Scientistic Superstition – The Enemy Within
To many readers, the title of this article may itself appear to be an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. How can the word Science be conjugated with the word Superstition, but that confusion is understandable.
Superstitions are those beliefs and practices which we adhere to without any reasonable evidence in their support .They generally come from a system which has proved its worth over time and earned our confidence in such a way that our trust in any proposition/claim `coming from that system, despite its incoherence, remains Icily Unmoved.
Science, to its credit, is a very honest enterprise and as a Physics teacher I know this as when I teach my students a text from Lesson 1 of the NCERT 11th class Physics book which says " All physics, and also mathematics, is based on assumptions, each of which is variously called a hypothesis or axiom or postulate, etc." and in the same paragraph it is stated that, "A hypothesis is a supposition without assuming that it is true. It would not be fair to ask anybody to prove the universal law of gravitation, because it cannot be proved. It can be verified and substantiated by experiments and observations". The above quotes speak of nothing but the humility and openness to correction of an honest and rigorous enterprise called Science(and Physics is the most fundamental of Sciences). Unfortunately though, this attitude is not what we generally observe in the language of people who 'believe' Science to have an answer for anything.....and everything.
It would not be fair to ask anybody to prove the universal law of gravitation, because it cannot be proved. It can be verified and substantiated by experiments and observations"
Coming to the Point….
While the oversimplifications and superstitions are generally (and rightly) criticized, the object of our criticism and scorn, more often, is religious superstition and since we have a lot of ever-growing material online and offline on this, in this write-up I want to talk about another kind of superstition; that which we as a culture have subconsciously accepted as a norm; this superstition is related to a modern god which enjoys unquestionable authority in almost every aspect of our existence....yes I am talking about Science.
To make my point clear let me paraphrase an observation shared by cultural commentator Neil Postman in his book ‘Technopoly’, and he notes that it is just a matter of starting anything you want to prove about anything with the phrase "A Scientific research says that..." and you have proven your argument before even stating it. It doesn't matter for most that under which context the research was conducted, in which part of the world, on how many people, by which Scientists; its just the term "Scientific" which is more than enough to mark it not only as true but as the Ultimate Truth which has no scope left for questioning it (and no other dimension left for perceiving it).
it is just a matter of starting anything you want to prove about anything with the phrase "A Scientific research says that..." and you have proven your argument before even stating it. It doesn't matter for most that under which context the research was conducted, in which part of the world, on how many people, by which Scientists; its just the term "Scientific" which is more than enough to mark it not only as true but as the Ultimate Truth which has no scope left for questioning it
Theories from Hard Sciences come with models (Eg: Bohr's atomic model) which are open for falsification through scientific techniques and they base themselves on the Scientific Method i.e. systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.
Any claim in the name of Science which is NOT presented as a detailed theoretical model available for verification(or falsification) falls under the category of what is called "Pseudo-Science". Pseudo Sciences are thriving in our age on the stolen credibility of Hard Sciences .
A Scientist working in the lab focuses his attention totally on the object of analysis and he does that by excluding everything else from his observation; the Scientific method is about focusing only on the physical aspect of existence and this is important during the scientific analysis as it allows for a distraction-free analysis of everything which comes under that single aspect.
But I make an effort here not to prove the robustness of Scientific Method; neither am I saying that all the superstitions related to the field of Science fall only under Pseudo Science; what I want to describe here is that which generally evades our inquiry i.e. Blind faith in the Scientific Method itself.
Don’t get me Wrong…..
To speak about Science in such critical terms can quite easily earn me quite a number of false accusations by the credulous and complacent 'believers' in Science and so by way of preparation against such charges, let me state clearly that I have a very high regard for Physical Sciences in general and Scientific Method in particular; I am just objecting to the evisceration(removal) of Science from its proper place in the larger scheme of things.( and especially when this evisceration has its basis in an unreasonable assumption that there IS no larger scheme of things)
David Bentley Hart explains this in detail,and I paraphrase, Scientific method is a respectable and principled refusal a Scientist takes within the experiment and he does that to come up with an objective analysis of the system under consideration. But here is the problem , to get too impressed by the strength of thus method and conclude that there is nothing else beyond this method which remains to be analysed/experienced is a travesty and a distortion of reality; a method used to observe an aspect of reality cannot be treated as the Ultimate truth itself.
The inflated belief in the Scientific Method has led many to fall for the notion that there is no reality beyond what this method can analyze. What Science cannot explain….just does not exist. That is to say, that there is nothing beyond the physical realities we observe and that this physical universe we all inhabit, either should have always existed or that its coming into existence can be explained from within itself(its physical self). This unproven belief has nothing to do with the Scientific Method, it is a philosophical assumption which most scientists of our age subscribe to and this belief is advertised as if it is derived from the pure Scientific thinking and hence we have non experts from every walk of life believing in ,teaching, writing and reading about this nonsense.
a method used to observe an aspect of reality cannot be treated as the Ultimate truth itself.
Naturalism (and where it goes wrong)….
