A bishop in L.A. is fed up with scientism

November 13, 2015 • 11:30 am

Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times has an op-ed by Robert Barron called “The myth of the eternal war between science and religion.” Barron happens to be the Auxilary Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles, and is somewhat of a religious media star, with a YouTube channel, his own ministry (Word on Fire), and lots of books and articles to his name.

In the op-ed, he not only uses familiar and erroneous arguments to argue for the harmony of science and religion, but also takes the opportunity to decry “scientism,” a pejorative word that, to Barron, means the erroneous idea that only science can tell us what’s real.

Here are his arguments (his text indented):

Science fails because it can’t tell us what the ultimate cause is. The universe is “contingent,” and that contingency proves God:

Many respondents [to Barron’s YouTube attacks on New Atheism] display what I call “scientism,” the philosophical assumption that the real is reducible to what the empirical sciences can verify or describe. In reaction to my attempts to demonstrate that God must exist as the necessary precursor to the radically contingent universe, respondent after respondent says some version of this: Energy, or matter, or the Big Bang, is the ultimate cause of all things. When I counter that the Big Bang itself demonstrates that the universe in its totality is contingent and hence in need of a cause extraneous to itself, they think I’m just talking nonsense.

The answer is obvious: why isn’t God contingent: in need of a cause extraneous to Himself? The theologians wriggle out of that one by saying that God is the Cause that Doesn’t Need Its Own Cause. But that’s bogus, for why doesn’t the “universe”, or the system of multiverses (if we have one), comprise something that doesn’t need its own cause? I’m always baffled at the argument that when you get to God, you can stop asking about causes. The “Uncaused Cause” argument (or the “Uncontingent Cause”) is simply silly—it’s wordplay. But that’s the nature of Sophisticated Theology™.

There are Other Ways of Knowing

That there might be a dimension of reality knowable in a nonscientific but still rational manner never occurs to them. In their scientism, they are blind to literature, philosophy, metaphysics, mysticism and religion.

Note that he refers to “dimensions of reality” rather than “truths about the universe”. Well, yes, emotions and feelings and revelations can be seen as “dimensions of reality,” but they don’t tell us what’s real except that somebody feels something. And although I have great respect for literature and philosophy (but not for metaphysics, mysticism, and religion), those disciplines can’t tell us what is true about our cosmos. I still have not come across a truth about the Universe discernible from literature or art alone that cannot ultimately be traced to science—broadly construed as a combination of empirical observation, testing, doubt, rationality, and replication.

Science and religion are harmonious because there were (and are) religious scientists.

Leaving aside the complexities of the Galileo story, we can see that the vast majority of the founding figures of modern science — Copernicus, Newton, Kepler, Descartes, Pascal, Tycho Brahe — were devoutly religious. More to the point, two of the most important physicists of the 19th century — Faraday and Maxwell — were extremely pious, and the formulator of the Big Bang theory, Georges Lemaitre, was a priest.

If you want a contemporary embodiment of the coming together of science and religion, look to John Polkinghorne, a Cambridge particle physicist, Anglican priest and one of the best commentators on the noncompetitive interface between scientific and religious paths to truth.

I’ve discussed this in Faith versus Fact, and won’t belabor the issue except to say 1) back in the old days, everyone was religous, and 2) the fact that humans can hold in their heads two conflicting and incompatible ways to discern “truth” does not prove that those ways are compatible.

Science was made possible by Christianity.

As Polkinghorne and others have observed, the modern physical sciences were, in fact, made possible by the religious milieu out of which they emerged. It is no accident that modern science first appeared in Christian Europe, where a doctrine of creation held sway. To hold that the world is created is to accept, simultaneously, the two assumptions required for science: namely, that the universe is not divine [JAC: what he means is that God is divine but the universe, as God’s physical creation, is not itself divine] and that it is intelligible.

If the world or nature were considered divine (as it is in many philosophies and mysticisms), then one would never allow oneself to analyze it, dissect it or perform experiments on it. But a created world, by definition, is other than God and, in that very otherness, open to inquiry.

Similarly, if the world were considered unintelligible, no science would get off the ground, because all science is based on the presumption that nature can be known. But the world, Christians agree, is thoroughly intelligible, and hence scientists have the confidence to seek, explore and experiment.

