Some of the Shortcomings of Scientism and Naturalism as Grand Theories of EverythingDecember 13, 2020
Note: This is the second article in a series titled A Layperson's Journey to Reconcile Science and Personal Faith. The other installments include
When God died (for the second time), as was announced by Nietzsche (The Gay Science, p. 167), there appeared an existentially-sized vacuum across western civilization; various candidates since then have tried to fill the void. One of the most successful, at least in terms of cultural acceptance, academia, and pop culture, is science. It is believed by many that science is a true objective barometer; one which can transcend the petty squabbles of the bickering masses and show us our best path in the long, evolutionary struggle of life. It can truly answer the big questions. This viewpoint has been labeled by some as “scientism”, and it oftentimes accompanies an underlying belief in naturalism (Burnett). In this essay an opposition position is taken to the idea of scientism and naturalism as grand theories for everything, positing several issues that arise. First, scientism has led some scientists to take quasi-religious position within their respective fields, using hyperbolic language and wishful thinking, but still assuming they are in the empirical, objective space of rigorous science. Second, there are significant consequences to naturalism when the human need for purpose and motivation are taken into account. An argument is made that naturalism ultimately leads to nihilism when an honest adoption of naturalistic viewpoints is taken. Third, some space is given to show that history has already given us a glimpse as to the potential horrors awaiting us if this viewpoint of scientism and naturalism becomes deeply embedded in the very DNA of our culture. Finally, one of television’s most beloved (and hated?) characters, the scientist, drug kingpin, Walter White, is examined in order to further illustrate the struggle that scientism and naturalism have when mixed with human nature.
Quasi-Religious Structures in Science
Science is, among other things, about consistent methodology, rigorous analysis, and calculated hypothesizing as to causality and descriptions of natural phenomenon. It seeks to use process, in combination with creativity, to explain our natural world in natural terms. But for many people, science has morphed from this deliberate, calculated methodology into scientism, where all questions are within the reach of science. This transformation results in language that is quasi-religious in nature, with odd parallels to common religious concepts (Plantinga, p. x). To illustrate this, I will analyze a long conversation recorded between interviewer Joe Rogan and AI researcher Ben Goertzel. To start, Goertzel first points out how he thinks intelligence emerges in matter. It is fundamentally based on a concept called patternism, which is essentially the idea that intelligence arises from the pattern arrangements of matter at all levels of the natural scale, from molecules to complex organisms (~0:12:07). It’s important to note that Goertzel is not just referring to intelligence in a simple sense, but rather to the broader idea of personal identity. In other words, you are who you are because of the arrangement of patterns of matter. It’s not entirely clear that Goertzel meant to include consciousness in this definition, but, as will be seen later, it’s a reasonable assumption.
The first interesting aspect of Goertzel’s view about the scope of scientific possibilities is founded in these beliefs about about the makeup of intelligence and “self”. Goertzel holds that self and identity is malleable. For example, Goertzel says to Rogan that he likes the idea of perhaps one day creating copies of himself, each with various levels of transcendence. One would be “a god or something beyond a god” while another would be “in human form, you know, get rid of death and disease and the psychological issues and just live happily forever, you know, in the people zoo” (~0:55:02). Here we have the casual creation (copy-paste, if you will) of not only matter but self and consciousness. While this may sound bizarre to some, it might actually be a natural extension of a worldview based in scientism. If the world is only matter and there is no pesky spiritual side to deal with, then godlike manipulation of the natural world is an obvious goal to achieve. What is bizarre, is that this position is entered into with seeming reckless abandon, which leads to seemingly offhand assumptions around what science is capable of accomplishing. The language quickly devolves into hand-wavy, far-fetched, almost mystic, science-fiction language. As Goertzel says, “once you have the ability to manipulate molecules at will, the scope of possibilities becomes much greater than we’re used to thinking” (~1:43:02).
