The Specter of Scientism

Michael Lerner and other spiritual progressives see the West in thrall to the worldview of scientism, which marginalizes all values but capitalist consumerism. To counter scientism and ground progressive values, Lerner says we must access intuitive spiritual knowledge, which reveals an ethical dimension at the heart of reality. But we need not resort to a questionable epistemology or claim that values are fundamental in nature to ground progressivism, which is a political, not metaphysical, project. A thorough-going naturalism, based in science, offers significant resources in the quest for a humane and equitable planetary culture.

Countering the threat of scientism

Tikkun’s November/December 2007 cover story by David Belden, Science and Spirit, concerns the supposed dangers of scientism and the pressing need to counterbalance science with an intuitive and spiritual way of knowing. Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun and leader of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, is quoted as saying that

Scientism is the worldview held by a majority of people in the Western world that claims that all that ‘is’ and all that ‘can be known’ is verifiable or falsifiable through the scientific method, and that which cannot be so measured is simply opinion, belief, or fantasy. It cannot be known and sensibly talked about and hence should be relegated to the private sphere.

Lerner continues:

…scientism has so deeply sunk into the consciousness of most people in the society who have ever undergone the ‘mind treatment’ that is dumped onto children by the public school systems and massively reinforced by the media, that by the time they are adults they swear loyalty to the dominant religion of scientism in their personal lives, their lives in the workplace or profession, and in their public statements about what they believe and profess.

As Belden describes it, scientism is used by the globalized capitalist order to marginalize everything but self-interested consumerism, since after all values such as social justice, peace and love aren’t scientifically verifiable, so can only be matters of private opinion, not public knowledge.

Lerner & Co. are inventing somewhat of a straw man here, since although capitalist consumerism might be rampant, I haven’t heard anyone championing scientism as a religion or worldview. Science is widely acknowledged as the best way to understand physical reality, but virtually no one argues that because they aren’t measurable or quantifiable, such value-laden domains as ethics, politics, law, the arts, and religion are somehow insubstantial, unreal, or only matters of private opinion. It’s telling that Belden quotes no advocate of scientism. As recounted in the article, Lerner and his associate Peter Gabel met with some progressive scientists to discuss all this, including George Lakoff, Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams, and they were unanimously reassuring. Science has no ambitions to rule out the validity or significance of non-scientific pursuits. No reputable philosophers or scientists are flying the banner of scientism. Nor does the scientific method endorse in any way, shape or form the capitalist materialistic ethos. But Lerner and Gabel were unmoved; they don’t want to give up on the specter of scientism, which it’s clear they are using to rally spiritual progressives.

What Lerner thinks necessary is to oppose soulless scientism with spiritual intuitionism, a direct knowing of truths about what’s objectively sacred and incontestably valuable. Science only looks at phenomena from the outside, so can’t really understand them in their “interiority.” It sees things only as objects, so misses their spiritual reality, including the “spiritual essence” of the whole universe. What we need, therefore, is “intuitive knowledge, gained by empathetically going ‘inside’ in a way that science can not” (original emphasis). Lerner told the scientists that “in no way do we want to do away with science and its tools. But things go astray when scientists think they have the only possible understanding, knowledge, or plausible account of what is happening in the world, because the world is far more than what can be caught by the scientists’ tools and methodology.” 

