Is Scientism a religion?

This is the second part of a piece, the first part is here.

Max Weber was what William James would call a ‘sick soul’ - by which I mean that, like James and Tolstoy, he was subject to depressions, and constantly asked himself if what he did had any positive meaning or value. The difference between him and these other two writers is that they emerged from their acute depressive crises by turning to God. Weber, by contrast, turned to science.

Or rather, he turned to academia, and the social sciences. He threw himself into his work, and produced his great masterpiece, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He helped to create a whole new field in the social sciences - sociology - and used it to subject religion to merciless rational analysis and classification.

Two decades later, at the end of his glittering academic career, he asked himself, in his marvelous lecture Science as a Vocation, if science could really be a vocation in the ethical sense, an inward calling, similar to a religious calling. Can it give our life meaning and guide our ethical decisions? His answer was torturous, but all the better for that.

First of all, he dismissed the easy complacency of Positivism, so apparent in our own day, which insists that the progress of science necessarily leads to a better and happier world. He says: ‘Who believes in this? - aside from a few big children in university chairs or editorial offices.’

He also dismisses the faith, held by Renaissance natural philosophers like Roger Bacon, that knowledge of nature would lead to God, and help us discover our cosmic meaning.  ‘Who - aside from certain big children who are indeed found in the natural sciences - still believes that the findings of astronomy, biology, physics, or chemistry could teach us anything about the meaning of the world?..If these natural sciences lead to anything in this way, they are apt to make the belief that there is such a thing as the ‘meaning’ of the universe die out at its very roots.’

In fact, he says, the old gods and the god of science are in direct opposition. Science is ‘irreligious’, and ‘the tension between the value-spheres of ‘science’ and the sphere of ‘the holy’ is unbridgeable’. Some intellectuals may try to connect those two worlds, like Aldous Huxley or Carl Jung, who ‘play at decorating a sort of domestic chapel with small sacred images from all over the world’, while others ‘produce surrogates through all sorts of psychic experiments to which they ascribe the dignity of mystic holiness, which they peddle in the book market. This is plain humbug.’ So much for William James and the Society for Psychical Research.

Then Weber says this, which I think is one of the most important paragraphs for where we are today:

The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and above all by the ‘disenchantment of the world’... To the person who cannot bear the fate of the times like a man, one must say: may he return silently, without the usual publicity build-up of renegades, but simply and plainly. The arms of the old churches are opened widely and compassionately for him....One way or another he has to bring his ‘intellectual sacrifice’ - that is inevitable. If he can really do it, we shall not rebuke him.

This is a wonderfully patronizing bit of writing. And it’s revealing. Whenever a person talks about ‘fate’, they are deifying their own belief-system, turning it into a god. Weber is saying, in effect, that our era is ruled by the god of rationalization and intellectualization, and there is no resisting the sweep of this impersonal force. It’s like Darth Vader telling Luke ‘this is your destiny, you cannot resist the power of the Dark Side’.

Weber had a highly ambivalent relationship with this god of Rationalization. At times, as in the Protestant Work Ethic, he suggests we are condemned to serve it, imprisoned within it like an iron cage. Rationalization and Intellectualization are usually accompanied by that third Fury - Bureaucratization. We are ‘fated’ (that word again) to be trapped in the machinery of capitalist production ‘until the last ton of fossilised coal is burnt’.

That was in 1904. In 1918, by contrast, Weber suggested that Rationalization was actually a positive good, and that academics and scientists could find their life-meaning by being foot-soldiers in the relentless disenchantment of the world. But can the god of Rationalization tell us how to live? Can its prophets, like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, come down from the mountain with a tablet of values for us to follow?

