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GNOSTIC SCIENTISM AND THE PROHIBITION OF QUESTIONS


THOMAS M. LESSL

cientism, the doctrine that all lines of inquiry must be held to a scientific stan-
S dard, seems to come in two versions. The first and more pervasive version
might best be called methodological scientism.1 It is a vocational or professional atti-
tude that cultivates a strong prejudice against modes of inquiry that do not proceed
according to sanctioned rules of scientific inquiry. Scientism of this kind is perhaps
a species of what John Dewey once called an “occupational psychosis,” the kind of
vocational imperative that makes individuals choose biochemistry over literary crit-
icism, presumably because they are disposed by personality or socialization to
believe that the first can bring genuine knowledge and the second cannot. Although
some of us might think this shortsighted, it seems to be little more than a kind of
professional ethic, one that might in its nobler forms be called esprit de corps and
in baser forms, chauvinism. Whatever our feelings about this attitude, scientists
seem to gravitate to it, and this is perhaps for the better. If they did not harbor
strong convictions about the unique importance of their work, they probably would
not do what they do so well.
The other kind of scientism, gnostic scientism, which is the subject of this essay,
consists in the much broader and more daring belief that there is salvation in sci-
entific knowledge.2 Scientism in this sense is personal as much as it is professional,
and in line with the connotations of the term gnostic, it may be regarded as having
a religious character. If religion broadly defined is “the practice of ultimate concern
that orders all other concerns,” to borrow a phrase from H. Richard Niebuhr, then
the ultimate concern of this brand of religion is knowledge.3 For the modern devo-
tees of the gnostic cult of scientism, science is not ultimate merely because of its
supreme methodological potency or its unique capacity to transform the conditions

Thomas M. Lessel is Associate Professor of Speech Communication at the University of Georgia in


Athens, Georgia.

© Rhetoric & Public Affairs


Vol. 5, No. 1, 2002, pp. 133-157
ISSN 1094-8392
134 RHETORIC & PUBLIC AFFAIRS

of human existence, though it retains all of these qualities. It now has a deeper
power to transform the self into a knowing agent. For the modern scientistic gnos-
tic, science saves because it puts the human person in a right relationship to the per-
ceived grounds of its being. It is a way to achieve harmony between the self and
some ultimate reality, not a supernatural reality that would promise an eternal des-
tiny, but merely what is left as ultimate once such beliefs are discarded—namely the
knowing self that transcends material nature. This notion of scientism comports
equally well with Steve Fuller’s use of the term to mean an imitation of science and
with Stanley Jaki’s assertion that it is the “harnessing of science for a nonscientific
purpose.”4 It represents a subtle and—for those involved perhaps as much as any-
one else—an imperceptible shift from scientific knowledge into spiritual knowl-
edge. The final product retains the impression of having scientific authority—one
grounded, as we shall see, in the neo-Darwinian paradigm—when in fact it has no
bearing upon what has been discovered in scientific investigation at all.
It is its association with evolutionary science that makes gnostic scientism a phe-
nomenon of public discourse that is of interest to rhetorical scholars. If this spiri-
tualization of scientific symbols leans on the authority of an evolutionary world
picture, and thus on a contested arena of origins that has had considerable rhetor-
ical and public importance during the last century, it is a phenomenon that may call
into question the motives that lie behind the insistence that evolutionary science is
a necessary cornerstone of science education.5 The official reason for insisting upon
the centrality of evolution in public education frequently finds expression in
Theodosius Dobzhansky’s famous assertion that “nothing in biology makes sense
except in the light of evolution.”6 But the presence of gnostic elements in the
thought of the scientific elites whose writings will be explored here suggests that
evolutionary theory may be more than just the keystone of biology’s arch. If scien-
tific opinion leaders are attracted to evolutionary doctrine because it is a necessary
canonical expression of what is essentially a spiritual outlook, then we have a dif-
ferent sort of entity on our hands.
To put this somewhat differently, scientistic gnosticism’s import as a subject of
rhetorical study arises from something notable that it shares with ancient versions
of gnostic spirituality. The discourses of both species of gnosticism mask spiritual
elitism and an ontology of radical dualism behind the ethos of something else—
behind the authority of the Christian revelation in the case of ancient gnosticism
and behind the authority of science in the modern variety discussed here. Both ver-
sions of gnosticism are parasitical syncretisms that result from the intermingling of
gnostic symbols with those belonging to another worldview.7 The ancient version
derived its authority from the New Testament and the modern version from science.
But gnosticism truly considered is neither Christian nor scientific. The extreme
dualism of its ancient forms, which may have had Babylonian or Syrian origins—
no one knows for sure—was incompatible with the monotheism of Jewish and
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Christian belief.8 Nevertheless, because the gnostics claimed to have the authoriza-
tion of the New Testament as well as that of their own sacred writings, they insisted
that theirs was the true Christianity.9 They supported this claim by appealing to
those elements of Christian thought that they had imported. Undoubtedly it was
the crisis that such claims introduced into the early Church that made many of the
Church fathers so vigilant in their efforts to discredit it. This effort prompted much
of the doctrinal work of such second–century fathers as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and
Justin Martyr, and also that of later teachers such as Origen and Augustine, who
were compelled to develop doctrinal understandings that would enable believers to
recognize where the gnostics diverged from the Apostolic tradition and from
Catholic exegesis of Scripture.
Gnostic teachers like Valentinus and Marcion drew from the authority of the
Christian tradition and identified themselves as its true representatives; in a similar
fashion gnostic scientism draws its authority from science and likewise insists that
it is the voice of truth. But there is an important difference in the public authority
wielded by the new gnosticism as compared with the old. Whereas the Christian
fathers were unanimous in condemning gnostic thought as imposture and heresy,
gnostic scientism lays claim to scientific authority with impunity. Rather than
renouncing scientism as heresy, the scientific community has responded by elevat-
ing its advocates to positions of rhetorical prominence. The writers whose words are
examined here—E. O. Wilson, Carl Sagan, Stephen Pinker, Daniel Dennett, and
Richard Lewontin—are persons of considerable renown in the scientific culture and
avid defenders of the evolutionary paradigm whose language gives periodic hints of
gnostic spirituality. Except for Dennett, who is a philosopher, they are what we
would call “public scientists,” opinion leaders who have considerable power to shape
how the scientific worldview is communicated to its various constituents. This
power adds special rhetorical significance to the gnostic ideas that loom in their dis-
courses. As opinion leaders they do not merely advocate science as a way of life; they
also appeal to that segment of the larger population that is most actively interested
in scientific matters. In doing so they are introducing a spiritual motive into these
public arenas that has nothing to do with the scientific merits of the Darwinian
model to which it is tied.
But there are also more general implications concerning science’s place in pub-
lic policy that should arise if spiritual motives lie at the heart of such discourses. The
general public is asked to assume that the notoriety of these writers is due to their
scientific expertise.10 But if their popular influence arises not only from their
accomplishments as scientists but also from a spiritual vision, what does this sug-
gest for educational policies that exalt the importance of the evolutionary paradigm
while asserting its religious neutrality? If a gnostic spirituality has taken root in the
minds of the outspoken scientific elite who embrace the neo-Darwinian paradigm,
what deceptions are biology textbooks imposing on high school sophomores when
136 RHETORIC & PUBLIC AFFAIRS