Questioning spiritual knowledge

Unsurprisingly, the scientists didn’t quite buy the idea of intuitive spiritual knowledge. Intuition, after all, is notoriously subjective and variable, so how can we be sure the sacred values issuing from someone’s intuition are intrinsic aspects of creation, and not merely projections?  Couldn’t someone equally intuit the prime mandate of the Dark Side to rape and pillage?  But again, such concerns didn’t seem to have any effect on Lerner and Gabel; instead they took it as a sign of latent scientism in the scientists themselves. According to Belden, Lerner suspects that “some scientistic types (not scientists, but scientistics) may simply lack the almost universal capacity to intuit ethical and aesthetic dimensions of reality or to be attuned to the spiritual.” Apparently Lakoff, Primack and Abrams are defective in not having direct cognitive access to these dimensions. Skeptics about the spiritually progressive nature of the cosmos (including myself and many scientists, philosophers and lay people) are simply blind to reality in some crucial respect. Along with other “scientistics,” we’re responsible for keeping society in thrall to capitalist consumerism, and for marginalizing the expression of spiritual wisdom such that “those who have spiritual experiences are in danger of being treated as crazy unless they keep their mouths shut and follow the dominant scientistic religion.”

It’s the worry that science is ethically empty that motivates Lerner to posit another way of knowing and an alternative picture of reality that tells progressives they’re ultimately right. So what we’ve got, according to Belden, is a clash of worldviews, one cold, mechanistic, objectifying and anti-humanistic, the other empathetic, spiritual and progressive. The former sees no evidence for an animating principle or purpose in the cosmos, so leaves everything essentially dead, while the latter understands existence to have a spiritual consciousness at its very heart. Since the scientific method can’t validate values, it leads us to ethical relativism – morals as mere opinion; but spiritual knowledge gives us a secure foundation for humanistic intuitions. Belden says “The claim for a universal spiritual knowledge is that there is a sacredness and inner meaning to the universe and every living being that is discovered outside of the scientific discourse, but within the discourses of poetry, spirituality, intuition and heart connection.” It’s this intrinsic sacredness, confirmed by spiritual knowledge, that can ground progressive ethics. 

But scientists and less exalted varieties of skeptics and empiricists see no good evidence for a progressive spiritual principle at the heart of nature. If we want reliable, objective knowledge about reality, we should proceed in an intersubjectively rigorous fashion as exemplified by science, not intuition. So far, there’s no support from any fact, established theory, or plausible scientific conjecture for the idea that our empathetic inclinations are an expression of an empathetic cosmos.

As Belden rightly puts it, the core issue here is “the status of spiritual intuitive empathetic understanding as knowledge” (original emphasis).  He concludes the article with a strong endorsement of the epistemic soundness of spiritual intuition:

 One can imagine a world that wonders why spiritual knowledge was ever considered less valid than scientific knowledge, why it was ever considered an individualistic thing, rather a communal and authoritative form of knowledge like science. We need both kinds of knowledge, but right now, we need to privilege the spiritual. 

But again, empiricists, even the progressive variety, should find this call to spiritual arms misguided. We don’t need a dubious metaphysics of cosmic benevolent purpose and meaning, based in a mysterious faculty of spiritual knowing, to ground or validate progressive ethical intuitions. That most people have humane and empathetic inclinations isn’t evidence of a higher spiritual reality, but simply a reflection of one side of a nearly universal human nature, the side that progressives want to amplify and express. On a naturalistic understanding, it turns out that the unsupervised, non-intentional cosmos has resulted in beings like ourselves who have the innate capacity to harbor the most loving, compassionate intentions. That ultimate reality doesn’t, as far as we can tell, have our interests in mind doesn’t render these intentions less real, or make them less worthy of realization. The progressive agenda is no less worth advancing just because it’s a local human construction, not a fundamental feature of existence

Progressivism as political, not metaphysical

To be fair, Belden argues that spiritual knowledge, like that of science, is in an important sense provisional, a matter of ongoing dialog and debate, not just revealed or intuited. With enough effort, spiritual inquiry can achieve a kind of universality that puts its conclusions on a par with science:

The more we engage cross–culturally at a heart and spirit–centered level of honesty with other people all over the world, the more universal this knowledge becomes… [I]t is striking how universal an experiential spiritual approach, as opposed to a creedal approach, already is understood to be across cultures. It’s just that in our culture it doesn’t yet have the status of the knowledge upon which governments should be acting, by which corporations should be licensed, or for which our tax money and our discretionary spending should be spent.

