By Pedro Blas González
Scientism, Science, and Technology
Scientism is not science but an ideology that reduces man’s hope and aspiration to the scientific method. Scientism promises postmodern man an alarming sense of control over the here-and-now. Scientism, along with postmodern moral relativism and decay, has profoundly debilitated the human sense for transcendence and the ontological mystery.
Consequently, the sterility that robs the human capacity to embrace ontological mystery makes it next to impossible to contemplate and cultivate transcendent values. In the absence of transcendent values, one becomes paralyzed by not knowing what to believe, and more importantly, and one loses the vital convictions that guide us through the demands made on us by life.
Science properly understood concerns itself with uncovering the constants of nature. This has given a glimpse of the inner workings of the universe, like gravity. In the field of medicine, science has undoubtedly advanced beyond the wildest expectations of ancient man. Today, we believe that science has indeed uncovered many constants of nature that pertain to the human body. Let us accept this as a truism for the time being, if only out of convenience.
Knowledge, as science understands this, is understanding of objective reality. Science demands that the object of knowledge it seeks be tangible and stable. This is a reasonable demand, for it means that scientific knowledge is the reward that reality offers the scientist at the culmination of a rigorous search. As a result, technological knowledge serves as the fulcrum by which man utilizes his expertise. Thus, technological knowledge is employed in the service of invention and industrialization. That is, science—physics to be exact—responds to real-world conditions through knowledge of classical mechanics, and more recently, quantum mechanics.
On the other hand, reflective knowledge is knowledge as alētheia: truth that is uncovered proactively. Truth plays a central part in man’s existential engagement with reality because truth keeps humanity from becoming self-consumed by subjectivism and conditioned by objectification. However, truth is not relative. Instead, truth demands objectivity from those who seek it. Ancient Greek philosophers, especially Parmenides, were correct in arguing that truth only manifests itself at the end of a committed search that joins awe and wonder with humility.
Regrettably, many people today confuse scientism with science. For such people, scientism serves as an umbrella that promises to cover all aspects of human reality. This creates the false impression that the fruits of science and technology can substitute for existential reflection, which is rooted in free will. On the contrary, scientism dehumanizes personhood because it makes human life, which is experienced as concrete and differentiated existence, impersonal. Because scientism has no jurisdiction over human freedom, only over matter and technology, its response to human existence is formulaic.
Scientism operates outside the realm of objective science. Yet our contemporary world has conceded much to scientism. What is lost in this exchange of human freedom for alleged worldly security is no less than the capacity for self-reflection. Postmodernity has relegated self-reflection to the altar of the scientific method. Self-reflection enables existential, not just material, self-knowledge. On the other hand, scientific knowledge seeks functionality and control over matter. The danger in confusing these two modes of apprehending the self and the world respectively is that of reducing human subjectivity to matter. Science investigates physical reality through experimentation. Yet, people who possess religious convictions and who are moved by the ontological mystery, incorporate science into their lives without contradiction. They recognize the limitations of science in regard to human affairs. In this way, the reflective person can delineate between the scope of science and faith.
Again, the problem is that scientism is the intrusion of pseudo-science into areas that do not concern science. Scientism has the effect of destroying, or at best, anesthetizing subjectivity. This culminates in the illusion that what matters most is the creation of an impersonal “we.” The Russian philosopher, Nicolas Berdyaev, explains this in the following manner: “Nowadays the spirit is breaking away from bond to the organic life of the flesh. Freedom is based not on nature (natural law), but on spirit. Ours is a trying and difficult period, one in which the joy of living seems to be diminished.”
The allure of the sensual can be intoxicating. The exaggerated embrace of sensuality, the here-and-now as an end in itself, leads to a moral/spiritual dead-end, for why concern ourselves with virtue, if momentary existence is all that matters? Why, instead, not allow ourselves to be swept along by the pleasures we encounter in the sensual world? While this attitude may seem frivolous and trivial to some, others view it as natural, given a phobia of existential self-reflection—what they perceive to be the burden of free will. This cynical attitude is the opposite of self-reflection, which aims at proactive action in human existence.
What is at stake in postmodernity is the capacity to cultivate human existence inspired by contemplation of the non-rational. It is reflective knowledge, not scientific know-how that is felt at a lived, existential level. Because it addresses man’s existential concerns at a pre-intellectual level, reflective knowledge existed long before the advent of science. Reflective knowledge is personal because it is engulfed by personhood, unlike scientific knowledge, which is methodological. This characteristic of reflective knowledge means that man, as differentiated being, has an obligation to cultivate his existential condition. This must be done for practical reasons, which ultimately include experiencing contentment. This is one reason why it is a mistake to attempt to appropriate the existence of God through science. Man does not possess a science of the human person, much less God.
The scientific method is not equipped to grapple with questions of meaning and purpose. When humanity gives away existential freedom—the responsibility to cultivate essence as a person—the result is a flesh and blood automaton. Ironically, this view of the person-as-automaton is (mis)understood to be a summit of existences, because of this supposed scientific and alleged technological prowess. This type of culture has embraced the flawed presupposition that because science has uncovered some constants of nature, it will eventually possess infinite first principles of human reality.
The gulf that exists between science and existential concerns in the twenty-first century has given birth to hollow, technologically inebriated people incapable of cultivating self-reflection. Western society in particular has entered the stage of human history that August Comte, the father of positivism, saw as an anti-metaphysical age. Let us keep in mind that, considered from a vital-existential perspective, first principles cannot be divested from the cohesion that these principles communicate to human existence.
