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Rhetoric & Public Affairs 5.1 (2002) 133-157

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Gnostic Scientism and the Prohibition of Questions

Thomas M. Lessl

Scientism, the doctrine that all lines of inquiry must be held to a scientific standard, seems to come in two versions. The first and more pervasive version might best be called methodological scientism. 1 It is a vocational or professional attitude that cultivates a strong prejudice against modes of inquiry that do not proceed according to sanctioned rules of scientific inquiry. Scientism of this kind is perhaps a species of what John Dewey once called an "occupational psychosis," the kind of vocational imperative that makes individuals choose biochemistry over literary criticism, presumably because they are disposed by personality or socialization to believe that the first can bring genuine knowledge and the second cannot. Although some of us might think this shortsighted, it seems to be little more than a kind of professional ethic, one that might in its nobler forms be called esprit de corps and in baser forms, chauvinism. Whatever our feelings about this attitude, scientists seem to gravitate to it, and this is perhaps for the better. If they did not harbor strong convictions about the unique importance of their work, they probably would not do what they do so well.

The other kind of scientism, gnostic scientism, which is the subject of this essay, consists in the much broader and more daring belief that there is salvation in scientific knowledge. 2 Scientism in this sense is personal as much as it is professional, and in line with the connotations of the term gnostic, it may be regarded as having a religious character. If religion broadly defined is "the practice of ultimate concern that orders all other concerns," to borrow a phrase from H. Richard Niebuhr, then the ultimate concern of this brand of religion is knowledge. 3 For the modern devotees of the gnostic cult of scientism, science is not ultimate merely because of its supreme methodological potency or its unique capacity to transform the conditions [End Page 133] of human existence, though it retains all of these qualities. It now has a deeper power to transform the self into a knowing agent. For the modern scientistic gnostic, science saves because it puts the human person in a right relationship to the perceived grounds of its being. It is a way to achieve harmony between the self and some ultimate reality, not a supernatural reality that would promise an eternal destiny, but merely what is left as ultimate once such beliefs are discarded—namely the knowing self that transcends material nature. This notion of scientism comports equally well with Steve Fuller's use of the term to mean an imitation of science and with Stanley Jaki's assertion that it is the "harnessing of science for a nonscientific purpose." 4 It represents a subtle and—for those involved perhaps as much as anyone else—an imperceptible shift from scientific knowledge into spiritual knowledge. The final product retains the impression of having scientific authority—one grounded, as we shall see, in the neo-Darwinian paradigm—when in fact it has no bearing upon what has been discovered in scientific investigation at all.

It is its association with evolutionary science that makes gnostic scientism a phenomenon of public discourse that is of interest to rhetorical scholars. If this spiritualization of scientific symbols leans on the authority of an evolutionary world picture, and thus on a contested arena of origins that has had considerable rhetorical and public importance during the last century, it is a phenomenon that may call into question the motives that lie behind the insistence that evolutionary science is a necessary cornerstone of science education. 5 The official reason for insisting upon the centrality of evolution in public education frequently finds expression in Theodosius Dobzhansky's famous assertion that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." 6 But the presence of gnostic elements in the thought of the scientific elites whose writings will be explored here suggests that evolutionary theory may be more than just...


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