“A great Jewish thinker of the early Middle Ages wondered why God, if He wanted us to know the truth about everything, did not simply tell us the truth about everything. His wise answer was that if we were merely told what we need to know, we would not, strictly speaking, know it. Knowledge can be acquired only over time and only by method.”
– Leon Wieseltier
If man could fly, how might human nature be any different? Would he be more, or less inclined to lie, cheat, and steal? Would he be quicker to war, or slower? Would sex or drugs or money hold more influence over him than it does now, or less? It is impossible to say, first because this is hypothetical, and second because neither condition speaks to the other. The gift of flight is wholly physical in nature, while human nature is equivalently spiritual and philosophical. Either may comment about the other, but neither is capable of making absolute claims on the other based on their own local knowledge. And yet, we live now in a world where the scientific believes it is within their prevue to hold court of matters of spiritual and moral import.
It is all, as evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin has said, an “irrational explanation of the world.” However, as Wesley J. Smith reminds his readers, “… science is a method for obtaining and applying knowledge – it is not a philosophy or value system.” When science forgets this, one is left with scientism – the belief of the postmodern age, which suggests first that all things can be empirically explained, and that, conversely, that which cannot be so explained is therefore irrational, superstition, and undeserving of our focus.
Saint John Paul II points out in Fides et Ratio, that scientism can lead people “… to think that anything that is technically possible is morally permissible.” Thus, scientism is essentially the scientific dabbling in the spiritual and the moral, precisely where it has no business. Yet when a man of great moral learning makes claims on the scientific, he cannot be shouted down quickly enough. Why, then, is the scientist given such license to pontificate on the nature of morality, beyond the authority of a more casual observer?
Man is a spiritual being. To believe in nothing is to believe in something, as one may at best only suggest that there is nothing to believe in. It is empty nihilism, but belief nonetheless. All of human experience is predicated on a basic underlying faith in something and this belief, whatever it may be, is entirely subjective. If based on faith, it is based on experience, reason, tradition, and teaching of holy scripture. If science, it is based on observation (experience), and interpretations (reason) that are themselves based on interpretations, and furthermore upon data (teaching) that is either founded upon or else disproving previously collected data. It seems that those whose belief is of a spiritual nature and those whose belief is of a scientific nature have arrived at their beliefs by the same general path.
Leon Wieseltier points out an important distinction, which is that scientism is not science. He writes:
“Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic, question.”
Quite so, and consequently one is left with questions concerning the reconciliation of total objectivity with such subjective things as love and hate, virtue and vice, beauty, ugliness, purpose, meaning, or even happiness. Such matters defy quantification, but increasingly are explained away in scientific jargon. Their explanations suggest that everything – every thought and feeling one will ever experience – is nothing more than the firing of neurons. If this is the case then nothing means anything, everything that ever was, is, and ever will be is all a matter of happenstance. This attempt at fitting square pegs into round holes and saying all is well allows the individual to decide their own purpose or meaning. It takes away any responsibility to any other person but one’s self. In a culture so enslaved to radical individualism, the ability to determine the meaning and purpose of one’s own life is the ultimate propaganda.
Here lies the rub. From where does meaning come if divorced from a higher source? The postmodern ethos suggests that meaning and purpose come from within, which is rubbish. Meaning and purpose, in order to be true, must come from an objective, unwavering, external source. After all, it is not the ship that determines its course, but the captain. The spoon does not determine that its purpose is to be plunged into a bowl of ice cream. A hammer does not determine that it must hit the nail.
Here one brushes against the Thomistic quinque viae, in that all we are and know must come from beyond us. Meaning comes from the ethereal. To come from any but a source external would be to introduce subjectivity, relativity, and consequently meaninglessness. So doing leaves the task of meaning finding to determining what does and does not bring the individual wellbeing, but even this is a humanistic question, and so it is further reduced to pleasure and pain determining good and bad, right and wrong, because in the brain there can be observed neural firings that demonstrate each. Science has found it’s backdoor into the moral debate.
The problems created by such an approach are myriad but can be simplified by considering whether or not pleasure and pain are accurate measures of good and bad. Yes, such sensations are measurable, but there are quite a few additional considerations to be made. In our time, pleasure has been made the highest good, and pain the most abhorrent evil. Thus, the modern man has oriented every facet of his life towards the seeking of pleasure and the minimization of pain or difficulty.
