Scientism as individual pathology

An interesting snippet caught my ear on the BBC news today. It was about a poetry competition organised by Yale University and London’s UCL for medical and engineering students. The iniator was cardiologist and published poet Prof John Martin, and his motivation for doing so: “Medical students are at risk of becoming ‘intellectually brutalized’…conditioned to focus upon the microscopic at the expense of the holistic.” 

This risk is very real in medicine. I consider myself to have been partly, but very literally, delivered from it by studying social psychology in my third year – after which, I could never take scientific reductionism as quite so all-conquering as before.

In later years I came across others who had found that their full humanness had got lost somewhere along the medical way. I attended a course by a group called (if I remember correctly) Medical Humanities, in which some serious work was done on exploring both the impact of medical issues on practitioners as people, and the modern mythology of science, through literature, film and other arts.

Personally this was less liberating for me than for some others, because I had found the same kinds of issues dealt with much earlier, and in more depth, by Christian medical organisations like Christians in Caring Professions and Christian Medical Fellowship. The latter, in particular, had initiated an excellent series of conferences for GPs, called Doctors’ Dilemmas, in which spiritual problems and personal development were combined with academically excellent updates. In the last category I remember the therapeutics tutor taught more about the critical appraisal of the medical literature (and its frequent shortcomings) than they had ever offered at medical school. One small spin-off was that I started what was, for a year or so, the first multidisciplinary general practice team for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in the UK, until the funding ran out.

But the real importance was holism, not so much in the trendy sense of “treat the whole patient [small print – by embracing woo therapies]”, but in the sense of being a whole person, in which the medical science is seen in the context of the people it affects and their lives, and those real, unique, people in the context of the whole creation in all its mystery and richness.

I’ve not worked in scientific fields apart from medicine, but given the latter’s professional structures and reputation as a “healing art” I would suspect that the dangers of such brutalisation are at least as real and probably worse for other physical scientists, especially in the life sciences. It would appear from my interactions on the faith-science scene over the last few years to affect believers as much as others. For example, it’s hard to understand how one can build a theology of creation that majors on its alleged cruelties and errors without having become somehow blind to the big picture – which has always been seen as the matter for poetry, art, music and adoration of the Creator’s wisdom.

This, it seems to me, is the danger of scientism, understood as the belief that only scientific truth is worthy of serious consideration. It’s not so much that it is wrong, in an intellectual sense; nor even that it will inevitably lead to a dystopian society – more often just to dystopic elements within societies. The commonest fallout is the truncation of the humanity of those who are seduced by it – or indoctrinated in it, as certainly was the case in my medical training and is probably even more so nowadays, given the extreme specialisation of which Prof Martin complains.

B B Warfield’s posthumous biography of Charles Darwin’s spiritual life suggests a similar process taking place in the great scientist’s life. It’s actually available online from Warfield’s Princeton alma mater. In it, he catalogues, from Darwin’s own writings, the evidence not only of his departure from religious belief – which could have many reasons and is widely thought nowadays to be largely due to his personal grief from his daughter’s death, a factor unknown to Warfield – but in his decreasing appreciation for poetry, art and music and, eventually, even in the diminishing sense of awe and wonder he had once felt in nature itself. What remaining sense of the numinous he felt, he attributed to the mere “emotion” of sublimity, which in turn he resolved (in Descent of Man) to evolved behaviours, though he later wished that “someone could analyse this feeling of sublimity,” so his evolutionary explanation was hardly conclusive. As Warfield relates, there was a time when:

the grandeur of a Brazilian rain forest stirred his heart with feelings not only of wonder and admiration but also of devotion, and filled and elevated his mind. He sadly confesses that the grandest scenes would no longer awaken such convictions and feelings within him, and acknowledged that he is become like a man who is colour-blind and whose failure to see is of no value as evidence against the universal belief of men.

As Warfield concludes, Darwin did not eject reverence and faith, or encyst them, but they simply atrophied, dissolving painlessly away. But though Warfield’s main subject is Darwin’s religion, it appears to have been exactly the same process

…by which he lost his power of enjoying poetry, music, and to a large extent scenery.

As no doubt Prof Martin would concur, those whose humanity has atrophied are the last to be able to recognise that the problem is within themselves, rather than in the ignorant foolishness of the rest of the world. In their mind they have been “educated”. Education, though, is not a value-free word. Those going through the madrassas in Pakistan are also receiving an education.

Medical education, at least, is not ideologically intended to be scientistic, any more than Darwin seems to have planned to exclude non-scientific truth from his life. But by focusing so exclusively on science alone, its result tends to be scientism, unconsciously imbibed, but maybe in many cases consciously embraced in the end, for want of anything else.

