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.