they follow the pedagogical advice of the National Academy of Sciences and insist
that science takes a neutral stance on religious questions? 11 They could be learning
the best scientific insights of the age, but the possibility remains that they are being
led down the path to gnosticism themselves.
The most significant of these public concerns is the place that the naturalistic
worldview of scientism should have in public education. If scientism is tied up with
the spiritual life of prominent scientists and philosophers, then its status as an occu-
pational ethic is likely to be carefully guarded from public criticism and scrutiny.
This assumption becomes especially pertinent in considering a feature that the
philosopher and political theorist Eric Voegelin regards as a hallmark of modern
gnostic discourse, its tendency to circumscribe inquiry. Like the other gnostics of
the modern age that Voegelin has examined, scientistic gnostics prohibit all lines of
inquiry that would tend to throw doubt upon their claim to possess exclusive and
absolute knowledge. This is due not merely to self-interest but also to the inherent
instability of the extreme dualism that is most characteristic of gnostic thought. In
the realm of public education this prohibition manifests in the scientific commu-
nity’s militant resistance to criticism of the Darwinian paradigm. The official pre-
text for this inflexibility is the claim that evolution is the central paradigm of the
biological sciences, but if evolutionary science also serves as a prop for a dualistic
spirituality, there may be an even more vital reason for protecting it from criticism.
Since the evolutionary model provides a scientific rationale for the philosophical
position of materialism upon which gnosticism stands, the mandate to defend it is
supremely important.
In the broader field of science studies, this criticism of Darwinism’s role in pub-
lic life might be regarded as a specialized extension of Steve Fuller’s critique of the
“internalist myth,” the longstanding view taken by both philosophers of science and
scientists themselves that the scientific enterprise can be accounted for strictly in
terms of the internal history of scientific activity.12 Fuller does not say (and neither
would we) that science does not teach the things of nature with great profundity,
but only that its way of constructing knowledge cannot be understood apart from
some examination of relevant social concerns. The relevant social concern in this
case is a spiritual one. This analysis seeks to show that the evolutionary perspective
of modern science and the spiritual posture of gnosticism are interdependent.
Consequently, the public discourses surrounding evolutionary science may be fruit-
fully interrogated both as a rhetoric of religion and as a rhetoric of science.
In sum, then, the core argument of this essay is that the discourse of scientism is a
blend of scientific and spiritual concerns and that this blending is suspected of influ-
encing the scientific culture’s demand that the evolutionary paradigm should be pro-
tected from public criticism. The writers that are discussed here do not write merely
to educate their readers. They are scientist rhetors who are suspected of having
motives which reach beyond the merely educational aims of evolutionary discourse.
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Three of these writers, Wilson, Pinker, and Dennett are pivotal figures in the sociobi-
ology movement, now more frequently called “evolutionary psychology,” which
openly aspires to transform evolutionary biology into social theory. Sagan and
Lewontin, though not formally aligned with any programmatic mission of this kind,
have supported a similar agenda.
These five writers might ordinarily be called “evolutionary naturalists,” “scien-
tific materialists,” or “positivists,” but these categories fail to tell us anything about
the personal motives, psychological factors, and values that account for their con-
victions. Gnosticism does. It is a concept that turns its critical light not on what sci-
entific writers say about the world outside themselves but rather on what they seem
to be saying about themselves. Public scientists may seem to advance the traditional
Enlightenment hope that humanity might enjoy unlimited prosperity under the
guiding hand of science, but this does not preclude the possibility that they might
also be promulgating something far more revolutionary—a truncation of inquiry
necessitated by gnosticism’s spiritual aspirations that threatens to impose itself
upon the societies that science serves.

THE MODERN REINCARNATION OF GNOSIS


While certain dangers apply to modern appropriations of the term “gnosticism,” a
precedent for interpreting modern thought in gnostic terms has been set by a num-
ber of prominent scholars.13 The belief that the spiritual situation now wrought by
scientific naturalism is analogous to that which gave birth to ancient gnosticism was
so strongly felt by Carl Jung that he actively borrowed from ancient gnostic thought
in building the therapeutic program he hoped would cure the psychiatric maladies
of modernism.14 Hans Jonas, the philosopher most closely associated with the study
of gnosticism, recognized a similar linkage to this ancient tradition in the thought
of his mentor Martin Heidegger.15 Voegelin believed that this gnostic revival had
begun even earlier. In a little book entitled Science, Politics and Gnosticism, Voegelin
argued that a number of the leading intellectuals of the nineteenth century, Karl
Marx, G.W.F. Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Auguste Comte, should be regarded
as gnostics.16 While Voegelin would not have insisted that these philosophers meant
by gnosis the same thing that Marcion meant in the second century, he argued that
there is a plausible similarity between the ancient and modern outlooks that justi-
fies drawing them together under this heading.17
What is especially relevant here is an insight of Voegelin’s that other students of
modern gnosticism have overlooked, namely the recognition that gnostic thought
is characterized by the “prohibition of questions.” Voegelin means by this that the
thinking of various modern philosophers is characterized by a circumscribed
notion of inquiry. Certain questions that should naturally present themselves to
minds engaged in the investigation of the world are either never raised by gnostic
138 RHETORIC & PUBLIC AFFAIRS

thinkers or openly dismissed. So far as science is concerned, this tendency is famil-


iar in the close association that has come to exist between positivism and the nat-
ural sciences. The embrace by scientists of the positivist belief that all questions
reaching beyond the scope of ordinary logic and empirical evidence are nonsensi-
cal has frequently been justified as a necessarily conservative and minimalist feature
of scientific inquiry—a kind of Ockham’s razor writ large. But for nonscientists,
who are almost never positivists, such limitations seem artificial and unreasonable.
The positivists’ refusal to consider experiences that defy such limits, such as those
stemming from artistic experience or moral conviction, may seem laudable to the
faithful, but to outsiders it seems to undermine the very conditions of human exis-
tence in the world.
To follow Voegelin in identifying gnosticism with this feature of positivism is not
to deny the value of scientific caution, nor even that the positivist framework may
describe in rough outline what scientists do. Rather, it is to suggest that the motive
force behind such curtailments of inquiry is not what positivists profess it to be—
that the heroic epistemological pose of the positivists is merely a very specialized
strategy for masking a deep-seated anxiety that arises in the face of fundamental
questions, an anxiety that is rooted no less than more commonplace rationaliza-
tions of this kind in human frailty and duplicity.
To explain how the gnostic impulse leads to the prohibition of questions, two of
its constitutive features will need some dissection. The first of these is its radically
dualistic view of the world, which provokes the alienation that characterizes the
gnostic experience of the world. The second feature is the saving knowledge (gnosis)
to which the gnostic believer appeals in an effort to justify science’s freedom from
the determinism and alienation that arise from a materialist ontology. This will be
followed by a more extensive treatment of its prohibition of questions, the necessity
of closing off inquiry in order to compensate for the essential instability of the
gnostic worldview.

