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Science and our Worldview

Chapter I – General Characteristics

Russell begins the early modern period by explaining a power struggle between the authority of the church and the authority of science. Science in the sense that we understand it began to take its roots in the 17th century. Aristotle, in the 4th century BCE, practiced a type of science, but it was focused on observation rather than a controlled experiment [1], which is the basis for any scientific experiment in our modern sense. The outcome of this struggle is plainly clear to us. We live in an increasingly secular society and science triumphs over any other form of understanding the world.

I take issue with this shift away from religion simply because I feel that the ease of access to a community and belief system was a really valuable aspect of society for the most outcast, but it has all of the historical baggage of artificially enforced moral rights and wrongs. I have not yet come up with a convincing alternative.

I am not religious, but I do believe in the effect of spirituality on the way that someone can feel. In a strict scientific discussion, this could be understood under the idea of the placebo pill, which can appear to have positive effects on illness, primarily mental.  What is certainly not an alternative to religion, however, is scientism – an uncritical adherence to the facts provided by science without a second thought and without grounding the use of science in the human experience.

Thunder, for example, was understood by the early Greeks as a weapon of Zeus, and spots of earth where lighting struck were considered to be sacred. [2] It may appear silly to us to think of lighting as being more than an “electrostatic discharges through the atmosphere between two electrically charged regions, either both in the atmosphere or with one in the atmosphere and on the ground, temporarily neutralizing these in an almost instantaneous release of an average of one gigajoule of energy.”[3] Wikipedia even says that there are different varieties of lighting, which while fascinating, is practically useless to us in a meaningful sense.

I can also think of lighting as a cloud moving up slightly and then spitting out a huge sneeze in the form of lighting. I can also think of Zeus quite literally throwing down bolts to the ground just in the same way as we find it meaningful and fun to strike golf balls with a club.

The point is that an overly scientific attitude towards the world is not practically useful for the average human being forming their place in the world. Religion on the other hand, values those for believing and performing and behaving in the manner stipulated by the religion, and this gives those people a great deal of meaning whether it be in the promise of heaven afterward or safety in the current world, or whatever may be the case.

Here’s an analogy: if the entire world were structured sensually – that is, visually, auditorily – as an extremely long chain of mathematics it would be extremely useful to efficiently make use of the earth, and there would be no ethical burden in the way that we experience the decisions of injuring people or consuming animal meat. Math is just symbols, and no reaction would arise from the person from resolving the optimal mass production of animal life for the consumption of their meat.

That ethical feeling still exists within us as much as we try to organize the world, and trying to minimize it is pointless. I will never in my lifetime need to know how lighting is formed, but when I see it, it would be certainly more meaningful to me if I saw it as a gracing of God or as a cloud farting, but I cannot help but render clouds in my imagination as an electrical discharge, which has amounted to a terrible decline in the ability of myself and secular people to imagine a more interesting world in those places where there are no consequences, like the strike of lighting.

This has been the large negative effect of the scientific attitude of the Modern Era. Interestingly, Russell also says this: “The authority of science, which is recognized by most philosophers of the modern epoch, is a very different thing from the authority of the church since it is intellectual, not governmental.”[4] The curious part of this is that it is indeed a governmental sort of authority as well. If the structures of the church were meant to induce belief in a god so as to orientate the morality of a society, then science and the efficient products thereof like electrical devices and machines have done the same thing in that it has orientated us towards a particular view of the world.

Here is a logical statement: why would anyone hand-make a shoe when it can be mass-produced in a factory and designed digitally? It would be illogical with respect to efficiency, mass production, individualism, etc. to say that it feels nicer and special to handmake the shoe, so it can never fit into this logical statement without objection because the values of efficiency and so are justified by the current position of science in our hierarchy of values.

This is not to say or discredit science and the good it has done for society thus far, particularly in the field of medicine. What it means is that science has to be accepted or rejected by the general population based on confidence in the overall structure. For many reasons, very few due to faults of the actual scientific process itself and rather due to the attitudes of people, a society can come to see something like a vaccine which has been widely used since they were invented as a negative or something that you choose to believe or disbelief.

