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Scientific American

The Shamans of Scientism

published June 2002 | comments (18)
On the occasion of Stephen W. Hawking’s 60th
trip around the sun, we consider a social phenomenon
that reveals something deep about human nature
magazine cover

In 1998 God appeared at Caltech.

More precisely, the scientific equivalent of the deity, in the form of Stephen W. Hawking, delivered a public lecture via his now familiar voice synthesizer. The 1,100-seat auditorium was filled; an additional 400 viewed a video feed in another hall, and hundreds more squatted on the lawn and listened to theater speakers broadcasting this scientific saint’s epistle to the apostles. The lecture was slated for 8 P.M. By three o’clock a line began to snake around the grassy quad adjoining the hall. By five, hundreds of scientists flipped Frisbees and chatted with students from Caltech and other universities.

When Hawking rolled into the auditorium and down the aisle in his motorized wheelchair, everyone rose in applause — a “standing O” just for showing up! The sermon was his customary one on the big bang, black holes, time and the universe, with the theology coming in the question-and-answer period. Here was an opportunity to inquire of a transcendent mind the biggest question of all: “Is there a God?”

Asked this ultimately unanswerable question, Hawking sat rigidly in his chair, stone quiet, his eyes darting back and forth across the computer screen. A minute, maybe two, went by. Finally, a wry smile formed and the Delphic oracle spoke: “I do not answer God questions.”

What is it about Hawking that draws us to him as a scientific saint? He is, I believe, the embodiment of a larger social phenomenon known as scientism. Scientism is a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science.

Scientism’s voice can best be heard through a literary genre for both lay readers and professionals that includes the works of such scientists as Carl Sagan, E. O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins and Jared Diamond. Scientism is a bridge spanning the abyss between what physicist C. P. Snow famously called the “two cultures” of science and the arts/humanities (neither encampment being able to communicate with the other). Scientism has generated a new literati and intelligentsia passionately concerned with the profound philosophical, ideological and theological implications of scientific discoveries.

Although the origins of the scientism genre can be traced to the writings of Galileo and Thomas Huxley in centuries past, its modern incarnation began in the early 1970s with mathematician Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, took off in the 1980s with Sagan’s Cosmos and hit pay dirt in the 1990s with Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which spent a record 200 weeks on the Sunday Times of London’s hardcover best-seller list and sold more than 10 million copies in 30-plus languages worldwide. Hawking’s latest work, The Universe in a Nutshell, is already riding high on the best-seller list.

Hawking’s towering fame is a result of a concatenation of variables that include the power of the scientism culture in which he writes, his creative insights into the ultimate nature of the cosmos, in which he dares to answer ersatz theological questions, and, perhaps most notably, his unmitigated heroism in the face of near-insurmountable physical obstacles that would have felled a lesser being. But his individual success in particular, and the rise of scientism in general, reveals something deeper still.

First, cosmology and evolutionary theory ask the ultimate origin questions that have traditionally been the province of religion and theology. Scientism is courageously proffering naturalistic answers that supplant supernaturalistic ones and in the process is providing spiritual sustenance for those whose needs are not being met by these ancient cultural traditions. Second, we are, at base, a socially hierarchical primate species. We show deference to our leaders, pay respect to our elders and follow the dictates of our shamans; this being the Age of Science, it is scientism’s
shamans who command our veneration. Third, because of language we are also storytelling, mythmaking primates, with scientism as the foundational stratum of our story and scientists as the premier mythmakers of our time.

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18 Comments to “The Shamans of Scientism”

  1. Serge Morency Says:

    We are awed by science as well as myth. I prefer to keep them separate. Why mythologize science. This will only hurt science and propagate myth.

  2. Benjamin Paul Says:

    I don’t get it. How is Stephen Hawking not answering the question about God consistent with his construal as a leader of scientism, which “proffer[s] naturalistic answers that supplant supernaturalistic ones and in the process … provid[es] spiritual sustenance”?

  3. Wade Selph Says:

    I suspect Steven Hawking did not answer the
    God question for two reasons. (1)The
    proposition “There is a God” falls outside
    the realm of science because it is not
    experimentally falsifiable. (2)Why alienate
    millions of potential book purchasers.

  4. G. Harris Says:

    I don’t get it either. What is the point of this article? How does it make sense to call scientists shamans?

  5. Jeff Wells Says:

    The term ‘scientism’ has an inflexible sound to it, as if it were some monolithic, lock-step set of core beliefs which must be adhered to. I’ve heard it used effectively and often in a disparaging sense, by newagers and other superstitious riffraff, as a cheap way to demonize their opposition (invariably with the help of modern technology, of course), and this is worrisome.

    I’m all in favor of science, but we need a better word to describe the mindset which values this uniquely successful approach to discovering reality. “Naturalism” suggests itself, and even though it ends in -ism doesn’t have the same baggage as some other -isms out there. One happy consequence of the adoption of “naturalism” would be the opportunity to turn the tables on religion for their dirty trick of making atheism into a bad word: someone who is religious would by definition be known as an “un-naturalist.”

    Think it over, Michael.

  6. G Kochanowsky Says:

    I think Michael is missing one important attribute of very social apes. And that is their ability to project a mind onto other apes for communication and empathy. I don’t think scientism is going to do away with that. I suspect that people will be projecting their mind onto the universe and calling it god for some time to come. Even religious neuroscientists have trouble considering that possibility. Somehow it never occurs to people how odd it is that god should be so human.