DUALISM
At the very center of gnosticism is an extreme form of dualism that regards immate-
riality as fundamentally good and materiality as fundamentally evil. This radical
dualism is reflected in how the ancient gnostics conceptualized both the human and
divine personalities. The true God for such thinkers would have no dealings with the
corrupt materiality of the cosmos and thus had to be regarded as having nothing to
do with the natural realm. Accordingly, in the gnostic system of Marcion this stark
divide between spirit and nature was projected upon the Bible, dividing its one God
into two—a New Testament deity who is utterly spiritual and utterly remote, and a
lesser Demiurge, the God of the Hebrew Bible, who was responsible for the cre-
ation.18 The Christ of gnosticism could have nothing to do with the world created by
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the Old Testament God since the latter’s hands were soiled by materiality. For this
reason the gnostics repudiated the Christian doctrine of the hypostatic union. Jesus
could not be fully man and fully God but instead had to fall on one side or the other
of the material-spiritual divide. And so he was deemed an eternal spirit but not a
man of flesh.19
The gnostics believed that while the human pneuma participates in the same
immaterial nature as God, it also was imprisoned—indeed doubly so—both in a
dungeon of flesh and in the larger prison of the material cosmos. The result of this
was the unbearable tension of alienation, the gnostic spirit’s sense of utter estrange-
ment from the natural world and from the psyche, the material aspect of con-
sciousness.20 It was the recognition of this posture of estrangement or alienation in
ancient gnosticism that inspired Jonas to interpret this religious movement of post-
classical antiquity in light of Spengler’s theory of historical cycles, as being contem-
poraneous with the postmodern disquietude of existentialism.21 Both periods
invited extreme forms of alienation, in Jonas’s view, because their respective spiri-
tual crises forced individuals to resign themselves to spiritual isolation within a hos-
tile universe. Such a crisis arose in late antiquity as the cosmic religions of paganism
declined under the dominion of the Roman emperors.22 Formerly the cosmopoli-
tan spirituality of the local cults had linked the individual to the community, and
the arete of the community in turn was projected back out upon the cosmos. But
the “atomized” citizens of the Roman world found this impossible; for them no
similar linkage between nomos and cosmos was possible. Because the imperial cul-
ture of Rome was only imperfectly able to emulate the cosmos-building power of
the local cults, the vitality of the pagan cosmos waned and the plausibility of a rad-
ically alien universe was enlarged. Gnosticism was one of the spiritual forces that
pushed into this spiritual breach; Christianity was another.
A similar spiritual breach arose, according to Jonas, at the onset of modernity as
the emerging Copernican revolution introduced a “universe without an intrinsic
hierarchy of being,” one that “leaves values ontologically unsupported.” The self in
such a universe “is thrown back entirely upon itself in its quest for meaning and
value. Meaning is no longer found but is ‘conferred.’”23 Strictly speaking the dual-
ism that results from the modern scientific universe is different from that of the
ancient gnostics, but its spiritual consequences are the same. The modernist may
not believe that the creation is the work of a world-immanent Demiurge, but she
does believe that it is the product of forces completely indifferent to the human self.
In other words, the Demiurge of late antiquity has been displaced in the new gnos-
ticism by the evolutionary blind watchmaker of Richard Dawkins’ fame.
If the dualism in scientistic rhetoric has been overlooked, this is probably
because scientists profess to believe in a unified framework of naturalism, but such
a view is not really possible without sacrificing the integrity of the scientific ratio-
nality from which it is supposed to derive. Scientific modernists persist in believing
140 RHETORIC & PUBLIC AFFAIRS

that some part of human consciousness must remain independent of the harsh
determinism of the natural universe. The scientific self must always remain unde-
termined, lest it should be discovered that science is itself nothing but one more
irrational creation of the Darwinian Demiurge.
Whether grounded in the older supernatural dualism or that produced by mod-
ern materialistic skepticism, the dominant conceptions of nature that have emerged
in both periods exhibit the same alienating features. The common denominator is
a world that is utterly indifferent to human concerns. Both depict the world as such
because—to use a more modern parlance—both regard nature as a closed system
that gives no place to the human spirit. As Jonas describes the world of the ancient
gnostics, the “blemish of nature” lay not “in any deficiency of order, but in the all
too pervading completeness of it.”

Far from being chaos, the creation of the Demiurge, that antitype of knowing, is a
comprehensive system, governed by law. But cosmic law, once regarded as the expres-
sion of a reason with which man’s reason can communicate in the act of cognition, is
now seen only in its aspect of compulsion which thwarts man’s freedom. The cosmos
of the Stoics is replaced by heimarmene, oppressive cosmic fate.24

As already noted, some of the gnostics of late antiquity reacted to this view of the
cosmos by dividing the Godhead in two. The oppressive order of material causality
was attributed to a Demiurgic being associated with the God of the Old Testament,
an evil and world-immanent deity responsible for creating the corrupt world of
materiality. The God of the New Testament, conversely, had to be utterly divorced
from the natural world and regarded as the creator of that same spiritual reality in
which the alienated consciousness seeks refuge. So far as this division exists out-
wardly between spirit and matter, it follows that an analogous division should exist
inwardly—one that pits body against spirit so as to make human nature participate
in this division. Because of its materiality the body is enslaved to nature, the God of
darkness, but the spirit is drawn to the source of its being in the God of light. The
ancient gnostics sought to redress this duality by outlining a salvation that would
situate them within the realm of pure spirit. This necessitated that they interpret
Christ’s resurrection, not as a sign of the promised reconciliation of body and spirit
as understood in Apostolic Christianity, but as an event foreshadowing humanity’s
escape from the prison of the flesh.
Because both modern and ancient gnostics are susceptible to dualistic convic-
tions and to the alienation that coincides with this, their discourses betray similar
patterns of thought. But now this dualism does not seek to colonize a biblical
worldview but rather one constructed by modern science. Thus, for the influential
sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, humanity’s alienated condition arises as a necessary
consequence of its evolutionary history:
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The most distinctive qualities of the human species are extremely high intelligence,
language, culture, and reliance on long term social contracts. In combination they
gave early Homo sapiens a decisive edge over all competing animal species, but they
also exacted a price we continue to pay, composed of the shocking recognition of the
self, of the finiteness of personal existence, and of the chaos of the environment.
These revelations, not disobedience to the gods, are what drove humankind from
paradise. Homo sapiens is the only species to suffer psychological exile.25

Wilson here acknowledges something that his Darwinian view ought to deny,
namely that human consciousness transcends nature. Without assuming that the
mind is independent of nature, he could not say in any meaningful sense that we
experience “psychological exile,” a phrase that betrays the underlying dualism in his
thinking. In order to suffer the exile of alienation the human self must simultane-
ously reside in two worlds. Wilson does not have to presume the existence of polar-
ized Manichean deities in order to acknowledge this. The natural fault line that runs
between consciousness and materiality is sufficient to drive him to such a position:
natural evolution creates consciousness; consciousness in turn finds itself estranged
from nature by virtue of the awareness that the self is subjected to a chaotic world
that belies the godlike aspirations of the human will.
As Wilson’s allusion to the Genesis story suggests, the Judaeo-Christian and
gnostic paths diverge at that point where the biblical view turns toward a moral
explanation of humanity’s alienated condition. In the biblical account, the fall
comes both as enlightenment and disobedience. Even though this primordial event
is depicted as having a cognitive dimension, its character as evil depends upon its
volitional aspect, the deliberate disobedience of eating from the tree. Thus for the
Christian, separation from the ground of being brings about not only self-aware-
ness but also guilt, a recognition of the moral failing that causes this rupture.
Understood as the consequence of human volition exercised in fatal opposition to
a sovereign God, the rupture of the world that is depicted in humanity’s exile from
the garden is not ontological—as it is for the gnostic thinker—but ethical. Human
beings are not truly divided from reality; they are merely in denial.
Since ethical explanations of this kind are unacceptable to scientific materialists,
they are more likely to gravitate toward dualistic accounts of alienation, even though
this contradicts the physicalism they otherwise espouse. Since there can be no such
thing as disobedience in Wilson’s materialistic world, he must “naturalize” alienation
by treating it as an evolutionary step that has led human consciousness beyond the
reach of natural law. The price of this step, “the shocking recognition of the self, of
the finiteness of personal existence,” is “psychological exile,” not guilt. Consciousness
cannot abide a natural world that is utterly indifferent to it, and so it can only press
on with what evolution has begun, the intellect’s conquest of nature. The alienation
that humans now suffer signifies for the evolutionary dualist the mere growing pains
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of an initial separation. It is not to be remedied by going back to paradise but by


bringing the separation to completion. The solution is to complete the process, to
attain the fullness of knowledge that through science will turn separation from
nature into the mastery of nature.
To describe this dualism in more metaphorical terms, it might be said that the
scientific gnostic regards the material world as the domain of an evil god of matter
who is utterly indifferent to human wishes and welfare. By contrast, it is the benev-
olent god of consciousness who overcomes the material world. Still, all of conscious
experience cannot be good, since some of its voices counsel acquiescence to this
finite condition. Only those aspects of thought which descend from spirit rather
than the soul—from pneuma rather than psyche, to couch this in the terminology of
the older gnostics—enable human beings to overcome their enslavement to mate-
riality. Thus it is not surprising that Wilson would argue that religious conscious-
ness is a product of materialistic evolution and that scientific consciousness is not:

