Raymo’s scientism

Chet Raymo’s recent book will remind the reader a little of Andre Comte-Sponville, except that Raymo’s provocative title, When God is Gone, Everything is Holy, is intended to argue for atheism as natural rationalism or rational naturalism, except that Raymo does not succeed in softening it, though that is his purpose. The two writers are similar in their Catholic backgrounds, both admitting a nostalgia for candles and rituals; Raymo was educated at Notre Dame University and spent his career teaching science at two Catholic universities.

In the title chapter, Raymo muses about Catholicism turning into “religious naturalism” — his softening of the title blow. Comte-Spoonville has no such illusions. Both are stanch supporters of modern Western society and its values, biases, and illusions. That reverse triumphalism seems to be the political style of apologists for what must be called scientism.

Religious naturalism is the term Raymo assigns to his own belief, the atheism of his career of science, which he hopes to make palatable with an agenda wherein Catholic tradition renounces its doctrines and embraces something akin to his own beliefs. For readers interested in this sort of modern quasi-religious apologia, the attraction will be to similar-minded Catholics only, for that is where it seems to occur almost exclusively. For non-Catholics, the personal agenda is less obvious. Raymo’s book ranges from active hostility gradually softened over the course of short chapters to end in Catholic name-dropping from Columbanus to Duns Scotus to Thomas Merton to Teilhard de Chardin. Seen from this perspective, the book is too confessional to provide value outside its targeted clique.

But there are larger issues.

Raymo’s chief gaff, as with most apologists of scientism, is the failure to see that reason and science operate within the same human social and cultural context as religion. Both are products of such contexts, and science does not transcend human foibles. Furthermore, science thrives on its byproduct: technology. In technology one finds a representative measure of human ingenuity, because technology represents the totality of effort behind both reason (as logic or capability) and society or politics. Technology, from the club and spear to the atomic bomb, is an inevitable brainchild of a science that has no ethical bounds. Scientists themselves bristle at such bounds, dismissing them as epistemological bounds and refusing to acknowledge that their work is culturally-based. The selective criteria scientist apply to their projects is largely motivated by the cultural values they hold and the political (in the widest sense) context of their times.

Reason cannot manufacture or analyze itself. Reason is the product of the imagination, as Wittgenstein noted. Reason as scientific method is the application of one fragment of mental capability. Apologists of scientism elevate that fragment to the status of absolute. Absolutes have a tendency to be intolerant, whether it is Yahweh or Reason. B. F. Skinner, a relentless champion of scientism, is the representative denyer of evidence outside the paradigm of science. Such was the application of an unfettered empiricism coached by the political winds of the day.

Who can doubt that science and technology have created wonders? But what better wonders if they had an ethical basis? And who can doubt the good that religion would do if it had an ethical basis, too, even if we acknowledge the epistemological and psychological issues. Science and religion are bound to clash, but even when they do not clash they shed blood.

Science and religion — and the clash of science and religion — shed blood perhaps not because they are intrinsically extreme or because they ought to adhere to ethics — and ethics that would also have to come from society and culture. Both shed blood because both have the tendency, indeed, trajectory, to become absolute.

Religious wars, whether tribal or national, are obvious products of the worse human instincts. But these wars employ the weapons that are the obvious products of science and technology. For science to make an absolute of reason when reason does not exist outside of random and pragmatic expressions or as mechanisms of social order, consensus, consumption, and the like, is as much a folly as any religious dogmatism — or, rather, in line with them as human expressions. The argument that, well, at least science does not kill people, is not true.

Raymo accelerates his arguments slowly, starting with easy targets: popular superstitions, Romantic poets, New Age ideas, alternative medicine. With the last, for example, Raymo reveals his defense of established power in the fields of science and technology. To Raymo, modern medicine is sacrosanct; he ignores the corrupt relationship between its players, from medical to pharmaceutical to agri-business to corporate producers of toxins and pollutants, a ring of well-protected and well-concealed power bases that selectively fund whatever agenda of “science” they want to present. Or one might cite the tight economic circle binding military merchants, weapons manufacturers, politicians, scientists — all taking advantage of the latest technology, economic profits, and human suffering.

By ignoring the political and economic context of science and technology, Raymo ignores the inherent weakness of human reason and scientific objectivity: that they are not based on reason or objectivity. By ignoring the issue, he becomes an unwitting apologist for an irrationally-driven social and cultural system.

We can see this tendency, too, when Raymo marvels at the wonders of technology while writing on his laptop in an idyllic Bahamas setting. How could anybody ever live in a world “without knowledge of the galaxies and the DNA?” he says. As a matter of fact, most of the world probably does. Only the elites of power, using science and technology to craft their weapons, and well versed in such knowledge.

So by the time we get to the book’s title chapter, it is too late to find the Catholic nostalgia much of a redeeming factor. Though Raymo wants to call himself a religious naturalist or an agnostic, the title gives away what the left brain insists upon, even if the right brain wants to salvage the dregs of childhood. “When God is gone everything is holy,” says Raymo, but not by any criteria of science or reason. Raymo turns Liebnitz on his head, or, rather, turns himself upside down, claiming that we live in the best of all possible worlds after all.