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Understanding the Modern and Post Modern Mind, Part III

February 03, 2014 Length: 14:22

Clark reflects on scientific rationalism.

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Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red as crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land.

Hello, and welcome once again to Faith and Philosophy. This week’s topic is “Understanding the Modern and Post-Modern Mind, Part III: Scientific Rationalism.” Last time I talked about the three prevailing attitudes of modernity: the autonomy and sovereignty of the individual, the autonomy of reason, and the sufficiency of reason to answer all of our questions and solve all of our problems. The poster-child for these attitudes is the man generally regarded as the father of modern philosophy: René Descartes. Descartes was so troubled by the fact that some of the things he had learned as a boy were not true that he quite literally cleared his calendar of all appointments, locked himself in his room, and then vowed to doubt everything he could possibly doubt until he found something that was itself beyond doubt. That thing would be the basis for all knowledge.

The result of all of this deep thinking was his discovery was that the one thing he could not possibly doubt was the fact that he was thinking. Thus, Descartes’ own ability to think became for him the one indubitable bedrock upon which he sought to build a coherent philosophy. Do you see how Descartes personifies the modern attitude? The lonely individual, locked in his room, determined to question everything custom and tradition had taught him, armed with nothing more than his own thoughts.

Interestingly, however, Descartes thought of himself as a good Christian boy, so he did not extend his radical method much beyond the narrow confines of epistemology. He did not, for example, seek to re-establish religion and morality on a purely rational basis. Later thinkers, Emmanuel Kant especially, would do this, and it will become a recurring theme of the modern project. In this respect, then, while Descartes set the ball of modernity rolling, he would likely have been shocked to see where it ended up.

In fact, even though he is regarded as the father of modern philosophy, Descartes is something of a whipping boy among modern philosophers, especially those in the Anglo-American analytical tradition. Descartes famously distrusted sense experience and argued that mind was fundamentally a different sort of stuff from physical matter. This is one of the few points on which Descartes was closer to Plato than to subsequent modern philosophers. Thus, while Descartes was what we would call a “mind-body dualist,” most modern philosophers are strict materialists.

This brings me to today’s topic: scientific rationalism. According to conventional wisdom, it was Francis Bacon who codified a method for organizing our sense experience, giving us what we call the scientific method. But observation, even methodical observation, without analysis, accomplishes little. These observations must be quantified and then subjected to mathematical analysis. In a sense, we could say that modern science is the product of both Bacon and Descartes, who was, after all, a mathematician. This is why I use the term “scientific rationalism”: to denote both elements of the modern scientific method: the ordered observation of nature, that is, of empirical experience, combined with mathematical or rational analysis.

Scientific rationalism, however, is more than just the scientific method. It is an all-encompassing philosophy. As such, it can be defined by four essential marks or isms: materialism, positivism, scientism, and progressivism.

Let’s start with materialism. This is the view that the only thing in the universe is physical matter. This was the view of the earliest Greek philosophers such as Thales and Anaximander, and it is without question the dominant viewpoint among modern philosophers. This is not to say that there are no challenges to materialism. For one thing, modern physics makes it difficult for anyone who is not otherwise committed to materialism to hold a crude physicalist view of the universe. Then again, most biologists don’t really care what theoretical physicists have to say.

The other great challenge comes from German idealism, which we will discuss in a later podcast. As an aside, I would note that from an Orthodox perspective, German idealism is far more dangerous than even materialism. At any rate, and in spite of these challenges, most philosophers and most scientists, some physicists excepted, are thoroughgoing materialists.

Now, if we accept as our bedrock philosophical principle that there is nothing in existence other than physical matter, then it obviously follows that the only path to true knowledge is through the systematic observation and analysis of matter. In other words, positivism, the belief that science is the ultimate arbiter of truth, logically follows from materialism.

Let me stress here that positivism does not simply assert that science is useful. Who can question the fact that science has provided humanity with a wealth of knowledge about our world, some of which is even of practical benefit? No, positivism is the doctrine that the scientific method is the path to truth, and all other truth claims, if they can be said to be truth claims at all, are subject to the ultimate jurisdiction of scientific inquiry. Philosophically, the high-water mark of positivism came in the early 20th century with the advent of logical positivism, the doctrine that the only statements having literal significance are those that are either tautologies, like definitions and mathematical statements, or those capable of empirical or scientific verification. Any statement that does not meet one of these two criteria—and that would include most statements of religion, aesthetics, and ethics—is said to be literally meaningless. Not false, mind you, just gibberish.