The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe… in biol-
ogy, which was developed as a product of the modern age and is not underwritten by
genetic algorithms. The uncomfortable truth is that the two beliefs are not factually
compatible. As a result those who hunger for both intellectual and religious truth will
never acquire both in full measure.26

Those familiar with rhetoric of this kind will recognize in Wilson’s phrase about
the “uncomfortable truth” of science a much-repeated platitude. So understood,
scientific knowledge is necessarily “uncomfortable” because it defies nature.
Wilson’s pneuma is the scientific consciousness that alone produces knowledge
capable of transcending materiality. Thus the scientist suffers the discomfort of
accepting that which goes against what evolution has conditioned human beings to
seek. Science is heroic because of its Promethean defiance of nature; religious con-
sciousness, by contrast, represents the cowardice of slave religion, to use Nietzsche’s
term, because it refuses to set itself over nature.27
In the writing of other gnostic scientists this dualism is equally evident, even if
not explicitly acknowledged. For Carl Sagan this aspect of human consciousness is
explicitly based in an evolutionary hierarchy: the battle of the new and old brains.
The evils of “aggressive behavior, territoriality . . . and the establishment of social
hierarchies” arise from the “old brain,” the “R-complex,” and “limbic systems” that
humans have inherited from their reptilian and mammal ancestors. Virtue, on the
other hand, is made possible by the more recently evolved “neocortex.”28 On the sur-
face, this might seem to express a dualism of matter—the old brain is the root of evil
and the new brain the wellspring of virtue. But upon closer inspection the reader will
discover that it is not in this neurological hierarchy that virtue ultimately lies but in
the will of the conscious spirit to bridle the reptilian and mammal brains and to
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enable the purely human brain to power the human destiny. Redemption cannot
occur through the mere presence of the new and improved brain. The neocortex has
already existed for ages and has not by itself brought the old brain into submission.
Redemption instead occurs through a triumph of the rational spirit, which disci-
plines and guides the neocortex towards its virtuous destiny. Ultimately evil is rooted
in the blind determinism of evolution itself; “there is no way for evolution to rip out
the ancient interior of the brain because of its imperfections and replace it with
something of more modern manufacture,” because “the brain must function during
the renovation.”29 Evolution has tied the new and old brains together into a singular
neurological matrix, so something else has to intercede to enable the virtuous func-
tions of the new to overcome the sinister functions of the old. That this is a tran-
scendent spiritual power is made evident by the fact that Sagan embraces the
charioteer metaphor from Plato’s Phaedrus to explain it.30 In the “cerebral cortex is
liberation,” Sagan declares; no “longer at the mercy of the reptile brain, we can
change ourselves.”31 But this power of the cerebral cortex is likened to that of the
noble horse in Plato’s myth, which requires the guidance of a charioteer, the tran-
scendent nous of rationality. The neocortex is now under the command of a scien-
tific charioteer who is capable of subduing the ignoble reptile brain and of
harnessing the potential of the new brain for its upward climb.
In How the Mind Works, an encyclopedic survey of evolutionary psychology,
Steven Pinker ‘s allegiance to this kind of dualism is betrayed by an interesting omis-
sion, the fact that he reduces every arena of human cognition to the evolutionary
mechanism that created it—except science. He has an evolutionary explanation for
warfare, courtship, monogamy, child rearing, infanticide, music, art, philosophy,
and religion, but nowhere in the 600 pages of his book does he explain how science
can be accounted for by an evolutionary mechanism. The “mind” that is reduced to
the mechanistic explanations of evolutionary psychology throughout the book is
clearly not the “mind” of the scientists who reveal these secrets. Thus Pinker is
forced to believe that there are two minds, again psyche and pneuma we might say,
the first which is a survival mechanism of evolution and the second which is a sci-
entific mind that alone escapes the deterministic slavery of evolution.

GNOSIS
That Pinker would be silent on the implications of evolution for science is not sur-
prising. If science is to be saved from the devouring reductionism of the Darwinian
leviathan, it must be treated as knowledge of a different order from that brought
forth by evolution. Science must be gnosis, the singular experience of consciousness
that enjoys immunity from the deterministic powers of natural evolution. For the
ancient gnostic elite this true knowledge was set off from merely profane knowledge
by appeal to mysticism. It could not be communicated, and only the initiated could
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lay claim to it; all other cognitions were agnoia, mere illusions promulgated by the
profane natural order. Since mysticism no longer provides a viable position for
gnostics who are also scientists, the distinctive gnostic status of scientific knowledge
is preserved merely by silence, through the “prohibition of questions,” the system-
atic avoidance of any philosophical reflection that would draw attention to the
incongruous dualism that supports this faith.
The character of gnosis as world-defying knowledge is illustrated in the unusual
twist put on the biblical story of Eve’s temptation by one group of ancient gnostics,
the Naaseens. Members of this sect treated the biblical serpent as a hero, as a kind
of Promethean character who acted in tragic defiance of the Demiurge when he
urged Eve to reject the proscription against eating from the tree of the knowledge
of good and evil. The serpent’s aim, according to this revisionist exegesis, was not
to destroy humanity but to free it from the prison in which it had been held by the
world-immanent deity.32 This reading turns the biblical concept of evil on its head,
making self-idolatry the basis of salvation rather than the precise cause of human-
ity’s moral predicament. Such reasoning follows logically from gnosticism’s radical
dualism: if evil arises from enslavement to materiality, then whatever would free the
self from its grip will have ultimate value. For spirits trapped in an indifferent world
of material causation, the serpent’s invitation to “be like God” is not a temptation
but rather an imperative, an expression of knowledge that, by virtue of its world-
transcending power, is thought to free the self from its earthly prison.
A world that disregards human interests will be evil to dualists of all stripes,
whether they regard it as the work of an incompetent Demiurge or an order created
by the impersonal algorithms of Darwinian selection. In either case whatever is
godlike in human nature will be put forward as having rightful dominion. Thus it
is not surprising that the modern secularists’ idea of humanity’s place in the uni-
verse would not differ much from that found in ancient gnosticism. Nor is it sur-
prising that we should find in one of its ancient texts, The Gospel of Phillip, a
critique of religion that could easily be mistaken for the work of Feuerbach or
Nietzsche:

For in the beginning God created man. But now men created God. That is the way it
is in the world—men make gods and worship their creation. It would be fitting for the
gods to worship man.33

Any form of dualism that makes the creation evil will treat its maker as an impos-
tor—even a maker purported not to exist. However, this neither solves the deep-
seated problem of alienation nor satiates the attendant desire for mastery of the
world. Becoming an atheist does not silence the whisper of the serpent. Instead the
temptation to taste the fruit that would make us “like God” becomes the primal com-
mandment. Rather than seeing the human predicament as one that arises from sin
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or guilt, gnostic thinkers regard the fallen condition as the product of a failure to
overcome the duality that places one part of the human self in the sphere of materi-
ality and another part in the realm of consciousness. Thus E. O. Wilson agrees with
the gnostic Naaseens in asserting that self-idolatry is our greatest virtue. It is because
we “have original sin,” he writes, that we are “better than angels. Whatever good we
possess we have earned, during a long and arduous evolutionary history.”34
It has already been noted that the desire to make original sin the cardinal virtue
was a characteristic expression of ancient gnostic thought. Subjection to the worldly
order was the ignorance or agnoia, which imprisoned the spirit, and thus the gno-
sis, which saved a person by enabling her to defy this order, could not be one of its
parts. To know nature is to overcome agnoia, to be able to abolish its power over the
human self. In accordance with this pattern of reasoning E. O. Wilson and Michael
Ruse repudiate traditional moral principles as mere illusions imposed upon fallen
humanity by the evolutionary Demiurge. Since morality is not derived from the
higher abstractions of evolutionary science, it is merely a false consciousness to
which we have been enslaved by the world:

