Scientism Fiction

By Reed, Fred | The American Conservative, August 25, 2008 | Go to article overview

Scientism Fiction


Reed, Fred, The American Conservative


While the advent of the sciences has been a mixed blessing, giving us dentistry on the one hand but also the automobile and electronic amplification of sound, its philosophical consequences have been purely unfortunate. In particular, we have suffered the rise of scientism. This consists of mechanistic materialism applied beyond its reach. The sciences endeavor to understand things that are scientifically (i.e., materialistically) understandable. Scientism is the belief that everything is scientifically understandable. The success of the sciences in producing iPods is such that anything scientismists say is received with reverence. We now believe in pure pool-ball materialism, whether it makes sense or not.

Consider a little girl of three romping with a puppy in a field of summer flowers. (I have in mind a certain daughter in a certain field.) She is charmed by her puppy, the puppy by her, and both rush about in the joy that only the very new to the world can feel. Watching them, I would see, and probably you would see, sunlight and gladness and perhaps think that just maybe, though probably not, the world was a better place than we had thought.

A scientismist would not see these things. He would see child and doglet as chemical reactions, differing only in complexity from the fizzing of vinegar and baking soda. He can see nothing else. Prettiness, affection, delight in bouncing--these are not scientifically admissible. They have no physical definition and therefore cannot exist. If in some awkward and irritating sense they do have being, it is of a trivial order and best ignored. Those with real understanding focus on the wave equation.

Scientists, certainly the greats, do not have such tinker-toy minds. A Newton, seeing a little girl with her puppy, would see a little girl with her puppy. Large minds know their limitations and even welcome them: who but a hopeless drone, however bright, would want to live in a mindless, thumping, banging world ruled by subatomic pool balls in meaningless motion? But the scientismist needs a mechanical explanation for everything.

The which worketh not. There is more to a small girl and to a puppy than metabolic pathways and adenosine triphosphate produced by the citric-acid cycle in the mitochondrial cristae to fuel muscular contractions involving actin and myosin, thus inspiring linguistic horror in all about. There is more to a sunset, rolling way in molten dunes in some unfathomable desert, slowly burning out to purple and grey, than refractive indices and water vapor. …

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