Science, Scientism, and Spirituality

6 May 2019

Wolfgang Smith

What distinguishes science from scientism, in my terminology, is the fact that scientific tenets are based upon empirical evidence — and are moreover falsifiable — whereas the claims of scientism, while pretending to be scientific, are actually founded upon ideological grounds. A textbook example would be the Darwinist claim, which proves to be both uncorroborated and unfalsifiable empirically. Yet there hardly exists a so-called “natural science” these days which is not de facto  permeated with scientistic tenets of various kinds. And as regards the prevailing worldview — our supposedly “scientific” Weltanschauung, touted to rest on the so-called “hard facts of science” — a modest inquiry suffices to disclose that it is actually scientistic to the core.

Having dealt with the issue of “scientistic belief” on many occasions — beginning with my first book, which referred to that Weltanschauung  in its subtitle as a “barrier” to be broken through — it behooves us to reflect upon its effect on what might broadly be termed the spiritual life. Let me state at the outset that I perceive the impact of these allegedly “scientific” dogmas upon the religious domain to be harmful in the extreme. I should add that the problem has been greatly exacerbated by the fact that theologians and pastors are as a rule unequipped to deal with issues of this kind, and all too often have been deceived themselves by the “signs and wonders”  presently on display.

What does it matter, some believers will say: what if we are  perhaps mistaken concerning the nature of causality or the terminus of sense perception — or even on the question of evolution — so long as we stand on solid ground in matters of religion? First of all let me state emphatically that it does  matter: that scientism, in any of its modes, proves to be deleterious — toxic in fact — to the spiritual life. We must not forget that religion — so long as it has not degenerated into social convention or mere sentimentality — demands the whole man: holiness  and wholeness  prove in the end to be inseparable. Does not “the first and greatest”  commandment enjoin “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind”?  What we think about the world — our Weltanschauung — cannot with impunity be excluded from the sphere of religion; as St. Thomas Aquinas states in Summa Contra Gentiles:1Bk. II, ch. 3.

It is absolutely false to maintain, with reference to the truths of our faith, that what we believe regarding the creation is of no consequence, so long as one has an exact conception of God; because an error regarding the nature of creation always gives rise to a false idea concerning God.

One might add that the history of Western civilization since the Enlightenment amply confirms this Thomistic principle: from the deism of Voltaire and the atheism of Laplace right up to the “science-fiction theology” of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin2I have expressed my views regarding Teilhard de Chardin in Theistic Evolution: The Teilhardian Heresy  (Angelico Press, 2012). one beholds the spectacle of scientistic errors begetting spurious theologies.


Clearly, what we hold to be true regarding matters of science does affect our theological beliefs and most assuredly impacts our spiritual life. Moreover — with due allowance for what might be termed “invincible ignorance” — it cannot be denied that we are, to some degree, responsible for what we hold to be true in this supposedly “secular” domain of inquiry: “with all thy mind” — these four words alone should suffice to dispel all doubt in that regard. I would further contend that religion goes astray the moment it capitulates to scientific authority when it comes to “what we believe regarding the creation.” It appears to me that the contemporary decline of authentic religion and the ongoing de-Christianization of Western society have much to do with the fact that, ever since the Enlightenment, our cosmology has been abandoned to the mercy of the scientists.

Yet the matter does not end with a factitious cosmology: for it is the ineluctable tendency of science to absolutize the cosmos, which comes thus eventually to usurp the place of God. As Theodore Roszak, for one, has noted with admirable clarity: “Science is our religion, because we cannot, most of us, with any living conviction see around it.”3Where the Wasteland Ends  (Doubleday, 1973), p. 124. And one might add that Oskar Milosz has made much the same point even more sharply: “Unless a man’s concept of the physical universe accords with reality,” he writes, “his spiritual life will be crippled at its roots, with devastating consequences for every other aspect of his life.”4Cited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Religion and the Order of Nature  (Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 153. Concerning Oskar Milosz, see Philip Sherrard, Human Image: World Image  (Golgonooza Press, 1992), pp. 131-146. Would that these authors were studied and reflected upon in our seminaries by professors and students alike!

As regards the implications of the scientistic worldview for the life of the Church, let me quote from the French philosopher Jean Borella:

The truth is that the Catholic Church has been confronted by the most formidable problem a religion can encounter: the scientistic disappearance (disparition scientifique)  of the universe of symbolic forms which enable it to express and manifest itself, that is to say, which permit it to exist.

And he goes on to say:

That destruction has been effected by Galilean physics … because it reduces bodies, material substance, to the purely geometric, thus making it at one stroke impossible (or devoid of meaning) that the world can serve as a medium for the manifestation of God. The theophanic capacity of the world is denied.5Le sens du surnaturel  (Editions Ad Solem, 1996), p. 74.

It should be noted that Borella is implicitly referring to what I term the reduction of the corporeal to the physical: “le problème le plus redoubtable qu’une religion puisse rencontrer,”  he calls it. What he terms “a reduction to the purely geometric” is moreover tantamount to Cartesian bifurcation, that is to say, to the subjectification of the qualities. It is this “reduction to the purely geometric” that obliterates “the theophanic capacity of our world.”

It is of course to be understood that the “symbolic forms” to which Borella alludes are not — as some might imagine — subjective images or “ideas” which, in bygone days, mankind had naively projected upon the external universe — until, that is, Science arrived upon the scene to enlighten us. The very opposite of this officially mandated scenario is in fact the case: the “symbolic forms” to which Borella refers are objectively real and constitute in truth the very foundation of the universe. We may conceive of them as “forms” in the Aristotelian and Scholastic sense, or Platonically as eternal archetypes reflected upon the plane of cosmic existence. In either case they constitute the very essence of corporeal being: remove these “symbolic forms” and the cosmos ceases to exist, for it is they that anchor the cosmos to God.

