Scientism, Science and Technology
Scientism is not science. Instead, scientism is an ideology that reduces man’s hope and aspirations to the scientific method. Scientism promises postmodern man an alarming sense of control over the-here-and-now. Scientism along with postmodern man’s moral relativism and decay have profoundly debilitated man’s sense for transcendence and the ontological mystery. This has converted postmodern man into a morally/spiritually atrophied being.
As a consequence, the sterility that robs man’s capacity to embrace ontological mystery makes it next to impossible to contemplate and cultivate transcendent values. In the absence of transcendent values, we become paralyzed by not knowing what to believe, and more importantly, how to form vital convictions that guide us through the demands made on us by life. Postmodern man has lost the capacity to experience solemnity and pietas.
Science concerns itself with uncovering the constants of nature. This has given man a glimpse of the inner workings of the universe, e.g., gravity. In the field of medicine, science has undoubtedly advanced beyond the wildest expectations of ancient man. Today, we believe that science has indeed uncovered many constants of nature. Let us accept this as a truism for the time being.
Knowledge, as science understands this, is knowledge of objective reality. Science demands that the object of knowledge it seeks be tangible and stable. This is a reasonable demand, for it means that scientific knowledge is the fruit that reality offers man at the culmination of a rigorous search. As a result, technological knowledge has come to serve as the fulcrum by which man utilizes his know-how. Technological knowledge is placed in the service of invention and industrialization. That is, science responds to real-world conditions through mechanical knowledge.
Reflective knowledge, on the other hand, is knowledge as Alētheia: truth that is uncovered pro-actively. Truth plays a central part in man’s existential engagement with reality because truth keeps man from becoming self-consumed by subjectivism and conditioned by objectification. Truth, however, is not relative. Instead, truth demands objectivity from those who seek it. Ancient Greek philosophers, especially Parmenides, were correct in arguing that truth manifests itself only at the end of a committed search that couples awe and wonder with humility. This makes truth a form of knowledge that comes as the result of a proactive outlook on reality. In other words, truth does not make itself known to passive onlookers, much like electrical current that does not call attention to itself until an electrical device is plugged into an outlet.
Regrettably, many people confuse scientism with science. For many people, scientism serves as an umbrella that promises to cover all aspects of human reality. This creates the false impression that the fruits of science and technology can substitute existential reflection. On the contrary, scientism dehumanizes personhood because it makes human life, which is experienced as concrete and differentiated existence, impersonal. Because scientism has no jurisdiction over human freedom, only over matter and technology, its response to human existence is formulaic.
Scientism operates outside the realm of objective science. Yet postmodern man has conceded much to scientism. What is lost in this exchange of human freedom for worldly security is no less than man’s capacity for self-reflection. Postmodernity has relegated self-reflection to the alter of the scientific method. Self-reflection is indicative of intuition for our own being. Self-reflection enables man to know himself existentially. Scientific knowledge, on the other hand, seeks functionality and control over matter. The danger in confusing these two modes of apprehending the self and the world is that of reducing human subjectivity to matter.
Postmodern man is no longer able to find coherence in human reality in the absence of scientism. This means that postmodern man can only engage human reality through technology and social-political categories. Science investigates physical reality through experimentation. Yet, people who possess religious convictions, and who are moved by the ontological mystery incorporate science into their lives without contradiction. They recognize the limitations of science in regard to human affairs. In this way, the reflective person can delineate between the purview of science and faith.
Again, the problem is that scientism is the intrusion of pseudo-science into areas that do not concern science. Scientism has the effect of destroying, or at best, anesthetizing subjectivity. This culminates in the illusion that what matters most is the creation of an impersonal “we.” The Russian philosopher, Nicolas Berdyaev, explains this in the following manner: “Nowadays the spirit is breaking away from bond to the organic life of the flesh. Freedom is based not on nature (natural law), but on spirit. Ours is a trying and difficult period, one in which the joy of living seems to be diminished.”¹
The allure of the sensual can be intoxicating. The exaggerated embrace of sensuality, the here-and-now as an end in itself, leads to a moral/spiritual dead-end, for why concern ourselves with virtue if momentary existence is all that matters? Why, instead, not allow ourselves to be swept along by the pleasures we encounter in the sensual world? While this attitude may seem frivolous and trivial to thoughtful people, others view it as natural, given their phobia of existential self-reflection. This cynical attitude is the opposite of self-reflection, which aims at proactive action in human existence.
