science

A Little Essay on Scientism (“Existentialism Fun Time”)

Cover art for Eric Frank Russel's Sentinels from Space, by Vincent Di Fate.

Cover art for Eric Frank Russel’s Sentinels from Space, by Vincent Di Fate. (1954.) (From 70s Sci-Fi Art.)


Note: Some of my ideas, as they’ve been framed here, have changed recently. (Typically, they’re in some kind of transition, anyway!) Otherwise, I think that they are perhaps better presented through the dialogue (between myself and Los, a fellow blogger) in the comments section of this post. I invite readers to view that dialogue and add their own input, should they like.

(November 29, 2015.)


This was written circa 2013, as an essay presented during a weekly discussion in one of my previous philosophy classes.

If you take issue with any of the views presented herein, feel free to bitch, debate, or spam the comment section below.

As it is:

[…]

Scientism, thus defined: “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities).” Effectively, this is the idea that all knowledge and truth is subject to, and only confirmed by, the scientific method, to the exclusion of all other methods. It is a position that was born from the scientific philosophy of positivism (the notion that all useful knowledge comes from logical, mathematical, and directly observable means) as well as materialism (the idea that all that exists are matter and energy and the forces within their domain, i.e. material), and the iron grasp of the analytic philosophies that pervaded 20th-century thought, and pontificates that science is and forever will be the ultimate arbiter of truth in the world. Science, it is claimed, is falsifiable, because it progresses through rigorous self-criticism, and yet this distinction among the various disciplines actually makes it unfalsifiable, basically speaking.

In 2010, physicist Stephen Hawking wrote the following in his book The Grand Design: “Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead… Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.”

Similarly, the physicist Lawrence Krauss more recently criticized philosophical investigations into the nature of being and non-being, or metaphysics, more broadly, in the wake of the publication of his book A Universe From Nothing, which provides theories and evidence that matter spontaneously creates itself from quantum fluctuations and gravitational forces. In review of his book, philosophers like David Albert note that the laws of nature and quantum strings still constitute “somethingness,” in reply to which Krauss claims that there is a difference between the “nothingness of philosophy” and the “nothingness of reality.”

Krauss’s scathing dismissal of metaphysics drew some scorn from contemporary philosophers, and in reply Krauss half-apologized, snidely stating, “So, to those philosophers I may have unjustly offended by seemingly blanket statements about the field, I apologize. I value your intelligent conversation and the insights of anyone who thinks carefully about our universe and who is willing to guide their thinking based on the evidence of reality. To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this: Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.”

Of course, Krauss’s ideas rely on a materialist worldview, as well as an evidentialist one, materialism and evidentialism both being philosophies, grounded in historical dialogue. In the realm of modern scientism, peddled by the so-called New Atheists (most famously Richard Dawkins), there is no room for a reality outside of the objective.

Now, on that note, I want nothing more than to hark back to Kierkegaard’s views on the two “insanities,” one of which is objective madness: being so utterly enamored with and taken over by the objective world that subjectivity no longer matters. Subjectivity dies under the purview of scientism, as do mentalism, idealism, existentialism, and various other philosophies which assert the existence of subjective realities that can exist alongside objectivity. The death of subjectivity is a terrifying concept. It is not the business of science to become so imperialistic as to deny all other forms of knowledge and understanding as “pseudo-science” or flat-out wrong. Science is a beautiful tool that, alongside philosophical domains such as ethics, aesthetics and, yes, even metaphysics, helps to build upon humanity’s heritage of coming to terms with and understanding the world. If we are to leave it to science to determine what is ethically right or wrong (as Dawkins suggests, at least to a degree) via biology, neuroscience, etc., are we really doing morality a favor? How can science so finely tune our ideas as to tell us what is right and wrong in every sense or context? Or, more broadly, how can science truly distinguish being from non-being, or categorical ontologies? Take those presented by Sartre, who made a distinction between different types of “being,” describing the nature of being for objects and subjects as fundamentally different. For scientism, since there is no empirical evidence for these states in a purely objective world, Sartre is simply wrong. He doesn’t “keep up with science,” as Hawking would proudly assert.

How much of that notion is true? Is it a lack of scientific rigor that puts philosophy under the heels of scientism? Or, rather, is it a difference in description? A language game, that is. Scientism’s puerile dismissal of anything remotely “abstract” does an injustice to science itself!

