Friday, January 15, 2016

Scientism: A New Religion?

The title of an essay published by Michael Shermer in the Scientific American a while back caught my eye: ‘The Shamans of Scientism”. It was faintly alarming. I could make sense of “a scientifically educated shaman”, somebody who brings a scientific attitude to (say) the healing practices of a shaman.

What puzzled me was Shermer’s use of the term scientism. According to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, it’s defined like this: “Excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques, or in the applicability of the methods of physical science to other fields, especially human behavior and the social sciences, freq. depreciative.” Does Shermer really mean to be preaching the unscientific excesses of scientism? It is possible he’s unacquainted with the meaning of the term? Or was he trying to be humorous or ironical?

Scientism is reductive materialism in action and could only be dismissive of the assumption of spirits in shamanism. So the title seems to want to make fun of itself, but in fact is incoherent. To be consistent, scientism would have to rank shamanism as nonsense. A shaman of scientism must be a highly conflicted creature.

The point of the author’s mini-manifesto of reductionism is to hasten the twilight of the gods. Make way all you gods of old! It’s time for a new religion, according to scribe Shermer. Stephan Hawking, we are told with a wink, is the new “Delphic Oracle” and “the scientific equivalent of the deity.” Shermer himself seems the equivalent of the enthusiast or the devotee.

So far not so bad, but the new religion of scientism – is, alas! like many religions, intolerant. So in Shermer’s fantasy, scientism will banish from being, he says– “eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations.” A sweeping negation. Eschews – a prissy word – shun, avoid vast regions of human experience. How tyrannical we can be with other people’s experience!

Free speculation is suppressed in the State of Scientism, certain subject matters and fields of subjectivity are proscribed, redacted, made to go away. Scientism is a blueprint for a very subtle but wearing type of metaphysical oppression, the assumption being: If it can’t be explained by physical agency, it’s not allowed to exist!   Or if it does exist, it must be in a form of ontological low-life.

Ideas have consequences. By order of the Scientistic Police Force, you may not have a transcendent near-death experience, nor are you allowed to have a telepathic impression of your child in danger, and it’s utterly inappropriate to see a ghost. I could go on. We need to underscore this. Many things are forbidden in the Land of Scientism.

Come to think of it, you most certainly cannot and will never be allowed in public to levitate.

Moreover, any unseemly displays of ecstatic swooning may land you in metaphysical jail. So, goodbye, Joseph of Copertino! In scientism country, the penal system for anomalous offenders is enormous.   There are more prisons in that part of the world than there are private homes and libraries.

The trouble with Scientism is that it truncates the universe of possibilities; and it’s thoroughly out of tune with the soul, heart and mind of collective humanity.

It’s also important to note that science as such cannot provide practical wisdom; no calculations or experiments can determine our moral, social, or aesthetic choices. They may figure in the choices we make but not determine them.

We can use science to destroy or elevate life; but science by itself cannot make the choice. We have to dig deeper than the world of measurable certainties for that. My conclusion: science, yes; scientism, no thank you.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Consciousness Gained: An Epiphany in Jersey City

Among types of possible revolution, the one of consciousness seems key. Most likely it will come about spontaneously as economic disparities, social disequilibrium, and climate mayhem start to increase exponentially.

The forms it might assume are unpredictable. It may start in silence, without noise or fanfare, at least in the beginning.

Consciousness has many modes, many dimensions. Most of us are tuned into a fraction of the total spectrum. So progress and experiment is possible on many fronts.

Sometimes progress can seem modest, unworthy of notice. But for the person who has the experience, a small step may open to new horizons.

Here’s an example from my days of teaching philosophy at a college in Jersey City. It was a typical Philosophy 101 class. We were talking about that old puzzler, “free will”.   Illusion or reality?

Dutifully, I recited the arguments pro and con, and the discussion went well.

At the end of the hour the students filed out except for one who approached me. She looked excited, and without ceremony blurted out, “I swear I never knew I had a free will!”

“What do you mean?” I asked, surprised by her enthusiasm.

She proceeded to explain how she lived and carried on in daily life. It never fully occurred to her that she was free to guide the ship of her own existence. She explained to me that she was a “drifter”. She drifted with the forces and personalities around her, friends and school and family.

It wasn’t that she didn’t make choices on her own. That was instinctive, but more often than not, she forgot that she could make her own choices. During her epiphany, her full power to choose suddenly dawned on her with extra-special clarity. She could shape and direct her own life.   She took possession of the concept of free will for the first time.

I asked her how it felt. To her, the heigtened awareness of her own freedom was a pointed reminder of who she was. She was an agent, not a passive object to be shuttled around by fate and chance.

As we exited the classroom into the crowded stairway, she described how her view of others seemed different. The fear of being intimidated by other people seemed to melt away.

To have a strong, vivid sense of oneself as a free agent is a big thing. For the young woman it was the key to her personal revolution.

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