In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our


genes to get us to cooperate. . . . Furthermore, the way our biology enforces its ends is
by making us think that there is an objective higher code, to which we are all subject.35

Two trademark features of gnostic doctrine are evident in this passage, the rejection
of ordinary ethical experience as an agnoia foisted upon run-of-the-mill people by
evolution, and the insistence that only the gnostic elite “understand” the truth of the
matter. Wilson and Ruse presume to be in possession of the saving gnosis of science,
which can supplant traditional ethical beliefs with an “enduring code of moral val-
ues.” This morality discounts the manifest experience of conscience in favor of a
“more detached view of the long-range course of evolution.” Scientific gnosis alone
enables people to “see beyond the blind decision-making process of natural selec-
tion and to envision the history and future of our own genes against the back-
ground of the entire human species.”36
But Wilson’s faith in the transcendent power of scientific knowledge is only pos-
sible because the skepticism that supports such arguments is applied inconsistently.
Wilson claims a power for science that his own evolutionary determinism would
seem to belie, an ability to overcome the folly of inbred consciousness—as if to say
that his own ethical judgments are not of this world. Such a position is logically
incompatible with the determinism of the evolutionary doctrine that he espouses.
But Wilson advocates it anyway, and in doing so ends up arguing a position that is
virtually indistinguishable from that of classical gnosticism in its claimed posses-
sion of a mystical gnosis, a form or quality of ethical knowledge over which he
claims control but for which he cannot account.
146 RHETORIC & PUBLIC AFFAIRS

This contradiction is an inevitable hallmark of gnostic rhetoric. In his book


Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, the philosopher Daniel Dennett simultaneously presents
himself as a hard-core believer in evolutionary determinism and also as a champion
of Nietszchean voluntarism. As a determinist Dennett subscribes to the idea, popu-
larized by Richard Dawkins, that ordinary thought is merely an accumulation of
“memes,” particles of information analogous to “genes” which have been encoded
in human consciousness through a process of cultural selection. He is similarly in
league with Wilson and Ruse in presuming that moral beliefs have no real substance
of their own. As memes they are merely cultural inventions, symbolic analogues to
the adaptations selected for in the processes of ordinary physical evolution. Dennett
informs his readers that “normative concepts-—for ought and good and truth and
beauty—are among the most entrenched denizens of our minds,” and that our
“existence as us, as what we as thinkers are—not what we as organism are—is not
independent of these memes.”37
On the face of it, such a position on the nature of mind is true to the evolution-
ary determinism that Dennett embraces, but it is important to understand that
when gnostic thinkers make such statements they are always excepting themselves.
A dualistic worldview requires a dual standard. The gnostic cults of antiquity
accomplished such a rationalization by claiming that the elect had been initiated
into certain mysteries, but the rhetoric of scientism declares that this freedom from
the illusions of false consciousness arises from the gnosis of evolutionary science.
Science provides the “secret” knowledge of the mysteries of origins that liberates the
new gnostics from enslavement to the conditions of their own origins. Thus while
Dennett is famous for saying that Darwinism is a “universal acid” that “eats through
just about every traditional concept,” clearly he makes an exception for his own per-
spective: science as the dispenser of this acid is singularly immune.38
While Dennett asserts that evolutionary theory is a universal algorithm, he is
careful never to turn its formulas back on science itself. At one point in his book he
describes faith as a meme that “discourages the exercise of the sort of critical judg-
ment that might decide that the idea of faith was, all things considered, a dangerous
idea.”39 But if thought consists of memes conditioned by evolution, “science” ought
to be subject to this formula as well, as just one more product of this process of cul-
tural determinism. However, his readers never learn what kind of meme science is
because he has quietly set science apart from nature. Dennett unwittingly discloses
this dualistic position in a very telling criticism of those who challenge the Artificial
Intelligence (AI) research program. He asserts that opposition to AI research arises
from the same motive as public opposition to Darwinism because both of these
fields “strike a fundamental blow at the last refuge to which people have retreated
in the face of the Copernican Revolution: the mind as an inner sanctum that science
cannot reach.”40 But if Dennett’s hopes for AI research were realized, one might
suppose that the scientific mind would be reduced to its causal determinants as
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well. Clearly Dennett does not seem to believe this. After all, if it is science that is
“reaching” into the inner sanctum of the mind, then science is not subject to this
reduction. Science represents consciousness on a different order. By segregating an
inviolable scientific consciousness from ordinary activities of thought, Dennett
enters in upon the classic formula of gnostic dualism, the asserted possession of a
special knowledge reserved only to the initiated.

THE PROHIBITION OF QUESTIONS AND THE RHETORIC OF


DARWINIAN POSITIVISM
Having outlined the main patterns of gnostic rhetoric, we may now bring into focus
what has only been hinted at thus far, the inevitable prohibition of inquiry that is
advanced in discourses of this kind. In discussing this feature of modern gnostic
behavior, Voegelin cited evidence showing that certain creators of philosophical sys-
tems (notably, Marx, Nietzsche, Comte, and Hegel) recognized that their constructs
would collapse if exposed to the scrutiny of basic philosophical analysis, and so they
simply disallowed such questioning. Setting aside speculation about whether scien-
tific gnostics in fact recognize that they are guilty of such duplicity, this analysis will
merely cite evidence suggesting that this problem lies very close to the surface of
their discourses.
Although spiritual motives may reasonably be posited to account for the fact that
advocates of scientism prohibit philosophical reflection, the primary explanation
offered here will be found in the recognition that positivism, scientism’s ideological
support structure, is highly unstable. It can only persist through a careful regulation
of inquiry that bars certain kinds of philosophical reflection at the door. Because
scientific gnostics assume for themselves powers of thought that are inconsistent
with the evolutionary naturalism they embrace, they are forced to evade any exam-
ination of the conditions of such knowledge. Classical positivism rationalized this
prohibition by insisting that philosophy had not been abandoned at all, that it had
merely undergone an evolutionary metamorphosis which had transformed it into
positive science.41 The new Darwinian positivism of Wilson, Sagan, and Dennett
does much the same, but now in the language of evolutionary science rather than
by constructing an evolutionary philosophy of history such as Comte, Saint-Simon,
and Marx did.
Philosophers continue to repudiate scientistic claims, but they do so discretely in
academic books and essays that do not threaten their hold upon the scientific com-
munity. Religious discourse that raises many similar objections is much more public
and therefore much more threatening. Thus it is frequently in the context of address-
ing the issue of religious belief that scientific gnostics reveal their commitment to the
prohibition of questions. An interesting illustration of this can be found in the tor-
tured reasoning that evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker uses to dismantle the
148 RHETORIC & PUBLIC AFFAIRS

importance of inquiry about religious convictions. As Pinker puzzles over the fact that
“96% of people” believe in God, he dismisses on evolutionary grounds the “common
answer” of skeptics “that people take comfort in the thought of a benevolent shep-
herd, a universal plan, or an afterlife.” This is “because it only raises the question of
why a mind would evolve to find comfort in beliefs it can plainly see are false.”42 Here
is the characteristic dualism of gnostic thought. Pinker wants to presume that delu-
sory religious convictions coexist alongside a different order of mental apprehension
which “plainly” sees that such beliefs are false. But while this comment asserts that
religious beliefs are known to be untrue, Pinker seems to contradict this claim a few
pages later:

The problem with the religious solution was stated by Mencken when he wrote,
“Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.”
For anyone with a persistent intellectual curiosity, religious explanations are not worth
knowing because they pile equally baffling enigmas on top of the original ones. What
gave God a mind, free will, knowledge, certainty about right and wrong? How does he
infuse them into a universe that seems to run just fine according to physical laws?43