What is at stake in postmodernity is man’s existential capacity to cultivate human existence that is inspired by contemplation of the non-rational. Scientism swears by the power of words like, dexterity, adroitness, slickness, smartness and cleverness, among others of the same persuasion. Depending on their usage, the sphere of influence of these words can be seductive. This is because scientism speaks to function, not man’s vital existence.
Yet it is reflective knowledge, not scientific know-how that is felt at a lived, existential level. Because it addresses man’s existential concerns at a pre-intellectual level, reflective knowledge existed long before the advent of science. Reflective knowledge is personal because it is engulfed by personhood, unlike scientific knowledge, which is merely methodological. This characteristic of reflective knowledge means that man has an obligation to cultivate his existential condition as a differentiated being. This must be done for practical reasons, which ultimately include experiencing contentment. For instance, this is one reason why it is a mistake to try to appropriate the existence of God through science. Man does not possess a science of the human person, much less of God.
The scientific method is not equipped to grapple with questions of meaning and purpose. Science contributes little to vital, existential reflection. When man gives away his existential freedom – the responsibility to cultivate his essence as a person – the result is a flesh and blood automaton. Ironically, man-as-automaton believes himself to be at the height of the times, given his alleged technological prowess. This type of being is indicative of a form of narcissism that is fueled by self-absorption. Postmodern man has embraced the flawed presupposition that because science has uncovered some constants of nature, it will eventually possess first principles of human reality.
The gulf that exists between science and existential concerns has reached an ominous point in the twenty-first century. This has given birth to hollow, technologically inebriated people who are incapable of cultivating self-reflection. Western man has entered the stage of human history that August Comte, the father of positivism, saw as an anti-metaphysical age. Let us keep in mind that, considered from a vital-existential perspective, first principles cannot be divested from the cohesion that these principles communicate to human existence.
As an existential being, man ought to appropriate first principles that have direct impact on vital life. In every search for knowledge, whether scientific or philosophical, the motivation is the same: to uncover principles that bring cohesion to human existence. Ignoring first principles that act in the service of existential inquietude, postmodern man has instead turned to scientism. In a time of great scientific, technological and medical discoveries, existential atrophy is commonplace.
First principles must be amplified by existential wisdom in order to keep them relevant to human existence. The uncovering of first principles can make human experience well-rounded. In seeking first principles that act to highlight meaning and purpose in human experience, man uncovers patterns and foundational symmetry, in what otherwise appear to be disorganized appearances.
If God is the absolute, then man is part of that totality. If God enables man to perceive Being, then reflective, spiritual existence must become attuned to transcendence, not timely social-political aspects of the-here-and-now.
One response to this paradox is that the marriage of Being and becoming is best understood when the efficacy of Being is measured in terms of man’s existential inner dimension. This may explain the strain of existential inquietude that virtuous people feel. Unfortunately, this is the syndrome of “keeping the score,” when virtue is forced to take a defensive stance. Another way to articulate this is that virtuous people do not take sensual existence for granted, given that sensual experience is framed by existential reflection. There is great tension placed on virtuous people by sensual reality to remain consistent in their convictions. This signals man’s recognition of the force of objectification at work on personhood. It is existential reflection that best captures God’s being as the absolute, not the study of matter.
If Aristotle is correct that God’s activity is to think – then, man’s capacity for self-reflection and self-knowledge – are man’s greatest attributes. Man comes to understand itself as a mystery that is manifested through self-reflection. This is one way that persons are privy to the ontological mystery.
We must keep in mind that man’s existential inner dimension is merely one component of personhood, albeit a central one. This suggests that man’s existence in the flesh is subject to the many stresses of contingency. To be in the world – to be, period – ought to be man’s greatest concern. This is verified by the plight of man in history. This is the meaning of history. To be in the world means to be forced to fend for one’s existential salvation.
It is not difficult to realize that human strife is a struggle to keep from becoming objectified by the world. Refusal to cultivate existential strife entails the deterioration of our existential capacity for self-knowledge. This is why it is important to make a distinction between the world as matter and man’s existential sphere.
Let us briefly consider the plight of man in pre-history who practiced hunting and gathering in order to survive. The cultivation of agriculture, farming and the domestication of animals were improvements over the unpredictability of nomadic man’s practice of hunting and gathering. Hunter-gatherers could ill afford to take a day off, as it were. Yet labor for the sake of survival does not objectify man. On the contrary, strenuous, physical labor serves to compliment man’s existential inner dimension. Physical labor in pre-history, as continues to be the case today, is an indispensable condition of natural man. The basic tools that natural man had at his disposition in pre-history continue to play a pivotal role in modern life.
