I do not oppose science. In fact I advocate for it. But it’s also clear to me that science has been turned into a social weapon. More than that, it has been turned into an idol, and today I’m going to explain (briefly) how that happened.
But before I do, I want you to understand what idolatry really is. Whenever you hold something above critique – above reality – you place it as your god. An idol is that which may not be questioned. Here are two important quotes on the subject, the first from Oliver Wendell Homes, Sr., and the second from Erich Fromm:
Men are idolaters, and want something to look at and kiss and hug, or throw themselves down before; they always did, they always will; and if you don’t make it of wood, you must make it of words….
The history of mankind up to the present time is primarily the history of idol worship, from primitive idols of clay and wood to the modern idols of the state, the leader, production and consumption – sanctified by the blessing of an idolized God.
An idolater craves an ultimate ruleset or pattern, something he or she can cling to, justify themselves by, and defend. That, however, lies well beyond our abilities. To claim a perfect ruleset is ludicrous for a human of our time. We’re not ready to imagine what perfection might look like, much less rules that will attain it.
How It Happened
Science was turned into an idol by a historically visible process. We covered this properly in FMP #90, but I’ll give you a few high points here.
The Enlightenment, while important for the rise of scientifically derived knowledge, also had a dark side, particularly after 1750. It was then that the Enlightenment turned from being for things, to merely being against things. This change imbued the Enlightenment with the darkness of writers like Thomas Hobbes. Here, for example, are two dark teachings from Baron d’Holbach:
We are all just cogs in a machine, doing what we were always meant to do, with no actual volition.
Religion has ever filled the mind of man with darkness, and kept him in ignorance of his real duties and true interests. It is only by dispelling the clouds and phantoms of Religion, that we shall discover Truth, Reason, and Morality. Religion diverts us from the causes of evils, and from the remedies which nature prescribes; far from curing, it only aggravates, multiplies, and perpetuates them.
This trend was noted by historian Margaret C. Jacob (as well as others):
The new direction taken by the philosophes and writers after 1750 might best be characterized as radical. They removed God and in his place inserted the blind forces of matter in motion.
Nowhere was this strain of philosophy more glaring than in the French Revolution, which was essentially the last stage of the Enlightenment. I’ll spare you examples, but it’s worth pointing out that movements built upon tearing things down are the ones that can spin out of control. As Eric Hoffer noted:
Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without belief in a devil.
What Science Really Is
Science is a process, not a database of approved knowledge. In particular, it is a process of finding errors. When some well-defined idea passes through this process without being shown false, we accept it as a valid theory, even though it will forever remain open to challenge or, more commonly, to revision.
But science, tremendously useful as it is, is incapable of conveying meaning. As Wernher von Braun once said,
Science does not have a moral dimension. It is like a knife. If you give it to a surgeon or a murderer, each will use it differently.
Science, then, is a tool and not a guide… and it is certainly not an idol to be held above all question.
Dogma Versus Dogma
It’s interesting to see the idolaters of science busy themselves attacking Christianity… turning the church from the moral seat of the culture into the “devil” of Eric Hoffer’s quote. To state it briefly, they’re fighting to replace the church with themselves. As a result, Western civilization has been functioning with no moral center for quite some time.
To improve or even to replace the moral center of the civilization would have been fine, but to leave it with a gaping void (again, science conveys no morality or meaning) has hobbled Western civilization badly.
The progress of idolatry over the past few centuries, then, has been to replace perfect divine rulesets with perfect scientific rulesets. And so Europeans had their moral core taken from them – not because they conceived of something better, but because they were continually bludgeoned by intellectuals seeking to tear down rather than build.
And as usual, these intellectuals wished to incorporate state violence, as Allan Bloom noted in The Closing of the American Mind:
Enlightenment was not only, or perhaps not even primarily, a scientific project but a political one. It began from the premise that the rulers could be educated, a premise not held by the Enlightenment’s ancient brethren.
The solution to this situation is simply to get back to building and to get over the juvenile obsession of tearing things down. (And yes, to retain science as a tool.)
Most urgently, we need to restore our civilization’s moral core. I think Christianity and Judaism can be repaired and upgraded. But even if not, we must establish a clear and benevolent moral core and then start passing it down from generation to generation.
At one time the West did this. We need to start doing it again.
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9 thoughts on “How Science Became an Idol”
Interesting article Paul, thanks as always for you thoughtful and thought-inspiring writings.
You are more negative on science than I am, and give much more credit to (and hope for) religions than I do. I’m the son of a preacher, heard him preach many times that the core of Christianity is belief in the resurrection. To me that’s a fairy tale, I may as well try convincing people to believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Judaism I have always found to be very ‘us versus them’, not inclusive if you don’t have the ‘right’ blood in your veins. Of course you and others may have different impressions of the cores of those religions.