Having first said that people know that their own religious claims are false but believe
them anyway, Pinker now says that God is simply unknowable, and that religious
questions therefore should not be raised. Although it is always possible that Pinker’s
inconsistency may merely reflect sloppiness in his reasoning, it could also be a sign
of his a priori determination to rule out religious inquiry. A second contradiction is
embedded in his invocation of the principle of “persistent intellectual curiosity” to
justify this ban would seem to suggest the latter explanation. If religious thought is
disqualified because it opens up new “enigmas” whenever it lands upon any expla-
nation, the same could easily be said of science. Scientific explanations are no less
likely to spawn enigmas. What caused the big bang? Is this the only universe that
could exist, or are there a multitude of universes with different physical laws and evo-
lutionary courses? How can consciousness exist in a world that is thoroughly mate-
rial? Pinker in fact openly acknowledges what he calls the “enigmas of consciousness,
self, will, and knowledge,” and at one point declares that he would accept the
Darwinian “explanation of life on this planet even if there were no evidence for it.”44
If religion should be outlawed because it piles up “baffling enigmas,” then we
should expect Pinker to reject science as well. The fact that he does not would seem
to suggest that a deficiency of “intellectual curiosity” is not really what troubles
Pinker about theology. Perhaps this inconsistency merely reflects an implicit recog-
nition of what might be at stake if these religious questions were taken seriously.
Since the gnostic God is the knowing self, no God who is wholly other—who chal-
lenges this deification of the human spirit—can be admitted into the discussion.
Traditional religious claims therefore must be foreclosed as unknowable or false so
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that the gnostic may preserve the all-encompassing jurisdiction of scientific knowl-
edge which defends against alienation.
For Sagan the occlusion of religious questions is exercised through equivocation
and word play. Sagan avoids any serious inquiry into religious questions simply by
dressing science up in the play clothes of spirituality and pretending to have addressed
the issue.

“Spirit” comes from the Latin word “to breathe.” What we breathe is air, which is cer-
tainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary impli-
cation in the word “spiritual” that we are talking of anything other than matter
(including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of
science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible
with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.45

Of course science is compatible with religion, because religion is nothing but


chemistry.
In saying this Sagan makes use of the root fallacy to create the appearance of
opening a door to religious questions, but he never really steps away from natural-
ism at all. He has made certain in advance that what he states in the next passage
will not mean what it seems to say:

When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages,
when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that
sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the
presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage
such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science
and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.46

This acknowledgment of religious consciousness is mere flattery, for what Sagan


gives here with one hand he has already taken back with the other. Having already
established that spiritual experience is nothing more than chemistry, he can safely
talk about it without having to consider whether it has any serious meaning. The
religious experience he talks about here is a phenomenon for which there is no cor-
responding noumenon. Sagan can safely praise religious experience because he has
already established that it has no referent—at least none such as traditional reli-
gionists would suppose. If Sagan means “spirituality” in a truly religious sense in his
closing sentence, he does so only by a kind of verbal bait-and-switch.
In commenting on Sagan’s rhetoric in a review of The Demon-Haunted World:
Science as a Candle in the Dark, the Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin strips off
the mask of pretended openness to religious questions. He boldly asserts what
Sagan’s equivocations merely seem to betray: even though there is no truly rational
150 RHETORIC & PUBLIC AFFAIRS

basis for choosing scientific materialism over religious revelation, we should do so


anyway.

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to
an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take
the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of
its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the
tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we
have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.47

One might suppose that this commitment to materialism was predicated on the
great effectiveness of science in explaining the natural world and the corresponding
allegation that religion is weak and other-worldly. But that is not it at all. As
Lewontin goes on to explain materialism’s necessity, he gives a reason that has no
bearing on scientific work. The real reason for scientists’ inflexible materialism,
Lewontin admits, is simply that it forecloses religious questions:

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a
material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are
forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investi-
gation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how coun-
terintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism
is absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.48

Lewontin’s closing suggestion that theism would undermine science is falsified


both by history and by current demographics which show that religious belief con-
tinues to coexist comfortably with the scientific vocation. If nearly 40 percent of
practicing scientists in the United States are traditional monotheists, as Edward
Larson’s survey research has demonstrated, supernaturalism cannot truly be imper-
missible.49 Surely Lewontin also knows that traditional theism, from the Middle
Ages down to the present, has assumed that the operations of nature are regular and
law-like on the whole, in spite of also assuming God’s freedom to miraculously
intervene in nature.50 Perhaps Lewonton is unaware of this. But even if this were so,
the firmness of his own atheistic convictions ought to preclude any fear of super-
natural belief: if there is no divine foot to get in the door, it should not matter how
widely it is opened. Even if others believed that “at any moment the regularities of
nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen” surely Lewontin does not
believe that this will happen. So why must materialism be “absolute”?
Clearly the prohibition of an alternative to materialism must have some purpose
other than protecting the scientific enterprise from contamination. Lewontin began
his review by recounting an episode in 1964 when he and Carl Sagan went to Little
FORUM 151

Rock, Arkansas, to debate a local creationist on evolution. The failure of the scientific
community to put down the perceived threat of creationism was thought by Sagan to
be a failure of education, something that could be remedied by the kind of popular-
ization for which Sagan would later became famous. But Lewontin rejects this belief
and instead puts this failure down to the deficient “power” that creationists possess.
Religious belief, he argues, is the last stronghold of the rural dispossessed. If only they
could take hold of the same power that is held by the “elite culture,” they would be
able to abandon their religious beliefs. “It is not the truth that makes you free,”
Lewontin says in closing. “It is your possession of the power to discover the truth.”51
This raises an important question. If the truth cannot make you free but only the
power to discover truth, does this mean that the search for truth can be discarded?
Is it merely a rationalization for something else? Lewontin has already said that the
a priori commitment to materialism determines that only “an apparatus of investi-
gation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations” are allowed. In
light of this admission, the “power” he is talking about need only be the power to
predetermine what will count as truth, not “the power to discover the truth.” The
possibility of any inquiry that considers whether the presuppositions of naturalism
are the best avenue for the pursuit of scientific investigations is precluded.
It follows then that when Lewontin uses the word “free” he does not mean intel-
lectual or political “freedom” in its usual liberal sense as the rejection of tradition
and arbitrary authority. Having rejected the modern ideal of open inquiry guided
by the independent operation of reason, he has apparently taken what might best
be called a postmodern turn. Lewontin clings, at least in part, to the Enlightenment
belief that happiness is found in personal liberty, but this is no longer the liberty of
independent thought. Rather it is the spiritual liberty of an unencumbered will.
While it might seem odd to find a scientist of Lewontin’s caliber so openly link-
ing himself to an outlook more focused on science as power than on science as rea-
son, this merely shows that Lewontin is a more discerning student of the philosophy
that guides the other scientific thinkers whose rhetoric was surveyed here. What is
truly odd is the fact that Lewontin would acknowledge the unscientific drift of sci-
entific naturalism and yet not to be bothered by its ominous implications for his
own vocation. Sagan and Pinker may be beguiled by their own rhetoric, but
Lewontin flaunts these contradictions with evident zeal.

