Scientism

Albert Einstein at his desk in 1929

In his book The God Delusion (2006), Richard Dawkins makes the extraordinary claim that one of the leading physicists of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein, was an atheist:

‘Einstein sometimes invoked the name of God (and he is not the only atheistic scientist to do so), inviting misunderstanding by supernaturalists eager to misunderstand and claim so illustrious a thinker as their own.’ [1]

This statement is extraordinary because it flatly contradicts Einstein’s own statement on the subject. The writer and journalist George Sylvester Viereck, in his book Glimpses of the Great (1930), asked Einstein directly whether he regarded himself as a ‘pantheist’, or a person who believes in an impersonal God. Einstein replied:

‘Your question is the most difficult in the world. It is not a question I can answer simply with yes or no. I am not an Atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds.’ [2]

Besides holding the chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University (1995 – 2008), Dawkins is also a leading member of the New Atheist movement. The New Atheist movement is so-called because it seeks to attack spirituality in all forms. It is for such statements that Dawkins has been accused – and rightly so – of promoting not science, but Scientism.

The word ‘Scientism’ was coined by the economist Friedrich Hayek in his book The Counter-Revolution of Science (1952). He subtitled the book Studies in the Abuse of Reason, and it was his aim to show that a decidedly unscientific spirit – what he called the ‘slavish imitation of the method and language of Science’ – was being passed off as genuine science.

The New Atheists
Christopher Hitchens, Danniel Dennet, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris

The problem with Scientism is that it turns science into an ideology. This demands not just a belief in science, but an unquestioning acceptance of the scientific orthodoxy of the day. Genuine science is a process of discovery, and this includes the freedom to question and challenge existing assumptions, without which new discoveries are impossible. Indeed, many of the major advances in science have come from those who have challenged the prevailing orthodoxy of the day, and often at personal cost.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543), who gave us the heliocentric theory and began the scientific revolution, delayed the publication of his book On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres until after his death because he feared persecution by the Inquisition, which was the very product of logic. Galileo, more combative, was forced to recant his support for Copernicus before the Inquisition. Giordano Bruno, another champion of Copernicus, was unwilling to recant his views and was burnt at the stake by the Inquisition in the Field of Flowers in Rome in 1600.

Statue of Giordano Bruno, Campo de Fiori, Rome

While this may be seen as an attack on science by dogmatic religion, the same intolerance towards dissent can also be found in secular culture. William Harvey (1578 – 1657), who proposed the circulation of the blood, feared personal injury for challenging the medical authorities of the day. Gregor Mendel, whose paper, Experiments on Plant Hybridization (1865), which is now regarded as the foundation work for genetic theory, was mocked and dismissed as an amateur gardener in his day. Immanuel Velikovsky (1895 – 1979), who suggested that the recurrent descriptions of catastrophes in ancient texts could be explained by a comet-like object passing close to the earth, faced such hostility by the scientific community that it gave rise to what is known as ‘The Velikovsky Affair’. And in more recent times, the biologist Rupert Sheldrake, who proposed that morphic fields could be studied empirically, prompted the science journal Nature to suggest that his book A New Science of Life (1981) should be burnt.

The effect of turning science into an ideology is that it limits – and even prevents – the emergence of new ideas. This was noted by the scientific historian Thomas Kuhn, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Kuhn remarked that:

‘No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all. Nor do scientists normally aim to invent new theories, and they are often intolerant of those invented by others.’ [3]

Quite apart from the intolerance towards new ideas, Scientism creates an unnecessary division between science and spirituality. The claim, made by Dawkins and others, that scientists are by nature atheistic is not supported by the facts.

From William Harvey’s de Motu Cordis (1628)

Sir Francis Bacon, who wrote Novum Organum (1620), which is regarded as the foundation work for modern day science, had a low opinion of atheists. He wrote an essay on the subject, Of Atheism, in which he stated that atheism was more ‘of the lip than in the heart’.

Sir Isaac Newton, who wrote The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687), which laid the foundation for classical mechanics, was also decidedly not an atheist. Indeed, he had a keen interest in astrology and alchemy, something which – given his stature – is an embarrassment for the scientific community. After examining a box of Newton’s writings, the economist John Maynard Keynes stated in his 1946 essay Newton the Man:

‘A large section, judging by the handwriting amongst the earliest, relates to alchemy – transmutation, the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life. The scope and character of these papers have been hushed up, or at least minimized, by nearly all those who have inspected them.’ [4]

Faraday being offered presidency of the Royal Society (1857)

Bacon and Newton were not unique. Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867), widely recognized for his pioneering work in electromagnetism, was also highly religious, and even served as a Church deacon. His contemporary James Clerk Maxwell (1831 – 1879), whose theory of electromagnetic fields unified electricity, magnetism and light, also served as an elder in the Church of Scotland. William James (1842 – 1910), who wrote the first textbook on modern psychology, was a member of the Theosophical Society. Carl Jung, who co-founded analytical psychology, was asked in a 1959 BBC interview whether he believed in God; he answered ‘I do not need to believe. I know.’ And another giant of 20th century physics, Werner Heisenberg (1901 – 1976), who gave us quantum mechanics, was also a devout Christian. The list is by no means exhaustive.

Carl Jung being interviewed by John Freeman, BBC, 1959

The introduction of ideology into science can be traced back to the Enlightenment, through the work of the Encyclopédistes, Denis Diderot (1713 – 1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717 – 1783). Diderot and d’Alembert were both avowed atheists, and their intention in writing their Encyclopédie (1751) was to do more than simply to provide a comprehensive book of knowledge, but to use it to challenge the religious view of the world. The introduction makes this clear:

‘All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings. We must ride roughshod over all these ancient puerilities, overturn the barriers that reason never erected…’ [5]

By the time of the Enlightenment, the many of the dogmas of the Church – from the movement of the earth to the origins of life – had been successfully challenged. It was clear that a new foundation was needed for our understanding of the world. But where the Bible had once been the source of authority regarding matters of truth, the Encyclopédie was now to be that new authority; in effect, the new Bible of secular atheism, and with that, dogmatism was introduced into science.

The problem, of course, is not with science itself, but dogma. Dogma is the assertion of a single, unquestionable truth laid down by an authority. Once an authority decides what is true, then anyone who questions that authority is also seen to question truth itself. The introduction of dogma into science gave rise to the division between orthodox, or ‘normal’ science and unorthodox, or ‘fringe’ science. It is the same dogmatism which has led to the assertion that scientists speak with one voice, particularly on matters of health and medicine and the safety of new technologies.

The dissenting voice, that of the lone maverick and the original thinker, is not just a part of the history of science, it is essential to science itself. The claim, increasingly heard since the start of the pandemic, that we should ‘believe in science’ is starkly at odds with the motto of the Royal Society – founded for the very purpose of promoting science – which is ‘Nullius in Verba’, or Latin for ‘take nobody’s word for it’. We are not obliged to ‘believe in science’ any more than we are obliged to ‘believe in religion’; if we have any obligation in life, it is to think for ourselves.

From the Winter 2020 edition of Nascent State magazine

References:

  1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam, 2006) p.34
  2. George Sylvester Viereck, Glimpses of the Great (New York: The Macaulay Company, 1930) p. 372-373
  3. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (University of Chicago Press, 1970) volume II, p. 24.
  4. John Maynard Keynes, Newton the Man, Collected Writings (Cambridge: Royal Economic Society) pp. 363-374
  5. Marvin Perry, Sources of the Western Tradition, II (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), pp. 43-6.