ignorance by recognizing (literally, re-cognizing or re-learning) the secret Truth that the Jews carried with them in the Ark of the Covenant--that there is One God, that He transcends the world and that He made it apart from Himself, and that we are His children. Men no longer even realize that they are in need of saving, and when they see that terrible predicament for what it is--and when they see that false gods like science cannot rescue them from themselves, much less from death--then they may experience the Good News as a warm light in a world grown cold.

But as you say, the disillusionment, tribulation, and anguish of seeing those false gods dethroned will have to come first.

Aaron, Alex Rosenberg probably is among the most rigorous of the naturalist / scientistics out there. Our colleague Ed Feser has done a masterful job of taking on (and taking down) Rosenberg's theses in detail, here and herehere.

I suppose that for a naturalist who is not a eliminativist like Rosenberg, Rosenberg's take on naturalism is probably not representative. Of course, I think Rosenberg himself argues that that just means (for our hypothetical non-extreme naturalist) that he just doesn't understand the implication of his premises or won't follow them rigorously.

This discussion may be interesting. I am not that verbose today. Perhaps this is related to David Hume's "is/ought" problem.

See, this is one of those times when I think that people think themselves into knots. Science is learning things through experimentation. Okay. What does this have to do with philosophy at all?

I mean, this should end the discussion.

Alex Rosenberg? But he doesn't exist! ;-) (There's one thing to be said for a consistent naturalist: In some ways, such a person makes our job easier when he starts saying things to the effect that he doesn't exist and that words do not have meaning, etc.)

I never understood how evolution in particular could be used to determine morality. As some are fond of saying, Evolution is not that the objectively best survive, but only that the ones best adapted to their current environment survive. As such what was moral in the past would not necessarily be moral now and the only way to discover what is moral now would be to travel to the future to see whether it was evolutionarily successful or not. Sorry for rambling.

Lydia, "Alex Rosenberg doesn't exist" is a common objection to naturalism, so I'm sure that Rosenberg (or "Rosenberg") has thought about it and answered it many times, that his critics have then offered rejoinders, etc. In other words, I think you're playing a move that's already been played several moves back.

Pinker, on the other hand, probably hasn't given this kind of thing much thought at all.

Sage, what's needed to "restore" ancient, forgotten Truth - the Christian scriptures in your hypothetical future - is authority. We have no idea what kind of authority will arise in a post-Christian world, or what "tradition" it will claim to represent, but it doesn't seem very likely that it would claim to represent a lost Christian tradition. I think it's much more likely that it will construct a new "tradition" of its own. But nobody knows today what will happen, unless he has some supernatural source of knowledge at his disposal.

By the way, Nietzsche answered "Science of Morals" fools like Pinker in Beyond Good and Evil paragraph 186.

MarcAnthony: The sentence "Science is learning things through experimentation" is philosophy. It does not "end the discussion;" it starts it.

Aaron, I don't claim to have read large swathes of Alex Rosenberg, but I'm beginning to think you know even less about him than I do. Do you not realize that he's _well-known_ for biting bullets of the "I don't exist" variety so loudly that the snap can be heard from New York to Calcutta? Seriously, that's his shtick. That he's a consistent naturalist and that therefore even writing his books or participating in debates and such is just an attempt to move molecules around in other brains.

Whether the contrast between him and Pinker works or not is, in rhetorical terms, largely a question of whether people are more likely to be taken in/impressed by a naturalist like Pinker who bloviates about how science gives us the only real morality or by a naturalist like Rosenberg who glories in telling them that they don't exist. Take your pick. This post happens to be quoting someone who was replying to Pinker, and that arose because Pinker referred to Wesley J. Smith, which is why Smith took note of Pinker's article, and I, in turn, used Smith because I was having trouble writing a post of my own and find Smith a useful jump-starter on such occasions.

For my money, people are more likely to be impressed by Pinker than by Rosenberg precisely because Pinker doesn't admit all the counterintuitive consequences of his position.

Naturalism will necessarily lead to some type of nihilism. It cannot help but do so if followed to its conclusions, because it makes the autonomous individual will into a god.

"It seems to me much easier to convince a man that he is in thrall to demons and offer him manumission than to convince him that he is a slave to himself and prisoner to his own will. Here is a god more elusive, protean, and indomitable than either Apollo or Dionysus; and whether he manifests himself in some demonic titanism of the will, like the mass delirium of the Third Reich, or simply in the mesmeric banality of consumer culture, his throne has been set in the very hearts of those he enslaves. And it is this god, I think, against whom the First Commandment calls us now to struggle."

