In this series I am analyzing three broad approaches to understanding and responding to the human condition: Scientism, Semanticism, and Supernaturalism. In the previous post I defined what I mean by each. In this post I will take a closer look at Scientism, and see how it tries to answer the fundamental questions of human morality, meaning and purpose, i.e. the human condition.
First, What is The Human Condition?
While this foundational question could be addressed several ways, for my purposes here I will draw from perhaps the greatest existentialist philosopher of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, who framed the problem of human existence in a profound way. The human condition is for Heidegger, at rock bottom, related to the simple fact that when we think about any kind of beings that exist in the world, one thing we recognize is that only human beings, out of all other beings (e.g. apples, aardvarks, atoms), are capable of asking the question itself, “what is Being?”. Human beings, whatever they may be, and only those beings that are human grapple with the meaning of Being itself (in German Sein), as well as the experience of “Being-there” (Dasein) among other beings. For whatever “Being” is we are at least concretely participatory in it in virtue of our being alive and being conscious. As such we find ourselves like helpless creatures, creatures thrown into the world (Geworfenheit), disposed to it (Befindlichkeit), having various moods (Stimmungen) about it, and, in some very real way, fallen away from it and from our own selves, for we do not properly know what it means to be to begin with.1 One artistic attempt to portray this kind of existentialism is the movie, Being There with the late British actor Peter Sellars. In the film, the gardener, Chance, is thrown out of his simple, edenic circumstances into a modern world that he has no way of understanding or really relating to. He is a mere observer of the variety of beings presented to him. This just is our experience of things, or at least it is in this period of late modernity in which we now reside.
Hence, we find ourselves in the world, having experiences of it, but with this (horrible?) capacity to “step back” and think about our own being in the world, to include the tremendous freedom we possess to interact with the world, i.e. with other beings, and with our own selves (called Projection).2 For more on Heidegger, see Michael Wheeler’s article in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heidegger/#Que We are therefore both determined, in virtue of our not having chosen to exist, yet we are also existentially free in that we can make choices to act, and in acting become something other than what we are right now. This is both a wondrous, and terrifying, reality. It is wondrous because the fact of it is innately mysterious. It is terrifying, because having abandoned the previous universal hermeneutic of religious belief that explained our existence to us, we now feel incapable of offering any sufficient answer to the emotional and intellectual anxiety existence causes.
The other fundamental aspect of this anxious act of existing, of “being there” in the world, is our experience of it as unfolding. In other words, this existence happens in time.3 Heidegger’s magnum opus was entitled Being and Time (Sein und Zeit). It begins and will, with our own death, ultimately end. Our own death, it is worth noting, is not however part of Dasein itself, since it will not actually be something we experience. We only experience the death of others, those deaths are part of our experience and therefore part of Dasein, our own deaths are not.
Beyond this brief, and profoundly deficient, summary of a Heideggerean view of the human condition, I cannot venture. It is well known that Heidegger is both one of the most obscure philosophers of the 20th century, as well as one of the most difficult to read, even in his native German. In a later post we will look briefly at what Heidegger thought could potentially save man from such a conflicted condition, a potential solution that was, tragically, aligned with the National Socialism of his day. For now, however, this descriptive, albeit vague, presentation of the human condition will serve the main purpose of this post: how do these three approaches to the human condition try to explain or answer both the terrible anxiety, and the mysterious wonder that conscious, self-reflective life presents to our experience? Which approach, in other words, answers the questions of morality, meaning, and purpose that emerge from such experiences and such reflection?4 There are other foundational questions of human existence than these, like identity, authority, and, of course, origins. But, this phrase serves as a metonym of sorts for the questions associated with the human condition.
Heidegger’s description of the human condition in the life of modern man also seems to sync well with the view of a very different kind of philosopher, his contemporary in England, Bertrand Russell, who might have called modern philosophy a philosophy of despair. In a personal letter, Russell once wrote:
What else is there to make life tolerable? We stand on the shore of an ocean, crying to the night and the emptiness; sometimes a voice answers out of the darkness. But it is the voice of one drowning; and in a moment the silence returns. The world seems to me quite dreadful; the unhappiness of many people is very great, and I often wonder how they all endure it. To know people well is to know their tragedy: it is usually the central thing about which their lives are built. And I suppose if they did not live most of the time in the things of the moment, they would not be able to go on.Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Betrand Russell, 194.
The human condition, or so it seems, is for both the British logician Russell and the German existentialist Heidegger a rather unpleasant, if not outright cruel affair. For modern man, in the wake of the Enlightenment critique of traditional religious modes of existence and explanation, the obvious question emerges: is there something, some idea or practice or perhaps story, outside of the biblical account of salvation and eternal life, that can save man from such a cruel set of circumstances?
Can Science Save Us?
Leaving behind the ruminations of the German existentialist, and following along with the thought of the British logician, Russell himself speaks to the human condition we are forced to confront, if, as his philosophical atheism suggests, the scientific picture of the world is in fact the true picture of reality:
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship”
But, was Russell being too negative about what a scientific view of the world could do relative to man’s existential condition, relative to his struggle with his own existence, identity, and purpose? Perhaps, there has been progress in science since Russell’s day (d. 1970) that makes a scientific worldview capable of rescuing us from the foundation of “unyielding despair” Russell thought we must construct our lives upon. Is there a firmer foundation upon which science can construct a universal sense of meaning, morality and purpose for all of (metaphorically speaking) “God’s creatures, great and small?”
