Science and Spirit

By Belden, David | Tikkun, November/December 2007 | Go to article overview

Science and Spirit


Belden, David, Tikkun


One reality, two kinds of knowledge. How can they work together to save the world?

IF SCIENCE SAVES US FROM RELIGION GONE BAD, WHO OR WHAT WILL SAVE US FROM science gone bad?

Scientists used to have a very powerful argument when challenged by religious people. They pointed to the huge advance in the material wellbeing of people that has been accomplished since the scientific paradigm took over a few hundred years ago. That argument however, has been put in doubt in the past several decades by environmentalists who have shown that the production of material goods, chemicals and electronics made possible by science has simultaneously been poisoning our air, land and water. Our complex and relatively fragile economic systems may not be able to weather the massive climate changes now in the works. Our civilization is in peril. Moreover, social scientists tell us that depression is rising in rich countries and that extra wealth does not make us happier. Spiritual people have been saying for a good fifty years that we already have "enough" and don't need to continue scientific progress geared heavily to practical application and research paid for and guided by the profit needs of major corporations.

You may think that good science is all we need to save ourselves from the misuse of science. It is scientists who are now telling us of the damage our scientific, technological society is wreaking on global climate, on numerous species, and on our health. Perhaps these same scientists will come up with scientific solutions?

Science + Spirit vs. the Religion of Scientism

SOME OF OUR LEADING SPIRITUAL PROGRESSIVES HAVE SERIOUS DOUBTS THAT SCIENTISTS can save us. They distinguish between "science" and "scientism." Science is value neutral. Scientism ascribes value to some kinds of knowledge and activity, and withholds legitimacy from other kinds: it is the functional equivalent of a religion, telling us what is and is not sacred. Science can help us. Scientism has failed us. Science pursues a value-neutral inquiry into the physical and chemical aspects of the world that can be studied under controlled circumstances and publicly observed experiments that yield hypotheses that can be verified (or at least falsified) through subsequent observation. By contrast, in the words of Michael Lerner, Editor of this magazine, "Scientism is the worldview held by a majority of people in the western world that claims that all that 'is' and all that 'can be known' is verifiable or falsifiable through the scientific method, and that which cannot be so measured is simply opinion, belief, or fantasy. It cannot be known and sensibly talked about and hence should be relegated to the private sphere." It is the contention of many spiritual progressives that this scientism has taken over and dominates the world.

Many practicing scientists reject scientism. Most make very modest claims about the world, almost always confined to the data that they have carefully observed or studied. But quoting Lerner again, "in the rise of capitalist societies, the desire to discredit the feudal system and its ideological foundations in various corrupted forms of religion and spirituality gave rise to a new dominant religious worldview: the religion of scientism. And scientism has so deeply sunk into the consciousness of most people in the society who have ever undergone the 'mind treatment' that is dumped onto children by the public school systems and massively reinforced by the media, that by the time they are adults they swear loyalty to the dominant religion of scientism in their personal fives, their lives in the workplace or profession, and in their public statements about what they believe and profess."

The claim that there is a "dominant religion" in Western societies, and that it is not Christianity but scientism, seems counter-intuitive to most people in the West. After all, they say, there has been an upsurge of fundamentalism around the world-this is the major religious reality of the twenty-first century. …

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