Science is wonderful, but scientism is arrogant and perhaps even dangerous. (Read: technocracy.) Both science and philosophy have long engaged in dialectic and debate, and to simply sweep one or all disciplines from the playing field in order to usher in the dominance of one denies the real multitude of knowledge and truths that we have as a species.

‘On “Spirituality” and “Metaphysics”’ (Video Transcript & Expansion)

LOGOS II (SoundCloud / YouTube)


“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

—Aristotle

~

Here is my second video transcript and expansion (VT&E), this time on the use of the phrases “spirituality” and “metaphysics,” and regarding phraseology in talking about the “inner life” more generally. (THIS is the video, part two of the LOGOS series of videos that I am slowly (but surely) putting online.)

crowley

Aleister Crowley. (Source unknown.)

So, “once more unto the breech…”:

“So, today I kind of wanted to talk about… spirituality. You know: what does that mean? You know, what annoys me is that… I dunno… I guess I think of myself as [something of a] spiritual person. No—I definitely think of myself as a spiritual person, but, I don’t feel the need to define  what that means, exactly… because I feel like “spirituality” is kind of, in and of itself, a bit of a nebulous phrase. Kind of like the word “art,” for instance, you know? Like, if you talk about art to somebody they’re gonna know, like, what you’re talking about. [I mean] it’s art. They’d know what art is. But, when you really ask them to get into the nitty gritty and define it, it becomes… it becomes kind of vague, doesn’t it? And, so, I think spirituality, like art,  is similar in this way. I think because especially it’s something that’s kind of, not necessarily fundamental… but… well, perhaps fundamental to human experience—it’s hard to define. What annoys me is that you have people… [Well] you know, when you hear the word “spirituality” nowadays you might think of, you know, what a lot of people are touting as spirituality, which is kind of a—a “spirituality”—which is kind of a New Agey agglomeration of ideas… I guess that kind of were imported from eastern philosophies [maybe] mixed with paganism and whatever else someone’s focused on. It’s… usually “woo-woo.” You know that phrase? Michael Shermer uses it a lot: “woo-woo.” It’s bullshit… And I’m not necessarily saying that all of it’s bullshit. I don’t think we completely understand the nature of these things. But, a lot of people who say that they’re “spiritual” kind of dive head in—or, you know, head first—into a lot of BS, without really taking the time to really (sic) think about what that means, or what the word “spirituality” means, and what they’re really practicing and thinking about. Like… I’m not saying that I completely deny the possibility that maybe, you know, there’s such a thing or there’s something in the body that’s analogous to [say] chakras, but when you say you’re a spiritual person and therefore you believe in chakras or crystal healing or whatever… it’s (sic) not really [representative of] what spirituality is. I mean, if I were (sic) an artist, or if I said that I was an artist—rather—and I just said, “Well, I like Dalí, I like Picasso, I like Rembrandt—so that makes me an artist!” … that sounds… that doesn’t [really] make you an artist. That’s really doesn’t (sic)… really isn’t what it means to be an artist… if you like a particular thing, or you pursue a particular thing, even. Art, again, is kind of one of those nebulous phrases. And, in any case, I think that the word “spirituality” has just been co-opted by, I guess, the New Age community to mean something that it really doesn’t. And I think that’s problematic, because spirituality is such a beautiful thing. I mean, to me—I don’t really like to define it—but, it’s something, like I said, that, in a way, is fundamental to the human experience. It’s an experience of something greater. And you don’t really… need to go much beyond that, you know, [or] really say what that “greater” thing is. Sometimes there is an experience—I would almost say like a transcendental experience—of the wholeness of the world and one’s place in it, and I would say that that’s spiritual in some sense. But, of course, you have all these phrases that, you know, you get mixed in there: You say, “OK, that’s a mystical experience… it’s [a] transcendental experience, an ecstatic experience, a religious experience…” But, then again, ecstasy and religion and mysticism are not necessarily spirituality… Now, another phrase that gets co-opted like this is “metaphysics.” You know, you have people who say, you know, they’re into “metaphysics”—so [of course] that means they subscribe to Spirit Science, or whatever that page is. But, I mean, “metaphysics” is a much broader term that kind of refers to a discipline in philosophy. And, when I think of metaphysics—at least—I think of, you know, the work of various philosophers: You know, I think of Spinoza’s metaphysics, or Hegel’s metaphysics, or something of that nature. I don’t think of levitation from yogis and shit like that. Even though the word “metaphysics” literally means “beyond physics,” it’s not the same as—again, here’s another phrase—”supernatural,” [or] what’s supernatural. “Supernatural” is not necessarily “metaphysical.” There’s overlap among these phrases: “mysticism,” “religion,” “philosophy,” “metaphysics,” “spirituality,” “transcendental experience.” These words and phrases—there’s overlap—but, we should be careful not to say they mean something that they don’t, or, rather, that they mean something specific when they’re really meant to be more broad than the way we talk about them in normal discourse… Because, I was actually having, I guess, a kind of debate here on YouTube, on a video—I can’t remember what it was—but I was talking to, you know, one of these hardcore atheist types, who’s like, you know, “fuck religion,” and all that. But, you know, I was saying, you know, “even if you’re not religious, spirituality can be important to you.” And, certainly, I’ve met a lot of people who would say that: [that] they’re spiritual but not necessarily religious. But, this guy just kind of wanted to, you know, bust my balls over this and insist that spirituality doesn’t exist.  In the same way that he thought [that] religion was a lie, [that] religion was bullshit, he’s like, “spirituality is bullshit.” That’s like saying art is bullshit. I mean, what is there to be bullshit about it? It can’t be bullshit, because it’s just not… it’s not something that’s trying to be true or untrue, it’s just experiential, and in some ways it’s intuitive… isn’t it? I dunno. But, I think we should be careful when we conflate these phrases or say that,”this is this,” or, “this is that.” There is overlap. That doesn’t mean that one is the same thing as the other…”

