Objectifying Phineas Gage

From time to time in my cultural and apologetic writings I will criticize scientism, the belief that the physical sciences provide all of the meaningful knowledge in the world (a variation of positivism), as well as the parasciences and pseudosciences known by various “social science” names. Often the dismissal is quick and witty, perhaps to a fault, and so it is worthwhile occasionally to spell out the problems with such a method. The first thing that we should say is that it is in no one’s interest to dismiss the true findings of science or to deny that science is a powerful means of acquiring knowledge. To do so would simply be stubborn and superstitious. The point, rather, is to demonstrate that science is necessarily limited. It makes observations and predictions, though the predictions often leave the realm of the strictly scientific. This is all well and good on its own, a valuable means of learning and of forming the mind. And this really is what the best scientists all admit. Science operates within these boundaries by design.

What science should not do is attempt to construct metanarratives. Or rather, as soon as science begins to construct metanarratives it ceases to be “science” in the modern sense of the term. It becomes philosophy, literature, or religion. And as anyone who has met me well knows, I am a big fan of philosophy, literature, and religion. I think they are fundamental to all true wisdom. So I don’t say that science shouldn’t do this work because I don’t think such work should be done. I most emphatically do! It’s just that in doing this work, science invariably cheats. It ceases to operate on a strictly observational and test-confirmation methodology, and it begins to add in other considerations which are outside its strict bounds. It does so, however, all while still using the nomenclature of “science” to claim an objective point of view and the rhetorical authority which is currently granted to such.

It is also the case that when science attempts to engage in the humanities it does a much poorer job than the humanities can do. Continue reading

Marilynne Robinson on Total Depravity

So while looking through the books at Borders a while back, I noticed that Marilynne Robinson had a collection of essays called The Death of Adam.  “That’s interesting,” I thought and gave it a quick scan.

Interestingly enough, she’s got an article on Bonhoeffer as well as one on the Puritans.  “Well now,” I thought once more.  I bought the book a little later and finally gave it a read over the weekend.  Lo and behold, the lady’s a Calvinist.  I will no longer be listening to the theo-hipsters lament Reformed theology’s inability to produce good artists and writers.  I will instead retort that our generation has a greater problem, the inability to ever actually be an audience.

So here’s Robinson on the famous “T” in TULIP:

The Calvinist doctrine of total depravity—“depravity” means “warping or distortion”—was directed against casuistical enumerations of sins, against the attempt to assign them different degrees of seriousness. For Calvinism, we are all absolutely, that is equally, unworthy of, and dependent upon, the free intervention of grace. This is a harsh doctrine, but no harsher than others, since Christian tradition has always assumed that rather few would be saved, and has differed only in describing the form election would take. It might be said in defense of Christianity that it is unusual in a religion to agonize much over these issues of ultimate justice, though in one form or other every religion seems to have an elect. The Calvinist model at least allows for the mysteriousness of life. For in fact life makes goodness much easier for some people than for others, and it is rich with varieties of cautious or bland or malign goodness, in the Bible referred generally as self-righteousness, and inveighed against as grievous offenses in their own right. The belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms the standards all of us fail to attain.

“On Prigs and Puritans” in The Death of Adam pg. 155-156

The point of the article is that modern and postmodern Americans, particularly liberal and cosmopolitan Americans, are priggish, enslaved to their perfectionism, dietary laws, and over-sensitivity, and they could do with a strong dose of Puritan freedom.