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'Scientism' fosters moral detachment


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POSTED: Thursday, December 03, 2009

At first glance, President Barack Obama's recently announced campaign aimed at encouraging middle and high school students to pursue science, technology, engineering and math classes and careers seems like a very worthwhile one (”;Obama to promote science, math education,”; Star-Bulletin, Nov. 23).

Who can possibly find fault with such a plan? Perhaps the Amish or some religious cult that rejects modern medicine, maybe even extreme religious fundamentalists who see science as a threat to long-established dogma and doctrine.

I have no such religious beliefs, but I have real reservations about encouraging more education and careers in science and technology.

No doubt science and technology have given us greater comforts, conveniences and longevity — but they also have made us angry, apathetic, anxious, apprehensive and aimless. In his 1988 commencement address to Cornell University graduates, Frank Rhodes, then president of Cornell, addressed the problem relative to science, pointing out that its reductionist thinking has been adopted by academia and has resulted in abstraction, detachment, moral abstention and depersonalization. Consequently, he told graduating seniors, setting meaningful goals will be difficult.

In his 2009 book, “;The End of Materialism,”; Charles Tart, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, states that material progress brought about by science and technology has been accompanied by a shift in our belief systems, a shift that has resulted in the “;partial crushing of the human spirit.”;

But Tart is quick to point out that it is not really science, per se, but “;scientism”; which is to blame. He defines scientism as “;a materialistic and arrogantly expressed philosophy of life that pretends to be the same as essential science but isn't.”;

In effect, scientism is another word for scientific fundamentalism and is to science what religious fundamentalism is to religion. Just as the religious fundamentalist is closed-minded and non-wavering in his adherence to the letter of his good book, whichever book it happens to be, the scientific fundamentalist is so hung up on the scientific method that he becomes blinded to things that do not easily subject themselves to strict scientific testing, particularly spiritual matters.

“;(The) constant rechecking of ideas against observable reality is where scientism corrupts the essential scientific process,”; Tart offers.

The bottom line is that scientism has significantly undermined spirituality, whatever form it might take. For those who buy into scientism's thinking, life is without meaning and we are all marching toward an abyss of nothingness. The humanist will argue that meaning is found in making the world a better place for future generations through science and technology, but that only begs the question as to what future generations will strive for once they have achieved a world of peace, one offering unsurpassed comforts and conveniences.

All that is not to suggest that science is not a good thing. The problem is that science has, as Tart suggests, been corrupted by scientism, just as religion has been corrupted by fundamentalism. This corruption in both science and religion has created a learning gap, one in which we have not been able to adjust or adapt — physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually — to the advances in science and technology. Our youth are being turned into robotic beings with a limited ability to reason and act independently.

To close this “;robotic gap,”; we need to encourage young people in the basic liberal arts — grammar, rhetoric, philosophy and logic — so that they can think for themselves and better understand the corruption of both science and religion. Only then will we overcome the egocentricity, intolerance, hatred, hypocrisy, disorder, flux, strife, moral decadence, chaos and fear we see in the world today.

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Michael E. Tymn is a resident of Kailua.