Look out! It’s scientism!

The Manhattan Institute, a conservative ‘think tank’ in the US, declares its mission on each page:

The Mission of the Manhattan Institute is to develop and disseminate new ideas that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility.

Oh yeah? Then what’s the latest piece of obscurantist theistic sciencephobic mystification from Leon Kass doing there? The ideas are so not new that they’re more like a putrefying corpse, they’re about closing down greater economic choice rather than fostering it, and they’re about irresponsible irrational scaremongering rather than about individual responsibility. Fucking typical of most US conservatives of the respectable stripe: they talk resounding bullshit but they line up obediently behind ‘ideas’ that ought to be anathema to them; in short, they’re just party hacks who make right-wing groupthink everything and careful rational thought nothing, while pretending to do something different. A pox on them.

And on the twice-curdled dreck that keeps spilling out of Leon Kass.

But beneath the weighty ethical concerns raised by these new biotechnologies—a subject for a different lecture—lies a deeper philosophical challenge: one that threatens how we think about who and what we are. Scientific ideas and discoveries about living nature and man, perfectly welcome and harmless in themselves, are being enlisted to do battle against our traditional religious and moral teachings, and even our self-understanding as creatures with freedom and dignity. A quasi-religious faith has sprung up among us—let me call it “soul-less scientism”—which believes that our new biology, eliminating all mystery, can give a complete account of human life, giving purely scientific explanations of human thought, love, creativity, moral judgment, and even why we believe in God. The threat to our humanity today comes not from the transmigration of souls in the next life, but from the denial of soul in this one, not from turning men into buffaloes, but from denying that there is any real difference between them.

Impressive, isn’t it? In its ineffable familiarity, its staleness, its pathetic adherence to a formula, its witlessness? I especially admire that ‘let me call it “soul-less scientism”‘ as if all this bedwetting were original with him. Yeah sure Leon, let you and fourteen thousand other people call it that; it still won’t add up to anything useful. (Do you fret about ‘soul-less engineering much? Soul-less shoe repair? Plumbing? Dry cleaning?)

All we have here is yet another incarnation of the absurd strawman claim about a quasi-religious faith that believes biology can give a complete account of everything everything everything, including – would you believe it? – love! creativity! moral judgment! God! That’s a tremendously profound, illuminating, shrewd, cogent, perceptive observation except for the one tiny problem that it’s not true. There is no quasi-religious faith that biology can give a complete account of everything everything everything, that’s a ridiculous claim and it has no function except to rile up a credulous audience. Leon Kass should be embarrassed at himself.

The stakes in this contest are high: at issue are the moral and spiritual health of our nation, the continued vitality of science, and our own self-understanding as human beings and as children of the West. All friends of human freedom and dignity—including even the atheists among us—must understand that their own humanity is on the line.

That’s a nice touch, isn’t it? Even the atheists among us – those unclean kafirs, those aliens, those Others, those bizarre beyond the pale monsters, whom we normally exclude but this time include, and who are inexplicably and frighteningly ‘among us.’ There’s a wealth of implication in that one nasty phrase, all of it unpleasant. And I’d much rather trust ‘my own humanity’ to an honest biologist than to a creeping hyperbolist like Kass.

Science seeks to know only how things work, not what things are and why. Science gives the histories of things, but not their directions, aspirations, or purposes…Science can often predict what will happen if certain perturbations occur, but it eschews explanations in terms of causes, especially of ultimate causes.

And religion doesn’t, and that’s because science understands the limitations of inquiry and religion doesn’t. The explanations that religion gives of ‘ultimate causes’ are worth precisely nothing, and the fact that it offers such explanations while science doesn’t is not a point in religion’s favor but on the contrary a demerit.

It’s a long piece. There’s a lot more of the same kind of thing – arguing from desired states to the truth of what is required for them to be true (Kass wants to feel dignified, therefore the selfish gene is all wrong; etc) and flinging epithets around the way the elephant’s child flung melon rinds. It’s got no connection with what the Manhattan Institute purports to be about, it’s wishful thinking mixed liberally with vulgar abuse, it’s tripe.

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