Satirizing Scientism with Mark Twain

Scientism is the modern religion which supposes that man’s reason, and the scientific process, has explanatory power over everything on earth; with a Scientistic worldview metaphysics and spirituality have no role in the world. You merely live in a cold, random universe with no real purpose and then die. The philosophical underpinnings of this worldview are fraught with faulty arguments and, ironically (if their claim to logic and reason is to be believed), poor logic in many cases.

Arguing with a radical Scientist is little different than arguing with an ultra-fundamentalist low-church Protestant. The New Atheist will cling to Science, as if it is some unified theology rather than a process for understanding the world.

This is not say that science has no explanatory power, or that modern science is all  lies. My approach in this essay is to examine this religion (and it is a religion)  through Mark Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s protagonist, Hank Morgan, serves as the vehicle for the satire and polemical arguments in the novel.

Hank Morgan is the narrator of the novel who is sent back in time to a fictionalized sixth century, where the Arthurian legends according to Sir Thomas Mallory are treated as historical fact. Morgan gains the position of ‘Sir Boss,’ King Arthur’s right hand man with his future knowledge and sets about ‘reforming’ England. In his previous life, Hank Morgan was an engineer, “a Yankee of the Yankees—and practical; yes, and nearly barren of sentiment, I suppose—or poetry in other words” (4). The English take him as a court-wizard. He develops a rivalry with Merlin and defeats the ‘real’ wizard through his use of science. “Why, I could make anything a body wanted,” (4) he tells the fictional Mark Twain in the opening frame-tale chapter.

Sounds little different from a Protestant fundamentalist

Mark Twain uses Hank Morgan to satirize feudal society. The Boss spends most the story attacking the institutions of aristocracy and building up industrial society in Arthurian England. However, the Boss is always fearful of the Church. “I was afraid of the Church” (81) he states. His fear of the Church is not an accidental element. Hank Morgan believes that he alone, as a master of the material universe is not responsible to any higher authority. The Church represents God, the ultimate authority over human affairs. The radical materialist smugly asserts man is an end unto himself. While posing as a skeptic, a Scientist is hostile to any questioning of their religion.

True to form a materialist, Hank Morgan is incapable of empathizing with other people as his perceived power over the world around him grows. The ultimate outgrowth of this in the novel is when he tests a bomb on a band of knights that charge him. He remarks how the remains of the men were “a neat thing, very neat and pretty to see” (272). These men whom he killed are merely test subjects to Hank Morgan, like the entire kingdom of Camelot. Hank creates industrial technology and new social institutions in the kingdom; everything is his test tube. The Boss’ vision for a society socially engineered by him bears resemblance to Brave New World. Hank Morgan’s character is also strikingly similar to figures such as Ray Kurzweil and other transhumanists. While Mark Twain was not writing about transhumanism in the late 1800s, the underlying mindset of figures like Kurzweil has precedent in the 19th century. In Mark Twain’s novel, Hank Morgan does not get as far as setting up his  Republic radically re-engineering society.

Ironically for Hank Morgan, the peasants and knights rise up against him at the apocalyptic Battle of the Sand Belt. The battle is the culmination of the Boss’ technological prowess. His fortress has an electrical fence, an explosive perimeter, and machine guns; he and his small band of followers end up massacring tens of thousands of knights and soldiers (426-440). He claims to fight for the masses, yet one of his few followers reports “all [of] England,” led by the Church (427) marches against him. The problem with Hank Morgan and Scientism in general is there is no ultimate authority; with imperfect man as authority there can be no limits on so-called “progress.” Hank Morgan learns this fatally when he and his followers are boxed into their compound from all of the bodies. In another ironic incident, Merlin puts the Boss into a magical slumber so that he can wake up and speak with Mark Twain and close out the frame narrative.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court predates modern Dawkinite atheism or Kurweilian transhumanism; however, Mark Twain’s biting satire attacks the core of their underlying religion. This dangerous line of thinking is not unique to our time.

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