The crucial fact is that the scientistic denial of the corporeal entails a negation of the substantial forms and essences which constitute the order of being, along with the sensible qualities which manifest these forms and essences. The scientifically conditioned mind has thus become de facto  incapable of recognizing what Borella terms “the universe of symbolic forms,” and it is in that sense that “the theophanic capacity of the universe” has “disappeared.”

It is hardly surprising thus that the consequences of this breach prove to be tragic in the extreme. In his denial of essences — which in truth are comparable to a light penetrating into our world from a higher sphere — scientistic man has jettisoned the very basis of the spiritual life: has in effect obliterated the domain “that enables the Church to express and manifest itself” and thus “permits it to exist,” as Borella points out.

The refutation of scientistic belief proves thus to be a sine qua non  for the restoration and indeed the survival of the Church on Earth: no wonder its presently visible manifestation hardly seems like the Church anymore. “Progressive” spokesmen will of course respond by holding forth on what is typically termed a “return to the Middle Ages” — yet the fact remains that the expulsion of the scientistic heresy is today, for the Church at large, a matter not only of urgent necessity, but actually of survival. The stakes could not be higher! As I have noted elsewhere in reference to fundamental physics, so too in the ecclesiastic sphere it appears that we are fast approaching a critical point, a “singularity” at which the present trajectory cannot but come to an end. What happens beyond this ominous point — that, I surmise, may well be a question to which Scripture alone holds the key.

*   *   *

It will be enlightening, at this juncture, to recall what St. Paul reveals to us regarding “the theophanic capacity of the world” in his Epistle to the Romans:

For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead.

To which he adds:

So they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were they thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves wise, they became fools.6Rom. 1:20-22

I need hardly point out the striking relevance of these words to all that we have touched upon! “Professing themselves wise, they became fools”:  is this not in fact a fitting characterization of our scientistic predicament? The “things that are made”  can evidently be identified as corporeal  entities, the objects mankind normally perceives in the waking state. And what about “the invisible things of Him”:  are these not precisely what we have referred to as eternal essences, ideas or archetypes? So long as our heart has not been “darkened,”  the “things that are made”  will awaken in us an intellectual perception — a “recollection” as Plato says — of the eternal things they reflect or embody.

St. Paul alludes to a time or state when man “knew God,”  a reference, first of all, to the condition of Adam before the Fall, when human nature was as yet undefiled by Original Sin. One needs however to realize that the Fall of Adam has been repeated on a lesser scale down through the ages, in an unending series of betrayals, large and small. Even today, at this late stage of human history, we are yet, each of us, endowed with a certain “knowledge of God”  to which we freely respond. And that is precisely why we, too, are “without excuse,”  and why, to some degree at least, we are responsible for what we take the cosmos to be. Everyone perceives the world ultimately in keeping with his spiritual state: the “pure in heart”  perceive it without fail as a theophany — and as for the rest of us, “whose foolish hearts are darkened,”  the theophanic capacity of the universe is reduced in proportion to that very darkening.

Not only, however, does our spiritual state affect the way we perceive the external world, but it is likewise to be noted that, conversely, the way we perceive the world — literally our worldview — reacts invariably upon that spiritual state. What we take the universe to be — how we look upon the world — has a profound effect upon our spiritual life. The decisive point I wish to convey is that the scientistic Weltanschauung  takes us in principle to a state which may actually be characterized as subhuman;  happily, however, human nature as such prevents us normally from embracing wholeheartedly what the pundits of the flatland proclaim: to be fully cut off from “the theophanic capacity of the universe” is after all, for us humans, unbearable.7This clearly holds true for the pundits of scientistic materialism as well. Who can actually imagine a man, say, who regards his wife or child as an ensemble of quantum particles? As my esteemed friend Olavo de Carvalho says again and again: “They are lying!” Whether we know it or not — and whatever our scientistic periti  may say — we stand in perpetual need of that “theophanic capacity” even as plants demand light and animals crave food.

The fact is that man and cosmos are inseparably linked. According to the traditional wisdom of mankind, the anthropos  constitutes actually a microcosm:  a “cosmos in miniature,” a fact which entails that even as man is tripartite — consisting of corpus, anima, and spiritus — so too is the cosmos at large.8On this question I refer to Physics and Vertical Causation  (Angelico Press, 2019). It needs moreover to be understood that what Jean Borella terms “theophanic capacity” resides, not simply on the corporeal plane, which actually has no existence in and by itself, but in the integral, tripartite cosmos. It is thus the artist, and above all the saint — the “pure in heart” — who know how to perceive.

One sees finally, in light of these tradition-based reflections, how utterly misguided, dehumanizing, and lethal to our spiritual well-being the scientistic Weltanschauung  actually proves to be. Would it be too much to label it “insane”?

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1. Bk. II, ch. 3.
2. I have expressed my views regarding Teilhard de Chardin in Theistic Evolution: The Teilhardian Heresy  (Angelico Press, 2012).
3. Where the Wasteland Ends  (Doubleday, 1973), p. 124.
4. Cited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Religion and the Order of Nature  (Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 153. Concerning Oskar Milosz, see Philip Sherrard, Human Image: World Image  (Golgonooza Press, 1992), pp. 131-146.
5. Le sens du surnaturel  (Editions Ad Solem, 1996), p. 74.
6. Rom. 1:20-22
7. This clearly holds true for the pundits of scientistic materialism as well. Who can actually imagine a man, say, who regards his wife or child as an ensemble of quantum particles? As my esteemed friend Olavo de Carvalho says again and again: “They are lying!”
8. On this question I refer to Physics and Vertical Causation  (Angelico Press, 2019).