Bogus again. Modern science could be said to have started with the ancient Greeks, but also began in the Middle East and in China. The fact that it proliferated in Europe may have little or nothing to do with Christianity which, after all, denigrated and suppressed the use of reason during the Dark Ages. Science is not a product of Christianity, but of the Enlightenment values of reason and inquiry, and perhaps also of certain developments in Europe like the printing press, things had nothing to do with Christianity.  Besides, the claim that the universe is intelligible because God made it does not follow. God could easily have made an unintelligible universe. We discovered that the universe was intelligible by following our secular noses and finding it so, not because we knew it in advance because God made it.

Christians didn’t agree in advance that the world was “thoroughly intelligible” because God made it. Perhaps a few scientists like Newton thought that, but think of the number of puzzling phenomena once ascribed to God but understood understood by secular scientists: epilepsy, lightning, mental illness, the “design” of plants and animals, the Big Bang, and so on. Religion was not a promoter of scientific understanding, but often an impediment. By putting God in as a gap-filler (which religion still does with things like consciousness and morality), it prevents the very understanding touted by Barron.

Here’s Barron’s ringing finish:

This is why thoughtful people — Christians and atheists alike — must battle the myth of the eternal warfare of science and religion. We must continually preach, as St. John Paul II did, that faith and reason are complementary and compatible paths toward the knowledge of truth.

It is the notion that “faith and reason are complementary” that is the very reason why science and religion are incompatible! Science, which incorporates reason and observation, is the only way to find out what is true. Faith is, and must be, a complete failure at finding out what is true, for it abjures evidence in favor of revelation, authority, and ancient scripture. The failure of faith to find truth is definitively shown by the fact that all the diverse religions of the world, using faith, haven’t settled on a consistent notion of God. Is there no God, one God, or many? Is he a theistic or Deistic God? Is there a Trinity? Was Jesus the Messiah, belief in whom is essential for attaining salvation? Is there a Heaven or a Hell? Are gays damned? Can women be priests? All these—and much more—are questions that have been hanging for centuries, impossible to resolve through faith.

In contrast, there’s only one brand of science, and that science has led to enormous progress in understanding the universe over the past five centuries. Faith and reason complimentary? Balderdash! When theologians tell me some real truths about the universe (and not just moral strictures) that faith has produced, then I’ll listen to them.


h/t: Janet D.

77 thoughts on “A bishop in L.A. is fed up with scientism

  1. That whole contingency thing is just the typical philosophical approach of deciding that some basic principle simply must be true (for whatever reason) and then deducing all sorts of other nonsense that somehow inevitably follows.

    In this particular case, it’s a pair of premises the theologians insist are beyond questioning. First, that everything happens for a reason (and one and only one reason, for that matter); and, second, that an infinite regress is intolerable. Those premises were barely defensible a few millennia when they were initially hotly debated…but today? They’re as coherent as arguing that the Earth must be flat else those in Australia would fall into the sky.

    Whatever formal education this particular shaman might have, he’s nothing but a superstitious flimflam man.


    1. “That whole contingency thing is just the typical philosophical approach of deciding that some basic principle simply must be true (for whatever reason) and then deducing all sorts of other nonsense that somehow inevitably follows.”

      I think one you remove the obfuscating bafflegab it reduces to this:

      therefore not p

      Or, “This principle is **always** true, which proves this exception to it.”

      1. Indeed, not only is it a textbook example of bad logic…but, if you start with the same initial premise and do the logic right, you wind up proving the exact opposite of what the theidiots claim to have proven. Specifically, you wind up with an infinite regress of super-duper gods creating super-gods creating gods…but that infinite regress itself clearly has no cause, thereby invalidating the initial claim that everything has a cause.


  2. Bring it on Bishop Baron. Explain again, sir, what is your God? Is it energy or the quantum of all being? Is it the fluffy clouds in the whole of the blue sky?

    The war is on, baby, and I’ve got critical thinking, evidence, and ten fingers to type you down into submission. Science is winning because that’s how it is. I did not make up the rules, maybe your God did and maybe It just wants science to win.

  3. Science did not fluorish because of Christianity but inspite of it. The rejection of the sciences of the ancient world in favour of ancient philosophies that had been abandoned ages ago, helped bolster the Christian concepts. In other words, science was suppressed in favour of ideology.

    1. Even if the claim that Christianity did lead to the social conditions from which science emerged was true then so what? It doesn’t make Christianity any more true, it doesn’t change the fact that science has entirely replaced religion as a way of knowing.