~

SOME CLARIFICATIONS AND CORRECTIONS:

  • Spirit Science is the clickbait Facebook handle of The Spirit Science, a website to which no subscription is required in order to access its content.
  • My contention with chakras does not so much boil down to whether they exist or not (I think that, like many things of this nature, they work better as psychological tools, and really I doubt that there will ever be any real, tangible evidence for the existence of something very analogous to them within the body), but rather how they represent the credulity of those who delve into popular/trendy “spirituality.” (i.e. New Age eclecticism, gullibility, and ill-defined/wishy-washy/feel-good superstition loaded with “deep” buzzwords.) In short, I’m using them as an example here.
  • The analogy I made with art and artists is admittedly a bad one. I think that my point still stands, however.
  • Michael Shermer is the founder of The Skeptics Society, and editor-in-chief of its magazine, Skeptic. While I think that his use of the term “woo” (or “woo-woo”) is often sensible—and, for the purposes of the video/transcript, useful—he is a bit hard-line for my liking, standing in line with the more uncompromising “scientific/hard-evidence-based-everything” philosophy types. (I’m hesitant to throw this phrase around—as New Age folks themselves often abuse it—but “scientism” comes to mind.)

This video was done impromptu, so if I’m lacking good articulation in either the video or this transcription, I ask you to be forgiving.

~

Hierophant with occultic regalia. (Source unknown.)

Hierophant with occultic regalia. (Source unknown.)

I think of myself as a philosophically eclectic person. By that I mean that there are fundamental ideas that come from, say, existentialism, that I hold as sensible, while—at the same time—I also subscribe (to another degree) to something like (or parts of) pragmatism, and/or evidentialism, and/or Hegelianism, and/or Nietzschean affirmation, and so forth. There are concepts put forward by Schopenhauer, Kant, Hume, Marcus Aurelius, Plato, Zeno of Citium, Epicurus, Sartre, Aristotle, Wittgenstein, Camus, Kierkegaard, Diogenes, Lyotard, etc., etc., that I agree with. And I don’t find conflict between these numerous ideas—they are not mutually exclusive, and the philosophers in question are never completely (on all points possible) opposed—and neither do I find conflict in the ideas (those that I accept) that come from, say, religious philosophy, in particular. To name some sources: Aleister Crowley (Thelema, Western esotericism), Laozi (Taoism), Jesus (Christianity), Confucius (Confucianism, Chinese philosophy), Buddha (Buddhism), Nagarjuna (Mahayana Buddhism), Augustine (Christianity), Adi Shankara (Vedantic Hinduism), Dogen (Zen Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism), Tilopa (Vajrayana Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism), Hermes Trismegistus (Hermeticism, Western esotericism), yada yada.

