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Scientism and 2011’s worst book

In what may be the most thorough and satisfying rout of a book in a review since Garrison Keillor unforgettably eviscerated Bernard-Henri Levy’s American travelogue, Leon Wieseltier excoriates the Duke philosopher of science Alex Rosenberg’s “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality,” which he calls “the worst book of the year.” Excerpts:

Unfortunately, the defense of science became corrupted in certain quarters into a defense of scientism, which is the expansion of scientific methods and concepts into realms of human life in which they do not belong. Or rather, it is the view that there is no realm of human life in which they do not belong. Rosenberg arrives with “the correct answers to most of the persistent questions,” and “given what we know from the sciences, the answers are all pretty obvious.” (I have cited most of them above.) This is because “there is only one way to acquire knowledge, and science’s way is it.” And not just science in general, but physics in particular. “All the processes in the universe, from atomic to bodily to mental, are purely physical processes involving fermions and bosons interacting with one another.” And: “Scientism starts with the idea that the physical facts fix all the facts, including the biological ones. These in turn have to fix the human facts—the facts about us, our psychology, and our morality.” All that remains is to choose the wine.

In this way science is transformed into a superstition.

(This is the right time to commend to you Wendell Berry’s brilliant little philosophical broadside against scientism: “Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition.”)

Wieseltier continues:

This shabby book is riddled with other notions that typify our time. Rosenberg maintains that atheism entails materialism, as if the integrity of the non-material realms of life can be secured only by the existence of a deity.

An interesting line, that last one.

Wieseltier approach to this material reminds me of the English philosopher John Gray’s criticism of the New Atheists as smug, ignorant, and somewhat fanatical. I believe Wieseltier is a religious Jew of some sort (he worked his way back to the practice of his childhood faith after the death of his father, if I remember correctly), and Gray is an avowed skeptic. But both bristle at the baseless, brittle intolerance of many who believe that science tells us all we need to know about life and how to live it. As Wieseltier says in his withering final lines of the Rosenberg review:

He is untroubled by everything under the sun. The man’s peace of mind is indecent. “We know the truth,” he declares sacerdotally in his preface. “Some of the tone of much that follows may sound a little smug. I fear I have to plead guilty to this charge …” Once upon a time science was the enemy of smugness.

Sacerdotally. Le mot juste. Exchanging bully-boy religious fundamentalism for its scientistic/materialistic version does not improve a thing.

Incidentally, why did Wendell Berry call scientism “superstition”? Not because he was against science, but because he believed that those who elevated science as a way of knowing beyond its proper boundaries were engaged in a form of primitive religion. Excerpt from “Life Is a Miracle”:

It is not easily dismissable that virtually from the beginning of the progress of science-technology-and-industry that we call the Industrial Revolution, while some have been confidently predicting that science, going ahead as it has gone, would solve all problems and answer all questions, others have been in mourning. Among these mourners have been people of the highest intelligence and education, who were speaking, not from nostalgia or reaction or superstitious dread, but from knowledge, hard thought, and the promptings of culture.

What were they afraid of? What were their “deep-set repugnances”? What did they mourn? Without exception, I think, what they feared, what they found repugnant, was the violation of life by an oversimplifying, feelingless utilitarianism; they feared the destruction of the living integrity of creatures, places, communities, cultures, and human souls; they feared the loss of the old prescriptive definition of humankind, according to which we are neither gods nor beasts, though partaking of the nature of both. What they mourned was the progressive death of the earth.

(Via First Thoughts.)

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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