Book review

On Scientism

Eric Voegelin, of “Don’t immanentize the eschaton!” fame, penned a small monograph exploring his favorite subject, gnosticism: Science, Politics & Gnosticism. It is a slim book not as well organized as some of his other writings (what came first would have been better coming last), but it is valuable in its succinct differentiation of those intoxicated with the idea of man’s perfection, and those who soberly acknowledge Reality.

Voegelin lists six traits of gnostics:

  1. A profound dissatisfaction with his situation. This is shared by realists in darker ages.
  2. “[A] belief that the drawbacks of the situation can be attributed to the fact that the world [not just man] is poorly organized.” Contrast this with realists who accept the world as it is, and know that man is ever “inadequate”—or fallen.
  3. Belief that “salvation from the evil of the world is possible.” Realists know that suffering in inevitable, with hope of salvation only after death.
  4. A belief, and desire, that evil shall be vanquished via a “historical process”. Realists say there is nothing new under the sun.
  5. This historical process will be helped along by gnostics, because all problems have, and must have, a solution. I don’t need to tell you the realist position.
  6. The secret knowledge, gnosis, to bring perfection will be discoverable and available to adepts.

The last one, in the context of Science, is best summarized by the hackneyed phrase “more research is needed.”

Science doesn’t appear directly in Voegelin’s list of gnostic movements. These are “progressivism, positivism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, communism, fascism, and national socialism.” Incidentally, he’d have no trouble adding Woke & DIE to this list, both cancerous forms of progressivism. Equality is as gnostic as you can get.

Forms of Science are there, like positivism; and of course Marxism and psychoanalysis claim to be sciences. But Science (also knowledge) cannot properly be considered gnostic, because discovering the cause of certain observations carries no moral meaning—though what to observe can. It’s only when we pass from Science to scientism, the belief that Science has, and must have, all answers, that we reach gnosticism.

Gnostic movements are just that, movements. There must be progress, there must be an ever-accelerating rush to the End Of History. All the best philosophers, like Comte, Kant, Condorcet, agree. “According to the Kantian idea of progress, humanity is moving in an unending approach toward the goal of a perfect rational existence in a cosmopolitan society”—stop me if you’ve heard that one before. Amusingly, though Kant foresaw the aggregate of man reaching perfection, he did not believe there would be “salvation for the individual man.” That attitude, too, is now common.

The number three retains a mystic significance for gnostics. There are always three ages of man: ancient, medieval, modern. Hegel thought there were three ages of “freedom: antiquity with its oriental despotism, when only one was free; then aristocratic times, when a few were free; and now modern times with all are free.” Hegel confused freedom with liberty to do that what is right.

Marx of course sliced his three ages by the primitive communism of the proletariat, the reign of the bourgeois, then the glorious classless society. Schelling “distinguished three great phases of Christianity: first the Petrine, followed by the Pauline, which will be sealed by the Johannine phase of perfect Christianity.” Synod on Synodality, anyone?

Comte’s divisions were a world “first theological, a second metaphysical, and a third phase of positive science.” Even if philosophers have abandoned formal positivism, as a whole we have not.

Before Science there was only profound ignorance. Then came Bacon. D’Alembert, de Maistre reminds us, insisted “Bacon was born in the depths of the most profound night.” Yet somehow, he never told us how, he, Bacon, could see! The radiance of a future Science through gnosis was gifted to him, and he became its prophet. The utopian age of Science would come when people were prepared via familiarity with his novum oragnum, his gnostic New Instrument.

The “I **** love Science” hardcore atheist Reddit crowd feel this. Man was mired in gloom, then came an awakening where Science was discovered, and we can now look forward to downloading ourselves to the cloud, living forever in computerized bliss.

All gnostic movements are involved in the project of abolishing the constitution of being, with its origin in the divine, transcendent being, and replacing it with a world-immanent order of being, the perfection of which lies in the realm of human action. This is a matter of so altering the structure of the world, which is perceived as inadequate, that a new, satisfying world arises.