      1. Saying that Christianity was necessary for science is like saying only Germans could have developed chemistry. Or only Arab culture could have developed algebra. Or that it’s only because of America that there is apple pie. It could be no other way. 🙂

  4. Amazing how many good thinkers (and repeaters) just don’t see the fallacy of composition in the “universe is contingent” bafflegab.

    “In their scientism, they are blind to literature, philosophy, metaphysics, mysticism and religion.”
    – Then why are there science oriented philosophers, some of whom have worked on metaphysics and enjoy literature? And blind to religion? Surely not, since the secular metaphysics (and philosophy generally) need defense, sometimes, particularly when the alternatives are in danger of being enforced by policy or law.

    “vast majority of the founding figures of modern science — Copernicus, Newton, Kepler, Descartes, Pascal, Tycho Brahe — were devoutly religious.”
    – And very heretical in almost all cases. Newton was an Arian; Kepler was a neoneoplatonic sunworshipper, Descartes was a deist (effectively), Pascal *stopped doing science and mathematics for religious reasons*. Copernicus maybe I can give. Brahe? Maybe. But don’t forget more examples: Boyle who is terrified that science will be regarded as unpious; Locke (who said that the microscope was a danger to religion); Leibniz, who has his own unique theology. Spinoza, who corresponded with the Royal Society about Boyle’s work (so a minor figure in science proper but very important for human thought generally) was excommunicated from his synagogue; Hobbes, who *thinks god is made of matter*, like the Stoics before him, etc.

    Or look at their opponents, like Cudworth, who *quite rightly* think of (say) the movement towards more materialism and atheism (or at least deism) has begun again.

      1. or… if not “believed in”, merely said stuff like “if there WAS a god”, that he thought it more likely it would be akin to Spinoza’s god, was in and of itself the underlying order of everything, and subsequently didn’t give a toss about the affairs of humans. And then. of course, the occasional colleague would remark to him that they wished he didn’t throw the word around so much, since he was bound to be misunderstood.

    1. Thank you! It’s extremely cynical of this catholic bishop to name religious scientists in defense of his argument, while medieval catholic inquisitors would have killed most of them for blasphemy if they could.

      ‘Religious’ is ofcourse a very broad category, so I wonder why the bishop didn’t incorporate muslim scientists.

    2. Your examples are very well chosen, but I’m relatively certain John Locke never said the microscope was a danger to religion. (Robert Bellarmine DID say that about the TELEscope, I believe.) Locke DID say that the microscope diverted doctors from bedside observation, and it obfuscated our normal view of human experience.

      To add to your list, Tycho Brahe’s insistence on a geo-heliocentric cosmology, the planets go around the sun, but the sun, moon AND stars(!!) go around a fixed earth, seems to have been influenced by his Biblical literalism!!

      1. I can check the primary source, but the secondary source I remember it in is Catherine Wilson’s book _The Visible World: Early Modern Philosophy and the Invention of the Microscope_.

        The idea was that by using the microscope you’d come to think you understood real essences of things, and hence be godlike and hence unpious. (basically the hubris story all over again.)

  5. Two quick thoughts:

    1. Science was around well in advance of Christianity in mostly pagan countries such as Egypt, Greece, Rome, etc. In fact, much
    (most?) science and math came to Europe via the influx of Islam and Judaism from the Middle East and the diaspora.

    2. In Judaism (and some forms of Christianity) all life is considered sacred since created by God. Jews and Islamics don’t eat blood because it is life and sacred to God. If I understand correctly, Jews have special rituals associated with the handling of human bodies and showing them respect after death because of this.

  6. The much quoted Robert Ingersoll comes to mind:

    “There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, religion sought to strangle it in the cradle. Now that science has attained its youth, and superstition is in its dotage, the trembling, palsied wreck says to the athlete: “Let us be friends.” It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with the horse: “Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet.””

    1. I suppose that’t true. The term intelligible refers to humanities ability to understand and account for things observed. At the level of lower animals intelligibility must mean regularity. Same with chemistry and biology. Now, when it comes to subatomic physics, they are not always intelligible in the sense that our normal manner of understanding and explaining things applies. We have used notions like causality in a rather common sense way that is a bad fit with recent discoveries. Intelligible, then, becomes amenable to mathematical modeling and prediction.

      1. “The term intelligible refers to humanities ability to understand and account for things observed.”

        I’m not sure this is intrinsically different from a microbe’s ability to interact with its environment. I also don’t know if this is knowable.