I make a point of distinguishing those ideas which I accept, so as to show that someone can entertain an idea without taking it as an irrevocable fact. I take this dichotomy from Aristotle, particularly his saying, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” All day long I juggle with ideas: I test them out, try them on for size, and if they don’t “work” I leave them as they are. I may pick them up later. I may not. But the point here is that ideas are, generally speaking, provisional. That’s not to say there’s no “truth” to an idea one accepts, but that implicit in accepting an idea there is a usefulness to that acceptance. The idea becomes a tool. Thus, philosophies, religions, paradigms, worldviews—whatever—become tools for personal use; most readily, it often seems, to organize the contents of consciousness or patterns observed in the world or, in the case of spiritually-, existentially-, or mystically-directed paradigms, to foster the acquisition of a proposed “Absolute,” or “Ultimate,” etc.

So, in the realm of ideas, some may have more veracity than others, but, in any case, there is a usefulness there. People tend to get lost in ideas. I am no exception. But there’s also got to be the ability to “pull back from the brink,” as they say, and say to oneself, “wait a minute, does that really make sense? Is there any way in which that could be sensible? If so, how?” In the pursuit of that which is mysterious, skepticism is not only helpful, but essential. I should mention that, along these lines, I admire the motto of Aleister Crowley’s magickal order, the A∴A∴ (a Thelemic organization): “The method of science, the aim of religion.”

What a beautiful and challenging aim it is! And what an excellent method! (Though some have questioned the Thelemic tradition’s commitment to empirical scientific fact, as a religion (or magickal/occult system, or religious philosophy, etc. (Thelema is, in this way, like Buddhism, hard to pin down) its adherents often retain a kind of robust skepticism and pragmatic sensibility that I haven’t encountered among other groups. But this may merely be a personal, and superficial, impression, anyway, as people differ in their beliefs so much on an individual level.)

Anyway, I’m going off topic.

My point is ultimately this: “Spirituality” is a word both as meaningful and beautiful, and yet undefinable, as “art.” By using the phrase to signify something superficial, we devalue it. We are taking that broad, amorphous realm which embodies the sense of awe, reverence, beauty, wonder, and sacredness that human beings have for all the grandeur and minutia of the world, and bringing it down to the level of a commodity. When we begin to have “spiritual supply stores” selling candles and doo-dads, or when we deem talismans, crystals, and bottles of “fairy dust” to be spiritual, we damn something that is at the very core of the human experience.

Similarly, “metaphysics” represents perhaps the most wondrous and penetrative branch of human thought. Metaphysics is at the very core of philosophy (some would say epistemology, but that’s beside the point), and is the attempt by conscious beings to tap into the untold center of themselves and their world. It is a noble goal, and one that is bastardized by thoughtless associations with illogical balderdash. So, I propose we separate the words “spirituality” and “metaphysics” from “superstition,” “supernatural,” “paranormal,” and so forth. I say that serious “seekers” ought to understand both the overlap and the differences, the divide between genuine philosophy and the commercialization of watered down religious traditions, imported from far-away lands or semi-secretive orders at the behest of materialistic Westerners looking for some zest in life beyond the confines Netflix, Starbucks, iPhones, and People magazine. But this has all been said before, in one way or another, hasn’t it? And many times! In the end, bickering and bitching, saying and proclaiming get us nowhere.

Despite my love of writing, I will be the first to say that words will always ill-represent their ultimate, underlying reality, and direct experience—that mysterious conduit of all spirituality—remains in the silence. As that long dead mystic said, “Of all the Magical and Mystical Virtues, of all the Graces of the Soul, of all the Attainments of the Spirit, none has been so misunderstood, even when at all apprehended, as Silence.” It is astride our experiences that we build our knowledge, and we best do so with as much honesty and evidence as possible. One needn’t abandon reason in order to attain the heights of spiritual fulfillment, or be credulous to do the work of the mystics. Well, what is that work? I myself don’t really rightly know, but, in any case, why not approach our truest happiness and greatest potentials with an eye for the truth and a mind that entertains, without accepting?


» Check out the LOGOS! podcast on Soundcloud and the video series version on YouTube.

logos