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I have a good friend who, if you ask him about his religion, will tell you “I believe in scientism.”
“What’s that?” most people ask him.
“It’s the belief that nothing is true unless you can prove it scientifically,” he generally tells them.
Once he and I had a little discussion about that standard answer he always uses.
I asked him “Can you prove that, scientifically?”
He thought about it for a while. “No,” he eventually admitted.
Scientism may be the world’s most prevalent religion these days, especially among the educated classes in western cultures, but it has a curiously irrational and self-refuting dogma. It maintains that only things we can count should count. If you can measure it, quantify it or somehow observe it in the sensible world, a scientism believer will insist, that means it’s true. If you can’t, it must be false, or it just doesn’t exist.
This logic path has a serious problem—it can’t prove scientism’s main premise using science, rationality or empiricism. Its central claim—that science has access to all the important truths of life—denies the existence of anything beyond what we can observe in the physical world.
The philosophers of scientism, who accept solely and exclusively what they can measure and inspect, have elevated science and the scientific method to the only acceptable way of understanding all knowledge and reality. The new atheists—writers like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett—generally accept the idea that the concept of God cannot be scientifically proven, and that everything in the physical universe is explainable through scientific facts. The Baha’i teachings define these kinds of philosophers as materialists:
The philosophers of the world are divided into two classes: materialists, who deny the spirit and its immortality, and the divine philosophers, the wise men of God, the true illuminati who believe in the spirit and its continuance hereafter. The ancient philosophers taught that man consists simply of the material elements which compose his cellular structure and that when this composition is disintegrated the life of man becomes extinct. They reasoned that man is body only, and from this elemental composition the organs and their functions, the senses, powers and attributes which characterize man have proceeded, and that these disappear completely with the physical body. This is practically the statement of all the materialists. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 239.
Abdu’l-Baha illustrates the fallacy of that idea by examining the nature of human beings, and by pointing out that the undeniable fact of our human consciousness proves we have a higher, more complex reality than the rest of the material creation:
Man is possessed of the emanations of consciousness; he has perception, ideality and is capable of discovering the mysteries of the universe. All the industries, inventions and facilities surrounding our daily life were at one time hidden secrets of nature, but the reality of man penetrated them and made them subject to his purposes. According to nature’s laws they should have remained latent and hidden; but man, having transcended those laws, discovered these mysteries and brought them out of the plane of the invisible into the realm of the known and visible. How wonderful is the spirit of man! One of the mysteries of natural phenomena is electricity. Man has discovered this illimitable power and made it captive to his uses… Man has accurately determined that the sun is stationary while the earth revolves about it. The animal cannot do this. Man perceives the mirage to be an illusion. This is beyond the power of the animal. The animal can only know through sense impressions and cannot grasp intellectual realities. The animal cannot conceive of the power of thought. This is an abstract intellectual matter and not limited to the senses. The animal is incapable of knowing that the earth is round. In brief, abstract intellectual phenomena are human powers… Man transcends nature, while the mineral, vegetable and animal are helplessly subject to it. This can be done only through the power of the spirit, because the spirit is the reality. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 240.
People have powers, faculties and virtues that no other creature possesses. We produce art, build civilizations, create cultures, discover previously hidden scientific truths, and perceive what exists beyond the immediate and the physical. On top of all that, the vast majority of the world’s people believe that God exists, that each of us has an immortal human soul, and that the purpose of life and therefore the basis of morality involves knowing God. From a Baha’i perspective, that combination of attributes, and their consistent expression over thousands of years, conclusively demonstrates that humans have a spiritual reality which transcends the physical, measurable limitations of the material world:
In the physical powers and senses, however, man and the animal are partners. In fact, the animal is often superior to man in sense perception. For instance, the vision of some animals is exceedingly keen and the hearing of others most acute. Consider the instinct of a dog: how much greater than that of man. But, although the animal shares with man all the physical virtues and senses, a spiritual power has been bestowed upon man of which the animal is devoid. This is a proof that there is something in man above and beyond the endowment of the animal — a faculty and virtue peculiar to the human kingdom which is lacking in the lower kingdoms of existence. This is the spirit of man. All these wonderful human accomplishments are due to the efficacy and penetrating power of the spirit of man. If man were bereft of this spirit, none of these accomplishments would have been possible. This is as evident as the sun at midday. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 241-242.