The second really salient aspect of Goertzel’s scientism is the depiction of life in a continuous, virtual existence, perpetually “living” as a digital-like self. This idea is of course based on the previously discussed view that consciousness is a malleable and fungible thing; indeed, that it is something one can recreate. Interestingly, this continuous, virtual existence creates a parallel idea with religious structures such as Heaven and eternal bliss. In this fantasy existence, Goertzel says, “You could upload into [it] a Joe Rogan living in a virtual world and just create your own fantasy universe” (~1:43:02) It’s interesting that many reject the Bible and ideas about Heaven and such, but then, like here, construct an idea that is a pseudo-Heaven. Going further with this example of parallel religious structures in scientism, in Jewish tradition there is the concept of “Shalom,” which I will simply define as “the world made right and as it should be.”1 Goertzel, interestingly, also, incorporates this idea of the world as it should be, attributing the explicit rise of this pseudo-Shalom to the emergence of the Singularity. The Singularity can be loosely defined as an explosion in the ability to learn, possibly due to an AGI’s (or multiple AGI’s) capabilities, which ultimately results in the most dramatic changes ever seen in human history (Tzezana, 2017). Goertzel says, “So I think that… everything we think and believe now is going to seem absolutely absurd to us after there’s a singularity. We’re just going to look back and laugh in a warmhearted way at all the incredibly silly things we were thinking and doing back when we were trapped in our, you know, primitive, biological brains and bodies” (~1:53:00). Human beings seem to have an intrinsic understanding that death is to be avoided, sickness and pain is not good and suffering, if it could be extinguished, would be an optimal situation. It can be seen in Goertzel own worldview, the beginning of true human flourishing where all human obstacles can be overcome. In other religious traditions, the view is that God brings about this eternal continuity of peace and flourishing. In this case, however, it is human creations that bring about our deliverance; we are our own saviors.
Another parallel illustrated in Goertzel’s talk with Rogan is that of one or many benevolent, significantly superior sentient beings who have great power over the affairs of humanity. In the Christian tradition this is God, while polytheistic cultures worship many gods, like in ancient Greek culture. Perhaps Elon Musk is the most famous person to date who has suggested that we’re living in a simulation built by aliens, but others such as Goertzel also think this is a possibility (Wall, 2018). Rogan asks him, “When you say that we might be living in a simulation, do you actually entertain that?” Goertzel responds, “Oh yeah” and then proceeds to explain that his view of the world is that it’s perceived and that a truly materialistic view is “certainly wrong” (~1:54:00). In other words, a simulation is possible because, in Goertzel’s view, our reality is already simulated in this sense that our perception creates our reality. Therefore, that we are living in a simulation created by other greater beings seems possible. But what, at this point, is the real difference between supremely sentient, powerful aliens who created consciousness in a simulation (they created our reality) and an almighty God? Some reflection on this illustrates the hypocrisy of holding the view that God couldn’t possibly exist and that we might be living in a simulation. How is it that scientism has opened a door for the mainstream conversation that there is some probability we’re living in a simulation, but simultaneously holds an attitude that the probability of God is so low as to not be of concern?
The Road to Nihilism
At this point, the focus shifts from scientism to naturalism, and specifically the problems that arise when naturalism is used as a grand framework for everything. The biggest problem, and it is not a small one, is that naturalism, when taken to its logical conclusion, is a road to nihilism. As theologian Wayne Grudem points out, when considering unguided evolution (unguided evolution being a foundational component of naturalism),2 “Honest reflection on this notion should lead people to a profound sense of despair” (p. 286). The first step in this road to nihilism begins with the problem with evil. Christianity, admittedly, can find explanations of evil difficult at times. On the other hand, naturalism, at least on the surface, can seem to handle evil well. After all, pain, suffering, and death are core elements of the theory of evolution. That being said, it struggles to give rational reasoning as to why or even what is evil, specifically when considering the involvement of the complex human moral system. Evolutionary psychologist Jordan Peterson, in his best selling book 12 Rules for Life, recounts his own struggles with evil. After transitioning away from Christianity because he found the “basic elements” be be inseparable from “wishful thinking” (p. 196), Peterson still struggled on the other side, specifically when contemplating the real horrors of world history. He had this to say about his struggles:
“I was simultaneously tormented by the fact of the Cold War. It obsessed me. It gave me nightmares. It drove me into the desert into the long night of the human soul. I could not understand how it had come to pass that the world’s two great factions aimed mutual assured destruction at each other… Was everyone crazy? Just exactly what happened in the twentieth century, anyway? How was it that so many tens of millions had to die, sacrificed to the new dogmas and ideologies? How was it that we discovered something worse, much worse, than the aristocracy and corrupt religious beliefs that communism and fascism sought so rationally to supplant? No one had answered those questions, as far as I could tell. Like Descarte, I was plagued with doubt. I searched for one thing - anything - I could regard as indisputable. I wanted a rock upon which to build my house” (p. 196 - 197).
