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Scientism and the Death of Wisdom

April 12th, 2005 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Many thanks to Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost for hosting the symposium.

Ethics in our ostensibly pluralistic society have become increasingly dominated by a single voice: science. In the 2004 debate over Proposition 71, the California initiative to fund stem-cell research, proponents of the bill played two cards: sympathy and science. TV ads consisted primarily of testimony from individuals suffering from multiple sclerosis, Parkinsons, etc. as well as leading scientists and doctors. The summary arguments in the ballots pitted "non-profit disease organizations, Nobel Prize scientists, doctors, and nurses" versus "women's groups, leading doctors, and medical ethicists."

If nothing else, proponents of the bill portrayed their case effectively. Appeal to people's sense of sympathy and show the priests in their garments (doctors and scientists in their lab coats) passionately imploring people to fund medical/scientific research. Not surprisingly, the Proposition passed easily.

Standing in direct opposition to this science-dominated policy-making or decision-making is the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition. It is a misnomer, though, to simply call it Judeo-Christian, since the historical Christian tradition has synthesized the teachings of Jesus with those of (primarily!) Plato and Aristotle. Furthermore, the ever-relevant C.S. Lewis argues that the tradition includes cultures and thinkers around the world and throughout history who teach what he calls the Tao, which others have called the "natural law."

Contemporary expressions of the natural law tradition argue that there are basic human goods that, given the structure of human nature, are ends to be sought for themselves and not for the sake of anything else. Finnis identifies such things as life, health, knowledge, play, etc. as such goods. These basic rights are not in themselves action guiding, but are principles that moral reasoning depends upon. Indeed, they are not even directives like the 'golden rule,' but stand behind the 'golden rule.' In Aristotle's expression, they are the "First principles of practical reason," and upon them the whole chain of moral reasoning hangs. As Lewis states, "If nothing is assumed, nothing can be proved."

Though these goods are not in themselves action guiding, they are the intrinsic ends upon which decisions are made. It is the task for the moral reasoner to determine when and how these prinicples apply to specific moral situations. However, it is the existence of these first principles that a scientific methodolgy eschews. If they exist, they cannot be known because they are not empirically demonstrable. "Human life is a good" is not a claim subject to the domain of science. If our access to the structure of reality is limited to science, then all other claims become, at best, subjective statements that have no bearing on the way things are. In a recent interview, John Gearhart stated:

When does 'life' begin I would contend is not a question that biology can answer. Rather, it deals with philosophy or theology. The egg and sperm are alive. Each of us must decide what we mean by 'life.'

If there are no first principles of practical reason, no intrinsic ends, then moral reasoning evaporates into the ability to defend claims empirically. Moral dilemmas, which ought to be used as heuristic devices for the budding moral reasoner, are reduced to a single authority (science) and constitute a rejection of moral reasoning--if moral norms do not exist, then nothing can be proved. What this means is a widespread rejection of the virtue of wisdom, the ability to distinguish between competing goods and to make a reasonable and defensible decision. By undercutting the foundation of moral reasoning, scientism creates a people dependant upon the authority of the class of men "in the know," who become the priests and prophets of our day.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.