But because the reality cannot be changed, “every gnostic intellectual who drafts a program to change the world must first construct a world picture from which those essential features of the constitution of being that would make the program appear hopeless and foolish have been eliminated.” Like, say, removing private property, proscribing “white supremacy, or, under scientism, quashing “science denial.”

Which brings us back the beginning of Voegelin’s book. There has emerged, he says, “a phenomenon unknown to antiquity that permeates our modern societies so completely that its ubiquity scarcely leaves us any room to see it at all: the prohibition of questioning.”

He doesn’t mean the always present “resistance to analysis” or the power of emotion over thought.

Rather, we are confronted here with persons who know that, and why, their opinions cannot stand up under critical analysis and who therefore make the prohibition of the examination of their premises part of their dogma. This position of a conscious, deliberate, and painstakingly elaborated obstruction of ratio constitutes the new phenomenon.

That this happens with scientism I don’t need to defend. But it is an odd kind of gnosticism, that which is known to be false is believed true, and where all are demanded to swear to the falsity. It is as if the gnostics think that if only enough people believe hard enough, the falsity will become truth.

And we’re right back to the Meta Fallacy.

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Categories: Book review

24 replies »

  1. There are two comments I need to do:

    1) Gnostic thinkers are NOT philosophers. For instance, the uber-gnostic, Descartes, uses a “method” to recreate, as SCIENCE (of course “science”, this caricature, is deemed as gnostic by Voegelin) the world and himself; Aristotle wanted to know the world as it IS, Descartes wants to modify, dominate. As you know, the gnosis, in modern times is the (wait for it) “MODEL”, the ideology. Ideologues, like Kant or Condorcet and the rest, “antropotheists”, ARE NOT PHILOSOPHERS. Kant even says philosophy is impossible, as do Comte, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, etc., keep on going….

    2) The three ages is a trait of modern (post-romantic) thinking, because of the influence that Joachim de Fiore exercises, via Lessing, in German [pseudo-]enlightened thinkers (Dawson).

  2. one mire thing:

    Christianity, with the Incarnation 9f the divine LOGOS, “that shared our human condition, in everything but sin”, the creation as deemed “very good” by Hod, the sacraments, which tend to respond to every NATURAL necessity with a suoernatural grace, GRACE, that doesn’t obliterate nature, but heals, perfects and elevates it, et cetera, is the perfect opposite if gnosticism. Thay’s why every hnostic movement hates the Catholic Church, from pseudoenlightenment, to constructivism, and progressivism, hegelian dialectics, positivism, marxism, nietzscheanism, existentialism, and keep on going. Perfect opposites… And yotalitarianism is by its nature gnostic and atheist…

  3. I don’t at all support ancient gnosticism (holding views almost 100% in the other direction) – – but Eric Voegelin seems to have *grossly* selected-from and distorted ancient gnosticism in the process of applying it to modern atheist-materialist-leftism, so as to end-up with something so extremely different as almost to be its opposite!

    After all, the ancient gnostics (if that term means anything valid) were certainly theists (not atheists, like modern leftists); who (mostly) believed that ‘the material’ world was evil and only ‘the spirit’ was perfect (modern leftists don’t believe in the spirit and are concerned wholly with the material); and this material world was made by their equivalent of ‘the devil’ (rather than happening by accident and determinism). Ancient gnostics were (like all ancient people) *extremely* different from anybody in the West in 2022.

    I also can’t imagine why modern people would imagine that it would be rhetorically damaging to label someone as ‘a gnostic’ – when 99.9% of people will have no idea what it means, or even that it is a ‘bad thing’.

    Of course, with something so various and ill-defined as ancient ‘gnosticism’ it is easy to pull-out a few resemblences with… whatever you want to; including something as various and ill-defined as modern atheistic-leftism – but surely that means nothing substantive?

