Scientism is Not Only Self-Refuting, but Dangerous

Part Three

Scientism is not merely wrong, but dangerous. This is the claim I want to make to conclude our series on scientism. It probably seems like an aggressive claim; perhaps it is. But it’s also right there in the subtitle of JP Moreland’s book: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes.

Power outlet on fire.

I started this series by explaining why scientism is self-refuting. Whether someone believes in strong scientism or weak scientism, their belief is logically incoherent. If scientism is true, then the non-scientific foundations on which scientism (and science!) rests would be null and void. If scientism were true, it would prove that scientism couldn’t be true; it’s a logical contradiction and has no merit as a system of thought.

I then covered the ways in which scientism influences how everyone talks about abortion. Both pro-life and pro-choice people often act like science is the thing with all the answers, but, in reality, science can only get us so far. Some scientific facts, like those from embryology, give us relevant information, but we have to use that information in non-scientific ways to come to a reasoned conclusion about abortion.

If you’ve gotten this far, you may wonder how scientism still exists and why it continues not only to survive but thrive in the public sphere. My answer is simple: scientism is a means of power for some things against other things. It is a convenient weapon in favor of moral relativism against absolute moral truths and those who claim them. Every meaningful defense of human rights must rest on moral truth, so denying moral truth must lead to an eradication of grounds for human rights. Scientism is not bad just because it is incorrect or unhelpful, but because it is a danger to humanity.

To watch a video version of this article, click below:

Propaganda and Conformity

Scientism is part of a critical power structure keeping religions other than secular humanism and atheism out of the public square. As Moreland writes:

To the extent that scientism is embraced in our culture, our moral and spiritual claims will be “de-cognitivized.” In other words, our deepest beliefs about life, knowledge, history, and reality will seem to be utterly implausible—not just untrue, but unworthy of rational consideration. (p. 31)

Scientism rejects as invalid or inferior the claims of every religion other than these two (and even many of their more valuable branches). And secularism is not value-neutral, though it pretends to be (atheism has no such pretense). To allow secularism to dominate is to reject claims rooted in faith as inherently wrongful in public settings.

Why is this a problem? We can’t all agree on faith, so we shouldn’t talk about it in public, you might say. And, indeed, ERI does not make use of faith-based arguments in most of our conversations about abortion, because that’s not how we can most effectively convince pro-choice people to become pro-life. But our tactical decision is in response to the overwhelming hold secularism has on society, not an endorsement of it.

Secularism demands religious people split their identity in half. It says, “You can cultivate faith or whatever, and here’s a study showing it’s good for your health, but that part of you can’t exist in public. No, only some whitewashed version of yourself, without deeply held beliefs (unless they match those of the ruling class), is allowed to exist at work, at school, and in the halls of power.”

It should be easy to see the issue. People can’t realistically compartmentalize themselves in all of their interactions, and even if they could, it would be completely unhealthy. Secularism purports to be an empty space promoting the equality of ideas, but it’s truly a method of controlling the public by discarding as unacceptable the foundations for their dearest beliefs. [Tweet that!] The following two sections consider different manners in which this power is exercised.

The Conquest of Human Nature

Scientism is, for secularism, a means of power. Science, as opposed to scientism, offers us explanatory power for natural phenomena. Scientism demands something far greater: power over nature itself, often described as “man’s conquest of nature” (Lewis, p. 34).

(In these next two sections, I will be drawing heavily from one of my favorite books, The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. This book is a short must-read, and it perfectly complements what Moreland spoke of in his book. I’ll be using page numbers from the 1957 edition for references for the rest of this post.)

One of the issues with conquering nature, in this sense, is that we’re changing whatever we consider “nature” in line with our own whims. “When we understand a thing analytically and then dominate and use it for our own convenience we reduce it to the level of ‘Nature’ in the sense that we suspend our judgements of value about it, ignore its final cause (if any), and treat it in terms of quantity” (p. 44).

