The Religion of Scientism

Don Watson

Materialism holds a commanding position in science throughout the world today. The materialistic world-view has earned this position because it has been extremely fruitful for the scientific work of the last few centuries, not only in the physical sciences, but in biology, too. The "clock-work" model has created and reinforced the strong belief that, given enough time and money, materialistic science will eventually explain everything, including life and consciousness. The philosopher of science, Karl Popper, wryly characterized this belief as "promissory materialism." Indeed, promissory materialism is a fundamental article of faith in Scientism.

Scientism has been characterized in many ways, some neutral and others pejorative. In this essay, I use neutral terminology, e.g., "The use of the style, assumptions, techniques, and other attributes typically displayed by scientists" (Random House Dictionary). In other words, Scientism is what the scientific community actually does and believes, regardless of what it claims to do and believe.

The scientific community formally adopted materialism as the basis of its belief system in 1667 when Thomas Sprat wrote a letter to King Charles II on behalf of the Royal Society. To protect English scientists from the persecutions that were rampaging in Europe, the Royal Society solemnly promised that its scientists would not "meddle . . . with Divine things," and would limit their studies of humans to "their bodies" and "the products of their hands." The Royal Society thus promised that, while scientists would avoid the subjects of God and the Soul, "in all the rest, [they] wander at their pleasure."

With this oath, Scientism became the religion of materialism, and the basic tenets of materialism became the Scientist's Creed.

From our perspective today, Scientism's covenant with the Church looks like a pact with the devil. In exchange for the safety of scientists, the Royal Society agreed to blind scientists to one half of the observable universe. With this self-inflicted hemianopsia (half-blindness) scientists can see the world objectively, but not subjectively. This is a severe disability because subjective observation is the only way that leads to understanding the origins of life and consciousness. Thus, the dogmas and canons of Scientism limit basic studies of life to molecular biology, and aside from certain branches of psychology, preclude studies of the "self" altogether.

Scientism's oath nearly aborted the embryonic science of psychology. Unlike physical science, which addressed inanimate objects, psychology bluntly confronted the sacred "soul." In 1653, twelve years before the Royal Society's covenant, J. de Back had divided the study of man into three parts, "Psychologie, Somatologie, and Hœmatologie," and specified that "Psychologie is a doctrine which searches out man's Soul, and the effects of it." Indeed, the prefix, psyche meant "soul," but this was soon to change.

The idea of subjecting the soul to scientific study incited religious institutions to counterattack, so psychologists defended themselves by secularizing their discipline. They changed the meaning of psyche from "soul" to "mind." However, sidestepping the issue did little to quell the conflict. Thus, when Sigmund Freud introduced his psychoanalytic theory, which rested on the concept of the unconscious mind and psychic determinism, he re-inflamed emotions in the religious communities.

Completing the transformation, John B. Watson removed the psyche from psychology altogether in 1913 when he introduced behaviorism, which he characterized as "a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior." Thus, to ensure compliance with Scientism's canons, the behaviorists joined physical scientists in adopting objective observation as their gold standard. Behaviorism is appealing to those who make robots because they can claim that robots that behave like humans are humanoid.

Behaviorism has contributed several important ideas about learning, but it's severely limited because there's no such thing as objective observation. All perceptions are subjective, including those of behaviorists, because they occur in the mental apparatus of the "self." As a result, scientists who embrace the myth of objectivity fail to appreciate their most important instrument—themselves and their mental operations. That's one reason they can't see the cultural and psychological impediments to their science.

As selves, we humans perceive objects by interpreting our sensory experiences according to our world-views. Fortunately, however, our world-views aren't static and immutable. They change as we learn from our experiences. That's why psychology has grown beyond behaviorism, and why scientific thinking can grow beyond the arbitrary limitations of Scientism. Indeed, we can expect this growth in the next scientific revolution and paradigm shift.

We can also make mistakes because we can interpret our subjective experiences as objects, whether those "objects" are real or not. In either case, this process is termed objectification. For real objects, we'll characterize the process as "valid objectification," to distinguish it from "false objectification."

False objectification is misinterpreting mental constructs that aren't produced from objects—for instance, the sensory experience of pain. Experiences of pain originate in neuronal states, not objects, so objectifying it is a mistake. Despite this, neuroscientists continue in their quest to study pain "objectively."

False objectification also applies to the visceral sensation of hunger. When my granddaughter, Shelly, was three years old, she recognized the root of the fallacy. Her mother said, "You can't be hungry now," and Shelly replied, "You don't know 'cause you aren't me." She thereby identified her subjectively observed "self" as the only person who could observe her hunger. If we were to deny the self, we would also have to deny hunger.

Today it's fashionable in neuroscience, cognitive science, molecular biology, and philosophy to use false objectification to deny, ignore, or explain away the "self." For instance, James D. Watson, co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the structure of DNA, claims that the DNA sequence "tells us who we are." If this were true, then identical twins would be the same person. Yet no twin ever confuses himself with his twin. Thus, the notion of DNA determining "who we are" reflects the limited thinking imposed by false objectification.


Draft 8-11-07