After all, the successfully brutalized do not write the poetry, but mock the poets.


Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere. (Albert Einstein)

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to Scientism as individual pathology

  1. I was fortunate not to be intellectually brutalised through my medical training. Perhaps because I had other interests and did not get too intense about it.
    Perhaps also because I (eventually) became prepared to test dogmata. I heard Ivan Illich speak at St Mary’s Student’s Union (and later read Medical Nemesis). He made a lasting impression on me, not because he was necessarily right but because he gave me permission to question.

    This is not to say that I was not intellectually brutalised. I was, from a boy – through my early (hyper-Calvinistic) religious upbringing. Complete escape from the effects is difficult – no doubt I am still scarred. But I am always grateful for a God-sent mature Christian couple who lovingly guided me towards a more normal Christian life.

    With reference to the ‘power of enjoying poetry, music, and to a large extent scenery’, I can say a hearty ‘Amen’ to the words, ‘God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature – are clearly seen, being understood from what has been made’, and I can testify to the therapeutic benefits of beauty in the natural world, art, architecture and music. Such things are a wonderful remedy to brutalisation and lead to worship.
    I can think of only one better remedy – the love of my family. I find that without the love of people it is difficult to experience the love of God.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Peter

      Your comment makes me think that maybe the same problem can be at work in religion as in science – just as too narrow a study of nature can make one fail to appreciate the wider aspects of the world, so too restricted a focus on God can stunt appreciation of him in all his fullness (at least as far as one can ever approach that).

      From what I’ve seen of Hypercalvinism, apart from the unfortunate tendency, perhaps, to attract controlling kinds of people into leadership, theologically they’ve focused on a small sector of Reformed theology and deemed it the whole thing.

      And that sector seems to be the bit which the Synod of Dort affirmed against the five objections of the Arminians, ie “TULIP”, which is a bit like restricting Orthodox theology to rejection of the Pope and the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Son. Sadly I’ve seen less “hyper” Calvinists fall into that same trap – I went to a seminar on Calvinism at Spring Harvest (intended really as a softener for Charismatics), and was distressed to see “TULIP” presented as what it was all about: maybe these guys never go back to the original sources.

      You’re right to stress the love of family. Indeed, both the last two winners of the poetry competition in the post seem to have written of that in their poems. By and by I’ll review a book I’m reading at the moment which shows how central both the appreciation of nature, and of married love, was for the early Reformers: it says a bit about how that got lost along the way by many, too. But the basic truth is that both God’s creation and relationships he’s established within it are some of the main pointers to the God beyond. Deny creation or family, and God is bound to get lost too.

  2. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Thanks for this article, Jon. The acknowledgment that Christians can suffer from this outlook is important, I think, even though they would recoil from the blatantly stated doctrines of Scientism.

    Your article deals with the individual experience in this, but I think your observations can be extended to a kind of communal experience in all this. It isn’t for nothing that Christians are instructed to find fellowship with each other, to worship corporately (with lots of music!) and with poetic praise. Sometimes these visceral experiences may be the only tangible parts of Christian experience that is left to an otherwise hardening intellect imbibing a professional daily diet of Scientistic mindset.

    We are all people of community, and those who consciously embrace Scientism are no less so. They too seek out support communities where they can be fed a careful diet to train their minds against any non-aligned input. I recently read about Morton’s Demon, and I think it applies much more widely than just to creationists. While our selective management of our inputs is a valid concern, it is also an unavoidable one. Nobody embraces an unbiased approach to letting everything in as this is impossible anyway. Given that, the wise course of action would be to deliberately manage those inputs, taking into consideration concerns about confirmation bias, and also watching out for that which atrophies your sense of awe and wonder. What some people may mock as Morton’s demon [never in themselves, of course], others will welcome as the Holy Spirit. There is a great danger (both ways) in confusing those two.

    It isn’t just the medical profession that hardens itself this way, but you do seem to get more than your share. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      There’s a big principle in what you say, Merv, in that education will, inevitably, establish a worldview. There’s been a tendency to shy away from that and hope that there’s some kind of “objective” education, but objectivity itself is a worldview denying all actual viewpoints.

      The responsibility of educators to recognise what worldview is being inculcated, and why, is awesome – needing both to avoid having that aim subverted by the specific agendas of others (such as the quite conscious programme to oust non-materialist aspects of life), and to avoid being oppressive and “brutalising” oneself.

      I guess that’s why within the Church teaching has been ordained by the Lord as both a spiritual gift and a calling under Christ’s direct headship: self-appointment leads to many evils. “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

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