Peterson, who struggled with shallow Christianity and ultimately moved atheism, still possessed a visceral awareness of evil (and by contrast good), exposed by the horrors of communism, fascism and totalitarian government systems in the 20th century. His final conclusion was to build something of a moral framework. Much of this is recounted in the totality of 12 Rules for Life, but he also raises the more salient points of his framework: “It was from this [struggle with evil] that I drew my fundamental moral conclusions. Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge…” (p. 198). These are noble aims. Sadly, they are also ultimately useless in a godless universe. A godless universe is an uncaring universe. There is no arbiter, no justice, and no higher definition of evil. The horrors of war and the suffering endured by all participants, the tales of which tortured Peterson, are merely historical events and are entirely unregarded by the vastness in which our tiny blue ball is spinning.
An idea that goes lockstep with evil in the journey to nihilism, concerns eternal ramifications of actions or events. Specifically, there are none. Much modern talk raises the idea of escaping our planet to colonize the stars. This notion probably resonates with western culture because of our love of the space western genre, in which humanity explores and colonizes the furthest reaches of the universe, expanding beyond Earth. In this way we are fabricating a feeling of some eternal ideology, where humans continue to exist far beyond our own time. But the friendly notion of an eternal civilization is not so hopeful as seen on the surface. Beyond the implausibility of interplanet colonization actually happening, both at the individual human level and civilization level it will all be for nothing. First, for the single person, the average lifespan is nothing in the vast billions. The most famous of persons have some continuity of historical memory through the passage of time, but even in their case they have no memory of their own existence, so to them it matters not. For the above average life, who does not make it into the upper echelons, very few will know or care that they existed beyond the decades immediately following death. At the civilization level there is not much more sense of purpose or hope. Eventually, though human civilization might flourish for millions of years, it will not matter. Pastor Timothy Keller highlights this concept:
“If the Bench is truly empty, then the whole span of human civilization, even if it lasts a few million years, will be just an infinitesimally brief spark in relation to the oceans of dead time that preceded it and will follow it. There will be no one around to remember any of it. Whether we are loving or cruel in the end would make no different at all” (p. 163).
Keller is right. In a godless universe it ultimately doesn’t matter. However, this doesn’t mean that naturalism cannot find temporary fixes for this pointlessness. Human beings are quite capable of coming up with feel-good excuses around meaning or purpose. If that fails, there is always distractions such as political ambition, strains of epicureanism, or merely blissful ignorance. Mysticism or pseudo-spiritualism can also be used as a way to fabricate purpose. Perhaps, says the despairing soul, there is something more in the universe that will one day make sense, and in this way one can slip into agnosticism. This leap can be done without embracing God or any other more rigorous religious tradition. However, it’s somewhat cheating, because at that point you are allowing for more than the natural world. Why not just consider the existence of God seriously? For any adherent of true naturalism, you must be truthful and acknowledge your own meaninglessness, accepting the despair of your existence.
Some Impacts of Naturalism on Society
Scientism and naturalism, specifically when paired together, can have a painful effect on society, as was seen in the 20th century. As Alvin Plantinga says, “... the suffering, death, and havoc attributable to religious belief and practice pales into utter insignificance beside that due to the atheistic and secular ideologies of the twentieth century alone” (p. x). Joseph Loconte, in his book A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War, provides an excellent analysis on the cultural ideological foundations that led to these 20th century horrors. Although the main thesis of the book centers around the faith and friendship of famed authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Loconte shows how the wars were preceded by attitudes of great optimism concerning humanities ability to overcome all problems. One of the prevailing ideas of the pre-war years, and an idea quite strong in the United States, came to be called “The Myth of Progress.” Loconte says, “The early apostles of The Myth of Progress believed they had overcome the problems of industrial society. More than that, they imagined that they had solved the riddle of human existence” (p. 25). For those participating in the Myth, the general feeling was that “humanity was maturing, evolving, advancing - that new vistas of political, cultural, and spiritual achievement were within reach” (p. 2). The Myth was essentially this idea that technology and civilization was destined to succeed and solve all problems. But this is an idea alive and well today. As was seen before in Goertzel’s viewpoints, scientism, with a foundational naturalism, leads to the belief that all of societal problems can be solved through scientific progress.
