The Unchecked Growth of Scientism

Murray Daw FAITH Magazine January-February 2010

In some extracts from Murray S. Daw's October article in the New Oxford Review "Is Scientism Winning?", he argues that the Catholic Church is failing to engage effectively with modern science, hamstringing our attempts to re-evangelise the culture. He is Professor of Physics at Clemson University, South Carolina.

I would like to pose a question: Is the Catholic community retreating from an engagement with science? Many Catholics, scientists and non-scientists, seem to be unaware of the importance or the urgency of this question. It is popularly believed that there should be no relationship between scientific research and the imperatives of the faith. Yet who can deny the enormous and often deadly impact of modem science?

The chasm between science and Catholic culture is a problem not only for Catholic scientists, but also for the wider Catholic community. Pope John Paul II outlined the importance of this problem and identified many of its contributing causes in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio. Since that time, countless seminars and discussion panels have praised the insights of the Holy Father. One must ask, however, if there has since been any real, substantive progress in the understanding and practice of science as it relates to the fullness of knowledge. In order to accomplish the aims laid out by John Paul, we need to move beyond the broad endorsements of Fides et Ratio and toward a fully integrated understanding of science. The proper integration of science into Catholicculture requires nothing less than a full understanding of how science relates to a complete view of faith, of the world, of life as a whole, even of existence itself. Sadly, the great majority of Catholics are unaware that such integration is even possible. Indeed, I assert that the chasm between science and Catholic culture has never been wider.

These difficulties are not confined to the Catholic community. In a very real way, our time and the surrounding culture may be defined by scientific and technological advances, and perhaps even more by the incoherent and confused responses to these advances. The very real crisis of culture that characterises modernity has its roots in our understanding and use of science.

It is necessary that we Catholics realise that the solution can be found within the Church. The Catholic community can and should lead the way to a fuller understanding of all kinds of knowledge. And yet, modern Catholic culture is not even seriously engaged in, much less leading, the field of science. For centuries, Catholic scientists were to be found at the forefront of advances, but this is no longer true today. Catholic universities have, since their inception, proudly claimed the dual roles of researchers and teachers of science, but this too is no longer the case. Our institutions of higher education even those that are faithfully Catholic - no longer express a clearly Catholic vision of what science is, how it should be researched, or how it should be taught. Instead, our mostfaithful institutions of Catholic higher education are shrinking their science curricula. Good, faithful Catholic college students who want to major in science are caught in a bind: There are very few places to study science within a truly Catholic curriculum.

A Catholic science professor I know was recently hired by a leading Catholic liberal arts college. He was excited when he arrived on campus because, after years of working in other environments, he thought that he was finally about to learn, from his colleagues on the faculty, how one could teach science in a way that was integrated fully with the faith. It took only one week for him to discover, to his supreme disappointment, that no one on the faculty knew how this could be done.

Catholics quite rightly look to their institutions of higher education to set the standard for the integration of science and faith. Unfortunately, most such institutions are stymied on this question.

Separation of Church and Science

If one word could suffice to name the disordered philosophy at the root of our current difficulties, it would be "scientism". Scientism is the self-annihilating view that only empirical statements are scientifically meaningful [...]

Scientism causes an extreme dualism, where the life of faith and the life of reason exist simultaneously but separately. It is not unusual that Catholic scientists themselves consider this compartmentalization as the arrangement most appropriate to both faith and reason, as though combining them would despoil both. Many who hold this view take it as a given that there should be a "barrier" or "wall" between the two - a sort of "separation of Church and science." For such a scientist, faith acts at best as a "moral compass," but the direction it provides does not breach the wall of separation, and is neither aided by nor aids reason. In other words, the compass itself appears to be unreasonable.

This fragmented life is untenable, as pointed out by Pope John Paul II: "Simple neutrality is no longer acceptable." We "cannot continue to live in separate compartments, pursuing totally divergent interests from which they evaluate and judge the world." Scientism thus divides us by harbouring a "fragmented vision of the world." Science without faith is subject to "idolatry and false absolutes," while religion without science is subject to "error and superstition." Working together, "each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish" (Letterio Reverend George Coyne, Director of the Vatican Observatory, 1987).

Many times the discussion of science and faith falls into well-worn ruts, which has the effect of stultifying rather than resolving. I once asked a science instructor at a Catholic high school how the subject of faith and reason was handled in his science class. His response was a cheerful one: "Oh yes, we have talked about Galileo." [...]■

Faith Magazine