D.B. Hart, "Christ and Nothing"


The sentence "Science is learning things through experimentation" is philosophy.
Fair enough, you've got my attention. How so? The definition does not say it could learn EVERYTHING through experimentation. It takes no position on that, because there's nothing more to it.
Fair enough, you've got my attention. How so? The definition does not say it could learn EVERYTHING through experimentation. It takes no position on that, because there's nothing more to it.

Yes, you're just getting at the fundamental point that science is not,and by definition cannot be, self-justifying. Scientism is the denial of this obvious point, and I tend to agree with you that there's not much more to it than that--it's well-worn territory by now, a bit like the tiresome observation that the statement, "There is no objective truth," is self-refuting. Anybody who doesn't yet get the point is beyond saving and is just clinging to easily-refuted nonsense for ideological, not properly philosophical, reasons. Speaking from weary experience, it is amazing how obtuse the standard-bearers of scientism can be, at every level of prominence.

I think people are more likely to be impressed by Pinker because he is an actual scientist with accomplishments, and because they've actually heard of him if only from NYT editorials.

Pinker speaks of humanism created by science, but of course this is all silliness meant to justify his preconceptions. Humanism, or that grand project of "let's all be nice and live happy lives free from worry or want" needs some sort of basis, and Pinker is a humanist, so science must be related somehow. Maybe humanism is a continuance of Christianity, but then it seems opposed in major respects.

I don't see scientism or humanism failing soon. There's still much prosperity, and we can convince ourselves of all sorts of things as long as the money is still coming in. Religion is mostly a game in America today to give people some identity, rather than a community glue and source of succor as in the Dark Ages. For people like me, the idea of praying is almost silly. What do we need God for? We have everything we need and much of what we want.

If Christians could answer that question then there might be a chance.

Well said, Lydia, and a helpful antidote to something else I read this evening. Carl Trueman told us to give up on all this "Christian worldview" nonsense:

" I do have a problem with the term 'Christian worldview' because it is vague to the point of being philosophically useless even as it has proved rhetorically and politically useful...there is really no such thing as 'the Christian worldview' in the singular; there is rather a variety of Christian worldviews. There may be a small core of beliefs that bind all Christians together; but that core is surely too small to provide anything approaching a comprehensive view of the world; and none of those few beliefs stand in ultimate isolation from the bigger doctrinal complex that is Christianity as we are taught it and believe it as individuals and as members of specific communions."


...apparently Presbyterians, Baptists and Congregationalists have different worldviews. Maybe I'm being too critical, but I find statements like these profoundly unhelpful and discouraging.


GV, yes, sigh, that does sound like Carl Trueman. That guy seems to deal with the boredom of life by carping for fun.

And it's just false in this case. Especially when it comes to an issue like naturalism, I think we can talk perfectly well, and know what we are saying, about what a Christian worldview means in contrast to naturalism. (The so-called "Christian physicalists" can go pound sand, because they don't IMO have a Christian worldview on that issue! But that is not a denominational difference. Far from it.)

For people like me, the idea of praying is almost silly. What do we need God for? We have everything we need and much of what we want.

If Christians could answer that question then there might be a chance.

The first answer, oddly by a non-Christian, is Socrates' answer: to live life without reflection on the highest and deepest things is a life not worth living.

The second answer, or rather the counter-question, comes to every man at some point, at the moment of death if not earlier: what now? What shall I depend on when all the money, goods, friends, health, and fun are deserting me? It is, if you will, Job's question, and only his answer will do.

Finally, the answer I would give is this: when you find that when you wish to do good things but instead you don't, contrary to your own better thoughts, demonstrably you cannot fix yourself by yourself. Only someone who is capable of reaching into your soul and turning it can fix you, and we humans don't have that wrench. Salvation from our own evil self can only come from above, if at all - St. Paul's answer. If instead you choose to remain broken, see Socrates above.

Tony beat me to it, Matt. In answer to the question "What do we need God for?" my immediate answer was, "The forgiveness of sins." There are other answers too, and Tony gave some of them, more eloquently than I.

Good grief, if you think that Christians pray only to "get stuff," you couldn't be more misguided about what, dare I say (pace Carl Trueman) the Christian worldview is all about.