Russell distinguishes between the method and the use of science, the conflation of which has been a tremendously consequential misunderstanding of what science is and is meant to do: “So far, I have been speaking of theoretical science, which is an attempt to understand the world. Practical science, which is an attempt to change the world, has been important from the first, and has continually increased in importance until it has almost ousted theoretical science from men’s thoughts”.[5]

While this may appear to be a clear distinction, an understanding of science as a normative process, something which ascribes values, the “good” and “bad” of the world, is the common understanding of the process. When a conservative person tries to argue for the nonexistence of the LGBTQ+ community, they might point to “science” to say that a particular study shows that there is no evidence of a “gene” that would make someone gay. And they would be vaguely right but with a faulty understanding of how genetics works and thus not at all.

Genetics is not just a determination of what you will turn out like in your life, sometimes it is in terms of hair color, but with the complexity of human social interactions and experiences, the expression, or nonexpression of these genes will be controlled for by the environment that you are in. Then the goalpost is moved, and I can hear Alex Jones fanatics yelling that ‘You are right, the environment is affecting the expression of these genes! the water is turning the frogs gay!’ and here they pretend to use science to say that gay people should not exist because chemicals are abnormal to human development, but so are phones, and everyone has one.

Juices have chemicals as well, and so do the supplements that Alex Jones sells as healthy dietary options. Eventually, ideology will take the place of the scientific argument, and they will turn to the moral decay of society stemming from the LGBTQ+ community and the straying from Christianity, which at this point has nothing to do with science and the sexual orientation of frogs and more with ethics.

This is an incredibly frustrating problem to deal with. People like to pretend to be scientifically backed, but when pushed on these ideas will move the goalpost of the argument to something unscientific, and thus the whole conversation up until that point had been unproductive.

Neo-Nazis for example will infamously roll out scientific data to prove that other races are inferior to whites in terms of IQ. Point out that IQ is not a perfectly objective comparable number between people and that it is not granted at birth but rather developed partly genetically and partly because of environment, and they will move the argument to the social cohesion of the country culturally. It doesn’t make any sense because the structure of the argument has literally changed, and the moment where the scientific argument was dropped is sudden and unexpected and oftentimes unseen.

Once again, what is the practical use of science for the average person? I can imagine a brave person arguing scientifically for the right of LGBTQ+ people to exist for example, statistically analyzing the self-reported well-being of that community, it would be assumed to improve once there is holistic support of the people thereof and thus would support the happiness of the person, which is sometimes accepted as a reason for living in the first place – human happiness.

The reason why the question of living is still so relevant is that science does not provide it. We can study the most optimal human behavior for a long life, but it would not be appealing to any of us. Instead, a commonly accepted reason to do and be would be a happy life. At the same time, happiness could be described as being hooked up to a machine that constantly dumps serotonin and dopamine onto the brain in particular regions, which I will unscientifically describe as happiness brain chemicals, but I don’t think anyone imagining this scenario would point to the person smiling hooked up to the machine as happy and some confusion might arise, whereupon the discussion of the meaning of life springs.

That is all to say that science is as much a religion in recent times as it is a method. It can be difficult to distinguish which view of science is more applicable for a particular person when you are talking to someone new. Imagine they give you fascinating scientific details which were misrepresented because of financial or moral incentives. The latter incentive was made clear earlier here, but the former has not.

Supplements and generally over-the-counter medicine producers will scour the guidelines of the FDA and figure out what they can say and what they cannot, and although scientifically what they do say is entirely valid, the common lay understanding of what they might say is not so clear so that buzz words like “all-natural” can be written, when in the first place genetically modified food and chemicals, in general, are not inherently bad.