  7. If Gilbert Ryle were alive today, he would be spinning in his grave 😉 – people keep mixing up their categories.

    Conscious mental events can either be described

    a) subjectively. It’s when “somebody feels something”, if well worded it’s literature, it is purely descriptive, what philosophers call qualia. If *feels* true to me that I am now experiencing a glowing red, but it is the solipsistic kind of knowledge. Experiences of worldly phenomena have the same ontological status as phantasies, errors and biases, and delusions.

    or b) objectively. This requires the scientific method: definition/operationalization, measurement, theory etc. Only in this realm can cause and effect and other facts be determined. And only such facts can be communicated – this is the social kind of knowledge.

    It makes no sense to say, “No, you are not experiencing a glowing red, in reality photons of a certain wavelength are hitting the cones in your retina…” – these are two different categories.
    Likewise, it makes no sense to speak about entities that only exist in realm a) but not in b). Unfortunately, one of the most common fallacies is the belief to “understand” the other when they talk about events from category a)

    1. It’s when “somebody feels something”, if well worded it’s literature, it is purely descriptive, what philosophers call qualia.

      So many people are mystified by consciousness that they fail to notice the term “qualia” is not the phenomenon itself, but a disguised explanation of the phenomenon. The notion that people experience, say, pleasure is the phenomenon. The idea that pleasure is some irreducible, non-physical component that is singled out when I point to my own head and say “I mean that thing there” is the explanation.

      And frankly, as an explanation it’s a dead end. It’s just dualism in disguise. It’s spectacularly useless as an explanation for more or less the same reasons dualism is. For instance, it fails to answer how exactly non-reducible mind-stuff interacts with physical stuff in such a way as to gel coincidentally with what the physical stuff was going to do anyway. But the instant you start gelling it with physical matter in order to wring an explanation-shaped justification for the idea, it immediately starts sacrificing its awe-inspiring mystical qualities.

      To the extent that subjectivity is based on such a view of the human mind, it too becomes just as bunk. Conceding other peoples’ tastes and perspectives becomes indistinguishable from, if not identical to, trying to get all the facts in and building the most objective case possible for the state of affairs we are interested in studying. In other words, learning Frank thinks freedom fighters are terrorists, and taking his arguments for that point into account, is no different – epistemologically or ontologically speaking – from trying to study biochemicals using multiple scientific disciplines, from physics to evolutionary biology.

      1. But the instant you start gelling it with physical matter in order to wring an explanation-shaped justification for the idea, it immediately starts sacrificing its awe-inspiring mystical qualities.

        Should have been clearer here: in other words, it starts sacrificing the unique ontological status that many think they should – or perhaps, simply want to – impute to consciousness.

      2. Actually, I think it might be worse than that. This idea is due to the Churchlands. Imagine dualism were in fact true. Then what? How does that explain qualia any more than materialism? All the “zombie hunches” and what not go through unscathed, etc.

  8. The ultimate cause always has to be the christian deity and no other(s).
    The guy knows if he is wrong about all this he is out of a job, and by extension the rest of his kind. The whole protection racket falls.

  9. The good Bishop would be over the moon if scientists had evidence to prove that Jesus was the Son of God and Mohamed,Buddha etc did not really exist.
    Unfortunately nothing worthy of the term evidence does exist and it must hurt his intellectual pride to be lumped in with the heathens.

  10. Barron wrote: “If the world or nature were considered divine . . ., then one would never allow oneself to analyze it, dissect it or perform experiments on it.”

    Actually, if the universe were divine, it could be considered an act of worship to examine it closely. Figuring out how it works would be the closest one could come to knowing God. Many European natural scientists in the 1700’s and 1800’s seemed to take this view. Some scientists still do.

    1. Yes, I spotted that non sequiteur too. Even if something were divine, I can see no reason whatsoever to not experiment upon it in an attempt to understand it.
      Is English perhaps not this guy’s first language? “divine” does not include the concept of “beyond investigation”. And the Number One tool for investigating the properties of things is the scientific method.
      Did Jesus have a pulse? I mean, before he got nailed to a tree, and granting the propositions that he existed at all, and was human.

  11. Is the term ‘scientism’ always used as a perjorative? It is odd that it seems to be intended as a put-down, since I think the term could be a complement. I would like it if someone told me ‘you only believe in material causes and in what can be observed and independently verified’.
    To which I would say ‘Why, thank you!’

