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September 17th 2008 print

Bill Muehlenberg

Scientism as the New Fundamentalism

The term ‘fundamentalism’ is today taken as a term of derision.

The term ‘fundamentalism’ is today taken as a term of derision. It is used in a pejorative sense. It is now used to refer to those who are bigoted, closed-minded, not open to reason and evidence, and pushing a narrow agenda. Unfortunately, many in the scientific community today can be described as fundamentalists.

Real science is about following the evidence where it leads. It does not have pre-determined agendas, and it does not engage in witch-hunts against those who do not buy the reigning orthodoxy. Scientism, on the other hand, is guilty of such things. Much of what passes for science these days is nothing more than scientism.

Among other things, scientism is about making basic philosophical claims, such as the claim that truth and knowledge are only to be found by means of the scientific method, and what science cannot deal with cannot be really known or shown to be true.

Examples of scientism are easily found. Writing in 1970, Bertrand Russell said this: “Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.”

Chemist and science writer Peter Atkins put it this way: “There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence.” The late Carl Sagan made this bold – and unscientific – claim: “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”

Or as Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson remarked, “All tangible phenomena, from the birth of the stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and torturous the sequences, to the laws of physics.”

These are all philosophical claims of course. They cannot be proved by the scientific method, but must be held as faith commitments. Thus we have scientists making claims about issues which science itself cannot properly comment on. They have an a priori commitment to philosophical naturalism, and will not allow any fact or evidence to get in the way of their pre-existing faith in materialism.

Scientism, then, rules out ahead of time anything which is not natural or physical. There is no supernatural or metaphysical reality in its view. Thus there can be no creator of the universe. Evolution must be held to, despite any evidence to the contrary, because belief in God is just not allowed by those who embrace scientism.

Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin is perfectly candid about all this: “We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

Thus scientists who are committed to scientism have become the new fundamentalists, and they will not allow any competing views to be heard. Indeed, they will hound dissenters out of the public square. Many examples of this come to mind, but the most recent concerns a scientist who has just resigned from his position as director of education at the Royal Society in the UK because of pressure – indeed persecution – from those committed to scientism.

Michael Reiss, a biologist and Church of England minister, made the modest proposal to have all sides of the debate discussed in science classes: both evolution and creation. He said in classrooms it was more effective to discuss both sides of the issue instead of simply telling students they are wrong to believe in creation.

There was of course an immediate uproar about this, so much so that Reiss was forced to resign. According to press accounts, “The Royal Society reiterated that its position was that creationism had no scientific basis and should not be part of the science curriculum.”

So much for real science being allowed to run its course. What we have here is the intolerance and narrow-mindedness of scientism. It is all about running any dissenters out of town. Some would undoubtedly rather burn people like Reiss at the stake, but that may a bit too radical at this point. But the result is just the same: Reiss has been silenced by his critics, and proper scientific debate has been stifled.

It seems that scientism and ideology have won here, while genuine science is the real loser. As Lord Robert Winston, professor of science and society at Imperial College London, said: "I fear that in this action the Royal Society may have only diminished itself. This is not a good day for the reputation of science or scientists. This individual was arguing that we should engage with and address public misconceptions about science – something that the Royal Society should applaud."

It is clear that the new fundamentalists today are the atheists and secular humanists within the scientific community who have managed to hijack scientific debate, and turn legitimate science into illegitimate scientism.