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The limits of science


David Warren

The Ottawa Citizen


Sunday, September 23, 2007


While he more-or-less promised not to return to this subject for a while, and it doesn't really feel like "a while" yet, your faithful pundit is going to write about science again today. For offstage, he has continued to skirmish with the very people he has deprecated in his columns as "Darwinists" -- which is to say, those exponents of scientism who have elevated the general principles of Darwin's quaint Victorian evolutionary scheme to a form of religious orthodoxy, and defend it by traditional fanatical means, from heretic-hunting to the commission of pious frauds.


I have discovered that this useful word, "scientism," appears in too few English dictionaries, so let me play lexicographer for a moment.

The purveyor of scientism is not necessarily an incompetent, or irresponsible, or even a mediocre scientist, in his own narrow field of specialization; always supposing he has some genuine expertise in any field at all. While he is frequently all of these things, too, they are not what define his pronouncements as "scientistic." Rather, the label "scientism" applies to all who imagine that natural science, and the methods of natural science, take precedence before, and have authority over, every other field of human reasoning and perception.

To a truly "scientistic" worldview, not only philosophy and theology, but psychology, art, culture, law, and general morality, are answerable not to their own terms of reference, but to some authority in a lab coat who has bred clouds of deformed fruitflies, and killed a lot of mice.


The philosophical position corresponding to scientism is called "Positivism," and was systematized by Auguste Comte (the man who coined the term "sociology") in the 19th century. He was building upon the revolutionary heritage of the French Enlightenment; but he was also expressing the God-like aspirations of parlour atheism in the Victorian age -- its "determinism," or faith that once everything is known, everything can be predicted. Lamarckianism, Darwinism, Marxism, Freudianism, and Phrenology were, to my mind, five other expressions of this naive determinism, that belong today in a Museum of Failed Victorian Ideas.


When my more apoplectic correspondents start muttering about how human beings have "intellectually evolved" or "progressed" from a primitive, irrational, religious way of looking at the world, to an advanced, rational, scientific way -- an account which itself has been blown to pieces by modern field anthropology -- I know I'm being showered by the old Positivism, albeit through a long, muddy pipe. It is a sad reflection on our public schools, that not only this sort of thinking, but this sort of attitudinizing, is inculcated there.


When the enthusiast of Darwinism announces, for instance, that he can explain all religion in terms of its survival value for the people who embrace it, we have an especially ripe, contemporary example of scientism at work.


In the older view, that never needed to be superseded, science was not put at the apex of human life, and sciencers, scientiates, sciencists, scientmen, or "scientists" as they were finally called, were not presented to the world as high priests, privy to some secret, mystical code.


The word "science" means simply "knowledge," and in grasping that we can immediately see that the methods of science vary with the particular discipline. The kind of precision that is possible in physics and chemistry is simply not available to the student of biology and natural history. The kind of condescension that is possible in studying plants and animals, is simply not tenable in studying human beings. And so on. Those who, like the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, define "science" in a way to cross all fields, do a terrible disservice to the cause of science, by designing a straitjacket for it.


About the most that can be reasonably said is that science is "knowledge" of an especially technical kind, gleaned by empirical reasoning from testable material evidence. It thus has nothing to do with God's existence or non-existence. The relationship between science and technology was there from the beginning, and the fruit of science has always been seen in technological advances. Mathematics may be pure, but the purest pure science will always muddle murkily with the everyday world of ambiguities and contingencies.


And none of the methods of empirical science are of any value at all, except by way of analogy and illustration, when we turn from the empirical realm to questions of "first causes," and the underlying conditions of human knowledge, faith and belief, that are dealt with in philosophy and, ultimately, theology.


David Warren's column appears Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday.



Allhumma innaka afuwun tuhibbul-afwa fa'fu anni (O Allah you are Forgiving and love forgiveness so forgive me).





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