Saturday, July 2, 2011

Scientism and Etymological Evolutions

*I believe the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups.

So lamented the British physicist and novelist C.P. Snow in his 1959 Rede Lecture titled “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” The separate camps he spoke of were the humanities and the physical sciences. It is often toted today that we live in the Age of Science, resting on the erroneous assumption that science was not practiced before the Renaissance or perhaps even the Enlightenment. The narrow confinement of the word science to the biological or physical realms is a relatively recent English development that began in the late-1800s.[1] Yet, in Dutch today we can still speak of kunstwetenschap (“art science”): an unthinkable English combination. Or in German die Geisteswissenschaften (literally “spirit sciences”). Before the mid-19th century, science could be equated with or encompassed by natural philosophy. Science was, in the words of Nobel laureate Percy W. Bridgman, “nothing more than doing one's damnedest with one's mind, no holds barred.”

The physical sciences are often seen as the standard by which all ideas and philosophies are to be measured — the ultimate epistemic and moral authority. This brand of thinking infected the elite and intelligentsia of the early-20th century, blossoming into a popular acceptance of (among other things) eugenics. This love affair with scientific efficiency manifested itself in my own field of study in the form of Taylor’s scientific management: a heavily centralized, mechanistic and dehumanizing approach to labor.[2]

Over the course of the past century, however, the tide has slowly turned. Intelligence is no longer defined merely by problem-solving or task-oriented faculties, but also by one’s emotional capabilities. Human motivation does not rest solely on external, carrot-and-stick incentives, but intrinsic rewards as well. The most important philosophical event of the 20th century was the collapse of logical positivism and its verification principle, which ushered in an academic revival of metaphysics.[3] Quantum mechanics has forever changed the face of materialism and the meaning of space, time and matter.

Reductionist theories eventually give way to what philosopher Tyler Burge calls “neurobabble,” which “produces the illusion of understanding,” yet does little to “aid, much less provide, psychological explanation.” In attempts to be objective, many forget that scientific theories are laced with concepts, vocabularies and interpretations saturated with subjective meaning.

This shift in paradigm recognizes religion and science are not necessarily exclusive, reason and emotion actually complete each other, and the objective and subjective always overlap. In other words, it recognizes that humans (along with their biases) are the ones doing the experiments. As the physicist and philosopher of science Thomas S. Kuhn explained,

The more carefully [historians of science] study, say, Aristotelian dynamics, phlogistic chemistry, or caloric thermodynamics, the more certain they feel that those once current views of nature were, as a whole, neither less scientific nor more the product of human idiosyncrasy than those current today. If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge. If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones we hold today. Given these alternatives, the historian must choose the latter. Out-of-date theories are not in principle unscientific because they have been discarded. That choice, however, makes it difficult to see scientific development as a process of accretion.[4]

As previously mentioned, one of the unfortunate side effects of modernity's scientistic mindset is the unstable moral foundation it seems to leave us with. Even secularist authors such as Sam Harris have taken note of the moral ambiguity among contemporary intellectuals.[5] What's worse is that this has infected modern theological and philosophical discussions. Having already provided a brief etymological history of the word science, I will provide the same for four more: religion, faith, agency and freedom.

Religion in our day is commonly understood as a set of supernatural propositions or an institution/denomination one belongs to. However, when we explore the meaning of religion in medieval Christianity, a different picture emerges. St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest Western philosopher of the Middle Ages, understood religion (Latin religio) as a moral virtue. In his Summa Theologiae, he explained that the primary acts of religion are internal, while the secondary ones are external. Internal religious acts are identified as devotion and prayer, while external acts include reverence, offerings, sacrifices, etc. Religion was not objectified as an institute of beliefs and practices related to the supernatural until the Protestant Reformation, particularly John Calvin.[6]

While religion came to mean the institute of particular beliefs and practices, faith came to be associated with the intellectual assent to the beliefs themselves.[7] However, this is a distorted view of the original usage. Placing the term within the context of the Greco-Roman world, New Testament scholar David DeSilva explains,

Faith (Lat. fides; Gk pistis) is a term also very much at home in patron-client and friendship relations...In one sense, faith meant “dependability.” The patron needed to prove reliable in providing the assistance he or she promised to grant. The client needed to “keep faith” as well, in the sense of showing loyalty or commitment to the patron and to his or her obligations of gratitude. A second meaning in the more familiar sense is “trust”: the client had to trust the goodwill and ability of the patron...while the benefactor would also have to trust the recipients to act nobly and make a grateful response.[8]

In his commentary on the epistle to the Hebrews, DeSilva touches on Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen":

In philosophical language [the Greek hupostasis] can signify the “substance” or “underlying essence” of something...The same term, however, carries the everyday legal or business connotation of “title deed” or “guarantee,” attested by numerous papyri as well as classical texts...Given this immediate context, ['substance'] should be heard in the sense of title deed in 11:1, linking the discussion of faith more closely with 10:32-36 and the Christians’ loss of property...In this reading, ['faith'] in Hebrews is being understood very much within the context of patronage or friendship. After a client receives the patron’s promise that a certain benefaction will be given to him or her..."trust" is all the client has. If the patron is honorable and reliable, however, having “trust” is a good as having the promised item itself. Conversely, showing “distrust” toward the patron means letting go of the grasp on the promised item not only psychologically (because distrust produces anxiety) but in reality (as “distrust” manifested itself in “disobedience,” which caused the wilderness generation to lose their possession of the promised land; 3:7-19).[9]

Instead of the childish wish fulfillment and blind obedience many critics purport it to be, faith is a mature sense of trust, commitment, and engagement.

