Scientism, The Limits of Science, And Religion – Part 2.

January 30, 2016

A ‘New Age’ example

Earlier I mentioned a scientific investigation into the power of crystals to produce certain positive effects the mental states of those holding them while meditating. The double-blind study found that crystals did not produce the claimed effects (and also that, to the extent that there were psychological effects, these were due to the power of suggestion). How did those who believe crystals possess such powers respond. One internet commentator said about a post reporting this study:

There is much that exists beyond the visible spectrum of light, and beyond the five senses. Not being able to prove the existence of something does not disprove its existence. Much is yet to be discovered. You would do better to discover it by looking outside your narrow frame of reference. [1]

This is an interesting collection of sentences. True enough, a failure to prove something exists fails to establish it doesn’t exist. However, what this study revealed was not just an absence of evidence, but pretty good evidence of absence. This, however, is ignored, and instead we are reminded about our human limitations. Certainly we can agree there is much that exists beyond the visible spectrum of light and the five senses (ultraviolet light, for example). No doubt there is much to be discovered. But we can acknowledge all this while nevertheless supposing, justifiably, that there is evidence sufficient reasonably to rule certain things out, such as the claimed effects of crystals. The last sentence suggests we step out side the ‘frame of reference’ employed by the study – that’s to say, the scientific method – and employ other ways of knowing, ways that in this case (and as is usually the case when it comes to supernatural beliefs) presumably include a combination of gut-feeling, intuition, and heavy reliance on anecdotal evidence. Although the word ‘scientism’ is not used in this case, that charge is effectively made.

What this commentator is doing, of course, is attempting to create a smokescreen. Evidence against what they believe is produced. In response, the commentator draws an immunising veil across reality with the mysterious powers of crystals placed firmly behind its protective screen. The powers of crystals are only accessible via other ‘ways of knowing’. This is a fairly typical example of how people play the mystery card in order to deal with scientific challenges to supernatural and other beliefs. The scientific method has an extraordinary track record of success when it comes to investigating what is otherwise hidden from our senses – from subatomic particles to distant galaxies. We are given no good reason to the think the scientific method is not also appropriate way of investigating the powers of crystals. Indeed, various claims made about crystals are scientifically testable because they have observable consequences. Indeed, had the experimenters found the crystals did have the claimed effects, no doubt this would have been paraded by our commentator as scientific vindication. And yet, when the evidence goes against what they believe, science’s ability to adjudicate is then denied. Such denials are often delivered with an air of humility and superior wisdom: ‘There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy’. No doubt there are, but that’s not to say we can’t show there’s at least one thing less than is dreamed of in theirs.

I have provided three illustrations of how the charge of ‘scientism’ has been made in a baseless and indeed irrelevant way against critics of religious and/or supernatural beliefs. It is not difficult to find many more. In the hands of some – including many theologians – the charge of ‘scientism!’ has become a lazy, knee-jerk form of dismissal, much like the charge of ‘communism!’ used to be. It constitutes a form of rubbishing, allowing – in the minds of those making the charge – for criticism to be casually brushed aside. No doubt some things really are beyond the ability of science, and perhaps even reason, to decide. But there’s plenty that does lie within the remit of the scientific method, including many religious, supernatural, New Age, and other claims that are supposedly ‘off-limits’. However, because the mantra ‘But this is beyond the ability of science to decide’ has been repeated so often with respect to that sort of subject matter, it is now heavily woven into our cultural zeitgeist. People just assume it’s true for all sorts of claims for which it is not, in fact, true. The mantra has become a convenient, immunising factoid that can be wheeled out whenever a scientific threat to belief rears its head. When a believer is momentarily stung into doubt, many will attempt to lull them back to sleep by repeating the mantra over and over. The faithful murmur back: ‘Ah yes, we forgot – this is beyond the ability of science to decide…. zzzz.’