Science, Religion and the Pathless Land


Justin picture 3
Painting by Justin Adair

Kant described that “pathless land” (that “negative geography”) as a freedom to speak for oneself, trusting one’s own intelligence. And this implied that science at its best recognizes that its theories remain shadows on Plato’s cave. At its best science is attentive to deviations from what is believed to be real. And not in the way Karl Popper conceived of falsification, which is still reductive in its quest for a perfect theory. But rather, at its best science remains alert to what is “false in the true, and true in the false”, as Krishnamurti phrased it.

Creationists have an especially hard time with this. A mentality alert to anomalies in what is true and false doesn’t have a vested interest in defending its stories. The theories of science are not weak because they’re perpetually changing. They’re intended as provisional sketches of a universe wildly erring from anything we imagine. Or as the physicist Hans-Peter Dürr phrased it, “Science also speaks only in parables.”

But many scientific voices veered off on a technological tangent, searching for reality within the limited beam of objectively measurable things. Mind got excluded from matter and energy because it’s not a measurable thing. This robbed many scientists of their own conscience, their own voice. They found prestige as the voices of industry and military, becoming defensive of strictly materialist interpretations of reality, which support their masters. In a sense they became a new priestly authority speaking on our behalf using the obscure “Latin” of mathematics.

These priests tell the story of the universe as a lifeless machine. This story turned animals into automatons; the earth into resources. And it described the individual as an isolated spark of intelligence stranded in a wasteland of inanimate dust. In this story technology assumed the role of God, bestowing artificial intelligence on lifeless matter. It was a contagious new faith, dominating the Zeitgeist, with miracles far greater than any in the Bible. And now many worship their own image in the Adam and Eve of their computers, some perhaps even waiting for the second coming as a “singularity.”

This is no criticism of the voice of science, but of its co-option by a civilization afraid of what The Enlightenment unleashed. After all, it’s not just the Creationists who reject the critical awareness of science, but industry also, and a science in servitude to industry. In religion and commerce, a competitive scramble was unleashed for “personal truths” that could replace the consensus (albeit dogmatic) reality science destroyed. And so we all became carriers of this civilization’s structure of escape, building a new Babel of competing certainties.

And then we spread our alienation, hell-bent on finding a pot of gold, or anything to fill the hole opened by an imperfectly grasped freedom to speak for ourselves. We are, in a sense, refugees from the scientific revolution, decimating diverse realities in every land we colonize.

And the collapse of this Tower of Babel will either crush us with war and climate change, or the escapist delusions themselves will fall. One way or another it will mean the collapse of a world dedicated to unreality.


5 thoughts on “Science, Religion and the Pathless Land

  1. E.F Schumacher talks about the dominance of ‘material scientism’, which is a degenerate form of science – it’s a degenerative form of science because it is geared towards providing us with the security of being able to think that someone somewhere understands ‘what it’s all about’ and so we don’t have to fear radical mystery! Experts have proven, etc…. Science has been co-opted (as you say) to serve this miserable end.

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  2. In the Wikipedia entry it says this – “….He (Schumacher) uses the term scientism because he argues that many people, including some philosophers of science, have misunderstood the theory behind instructional science and believe that it produces truth. But the instructional sciences are based on induction; and as David Hume famously points out induction is not the same as truth. Furthermore, according to Schumacher, instructional sciences are primarily concerned only with the parts of truth that are useful for manipulation, i.e. they focus on those instructions which are necessary to reliably produce certain results. But this does not mean that an alternative instruction set won’t work, or indeed an alternative instruction set based on quite different principles. For Schumacher, instructional sciences therefore produce theories which are useful: pragmatic truths. By contrast, Schumacher argues that the descriptive sciences are interested in the truth in the wider sense of the word.

    He argues that materialistic scientism follows a policy of leaving something out if it is in doubt. Consequently, the maps of western science fail to show large ‘unorthodox’ parts of both theory and practice of science and social science, and reveal a complete disregard for art and many other high level humanistic qualities. Such an approach, Schumacher argues, provides a grey, limited, utilitarian worldview without room for vitally important phenomena like beauty and meaning.

    He observes that the mere mention of spirituality and spiritual phenomena in academic discussion is seen as a sign of ‘mental deficiency’ among scientists. Schumacher argues that where there is near total agreement a subject becomes effectively dead; it therefore is the subjects where there is doubt that deserve the most intense research. Schumacher believes in contrast to materialistic science that what is in doubt should be shown prominently, not hidden away or ignored.

    His biggest complaint against materialistic scientism is that it rejects the validity of certain questions, which for Schumacher are actually the most important questions of all. Materialistic scientism rejects the idea of levels of being, but for Schumacher this leads to a one-sided view of nature. For Schumacher, you can learn much about humanity by studying from the perspective of minerals, plants and animals, because humans contain the lower levels of being. But that is not the full or even the most important part of the story, as he puts “…everything can be learned about him except that which makes us human.”

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  3. Postscript (9/10/2018): I should have made clear the connection between an inability to speak for oneself and Kant’s quote: 

    “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’- that is the motto of enlightenment.”

    “Self-incurred tutelage” or “immaturity” is the usual translation of the key word Kant used — “unmündigkeit”. But maybe a more precise definition would be “inability to speak for oneself”, because the German word “unmündigkeit” includes the word “Mund” (mouth) and means a person who is incapable of speaking for oneself either because of immaturity (legally defined by age or otherwise) or as Kant implies because of some form of enslavement to an authority. 


  4. “Science, Religion and the Pathless Land” is probably an inferior version of what I already said in “You Say You Want a Revolution?” in the section titled “How We Got Hoodwinked into a Reduced Reality of Fragmentation, an Inanimate Earth, Wars of Elimination and Radical Self-Interest”.


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