Loconte’s builds a strong case that history warns us to avoid placing too much trust in science. While the idea of such things as eugenics have (thankfully) become very unpopular today, we shouldn’t think we’re immune from the rise of similar views in the future. The source of eugenics is based in the fact that eugenics is, as Loconte relates Tolkien’s and Lewis’s feelings, “frontal assault on human dignity: a reduction of the individual to mere biology” (p. 17) But much of our conversation today is just that: the reduction of human beings to mere biology. Our cultural obsession with “scientific truth”, without science having to answer to a higher power and a higher law, would result in humankind interpreting this scientific data in potentially frightening ways. It seems perhaps that one of the key elements for such a culture shift, which Loconte writes about, requires a change in the unexamined assumptions of the culture. For example, every person has at least some assumptions they make without thinking on a daily basis, like rising from bed expecting it to be light outside. These kinds of assumptions, which are philosophical in nature, can extend to larger people groups. One such shift is a general belief that science contains all objective truth and can solve all problems. This feels like an appearance of a second Myth of Progress.
One final note on this idea is that, according to Loconte, many spiritual leaders of the pre-war years participated in the Myth of Progress. But it’s also important to note that for many who were “drifting away from historic Christianity” the Great Myth acted as a “substitute faith” (p. 35). So again, while Christian leaders participated in these ideas (and enthusiastically), it is imperative to recognize that the Myth represented, in many ways, the dominance of science over faith. Loconte points out, “Historians tend to interpret Darwin’s influence as the essential solvent that destroyed belief in God: the laws of natural selection required no Law-Giver. Thus, evolution made God redundant, the Bible irrelevant, and salvation a state of mind” (p. 20).
Walter White: An Embodiment of Scientism and Naturalism
Breaking Bad (Vince Gilligan, et al. 2008 - 2013) is one of the all-time greatest shows, for multiple reasons (it’s “Shakespearian,” to quote one of my former literature professors). The saga of Walter White definitely offers a plethora of morality tales from which audiences can draw, whether looking at the grave warnings of smalls sins accumulating to form grander sins or contrasting the ill-fated brother-in-law Hank with Walter. From this generous supply of morality tales, I will focus on the thread of Walter White as the pure scientist. His calculated decision making is emblematic of the ultimate pragmatist in terms of reaching end goals through problem-solving. This pragmatism would not be so interesting were it not combined with a clear malleable morality of the end justifying the means. Walter justifies every terrible decision, no matter how heartless or cruel. An argument can be made that these insane (and yet believable) decision points from Walter White are due to his fundamental world-views around science and the very nature of the world. It’s very important to highlight that if readers have never seen Breaking Bad, the below will likely make little sense or even ruin a future watching; so I recommend exiting this essay or skipping to the conclusion.
To fully understand Walter White’s various decision points, two particularly salient episodes in Breaking Bad are useful. The first episode, titled Phoenix (May 24, 2009, directed by Colin Bucksey), is that in which Jesse’s girlfriend Jane, dies. Walter, already faced with the dual conundrum of Jesse excessively spending his share of drug money abroad and therefore raising questions from authorities as to the money’s source, is also faced with the seemingly negative influence of Jane on Jesse’s decision making. In a truly terrible moment, Walt allows Jane to choke to death on her own vomit while she is under the influence of heroine. The end of the episode is more poignant, because, immediately after Jane’s death, Walter goes to a nearby bar to have a drink and falls into conversation with, unbeknownst to either of them, Jane’s father, who does not yet know she is dead. They have a simple conversation around family and the episode ends. The next key episode, Fly (May 23, 2010, directed by Rian Johnson), builds on this drama in a fascinating way. In this episode Walter spends the entire time attempting to kill a fly that infiltrated his high-tech drug lab, due to his obsessive worry the fly will contaminate his lab. This behavior raises concerns with Jesse about his partner’s mental health and so he slips some sleeping medication into Walt’s coffee. During Walters ensuing hypnagogic state, Walter, through ambiguous conversation about Jane’s death (Jesse is ignorant of Walt’s part in that), describes his meeting with Jane’s father at the bar. Walter, we found out through this conversation, had been deeply disturbed when he discovered who he had met in the bar that night. Like a true scientist he had calculated the odds of that meeting and they were “astronomical”. The reason that Walter White, an archetype of the evil scientist, is perplexed by this meeting is that he is a man who believes the world is truly random in the most fundamental sense. He believes there are no real moral choices. Life is simply, as Walter continuously states throughout the show, a matter of things that “have to be done” or not. But this situation, in which he met Jane’s father, is something that has all the markings of a divine intervention.