    1. Ah, but isn’t that the great bait and switch that theologians like to use. They will (as the good bishop does) point out that there are human philosophical questions that science can’t give an answer to (although science can certainly inform). And then presto, “if you don’t accept my theological answer for what came before the big bang, you are guilty of scientism.” NO! what came before the big bang is a scientific question. Of course I’m looking to science to provide an answer. And maybe science will never be able to provide that answer to me, but that does not equate to ergo (fill in your philosophical answer here). Using the accusation of scientism appears to me to usually just be a cover for equivocation.

    2. Mario Bunge writes somewhere that he has been told he’s a positivist as a term of abuse. He says it is inaccurate (since he thinks ethics and metaphysics are cognitive fields) but as an insult: “I have been called worse.”

  12. There are questions that science can not answer, but religion can. The reason science can not answer certain questions is because of this damn rule science has against bullshitting. It’s not allowed in science. This is why people turn to religions to answer those questions that science can not answer. Because religions don’t have that restrictive rule against pretending to know things they do not know. So they have answers that science does not have.

    So you see, science is constrained and therefore inept. It’s not allowed to bullshit so it can not help you when it comes to God. To learn about God you need to go to someone who has no close minded rule against bullshitting.

  13. In the apologist world contingent is just another world for g*d. So all living things are contingent on g*d and not evolution as we have learned. Just one thing – upon which g*d is this life contingent? I don’t want to assign credit to the wrong one.

    1. HINT : if your g*d doesn’t involve a herb and tomato based sauce, you’re backing the wrong … horse, cow, sheep, goat, or flesh-rich animal of choice. Would fish make good meatballs? I suppose with the right binding agents, yes ; but they’re more prone to forming “meal” than “mince”.
      Actually, Quorn (artificial fungi, and ™)makes perfectly acceptable meatballs. The One True Church is a church of many plates. All full to groaning. With a Beer Volcano (which can be non-alcoholic, if that’s your lava stream).

      1. Would fish make good meatballs?

        That would be gefilte fish. The store-bought canned variety is in violation of the Geneva Conventions, but there’re homemade ones to die for.

        In a similar vein, a long-standing cheap emergency meal in my family has been what we called “tuna burgers” growing up, but are better described as croquettes. Canned tuna, a beaten egg, breadcrumbs, a little chopped celery and onions, and whatever herbs and / or spices catch your fancy, formed into patties dusted with cornmeal and fried in a generous amount of oil. Usually topped with a béchamel and served with either rice or some sort of pasta — and the béchamel topping the carbohydrate as well.

        With noodles…well, there’s your fish-based spaghetti and meatballs.


        1. “celery” – [self] raises the anti-Dracula crucifix.
          <p.Otherwise … maybe we need to move up a gear to "fish omelet"; I've never got such concoctions to work. But since failures rapidly go to the "tuna (-ish) omelet" corner of culinary-space, and the omelet version is edible … I've always stopped there.
          2 minutes/day in the kitchen is excessive for me.

  14. Excellent post Jerry.

    To my mind, one of the main reasons Western scientists have nominally been Christian is that it was the Church that provided all the education. Schools were attached to churches. Monks and priests were the teachers. Universities were staffed by men who were in at least minor religious orders.

    They weren’t allowed to teach stuff the Church considered heresy. One of the best known examples is the ban on human dissection. There was one school in Italy that did it for a few years, and their medical school was recognized as producing superior doctors. That part of the curriculum was suppressed by the Church though. How many needlessly died because doctors didn’t have a proper knowledge of anatomy?

    Ideas escaped the orthodoxy, and if the scientist couldn’t find a way to reconcile it with current dogma he suffered. And it was always a “he.” It was rare for girls to attend school, and they weren’t even allowed to enter universities as servants, let alone students.

    1. Note that the taboo against dissection predated Christianity (it is one of the reasons Galen made errors). Apparently the church banned them in 1299 (as a by product of banning another custom) but by 1315 they were legally allowed at Bologna. Fairly frequently dissection seems to have been part of the punishment of a criminal. You were executed and instead of your family getting the body to be buried, it was handed over for medical dissection (previously it might just have been exposed to the elements).

      Human cadaveric dissection: a historical account from ancient Greece to the modern era
      Sanjib Kumar Ghosh
      Anat Cell Biol. 2015 Sep; 48(3): 153–169.
      Admittedly the author does not appear to be a trained historian and I doubt the article was peer reviewed by historians given the journal.