    Modern US conservatives seem to have so much respect for the authority of Eric Voegelin that they have followed him into this weirdly pointless and inappropriate terminology.

  4. I laugh when I see an american parochial polemist, talking like someone that doesn’t know the world exists outside the US…. Your, Bruce Charlton’s, attack on Voegelin-Briggs is that it is an “american” defect. After that, you say that leftism-atheism and ancient gnosticism are ill defined and very different. Finally, you add this gem, that reminded me of a children’s comedy I used to watch when I was a kid: “I also can’t imagine why modern people would imagine that it would be rhetorically damaging to label someone as ‘a gnostic’ – when 99.9% of people will have no idea what it means, or even that it is a ‘bad thing’”. My comic character said once: “don’t be so dumb, Kiko, how is he gonna have something he doesn’t even know what it is?”… There you go, ignorants can’t have any illnesses, they don’t know what they are….

    Gnosticism isn’t studyied only in the US. I live and theach in Chile; I go to academic congresses abroad. 10 years ago, I went to a congress in Buenos Aires and the subject was gnosticism. My good friend is doing her doctoral dissertation in gnosticism, in a uniniversity in Barcelona, Spain. And Voegelin isn’t the only author who combats gnosticism. There is abundant bibliography, a tradition that comes, uninterrupted, from Saint Iraeneus, Clement of Alexandria, Saint Cyprian, Saint Hyppolitus, etc… Up to Orestes Brownson and Christopher Dawson, before Voegelin… And there is much more.

    You don’t understand the concept? That’s on you, man. But your ignorance is NOT the measure of the world… As the ignorance of the comedic character of my childhood…. And babies die of illnesses they can’t know exist…

    Peace and God bless and enlighten and free you….

  5. I know, I know, you are hoing to andwer that you said that gnosticism can’t be a rhetoric topos; not something which affects reality. I get that, but it’s very rich, anyway: my comedic character was in the same channel: he was talking about someone that was stressed by something; Kiko sugested that it was because of the 70’s energy crisis; so, El Chavo said what I already told you. Of course, rhetorically you can throw that, especially in an article in which you start by defining what it is. And, besides, you can be searching for something, not caring about rhetoric, rhetoric aims at convincing, diallectics at finding the truth. Maybe, you are not very used to that. In history, that’s known as sophist spirit… Maybe, you are. Any way, be that as it may, God bless you

  6. Mayybe you mean some kind of mosern thing calling itself gnosticism. Because ancient gnosticism was just escapism and rejected the world. It was all about escaping a cycle of reincarnation not fixing the world. What you are calling gnosticism is perhaps more judaic messianism, particularly of the progressive jewish type that views the messiah not as a person but as the jewish people as a whole and teaches “tikkun olam” i.e. “fixing the world”. Its true that religions that used to be gnostic in the ancient escapist sense (buddhism for instance) have become this tikkun olam type thing in modern times, but this is because jews have taken over the top of these i stitutions not because that’s what gnosticism really is.

  7. Incredibly based. Hope does not come from any one of us creatures. Hope only comes from Jesus Christ.

  8. Just wait until the perfection of Gnostic Democracy!

    The wisdom of crowds? More like crowds will become none-the-wiser!

  9. The great Cardinal Siri of Genoa had this to day about Gnosticism:

    1. Opinions Replace Truth .

    In this world the first and fundamental doctrine of power consists of an affirmation that there is no truth. Saint Augustine said that the difference between the city of this world and the city of God consists of the former having a thousand opinions, while the latter has only one truth. The basic difference between both cities, therefore, is not based on the content, but on the very existence of truth. It suffices to remember the dramatic dialogue between Jesus and Pilate.

    What is most grave is that there is a technique to replace truth by opinions. This technique exists and is very useful. It suffices to look at present religious, literary, and philosophical productions. Opinions can be so cautiously expressed that it is impossible to get to know what the author’s thesis is, or even more paradoxical, doctrines that are mutually contradictory are juxtaposed as if they were consistent.

