Science as a Vocation: Max Weber, Science, and the Believer

By July 27, 2008

By Steve Fleming

I spent a chunk of my time in this year’s Bushman seminar insisting that I would not make any attempts at an empirical case about the subjects I was writing on (Swedenborg and DC 76 and Joseph Smith and magic). I would simply state how I saw the issue as a believer. In fact, that’s sort of how I’ve approached my scholarship: I’ve published articles with “academic” language in academic journals (Church History, RAC) and articles with “confessional” language in confessional journals (the Religious Educator). Though the academic articles come across as more sophisticated they are easier to write since in academic journals one does not speak of absolute truth but in confessional journals one does. The article that just came out in the Religious Educator on Methodism took me four years and much pain, while the article that just came out in Church History took me two years and was painless.

A major focus of my future scholarship with be on Max Weber’s “disenchantment of the world” so it was time for me to read Weber’s “Science as a Vocation” where he makes his declaration that the world has become disenchanted (it just so happens that I missed photocopying that precise page so I can’t quote it to you). Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m a huge Weber fan and have an article coming out using Mormonism to support Weber’s Protestant Ethic thesis. I’m fine with using empiricism to do Weber apologetics.

Anyway, I happened upon some gems. “Who…still believes that the findings of astronomy, biology, physics, or chemistry could teach us anything about the meaning of the world? (142)”. Later Weber quotes Tolstoy saying, “‘Science is meaningless because it give no answer to our question, the only question important to us: ‘What shall we do and how shall we live'” (143). And now for my favorite line: says Weber, “That science today is irreligious no one will doubt in his innermost being, even if he will not admit it to himself. Redemption from rationalism and intellectualism of science is the fundamental presupposition of living in union with the divine” (142).

But this I puzzle over: “Science ‘free from presuppositions,’ in the sense of rejection of religious bonds, does not know of the ‘miracles’ and the ‘revelation.’ If it did, science would be unfaithful to its own ‘presuppositions.’ The believer knows both, miracle and revelation. And science ‘free from presuppositions’ expects from him no less–and no more–than acknowledgement that if the process can be explained without those supernatural interventions, which an empirical explanation has to eliminate as causal factors, the process has to be explained the way science attempts to do. And the believer can do this without being disloyal to his faith” (147).

Any thoughts?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. It’s important to keep in mind that Weber was as hard on institutional religion as he was on science. Monolithic religion was a source of disenchantment as much as science. He would have bucked against the idea of ‘one true church’ as much as science.

    Also, I think he was embedded in the world of logical positivism and like Wittgenstein reacted against their claims that values could be derived from science. His points that values cannot be plucked from science is right on the mark, but even he tried hard to make his thought scientifically informed. I think his use of word ‘meaning’ is the key to that quote you begin with. Science cannot be the source of our values or ethics and so ‘meaning’ here is in that sense. And he’s right I think, science can’t give us our sets of value, meaning, nor ethical grounding. I don’t think he would quibble with the idea that the best way to learn about the stars is astronomy.

    So I read Weber as rejecting science as a source of value claims rather than as a rejection of science itself. This was Wittgenstein’s point in Tractatus too. That sounds right to me too.

    Comment by Steve — July 27, 2008 @ 2:16 am

  2. On a practical level rather than philosophical, science is extremely valuable in that the more we understand about the nature of our world, the better equipped we are to deal with it and hopefully prosper. But, there is a down side, too, in recent history. In the last century, some disciplines drifted off into fantasy, led by astronomy and the planetary sciences. A theory or thesis should not only be tested in the laboratory, it should be successful at making predictions about findings in nature. Oddly, the planetary scientists are continually “surprised” at what they find in space, on other planets, in the sun and in the near Earth envirnoment. These surprising findings repeatedly send them “back to the drawing board” to invent new ad hoc theories to explain the anomolies they’ve encountered. Instead of questioning their paradigm, which is badly in need or replacement, they paste another bandaid on top of the dozens already in place. Additionally, the peer review system for publishment and the tenure practices of our universities have effectively stiffled progress. This is a tragic situtation.
    So, while I would agree with you philosophically, there is a practical component to your observations.

