Article by Gareth Clegg
Last week, we reflected on the need to analyse the cultural stories around us. In doing so, we leveraged the critique of the “underground man”—the antagonistic creation of Fyodor Dostoevsky in his book Notes from the Underground. Today we delve into the very story whose absolutism he confronts, that of Modernity and Scientism.
Modernity and Scientism
Though it may not be as culturally ubiquitous nowadays, the story of Modernity is nonetheless persuasive. Emerging in the 17th century, it gave rise to naturalism and hard scientism that is now propounded by people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Steven Pinker. This story holds that the material universe is all there is and that all that happens in it is ultimately the result of the cause-and-effect chain of the complex interactions of physical laws. It is in applying the scientific method that we will discover the universal laws and principles that govern human behavior and will thus enable experts and policymakers to design societies on a “rational,” “scientific” basis.
If anything, our technological advances have intensified this story, and it is clear that through it we express many of our cultural longings. We hope science can help solve our most pressing problems: climate change, global pandemics, gender dysphoria, end-of-life suffering, and the list goes on. Marked by this story, we believe in something called “progress”—a gradual march towards reason, peace, and prosperity.
So, what’s the problem? Surely the progress and science brought about by Modernity are self-defined goods? To answer these questions, let us invoke the appraisal of the underground man once again.
Considering a similar reality, the underground man ponders that “perhaps the only goal on earth for mankind to strive for is this endless process of achievement alone.” But he swivels hastily, recognising that achievement and improvement untethered to an ultimate end is not sufficient to provide the meaning we all desire. It hopes only in process and formula, no better than “two times two makes four… and two times two is no longer life, gentlemen, but is the beginning of death.”i
In other words, there is no innate purpose to progress and process alone. The scientism produced by cannot tell you how to live, or what life is about; it can provide hypotheses and tentative explanations, but no ultimate meaning. And a life without meaning is the beginning of death. Although progress itself is not inherently undesirable (there are many goods that Modernity has brought us that we can and should affirm), there is much faith involved in regarding such a story as a comprehensive belief system able to give meaning and direction to life.
Without meaning—ultimate meaning—the question of how to live becomes yet more fraught. The underground man complains: “As soon as they prove to you, for instance, that you are descended from a monkey, then it is no use fretting—accept it for a fact. When they prove to you that in reality, one tiny drop of your own fat must be dearer to you than a hundred thousand of your fellow men and that this result is the final solution of all so-called virtues and duties and all such prejudices and fancies, then you have just to accept it… Just try refuting a self-evident law.”ii
What Dostoevsky’s character perceives is that if reality proves to be merely material, simply an unfolding evolution, then meaning is eradicated. No standard, other than continuous progress, is left to define the good, the true, and the beautiful. All morality, all virtue, and all duty can be reduced to (or replaced with) selfishness. And who is to say otherwise? If we can condense humans into sheer natural laws, then we can have no complaint when they act in their own self-interest. There is no point being resentful or angry about it, or even disagreeing with it, you just have to accept it.
The best response to humans’ intrinsic self-centeredness that can be given in this view is to say that through education and willpower we should learn to overcome it. The problem is ignorance, and increased knowledge will make the world better, more moral, and more aligned to similar reasoning.
And yet, it is tenuous to suggest that amassing more knowledge and power alone will produce such an effect. A brief glimpse into the last 200 years demonstrates, as if to have the opposite desired effect, the increasing immorality of a gradually more scientific age, particularly the industrial wars of the 20th century. More obviously, it is clear that Modernity imagines too strongly the intrinsic virtue of humans (provided they have the right tutelage)—it is a denial of what the Christian faith calls original sin.
Rather, we should be concerned with such overconfidence in the good use to which our scientific prowess and newfound technological power might be put. But in a contemporary world engrossed in gender reassignment surgery, abortion, and the metaverse—amongst other scientific woes—it is clear we have not learned much from history. As Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park (yes, you read that right) so aptly said, “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Certainly, we should not be so quick to glibly assure ourselves of the ability of experts to govern society for the best.
Though we may “want to cure man of his old habits and correct his will as science and common sense demand,” scientific laws are not enough to construct morality from. What is more, it would be wise for us to ask “not only whether this is possible, but even if it is desirable to reshape man in this way?”iii Humans are more complex, more unpredictable, and more predisposed to corruption than we care to think. Reducing them to physical explanations is dehumanizing, and robs people of their God-given dignity and responsibility as moral agents. We would do well to head the warnings of the underground man.
A Good World
Our world tries extremely hard to protect us from realising the futility of this story. Netflix, air-conditioning, Alexa, kale, Yoga, Spotify, Twitter… they’re all designed to create a world in which we rarely get a second to confront ultimate meaning—until a tragedy occurs, a death happens, or a diagnosis strikes. Maybe COVID-19, if at all useful, has brought our mortality more firmly into view.
And when our own fate does become more real to us, the story of Modernity has little to offer about what we should do, how we should live, or where to look for any meaningful hope. The proof is in the pudding: two years into a global pandemic, vaccines have been no silver bullet, and the many debates over “the science” indicate that strictly material solutions to our problems aren’t as complete as many hope.
Certainly, we can still affirm quite a lot in this story. The Christian assertion that the world is good and indeed knowable enables us to discover more about how it works and to harness this knowledge for the good of others. But in our sin, our minds, imaginations, and creations are tainted. All of our moral acts, including our reason and scientific exploration, fall short of what they should be. And yet, forgiving us, helping us, and renewing us Jesus invites us now to participate with him to accomplish restoration in the world. A world that he will return to, putting all things right.
When everything in our thinking and action is framed with this vision of the good and works towards this end, the residue of Modernity can be useful and meaningful. It is my prayer that, in this way, Christ City would be full of excellent scientists, engineers, and thinkers to the glory of God.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily held by everyone at Christ City Church.
i Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, 37.
ii Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, 13.
iii Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, 35.