Man’s existential condition is a testament in our quest to understand human history. In the middle of this great chaos – as history appears to be at times – man encounters himself as an existential being. Endowed with free will, man’s existential condition acts as an operating manual that leads us to reflection on the ontological mystery. In addition, man’s desire to comprehend the passage of time and our crusade for transcendence remain longings of existential inquietude. This is where Death-of-God-Theology and New Age Christianity both go profoundly wrong.
For instance, it should not come as a surprise to anyone that converting Jesus Christ into a man among men trivializes the Trinity. More importantly, this places Christianity in the plane of historical, cult movements. Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, is conceived by secular man as belonging in the same company as Egyptian Pharaohs and Mayan kings. By debunking Jesus’ claim to be the son of God, Jesus becomes demythologized. No doubt, this is the desired effect in many quarters of twenty-first century New Age Christian criticism. The focus of postmodern atheistic reductionism is fueled by what it considers to be the banality of the existence of God, because human life itself is allegedly meaningless and purposeless.
The psychology of militant secularists is in itself an anomaly of postmodernity. The detractors of Jesus, the Son of God, are adamant that Jesus is just another historical man. Secularism’s aversion to questions of transcendence and the sublime correspond to radical dis-orientation in the lives of many people in postmodernity.
According to the Spanish philosopher, Balthasar Grecián, the true measure of genius is how people embrace their lives as lived-existence. Traditionally, non-believers have rarely bothered to attack the religious convictions of believers. They did not waste time in cultivating the angry fervor that we witness in postmodernity’s militant opposition to the existence of God. Non-believers can be placed in two categories: militant, radical ideologues and casual non-believers.
Postmodernity’s aversion to God is a fine example of what Nietzsche has in mind when he writes in The Gay Science that “God is dead.” The death of God, as Nietzsche suggests, does not just apply to the God of Christians, but also that of the philosophers. One of the characteristics that man attributes to God is benevolence. The other two characteristics of God are omnipotence and omniscience. Today, God’s benevolence, like other metaphysical and epistemological questions concerning God, has taken on an anthropological self-loathing slant that is unprecedented in human history. This has to do with the triumph of all-engulfing cynicism. This is one reason why postmodernity can be described as the age of cynicism par excellence.
As the twenty-first century nears its third decade, it is apparent to prescient people that man today is paralyzed by cynicism. Benevolence makes sense as one of God’s characteristics because it addresses the question of Being. Many children marvel at the existence of the natural world. Children are awed by the fact that there is a universe. They wonder about the unimaginable complexity that the nature of reality exhibits – that there exists something rather than nothing. The latter is a rational concern of human beings. Why is this the case? Many people who have pondered this question as children have gone on to become scientists, philosophers and poets. The reality of being excites man to reflect. Particularly relevant to this form of reflection is the idea that nothingness is a troublesome, paradoxical concept. The important thing to keep in mind is that Being, that is, the essence of all that there is or can be, is a greater value than nothingness. This is what people used to refer to as the big picture.
What happens to the question of Being when God is annihilated from postmodern man’s consciousness? Even if man suppresses reflection on God, Being still continues to exists. People who continue to announce the death of God, in order to proclaim man radically free from the burden of free will, view God as a detriment to human perfection. Human perfection is a totalitarian elixir for radical ideologues. This concept is molded to fit the demands of a vast ongoing number of social/political engineering projects. With God out of the way, people who are burdened by this metaphysical constant of human reflection – they allege – can enjoy a life of radical emancipation. For postmodern thinkers, and other denizens of intellectual chic, God is a burden.
— Pedro Blas González is Professor of Philosophy at Barry University, Miami Shores, Florida. He earned his doctoral degree in Philosophy at DePaul University in 1995. Dr. González has published extensively on leading Spanish philosophers, such as Ortega y Gasset and Unamuno. His books have included Unamuno: A Lyrical Essay (Floricanto Press, 2007), Ortega’s ‘Revolt of the Masses’ and the Triumph of the New Man (Algora Publishing, 2007), Fragments: Essays in Subjectivity, Individuality and Autonomy (Algora Press, 2005) and Human Existence as Radical Reality: Ortega’s Philosophy of Subjectivity (Paragon House). He also published a translation and introduction of José Ortega y Gasset’s last work to appear in English, “Medio siglo de Filosofia” (1951) in Philosophy Today Vol. 42 Issue 2 (Summer 1998).
- Marcel Gabriel. The Philosophy of Existentialism (New York: The Citadel Press, 1995) p. 9.