    Let us look at the words, “God is dead.’ 1 If the slogan were denial , everybody would be able to understand. However, here we have a subtly sophisticated idea through which “theologians” want to convey the deceitful impression they are preserving the most assayed and chemically pure idea of God . . . through its “identification” with the most profound reality of man.

    Even the ambiguous terms “conservative” and “progressive” conceal the relativistic technique, which leads every doctrinal issue in the direction of right wing and left wing. Thus everything becomes relative; everything becomes a matter of opinions and an instrument of power. Relativity of truth and doctrine is the actual goal of these arbitrary developments of the Church’s present problems.

    Is not this measure, proclaimed even by bishops and cardinals among us, absurd and most unjust, as if it were an ideal to place us halfway between truth and error?

    2. Is Gnosis Reappearing?

    [To name the current errors in the Church, one speaks about a new Modernism and also the Protestantization of the Church, but the Archbishop of Genoa prefers to use the term Gnosis.]

    Let it be remembered that Gnosis, with its appeal to science and higher speculation, with its eagerness to understand mystery and to naturalize the Faith, was, during the second century, perhaps the worst danger in all the history of the Church. I believe that the complex of errors circulating today can be called Gnosis , systematically speaking. But … do many people know what they are talking about? This is terrible, but they do not!

    One does not act on rational grounds, but on one’s excessive desire to adapt oneself to the world. Worldly power, however, has its own philosophy, and fashionable theologians translate fashionable opinions into theological language, not because they accept a doctrine as such, but because they accept these doctrines that flatter the powers of this world.

    The present times are grave, not because it is no longer a question of opposition or contrast between truth and error, but between truth and non-truth, between the order of truth and the dictatorship of public opinion. People believe they are free because this appears in juridical texts; as a matter of fact, this deceiving belief is evidence of their servitude.

  10. The six traits actually read like an old fashioned olde tyme Science Fiction/Fantasy plot line.

  11. nobody on here has read the church fathers but brucw charlston. the rest are regurgitating moronic modern lies about gnosticism invented by modern theologians to hide their own gnosticism.

  12. A good article. I have to agree here with bruce g charlton, there are some weird ideas circulating about Gnosticism. Tempting as it may be, tying it to social and political theory seems quite popular these days but is an error.

    Are the indented quotes Voegelin’s? Gnostic texts point to something really very different… Gnostics are not concerned with “abolishing the constitution of being, with its origin in the divine”; instead salvation is precisely tied to recognising one’s origin in the divine pleroma. Perfection isn’t found in the “realm of human action”; it is in recognition (knowledge) of one’s perfected state prior to the descent from the pleroma. And the “new, satisfying world” is very much a potential here and now… without altering the structure of the world, no worldly progress needed e.g:

    — His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?”

    “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.” [Gospel of Thomas]

    Liberating (salvific) gnosis is neither an intellectual position, nor the result of personal efforts to remake oneself or the world… it has a very special regard for divine grace, as well as the undoing of the root error which arose from the fall of man.

    P.S. Doesn’t scientism denote strong scientific realism — the remedy for which is surely one of the (number of) scientific anti-realist approaches?

  13. Yes yes, it’s true that old school gnostics and our modern tomfooleries are nothing alike. In many respects they are diametrically opposite.

    But we use the ‘gnosis’ term in a slang context to label those chasing after or claiming to possess hidden knowledge and wisdom, based largely on M’uh personal lived experiences. And if you only knew what and how they know these things, you’d be voting democrat too. Trust the Plan. Trust THE SCIENCE ™. A woman is someone who identifies as a woman, Etc.

