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Biomorality, Scientism, and "the Meddlesome Interference of an Arrogant Scientific Priestcraft"

Alfred Russel Wallace, who along with Charles Darwin discovered and advanced the theory of evolution, was, unlike Darwin, a deeply spiritual man who was convinced that materialistic natural selection did not fully explain the origin of man. Unlike so many of his philosophically materialistic scientific colleagues, Wallace was a fierce critic of eugenics and the arrogant scientism of his day. Wallace wrote:

Segregation of the unfit is a mere excuse for establishing a medical tyranny. And we have had enough of this kind of tyranny already...the world does not want the eugenist to set it straight...Eugenics is simply the meddlesome interference of an arrogant scientific priestcraft. (1)

Commenting on our modern scientific priestcraft, Steven Lenzer has a superb essay and book review on the Weekly Standard Online entitled, "Biomorality: The uses and abuses of science in political life." Lenzer opens:

Among the many authorities we adhere to today, only science rivals that of equality. This is not thought to be a problem because, as everyone knows, science is morally and politically neutral. Or so we are informed by luminaries ranging from Albert Einstein to George W. Bush. As such, science cannot come into conflict with our democracy. But is science as innocent as scientists claim?

Lenzer notes that scientists and others who exalt the capacity of science to understand and alter the natural world often assert that science is independent of and above politics. He notes:

Henceforth, all who read Yuval Levin's "Imagining the Future" will refrain from availing themselves of this plausible, but deeply misleading, piece of conventional wisdom.

Lenzer quotes Levin:

"From the very beginning, the modern worldview has given rise to peculiar utopianisms of various stripes, all grounded in the dream of overcoming nature and living, free of necessity and fear, able to meet every one of our needs and our whims, and able, most especially, to live indefinitely in good health. This brand of utopianism generally begins in a benign libertarianism, though at times it has ended in political extremism, if not the guillotine."

Levin suggests that part of the problem with the negative influence of scientism (my term, not his) on our culture is that science is corrosive of our traditional reference to moral standards that transcend the philosophical materialism that is the foundation of scientism:

In our time, we are perhaps less inclined to recognize science as a set of ideas with aspirations to universality precisely because the scientific enterprise has been so successful. But the authority we cede to science, both as the servant of health and as the master of knowledge, weakens our allegiance to those other sources of wisdom so crucial to our self-understanding and self-government. Those other sources serve to ground our moral judgment, while science avoids or flattens moral questions, since it cannot answer them and rarely needs to ask them... For all its power, science risks leaving us morally impotent.

In my view, Daniel Dennett's "universal acid" -- the materialistic Darwinian understanding of man that is at the core of scientism -- corrodes the moral framework of our civilization, not by introducing a coherent new morality, but by rendering our traditional morality impotent and replacing it by relations governed by the assertion of power.

For example, there is a disturbing trend in bioethics to invoke 'autonomy' at almost all costs, and to cast aside the concept of 'human dignity' as a relic of sectarian traditionally religious morality. But autonomy is the ethics of the autonomous -- the powerful, who are likely to prevail with or without a system of coherent and moral bioethics. Respect for dignity protects those who are weak -- those who lack autonomy, and who genuinely need bioethics. Yet the preference for autonomy is consistent with the creation myth of philosophical materialism -- the Darwinian understanding of the origin of man as a struggle for survival. Scientism cripples ethics based on religious tradition, and replaces human exceptionalism with the unexamined inference that man arose through struggle and assertion of autonomy. Scientism seduces bioethics with the naturalistic fallacy -- the substitution of 'is' for 'ought.' The result -- the exaltation of autonomy and and the denigration of dignity in bioethics -- is the denial of ethics.

Scientism has led to a degeneration of public discourse, as even a casual visit to the atheist-materialistic science blogs will attest. Lenzner comments on what is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this enfeeblement of genuine moral debate: the debate over human embryonic stem cell research.

[Levin] shines a light, for example, on the impoverished character of the debate about the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research. Neither prominent academics, who seek to obscure the moral questions raised by such research, nor legislators, who believe that individual tales of woe are sufficient to dispense with moral argument, escape Levin's incisive skewering....Regardless of where one ends up on the matter, only the incurably callous would shrug at the creation and casual destruction of potential human life.

One could point out many other examples of situations in which scientific imperative or a misplaced deference to 'modern science' and an evasion of traditional moral scruples coaxed us into practices (or even atrocities) that should have raised profound moral questions: American eugenics, which culminated in the involuntary mass-sterilization of 60,000 "feeble-minded" Americans in the 20th century; the German T-4 euthanasia program that murdered 250, 000 handicapped people who were deemed by doctors and scientists to be "life unworthy of life"; the Tuskegee Study in which federal health officials and doctors in Alabama allowed hundreds of black men to die of syphilis (when treatment was readily available) in order to "advance science"; the growing acceptance of physician assisted suicide in the United States and the growing practice of active euthanasia in Europe, including the killing of handicapped infants in Holland; and the widespread acceptance of "clean eugenics" in the United States that is eliminating people with birth defects such as Down's syndrome and spinal bifida from our society.

Lenzner and Levin's observations suggest that what may be most troubling about this idolatry of science is that we are losing our vocabulary for moral reflection, and substituting it with vague (or not so vague) totalitarian slogans, attaching epithets such as "denialist" and "antiscience" to people who don't accept orthodox scientific explanations or who question the moral implications of public policy influenced by science. Recently there have been calls to outlaw climate change "denial" and prosecute deniers via "Nuremburg-style trials."

How are we to protect freedom of speech and respect for human exceptionalism in the emerging biological revolution? We need to reassert, against "the meddlesome interference of an arrogant scientific priestcraft," the traditional moral vocabulary of several millennia of Judeo-Christian moral reflection and understanding. We need to resist the abuses of science in our public life.

In doing so, we should have no illusions about the fury we will reap.


(1) From James Marchant, Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters and Reminiscences (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1916), p 476.