Does Science Destroy Mystery? Reply to Van de Cruys

Clerks studying astronomy and geometry (France, early 15th century).

In the previous post, Dr. Sander Van de Cruys argued,

I want to take seriously the feeling or complaint of people in the arts that science disenchants the world, or more broadly takes ‘something’ away from it … It seems totally possible to be enchanted by the ‘quest’, the hunt for making things comprehensible or predictable, while at the same time be thoroughly displeased or even depressed by the resulting worldview.

The first thing I’d say in reply is that, since any scientific conception of the world is provisional, what science eventually reveals may not be as depressing as Sander imagines. Also, I prefer truth to illusion even if the truth isn’t as comforting. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s clear that most religious metaphysics are especially comforting given how they demand that humans must appease the Gods, worry about everlasting torment, etc.

Turning to some of Sander’s specific claims in support of his thesis, he argues that “the intrinsic value that we as humans can attach to a human or organism in itself, irrespective of merits or capacities, is something quite alien from a scientific point of view.” But I doubt this is true. We can attach intrinsic value to our spouse, for example, despite the fact that something about our psychology or our ability to pair bond or pheromones largely explain this. At one level I know that my wife and I are biological machines, but this doesn’t detract from us loving each other at another level.

Sander also claims: “If science produced the same kind of deep wonder and inspiration as prescientific worldviews, we would now have a lot of great artworks inspired by science instead of religion.” One issue here is that most people are scientifically illiterate; they simply don’t know enough about science to be inspired by it. Another issue is that modern science is only a few hundred years old so religion has had a much longer time to be associated with art. Moreover, I doubt many would prefer a world with more art and less science.

Furthermore, if religion inspires more art than science this may be because art is one of the few ways religion can express its mysteries. Scientists may feel awe when looking at the universe, but they don’t have to draw paint pictures or sing to express those feelings. Instead, they advance hypotheses and conduct experiments to express themselves. Note that this disparity in the means of expression is unrelated with the consolation provided by religious mystery vs. science. When you get an antibiotic instead of dying from an infection you will find science plenty comforting.

Sander’s argument may also have a lot to do with our definition of art. Consider a portrait or landscape painting, mainstays of art before the scientific revolution. While previously ubiquitous, these have been replaced by photographs, motion pictures, and motion pictures with sound. In fact, these new technologies do inspire art. In fact, the whole genre of science fiction wouldn’t be possible without inspiration from science.

Sander also claims that we might eventually “have the technology (based on solid science) to detect, based on micro-expressions or other physiological data, the true motivations of what someone says. A kind of lie detection on steroids. Would it improve our daily interactions? … to the contrary.”

Maybe its the transhumanist in me or having Trump as the US president, but I think we would benefit tremendously from having such a lie detector test. After all, truth-telling a universal moral prescription as it is necessary for mutually beneficial human interaction.

Sander also considers the idea that our self-image is more accurate when we’re depressed and he concludes that delusions are thus functional. I suppose delusional thinking may sometimes be beneficial, but its costs outweigh its gains in my view. (Think of how much trouble psychopaths and narcissists cause.) Moreover, I don’t know if the depressed do better when they have an illusory view of themselves so much as when they have a realistic view of the world. And even if something is lost when science replaces religion, something much greater has been gained. Knowledge replaces ignorance and superstition.

Sander concludes: “I suspect science cannot make up for much of the emotional lacuna … it created itself by displacing religious worldviews. I think this might boil down to a need for consolation for the human condition that science does not … have an answer to …”

While I sympathize with the idea that something is lost if mystery disappears from the world, I’d argue that the universe that science has revealed is vastly more mysterious and interesting than any story deriving from creation myths and heavenly afterlife. As for the mysteries eliminated, I’m glad we know that matter is composed of atoms, that the universe is billions of years old, and that evolution made the species. Without such knowledge, we would be in the dark—and the light is so much better.

However, I understand that some prefer creation myths and other fairy tales—myth does have power as Joseph Campbell taught us. (The real issue here may be one of science not revealing meaning when compared to pre-scientific views. Yet it’s not even clear how gods give life meaning as many philosophers have pointed out.)

Finally, I think Sander may be idealizing the emotional comfort religion provides. Consider the vast number of unhappy believers and the untold amount of suffering that religion has caused, and continues to cause. And even if there is some short-term payoff for ingesting religious drugs it is easy to see the horrors such consolation entails.

In the end, I’d argue that human beings must grow up and face the world as it is. They do this in large part by understanding and accepting a universe revealed by modern science. After all, science is the only cognitive authority in the world today and the greatest achievement of human civilization.

Growing up and putting aside ignorance and superstition is the necessary precondition of both our survival and flourishing. We either will evolve or we will perish.

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3 thoughts on “Does Science Destroy Mystery? Reply to Van de Cruys

  1. In one sense — a sense that reveals much — science does indeed diminish mystery. After all, science is knowledge, and mystery is the lack of knowledge. So those who prefer mystery definitely don’t want knowledge.
    Nor does science diminish awe. “The more I learn, the less I know”. There’s actually a logical basis for this statement, which I explain here:
    As I have learned more and more about the universe, my appreciation of its awe-inspiring unity increases.

    Ali ibn Abu-Talib said it best:
    ““There is no greater wealth than wisdom, no greater poverty than ignorance”

  2. “After all science is the only cognitive authority in the world today and the greatest achievement of human civilization.”

    John, what I’m trying to say is: the notion of human civilization might be premature. Can we confidently state that a world of hundreds of thousands of WMDs is civilized?
    A world where the largest nation went from Gorbachev to Putin?
    A world where the most powerful nation went from Obama to Trump?
    Am not writing that human civilization does not exist; am writing that ‘human civilization’ itself may well be an exaggeration. Science/engineering/business have never been concerned with truth or goodness. Thus there’s no mystery so many relatively uneducated people seek escape in religion. Though expecting virtue is increasingly quixotic.

    But then so are the justice and equality progressives seek. Expectations are so high, the chances for realization are reduced. No mystery at all so many seek refuge in the mystery of religion. None whatsoever.

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