And yet, one of the consequences of scientism is to enlarge that which is considered “natural.” For example, if everything is merely natural, my beliefs about God are irrelevant, beneath inspection for truth or falsehood; they were just beneficial to ensure the survival of some portion of the species in a conjectured prehistoric past. In applying bad philosophy to science, all that is interesting about humanity is not explained, but explained away. (And what is scientism but hijacking science with bad philosophy?)

Scientism reduces humanity to the level of a natural phenomenon. “But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature,” Lewis writes, “the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same” (p. 45). Once man is mere nature, then humanity is natural material to be shaped by the technical elite, “[f]or the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please” (p. 37).

If this sounds like a science-fiction novel, think about what powers are already being exercised on us. Sex-selective abortion as a means to control the sex of the children you raise is the barest tip of the iceberg. The use of IVF to screen children for more-or-less desirable qualities before implantation already occurs, but it, too, is a clumsy attempt at control. The promise of technologies like CRISPR, which can be used to perform edits on the DNA of living people (which are then passed on to their children), is far more vast. Synthetic biology is a field of science that treats organic chemistry like a child’s Lego set. And we now consider our bodies, at their most fundamental level, to be a product of choice rather than a part of the self.

Men Without Selves

This is to say nothing about future technologies of enhancement, most terrifying of which is the use of biochemistry for “moral enhancement.” Where propaganda can only succeed in part, neuropsychology could allow for entire control over what each person believes to be right or wrong.

Without the science for moral enhancement, scientism is content to use more conventional means to attack what is now derided as “traditional morality.” In rejecting the explanatory power of philosophy and religion, scientism must discard any basis for objective morality. As I said earlier, without objective moral truth, human rights cannot be secured, because there is no duty to our fellow man which is true in all times and all places.

Scientism is inherently hostile to moral truth. There are many people who buy into scientism who still profess morality, but that is only possible as a logical inconsistency. [Tweet that!] “Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao [natural law], or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own ‘natural’ impulses” (p. 46). To those who want morality but have been seduced by scientism, I hope that the appeal to common sense and common virtue can persuade them.

What, then, of those who are “true believers” in scientism, who are consistent in the denial of moral values (though their foundation is itself inconsistent)? “It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere ‘natural object’ and his own judgments of value as raw material for scientific manipulation…if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be” (p. 45). To deny morality is to deny that we are more than the random firings of synapses in the brain; which belief can only be motivated by random firings of synapses. Only whim and impulse are left; and any barrier against the impulse to oppression has been removed.

Conclusion

Scientism, allowed to take root and thrive, must be fatal for what we call “humanity.” Our beliefs, our morals, our nature are all cast aside by its advance. It inevitably enables injustice; it can do no other, because it discarded the foundations of justice.

It bears mentioning, once again, that science need not be identical to scientism. Science can help us to see, to know, and to situate that knowledge within a broader worldview. Scientism, on the other hand, is designed to “see through” everything but natural facts by reducing everything to natural facts. I’ll end as Lewis does:

[Y]ou cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see. (p. 50)

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The post Scientism is Not Only Self-Refuting, but Dangerous originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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Writer / Researcher

Andrew Kaake (pronounced like “cake”) is a Writer/Researcher at Equal Rights Institute. He holds a bachelor’s degree in classics and political science, cum laude, from Amherst College, where he wrote a thesis on the topic of C.S. Lewis and natural law philosophy. He completed his master’s degree in bioethics at Trinity International University, studying the philosophical underpinnings of controversies about life, death, and technology and trying to create ways to communicate that information to others. During his studies at Trinity, he worked as a research assistant for The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity.

Andrew wants the pro-life movement to help foster a culture that seeks truth and embraces logical consistency. “What I believe about humanity and personhood clearly impacts what I think about abortion, but it also holds implications for how I should (and, more importantly, shouldn’t) dialogue with other people who disagree with me.”

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