“Versions of scientism have been present in Western thinking for centuries, but our contemporary form has clear roots in the logical positivism of A.J. Ayer and his ideological allies in the Vienna Circle of the 1920s and 1930s. These theorists defended the view that the meaningfulness of a proposition is a function of that proposition’s verifiability or at least falsifiability. That is to say, a claim is meaningful if and only if its truth or falsity can be determined through empirical observation. Thus, the assertions that five hundred people attended a lecture I gave last month or that the earth revolves around the sun are meaningful statements, precisely because observation could either confirm or deny them. Religious propositions, however, such as “God exists,” “God’s will is being realized in this situation,” or “the soul shall live forever,” are not so much false (though Ayer and his colleagues think they are false) but meaningless, no more than expressions of the feelings and hopes of those who articulate them. One accordingly might smile at them or frown at them disapprovingly, but one would never endeavor to argue about them.
Now, problems with this scientistic or positivistic method abound, but the most fundamental difficulty is that the entire program rests squarely upon a contradiction. The principle is that the only meaningful statements are those that can be confirmed through empirical observation and experimentation; and yet, that very principle is not confirmable in such a manner. Where or how does one observe or experimentally verify the assertion that meaningfulness is reducible to that which can be observed through the senses? In point of fact, scientism itself is not scientific but rather philosophical, for it is a rational intuition regarding the epistemological order. Fair enough—but the one thing you are not permitted to accomplish through a philosophical proposal is to exclude philosophical proposals from the category of meaningfulness! Logical positivism, and its contemporary cousin scientism, cut off the branch on which they are sitting; or, to shift the metaphor, they are quite obviously hoisted on their own petard.
A second crucial problem with this proposal is that it stands athwart the practically universal consensus that there are indeed nonscientific paths to knowledge. Who can seriously doubt that philosophy, literature, drama, poetry, painting, and mysticism are not only uplifting and entertaining but also truth-bearing? Hamlet provides no real insight into human psychology and motivation? Dante’s Divine Comedy conveys no truths about politics, art, sin, or religious aspiration? The Waste Land tells us nothing intellectually substantive about the human heart? Plato’s dialogues shed no real light on ethics, justice, and the good life? One would have to be extremely narrow-minded to think so.
I should like to linger with the example of Plato for a moment. The man who effectively founded the discipline of philosophy in the West understood, as did many other sages and mystics of both the East and West, the beguiling quality of what is given to sense experience. What we can see, touch, taste, hear, and experience directly is so immediately and indisputably there that we can remain completely under its spell. Mind you, Plato did not think that the sensible order is unreal. But he did indeed intuit that there are dimensions of reality that are greater, richer, and more abiding. And he further realized that, in order to gain access to that realm, one must go through a sort of intellectual and spiritual training, or if I might state it more bluntly, a discipline by which one is wrenched away from one’s preoccupation with the physical and the sensual. Pierre Hadot pointed out that Plato was proposing not so much a doctrine (though a set of teachings can be distilled from his writings) but rather a bios or an entire way of life,14 something akin to monasticism. The famous dialogues are literary records of the process.
Central to Plato’s discipline was conversation, the asking and answering of questions, designed to tease all the participants into a consciousness of the abiding things that lie behind and beyond immediate experience. The literary device that best delineates this progressive illumination is the allegory of the cave15 found in book seven of the Republic. Everyone who has passed through a Philosophy 101 course undoubtedly remembers the main points of the story. A group of prisoners are chained deep inside a cave, compelled by their bonds to face the wall of the cavern on which flicker shadows cast by puppets, which are manipulated by people whom the prisoners cannot see. One of the captives manages to free himself. He turns around and sees the extraordinarily substantive objects, which are the source of the two-dimensional shades that he had taken to be the whole of reality. In time, he wanders past the puppets and makes his way to the mouth of the cave. Venturing outside, he is first overwhelmed by the brightness of the sunlight, but as his eyes adjust, he sees the people, trees, animals, and objects of which the puppets within the cave, he realizes, are but simulacra. Finally, he catches a fleeting glimpse of the sun, in whose light those splendid things appear.
