A month ago Steven Pinker had a long article in The New Republic in praise of “scientism.” One part I particularly like:
In which ways, then, does science illuminate human affairs? Let me start with the most ambitious: the deepest questions about who we are, where we came from, and how we define the meaning and purpose of our lives. This is the traditional territory of religion, and its defenders tend to be the most excitable critics of scientism. They are apt to endorse the partition plan proposed by Stephen Jay Gould in his worst book, Rocks of Ages, according to which the proper concerns of science and religion belong to “non-overlapping magisteria.” Science gets the empirical universe; religion gets the questions of moral meaning and value.
Unfortunately, this entente unravels as soon as you begin to examine it. The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism—requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value.
To begin with, the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken. We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history. We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree that embraces all living things and that emerged from prebiotic chemicals almost four billion years ago. We know that we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of a hundred billion galaxies in a 13.8-billion-year-old universe, possibly one of a vast number of universes. We know that our intuitions about space, time, matter, and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small. We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. And we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.
And especially especially, We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. That’s a big one. It’s important to grasp it, in order to do our best to achieve goals that do pertain to human (and animal and planetary) well-being.