See also my original post on the Freethought Forum with a series of responses.
Written 1 January 2007:
It is essential to note that both pseudoscience under the aegis of legit science and pseudo-science or anti-science under the aegis of supernaturalism both rely on scientism and illicit projections based on gaps. Scientism is a disputed term, but here I am using it to mean a quasi-ritualistic aping of the methods of science in misapplication to an object of inquiry. Because there are always gaps in knowledge, these gaps are exploited to provide pseudo-explanations or denials of the scientific explicability of phenomena. The mirror-image of “Intelligent Design” is the pseudoscience of Dawkins’s memes. All of modern society is trapped in irreconcilable dualisms. A culture capable of generating the one in a scientific age invariably must generate its complement. Over a century and a half of philosophy and broader intellectual currents can be mapped as a competition and vacillation between the currents variously nameable as positivism (scientism) vs. irrationalism (Romanticism).
The religious Right represents one wing of reversion to irrationalism, its power in the USA derived from the decline of liberalism in the 1970s. The liberal wing of irrationalism (misconstrued by its opponents and many of its proponents as radicalism) is vaguely characterizable under the umbrella term of postmodernism, whose intellectual roots are derived from the political Right but have undergone political mutations in the course of their development. The ascendany of this tendency is concommitant with and derives from the same social conditions as the New Right. The attack of the postmodernist wing on rationality and science should be considered as much an assault on secularism and atheism as the attack of the religious Right, and in spite of the mutual cultural and political hostility of these two camps, the postmodernist assault on science serves the cause of the new fascism.
Meera Nanda has documented the problem in relation to India:
Meera Nanda Online
For those who can brave the waters of philosophy and intellectual history, my study guide provides a number of sources for exploring this dichotomy:
Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie)
A more easily digestible approach to the problem can be found in C.P. Snow’s 1959 initiation of a debate on the “two cultures”:
The Two Cultures: C.P. Snow, Literature and Science
The ‘two cultures’ problem plagues us today: specialization and fragmentation allow educated people to remain ignorant of huge swaths of information needed to make sense of our world. Dennett, who is a professional philosopher, ought to know better, but philosophy is as divided as everything else, and Anglo-American philosophy is particularly narrow and provincial. Dawkins is an ignoramus outside of evolutionary theory, and he has impermissibly extended his knowledge by instigating the pseudoscience of memes, an illegitimate metaphorical extension of notions from genetics and natural selection to the cultural/social/ideological sphere. This is a repetition of the nonsense to which the new evolutionism was put in the second half of the 19th century.
Just as there is a god of the gaps, there is a pseudoscience of the gaps, which can be tailored to naturalistic and well as supernaturalistic world views. A naive conception of how science can be applied as a universal method, especially to social and cultural phenomena, constitutes scientism, or the fetishistic application of scientific methods and notions to an object of investigation without comprehension of how the two match up.
Sam Harris presents us with a somewhat different version of the problem. First, he presents a new twist, making ridiculous claims for Eastern mysticism, reincarnation, and similar New Age nonsense. Secondly, freaked out by 9–11, he purports to explain social behavior merely as an effect of belief, rendering an understanding of the springs of behavior in both the Islamic world and in our society impossible. Thirdly, he is so politically and sociologically naive that pernicious consequences flow from his public interventions. Harris himself amalgamates aspects of the two cultures, with the New Age gloss, but as he has no basis for explaining social, cultural, and ideological phenomena, he ends up doing as much harm as good.
Missing in all of this is a huge range of possible contributions from social theory, cultural theory, sociology, anthropology, history, and the full range of philosophical traditions, along with the crucial concept of ideology. Where are the representatives of these domains of expertise in the secular humanist, atheist, freethought, and skeptical communities? How is that the two cultures are somehow segmented such that activist atheists and secular humanists seem to be conversant only with one of these two cultures, both on the production and consumption ends of the culture industry?