      1. Thanks so much for the link. 🙂 Very interesting article!

        It didn’t jibe with anything I already knew, but one criticism I would have is that it gave a too positive view of how much anatomical study there was historically. It didn’t make clear, for example, that even once study using actual human cadavers started again, students only watched, and in an anatomy theatre, from such a distance that they couldn’t see much. Also, initially Galen was read aloud during the process to “prove” his findings. Galen’s studies were all performed on animals, usually dogs, and the human dissections actually didn’t prove his work, but Galen’s word was still taken.

        Also, though it mentioned artists doing dissections from the Renaissance, it didn’t mention, for example, that even da Vinci made mistakes. One thing he drew was a tube for seminal fluid that came from a man’s spine.

  15. I have a serious question about Jerry’s “other ways of knowing” argument. I agree that science IS the only way to know about the universe. My question is are there other ways of knowing with respect to explaining human behavior? In short, could a work of fiction (obviously based on the authors actual experiences) be a legitimate theory of human behavior/nature/etc? Maybe this falls under “science” construed broadly in that anyone can generate hypotheses but the scientific method is the methodology to prove it. But isn’t something like human behavior largely observational? Is “knowledge” about human psychology “science” and are fiction authors merely “behaving scientifically” like a psychologist would?

    1. I thnk that’s a good question, and I’ll give my 2 cants. Certainly, writers like George Eliot (and so many more) were astute observers of human behavior, and fiction often allows them to ‘test’ hypotheses as thought experiments about what would happen IF certain conditions held. And these insights are valuable, and we can learn from them. But they are, as such, untested in the bigger scientific picture, and almost never rise to anything like the level of systematic theory. In acting as astute observers, they embody one of the features of good science, but not some of the others. Which is ok, not a criticism.

    2. Fiction might give you an idea you didn’t have before, it might propose hypotheses about the world that you hadn’t considered, it might instill in you empathy, or hatred, or affection, for someone or something you previously did not have these feelings for. It might contain facts, and it might even contain “new” facts gleaned from the authors observational skills. But, and this is key, you have no way to know what aspects of the work of fiction are fact and which are convincing fiction (it doesn’t matter what the author believes). People have many ideas about how humans behave that are provably wrong, as in simple experiments reveal them to be wrong. Because we believe these “folk theories” of mind, though, when we read a work of fiction that promulgates the same “folk theory” it “feels” right to us, even when it is not. Moreover, a gifted author can make all kinds of counter-factual things seem true. While I don’t doubt that some author has had a unique and true insight into human nature, without doing actual science experiments, with controls and so on, we simply can not know that this is the case.

      So the best fiction can aspire to is to be a branch of philosophy, a playpen for pure thinking which may or, more often, may not have any connection with the real world.

    3. I think Jerry gave a pretty concise answer in his post.

      “Well, yes, emotions and feelings and revelations can be seen as “dimensions of reality,” but they don’t tell us what’s real except that somebody feels something.”

      Yes, art, literature, and music can give us “knowledge” about human thoughts, motivations and emotions. And while those are important insights, there is absolutely no evidence that they tell us anything about the physical universe. As an example, I can look at “The Creation of Adam” painting by Michelangelo and I can get an understanding that there was held a belief (or the elite wanted there to be a belief) that the essence of humanity came from their god. That is “knowledge,” but it doesn’t make it a factual representation of the moral development of the human species.

  16. “A bishop in L.A. is fed up with scientism”

    And many scientists are fed up with Catholicism, so I guess it’s even.

    Barron: “Many respondents [to Barron’s YouTube attacks on New Atheism] display what I call “scientism,” the philosophical assumption that the real is reducible to what the empirical sciences can verify or describe.”

    Or, what some might call rational empiricism. Or materialism. Or naturalism. Or realism. Take your pick, lots of “-isms” to go around.

    1. “Leaving aside the complexities of the Galileo story . . . .”

      No, I want to hear the gentleman hold forth on these “complexities,” and justify the Catholic church’s treatment of Galileo, and watch him squirm doing so.

      Has the term “religionism,” been coined? If not, perhaps it’s time.

  17. It is definitely the case that science started in ancient Greece with fellows like Archimedes.

    Now science may be the product of Enlightement values, but I think not Enlightenment per se, because that is putting the cart before the horse. The Age of Enlightenment is largely an 18th century phenomenon, starting with the death of Louis XIV. But the modern Scientific Revolution really is centered on the work of Copernicus and Isaac Newton, finishing with Newton’s “Principia” in 1687. Chief highlights of the scientific revolution are Newton’s theories of gravity and light, Robert Boyle’s rudimentary chemistry, etc.

