Saturday, September 24, 2011

Political Correctness: Spellbinding the Masses

In Scientism, I argued that the modern science-centered worldview is religious rather than strictly secular. This religion, which I call scientism, isn’t just academic positivism or behaviourism, but the popular worship of technoscientific power and the divinely creative forces revealed or enthroned by that power, such as natural selection in the minimally-regulated (mostly uncivilized) market. Pitiless Mother Nature reigns in capitalistic oases, as in Edenic jungle paradises, intervening in human affairs by separating winners from losers in every wild, entirely unchristian struggle for profit. The god of the free market, which must be the very same cosmic creativity that evolves solar systems and galaxies, is omnipresent in modern economies, at one with our vices that compel us to compete in a short-sighted, self-destructive fashion, leading presumably to our eventual extinction and replacement by some other chosen species. All hail Cosmic Creativity! And until that glorious future, when we’ll likely sacrifice ourselves for the sake of mindless evolution, a handful of mandarins, tycoons, magnates, and other lords of commerce rule as demigods, prophets and champions of that model sociopath, the creative force of natural selection. These oligarchs are elevated by the free market and so chosen by Mother Nature to rule in her social order, which is the dominance hierarchy, or pecking order. Thanks to their cunning, modern wealthy societies protect that underlying hierarchy with fa├žades of democracy and with bribes of technologically-achieved pleasure. 

How could scientism be religious, though, without some scripture recited in holy places, causing knees to bow in reverence for the revealed Word of the Almighty? Where is the so-called secularist’s holy book of divine wisdom, if so-called secularists really are closet religionists? My answer: the verses of scientism’s scripture are repeated hourly on the mountain tops of television and radio airtime; they're the politically correct slogans, the spin-doctored and market-tested rhetoric, and the instrumental talking points for the Pavlovian training of human cattle. Were that scripture confined to a single book, its title might be Political Correctness: Sacred Verses for Spellbinding Consumers; instead, scientism uses modern technology to piggyback its messages on those of popular entertainments so that you hear them even when you think you don’t. Remember that scientism is a paradoxical faith, a religion that pretends to be opposed to all religious follies. Just as an oligarchy can disguise itself as a democratic republic, pagan worship of nature can disguise itself as scientific rationalism and as postreligious humanism. To see the religious aspect of so-called secular society, you have to step back from it and ask yourself whether there’s any reason to believe that our innate tribalism and creative urge to speculate, which are primary causes of religion, were shut down by modern forces of progress. Sure, in the name of that progress, the old gods of supernatural monotheism were dethroned and the perennial religious philosophies of mystics were ignored or ridiculed, but since religions are found in all times and places occupied by human beings, due to innate causes within us, we should expect that modern naturalists deify whatever’s left to replace the outmoded objects of worship.

Taboo and the Sacred

What is political correctness? Officially, politically correct speech and attitudes are conventions that respect social discoveries, such as the existence of civil rights due to the equality of humans as free, rational persons. It’s merely good manners in the face of the facts to tell the truth, for example, about the dignity of the poor and the rich alike. The social discoveries are like mathematically necessary truths, and the student can just tick the appropriate boxes in the Quiz of Life, thanks to regular tutoring from the authorities, such as politicians, pundits, celebrities--indeed, virtually anyone performing her public function (her job) and certainly anyone on mainstream media. Your private thoughts are more or less your own, but there are rules for public behaviour, besides those recognized in courts of law, and the penalty for disobeying them is to be shunned or ostracized.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Scientism: Modern Pagan Religion

Traditional religions were holistic, uniting normative and empirical speculations in a mytho-poetic vision of the world. Eastern religious philosophies are still holistic, whereas dualism dominates in the West, and not just because of Descartes’ attempt to reconcile the scientific picture of nature with the intuitive picture of ourselves. Monotheism itself has contributed to Western dualism. By centralizing divine power and elevating God above all conceivable forms, the monotheist effectively kicks God out of the rationally explainable domain, which is the domain of nature or the cosmos, the order of which corresponds to our conceptual grid. The supreme form of rational understanding is the modern scientific kind, but precisely because science is supremely impersonal and objective, its methods don’t provide direct answers to normative or subjective questions.

But ethical and aesthetic values, intuitions, and the subjective appearances of things have been central to the human experience. And so rather than giving them up, despite the lack of forthcoming answers to those questions from science, which reigns supreme only in a limited field of inquiry, religious people externalized those ghostly intangibles along with God. God is supposed to sustain everything, and while scientists have discovered more and more of how the physical world sustains itself, dualistic monotheism saves the subjective, intuitive, value-laden, faith-based appearance of the world, by locating this in the deity’s supernatural domain and in the earthly fragments of that domain, in our so-called immaterial spirits. After all, according to monotheists, God originated our moral perspective, by inspiring prophets to gain insights into divine commandments, and we’re able to think in terms of what ought to be done, instead of slavishly following natural law, because our immaterial spirits are supernaturally free.

Skeptics would contend, though, that the true originators of official moral laws were the human rulers who codified our instinctive sentiments, to hold social groups together, maintaining their elevated position in the pecking order by attributing society’s laws to gods who are just grandiose versions of those human rulers. Far from being supernaturally free, we’re just social animals who are subject to natural control systems, such as the system of monotheism. And of course, the more scientists have been able to explain empirical facts without appealing to God or to the supernatural, the more theism has declined in most informed parts of the world. Many early Western scientists inhabited the halfway house of deism, and most educated people currently living in relatively wealthy countries in Europe and Asia are nontheistic in both word and deed. Even in the US, which is an exception to that rule, nontheism has grown more popular due to the so-called New Atheist movement.

Such is a common way of contrasting traditional Western monotheism with modern secularism. But I want to consider another interpretation, according to which nontheistic naturalism has itself developed into a religion that can be called scientism. Narrowly speaking, scientism is the belief that scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge, that if a question can’t be answered using scientific methods, the question is meaningless or otherwise illegitimate. In this respect, scientism is just radical empiricism, or positivism, deriving from the Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein, and David Hume. While positivism has since been mostly rejected in academic philosophy, for being self-refuting and for ignoring studies of how the sciences are actually practiced, most analytic philosophers still subscribe to naturalism. Naturalists assume that even if some legitimate questions can’t be identified with scientific ones, everything that exists depends on things that are scientifically explainable.

That's how scientism has played out in rarified academic circles and it's the meaning I've had in mind in these blog rants, such as when I referred to "scientistic liberals," in Liberalism. But there's also a more popular form of scientism, which has to do with the way technoscientific progress has shaped the capitalistic social order. The main social effects of that progress are anti-philosophical pragmatism and the ideology of materialistic consumerism. In this broader sense of the centrality of science, scientism serves as a religion that we dare not name.