Secular Shamans

Science has become the religion of our society.

Edward Dougherty, “Science without Validation in a World without Meaning” (American Affairs, Summer 2020) provides a glimpse into the workings of science, and shows how science has insinuated itself into public policy, supplanting religion as the faith du jour. He shows that, because the scientific community regards “nature” as unintelligible and without purpose, it falls to science to impost meaning – strictly pragmatic and temporary – on life in the world.

“Modern scientific knowledge, while rejecting commonsense concept-tual models, has always depended upon mathematically expressed theories that could be validated by prediction and observation. But this approach is now under pressure from multiple sides, suggesting a deep crisis of scientific epistemology that has not been fully confronted. At the same time, political leaders find themselves increasingly impotent when faced with scientific issues. As we move further into the twenty-first century, humankind is presented with an existential paradox: man’s destiny is irrevocably tied to science, and yet knowledge of nature increasingly lies not only outside ordinary language but also outside the foundational epistemology of science itself.”

“Nature is unintelligible; nevertheless, science requires that we be able to make accurate predictions of future events based on mathematical models in the mind. The crux of the problem is to connect the intel-ligibility of mathematics with the unintelligibility of nature. It would be naïve to believe that this problem has a simple solution or even one that is completely satisfactory for all human endeavors.”

“But what are the implications of unthinkable, unintelligible, and unspeakable knowledge to a world whose political and economic decisions must inevitably be related to that knowledge, and whose everyday mode of intellect and communication lies within ordinary language? If our destiny is tied to knowledge that can be neither understood nor spoken outside of mathematical formalism, can human understanding and political dialogue helpfully shape that destiny?”

“Thousands of decisions are made daily by politicians, managers, and bureaucrats that are either directly or indirectly related to science. These involve input from various sources, discussions among colleagues, and ultimately a decision relating to law, regulation, product development, research expenditures, medical treatment, or a host of other societal issues. If the meaning of the subject matter cannot be conceived in terms of ordinary categories of understanding, and cannot be expressed in ordinary human language, then how can leaders untrained in mathematics and scientific epistemology make informed decisions?”

Hence the need for, and danger of, scientific advisors – secular shamans. Hence also, the need for more education in science: “This is not to argue that leadership be confined to scientists and engineers, only that education include serious scientific, mathematical, and statistical courses. Certainly, one cannot expect good political leadership from someone ignorant of political philosophy, history, or economics, or from someone lacking the political skill to work productively amid differing opinions. The basic point is that good decision-making in a technical civilization requires fundamental knowledge of scientific epistemology.”

In such an epistemological atmosphere, truth is reduced to what we as humans can observe, making science the arbiter of the only truth that is worthwhile: “Science works because we function in the context of our experience, and science characterizes our experience in a functional way. To know is to be able to predict future experience, and to do so in a precise way. Truth, in a scientific sense, exists within the scientific epistemology, which provides the rules of the game.”

This kind of thinking is the dominant view of truth and epistemology in the world today, even though it operates by faith, and on the basis of assumptions foreign to its own way of thinking, which have been stolen them from the worldview of Biblical religion.


1.54 The Times: Worldview: Tribalism

March 1, 2020

Johann N. Neem raises the alarm about America’s growing tribalism in “Unbecoming American” (Hedgehog Review, Spring 2020).


His is an immigrant’s perspective on the divisiveness that has undermined our common culture and blurred our common vision of what makes us Americans. The emphasis on individual and group identity and culture has sown hatred into the body civil, so that incivility is increasing on all sides.


Neem still holds out the hope that Americans can rediscover a common culture and vision, but his hope seems a bit naive. He claims to believe in the American Dream, and to hope that “tolerance and mutual respect” can be renewed. He offers no plan or program, and so his article is a combination of lament and wishful thinking.


Unless something is done to transform and unite the souls of Americans, the tribalization we are experiencing will continue, and any sense of the common weal will evaporate. Only God can change souls, not the wishful thinking of well-meaning citizens.

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