Links and Comments: Scientism; the Arc of Moral Progress; Conservative Resistance and Certain Republicans

What we read from this morning’s newspapers…

New York Times, Simon Critchley, There Is No Theory of Everything.

An essay (which is longer online than the version in print) about science and the humanities and about a teacher of his, Frank Cioffi, who wrote a book about Wittgenstein, with a thesis about the gap between “how we experience the world — our subjective, conscious experiences (qualia) — and the scientific explanation of the material forces that constitute nature; and, second, that such a gap can potentially be closed through one, overarching theoretical explanation.”

Well, yes; this is science, and it’s been working pretty well all these past few centuries. Critchley thinks this is a problem. (My bold, about the part I agree with him.)

This is the risk of what some call “scientism” — the belief that natural science can explain everything, right down to the detail of our subjective and social lives. All we need is a better form of science, a more complete theory, a theory of everything. Lord knows, there are even Oscar-winning Hollywood movies made about this topic. Frank’s point, which is still hugely important, is that there is no theory of everything, nor should there be. There is a gap between nature and society. The mistake, for which scientism is the name, is the belief that this gap can or should be filled.

One huge problem with scientism is that it invites, as an almost allergic reaction, the total rejection of science. As we know to our cost, we witness this every day with climate change deniers, flat-earthers and religious fundamentalists. This is what is called obscurantism, namely that the way things are is not explained by science, but with reference to occult forces like God, all-conquering Zeus, the benign earth goddess or fairies at the bottom of my garden. Now, in order to confront the challenge of obscurantism, we do not simply need to run into the arms of scientism.

Other intellectuals have worried about ‘scientism’ (there was a Leon Wieseltier/Steven Pinker kufuffle a few months ago), needlessly it seems to me, out of some fear that subjective ideas about the humanities will be reduced to some crude reductionism. But that is not what science is only about; science entails finding basic principles, but it also acknowledges emergent principles of complexity. All that ‘scientism’ entails is thinking rigorously about issues of the humanities, if only in terms of comparative cultures, or what science can tell us about the limitations of our perceptions, rather than the standard deference to cultural standards, authority, and tradition.


Elsewhere in today’s NYT, Steven Erlanger asks Are Western Values Losing Their Sway?. This has been a topic since Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” was overtaken by Islamic fundamentalist attacks on the west…. as well as the odd resurgence of fundamentalism Christianism in the US. It’s not so much about political systems or economic injustices, Erlanger claims, but rather basic issues of humans rights, as I’ve described as the progressive arc of moral history (which description presumes that the fundamentalists will eventually lose).

The fight over values is not limited to democracy. “We think the world is divided by individualism and democracy, but it’s the sexual divide,” Mr. Krastev said — with radical disagreements over the proper place of women and the rights of homosexuals.

In its rejection of Western liberal values of sexual equality and choice, conservative Russia finds common cause with many in Africa and with the religious teachings of Islam, the Vatican, fundamentalist Protestants and Orthodox Jews.

Extreme interpretations of religion, especially in areas of great instability and insecurity, can be a comforting or inspiring response to the confusions of modern life, and can soon become an enemy to religious freedom and tolerance for others…

And of course we see this every day in modern American political discourse, with the curious alignment of conservative fundamentalists and their political champions (Huckabee, Santorum, Cruz) with rival fundamentalists of other religions, an alignment they would no doubt disavow, but which is obvious to the rest of us free of fundamentalist shackles.


So to close with Jeffrey Tayler’s latest at Salon, Ted Cruz and Kim Davis, true love forever: The right-wing theocracy that threatens the rule of law. Subtitle: “Even The Donald knows the law trumps religion. It is time for someone to explain the Constitution to Ted Cruz.”

“Today, judicial lawlessness crossed into judicial tyranny,” writes Cruz. “Today, for the first time ever, the government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith. This is wrong. This is not America.”

No, senator. America is not a theocracy; in America, the First Amendment inoculates affairs of state against the malady of faith. Davis works for the government – and does so by choice. She has every right to practice her religion, but no right at all to behave in ways that impose it on gays or anyone else she encounters while performing her official duties.

Tayler goes on to address the fantasy industry of fundamentalists who, by cherry-picking and outright lying (cf. David Barton), like to pretend that America’s founding fathers were Christians as ardent as the current fundamentalists.

Nowhere in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence do the Founding Fathers mention anything about Judaism, Christianity, or “Judeo-Christian values.” The United States is not, therefore, a Judeo-Christian country. That a majority are Christian and Jewish matters not; the system of government is what we’re discussing, and it is decidedly secular.

This is no accident. Some of the Founding Fathers held Christianity in contempt. Thomas Jefferson mused that, “Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man . . . There is not one redeeming feature in our superstition of Christianity. It has made one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.” Whether he said this before or after taking scissors to his Bible and cutting out every reference to Jesus’ divinity and the supernatural is worth investigating. John Adams wrote that, “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Bonus quotes: Ben Franklin observed that, “Lighthouses are more useful than churches.” Abraham Lincoln, a truly old-school Republican, if not a Founding Father, let it be known that “The Bible is not my book, nor Christianity my profession.”

This whole Kim Davis thing is just another example, to me, of how extremist Christians seem to be intent on defining themselves as people who cannot get along in a civil manner with people unlike themselves. And are proud of it.

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