  14. Today a Pfizer executive admitted that the company’s vaccine was never tested for whether it stopped transmission:

    Now I doubt the fact that the effects on transmission were never studied will surprise anyone here. What’s more interesting for the discussion is that the executive said that such studies couldn’t happen because Pfizer had to “move at the speed of science.” Now if we understanding science as an investigative procedure this is absurd. You can’t say that in order to investigate something you had to move too quickly for an investigation to be possible; it would be like saying that you couldn’t wait for the water in the fridge to become ice cubes because “I had to move at the speed of freezing.”

    But if we understand SCIENCE as a salvific process to free the world from evils, then it makes sense. The world was in peril so SCIENCE needed to act immediately, and if proper studies would not take too long than those studies were not part of the salvific effort and so were not SCIENCE.

  15. Martin Luther was a gnostic who hated St Augustine. It was Luther, “The Wild Boar” whose malign theology was premised on that of Pseudo-Hermes Trismegistus – a really world class whack job.

    Luther, not unlike a Manichean, thought there were two forces within God, i.e. two Gods struggling against each other; Luther thought that Jesus was not a divine person but, rather, a “compositum, that is, one composed of both malediction and divinity.

    The Bishop of Rome is a YUGE fan of Luther, so, yeah, gnosticism is a problem this very minute and it is not a thing of the past.

  16. @Johnno

    “Martin Luther was a gnostic who hated St Augustine.”

    He was an Augustinian monk and ever taught nothing but Augustinian nonsense! This is the same as the attempt to invwrt the meaning of Gnosticism.

    “Luther, not unlike a Manichean, thought there were two forces within God”

    Augustine literally was a Manichean, actually belonged to that sect. Luther’s manicheanism came direct from Augustine.

    Is this insistence on calling Talmudism “Gnosticism” and pretending Luther’s theology did not come from the archheretic fatalist trash Augustine the hippo some kind of Catholic brain disorder caused by a toxin the RCC puts in the communion wine?

  17. Rudolph Harrier- you took on that Pfizer-madame Small’s remarks perfectly lightyl (=well). I now – elightened by your ideas – imagine Mrs. Small hid inside an ice-cube machine, travelling through the universe at the speed of a pfizering (heavily blinking!) light. – She feels well there! – Its soooo fast!

  18. Ugh, my comment got eaten. I didn’t save it, and these are never as good the second time around…..

    Paul Salmong says “Augustine was literally a Manichean, actually belonging to that sect.”

    “Was” is the operative word here: Augustine WAS a devotee of Manicheanism, before he converted to Christianity, thanks partly to the prayers of his mother, Monica, a devout Christian herself. Augustine struggled mightily with his sins and temptations, before becoming a follower of Christ.

    Paul also says “Luther’s manicheanism came direct from Augustine.” If Luther was in fact “Manichean”, (I wouldn’t know), he was following Augustine in a rather bass-ackwards way: St. Augustine BEGAN as a Manichean and lover of ladies, and then became a Christian (a Catholic).

    Luther, on the other hand, went from Catholic (Augustinian) monk, to Manichean (it is said) who liked the ladies. A sort of reverse conversion from that of St. Augustine, so we mustn’t blame him for Luther going off the rails.

    One thing Luther DID have right, was he continued to “Behold his Mother”; his followers in later centuries, not so much. Luther understood (I’d think) that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine; therefore, Mary is the Mother of God (the Arc of the New Covenant) and Jesus shares her DNA, 100%, in His humanity.

    Think about this: At His Ascension, and as He sits at the right hand of the Father, Jesus continues to be fully human and fully divine. We therefore now have One who is fully HUMAN, at the center of the universe, and “He holds all things together in Himself.”

    We humans are not trivial, and that is the Gospel Truth.

  19. As Christopher Lasch pointed out, Voegelin poorly understood Gnosticism, but he did make some good points about general eschatology. See Gnosticism, Ancient and Modern: The Religion of the Future? by Christopher Lasch [Salmagundi, No. 96 (Fall 1992), pp. 27-42].

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