"Cracks in the Secular"

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; What is essential is invisible to the eye. (The Little Prince, 1943)

On Monday, I attended a lecture at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco by Marcelo Gleiser, author of The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. Gleiser is a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College who is refreshingly critical of pride in the scientific establishment.

The Limits of Science

In his book and lecture, he examines the limits of science by looking at the study of cosmology (big stuff), quantum mechanics (tiny stuff), and the mind ("person"-al stuff). While humanity has made substantial gains in these three fields, what we know highlights all that we don't know. It is undeniable that most of the universe, big and small and immaterial, is not just unknown but unknowable by way of science. According to Gleiser, our limits should not discourage us but push us onward. "Limits are not obstacles but triggers. It is the search that makes us matter." 

Gleiser is a secular scientist. Elsewhere, he writes, "The starting point of my argument is that only matter exists." He does not advocate for supernatural knowledge. He won't accept divine revelation as a source of information. Gleiser is satisfied with science while remaining aware of its limits. This is admirably different from other scientific celebrities like Richard Dawkins and Bill Nye, and to be appreciated.

The Failure of Scientism

But as I listened afterward to questions posed by listeners, I realized that other people weren't so easily satisfied. They weren't okay with being shipwrecked on an island of knowledge. How can something as personal as the mind be beyond our grasp? There must be some way of knowing more.

Frustrations with science are bubbling up more and more in modern society. Science has given us so much, but scientism feels empty. The urge to procreate can explain turtles on Galapagos, but can it explain what makes us truly human? For scientism to be true, personhood must be reduced not just to biology, but then further to chemistry and further still to physics. How does this not eliminate personhood altogether?

James K. A. Smith writes in the editorial ("Cracks in the Secular") for the current issue of Comment Magazine,

What if an increasingly aggressive secularism (coming especially from secular "elites") is itself a defense measure, a kind of last gasp of a worldview that feels frustrated and even threatened? What if secularism is loudest precisely because it is a final cry before it is unveiled as implausible and unsustainable? Doesn't the emperor shout loudest about the beauty of his raiment precisely when he least believes it himself? What if secularism has its doubts and is just trying to cover it up by pursuing its agenda all the more aggressively lest they have to consider the alternative?