The Sins of the Scientific Method

When I wrote the first version of this post almost five years ago, my friend Jonathan Pageau brought my attention to an unusual event. Pope Francis, during an appearance at the Papal Palace in 2014, had two children release two “peace doves” of purest white. What was initially an “awwww” moment turned suddenly grisly. A black crow attacked one of the doves almost immediately, and in front of everyone.

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When I first heard about it, I was dumbfounded. Immediately, my historical-critical self refused to believe in the possibility of such an event happened. It smacked of myth, of epic, of poetic devices that had nothing to do with historical reality. Then I woke up from my temporary madness. My poet-self rejoiced. This event was mythical. Plus, the almost automatic fear of omens inspired by this event among many people (as well as the knee-jerk, boring scientific “explanation”) only proves the point.

In fact, when this event will be read about in history books five hundred years, it will probably be relegated to the apocryphal and legendary by the very advanced historians of that future era. As I argued in the first part of this series, that’s exactly what historians are doing nowadays.

Knee-Jerk Scientism

I’m going to be frank for a moment. How many of you, if you hadn’t heard about the papal pigeons already, had the same reaction as me? How many of you had a knee-jerk reaction defaulting to a critical, scientific mindset? Because if that’s so, then you’re guilty of being a follower of a heretical faith–scientism.

How many of us automatically perk up when we hear about a scientific paper that confirms our existing biases? How many times have we used the sentence, “Science has proven…” But why? After all, the scientific method in and of itself cannot be an arbiter of truth. The system itself presupposes the possibility, even the inevitability, of every discovery’s eventual obsolescence due to new research. There can be no objective truth in science. Every scientism must assume that every truth may eventually be disproved by better data.

I’ve already suggested (vehemently) that the supposed objectivity of the scientific method is limited even in the best situations. But what if there was more to the story?

The Sins of the Scientific Method

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Photo from Harper Magazine’s publication of Berry’s excellent essay “Faustian Economics”

First of all, I should elucidate a point that I only hinted at in my previous post. This is the assumption that in any given Life, only those aspects that can be deemed historically accurate can be in any sense “true.” If something in the life (an event, a person, a miracle) could not have occurred in historical reality, then it cannot possibly be true.

In short, “truth” is equated with “history.” This “history” is an objective reality that can be found by using the scientific method. More than this, such an assumption asserts that human beings are themselves arbiters of truth (though that truth is, ironically, only really available through man-man instruments). This “truth” can be precisely defined using the scientific method. This leads to such phenomena as the ultimately silly “search for the historical miracle.”

This unscientific faith that “science will find an answer” is described by Wendell Berry in his excellent essay “Faustian Economics” as “a fantasy of limitlessness.” Berry at first refers to humanity’s “chew it up and spit it out” mentality when it comes to using the planet’s resources, but he goes even farther, saying that “this credo of limitlessness clearly implies a principled wish not only for limitless possession but also for limitless knowledge…”

The idea that humans can somehow achieve limitless knowledge through science is not only ridiculous, according to Berry, but it is simply diabolical: “necessarily, it must lead to limitless violence, waste, war, and destruction.” Citing Milton, he suggests that “knowledge without measure, knowledge that the human mind cannot properly use, is mortally dangerous.”

The problem is this. The search for limitless knowledge for the purposes of control is baked into the philosophy of the scientific method from the very beginning. Francis Bacon wrote about the need to control the wildness of nature. The entire Enlightenment project was an extended philosophical preparation for the Industrialization of the 19th century, when Social Darwinism led to such projects as eugenics and such absurd pseudo-scientific theories such as telegony.

The Abolition of Man

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C.S. Lewis follows Berry’s logic in his Abolition of Man, where he explores when happens when man, deluded by his own apparent limitlessness, attempts to totally conquer and subjugate Nature:

From this point of view the conquest of Nature appears in a new light. We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may ‘conquer’ them. We are always conquering Nature, because ‘Nature’ is the name for what we have, to some extent, conquered. The price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature. Every conquest over Nature increases her domain. The stars do not become Nature till we can weigh and measure them: the soul does not become Nature till we can psychoanalyse her. The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature. As long as this process stops short of the final stage we may well hold that the gain outweighs the loss. But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same…

And now, we read about the transhumanist luminaries of our times waiting for the Singularity, when humanity itself will be unnecessary. Is this the kind of worldview that is conducive to a culture that fosters beauty, truth, and a search for the transcendent?

So what about the poet?