This compelling little tale—which has been mimicked from Dante’s Divine Comedy to Fahrenheit 451 and The Matrix—is the account of a hero’s journey from limited to unrestricted consciousness, from a preoccupation with the immediate to a consideration of the eternal. The flickering shadows and the insubstantial puppets represent the world of sense experience. What subsists in space and time—what can be verified through the senses—is necessarily fleeting, evanescent. Plants, animals, human beings, subatomic particles, and even the stars and planets all come into being and pass out of being. However, a philosophically disciplined conversation discloses that these passing realities are conditioned by a formal dimension of being, represented by the substantive objects and figures outside the cave. Followed all the way to the end, the philosophical quest conduces toward the knowledge of the absolute source from which even the formal feature of being comes—namely, the Good itself—symbolized by the overwhelming beauty of the sun.
Obviously, the spelling out of this process would take us far beyond the purview of this book and into the full complexity of Plato’s philosophy. But I might give some flavor of the Platonic approach with one simple example. When a person comes to grasp a mathematical truth, say that 2+3=5, she has, in a very real sense, stepped into another world. As mentioned, everything in sense experience is fleeting, and therefore our knowledge of this realm is extremely limited, unsure, and time-conditioned. It is indeed like watching shadows flicker on a wall. But two and three equal five anytime, anywhere, and in any possible world. To see two things juxtaposed with three things so as to form a conglomerate of five is something any animal could do; but to grasp the principle that two and three are five is to enter a qualitatively higher realm of existence and thought. The commonness of the experience—any first grader can have it—should not blind us to the surpassing significance of it. It is like stepping out of a cave into the light. And the mathematical, for Plato, is but the first step on the way toward properly philosophical perception of the structuring elements of reality.
Plato’s best-known pupil, Aristotle, followed the dialogic discipline and came to these deeper perceptions, though he expressed the progress more prosaically than his master. In his mature writings, Aristotle would speak of three different degrees of knowledge: physics, mathematics, and metaphysics. The first studies matter in motion; the second explores numeric and geometrical abstractions; and the third looks into “being as being”—that is to say, the elements that make something not only material or mobile but existent. Aristotle doesn’t despise physics for a moment (in fact, it could be credibly argued that he is the father of the discipline), but he insists that the mind pushes past what physics can deliver. As a young man, he had experienced the intoxication of escaping from the cave, and he had no interest in limiting himself to that narrow space.
All of which brings me back to scientism. I reverence the sciences and I benefit daily from the technologies that they’ve made possible. Moreover, my life has quite literally been saved at least twice by medical interventions that would have been unthinkable before the rise of the modern physical sciences. But even the most advanced, complex, and practically beneficial science is, in Platonic terms, a gazing at shadows on the wall of the cave. It is a useful and beautiful exercise of the mind indeed, but it is a concentration on reality at a relatively low level of intensity. I rarely agree with the well-known atheist Bertrand Russell, but I have always resonated with his comment that mathematics is one of the doors to mysticism and religion. Though he meant that in a reductive and dismissive way, I would affirm its veracity in the Platonic sense: the understanding of a mathematical truth is a first step out of mere sensuality and toward the properly transcendent. The contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor speaks of the “buffered self”16 as one of the marks of our secular, post-religious culture. By this he means a self sealed off from any contact with the transcendent. Scientism is the official philosophy of the buffered self. Blowing some holes in that barrier and letting in some light is a propaedeutic to having a real argument about religion.”
-Barron, Robert. Arguing Religion: A Bishop Speaks at Facebook and Google (pp. 18-26). Word on Fire. Kindle Edition.
14 a bios or an entire way of life: See Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, ed. Arnold I. Davidson (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 1995).
15 the allegory of the cave: Plato, Republic, trans. G.M.A. Grube, rev. by C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992), 186-191.
16 the “buffered self”: See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).