While logical positivism as a philosophical movement peaked prior to mid-century, the attitude that science is the ultimate arbiter of truth remains dominant, at least as far as government bureaucracies and universities are concerned. In fact, bureaucracy is itself to a large degree the product of positivism. Indeed, what is bureaucracy if not an attempt to systematize and regularize procedures in a way that at the very least suggests the procedures of the scientific method?

This brings me directly to our third ism: scientism. Scientism can be defined in a variety of ways. Some people use it to refer to the fairly widespread phenomenon of treating science as though it were a kind of religion. However, I’m going to use the term in a slightly different way and I hope more precise way. Scientism is the conviction that all areas of human endeavor and concern can be subjected to the scientific method.

If you think about it, this is just the logical outcome of materialism and positivism. If one believes that physical matter is the only thing in existence, and that the scientific method is the only way of getting the truth of things, then it follows that the scientific method can be applied everywhere and to every thing. What is the human soul? It is the mind. The Greek word for “soul” is “psyche,” by the way. What is the mind? It is, in some sense, a physical phenomenon, or at least epi-phenomenon, which can be studied like any other natural phenomenon. Thus we have, on the one hand, neuroscience that deals specifically with the brain, and on the other hand, psychology, which deals with human behavior. Somewhere in the middle is psychiatry, which borrows from both. What unites all these different disciplines, however, is the firm belief that each is a science.

In addition to the behavioral sciences, the modern era has also seen the emergences of the social sciences: anthropology, sociology, even political science. Thomas Hobbes, who was a thorough-going materialist, and who explicitly based his social thinking upon the physics of the day, would likely take great pride in the fact that his theories now fall under the purview of political science.

The final ism that comprises scientific rationalism is progressivism. This is the belief that our ever-increasing scientific knowledge is resulting in an ever-improving world. In other words, humans are not simply evolving genetically or biologically; we are evolving culturally, socially, and morally, and the key to all of this is science itself. Moderns do not simply believe in progress; they believe in scientific progress. Since science is unassailable and irrefutable, progress must be as well.

Now, you and I might ponder the fact that the high-water mark of scientific rationalism, the 20th century, was also the bloodiest century on record. And we might be tempted to wonder just how much progress we have really made. But I caution you not to wonder too loudly or in the wrong company. At the very least, you will be thought unscientific, and in some circles you will be thought un-American and even un-Christian for doubting the inevitable march of progress.

I must stress at this point that scientific rationalism is not simply an attitude. It is an all-encompassing philosophical disposition that colors just about every facet of the modern world. To this day, it remains the dominant intellectual paradigm of our society. When you send your children off to government schools, you are sending them off to be initiated and indoctrinated in this secular religion.

Of course, the latter half of the 20th century has seen the waters muddied a bit. Post-modernism challenges many of the assumptions and conclusions of the scientific rationalist religion, but these challenges remain largely peripheral. While there is a good deal of talk of post-modern uncertainty and a good deal of genuine confusion in some areas like ethics, anyone who is too vocal in challenging the dominant belief in scientifically produced progress will be silenced quickly enough.

It is important to understand, however, that there are two very different understanding by what we mean by science in the modern world. What we call post-modernism is the result of a direct clash in the first half of the 20th century between these two different conceptions of science, one largely Anglo-American, the other essentially German. Add to this clash a renewed interest in some of the dissenting voices of modernity, such as David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and you get post-modernism.

Next time we will begin to explore the historical development of these two different conceptions of science. Our ultimate goal here is to understand how we arrived at this crazy, mixed-up period in which we live and to begin to consider how we, as members of an undeniably pre-modern faith, can continue to live faithfully in these troubled and troublesome times. Until then, may our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska and of the blessed Elder Sophrony (Sakharov), have mercy upon us all and grant us a rich entrance into his eternal kingdom.


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