This (essentially) philosophical belief that everything arises from natural properties and causes, and there are no supernatural or spiritual explanations of the Universe is called Naturalism or Physicalism or Materialism and even if a plethora of Science magazines, newspaper articles, online blogs, videos, FB memes etc may make us feel that this is an ahistorical truth, the fact is that this belief was born in the modern age itself .The question of the creation of universe was never before thought of as a purely physical issue, this is not how all the ancient philosophical , spiritual, intellectual and religious traditions addressed this question. Be it Greek philosophy, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, the question of existence was never a physical issue but it always was (and is) a logical issue, the answer to which cannot come from experiments(empirical evidence) but from logic ....from Pure Reason. Most of the ancient intellectual traditions from East to West addressed the issue of existence on the basis of a logical premise which goes like - Every physical object has to draw the explanation of its existence from outside of it and it cannot explain its existence from within itself. As theologian David Bentley Hart quite elegantly explains in his book- The Experience of God, that if we take this line of thinking and draw a chain of cause for everything, we will observe (by exercising our human faculty of reason) that we end up to a first physical cause which then will have to again explain itself from outside of it and hence if now try to explain it physically we get to an infinite regress of causes which our Reason doesn’t allow for .Hence, we are left with only one reasonable conclusion - that there has to be a non-physical, UnCaused cause for the Universe’s existence. But Naturalism asks our reason to take a U-turn from here , we are asked to turn back from the point where our reason demands to transcend the physical explanations and asks us to admit to a supernatural, non-physical explanation of our existence. Moreover, this description of the cosmos is self evidently way much richer in its explanatory range than the physical one and only a rigid commitment to material interpretation of the universe can allow our thinking to be arrested so early in its inquiry.
Every physical object has to draw the explanation of its existence from outside of it and it cannot explain its existence from within itself.......
there has to be a non-physical, UnCaused cause for the Universe’s existence.
The Price to pay….
This may seem to us as a matter of purely personal belief which has no larger ramifications , no practical implications but nothing can be farther from the truth. Once we admit to this perception that there is nothing beyond the physical, we turn the whole world into a physical machine of cause and effects ; even the human beings are nothing but very complex machines, human brain is a computer and thoughts are intricate programs.
So in short, there are only facts and no values or values are just something of a figment of our imagination something of lower importance ; it’s the facts which count. As Professor of Humanities Wael Hallaq quite authoritatively argues in his book ‘Restating Orientalism’ , this materialistic thinking shows it unholy presence in every aspect of our existence; once we divorce values and morals from our society (or relegate them to a secondary status) we remain with no reason to act morally . Be it Education, Health Care, Ecology , Politics and even Commerce ,this mode of thought has insidiously pervaded all the fields of human endeavor (don’t you see this?)and one of the major reasons of the global establishment of this worldview is not its persuasive power but brute force which the world history tells involved violence and colonialism too (but that matter can be discussed separately) .
Our planet is gasping for breath as we don’t entertain the thought that nature has moral demands on us(morals don’t exist because Science cant analyze them). Medical profession is divorced from sympathy, Politics skimmed of ethics is a battle for satiating the hunger for power. Business corporation have no qualms in putting profits over people. Human beings are reduced to homo economicus(mere economic beings).In this poor worldview,as Alija Izetbegović observes,a painting becomes just a physical ensemble of colours; poetry a jugglery of words which catalyses some chemicals in the brain to spark some emotions , our human consciousness is a result of the chemical reactions occurring aimlessly in our brain and hence not consciousness as we feel and understand it but an illusion of it. (and hence reality is also an illusion)
Medical profession is divorced from sympathy, Politics skimmed of ethics is a battle for satiating the hunger for power. Business corporation have no qualms in putting profits over people. Human beings are reduced to homo economicus(mere economic beings).
An Alternative Worldview…
Compare this rather dry view of the world with a view which is not restricted to a physical explanation for its existence. It describes the world as a creation from an UnCaused , Higher, NonPhysical, Eternal Cause . That Being(with a capital B) which donates the being to everything else and in which all (dependent) beings live and move and which is at once present inside everything and is transcendent from everything . Every consciousness is derived from that Consciousness. It flows quite smoothly from this worldview that everything in nature is a reminder of this Being and which celebrates the glory of its Creator .In this worldview, the ‘Moral’ has the highest status as everything here is enthused with a remembrance of that First Act of creation and hence the Actor himself and consequently everything in nature have moral demands on us . Everything in nature has a role to play and humans are morally responsible and ultimately accountable beings saddled with responsibility of custodianship of nature and a vicegerent of the Creator (and not the Viceroy). It’s the Moral which pervades every aspect of existence .Every fact is pregnant with value; there in fact is no such artificial distinction between a fact and a value .It all forms a concentric, a harmonic whole in which human beings are promoted from mere lowly economic beings to homo moralis (moral beings).
Every fact is pregnant with value; there in fact is no such artificial distinction between a fact and a value .It all forms a concentric, a harmonic whole in which human beings are promoted from mere lowly economic beings to homo moralis (moral beings).
This impoverished belief borne out of temperamental in-curiosity of some people explains(to an extent) the distrust towards Science shown by people who adhere to an alternative worldview because things have intermingled so much that one finds it very challenging at times to discern what is pure Scientific research and what is an expression of the materialistic prejudice.
Science, I quite firmly believe to be a tool which has played and can play an even more vital role to free man off its suffering and in gaining a much detailed understanding of our existence; but the Scientistic Superstition , out of its sheer rigidity, divests the world off its beauty and turn it into a mere continuum of soul-less physical and chemical processes. It forces the human reason to restrict itself and describe the reality strictly and superfluously in purely empirical terms and not only eviscerate the rigorous discipline of Science from its deserving place but enthrones it to be the Supreme Arbiter of truth and gives us this oblivion to the obvious(The Divine), like every superstition it is a disservice to the very enterprise it claims to advocate and we urgently need to rid ourselves of this superstition in order save ourselves and the planet we inhabit from the dark meaninglessness which it entails.
- ‘Technopoly’ by Neil Postman
- ‘Restating Orientalism’ by Wael Hallaq
- The Experience of God’ by David Bentley Hart
- Articles written by Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad
- Islam between East and West by Alija Izetbegović
- NCERT Physics 1 (Class 11th)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Sameer Hasan