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How Scientists Became the Priests of Our Brave New World

Glen Edelson
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New Atheists as Altar Boys.

The new atheists may not condemn the use of probabilities or set boundaries to scientific inquiry, but they do promulgate — perhaps inadvertently — the noble lie that scientific knowledge is unshakably grounded in incontrovertible observations. Only thus can science steal the thunder of religion. In this sense, they are not Comte’s heirs so much as his dupes.
The potential dangers of so construing science are legion. But what the history of Comtean positivism reveals is that it is science, not religion, which has the most to lose.

Comte’s dreams for a new religion of humanity not only failed to come to fruition, his particular noble lie had the opposite of its desired effect. When science failed to deliver on the promises of positivism by the late 19th century, people began to lose faith in the scientific enterprise.  One historian writes:
 

Those who apotheosized science […] all held in common the fundamental dogma that human reason could, through the "scientific method," know and understand everything […] [positivism] tackled even problems connected with ultimate origins and final ends, promised too many results, especially in moral, social, and religious areas […] But the contrast between the promises and limited achievements of scientism eventually led to a strong antipositivistic reaction.

 
This so-called debate over the “bankruptcy of science” permeated French culture and had religious thinkers pitted against ideologues of scientism, skeptics against rationalists, threatening the cultural hegemony that science had enjoyed for much of the century.

Today we are witnessing our own “bankruptcy of science” debates. The very pillars of the scientific enterprise — the reproducibility of experimental findings and, most recently and prominently, the peer review process itself — have come under fire, eroding the credibility of science. And as in Comte’s day, this debate is no academic matter; it has broader cultural, social, and political implications.

Scientists and their zealots rightly fault skeptics and religious believers who exploit “gaps” in scientific theories, failures of universal consensus or lack of indisputable evidence. In so doing, such skeptics implicitly hold science to an impossibly high standard of epistemic certainty. But what the defenders of science too often fail to realize is that they, not the skeptics, are responsible for peddling this high standard in the first place.

The reasons are evident. The idea of indubitable science is reassuring not only because of the — uniquely high — epistemic status it confers upon the discipline, but also because it establishes clear, unassailable boundaries between science and “non-science.” Not only religious, but also “pseudo-scientific” notions can be firmly ruled out: they are “infantile,” lacking in evidence, irrational, and so forth. At worst, ideological and political schemes may be justified on the basis of supposedly incontrovertible scientific Facts.

It is much harder to argue to the lay public — or to a grant-conferring committee — that one’s findings should be accepted because they hold with a high degree of probability just until the next and better interpretation of the data comes along, than to argue that one has attained to an incontrovertible Fact via observational means alone.

The problem is that science does not attain to incontrovertible facts via observational means alone; rather, it provides theories, conceptual frameworks for explaining and interpreting empirical data, via experiment inference, and — indeed — imagination and philosophical speculation. Whether or not the lay public is capable of articulating just what science

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