SCIENTISM’S GNOSTIC SHADOW


One important assumption of this essay is that the terms that secularists give to
describe their own belief systems may not summarize the fullness of what is truly at
work in their thinking. Apart from this presupposition, it has been customary in reg-
istering dissent against such intellectual fashions to presume that this should be done
on secularist terms. It is easy to assume that positivism, naturalism, materialism, and
152 RHETORIC & PUBLIC AFFAIRS

the like are nonreligious positions, but to do so is to simply accept these positions on
the secularists’ own terms without exploring the actual patterns of thought that are
displayed in their discourses.
It was earlier noted that the advocates of scientism whose words are examined here
are prominent and respected voices in the scientific culture. That these elites would so
uniformly exhibit gnostic patterns of thought is telling. If the scientific leadership is
uniformly headed in this direction, whence go the followers? Is there a more general
movement of thought that is gradually ebbing toward such a position under the influ-
ence of an irresistible gravitational attraction? If so, to where are we being pulled? As
a kind of working answer to this question, we might assume that what has been
observed here is science’s own version of the postmodern turn, that perhaps scientific
materialism and postmodernism are merely two different responses to a singular
intellectual and spiritual crisis. Although the term “postmodern” is rife with difficul-
ties and complexities, in general terms it represents a logical endpoint to the project
of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment hope was that a naturalistic world view,
once authorized by science, could free human beings from the obligations and inhi-
bitions that coincide with belief in a God who has sovereignty over human affairs.52
But by the end of the nineteenth century, sensitive observers of the Enlightenment,
the most notable of whom was Nietzsche, recognized that scientific rationality is
bartered away in the very process of making a commitment to such freedom. If nat-
uralism did not spare God, it would not spare science either.
The postmodern turn represents the abandonment of scientific rationality in
exchange for nihilism and its attendant urge to make the world over through the
will-to-power. For these descendants of Nietzsche and the romantics it is the exer-
cise of creative genius, not scientific reason, that is exalted. But in spite of the fact
that the rising tide of postmodernism is itself a logical consequence of the
Enlightenment, science cannot openly follow this path. It must deal in its own fash-
ion with the contradictions of naturalism. What has here been called gnostic scien-
tism is an alternative way of finding such an equilibrium—if we dare call it
that—which is analogous to that found in postmodernism. It salvages a sense of
rationality by arbitrarily dividing reason from nature, and it then covers its tracks
through the prohibition of such philosophical or religious questions as might draw
attention to this self-deception.
The willingness to mask such contradictions suggests that the rhetoric of scien-
tism has as much to do with the spiritual needs of a powerful segment of this cul-
ture as with the aspirations of science itself. Scientific investigation proper, being
largely uninfluenced by the ideological movements that have circulated round
about it, continues to go forward under its own intellectual and technological
steam. Nevertheless, many leaders continue to urge a scientistic ideology upon the
world, insisting that it must be embraced if a robust scientific culture is to be
maintained. It is easy to imagine the practical considerations that may drive this
FORUM 153

ideology: if science can claim a monopoly on inquiry, it will be entitled to monop-


olize the institutional resources of learning as well.
The central place of such arguments in the scientific culture is nothing new.53
Neither is the spiritualization of scientific knowledge a new phenomenon.54
Moreover, if scientism can be couched in language that appeals to a spiritual motive,
then its monopolistic claims will have an unassailable sanction. Thus the marriage of
scientific imperialism with gnostic scientism—or at least with some other spiritual-
ization of science—may be inevitable. If scientific knowledge is the only kind of
knowledge worth having, then Wilson is correct when he declares that “science is
religion liberated and writ large.”55 Sagan is also right when he asserts that science’s
unique possession of “built-in error-correcting machinery” demands that it should
rule over every arena of judgment—the traditional moral domain of religion as well
as biochemistry and astrophysics.56 Dennett’s prediction that the “universal solvent”
of evolutionary naturalism will flow freely across the modern landscape, dissolving
every antiquated religious system that falls in its path, offers no guarantee that evo-
lutionary naturalism will not aspire to become the thing it seeks to destroy. Dennett’s
ominous suggestion that resistant religionists may need to be put in “cages” in this
new world of scientific naturalism offers no guarantee that a different species of reli-
gionists will not remain on the outside to tend his “zoo.”57
The conventional habit of polarizing the aspirations of science and religion is
governed by what may very well be a false assumption, the belief that religious aspi-
rations are discretionary and can be voluntarily set aside. Under the spell of secular-
ism, modernity has succumbed to the widespread belief that religious convictions
are elective—that religious belief is something that some persons have and that oth-
ers do not. If it is instead assumed that religiosity is as inevitable a feature of human
culture as politics, art, and custom, then it is appropriate to ask what kind of reli-
giosity appeals to those who inhabit a culture of scientism. Half a century ago
Reinhold Niebuhr suggested an answer similar to what is proposed here when he
surmised that modernism’s “pretensions of final truth are always partly an effort to
obscure a darkly felt consciousness of the limits of human knowledge,” lest we “fall
into the abyss of meaninglessness.”58 Where the profane quest for certain knowledge
puts the very idea of knowledge in doubt, sacred instincts rise in defense, proclaim-
ing a faith that is against all faiths but that hopes to turn back the nihilistic shadows
that creep across the modernist landscape.