This calls to mind perhaps one of the very oldest questions in the long and detailed history of inquiry – what is good? For the reductionist, a brain scan will indicate profound unhappiness in the brain of a missionary working in the slums of Calcutta. Such stench and misery will almost certainly trigger negative reactions in the olfactory areas of the brain, and to witness the immense suffering of these Calcuttans will make one feel sadness, pity, or compassion. Yet, serving the poor, the sick, and the destitute is traditionally held as morally upright. Objectively the individual performing the act is worse for wear, yet spiritually and socially he is providing a great service. Are we willing to call such selfless acts of charity bad because those who perform them walk away feeling sad and stinking of refuse? Surely not, but in a brave new world such as ours wherein scientists are “contemplating the fabrication of the human genome”, in a culture of death where even the very definitions of life and death are no longer tied to the intuition of many thousands of years, one cannot be so quick to assume that acts of charity will always be viewed so charitably.
Scientism supposes that to study man is to study nature, that to understand the physical is to understand the moral or the spiritual. There is much to consider, however, about humanity and the human condition that is not applicable to the natural world at large. Man is natural, but he is also in a sense supernatural. The natural world governs itself like a clock – it continues to move forward as it will, but man possesses the unique ability to consciously alter his own destiny. Man, unlike any other animal or plant, possesses the ability to stop and consider his options before making an informed decision based on his best interests and his goals for the future. This transcendence is what the Christian knows as the Imago Dei, the image and the imprint of the divine. Every man bears it, but not every man recognizes it. Yet, were men simply natural, life would begin and end with the procurement of basic needs. Man, however, is not satisfied with food, water, and shelter alone. He needs to find meaning.
Such a worldview lacks both morals and truth because morals lack empirical support and the truth is unchanging. What passes for truth is built instead upon the latest research. If morals are built upon researchable theses, then our moral understanding changes as new information becomes available; but this is not truth, which is the only thing upon which a moral understanding can be built. It calls to mind the oft-repeated parable of the wise and foolish builders. A belief that offers only facts and no truths is empty.
Scientism does not allow for transcendence. A new discovery may “transcend” the limits or the laws of nature, but how? Science is an exploration of the natural and, increasingly, the unnatural world, but in the end it discovers new folds of reality. Its discoveries are real; they exist. Explorers from the Old World transcended nothing when they discovered the New World; rather, they had stumbled upon one that already existed. A truth that is modified or dropped entirely is hardly worthy of the mantle of truth. Science may seek the truth, but a truth undiscovered is a truth that benefits no one. To build a worldview on undiscovered truth is perhaps more dangerous than one built on facts mistaken as truth.
Scientism aims to be the last word on all things. If it cannot be answered by science, then it cannot be answered. Surely, then, scientism has a full explanation on the existence of fear. This is fortunate, because within scientism there are two words from a dead language that when spoken together strike fear into the very heart of scientism: ex nihilo – “from nothing.” Science is yet to answer, or even to provide credible speculation, on how something can be created from nothing. This presents a great problem for the scientific mind – from whence came existence? Even if the universe prior to the Big Bang was an infinitesimally dense cosmic speck, it must have come from something before it. That is the natural way, and science is the study of nature. Our cosmic speck was the sum total of all matter, dark-matter, and anti-matter in the universe, but even then, it was still something. It came from somewhere, but from where it came is the question of questions.
Aristotle and Aquinas, working in concert though separated by more than 1,500 years both concluded that tracing anything to its origin will eventually lead to the existence of an “Uncaused Cause,” what Aquinas referred to as the “First Mover.” If we are to “reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world,” as Mr. Lewontin suggests, then we must discard with equal enthusiasm both the notion of a creator God as well as the theoretical science suggesting that the universe came from nothing. What are we left with? It would seem as if reality is based either on the irrational or the supernatural – or both.
Ben Woodfinden writes, “Christianity is not being rejected and shunned merely because people believe it to be false, but because people believe it to be morally repugnant.” Perhaps, or perhaps the shunning and rejection of Christianity in the public square is equally the result of fear that the call of Christ to deny the ways of the world feels like a call to stand on the shore and tell the waves to stop and the seas to part. It is a call to give up those temporal comforts that hold the promise of immediate and fleeting pleasure and security so often mistaken for the sublime and everlasting. Deep down, all feel that tug on their soul when they know they have wandered astray, and at such times are faced with a choice: pursue that tug, or bury it. Perhaps Christianity is indeed repugnant. Let us celebrate that, as it is that repugnance that renounces the transient for the transcendent. Let us in our repugnance tell the world, “There is something much better just this way.”
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