  7. Neil McCabe Says:

    So, apparently Hawking would be a proponent of Steve Goulds theory of NOMA, as he does not answer God questions. Interesting.

  8. Wayne Taber Says:

    Why use the term “scientism” with its often pejorative connotation? Let’s simply call it “science”. Understandable by anyone but our highest elected officials.

  9. addicted Says:

    A lot of you are missing the year that this article was published i.e. 2002. At that time most of the US did not (at least openly) disparage Science like it does now, and with the tech boom, etc, there was much enthusiasm that science would be our guiding light for the future.

  10. David H. Slack Says:

    Shermer, Dawkins, et al have pointed out on occassion how all of us social apes can fall into that mode of perception our heros being deified. Regardless of the intent of the article, it does remind me not to accept all the claims made by someone simply because of who they are. I, for one, tend to accept what Steven Hawking’s state in his books because I do not have anywhere near the same level of understanding. However, unlike theology, scientific claims are up to dispute and open for discussion and experimentation.

  11. Todd Laurence Says:

    “the real universe is within, and what is outwardly
    seen is only secondary.”

    “entelekk” – numomathematics

  12. PeteK Says:

    Perhaps Hawking doesn’t answer God questions because he is a scientist, and God (as defined in the physicists’ way) is supposed to be beyond science, beyond the physical universe. Something that is beyond the physical universe is by definition outside of science’s aegis.

    Science describes the physical universe, its evolution from the first thousandths of a second after the Big Bang, to the present. But it doesn’t explain why any universe exists to be described, why the universe contains the things it does, why science works at all, etc…But then again, Bronze Age creation stories cannot either.

    Everything within the physical universe is caused by, or influenced by, something else within the physical universe – life, for instance..but the Universe itself, all of existence demands an explanation from without. Such a god would be beyond human comprehension, and therefore meaningless even to discuss.

    That is roughly what Hawking means when he speaks about God. Not the traditional, old man in the sky with a white beard who created the world in 6 days 6000 years ago…Dawkins mentions the difference in Chapter One of the God Delusion, parceling religion into familiar supernatural religion, and Einsteinian religion. This difference can lead to a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings…

  13. Gus Spoon Says:

    Science is not in the business of proving or disproving God’s existence.

    Science deals with repeatable experiential observation in the physical universe up to a certain limit which it now appears to have reached.

    Hawkins thinks outside the box; he can never go there; what is the use?

  14. Gus Spoon Says:

    I like the idea that God is the ultimate and inevitable concluding result of the evolution process and that some are still evolving.

  15. PeteK Says:

    Well yes, evolution is still happening in some lineages. Creation isn’t a once and for all event, but an ongoing process…

  16. MJJ Says:

    >Why use the term “scientism” with its often pejorative connotation? Let’s simply call it “science”. Understandable by anyone but our highest elected officials.

    The term scientism is used by philosophers to denote those who follow this belief. It is well described in the article above. Since philosophers have effectively shown this belief to be self-refuting, it is appropriate for the term be used as a pejorative.

  17. Rodrigo Says:

    I think most of the comments missed the whole point of the article. Mainly, the one who asked “why use the term ‘scientism’ with its often pejorative connotation”?
    When Shermer uses the word “scientism”, he certainly considers its pejorative connotation, but instead of simply rejecting or substituting the term, he embraces it as a distinction marker between two kind of -isms: scientism and religious -isms (Christianism, Islamism etc.).
    Yes, there is an -ism within the assumption that science can explain all kinds of phenomena. We could only say so if all there is to be known were already known and scientifically explained. In this particular sense, scientism is faith-based.
    But similarities stop there. While religious -isms profess the hopes for a better future for mankind in a dogmatic worldview, scientism base them in science, which is always open to dispute.
    Science, though, is itself as indifferent to scientism as it is to religions. All science does is asking, previously assuming there might be answers, but not necessarily what the answers are. These only come after a lot of hard work and can never be called truly definitive, although some of them are more established than others.

  18. Bill Cahalan Says:

    Many of the above comments seem to present science and religion, and maybe science and philosophy, as essentially opposed. I’m with the camp which sees these as more and more complementary as time goes on, as evidenced by a growing number of impressive writings. It’s impossible to be scientific without engaging constantly in acts of non-scientific faith, such as asserting the belief that science is the most important way of attaining knowledge. That’s not scientifically testable. Most industrial citizens, including astrophysicists, believe that Earth orbits the Sun, and that the Sun is much bigger than Earth; we who believe these “facts” are mostly trusting in what other scientists have actually tested, not our own testing or observations. Etc. Likewise, 20th century science has revealed an immense, expanding, evolving, self-organizing Universe, in which sub-atomic reality is ultimately mysterious. This has inspired much religious exploration and in many cases a much-expanded image of divinity. Such exploration can be engaged in by scientists, but is philosophical/theological in nature, not scientific. Science needs religion (without which it veers toward scientism), and religion needs science. May growthful dialogue, rather than narrow-minded criticism between religion, philosophy, and science blossom in the coming decades! (See Michael Dowd’s new book Thank God for Evolution, Sarah Maitland’s A Joyful Theology, and also– Institute for Religion in an Age of Science)