    The Enlightenment is IMO the child of the Scientific Revolution rather than the other way around.

    I agree there is no consensus among scientists about the intelligibility of the world being due to God, but given that Newton (who so thought) is virtually the architect of all the principles of physics that reigned from the 16th to 19th century (though he didn’t quite get electricity and magnetism) before these were overturned by Einstein and Bohr/Heisenberg, I wouldn’t regard him as a trivial or random example.

    Re 3rd to last paragraph, Lots of Christians thought the world was intelligible because God made it (many of whom had incorrect scientific views!) The trope of God the geometer, showing God with a compass and straight edge is in many medieval paintings!
    (See this 1411 painting http://www.luminarium.org/encyclopedia/godgeometer3.jpg or this one from circa 1220 upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4d/God_the_Geometer.jpg )

    The point, IMO, is that not all scientists investigate the world on that assumption.

    1. At the time, that’s what the Enlightment figures said. Hume basically claims he wants to do for what we’d call psychology and the social sciences what Newton did for physics, to pick one example.

  18. We must continually preach, as St. John Paul II did, that faith and reason are complementary and compatible paths toward the knowledge of truth.

    Science is not compatible with miracles, which he must claim in order to write “St. John Paul II”.

  19. Some comic did a great routine recently about a new popular drug that was made by combining aspirin and (I’m pretty sure it was) heroin. He had this great bit about, I’m pretty sure that one of those two is doing the heavy lifting there, and I think I know which one it is! It’s kind of like the “symbiosis” of faith and reason. Sure, we can “combine” them in terms of the knowledge they bring into the world, but I’m pretty sure one is doing the heavy lifting there.

    And of course, the conclusion that they are compatible doesn’t follow from the premise that the one is the “cause” of the other. Even if science arose, in some causally specifiable way, from Christianity, it could have been because of features of Christianity that were present at that point in history but aren’t found later–cultural elements, for instance. If so, these could be considered, I suppose, “parts of Christianity,” but not parts that are related in any important way to the more essential features, such as the resurrection, etc. Hence, the argument could not be used to infer the truth of those parts.

    Secondly, Christianity could have “birthed” science in some important way, but provided a methodology that allowed it to grow into something that is not compatible with religion anymore. By analogy, science might have arisen from common sense, but by applying that methodology, there would be no reason to think that it couldn’t evolve and find truths that were inconsistent with common sense.

  20. I wanted to scan the comments at the LA Times website but was unable to load them. We’re any of you able to? I love it when clowns like the good bishop are soundly spanked in a public forum.

  21. I took a quick look at the good bishop’s blog. He is against same-sex marriage because – and this genuinely appears to be his reason – it isn’t “decent“.

    He is against the right to die because “your life does not belong to you“.

    The arguments do not get any deeper than this.

    His rhetoric musings also betray a deep hatred of secularism and atheism:

    “the more our society drifts into atheism, the more human life is under threat.”

    All that education, but alas it doesn’t appear to have had an effect.

    1. In that article, Barron’s arguments are deep, but more deep doo-doo than deep water.

      He starts out appealing to Alistair MacIntyre’s book “After Virtue” which makes the argument that since society no longer argues ethics in an Aristotelian (and Thomist) manner, therefore society has no basis for ethical argument at all.

      Newsflash! After the loss of “virtue ethics” (teleologically based ethics), Western culture developed alternative systems like “consequentialist ethics” and “de-ontological ethics” or “pragmatic ethics”

      It’s mainly committed religious Christians who still think more or less in terms of Aristotelian “virtue ethics”. (Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life” never mentions Aristotle- I don’t think- but it’s pretty much in that teleological tradition.) By consequence, humanists like Sam Harris (in “The Moral Landscape”) are basically consequentialists and/or pragmatists.

      Barron and his mentor MacIntyre would have you believe the alternative to traditional virtue ethics is ultimately anarchy and arbitrary whim, as if no other framework for moral discourse exists. It ain’t so, Pops.

      While it may superficially seem problematic to adjudicate ethics on the basis of democracy (Barron’s chief argument), modern voters are in fact implicitly going on a more or less on a consequentialist ethics.

      (You can see a recourse to modern ethical thinking in the vain attempt of anti-gay people to claim homosexuality is a threat to the family. There is of course 4000 years of acceptance of gays in Chinese culture to show this is not so.)