NOTES
1. This is the approach taken by Tom Sorell, Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science
(New York: Routledge, 1991).
2. I use the term “salvation” here not in its Christian sense as the promise of eternal life but to denote
a general feature of religious thought: its ubiquitous search for remedies to a perceived rupture
between the self and what counts as ultimate reality.
154 RHETORIC & PUBLIC AFFAIRS
3. This is J. Budziszewski’s paraphrase of H. Richard Niebuhr. The Revenge of Conscience (Dallas:
Spence Publishing, 1999), 50.
4. Steve Fuller, Concepts in the Social Sciences: Science (Buckingham, UK: Open University Press,
1998), 30–31; Stanley Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1978), 218.
5. John Angus Campbell, “Intelligent Design, Darwinism, and the Philosophy of Public Education,”
Rhetoric & Public Affairs 1(1998): 469–502.
6. Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution,” The
American Biology Teacher 35 (1973): 125–29; See also the National Academy of Sciences’ recent pub-
lication Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science (Washington, D.C.: National Academy
Press, 1998). The overarching explanatory power of the evolutionary paradigm is offered here as the
main reason justifying its centrality in the biology classroom, but the writers also slip in the notion
(p. 6) that evolution also teaches “a silent message” as a moral exemplar instructing us to “accept the
probability of change” in the world.
7. In calling ancient gnosticism “parasitical” I am of course taking the traditional view of Christian
history, which supposes that there is such a thing as an Apostolic tradition and that the Catholic
view of Christian doctrine that emerged in the third and fourth centuries represents an affirmation
of this tradition. Many scholars take exception to this view. So far as gnosticism is concerned, the
most influential of these has been Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House,
1979). For a refutation of Pagels’ views see Wayne Seely Flory, The Gnostic Concept of Authority and
the Nag Hammadi Documents (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1995), 101–27.
8. See Robert Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959);
see also Henry A. Green, The Economic and Social Origins of Gnosticism (Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars
Press, 1985), 21–74, 261–65; Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis, 2d ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983),
289–92. Because of its close association with Christianity, early gnosticism has traditionally been
regarded as a heresy brought about by Hellenistic influences within the early Church, but it may
have predated Christianity. Robert Grant believes that gnosticism originated in Judaism during the
first two centuries of the common era and that its spiritual appeal arose from the demoralization
that followed upon the collapse of Jewish Apocalyptic hopes. Though in general agreement with
Grant, Henry A. Green and Kurt Randolf attribute its rise to the more general social and economic
conditions that were brought about by Roman domination.
9. Gerald Hanratty summarizes the various positions that scholars have taken on the origins of gnos-
ticism. Studies in Gnosticism and in the Philosophy of Religion (Portland, Oreg.: Four Courts Press,
1997), 18–22. While most scholars believe that gnosticism had pre-Christian origins, none of its
extant texts predate the origins of Christianity.
10. John Lyne and Henry F. Howe have shown that scientific expertise is sometimes not grounded in
technical acumen at all. See “The Rhetoric of Expertise: E. O. Wilson and Sociobiology,” Quarterly
Journal of Speech 76 (1990): 134–51.
11. National Academy of Sciences, Teaching about Evolution.
12. Steve Fuller, Philosophy of Science and Its Discontents (London: Westview, 1989), 13–20.
13. The popularity and breadth of meaning that this term has achieved during the last several decades
makes me a bit embarrassed to use it. One writer, Michael Allen Williams, has recently written a
book-length argument for “dismantling” the term “gnosticism” as what his subtitle calls a “dubious
category.” Williams, although speaking strictly of the gnosticism of late antiquity, proposes that the
stretching of this term to encompass so large a number of ancient religious groups obscures their
distinctive qualities. Michael Allen Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling
a Dubious Category (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996).
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14. For a basic introduction to Jung’s applications of gnosticism see Carl C. Jung, Psychology and the
Occult, trans. R.F.C. Hull (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967).
15. Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity,
2d ed. (Boston: Beacon Hill: 1963), 320–40.
16. Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1968). The
last of these philosophers, of course, was an important intellectual ancestor to the contemporary
scientists named here.
17. Stephen McKnight identifies Voegelin’s notion of gnosticism with the hermetic mysticism of the
Renaissance. While McKnight agrees that there indeed are gnostic elements in contemporary scien-
tific thinking, he has suggested that the features of the scientific worldviews of Marx, Freud, and the
positivists—the thinkers Voegelin treated in his book—are more akin to the hermeticism of various
Renaissance figures than to the gnosticism of antiquity. Hermeticism, a neopagan religious move-
ment of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is most often associated with characters such as
Paracelsus, Ficino, Pico, Bruno, and Fludd. It provided a positive rhetorical impetus to science by
aligning it with an emerging interest in pre-Christian magic, but it eventually lost its place to the
mechanistic philosophy of Newton and Descartes. In contrast to the magical conceptions of the her-
metic world, the gnostic religions that are known from the history of early Christianity embraced a
form of dualism that regarded the material world as evil. Consequently, gnosticism of this kind was
distinctively anti-scientific. None of the writers whom I will examine in this essay are opposed to sci-
ence—quite the contrary—and so in this one regard the scientific philosophy of our own day is not
gnostic in the purest sense. If McKnight and Voegelin are right, the gnostic elements of the early sci-
entific movements may not have disappeared. They may have merely gone underground, becoming
a part of the subconscious baggage of modern scientific thought. Stephen A. McKnight, “Eric
Voegelin and the Changing Perspective on the Gnostic Features of Modernity,” in The Allure of
Gnosticism: The Gnostic Experience in Jungian Psychology and Contemporary Culture, ed. Robert Segal
(Chicago: Open Court, 1995), 136–46.
18. My source is Irenaeus, quoted at length in Robert M. Grant, ed., Gnosticism: A Source Book of
Heretical Writings from the Early Christian Period (New York: Harper, 1961), 45–46.
19. See Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism: New Edition (New York: Harper-Collins, 1994), 43–45.
20. Alienation is Jonas’s term for this condition. Jung would identify the psyche with the unconscious
mind. For a biographical reflection on how the gnostic integrates conscious and unconscious expe-
rience see his Memories, Dreams, Reflections, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York:
Pantheon Books, 1963), 170–99.
21 Jonas, “Gnosticism and Modern Nihilism,” 120. “Postmodernity” here is not Jonas’s word but my
own. I take the liberty of calling it such based on the assumption that the more specific existential-
ist alienation that Jonas describes is akin to the nihilistic reaction against modernism that we now
find in postmodern invectives against the materialistic reductionism of the Enlightenment.
22. Jonas, “Gnosticism and Modern Nihilism,” 125; see also Giovanni Filoramo, A History of
Gnosticism, trans. Anthony Alcock (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 20–37.
23. Jonas, Gnostic Religion, 323.
24. Jonas, “Gnosticism and Modern Nihilism,” 122.
25. Edward O. Wilson, Consilience (New York, Alfred Knopf, 1998), 224–25.
26. Wilson, Consilience, 262.
27. It is in making this division within consciousness that the materialism of the scientific gnostic
breaks down. If alienating knowledge comes from the natural realm, this would imply that the sav-
ing power of gnosis would have to come from elsewhere. For the true materialist this is a logical
impossibility, but since only dualism will relieve alienation, it becomes a psychological necessity.
156 RHETORIC & PUBLIC AFFAIRS
28. Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence (New York:
Ballantine, 1977), 62–80.
29. Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), 279.
30. Sagan, Dragons of Eden, 83. This platonic dualism is also suggested by the title of the chapter in
which he discusses this hierarchy: “The Brain and the Chariot.”
31. Sagan, Cosmos, 278–79.
32. Hanratty, Studies in Gnosticism, 30.
33. Hanratty, 29.
34. Wilson, Consilience, 106.
35. Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics,” New Scientist 17 (October 1985):
50–52.
36. Edward. O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 196–97; ital-
ics mine.
37. Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life (New York: Simon
and Schuster, 1995), 366.
38. Dennett, 63.
39. Dennett, 349.
40. Dennett, 206–7.
41. Auguste Comte does this by simply collapsing philosophy into science and science into nature. He
claims that human beings can only know “invariable relations of succession and resemblance” that
are the “laws” of nature, and thus in the future, knowledge will be concerned only with the “the
establishment of a connection between single phenomena and some general facts, the number of
which continually diminishes with the progress of science.” Comte evades the epistemological ques-
tions that normally surround science by simply making science itself a product of these natural
laws. The same laws that science discovers explain how science works. The Positive Philosophy, trans.
Harriet Martineau, vol. 1, 3rd ed. (London: Kegan Paul, 1893), 1.
42. Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York : Norton, 1997), 554–55.
43. Pinker, How the Mind Works, 560.
44. Pinker, How the Mind Works, 565, 162.
45. Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Random House,
1995), 29.
46. Sagan, Demon-Haunted World, 29–30.
47. Richard Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons,” Review of The Demon-Haunted World:
Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan, New York Review of Books, 9 January 1997, 28–32.
Italics in original.
48. Lewontin, 31.
49. This figure is based on Edward Larson and Larry Witham’s replication of James Leuba’s 1916 sur-
vey of scientists’ religious beliefs. Larson found only a 3 percent increase in scientific atheism in the
last 81 years. Larson and Witham’s findings were reported in Nature, April 1997.
50 This is evident even in the thinking of William of Ockham, the one medieval thinker that modern
science still lauds. See William J. Courtenay. “Nominalism,” Dictionary of the Middle Ages, vol. 9,
Mystery Religions—Poland, ed. Joseph R. Strayer (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987), 155–58.
51. Lewontin, 32.
FORUM 157
52. This became an official doctrine of the positivists. See F.M.H. Markham, ed. and trans., Henri
Comte de Saint-Simon: Selected Writings (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 21–27; Auguste Comte,
Republic of the West: Order and Progress, a General View of Positivism, trans. J. H. Bridges (Stanford,
Calif.: Academic Reprints, 1953 [1848]), 8–63.
53. This appears to have been the driving force behind the scientistic movement of the nineteenth cen-
tury, which was instrumental in the creation of the modern science-centered universities of Europe
and the United States. See especially Adrian Desmond, Huxley: From Devil’s Disciple to Evolution’s
High Priest (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1997). Desmond (256–59) seems to suggest that for
Thomas Henry Huxley, the greatest rhetorical figure in this movement, evolutionary argument was
as much a propaganda tool for this cause as it was a pillar of the emerging biological sciences.
54. Positivism was proclaimed in the nineteenth century as the triumphant unification of all learning
under the canopy of empirical science, but both Comte and Saint-Simon also declared it to be the
new Catholicism. See Comte, 355–444; Markham, 21–27.
55. Wilson, Conscilience, 6.
56. Sagan, Demon-Haunted World, 31.
57. Sagan, Demon-Haunted World, 31.
58. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, vol. 1, Human Nature
(1964; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941), 185.