A term well-known to Mormons is that of free agency or simply agency.[10] Most interpretations understand this simply as the power to choose. Once again, when we turn back time a couple centuries, we realize that this understanding is incomplete. Given Joseph Smith's early leanings to Methodism and the 19th century Methodist culture that Mormonism shared, it is worth noting that Methodists from this time "defined agency not as freedom to do what one wants but as the freedom to do what is right." It carried with it the notion of "obedience and ethical responsibility as well as freedom to make choices and act upon them." As historian Phyllis Mack explains, "The goal of the individual's religious discipline was to shape her personal desires and narrow self-interest until they became identical with God's desire, with absolute goodness. The sanctified Christian wants what God wants; she is God's agent in the world."[11] Agency seems closely related to stewardship; the handling of which we will ultimately be judged for.

Finally, the concept of freedom (a favorite among Americans in particular) has changed over time. Its evolution is similar to that of the word agency. While ancient pagan and Christian philosophers recognized freedom as the ability to realize and embrace "the Good" (understood as God: the ultimate end to which we are driven by nature), modern notions tend to twist the definition of freedom to mean free from all moral constraints without consequence (a form of liberationism). As Eastern Orthodox philosopher David B. Hart writes,

True the freedom of a thing to flourish, to become ever more fully what it is...To be fully free is to be joined to that end for which our natures were originally framed, and for which — in the deepest reaches of our souls — we ceaselessly yearn. And whatever separates us from that end — even if it be our own power of choice within us — is a form of bondage. We are free not because we can choose, but only when we have chosen well.[12]

In his book The Infinite Atonement, Tad Callister declares that "the lives of gods are driven internally, rather than externally...Gods do not live oblivious of laws, but through obedience have mastered the laws so that they might use them to accomplish their purposes. Freedom is achieved through a step-by-step process of obedient compliance to God's will. Consequently the more we become like God, the freer we become. Freedom and godhood are parallel paths; in fact the are the same road."[13] As Nephi wrote, "Because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever" (2 Nephi 2:26). Callister's concept falls in line with the classical understanding: "Some might contend that freedom comes when there are no laws or restraints. They contend that freedom in its purest form is the right to do anything, anytime, anywhere, without consequence...[This freedom] is illusory."[14] In summary, Callister writes, "Obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel brings increased knowledge, a multiplicity of choices, and an enhanced power to execute, all of which result in added freedom."[15]

The scientistic framework has robbed our culture of many beautiful truths: religion is not just about making supernatural claims, but interacting with the supernatural by means of a virtuous life. Having faith is not believing and obeying blindly, but developing trust and remaining committed to that which one trusts in. Agency is not simply about choice, but choice with consequences and the knowledge of whose agent one is. Freedom is not just about doing what one wants, but doing what one ought as well. The whole of life is not solely about what you think and why you think it (as important as those are). It is about who you are and what you do.

*This is an expanded version of my April 28 column in the North Texas Daily.


1. See Daniel Patrick Thurs, Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Popular Culture (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007).

2. See Thomas C. Leonard, "American Economic Reform in the Progressive Era: Its Foundational Beliefs and Their Relation to Eugenics," History of Political Economy 41:1 (2009).

3. See Tyler Burge, "Philosophy of Language and Mind: 1950-1990," The Philosophical Review 101:1 (Jan. 1992).

4. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996 [1962]), 2-3.

5. For example, listen to the story that prompted his writing of The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010) at the beginning of a 2010 Texas Book Festival lecture found here.

6. Peter Harrison, "Lecture 1 - The Territories of Science and Religion," 2011 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, 14 Feb. 2011.

7. For a helpful overview of the word's history, see Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2009), Ch. 4 - "Faith."

8. David A. DeSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 115.

9. DeSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle ‘to the Hebrews’ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 383-384.

10. See Kevin Barney's recent discussion of these terms.

11. As quoted in Christopher C. Jones, "Mormonism and Agency: A Historical Inquiry," Juvenile Instructor (May 16, 2011).

12. For a more extensive discussion of this subject, see Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

13. Tad R. Callister, The Infinite Atonement (Provo, UT: Deseret Book, 2000), 251.

14. Ibid., 257.

15. Ibid., 261.


  1. What a load of tendentious writing. There are so many things wrong with this. Quantum physics has indeed changed the face of materialism only to make it even more stronger. And non-humanistic philosophy is actually rational-science.

  2. First and foremost, thanks for dropping by Khalid. Onward to your comment.

    "There are so many things wrong with this."


    "Quantum physics has indeed changed the face of materialism only to make it even more stronger."

    I agree, but it depends what you mean by this. As you probably noticed, I write from a Mormon theological perspective, which is a very materialist religion (i.e. God has a body, spirit is matter, etc.). But many people use the term "materialism" to describe an outdated Newtonian model of the universe; a machinist or clockwork universe. The materialist worldview often adopts a reductionist or positivist paradigm, which is a philosophical position that has been dead about 60 years (see footnote #3). See Paul Davis, John Gribbin, 'The Matter Myth' for more on this.

    "And non-humanistic philosophy is actually rational-science."

    I'm not quite sure what you mean by this.