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Re: scientism


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Posted by Eric Pettifor on August 30, 1998 at 00:06:07:

In Reply to: scientism posted by Rob Mince on August 26, 1998 at 19:50:00:

I think there are a couple of varieities of scientism, the sharpest distinction being between 'good' (worship of science and scientific method) and 'bad' (sometimes called pseudoscience), and the most insidious being a knee jerk resorting to quick answers of a materialistic nature for... well, just about everything.

For those who clearly worship science, scientists ARE put up on a pedestal! Einstein might be the greatest example of this, since his popularity even extends to pop culture.

And for some, a well engineered sports car might very well have a numinous quality more conventionally associated with religion. I briefly mentioned Ayn Rand in the paper, and certainly her books are full of a very deep reverence for technological excellence.

Of course, when I say that scientism is the dominant religion of our time, I don't mean to suggest that everyone alive today is a scientismist! Stephen Batchelor's agnostic Buddhism seems both very scientific (NOT scientismic) and yet with a religious committment to agnosticism. Of course, he's caught a lot of heat from many in the Buddhist community for it as well!

It should also be possible for a person to be a science teacher, appreciating full well both the limitations of science and yet what a beautifully powerful tool it is, and a Buddhist. I tried in the paper to distinguish clearly between science and scientism. Science cannot be a religion, good science anyway, since the moment it becomes one it loses its objectivity (to whatever extent that is achievable), it loses its critical skepticism regarding itself, and ceases to be truly science.

Scientism is the religion which results from this overextension, of pushing science beyond its limits, of not being aware of those limits or indeed perhaps believing that science knows no limits! It also seems as though it is constrained by prejudgement of what is an acceptable outcome of any experiment, observation, or even line of thought -- rather backwards from scientific method. An example of this would be the relatively minimal attention given in the west to Buddhist psychology, milleniums old, but just not dressed up in the right kind of western scientific drag to be taken seriously, much like the 'foreign' scientist in The Little Prince. It's this prejudgement, perhaps, which most characterizes it as the dominant 20th century religion or world view, since it's this set of expectations which, using an example from the paper, makes Unidentified Phenomenon In The Sky (UPITS) immediately recognizable as advanced technology from another world. Until there's much more compelling evidence of a truly scientific nature, this can be at best an unsupported hypothesis. But millions believe it to be fact and would have no trouble recognizing UPITS as such with no more evidence than a sighting, or even a report of a report of one.

Some scientismists (those of the pseudoscience ilk) may be amongst those who curse science most vehemently, since the failure of scientists to accept their pseudoscientific beliefs isn't in their minds due to a lack of evidence, but rather a conspiracy on the part of scientists to maintain the status quo. Where they are compelled to acknowledge the need for harder evidence, they may maintain that such evidence exists, but the 'scientists', or the government, or the military or secret police or whoever are hiding it for their own nefarious purposes.

Others may hate it because they essentially fear it. They don't have an adequate understanding of what it really is about, esp. as a method, but they do know that its fruit includes ozone destroying chemicals and nuclear weapons. Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance postulated the existence of two classes of people, romantic and classical type thinkers, Dionysian and Apollonian, and the haters of this nasty materialist mechanical reductionist science fall into the former category, incapable of seeing the beauty which may be readily apparent to one of the latter orientation in a schematic diagram. It's the romantics that I think of when I read your assertion that most consider science to be a 'necessary evil'. Yet even amongst them I'm sure you'll find believers in UPITS, in bigfoot being a descendent of Gigantopithecus blacki, the Loch Ness Monster as a surviving pleisiosaur or something of that ilk, and so on.

Then there may be others who genuinely don't give a damn about science, or scientism, or anything. Some who have found a connection with Universe so profound that the busy romantic/classical debate holds little interest, or others for whom the conditions of existence are so harsh that they have little time or energy for anything but trying to survive at an almost animal level. I suspect most, however, will be someplace inbetween.



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