The flawed-ness of humanity might be a good reason to become a Christian, except for a few things.

1. Christians seem no less flawed than anyone else.
2. Past a certain point, overcoming flaws hits diminishing returns. Yeah I may not be perfect, but I'm not running around raping and pillaging or anything
3. It is not exactly obvious why participating in rituals (going to church, praying, etc) is conducive to any of this. Given 1, it seems not to be.

I'm sure I'm not the first to go on this line of reasoning, which is why Christianity has always emphasized damnation for nonbelievers.

Good grief, if you think that Christians pray only to "get stuff," you couldn't be more misguided about what, dare I say (pace Carl Trueman) the Christian worldview is all about.

You might want to leave the "outreach" to others.

No, no, no. The idea of salvation isn't (primarily) that Christianity "makes you a better person." The idea is _forgiveness_. For not being a good person. Surely you can see the difference. Christianity isn't another self-improvement program, like a moral diet or something where the coaches put up "before" and "after" pictures to get everybody to sign on. We recognize our need of God not primarily by looking at Christians (though some people do this, others don't) and saying, "I wish I had what they have." Christians should aim for that outcome as a goal, but if it doesn't happen, it doesn't mean that the people who don't feel that way have no need of God! We all have a need of God because we _are_ sinners and need forgiveness and salvation.

As for "not running around raping and pillaging," I would just say to anyone who says that as an argument for having no need of what Christianity has to offer: Look into your own heart and ask yourself if you have regrets for anything you've done in your life. In particular, ask yourself if you can really "make up for" things that you've done that you know are wrong. I think anyone who has lived long enough in this world will have some such things and will also have the uncomfortable feeling that we can't just make up for it by being a "basically good person." You can't go back and undo things, and there are people whom one has hurt to whom one can't really make it up. Anyone who has a conscience has these discomforts, and in a sense, those discomforts need to get _worse_, not be tamped down by cliches like, "I'm not so bad, I don't murder anybody." That's pretty much beside the point.

Look, Christianity could empirically speaking be true or false. It can't be decided a priori that Jesus rose from the dead (for example). Or that he didn't.

But whether or not people should _wish_ Christianity were true, whether or not there is something _lacking_ in the naturalist's world, that seems to me an open and shut case. There's this notion of meaning in life, forgiveness, redemption, and things being fixed in the end. Not to mention eternal life. The Rosenbergs of the world (and Bertrand Russell has a passage that does the same thing) show us the stark world offered by naturalism. Whatever else one may say, it isn't an attractive prospect.


God in His perfection cannot coexist with sin. This is why even what appear to be lesser sins imperil one's immortal soul. Have you never spoken unduly harshly to your children? Have you never deceived your parents? Have you have never spoken ill of someone, assassinating his reputation in hushed whispers? Have you never lusted after a woman?

"I may not be perfect, but I'm not running around raping and pillaging or anything" is profoundly self-serving in almost every case. Weaksauce. A careful and candid examination of conscience will reveal its falsity. Perhaps I have never committed violent felonies because I was raised right, by attentive parents whose discipline I internalized. Perhaps I am blessed by a superior intelligence and mental discipline. Is it so obvious that I would have avoided felonies if my father had been an abusive drunk, or my mother a promiscuous fool who paraded a series of deadbeats through my childhood home? It may be that my privileged life's "minor" sins are, on a scale of eternal justice, more severe than the horrible crimes of people born into squalor, abuse, addiction, and wickedness -- precisely because even though I had all the advantages, I still lied when it suited my purpose, still cheated when the opportunity was right, still manipulated the gullible, exploited the weak, despite these sins never rising to the level of criminality.

Matt, if you are sincere about this dialog, I invite you to continue it. We'll be happy and eager to answer questions. But there remains a touch of flippancy and sarcasm to your remarks, which instantly arouses our suspicion. Are you sure you're not concern-trolling us?

The Rosenbergs of the world (and Bertrand Russell has a passage that does the same thing) show us the stark world offered by naturalism. Whatever else one may say, it isn't an attractive prospect.

Matt, meditate on this point. Don't hide from it, but truly examine it to the point where you can wrap your head around the idea of what it truly means if "God is dead" and man is his own highest authority. Then you'll have a starting point for why man needs God. Until then, you are just living off of the cultural capital of Christianity without truly exploring what an empty world devoid of a higher power means for humanity.

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