Saturday, 26 March 2016

A Brief Note on Scientism or, Thinking like Mr. Gradgrind, or Attack of Mr. Enlightenment


Perhaps nothing personifies our current mental environment better than Mr. Gradgrind--that ludicrously narrow minded headmaster invented by Mr. Charles Dickens in his book Hard Times. A man whose self introduction to strangers (at least, in his mind) went something like this:      

“Thomas Gradgrind, Sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, Sir--peremptorily Thomas--Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, Sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind, or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all suppositious, non-existent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind--no, Sir!”

Whether we are conscious of it or not Western society has adopted this matter-of-fact outlook. Not all of us embrace it with the same level of gusto and passion as Mr. Gradgrind; nevertheless, our empiricist leanings are very strong. Don't get me wrong, the majority of us still take pleasure, and even experience a vague sense of "spiritual" significance, in reading a thought provoking novel, listening to music, watching an artfully directed film, saying our evening prayers, or reading the work of a great philosopher. But, when push comes to shove, the only pathway to knowledge we fully trust--the one we ultimately turn to for real answers--is science. In short, the scientific method has become the be all and end all for the vast majority of truth seekers in the West.

This attitude, which places science on the highest pedestal, above all other domains of human understanding, finds its strongest expression in the form of scientism. Alex Rosenberg, a professor of philosophy at Duke University, and popular atheist writer, defines this approach to life as: 

“. . . the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything . . . [that] Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understanding is all about."  

The most bombastic and influential contemporary critics of religion--the so called ‘New Atheists’--are not only outspoken proponents of scientism but believe it leads, unavoidably, to atheism. They have determined there is no place for 'God' in any scientific explanation of reality; for them, 'God' is a failed hypothesis. Ironically, the most succinct exposition of this position can be found in C. S. Lewis’ book The Pilgrim’s Regress. In it, there is a delightful exchange of dialogue between a young pilgrim named John and a traveler named Mr. Enlightenment:

“John was silent for a few minutes. Then he began again:
‘But how do you know there is no Landlord [i.e., God]?’
‘Christopher Columbus, Galileo, the earth is round, invention of the printing, gunpowder!’ exclaimed Mr. Enlightenment in such a loud voice that the pony shied.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said John.
‘Eh?’ Said Mr. Enlightenment.
‘I didn’t quite understand,’ said John.
‘Why, it’s as plain as a pikestaff,’ said the other. ‘Your people in Puritania believe in the Landlord because they have not had the benefits of a scientific training.”
All literary allusions aside, scientism has virtually become the default position among academics and even in popular culture. In the coming weeks I'll be taking a close look at scientism and the impact this peculiar epistemological stance has had in discussions about the existence of God. More specifically, I'll argue that scientism is a self-defeating position and that not every question can be answered by the scientific method.


  1. Joshua,

    I look forward to your upcoming discussions on this subject.

    One of the reasons that empiricism and scientism are so popular in our culture is that scientific hypotheses (properly formulated) are testable. Religion has multiplied into innumerable different explanations of the world, none of which are testable in any meaningful sense.

    How does one determine if a properly formulated scientific hypothesis is true? You test it. You measure it. You compare your results to the hypothesis. You have an understanding of whether the hypothesis is correct, in need of modification, or incorrect and needing to be thrown out.

    How does one determine if a religion is true? How does one determine the existence or non-existence of God? How does one know that one's chosen religious or spiritual path is true or false? I submit to you that there is no objective, testable way of answering these questions, and it comes down ultimately to what "feels right" or "feels true." Thus, we have multiplied religions, and within each religion, every person believes subjectively.

    1. Hey Robert,

      Very well stated. I think your outlook is shared by the vast majority of people in the West. I hope my upcoming posts might challenge you to reconsider your position. Whether it does or not, however, I know you'll give well articulated feedback. :-)

    2. I'm looking forward to your posts! This is an area of great interest for me.

  2. If you're not familiar with this, you'll probably enjoy Discovery Institute's "Magician's Twin":