Flatland and scientism

In Chapter 4 of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land,” he relates Fr. Edwin Abbot’s 1884 novel Flatland, and in so doing neatly conveys the problem with scientism—with the idea that all the matters is what can be measured, basically:

The story imagines a world of intelligent two-dimensional figures. These creatures are straight lines, triangles, squares, and polygons, led by a priestly class of circles. The circles oversee all science, business, engineering, art and trade.

Flatland is a complex society guided by the creed of Configuration. For Flatlanders, all of reality consists in width and length. “State doctrine condemns “those ancient heresies which led men to waste energy and sympathy in the vain belief that conduct depends upon will, effort, training, encouragement, praise or anything else but Configuration.” And what is Configuration? It’s the belief that all misconduct, all crime, comes from some deviation in Regularity of line or angle. Those who are Irregular end up in hospitals. Or prisons. Or executed.

One night the narrator, an urbane and orthodox Square (an attorney), is visited by a Sphere. The Sphere lifts him out of his Flatland universe. It shows him the glory of three dimensions and proves that Flatland is only part of a much larger reality. Then it sends the eager narrator back to his own world as an apostle of the Gospel of the Three Dimensions. Where he’s promptly locked up for mental illness and heresy.

Popular wisdom holds that Flatland was a satire of the conventionalism of the Victorian era. But we might find better parallels closer to our own land, in the scientism of our own time.”

What is scientism? Basically, a false faith in “universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or the most valuable part of human learning—to the exclusion of other viewpoints.”

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