But what’s being achieved here, by honest cross-cultural engagement, is a hard-won consensus about progressive values, not proof of the reliability of the experiential spiritual way of knowing. Progressive values might someday become the agreed-upon basis for discretionary spending, but they won’t likely be granted the status of facts about the world on a par with scientific facts. After all, human beings are tribal, hierarchical and security-driven as well as altruistic, so conservatives will undoubtedly make counter claims for the objectivity of their intuitions. Neither side should imagine that their values are nature’s values as well.

This simply points up the fact that the progressive project isn’t metaphysical, but political and cultural, one of building support for humanistic practices and goals such as universal human rights and some modicum of social and economic equality. Belden of course recognizes the need to nurture such an ethos, but such an undertaking is only compromised by linking it to a suspect assertion of metaphysical objectivity. First, it puts progressives in the position of competing with science in making truth claims about the world, and they’re not going to win or even be a runner-up by championing intuitive spiritual knowledge. Second, appeals to the objectivity of intuitions have perilous implications. To suppose, as Lerner does, that some people are just defective in being unable to directly perceive the truth about the universe is neither empirically founded nor progressive; rather it’s the first step in marginalizing those that disagree with him. Moreover, the claim of spiritual knowledge can be turned against you. Many, after all, just know on the basis of intuition, revelation and traditional religious authority that a righteous god is on their side in the quest to cleanse the world of liberal secular humanists.[1]

Progressive resources of naturalism

The irony in all this is that a naturalistic worldview, although it doesn’t show reality to  have benevolent intentions, does have resources for the progressive cause. The rise of science was crucial in helping to undermine the faith-based rationale for traditional social hierarchies which reinforced white male dominance, and it still plays this role. By subtracting an authoritarian god from the picture, and replacing supernatural with natural explanations, naturalism makes it more difficult to argue that women, non-whites, and homosexuals are second class citizens by design. Instead, science reveals the biological commonality of humanity, that we have largely the same needs and desires, and it sees no basis in nature for privileging one group’s welfare over another’s.

A thorough-going naturalism also supports the progressive agenda by undermining the essentially supernatural notion of the freely willing and therefore ultimately deserving self, widely used to justify punitive and laissez-faire social policies. To the extent that criminality, poverty, addiction, obesity and other problems are chalked up to the failure to exercise contra-causal will, not the result of concrete biological and social conditions, to that extent we can simply blame individuals, call for more “personal responsibility,” and avoid taking collective responsibility for the well-being of others. By challenging the metaphysical basis for Western radical individualism in the soul and its supernatural freedom, a science-based naturalism thus has progressive implications; it isn’t, as Lerner and Gabel repeatedly suggest, a major impediment to planetary enlightenment (more about this here). 

We need not, therefore, discount science in favor of intuitive spiritual knowledge in our quest for a humane, compassionate, sustainable society. Just because they doubt the good will of ultimate reality, tough-minded naturalists do not fall prey to scientism or materialistic consumerism; they can be just as tender-hearted in their ethical aspirations as any spiritual intuitionist. They will support Lerner in discouraging scientism (to the extent it exists - I doubt it’s the religion of the West) because scientism is no part of naturalism, but they will caution against supposing that there’s an alternative grasp of reality that rivals empirical science. The silence of science on values should not drive progressives into the arms of a comforting secular theology that privileges intuition over intersubjective evidence and that projects human desires onto the cosmos. We can be progressive, even spiritual, without such support, and for that reason all the more authentic in how we hold our values.

TWC, November, 2007


[1] For instance, religious conservative Leon Kass is also mightily concerned about scientism: “What, then, will remain for us, morally and spiritually, should soul--less scientism succeed in its efforts to overthrow our traditional religions, our inherited views of human life, and the moral teachings that depend on them?”  He intuits that only the Bible provides adequate defense against this threat to traditional values.

Other Categories: