The Uses and Abuses of Science

My father once gave me a good definition of science. Put simply there is no such thing as “science” in the sense of a broadly authoritative body (as when people declare that “science says” such and such about a certain topic). There are only specific scientific disciplines which offer a “descriptive body of knowledge.” Beyond that, scientists can attempt predictions of the characteristics of as-yet unobserved phenomena. As my father explained, “No theory is ever proven. Any theory — to be a truly scientific one — must be capable of being tested. Scientists are human and fallible. It is in the best tradition of science to distrust their claims and to dismiss their non-scientific utterances.”

The origins of pseudo-science can be found in the 18th century with writers like Voltaire who were essentially journalists with an axe to grind. The gifted Voltaire helped popularize science (in the worst sense of that term) with his book on Newton, from which he deduced a whole program of social and moral criticism that had nothing to do, of course, with Newtonian physics; much like today’s news accounts of “global warming,” based on highly questionable data, which insist on economic and environmental legislation.

The point about Voltaire is made by cultural historian Eric Voegelin in his book From Enlightenment to Revolution. Voegelin speaks of the “spiritual devastation wrought by the wide-spread conviction that the rational-scientific approach could be a substitute for the spiritual integration of personality.” He also refers to a “scientistic creed” that has become a new form of religion. It was not a purely rational enterprise, a mere sweeping aside of old forms of “superstition.” Its real beginnings had nothing to do with rationality or objectivity. Traditional Christianity represented a transcendent and public faith, one that could ultimately resist being exploited for personal or political aims. By contrast, explains Voegelin, a “privatization of the spirit left the field open for a respiritualization of the public sphere from other sources, in the forms of nationalism, humanitarianism, economism both liberal and socialist, biologism, and psychologism.” The point is not that the specific findings of many of these fields were without interest, but that the attempt to make them de fide ersatz creeds was dishonest.

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