The fact / value chasm

Weber insisted, earlier in his career, on the facts / values distinction. Science involves the study of empirical reality, while value judgements belong to a separate realm and ‘their validity cannot be deduced from empirical data as such’. Science can undermine value-systems - just as Darwinism undermined the truth-claims of Genesis - but it never arrives at permanent, solid ground. No sooner does one discovery lead to an ethical view-point, than it is surpassed and undermined by new discoveries. Scientific progress could, Weber suggests, mark ‘the twilight of all value-standpoints’.

Science is an instrumental technique, it’s not inherently moral. It can serve different moral goals or gods. Nonetheless, we make value-judgements about what goals scientific research should serve. We assume, for example, that it is a good thing to preserve life as long as possible, so scientific research serves this goal. We assume it’s OK to abort foetuses, so scientific research serves this goal. We assume that GDP should grow as much as possible, so economic research serves this goal. Sometimes, societies decide that old gods like ‘racial purity’ should no longer be served, or that new gods like ‘general well-being’ should be served, and scientific research moves to serve these new gods. Science, in this formulation, is a minister, not a God.

How do we choose these value-systems or gods?  Weber insists that ‘to judge the validity of such values is a matter of certainly does not fall within the province of an empirical science’.

In other words, Weber suggests, our value-systems, our gods, the things around which our personality organizes itself and which gives our life meaning, are ultimately chosen by faith. That is as true for the scientist as for the priest. The scientist has to have faith that their work will ultimately have some enduring value and (perhaps) will make the world better. This may not be obvious or testable.

Once we have chosen our value-system or god, science can then help us, Weber says, by helping to clarify our position, what it entails, and what is the most efficient way of serving it. This is certainly true. Let me give an example.

An ancestor of mine, Seebohm Rowntree, was a Quaker and a social activist. He was inspired by his faith to improve the conditions of workers in York. But he used the young science of sociology to help him, carefully looking at the empirical data to see the actual conditions of working people, to build an empirical argument for the minimum wage. Today, Iain Duncan-Smith and various evangelical Christians are campaigning to do the opposite, to take benefits away from poor families to try and help improve their quality of life. Both Rowntree and Duncan-Smith were inspired by Christian faith, but there’s an enormous difference in how they used social science as a minister to that faith.

To conclude, there is an uneasy paradox in Weber's view of Rationalization, and it’s one we’re all grappling with today. Sometimes Rationalization is a god or value-system in Weber's writing, at other times it is only a servant to some other value-system which we must choose through faith.

On the one hand, Weber says we are ‘fated’ to serve the god or impersonal process of Rationalization, and in his more upbeat moods he suggested we can perhaps find a positive meaning and value to our life by being foot-soldiers of Rationalization, working to dispel the old ghosts of religious belief. On the other hand, Weber often says that science can’t give us meaning or values, it can only help us clarify the consequences of holding particular value-positions, which we must choose through faith. Which is it: Master or Emissary?

Let us say we decide Rationalization is our god, our value-system, that which gives our life meaning. What, empirically, are the fruits of devotion to this god?  The ‘ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life’, Weber says. We are cut off from our deepest feelings, which Rationalization tells us are delusions or evolutionary tricks, and we turn into an emotionally flat society, getting our thrills from systems and gadgets, increasingly incapable of intimacy between humans, trying to control our gnawing sense of meaninglessness through various forms of sedative or stimulant.

We are cut off from the old religious structures of community - Weber talks vaguely of religious ideals being replaced by ‘the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations’. But where do these relations occur? Why, after a century and a half of humanism, are humanist communities still so undeveloped? Because Rationalization is not a god around which loving human relations coalesce (this is not to say there can't be very loving communities without God, only that communities devoted to rationalism are not the same as communities devoted to humanism).

Rationalization and the drive for technological mastery of the world is not, in my view, a good enough god. It is a part of us, but not the whole of us, nor even the best part of us. It is a minister, a servant, an advisor - extremely useful and necessary, but not an appropriate end or god in itself.

If you disagree with this view, do disagree in the comments - the dialogue with my readers over the years has meant a lot to me and has always changed and refined my opinions.