Friday, February 12, 2010

Scientism and the Superhero

I grew up watching cartoons on Saturday mornings, and I was always puzzled by the recurring story line of some crackpot wanting to take over the world. I didn't get it. Why would anyone want to take over the world?

This morning, via Lew Rockwell, I found this essay by Joseph Sobran, Annoying Words.

These two paragraphs stood out:

"Nowadays, “democracy” is what Richard Weaver called a god-term. To be democratic is to be good, and whatever is good must be democratic. Why? Nobody explains. In fact, it’s rare to find a useful definition of democracy.

“Medieval,” by contrast, is a devil-word, the opposite of “modern.” Why is everything medieval assumed to be bad? Again, nobody explains. But St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Dante Alighieri, to name but three, were medieval men. To hear some people, you’d think all men ever did in the Middle Ages was pray and torture each other by turns. In the enlightened twentieth century, on the other hand, there was much less prayer and much more torture as man learned to fly, drop bombs on cities, and congratulate himself on his humanitarian achievements (such as making abortion easily available). Homicide is certainly more efficient now than in the Dark Ages. We can be proud."

If I had read that quote last week I would have understood it, but I have a deeper understanding now, especially of what Sobran refers to as "the enlightened 20th century".

What changed? Emma and I are slowly reading The Abolition of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism by Michael D. Aeschliman. We're about halfway through, and it has been difficult reading for us, as we have not read a lot of the books the author discusses--not even Lewis's Abolition of Man. Emma and I are just scullery maids, picking scraps off the china from a 7-course meal. Still, those scraps invigorated us. We're digesting two words that are helping us clarify our thoughts: scientism and sapientia.

In the chapter, "Scientism vs. Sapientia", Aeschliman discusses the contributions of Cardinal John Henry Newman, especially his Idea of a University. This quote from that section gives good context for both words:

"In Newman the voice of the great central tradition of metaphysical common sense speaks, the voice of Plato, of Aristotle, of St. John's Gospel, of Cicero and St. Augustine, of St. Thomas and Erasmus and Hooker and Johnson. It is a voice and an intelligence that discerns and defends the validity of the natural science, but which doggedly opposes the inappropriate application of their assumptions and methods and the excessive claims for their regulative status in life and curricula. These applications and claims constitute scientism, which Newman precisely defines as 'an evident deflection or exorbitance of science from its proper course,' As an individual's common sense integrates and relates the findings of the mind and the separate senses, so "illuminative reason'--sapientia--regulates and synthesizes the methods and findings of the separate analytical sciences. Sapientia is an exalted form of common sense."

What's missing from this otherwise good quote is the mention of scientism's shunning of any moral responsibility. That came earlier in the chapter quoted above, when Aeschliman said that Kierkegaard, "wrote ominously of the devaluing process brought about by increasing numbers of people who believe only in quantity and technique without referring them to any general value or subordinating them to any moral norm or end."

And this leads me back to the cartoons, which I now believe were exploring what happens when scientism triumphs over sapientia, as in Sobran's "enlightened 20th century". The cartoonists were wrong about the world needing Superman, though. Christ is the only superhero who can deliver us from the mad scientists.

I'm looking forward to finishing this book and reading it many more times, using it as a guide for further reading. Maybe then I can feast at the table of great ideas, rather than pick at scraps in the kitchen.


Fotofule said...

Wow! Yet another book to add to my list (or pile) of books to read THIS YEAR!

Wendy Haught said...

I know. As soon as we finish this one, we're going to squeeze in C.S. Lewis's "The Abolition of Man".

Yesterday in the car I read aloud to Emma the introduction to "A Third Testament" by Malcolm Muggeridge. It is much, much easier reading than the Aeschliman, but just as powerful.

Both of these books are from Emma's online lit class.