It seems obvious to me that the sins of the scientific method are reason enough to disqualify it from its lofty position of arbiter of truth. Practically speaking, we creators and consumers of culture should very seriously reconsider our knee-jerk scientism. Stop looking at the world as a phenomenon that can be defined using data points. Start experiencing it as a mystery with the capacity of bringing us closer to the transcendent.

Start reading the Lives of the Saints with the assumption that they are TRUE.

The scientific method has rendered today’s mundane reality practically black and white. By this prism, the miracles in the Lives are simply impossible. But every wise man from time immemorial has warned about judging the past through the lens of the present. Who’s to say dragons didn’t threaten the monks of the Egyptian desert, as described in the Lausiac History? That’s a question one would be foolish to try to answer until one has tried to understand what these dragons really are, and not in the sense of trying to find a specimen to dissect.

The poet, then, instead of assessing the truthfulness of a certain aspect of a Life or of the Life itself, has a much more important calling. He is as an apologist for the mythical and improbable in the Lives in general. But that’s the subject for my next post.

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8 comments:

  1. In going through the daily saints, I’ve often had an, “Umm…okay…, just had to be there, I guess,” moment. If there really weren’t such miracles, though, we would be like Reformed Jews or the most materialistic Protestants. We would have a form of godliness, while denying its power.

  2. As a scientist and poet who has never seen much difference between the two, I would caution against using the word “science” as a synonym for “common sense plus materialism”, which is what I fear you are doing in this essay. For example, an ornithologist is no more likely to be surprised than a poet by a black crow attacking a white dove; indeed, an ornithologist might expect such an event. It is the “common sense” thinker with limited experience of crows, not the technical expert, who is amazed. I admit that the ornithologist, while not astonished by the occurrence, is less likely than the poet (or the ordinary person) to see a higher symbolism, but that is a different issue than declaring the incident apocryphal. Similarly, when you write of “tr[ying] to understand what these dragons really are, and not in the sense of trying to find a specimen to dissect”, are you not implying that, whatever dragons may be, they are not flesh and blood in the manner of, say, Komodo monitors? How is making such an a priori, common-sense assumption not a capitulation to the very “scientism” you are decrying?

    1. I don’t agree with you. I do think (of course this is just speculation on my part) that if this event were talked about in the future (without documentary evidence) that plenty of rationalists would prefer to believe that the event was made up. Not because it couldn’t’ happen, but because it invites the kind of symbolic thinking that the scientific method, as it developed, has no place for. And I don’t follow your logic about my dragons. I’m talking about the dragons in the lives of the saints. These are always demonic manifestations of power, not long-lost species of something or other. What has that to do with scientism?

      1. Lions also occur in the lives of the saints. Sometimes they are manifestations of demonic (or, less frequently, divine) power; sometimes they are just lions; and sometimes they are physical animals operating under some kind of spiritual influence. I see no a priori reason to think that dragons are in a different category, unless one accepts that “obviously” dragons don’t exist in the natural order. And the only reason to accept that is that there is, presumably, no “scientific evidence” for non-supernatural, fire-breathing, giant lizards, while there is such evidence for non-supernatural, large, maned cats.

        It seems to me that you are using the term “science” when you really mean “naive rationalism”. Future historians might doubt the story about the doves, but their doubts would not be based on science (i.e. data about bird behaviour), but on a naive rationalistic assumption that real life never follows literary or mythic patterns. Scientists also frequently make that assumption, but not because they are following the scientific method. Clearly, they have not conducted extensive, controlled studies or collected large bodies of data proving that God never intervenes; it’s just their irrational gut feeling. They have (unconsciously, in most cases) taken off their “scientist hat” and donned the hat of “opinionated layman”.

        Science is a search for truth, conducted under certain highly limiting constraints. So is poetry; so is mythology; so is all art and philosophy. It is not science which you should be attacking, but the false religious belief that there is no ultimate meaning behind the data.

        1. Yes, I see what you mean. And I think I do agree with you after all. Naive rationalism is what I’m talking about. And if science does become what you describe as “a search for truth, conducted under certain highly limiting constraints,” then I’ll be the first to cheer. But too often, instead of science, we encounter scientism instead. I need mention only Neil Degrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Richard Dawkins, etc. to indicate what I mean.

  3. I think your post highlights also the failure of certain apologetical methods. I came from a Reformed background where presuppositionalism (Cornelius Van Til) had become popular and I was convinced when looking into Orthodoxy that it was very compatible, and I still hold that opinion. There is a book by Fr. Joshua Schooping about Irenaeus apologetical method that confirms my suspicion.

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