Arts and Culture

The Seduction of Scientism

by Father Robert Lauder

IN THE MID-1960s, I was in graduate school studying philosophy. Around that time, there was a movement in philosophy referred to as the “Death of God,” which received a considerable amount of attention. As I recall, Time magazine devoted a cover story to it.

I was studying at Marquette University for a doctorate in philosophy but also minoring in theology. Actually, I was minoring in theologian Bernard Cooke, taking two courses with him that were the two best courses I have ever taken. The University of Wisconsin at Madison sponsored a lecture series on the “Death of God,” and I attended at least two of those evenings.

Verification Theory

The first lecture was given by one of the philosophers who represented the “Death of God” movement. At that time, there was a philosophical doctrine that was fairly popular, known as the Verification Theory of Meaning. The theory deals not with the veracity or falsity of a statement but whether the statement has any meaning at all. The theory was that unless a statement could be checked by some actual or possible sense experience, in other words, by sight, sound, touch, taste or smell, the statement was meaningless.

For instance, the obviously false statement, “The moon is made of green cheese,” would nevertheless be a meaningful statement because it could be checked through the instruments by which we study the moon.

All statements about morality would be meaningless because, though the physical acts could be sensed, the moral dimension could not be sensed. All statements about God would also be meaningless. They would literally be nonsense.

The first lecturer in the series held the Verification Theory of Meaning. When he was asked at the end of his lecture by a student, “Yes or no: does God exist?,” he replied to the questioner, “You have not asked me a question.” What he meant was that talk about God was meaningless. For those who held this theory, atheism was as meaningless as theism. All God talk was meaningless.

After many years of teaching philosophy to college and university students, I am still surprised at the seduction of the philosophy that is called scientism. As far as I can make out, several of the so-called “new atheists” embrace this philosophy. I believe that many people who may have never heard the term “scientism” still believe the view of reality that it represents is the truth.

Being opposed to scientism does not mean that you are opposed to science. It is impossible to be an educated person and be opposed to science. Biology, chemistry and physics have made wonderful discoveries that benefit people. I think of how much the medical profession relies on such empirical sciences and uses their discoveries to help and heal people.

Scientism’s Self-Contradiction

Scientism is not the same as science. Rather it is a philosophy that holds that only statements of empirical science, such as those made in physics, biology and chemistry, are true. Of course, scientism is involved in a self-contradiction because the statement that only empirical science can reach the truth is itself not a statement of empirical science.

Discussing the mentality of scientism in their book, Religion and Atheism (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1971, pp. 199) William Luijpen and Henry Koren write the following:

“ …the above-described mentality has exercised an enormous influence and that many people still adhere to it. It is the mentality of scientism, for which to know means to know as one does in physical science, and to prove something means to prove it as one does in physical science…

“In one way or another, physical science verifies its assertions by measurements, a method that obviously cannot be applied to God.” (p. 22)

Whenever I think about the influence of scientism, I become more committed to present to my students at St. John’s University the treasures of Catholic philosophy.

At the lecture series in Wisconsin, I experienced a brilliant presentation of Catholic philosophy and theology. The last speaker in the series was Bernard Cooke, and he gave one of the best lectures I have ever heard. For an hour, he held the attention of the audience as he spoke about Plato, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, the Death of God Movement, Thomas Aquinas and finally Resurrection theology.

I think during the lecture, he looked down at the piece of paper he had on the podium five or six times. My guess, (even after we became friends I never asked him) was that he had perhaps seven or eight words written on the sheet indicating the topics he wished to cover. To deliver such a brilliant lecture to a university audience illustrates some kind of genius.

Anyone who is familiar with the Catholic intellectual tradition does not have to feel insecure discussing other views about reality with anyone.[divider]

Next week, Father Lauder discusses faith as a gift from God.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.