    Comment by Anthony Larson — July 27, 2008 @ 9:13 am

  3. I, too, am a fan of Weber. I find it ironic, though, that you connect his ideas of the Protestant Work Ethic with Mormonism. After all, Weber seemed to think Joseph Smith was a crackpot and used him as an example of the problems associated with charismatic authority. I would love to read your article. When and where will it be published?

    Comment by rondell — July 27, 2008 @ 12:13 pm

  4. My point was not to make an attack on empiricism but to note that Weber saw the paradox. One of Weber’s major themes was “rationalization” and the role that certain movements in Judeo-Christian history had played in the process. Weber was all for rationalization but found that it ultimately locked us in an “iron cage” or labor without meaning. Weber looked to Tolstoy (as mentioned about) and later the Quakers as a way out the iron cage.

    Says Weber, “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world’…. To the person who cannot bear the fate of the times … the arms of the old churches are open widely and compassionately for him…. One way or another he has to bring his ‘intellectual sacrifice’–that is inevitable. If he can do it, we shall not rebuke him” (155).

    My Weber paper is on the debate over how well the Quakers support the Protestant Ethic. I use data on Quakers that joined the early Mormons to weigh in on the debate and take Weber’s side. The Quaker Mormons (as I call them) and their children were quite a group; Heber J. Grant was one of them.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 27, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

  5. The paper is coming out in Max Weber Studies.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 27, 2008 @ 2:04 pm

  6. Steve, I’m interested in your Religious Educator article. I find the work you are doing with the newly christened SIR (or whatever they call it now) intriguing and wondered what the full cite was.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 27, 2008 @ 2:58 pm

  7. J. What is “SIR”?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 27, 2008 @ 3:28 pm

  8. CES changed their name to “Seminaries and Institutes of Religion” or something like that.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 27, 2008 @ 4:26 pm

  9. My latest article in the Religious Educator is called “John Wesley: A Methodist Foundation for the Restoration” 9, no.3 (2008): 131-150. I had a previous one called “The Radical Reformation and the Restoration of the Gospel,” 7, no. 2(2006): 65-77. It’s online, the other one should be online soon.

    Again, we’re hoping to get the papers for the seminar published by the Religous Educator.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 27, 2008 @ 4:53 pm

  10. Thanks for those citations. I don’t think that I have ever read a Religious Educator article, but yours sound very interesting. I’ll be sure to check them out.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 27, 2008 @ 5:26 pm

  11. Anthony–In defense of planetary scientists and astronomers, it’s really, really hard to gather information about the other planets in our solar system, not to mention extrasolar planets. As much as we’ve learned about Venus and Mars, we just don’t know that much. So, yes, every time more information is gathered about, say, Mars, the models that are previously believed have to be revised, sometimes drastically. We used to assume the other rocky planets would be a lot like Earth. Turns out, not so much. In fact, the more we learn about them, the more differences we see. That’s not really a failing of the science as much as a failing of measurement. Scientists are limited by what is measurable, which simply isn’t much in some fields.

    As for the terminology you quote (scientists are “surprised,” or are sent “back to the drawing board”) that’s terminology used primarily in popular science articles. Not only that, but the thrill of discovery, and especially of overturning old, incorrect models, is much of what draws many of us into science. It’s actually kinda fun to figure out where the gaps and errors in a model of the world are, and we scientists work hard at finding them. Again, I don’t see that as a failing of science–we are well aware that every model proposed has problems, and we spend our careers tracking down those problems and fixing them, bit by bit.

    Science may not tell you much about the meaning of life, but I wonder why you’d really expect it to. Human experiences (including explorations of the meaning of life) are subjective, and the scientific method attempts to reject the subjective in favor or objective evidence and reason. Science is great as a vocation. As a philosophy of life it leaves plenty to be desired, but again, I don’t think that’s really the point.

    Comment by kristine N — July 27, 2008 @ 11:33 pm

  12. #1: “So I read Weber as rejecting science as a source of value.”
    I don’t know. I remember watching “Cosmos” with Carl Sagen. There seemed a feeling of ‘value’ (as in goodness) to his Science.

    Comment by Bob — July 28, 2008 @ 2:02 pm

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