Cultural Contradictions of Scientism

By Koons, Robert C. | Modern Age, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Cultural Contradictions of Scientism


Koons, Robert C., Modern Age


The Disunity of American Culture: Science, Religion, Technology, and the Secular State

by John C. Caiazza (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2013)

There is much to recommend in The Disunity of American Culture. John Caiazza's book is a clear and admirably competent survey of the conflict between religion and scientism in the Western world in recent decades and of the cultural consequences of that conflict. The book's greatest strength lies in Caiazza's ability to convey to a wide readership, with clarity and accuracy, the rise and fall of scientific positivism within the highly specialized world of academic philosophy. Nevertheless, the book's subject matter is so wide-ranging and diverse that the author has difficulty fitting it within a fully coherent argument, and I should be hard-pressed to identify its overall thesis.

The book comprises five parts: I, on American religion; II, on the history and philosophy of science; III, on three attempts at unified scientific reductionism; IV, on cultural decline; and V, on the irresolvable conflict between religion and science. Caiazza opens his book with three chapters devoted to American religion (Part I), and three to recent developments in the philosophy of science (Part II). The chapters on religion are a bit of a hodgepodge. He begins by describing the variety of religions that originated in America, from the Southern Baptist Church to Scientology. He then turns to the well-known pattern of American colleges and universities abandoning their religious and confessional roots, a story documented by the work of George Marsden. Somewhat oddly, Caiazza chooses Tufts University as his example, a university that has distanced itself from its Unitarian origins. From Unitarianism to modern secularism is not a great distance to fall, in my opinion. Marsden's examples of staunchly Calvinist or enthusiastically Evangelical colleges that have undergone such transformations provide more interesting and poignant cases. In the part's third chapter, Caiazza gives brief and useful reviews of books on American religion by Alan Wolfe (a secular liberal) and John Richard Neuhaus (a neoconservative Catholic).

Part II, on the philosophy of science, is one of the most useful sections of the book. Caiazza begins by criticizing the "Whig" theory of the history of science, which depicts the progress of science as synonymous with the early modern pioneers' breaking the stranglehold of Christian dogma on human thought. Historians of science now know (as even Stephen Jay Gould admitted) that modern science had its origins in the Middle Ages, with Platonic, Aristotelian, and specifically Christian ideas providing fuel and not a damper for effective speculation about nature. Caiazza effectively refutes Gould's two-track theory (two "non-overlapping magisteria"), in which religion is allowed to survive free of molestation at the cost of conceding the entire domain of "fact" to the authority of science. Caiazza points out that Gould's idea is nothing more than the resurrection of Siger of Brabant's theory of "double truth." Both ideas threaten to bifurcate human thought into irreconcilable fragments.

Finally, in the crucial chapter 7, "The Counterrevolution in the Philosophy of Science," Caiazza informs the reader about the fascinating trajectory of the philosophy of science in the English-speaking world in the course of the twentieth century. Philosophy of science began with the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle in the early 1900s, which led to the "Unity of Science" movement, in which all human knowledge was to be regimented according to a single, rigorous method, with mathematical physics at its base. Led by Thomas Kuhn, historians of science demonstrated that the unity of scientific method was an unsustainable myth. This turn to historicism has influenced American philosophy beyond the philosophy of science, with Alasdair MacIntyre's critique of rationalistic ethics, After Virtue, as a prime example. …

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