There is a disturbing trend afoot, and we should be aware of it. It is a trend which seems to be gaining momentum. It can be described as a collective tunneling of our vision, and not in the sense of healthy focus, but in the sense of disease-induced progressive exclusion of peripheral vision.
Benjamin Jowett was Master of the College of Balliol in the 19th century. He was no doubt an intelligent man, but had the misfortune to be immortalized by his students thus:
First come I, my name is Jowett.
There’s no knowledge but I know it.
I am the master of the college.
What I don’t know isn’t knowledge.
This is the position we’re in if we believe that scientific empiricism alone yields truth. Those who insist that the physical is all there is–materialists–deny truths only because they’ve walled them off in advance. Truth that is not accessible to them because it’s outside their tunnel vision. They’re all Jowetts. We become so, as well, if we adopt the default point of view that our culture increasingly presses upon us.
Here’s how this tendency to tunnel vision plays out in science.
Science is the study of matter and natural processes. It is quite deliberately confined to that which is natural, purposely avoiding that which is supernatural. In fact, an operating assumption for the conduct of science is that what we observe is explainable by natural processes, operating according to natural laws. There’s nothing controversial about this. It’s just what science is.
Religion of course concerns the supernatural, and most religions presuppose that supernatural reality is transcendent of natural reality. Meaning, that it lies above and behind and beyond nature, but also coincident with it. That is the meaning, in this context, of “transcendence.” Supernatural reality is not external from, but transcends, that which is merely material.
What we’re seeing more and more is an urgent insistence that anything not explainable within “science” is not real. If there were no supernatural reality (i.e., all religion is false) then that would be legitimate. But if religious claims are true—there’s something else out there besides what we see, hear, feel, etc.—then science explains much, but not all of reality.
What is going on in the world of science is that dissent is being squelched on the grounds that it is “unscientific,” or is even “anti-science.” Think of how dissenters to the theory of Evolution as an explanation of development of life are treated. Or dissenters to the theory of man-made climate change. We’re not talking here of merely disparaging those with whom we profoundly disagree. We’re talking of active repression (as we discussed here, for just one example).
Why would dissent in science ever be drowned out, rather than just defeated on the merits? Isn’t such repression contrary to the whole project of science? What’s happening in science (or perhaps more accurately, public discourse on subjects of science) is that metaphysical points of view are what are really being advocated, not scientific ones. Science is a methodology, not an ideology, but it is being fraudulently substituted for the ideology of atheist materialism. We discuss this tendency to conflate science with materialism in Switcheroo. It is a dangerous tendency because it leads us to falsely conclude that the methodologies of science are the sole path to truth; that anything unprovable by science is necessarily false. Increasingly, public discussion of scientific topics amount to bracketing debate around politically acceptable opinions, excluding all others not by winning the debate on the merits, but by putting dissenters outside the discussion altogether.
In our society we supposedly separate church and state, declining to establish one religion over another. What is religion? It is a set of beliefs about ultimate reality: the physical and the metaphysical. The idea at the founding of the country was that government would not favor one such set of beliefs over another. The concern at the time was that there not be forced conformity to one set of metaphysical doctrines, nor the rites and practices that attend it. We were to maintain freedom with regard to religion.
We should continue in that concern, but now the ultimate beliefs in play include not only those of religions, but that of atheism, which holds, in essence, that there is no metaphysical, beyond mere ideas. That is certainly a view of ultimate reality just like religion.
From time to time, the courts recognize this, but often this basic concept eludes them. It serves atheist interests that judges engage in superficial analysis, because in that way atheism gets a pass on the restrictions that apply to religions. Courts tend to look at religions as if they were disparate sets of rites and practices, only, and not doctrines about ultimate reality. That tendency abets their inability to understand atheism as also being a doctrine about ultimate reality, just like the doctrines of religions. Without acknowledging it, they assume materialism is neutral, because they incorrectly believe the laws’ subject to be doctrines of what were traditionally denominated “religion,” not doctrines concerning ultimate reality. It is the scope of belief about reality that ought to be the subject of our freedoms, not merely the rites and practices of what we more readily recognize as “religion.”
Considering religion to be about rites and practices only is like saying a human being is only a collection of organic compounds. Religion is primarily an outlook on metaphysical reality, just as atheism is. Religions are based on sets of beliefs about ultimate reality—not just nature, as is revealed to us through science, but supernatural reality. Atheism is also based on a belief about ultimate reality: materialism, the belief that nature is all there is.
In the law, religion is to be kept out of anything the government touches, and of course the government touches nearly everything now. In looking at the principle of separation of church and state, judges steer around the metaphysical component of religions. They put on blinders with regard to claims religions make to truth about ultimate reality. They keep those blinders on when it comes to metaphysical claims of atheist materialism. The metaphysical outlook of materialists is that there is no reality beyond the physical. That outlook remains acceptable in public discourse. It stays inside the circle of our legal and cultural tunnel vision. The competing metaphysical outlooks, those of religions, are excluded.
Those blinders are a form of bracketing the discussion in the law and in public discourse. Religious views of ultimate reality are outside the acceptable circle brought on by tunnel vision. The materialist view of ultimate reality is all that remains inside the circle.
In the culture there is very active bracketing going on, too. Some philosophers think that’s good, as we commented on here and here. Think of political correctness. What is it? We tend to think of it as being the more popular opinion, but that’s not the insidious form of political correctness. The politically correct idea is the one that is inside the circle formed by our tunnel vision. That which is outside the culturally acceptable circle is repressed by the threat of marginalization. Severe opprobrium attaches to those who step outside the bracketed, acceptable, opinions.
Increasingly, the only belief that remains inside the circle of our tunnel vision is materialism. Some people adopt that point of view because they’re ardent atheists, who believe that reality beyond that which is seen is laughable. But most people who allow their vision to be narrowed in this way come to it passively. They may accept the point of view about ultimate reality that is not excluded only because they don’t want to be seen (ironically) as narrow-minded. They may not be actively aware that the scope of fair opinion is artificially diminished. The easy route is to back off of overtly religious points of view; to consider oneself neutral about them.
But there is no neutral. This process of tunnel vision is the fraudulent advancement of atheist materialism, at the expense of beliefs that would include transcendent reality.