I’m very interested by your ending challenge: “we need to restore our civilization’s moral core” and “we must establish a clear and benevolent moral core”. What is that moral core, what does it look like, what does it consist of?
My thoughts immediately go to some of my favorite Ayn Rand quotes:
“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own
happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his
noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
“To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason-Purpose-Self-esteem. Reason, as his only tool of knowledge-Purpose, as his choice of the happiness which that tool must proceed to achieve– Self-esteem, as his inviolate certainty that his mind is competent to think and his person is worthy of happiness, which means: is worthy of living. These three values imply and require all of man’s virtues, and all his virtues pertain to the relation of existence and consciousness: rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, pride.”
Since you kindly linked FMP #90, I went back and reviewed that newsletter. I hope you won’t mind if I paste here what I took to be the key point there:
“It is our job to help people improve, not to force them to improve. And the way to improve them is the Jesus model: to plant good seeds in them. …people don’t need to follow our plans. They simply need seeds that will grow into the desire for kindness, for integrity, for understanding and expansion and improvement.”
And then, finally, my favorite passage from your novel ‘The Breaking Dawn’:
The Truth About Love
Love is the simple path to human improvement; it has been with us the whole time.
Love is a simple and sincere desire to bless – a hunger to bless. The desire to bless is a path to improvement that doesn’t require a blazing intellect, that doesn’t require endless hours of study or painful displays of devotion. Authentic love acts directly upon the human core and upgrades it naturally.
Understand what it is about love that makes this true: that it carries in itself the most potent of self-assumptions: The desire to bless assumes that you are able to bless. Assumptions are the direct path to the core of our being. Assumptions – the beliefs that are taken for granted – can either set walls around the divine seed in us, or else can draw upon the divine seed.
By assuming the ability to bless, humans make direct demands upon the seed of divinity within them and trigger authentic development from the inside out. Love, even ignoring the other virtues it creates, will grow humanity out of darkness, simply because of this assumption. And it is equally available to us all.
– paraphrased from: Rosenberg, Paul. The Breaking Dawn
Thanks again Paul for all you’ve done and continue to do.
First, you are most welcome, and no prob posting passages. Secondly, you’ve given me too much to reply to this morning. 🙂
Ayn Rand: Yes, her work was very important to me too. She asked questions I hadn’t considered prior… important ones. At one point I think I owned all her published nonfiction books.
As for Judaism and Christianity, I’m sure my experience differed: I came to both more or less from a vacuum, and encountered their books before their practice. (Less so for Judaism, but even there I caught only the simple things.) I will say, however, that I’ve not found Judaism to be terribly us-versus-them, save for some of the Orthodox, and in the area (admittedly a significant one) of persecution fears. Nearly all Jews of my generation grew up knowing Holocaust survivors, had a major percentage of family members murdered, and so on. That has an effect on people.
All the best!
Lol, yeah sorry for the overload. I mainly wanted to get down in writing my immediate thoughts on what that moral core is and should be. And then I thought other readers (and you) might appreciate seeing it too. Got a bit longer than I expected, and definitely long-ish for a comment board.
I appreciate your response elaborating on your experience with the religions. And yes you nailed it, my main experience of Judaism has been with the Orthodox.
I wonder if you are familiar with that part of the Bible (KJV-only non-copyrighted version today) that is written TO US today rather than FOR US? It is Romans thru Philemon and if studied and understood, would bring about the kind of society those here on this site are looking for. All the Bible is inspired by God as declared by Himself but is to be understood by right division (2 Tim 2:15 KJV) which would prevent religious institutions and denominations from flourishing. But, of course, there is the devil in the details working out his will. The division is between prophecy, everything made known since the world began, and the mystery, that which has been hid since the beginning. To the Apostle Paul was revealed this mystery and in unfolded in his epistles. The contradictions in the bible would be sorted out and understood if adherents would discover this powerful message.
You wrote, “…the bible is inspired by god…”. I’m curious, what is your definition of god. Also why would you believe the bible is any more accurate/trustworthy than the holy documents held sacred by the world’s other large religions.
(I’m trying to be genuinely curious and not snarky. I admit your words and phrasing bring back lots of bad childhood memories for me, so I apologize in advance if any of that negativity bleeds through in my interactions with you.)
You’re right to say that science should not be idolized. But neither should some imaginary “God”. Ever notice how mass murderers have “God” whispering in their ears that they’re doing the right thing?
A truly healthy person rejects all forms of idolatry and lives by the Golden Rule.
A quote I’m using in this month’s subscription letter is from Simone Weil: “A majority of the pious are idolaters.”
Something the author might find interesting considering your continual references to the Holy Book……….http://graceambassadors.com/tradition/what-they-are-not-telling-you
I probably disagree with you guys in several ways, but I appreciate the effort and seriousness you guys are putting in. Agreed or not, I respect that a great deal.
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