Overlap of Scientism and Religious Literalism
Scientists typically don’t care for the term “scientism,” just as religious literal- ists don’t favor the word “fundamentalist” (except occasionally in jest, as is sometimes the case with the humorous evangelical insiders’ word “fundie”). Most of us would not like to be reduced to mere reductionists.
Strikingly, when Walt first approaches Jesse to blackmail him into partnering with him, Jesse knows something is awry, and offers, “I mean, if you’re planning on giving me some bullshit about getting right with Jesus by turning myself in.” (“Pilot”). Although Jesse may not have perfect pitch, he recognizes some timbre of reductionism. The noted Heideggerian interpreter of Tibetan Buddhism, Herbert V. Guenther, perfectly sums up the common descent of imaginative thinking into unimaginative dogmatism:
Actually, any intellectual system—philosophical, religious, political, or any other kind—is geared to reductionist ways of thinking and is bound up to end up in the utter stagnation and rigidity of a tyrannical dogmatism. Buddhist philosophy, in this regard, is no exception. The much vaunted Madhyamaka philosophy, particularly in its Prasangika version, is the ultimate in reductionism, and its manifestation as dogmatic intolerance in Tibetan history is well-known..
Despite its reductionist quality, however, system or model building is itself a creative process, one through which we attempt to develop a generalized world view out of observations and valuations. Unfortunately, we then impose this world view on our dealings with the physical, social, and cultural-spiritual aspects of our environment, with the inevitable result that the free play of creative imagination is strangled.3
Because Gilligan and his team nudge us throughout the series with religious imagery and/or references, it’s no small irony that Walt responds to Jesse’s inquiry whether Walt is crazy or depressed by saying, “I am awake.” This echoes the purported response of the historical Buddha to inquirers curious whether he was a celestial being, a god, magician, etc.4 While White early on equates subjective existential freedom with objective truth, his preoccupation with scientific puritanism reaches its culmination in the so-called bottle episode of the third season entitled “Fly.”
In that installment, Walt’s inability to tolerate even an infinitesimal impurity or contamination results in his protracted search for a tiny, winged heretic or infidel, leaving audiences earnestly wondering if his lung cancer has metastasized to his brain, or if he has slipped into genuine psychosis (i.e., other scientists, namely, psychiatrists, could readily commit him on the basis of his behavior in this episode). Aficionados of absurdist theater may note resonance with the works of Becket, particularly Waiting for Godot. Upon airing, “Fly” was maddening to many fans, perhaps because, in the words of Godot’s Estragon, in the containment of archetypal insomnia and claustrophobia, “Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.”5