  22. Science and religion are harmonious because there were (and are) religious scientists.

    So science and alchemy are harmonious because Newton wasted his time searching for the Philosopher’s Stone.

    1. A & H disproves the myths. But we can also note that other sciences disprove religious claims on nature irrespective of other myth content.

      Catholicism is a special case where it was claimed in the later 20th century that nothing of nature invalidated (or validated) the religion, except one biological claim: that modern humans descended from a single breeder pair. The definitional core claim of catholicism was disproved 2011 by genetic sequencing.

      “This parody of nature description is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker!

      ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies!

      ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig!

      ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!!


      1. Given that this is the Church that has lead the charge against science, they don’t get to pretend to be different from evangelicals, religion is about supernatural and science is about nature. I’d rather a relationship with nature and reality than to ever support pedophile bankers trying to PR their way to continued existance. I am unsure why they haven’t been sued into bankruptcy by now.

  23. Great post!

    But Barron, what a buffoon! Claiming that religion is compatible with science because there are religious scientists is lika claiming that smoking is compatible with medicine because there are smoking doctors.

    Barron: Many respondents [to Barron’s YouTube attacks on New Atheism] display what I call “scientism,” the philosophical assumption that the real is reducible to what the empirical sciences can verify or describe.”

    *** How is that different from “mysticism”, the philosophical assumption that the real is not reducible to what the empirical sciences can verify or describe”? ***

    The problem with Barron’s reliance on philosophic just so stories is that they are by definition as much balderdash as magic is, in the absence of science. “Reality” is as much a superfluous claim as “gods” are as regards the existence of nature. For example, when some claim that quantum mechanics show that realism is invalid, the actual physics is that hidden variables – such as ‘gods’ – are forbidden.

    [Technical note: It used to be “local” hidden variables in classical QM. But relativity expands that over the light cone.]

    That is correct, nature forbid ‘gods’!

    Instead we can reformulate the observational claim of science as: “Nature exists. Science finds out what nature is. Because


    science. It works, bitches.”

  24. I guess I would ask Barron and like minded to show me the infamous ‘assumptions’ that science makes.

    Does a hammer makes assumption? Does a dental drill, a microscope, an accelerator detector? When does the religious assumptions-of-the-gaps slip in, and how are the ever decreasing ‘assumptions’ something useful to hinge your magic claims on?

    1. My rock-in-a-sock is singularly light on the assumption front too. Unless you count Newton’s First Law to be an unfounded assumption. In which case I have an excellent pedagogical tool.

    2. I guess I would ask Barron and like minded to show me the infamous ‘assumptions’ that science makes.

      Probably the ultimate assumption they accuse us of is the idea that reason itself is reasonable, or something to that effect. The obvious appeal of such tactics is that they lower the net enough – or rather, remove it outright – so that even a no-hoper like religion can still “credibly” play tennis with the best of science and look justified doing so.

      It’s actually a pretty back-handed insult to themselves: not only do they try to use reason to reason that reason is unreasonable – which anyone acquainted with the infamous “This sentence is false” logical snarl can have a laugh at – but it’s essentially admitting that the only way their software works is by crashing the computer and switching it off.

  25. The “science and religion are compatible cuz dey be religiss scientists” is such facile and childish reasoning. It’s easily demonstrated to be worthless just by substituting *any type of person* with “scientist” and it’s still true:

    * Pedophilia and religion are compatible because there are religious pedophiles
    *Murder and religion are compatible because there are religious murderers
    * Rape and religion are compatible because there are religious rapists
    *Necrophilia and religion are compatible because there are religious necrophiles
    * Sloth (or any other sin) and religion are compatible because there are religious layabouts (sinners)
    * Slavery and religion are compatible because there are religious slavers
    * Lying and religion are compatible because there are religious liars

    … And so on ad nauseum. I believe the proper term for this type of argument is that it “proves too much”.

    Please. Someone put this argument in the trashbin and let’s all work together to make sure it never sees the light of day again.

  26. A Christian friend challenged me to read a book by Polkinghorne to “advance my thinking”. It was the usual shopping list of silliness, although he does display some integrity and honesty here and there. It was about as likely to ‘advance my thinking’ as visiting a brothel would be to advance my morality.

  27. The title sums it up: “A Bishop in L.A. is fed up with scientism”- who cares?

    I think this moron should be labeled a victim of, “Atheistaphobia”.

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