Here again appears this odd back and forth of science and personal belief, “all-natural” is supposed to call to mind the idea that natural remedies or natural ingredients are somehow better than chemicals, but the supplement is a condensed pill anyways. Once again, and I must repeat this, this is not to say that things like supplements are bad, but it can be the difference between spending extra money on medicine that has a brand and financial incentive behind it compared to a generic version of the same drug, or an entirely artificial drug that does absolutely nothing for the person.

For example, in my head Tylenol and Advil do the exact same thing – they lower my pain somehow. Both of these are the more expensive alternatives to whatever the main ingredient in both products is, but these are bought because they are commonly understood to lower pain, compared to “naproxen sodium” which is as scary as the way cyanide sounds but is effectively the same as Advil, while cyanide kills you in tiny amounts.

Russell also talks about the individualism that was harbored further in this age: “This is very marked in Descartes, who builds up all knowledge from the certainty of his own existence and accepts clearness and distinctness (both subjective) as criteria of truth.”[6] This idea of confident individualism is very interesting in the context of the modernization of the world when modes of production became more entangled with the forced community.

Just a little further on, he says, “Meanwhile science as a technique was building up in practical men a quite different outlook from any that was to be found among theoretical philosophers. Technique conferred a sense of power: Man is now much less at the mercy of his environment than he was in former times. But the power conferred by technique is social, not individual; an average individual wrecked on a desert island could have achieved more in the seventeenth century than he could now.” [7]   

While individualism was being built up as people became free of the church, a society critically dependent on the forced cooperation of people was developing. Individualism is narcissism, insofar as it is impossible to be who you are and have what you have without the help of other people up to a certain point in life.

Science, as an expression of human activity, can be characterized by this narcissism insofar as it sees the world out there as something to be exploited for oneself, in the form of a factory line. It has no eyes to the end of the operation but to the contained and separated-from-the-world productive process, something which is nonsensical in the first place.

A biological ecosystem makes sense because we understand nature to be responding to itself based on the different lifeforms that are living in it. A factory does not account for the external ecosystem, outside of the factory itself, because it assumes that the raw materials will always be available. This is obviously not the case, and something has to be done to make people acknowledge this blindness to the ecosystem outside of the factory more thoroughly.

However, science has become a religion and not a method, so some people don’t “believe” in climate change, because to them it makes sense that science is just an opinion or irrelevant to the discussion at hand. The climate change example is clear and palpable and easily acceptable, but more important and difficult is a belief that the world has meaning, or that people are more than just means to an end, and that a thunderstrike could be understood as a cloud fart so as to protect the sanity of the people in this society or protect them from narcissism, which can only really end in loneliness.  

To some extent, I am talking about the limits of science and when we should stop, but more importantly, the ethical consideration of the destruction of the earth. So, how are we to impose a change in the perception of the world on science, factories, and the meaning of life?

Russell worries about this and concludes the chapter as follows: “The modern world, at present, seems to be moving towards a solution like that of antiquity: a social order imposed by force, representing the will of the powerful rather than the hopes of common men. The problem of a durable and satisfactory social order can only be solved by combining the solidity of the Roman Empire with the idealism of Saint Augustine’s City of God. To achieve this a new philosophy will be needed” [8]This is the beginning of the early modern period as Russell starts it, and I hope at some point I am able to return and answer the question of this new philosophy at a later date.

Thank you for reading. The next chapter is on the Italian renaissance and then Machiavelli, so I might skip the next and go straight to Machiavelli, depending on the information in that chapter. I didn’t think I would be able to write a whole essay on the introductory chapter of the early modern period, but here we are.

[1] Brian Hepburn and Hanne Andersen, “Scientific Method,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2021 (Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2021),

[2] NOAA US Department of Commerce, “Lightning History” (NOAA’s National Weather Service), accessed June 14, 2023,

[3] “Lightning,” in Wikipedia, June 13, 2023,

[4] Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, A Touchstone Book (New York u.a: Simon and Schuster, 1972). (pp. 492).

[5] Russell. (pp. 492-493).

[6] Russell. (pp. 493).

[7] Russell. (pp. 494).

[8] Russell. (pp. 495).

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