Worshippers of the machine

Sam Kriss has a delightful takedown of Neil deGrasse Tyson and I F—–g Love Science*. He makes this point:

A decent name for this tendency, for stars and spaceships recast as the instruments of a joyless and pedantic class spite, would be I F—-g Love Science. ‘Science’ here has very little to do with the scientific method itself; it means ontological physicalism, not believing in our Lord Jesus Christ, hating the spectrally stupid, and, more than anything, pretty pictures of nebulae and tree frogs. ‘Science’ comes to metonymically refer to the natural world, the object of science; it’s like describing a crime as ‘the police,’ or the ocean as ‘drinking.’ What ‘I F—–g Love Science’ actually means is ‘I F—–g Love Existing Conditions.’ But because the word ‘science’ still pings about between the limits of a discourse that depends on the exclusion of alternate modes of knowledge, the natural world of I F—–g Love Science is presented as being essentially a series of factual statements. There are no things, there are only truths. The fact that the earth is a sphere is vast and ponderous: you stand on its grinding surface, as that fact carries you on its heavy plod around our nearest star. The fact that the forms of organic life emerge through Darwinian evolution is fractal and distributed, so that little fragments of that fact will bark at you in the street or dart chirping overhead. The fact that there is no God, being a negative statement, is invisible, but you know for certain that it’s out there.

(Emphasis supplied and profanity redacted.) Read the whole thing, of course.

Kriss makes several incisive points in the paragraph we quoted above. First, he is one-hundred-percent correct in identifying a strongly classist element to pop-scientism (perhaps there’s a better phrase for the phenomenon, but for our purposes here, this is the phrase we will use). We admit that this connection had not necessarily occurred to us (perhaps this is a function of some bias on our part), but once Kriss says it, its obvious. Of course there’s a classist element to pop-scientism. We’ll come back to that in a minute or two. Second, he is also correct in noting that the understanding of science in pop-scientism is hugely reductive. For pop-scientism, science is not a way of investigating the world—which is all the scientific method can credibly, though not always coherently, offer—science is a way of being in the world. As Kriss notes, the adherent to pop-scientism, reduces the world to a collection of facts, which process already asks too much of the scientific method, and then declares that the world consists only of those facts.

In reading Kriss’s critique, the Holy Father’s recent social encyclical, Laudato si’, came to mind (as it often does in this context). It seems to us that Laudato si’ contains an extended discussion and critique of the basic assumptions of pop-scientism. Or, to put it another way, pop-scientism seems to be an expression of the mentality that the Holy Father critiques in Laudato si’. Indeed, it seems as though the Holy Father had this phenomenon clearly in mind when he discussed the technocratic, anthropocentric mentality that worships technology—and science, for that matter—as a mode of existing in and in relation to the world. And his critique absolutely knocks the stuffing out of it.  Recall one of our favorite passages from Laudato si’:

The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation. Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is the false notion that “an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed”.

It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes and formatting omitted.)  Pop-scientism is just another expression of this process of mastery over objects; indeed, it is the purest expression of this process. For the person enamored of pop-scientism, nothing could be simpler than to approach an external object and gain mastery over it through the scientific method. Why? Because it is presumed that the scientific method is the only way of approaching something. Better still is when someone else has approached an object through the scientific method. Because of the irrefutable presumption in favor of “science,” pop-scientism simply uses the scientific work of others to reduce external objects to facts, as Kriss noted.

The Holy Father also quite perceptively notes that this anthropocentric, technocratic outlook becomes hermetic and ultimately self-contained:

The specialization which belongs to technology makes it difficult to see the larger picture. The fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant. This very fact makes it hard to find adequate ways of solving the more complex problems of today’s world, particularly those regarding the environment and the poor; these problems cannot be dealt with from a single perspective or from a single set of interests. A science which would offer solutions to the great issues would necessarily have to take into account the data generated by other fields of knowledge, including philosophy and social ethics; but this is a difficult habit to acquire today. Nor are there genuine ethical horizons to which one can appeal. Life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence. In the concrete situation confronting us, there are a number of symptoms which point to what is wrong, such as environmental degradation, anxiety, a loss of the purpose of life and of community living. Once more we see that “realities are more important than ideas”.

(Emphasis supplied.) Kriss, it seems, hints toward this myopic specialization in the snippet we quoted above. The pictures of nebulae and tree frogs to which he refers—if humorously—represent in a real sense the fragmentation of knowledge. For pop-scientism, there is to delve into the mysteries of creation, either here on earth or in the universe at large. The broader horizon is, as the Holy Father says, irrelevant. The picture, the back-of-the-envelope summary of this experiment or that project is enough. More than enough, really. It does not matter whether there are connections between tree frogs and nebulae. Still less does it matter whether or not other fields of study could draw connections between the tree frog and the nebula. (We are reminded of a profoundly silly cartoon from the “humor” website The Oatmeal likening various fields of study to searching for a black cat in a dark room.)

And what of class spite? Consider this bit from Laudato si’:

The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable. The technological paradigm has become so dominant that it would be difficult to do without its resources and even more difficult to utilize them without being dominated by their internal logic. It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same. Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race”, that “in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all”. As a result, “man seizes hold of the naked elements of both nature and human nature”. Our capacity to make decisions, a more genuine freedom and the space for each one’s alternative creativity are diminished.

(Emphasis supplied.) In a real sense, pop-scientism draws a line in the sand and calls it science. On the right side of the line are people who accept fundamentally the claim that science works endlessly for the progress of humanity. Every capsule summary of research represents a major advancement. Every new gadget, brought about by science, is another step toward some better future. And people who refuse to accept all of the consequences of pop-scientism, even if they ultimately accept most of the claims of mainstream scientists today, are put squarely on the other side of the line. Pop-scientism therefore creates a twofold path to power. On one hand, it offers a cheap and easy way to achieve dominance over external objects and reduce them to mere facts. On the other hand, it offers a cheap and easy way for its adherents to achieve dominance over the countercultural reactionaries who are not as taken with it. This is Kriss’s class spite, we think: wealthy, educated Americans can look down on poorer, less-educated Americans because they have not accepted the basic truths of pop-science. And the condescension is merited, because, as every child knows, science brings progress.

Thus, we see in Laudato si’, three clear aspects of pop-scientism explained in clear, critical terms. If a Catholic wants to push back against the tide of Facebook memes and other notes in the social-media chorus of pop-scientism, as, indeed, a Catholic may well want to do, Laudato si’ is a good place to start.

* NOTE: Given the general purpose of Semiduplex, it never occurred to us that we’d need a profanity policy. However, the issue has come up a bit in recent days. While we see the need for occasional earthy language, it is our view that we ought not to use it or reprint it here unredacted, given the potential for causing scandal or serving as a near occasion of sin for you, dear reader.