As an existential being, the human person ought to appropriate first principles that have direct bearing and impact on vital life. In every search for knowledge, whether scientific or philosophical, the motivation is the same: to uncover principles that bring cohesion to human experience, and thus, existence. Ignoring first principles that act in the service of existential longing, our contemporary, technologized world has instead turned to the vagaries of scientism. The irony is that in a time of impactful scientific, technological and medical discoveries, existential atrophy is commonplace.
First principles must be amplified by existential wisdom in order to keep them relevant to human existence. The uncovering of first principles can make human experience well-rounded. In seeking first principles that act to highlight meaning and purpose in human experience, man uncovers patterns and foundational symmetry in what otherwise appear to be disorganized experiences.
If God is the absolute, then humanity is part of that totality. If God enables humanity to perceive Being, then reflective, spiritual existence must become attuned to transcendence, not timely social-political aspects of the here-and-now.
One response to this paradox is that the marriage of Being and becoming is best understood when the efficacy of Being is measured in terms of man’s existential inner dimension. Unfortunately, this is the syndrome of “keeping the score,” when virtue is forced to take a defensive stance. Another way to articulate this is that virtuous people do not take sensual existence for granted, given that sensual experience is framed by existential reflection. There is great tension placed on virtuous people by sensual reality to remain consistent in their convictions. It is existential reflection that best captures God’s being as the absolute, not the study of matter.
If Aristotle is correct that God’s activity is to think, the human capacity for self-reflection and self-knowledge are its greatest attributes. We must also keep in mind that man’s existential inner dimension is merely one component of personhood, albeit a fundamental one. This suggests that existence in the flesh is subject to the many stresses of contingency. To be in the world—to exist, period—ought to be the greatest concern. To be in the world means to be forced to fend for one’s existential salvation.
It is not difficult to realize that human strife is a struggle to keep from becoming objectified by the world. Refusal to cultivate existential longing entails the deterioration of our existential capacity for self-knowledge. This is why it is important to draw a distinction between the world as matter and man’s existential sphere.
Let us briefly consider the plight of man in pre-history, who practiced hunting and gathering in order to survive. The cultivation of agriculture, farming, and the domestication of animals were improvements over the unpredictability of nomadic man’s practice of hunting and gathering. Hunter-gatherers could ill afford to take a day off, as it were. This is why labor for the sake of survival does not objectify people. On the contrary, physical labor serves to complement man’s existential dimension. Physical labor in pre-history, as continues to be the case today, is an indispensable condition of natural man. The basic tools available in pre-history continue to play a pivotal role in modern life.
Humanity’s existential condition is a testament to our quest to seek coherence in history. In the middle of this great chaos—as history appears to be at times—each human person remains an existential being. Endowed with free will, our existential condition acts as an operating manual of sorts that leads us to reflection on the ontological mystery. In addition, the desire to comprehend the passage of time and our crusade for transcendence remain existential longings. This is where Death-of-God theology and New Age Christianity both go profoundly wrong.
For instance, it should not come as a surprise to anyone that converting Jesus Christ into a man among men trivializes the Trinity. More importantly, this places Christianity on the same plane as historical, cult movements. Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, is conceived by secular thought as belonging in the same company as Egyptian Pharaohs and Mayan kings. By debunking Jesus’s claim to be the son of God, Jesus becomes demythologized. The focus of postmodern atheistic reductionism is fueled by what it considers to be the banality of the existence of God, because human life itself is allegedly meaningless and purposeless.
According to the Spanish philosopher Baltasar Gracian, the true measure of genius is how people embrace their life as lived-existence. Traditionally, nonbelievers have rarely bothered to attack the religious convictions of believers. They did not waste time in cultivating the angry fervor that we witness in postmodernity’s militant opposition to the existence of God. For this reason, nonbelievers can be placed in two categories: 1) Militant radical ideologues, and 2) Casual nonbelievers.
Postmodernity’s aversion to God is a fine example of what Nietzsche has in mind when he writes in The Gay Science that “God is dead.” The death of God, as Nietzsche suggests, does not just apply to the God of Christians, but also that of the philosophers. One of the characteristics typically attributed to God is benevolence. The other two characteristics of God are omnipotence and omniscience. Today, God’s benevolence, like other metaphysical and epistemological questions concerning God, has taken on an anthropological self-loathing slant that is unprecedented in human history. This comes as the result of the triumph of all-engulfing cynicism.
As the twenty-first century enters its third decade, it has become apparent that humanity today is paralyzed by cynicism. Benevolence makes sense as one of God’s characteristics because it addresses the question of Being. Many children marvel at the existence of the natural world. Children are awed by the fact that there is a universe. They wonder about the unimaginable complexity that the nature of reality exhibits—that there exists something rather than nothing. The latter is a rational concern of human beings. Why is this? The reality of being excites the human capacity for reflection. Particularly relevant to this form of reflection is the idea that nothingness is a troublesome, paradoxical concept. The important thing to keep in mind is that Being, that is, the essence of all that there is or can be, is a greater value than nothingness. This is what people in more reflective times referred to as the big picture.
What happens to the question of Being, when God is banished from postmodern man’s consciousness? Even if our modern world tried to suppress reflection about God, Being still continues to exist. People who continue to announce the death of God, in order to proclaim humanity radically free from the burden of free will, view God as a detriment to their alleged utopian human perfection.
Human perfection is a totalitarian elixir for radical ideologues. This concept is molded to fit the demands of a vast ongoing number of social/political engineering projects. With God out of the picture, people who are burdened by this metaphysical constant of human reflection, they allege, can enjoy a life of radical emancipation. For postmodern thinkers, and other denizens of intellectual chic, free will and God are a burden.
Pedro Blas González is a professor of philosophy at Barry University.