Walter White’s story, as stated before, possesses a wealth of morality tales which we can draw from individually. But one of the more overlooked ones, perhaps, is that a society which bases decision making strictly on some empirically derived set of principles will ultimately come up short, and even in disastrous fashion. Ironically, Walter White does (arguably, at least) come to believe in God to a certain extent. Near the end of the show, while sitting in a snow-covered car in New Hampshire, in a moment of surrender, he appeals to God to help him get back to Albuquerque (Felina, April 29, 2013). This appears to be the only time in the show where he appeals to a higher power besides himself. His hubris has finally been beaten to the point where he, like Samson of the Bible, must look to One higher than himself for help. And, interestingly enough, he does accomplish his end goal. The tragic ending of Walter White is not just a story of hubris. It is a story of hubris based in direct defiance to the idea that there is anything higher than what humans can achieve on their own.
Any casual observer of human behavior can easily recognize the intrinsic need for higher purpose and higher power in people. With this need still strongly intact, fundamental shifts towards naturalism and scientism have greatly undermined many of the once-foundational reasons for the “whys” of existence. But scientism and naturalism have not truly replaced the foundation with ostensibly objective-truth pillars. Instead adherents create their own pseudo-religious figments that, oddly enough, oftentimes parallel ideas found in faith-based communities. A closer examination of naturalism, specifically, shows that it’s a road to nihilism (and should be), given that ultimate meaning will one day be finally lost in the abyss of time and space, despite poetic depictions to the contrary that distract from this reality. There are also other worrying societal shifts that occur, which already have historic precedence. A strong enough shift towards naturalism and scientism threatens fundamental human rights and values and leads us down a road where we see that characters like Walter White are not so fictional as we thought.
- Burnett, Thomas. What is Scientism? American Association for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved from https://www.aaas.org/programs/dialogue-science-ethics-and-religion/what-scientism
- Gilligan, Vince, Mark Johnson, and Michelle MacLaren (2008 - 2013). Breaking Bad. Netflix.
- Grudem, Wayne (1994). Systematic Theology. Inter-Varsity Press and Zondervan.
- Loconte, Joseph (2015). A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War. Thomas Nelson.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich (1882). The Gay Science. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. Random House, 1974. Retrieved from https://philoslugs.files.wordpress.com/2016/12/the-gay-science-friedrich-nietzsche.pdf
- Keller, Timothy (2008). The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Riverhead Books.
- Peterson, Jordan (2018). 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Penguin Allen Lane.
- Plantinga, Alvin (2011). Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Oxford University Press.
- Rogan, Joe (December 4, 2018). Ben Goertzel. The Joe Rogan Experience.Episode 1211. Retrieved from https://podscribe.app/feeds/http-joeroganexpjoeroganlibsynprocom-rss/episodes/eca41c295a904f96a3b19c0ee1645c4a
- Tzezana, Roey (March 3, 2017). Singularity: Explain It to Me Like I’m 5-Years-Old. Here's how to understand the merger of humans and robots. Futurism. Retrieved from https://futurism.com/singularity-explain-it-to-me-like-im-5-years-old
- Wall, Mike (September 7, 2018). We're Probably Living in a Simulation, Elon Musk Says. Retrieved from https://www.space.com/41749-elon-musk-living-in-simulation-rogan-podcast.html
- Cornelius Plantinga Jr. (not to be confused with Alvin Plantinga), discusses this idea in the first chapter of his book Engaging God's World, 2002, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Specifically, see page 14.
- Note that unguided evolution and evolution are not the same thing. Many Christians hold that evolution is a true, solid, scientific theory and that God used evolution to bring about the diversity of life we see today. See the article by BioLogos How is Evolutionary Creation different from Evolutionism, Intelligent Design, and Creationism? at https://biologos.org/common-questions/how-is-biologos-different-from-evolutionism-intelligent-design-and-creationism.