Having defined “scientism” in the previous post, there is no need to review in detail what its claims are. The basic idea is that the scientific method alone holds the key to truth, and all other claims that cannot be verified through the scientific process, or in the domain of the natural sciences especially, must be considered dubious, if not just false. Since Scientism “puts Christian claims outside of the ‘plausibility structure’ (what people generally consider reasonable and rational)”5J.P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism, 31. of belief, it reduces any claims to meaning, morality or purpose from a Christian worldview (and any religious worldview) down to purely private expressions about one’s subjective mental states and emotional preferences. Religious claims are spurious at best, if not wicked or delusional.6 Hence Dawkins most rhetorical book is entitled very simply The God Delusion.Thus, according to perhaps the leading advocate of Scientism of our times, Richard Dawkins, the so-called “why” questions7 “Why” questions are another metonym for existential questions, questions like “Why is there something rather than nothing?” or “Why do human beings have consciousness?” that cannot be answered by the natural sciences are probably not questions worth answering at all, “The fact that a question can be phrased in a grammatically correct English sentence doesn’t make it meaningful, or entitle it to our serious attention. Nor, even if the question is a real one, does the fact that science cannot answer it imply that religion can.”8Excerpt From: Richard Dawkins. “The God Delusion.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-god-delusion/id427263983
Dawkins goes on:
“Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science. Maybe quantum theory is already knocking on the door of the unfathomable. But if science cannot answer some ultimate question, what makes anybody think that religion can?”Richard Dawkins. “The God Delusion”
While other renowned scientists like the late Stephen J. Gould or the cosmologist Paul Davies or the astronomer Sir Martin Reese may make more room for the sociological usefulness of religion than Dawkins, it is safe to say that they are all beholden to some degree to this scientistic approach to reality.9 My point here is to not lump all scientific materialists into the same category as a Dawkins, whose particularly anti-religious views are well known. Others who hold to scientism, may still appreciate the cultural benefits of religious institutions and practices, even if they disbelieve in Christianity’s claims about reality. In short then, for the average advocate of Scientism, those genuine and profound questions of human existence are likely beyond the reach of science and hence without meaning.
However, even if Dawkins ascribes meaninglessness to the “why” questions of human existence, that ascription clearly has not translated into an actual end of “why” questions being asked. Even in the most secular countries today like the United States, Britain, Canada, and Germany, countries where we might expect to see the biggest influence of the natural sciences on culture, it is not as if the quest for morality, meaning, and purpose has been abandoned. From the sexual revolution, drug culture, and civil rights movements of the 1960’s, to the rise of the New Age in the 1980’s and 1990’s, to the cry for Social Justice and racial equality today, the empirical and sociological evidence overwhelmingly suggest that the search for answers to morality, meaning, and purpose has not ceased, and that the desire for the transcendent cannot be satisfactorily answered by putting modern man in the MRI chamber and presenting him with the scan results. This tells him nothing substantive about himself.
But, if science doesn’t try to answer, or if scientists willfully reject even asking, the “why” questions, then it is already de facto the case among those who ascribe to Scientism that the natural sciences cannot speak to our existential condition. Any scientist speaking qua scientist to the existential condition of man would be speaking out of turn. And if Scientism cannot really address the human condition, then it certainly cannot exert any real power over that condition, nor relieve us from it in any real way.10 I suppose there could be some scientistic answers to the human condition. Someone might suggest, as Huxley did in his dystopian novel Brave New World, simply anesthetizing people with regular doses of pleasure-inducing drugs. That would be at least a possible answer to the existential question, one that stops short of simple mass extermination. At most it can help us to extend our knowledge of the condition itself by analyzing the nature of the physical components around us and how they interact. Or perhaps it helps in virtue of leading to medical technologies that extend the existential time we have to reflect on the very same condition. Beyond this, as Dawkins admits, that the Scientistic approach to the human condition remains powerless to save us from it appears certain. We should conclude, as Russell did, that, at bottom, all the Scientistic approach to the world can tell us is that there is nothing much positive to say about existing. Being (Sein) and our experience of our own being (Dasein)11 Or, perhaps more accurately, our realization that we are the only kind of entity, the only existing kind of thing, that allows us to even raise the questions of what Being is or that gives us a concept of Being in general. Again, it’s confusing, but not absurd. are beyond the ken of science.
While it could be the case that the world really is the way the adherent of Scientism says it is, it could also be the case that some other approach is more likely true than the scientistic one. Scientism could simply be false12 In his book Scientism and Secularism, J.P. Moreland demonstrates the self-refuting nature of “strong scientism” starting with the strong scientistic claim “Only what is testable by science can be true.”(51), which is itself a fundamentally unscientific, and therefore untestable, truth claim. Moreland goes on to show how both strong and weak scientism are themselves “enemies” of the entire scientific project, since when properly understood they are both deficient philosophical views., and some other approach could approximate better to the way things really are. An approach that would seem to better address the existential condition, might prima facie be seen as having at least more explanatory power than its scientistic alternative, which itself could be counted as evidence for that approaches truthfulness.
Finally, it could also be the case that some alternative approach contains within it some innate property, some content, which allows it to address the existential “why” questions of human experience, and not only address them, but maybe even sufficiently so by providing actual answers to them. One approach that may provide such an answer is what I am calling “Semanticism,” a view which will see the power to save neither in an exhaustive analysis of the natural world, nor in the causal powers of supermundane agencies, but in the nature and power of language itself.