Readers of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind rarely forget the blunt claim with which that work opens: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” Later mentioned, but never dwelt upon by Bloom, is the equally pernicious assumption of scientism, the Scylla to relativism’s Charybdis. In some ways, though, it seems that scientism may increasingly be the greater of the two dangers in American higher education. Not only has Helen Rittelmeyer, for example, made a case for relativism (at least in the ethical realm) being effectively dead and buried; but the “neuromania” dissected by Paulo Legrenzi, Carlo Umilta, and Raymond Tallis continues to gather its strength in science departments and even to colonize arts faculties. (For some idea of just how quickly this has come about, see Tom Wolfe’s 1996 essay, “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died.”) And the current vogue for neuroscientific explanations of everything is merely the latest expression of the broader phenomenon of what philosopher Philip Kitcher has called "scientific imperialism".
As an aside, I’ve always tended to be averse to making use of the term scientism, for the simple reason that tacking an –ism on the end of a word seems a cheap sort of scare-quotes. But evolutionary biologist Austin Hughes last year pointed out in an essay for The New Atlantis that the term, while originally an insult, has in fact “been claimed as a badge of honor by some of its most vocal proponents.” I use it here, then, not as an implicit slur, but simply as shorthand for belief in what Oxford chemist Peter Atkins calls the "universal competence" of science.
In addition to the aside, a disclaimer: I’ll here make no attempt to highlight the defects of scientism (for brief examples of such attempts, though, see the articles by Kitcher and Hughes linked above). Instead, I merely offer a recollection of one frustrating, mildly amusing (at least now that I’m at some remove from the situation, both temporally and geographically), and perhaps illuminating episode in support of the suggestion that Bloom’s famous lede might today be rewritten along the following lines: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that only science reveals truth.”
The episode has been refreshed in my memory on account of the annual office organizing. In the course of sorting, filing, or binning various papers, I happened to come across some freshman assignments from an introductory theology course taught back in 2012. By way of preliminaries, students had been asked to read the second and third discourses of Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University, as well as the First Question of the First Part of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. (It’s perhaps worth noting that the course and readings were and are a core curricular requirement at a confessionally Lutheran college; so kudos to them for their intellectual ecumenism.) Because both works are a bit more demanding than the typical freshman textbook, some guiding questions were also provided. And because Aquinas, in Article II, raises the question of whether sacred doctrine is a science, one of the questions provided simply asked, “What does Aquinas appear to mean when using the term science?” Similarly, because Newman, like Aquinas, refers to theology as “the science of God,” they were again asked, “What does Newman mean by his use of the word science?”
Now, since Newman’s second discourse is specifically titled “Theology a Branch of Knowledge,” I didn’t expect this latter question, especially, to be too terribly difficult to answer. Nonetheless, the students were provided one more hint: “Using a good dictionary,” they were instructed, “investigate the Latin origin of the word ‘science’.”
In a perfect world, my students would all have written, “Science, from the Latin scientia, or ‘knowledge,’ from sciēns, present participle of sciō, ‘I know’,” and then explained that both Aquinas and Newman simply used the term in this etymological sense to express their belief that one can actually have some knowledge of God, and that this “branch of knowledge,” this “science of God” called theology is, in Newman’s words, “the truths we know about God put into system.”
This being an imperfect world, however, all campus dictionaries had apparently gone missing, and so I instead received regurgitations of what everyone just knows science is: a methodologically naturalistic hypothetico-deductive method for acquiring information about the physical world. (Okay, they didn’t put it in exactly those terms.) Well...
“Could Aquinas possibly have used the term in that sense,” I had to ask, “since this understanding of science as a particular method guided by particular assumptions would not arise until several centuries after his death?” After some moments of collective shoe-gazing and pencil-fiddling, one brave soul ventured the following: “No, but that’s why he’s using the word wrongly; he didn’t know what science was because it hadn’t been invented yet.” While I sighed audibly, several others were nodding and raising eyebrows, as if to say, “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?”
We eventually managed to sort out that it just might be possible that the accepted meanings of some words change over time, and that Aquinas might have been speaking of science in a perfectly legitimate manner, even if not in the reductive sense the term would later acquire. We also eventually made our way through the Latin etymology, and so all finally grasped the point that, in using the term science, both Newman and Aquinas were simply professing their belief that some knowledge of God can be had. In fact, once grasped, this understanding of science-as-knowledge was so eagerly embraced that I briefly experienced some unhealthy hubris: “I’m Socrates,” I thought, “successfully helping these pupils understand and articulate what in fact they already know!” We were back on track...
Until taking up the topic for which most of the hour had actually been reserved, the question of whether the above noted belief was warranted, whether Aquinas or Newman—or anyone—could sufficiently substantiate the conviction that one might indeed attain real knowledge of God, and thus be justified in describing theology as a science, as a branch of knowledge in which “the truths we know about God [are] put into system.” Having taken Bloom to heart, I was fully anticipating a chorus of relativism. I expected to hear (even at a confessionally Lutheran college) that, no, this belief is not warranted because we know no truths about God; what we have are merely disparate and irreconcilable opinions about a divine being which may or may not exist. Oh, sure, I also expected to hear some dissent from the relativistic line, cast in terms of the possibility of having true faith, even if not true knowledge.
What I heard instead was far more dispiriting. Though virtually unanimous in believing it unwarranted to speak of coming to some true knowledge of God, not one student out of thirty would own up, implicitly or explicitly, to relativism. A few would indeed own up to fideism; but most really did believe—even before their rudimentary Latin tutorial—that science is knowledge. They simply refused, however, to abandon their modern conception of “science” as a methodologically naturalistic hypothetico-deductive method for acquiring information about the physical world. That is, they really did believe knowledge, even truth, to be obtainable. But only by “scientific” means. Without ever having heard of Peter Atkins, they shared his implicit faith in the universal competence of science, in “science as truth,” to quote the title of Atkins’ essay.
The reason for relating this episode is not at all to denigrate former students. They were in fact a delightful group, soon proving themselves to be genuinely curious, not only willing to challenge my own assumptions and convictions, but also to rethink and revise their own (and to be patient with me as I prompted them to do so).
I share it only because it genuinely caught me by surprise. Having assumed Bloom was correct in suggesting that almost every student entering the university believes truth is relative, I entered the classroom prepared to “fight the previous war.” Perhaps this particular group of students was an anomaly. Then again, perhaps they do indeed suggest that Bloom’s famous opening line will need to be rewritten for a new generation.