Congratulations to John Brewer Eberly, Jr. for winning first place in our second annual Student Essay Contest. Below is his response to prompt #1.
The problem is to get [people] to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth.
The words of Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin join a familiar chorus. They echo in the strange temple of pop-philosophy built by Carl Sagan, Lawrence Krauss, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye, among others. Beyond that sanctum is an intellectual ghetto of cheap agnosticism, which robust atheism has vacated. Here the default position is “Scientism,” the crude amalgamation of philosophical naturalism, reductionistic materialism, and epistemological empiricism. Scientism claims that the natural world is all there is, that supernatural explanations of the world are irrational, that everything can be reduced to physical causes, and that the only things we can know as true are those which Science reveals—supported by evidence, submitted to experimentation, and reviewed by peers. Scientism promises human flourishing and freedom from outdated religious delusions.
The formal ripostes to the claims of Scientism have already been articulated. David Bentley Hart, Alvin Plantinga, William A. Wilson, and others have written wisely and well about the philosophical problems, category errors, and presumptions such truth claims pose. We know that “Science as the only begetter of truth” falls on its own sword, for science cannot beget the truth that science is the only begetter of truth. The peripatetic axiom nihil in intellectu non prius in sensu (nothing is in the mind that was not first in the senses) is itself lacking a sensory basis. Or as C. S. Lewis’s classic “The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism” put it: If all my thoughts are reducible to random atomic processes, then I have no foundation to trust my thoughts (including the thought that all my thoughts are reducible to random atomic processes).
The reductionistic materialist has to pass into a metaphysical coma in order for his materialism to “work.” We’re left with philosophical blackouts like Stephen Hawking’s statement, “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing”—which, respectfully, is just philosophical nonsense. What happened to ex nihilo nihil fit? The material cannot answer the questions of material contingency and ontology. No degree of physical causation can demonstrate where everything came from or whence beings receive their very gift of being. Eventually there must be a source of being and existence that is non-contingent, Being itself—a great I AM.
What of the other begetters of truth? The liberal arts are not empirical pursuits, but they are arbiters of the true. Science can teach us about paint, pulverized minerals, color, light, optics, and proportional harmony, but it cannot explain the mystery of beauty on the finished canvas—how moral, societal, and transcendent truths can be revealed through the drama and execution of a piece of music or architecture. Scientism’s pride lies in the naïve assumption that if every color and curve of “how and what” and “when and where” were answered, we would understand all the towering sculptures of the “why.” This is a confusion of scope. Science categorizes and describes and explains and discovers and invents, shedding light on the “how, what, when, and where.” But the truths of “why” (and “who”) are left to theology, philosophy, ethics, and the liberal arts. Strict empiricists confuse the paints and palette with the finished canvas of truth itself.
Ripostes to Scientism’s broken epistemology are necessary and good, but not something I want to spend more time on here. A corrupting error is revealed in Lewontin’s self-proclaimed prejudice, and it deserves our examination.
In The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche asks, “Wouldn’t the cultivation of the scientific spirit begin when one permitted oneself no more convictions?” He answers himself that there must remain a prior conviction, “one so authoritative and unconditional that it sacrifices all other convictions to itself.” Lewontin confirms this suggestion with his own confession:
What seems absurd depends on one’s prejudice. … [W]e have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated.
No metaphysical convictions are permitted, except for metaphysical convictions of material explanations and causes. Nietzsche himself calls the prophets of Scientism the “godless anti-metaphysicians.” Lewontin confesses that the empirical epistemologist, who asserts that the only intelligible propositions regarding reality are those which are empirically verifiable, must still rely on a strictly unempirical, untestable, a priori prejudice. The cool mirage of Scientism’s objectivity and neutrality evaporates, revealing a subjective “prior commitment to materialism”—a default position as unfounded in the natural as any supernatural foundation Scientism seeks to criticize.
When I’ve run this by some of my agnostic and atheist buddies—largely bright, ethical people—the materialist talking points never come up. With familiar post-Christian insouciance, my friends will skip the philosophical defense and resort instead to poetry. They declare their commitment to the arts, music, sex, politics, and humanitarianism. But simply baptizing naturalism in the poetry of humanism will not suffice to make it philosophically clean.
The emperors of Naturalism and Scientism still have no clothes. Desperate, they dress up their pretensions in an almost religious rhetoric. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the archetype of this, waxing poetic with liturgical statements like “Your days are numbered” and “The universe called me.” Clichés about being connected to the divine are purged of the ecclesial and blended with the scientific to yield the kitsch inspiration of cosmic connection: “We are stardust, traceable to the crucibles of stars… The universe is in us.” The Biblical mimicry is uncanny: Job 14:5, “his days are determined”; Isaiah 43:1, “I have called you”; Genesis 3:19, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”; John 14:20, “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
Divorcing these phrases from their metaphysical and divine essence leaves them frothy and stale. If the material is all there is, if the afterlife is a comforting delusion, and the soul is a teetering jenga of bio-chemi-physical blocks, who cares about being made from the crucibles of stars? Your days are numbered? By whom? The universe called us? How can the universe “call” anyone?
