Vol 2 Ed 19 » Columnistas » Scientism and faith

Scientism and faith

Tomás Molina

"It is upon the antinomies of reason, upon the scandals of the spirit, upon the ruptures in the universe, that I base my hope and my faith".

Nicolás Gómez Dávila.


In universities, magazines, documentaries, and even Twitter we are witnessing yet another revival of scientism. Indeed, it seems that it’s never sufficiently refuted, perhaps because its proponents think they are immune to refutations. Every generation they make the same claims and every generation we are obliged to refute them. But what exactly is scientism?

Professor Richard Lewontin of Harvard said that “the problem is to get [people] to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth.” And that, I think, is a very succinct definition of scientism: the idea that science is the only way of knowing the truth about the world. (In this context science means natural science or social science that tries to imitate the methods and results of natural science, especially of physics).

Not everyone states its adherence to scientism in such a way. Most people resort to the usual: “ah, but your theory must be false because it is not scientific”. For example, psychoanalysis is supposed to be false because it does not comply with some arbitrary rules about what is scientific or not; or faith is a not valid approach because it isn’t scientific, and so on. In sum, the idea is that if it’s not scientific, then it’s not a valid explanation of the world.

I’d like to disprove the main claims of scientism not only because I think it’s false, but because I think that proving that science isn’t everything may help us rehabilitate other forms of knowing the world, like faith and intuition. But before questioning the claims of scientism, we must ask ourselves why it always has some appeal amongst intelligent people. There are two main reasons. The first is that modern science is a truly powerful tool that, in comparison, makes other forms of knowledge look suspiciously weak. The truths of physics, for example, look much more solid that the endless discussions in philosophy or theology. The second reason is that proponents of scientism are not usually well versed in philosophy, ontology and epistemology, and therefore are ignorant of the limits of science. So much so that they ignore that scientism is not even a scientific proposition, but a philosophical one. Thus, if it is true (if science is the only begetter of truth), then scientism must be false (scientism is a philosophical/epistemological assertion).

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The first reason for believing in scientism is usually refuted through historicism. The idea is that each culture has its own ontology and epistemology, and there is no objective way of determining which one is better. Therefore, modern science is only a historical, contingent and relative way of looking at the world. Like Heidegger notes:

Greek science was never exact, precisely because, in keeping with its essence, it could not be exact and did not need to be exact. Hence it makes no sense whatever to suppose that modern science is more exact than that of antiquity. Neither can we say that the Galilean doctrine of freely falling bodies is true and that Aristotle's teaching, that light bodies strive upward, is false; for the Greek understanding of the essence of body and place and of the relation between the two rests upon a different interpretation of beings and hence conditions a correspondingly different kind of seeing and questioning of natural events


But this Heideggerian refutation is unconvincing (although it raises interesting historical and cultural points). Indeed, if all knowledge is historically relative, then historicism is also relative and there is no good reason to believe that its account of science is more trustworthy than any other. But in order to really go beyond historical accusations we should try elsewhere to discover a way of looking at the limits of science and the validity of faith.

*

Let us suppose that a natural scientist wants to explain the death of Socrates. What could he say? Well, he could explain his death from a biological point of view: when he drank the poison his body reacted in this or that way, and finally his bodily organs stopped working. That explanation would resemble one that Socrates gives in the Phaedo to tell us why he was sitting in the Athenian prison:

I am now sitting here because my body is composed of bones and sinews, and the bones are hard and have joints which divide them and the sinews can be contracted and relaxed and, with the flesh and the skin which contains them all, are laid about the bones; and so, as the bones are hung loose in their ligaments, the sinews, by relaxing and contracting, make me able to bend my limbs now, and that is the cause of my sitting here with my legs bent.  


But that sort of thinking ignores the real causes of his death. According to Socrates’ they are “that the Athenians decided that it was best to condemn me, and therefore I have decided that it was best for me to sit here and that it is right for me to stay and undergo whatever penalty they order”. In other words, he dies because he arrived at the conclusion that it is the best thing to do for himself and for Athens. Nevertheless, a scientist cannot understand what the best means here. Let’s take a look at the workings of science in order to understand why.

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A scientist can say that a fish has an organ that will increase its chances of survival, but he cannot really say that survival is good or bad. That is a philosophical question. A scientist can say that certain atmospheric conditions are a prerequisite for the maintenance of life, but he cannot say that the existence of those conditions is good or not, because that presupposes the question of the value of life itself. And that is also a philosophical question. Indeed, when we scientifically understand the universe we do not get values but essences:  “this is how an animal survives”, but not “survival is good”; “this is how the atom is”, and not “this is why the atom is good”; “this is how the brain is”, but not “this is why the brain is good”. We can later say that having a brain is good, of course; but not because science tells us why, but because we already know (or think we know) what is best: to survive, to be conscious, to learn, etc.

The real cause of Socrates’ death would remain a mystery to the scientist because science could only explain the essence of his biological death: he died of poisoning at this or that hour, etc. Science could not explain the political and philosophical causes of Socrates’ death, because that is a question of value. Only if we think of his death through what he says about the Good and the Just can we begin to understand it. Thus, natural science has very real limits. The question of what is best in human life is beyond its capabilities. It cannot be the only begetter of truth.

One might point out here that obviously natural science cannot say something of real importance about this, but maybe social sciences can. Well, that is true. Certainly an historian can illuminate the penal code of Athens, or the social context of his death. Anthropologists can illuminate the meaning of death in the religious atmosphere of Greek society, etc. Indeed, a hermeneutic approach can explain a lot of things about Socrates’ life and death. Nonetheless, followers of scientism only (barely) believe in social science when it imitates the methods of natural science. And in this case it is impossible to do so. Why? Firstly, because as we have seen, science is incapable of answering questions of value: it can only explain and describe the essence of a being or phenomenon. Therefore, imitating the methods of natural science we wouldn’t be able to explain the real reasons behind Socrates’ death. But even if science could speak about the Good (about what is best), we cannot test our scientific theory about Socrates through direct observation, nor can we know everything about his life and thought through deductive reasoning, etc.

Nevertheless, a true follower of scientism could argue that the question of the Good isn’t meaningful in a scientific sense, and thus it cannot provide true knowledge. For example, there was a group of philosophers in the 1920’s known as the Vienna Circle who thought that metaphysics and theology were meaningless nonsense. To them, only scientific statements verifiable either by deductive logic or direct observation could be meaningful. When Wittgenstein visited them he was so exasperated by their claims, that he turned his chair to the wall and read Rabindranath Tagore out loud during their meetings. Perhaps he was trying to show them that poetry is a valid way of understanding and expressing reality. In other words, he tried to show them that their scientific logos is not the only logos we can use to understand the world.

Indeed, the question of the Good is meaningful, and it is amongst the most important things in life. How can we live a good life if the question of what is best is meaningless? How can we live without even knowing in the slightest what is good for us? But at the same time, we should recognize that there is something about the Good that we cannot know through the discourses or logoi of philosophy. Yes, we can know what things are good thanks to logic. And yes, philosophy can teach us a lot about the Good. But Plato knew that the Good itself is ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας (beyond being) and thus resists logical symbolization (discourse can only logically symbolize what is in the realm of being). That is to say, the Good in a sense is beyond speech.

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Believers in God intuitively know this and are therefore wiser and more rational than proponents of scientism. They know that God can be known through a particular rational discourse (or logos), but, like Plato, they know that there is something about Him that exceeds reason and language. All proofs of His existence always come short; there is always something missing. That is why nobody becomes a true catholic, for example, through a rational demonstration.

This is where faith enters the equation: faith is the belief in that which exceeds the powers of reason and discourse. Precisely because of that Gómez Dávila said that “faith is not obedience to concepts, but sudden splendor that prostrates us”. Also, faith is that which gives value to reason. One must believe in reason if one is to trust reason. But belief in reason through sole reason is a meaningless loop. Reason cannot be the judge of itself. Reason judging its own abilities would be as objective as Narcissus judging its own beauty. We can only believe in reason because there is something exterior that impels us to believe in it: true belief in the powers of reason is only possible through faith!

Every mystical poet probably knows that God exceeds reason. That is why they can’t simply describe Him with words. They must use paradoxical reasoning and powerful imagery to evoke something that is beyond what language can say. Describing the eyes of the loved one is a difficult enterprise for the poet; now imagine what it must be to describe something that is ἐπέκεινα τῆς λόγος (beyond reason and discourse)! St John of the Cross was conscious of this when he wrote his “Verses made upon an ecstasy of high contemplation”:
 

This knowing by not knowing,
Is of such high power,
That the arguments of the wise
Are unable to grasp it;

For their knowledge does not explain
Not to know knowing,
Beyond all science knowing. 

Este saber no sabiendo
es de tan alto poder,
que los sabios arguyendo
jamás le pueden vencer;

que no llega su saber
a no entender entendiendo,
toda ciencia trascendiendo.


So far we can conclude that if reason and speech are not all-embracing and all-knowing, then science can’t be the only begetter of truth. Intuition, mysticism, faith, the arts, etc., can, therefore, be valid ways of knowing some parts of reality. But there is another point to be made: scientism completely ignores the fractured nature not only of logos, as Wittgenstein reminds us, but of interpretations. Gómez Dávila already saw that:

There are no universally valid interpretations. A religious interpretation is grotesque in a profane context, in the same way that a profane interpretation is grotesque in a religious context. There we can only use scientific categories; but here everything is sign, symbol, and sacrament.
For the one who adores, rain is a blessing that falls over the miracle of wheat.

Therefore, science should not only know its epistemological and discursive limits, but also its contextual ones. Science can be true and valid in a certain context, but it is not in another. To wit: science can only speak in a profane context of profane things. Of God and the supernatural it shouldn’t speak, like it shouldn’t speak of Socrates’ death, except from a medical point of view. Of Justice and the real reasons behind his death it must remain silent or at least humble.

What I have said here is not against science, but against its ideological version: scientism. Science remains a powerful tool, but it is neither the only one nor a sufficient one. To conclude, we shalt say to the proponents of scientism, following Wittgenstein, that “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”.

Or maybe that aphorism needs a variation: “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one can have faith”.

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