In this strange liturgy we see all of the wanderlust, beauty, adrenaline, and adventure of a world that matters, with none of the moral responsibility to frame it or pesky dogma undergirding it. It’s like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff in a Saturday morning Looney Tunes, gliding along in midair. The moment he looks down, he falls. We grin. The cartoon rolls on.
The moment the poetic materialist looks down, and realizes his worldview is foundationless, he falls. And the poems and paintings and altruism he used to hold his philosophy up will fall with him. Aphorist Nicolás Gómez Dávila writes, “Everything is trivial if the universe is not engaged in a metaphysical adventure.” We can add that nothing is poetic if the universe is only material. The poets of Scientism can keep on running, just can’t look down.
But let’s assume that they continue to run, refusing to look down. If we accept their bias of a priori materialism, and embrace Lewontin’s declaration of the problem and his proposed solution—embracing the social and intellectual apparatus of Science as the only begetter of truth—can we follow his solution to its ultimate conclusion? Let us assume that society rejects the imaginary demons of the supernatural and irrational, and accepts Science as the ideal social and intellectual growth medium. What would that world look like?
C. S. Lewis gives us a sobering glimpse in That Hideous Strength. His fictional National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), a technocratic nightmare under the banner of progressive Scientism, slowly takes over common man, manipulating his insecurities with the empty promises of progress and technology, never asking where that progress will lead or what that technology should do. Art withers into a cold, processed fluorescence. Romance decays into anhedonic lab encounters. The hard sciences of physics and chemistry and biology are twisted into grotesque propaganda machines fueled by corrupted versions of sociology and psychology, where science itself dies alongside genuine inquiry and clarity of thought, as man is assimilated into a faceless colony of manageable data points. N.I.C.E. delivers the Lewontinian statement, “Science must be given a free hand to take over the human race. … If not, … we’re done.” It is a world where the logic of The Office’s Dwight Schrute wins out: “All you need is love? False. The four basic human necessities are air, water, food, and shelter.”
But we needn’t consult 1940s literature or millennial sitcoms to catch this glimpse. Have we forgotten that this age of secularism and empiricism has resulted in one of the most blood-soaked centuries in human history? Science as the only begetter of truth would shatter ethics as it did in Nuremberg, Bykivnia, and Shanghai, leaving a justice that reduces human beings to biological cogs in a machine of means. The only answers Scientism can offer to the problem of evil are the desperate optimism of scientific progress, and the rejection (and simultaneous embrace) of evil through the cynicism of nihilism—good and evil mean whatever you want them to mean because good and evil ultimately mean nothing. Language herself suffocates, as Science manages her by strangling her. We can already see this newspeak now. Killing becomes “aid in dying.” Pregnant woman becomes “person with a uterus.” Newborn becomes “product of conception.” Supernatural becomes “irrational.”
Scientism yields fruit that is not only bitter to the body, but poisonous to the soul. We need the garden of the real and the hopeful—metaphysical soil and moral nourishment from the arts, philosophy, and doctrine. Science is a good thing, a pillar of society, but it is not the cornerstone. It cannot fully satisfy our society and intellects any more than it can redeem us into truly social and intellectual beings. We need an apparatus of resurrection for that transformation.
Karl Rahner said,
Truly we cannot limit reality to something whose existence even the dullest and most superficial person has neither the desire nor the possibility of denying. Surely there is more. Just as there are scientific instruments to establish a “more” in the sphere of the material world, so too without instruments, but not without the higher development of spirit, there are experiences which grasp … eternity.
One of my undergrad professors was fond of putting it this way: “If you want proof, enter the laboratory.” He was calling us to the laboratory of our own souls, echoing Anselm, “Come now, insignificant man, enter the chamber of your soul.”
In that laboratory, we find that we don’t believe in the lame, bearded demiurge who peddles a brittle, moral-therapeutic deism. We don’t believe in some cosmic, comic jinn—a “demon existing only in the imagination.”
No. We believe in One God, not merely a pale Galilean, but a towering and splendid figure who will not be managed, a living cataract of power and beauty. We, as poets and scientists alike, are invited to explore and research, experiment and doubt, and question and sing in the laboratory of His Kingdom, moved by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars. He is the fairytale that is true, making all the sad things come untrue—the only begetter of Truth.
John Brewer Eberly, Jr. is a master’s student in the Theology, Medicine, and Culture Fellowship at Duke Divinity school, with interests in the philosophy of beauty, philosophical theology, and medical humanities. He is also a rising fourth-year medical student at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, and he plans to apply for OB/GYN residency. He lives in Durham, North Carolina with his wife, Dendy.
This essay was the first place winner of the First Things student essay contest.