I’m getting some hits regarding scientism but don’t actually have any posts dedicated to it. I thought if I’m going to be looked at on the subject I should make at least a few deliberate comments. They should not be construed, however, as exhaustive.
Scientism can refer to a few different ideas and I denounce them all. 🙂 It goes without saying that people who exhibit ‘scientism’ would not use the word to describe themselves and they will resent the suggestion that they are as described.
Because this post is pretty lengthy here is a list of the headings in order of appearance:
- Science as the Only Reliable Source for Knowledge
- Scientific Reality the Only Reality
- Science as Club for Ending Debate
- Scientific Inquiry Always Righteous
- Scientism as Fundamentalist Faith: “Atheism of the Gaps.”
Science as the Only Reliable Source for Knowledge
One aspect of scientism is the unbridled deference to Science in all matters as the only reliable source of knowledge. Apologists such as myself frequently point out that there are numerous areas in our lives where we believe we know things where that knowledge is not derived from science, the scientific method, empirical inquiry, or anything that could possibly be considered ‘Science.’ One can bemoan it, but some things just are not suited for scientific inquiry and there is nothing you can do about it. Experiential realities like ‘love’ and and abstractions such as the law of noncontradiction are things we ‘know’ but not through science. That is reality. You don’t have to like it.
Most arguments concerning things we know from history run aground on the skeptic’s implicit assumption that whatever we think we ‘know’ from history is a pitiful shadow of what we think we know through science so that even if you did convince somebody of the historicity of a particular assertion they will not be moved.
Scientific Reality the Only Reality
Another aspect of scientism is a more pernicious and fortunately less common manifestation. This is the identification of reality with that which is known through Science. You might recognize this as concept under the name of positivism. Scientism of this sort basically acts as though if something is not known through Science it simply isn’t real. No one that I’ve ever interacted with embodies this way of thinking consistently, but it will surface in other ways.
For example, I would say that the idea that Science must only entertain naturalistic explanations borders on scientism of this sort because if you followed up by asking “But what if we were permitted to entertain other kinds of explanations?” you would be clubbed to death with the mantra: “But science must be naturalistic in methodology…” leaving wide open the possibility that something could be true, actually true in the world, but since it might fly in the face of naturalism, is rejected as unreal. Case in point: intelligent design.
That warrants an explanation. The general rule that science should employ a methodological naturalism is one that I accept. However, if it is an iron clad rule, then it is not methodological naturalism at all but rather philosophical naturalism. In other words, if one is not prepared to allow exceptions if the situation warrants it, it is not methodological naturalism at all, but rather cloaked atheism. So the atheists and scientists who adopt this view turn their attention to proposals like those we see in ID and reject it as ‘unscientific.’ Unscientific on account of your definition, perhaps, yet possibly true? Au contraire, they protest: Science is our best tool for learning about reality. We come full circle–reality becomes identified completely and utterly with what Science can tell us.
Though a full blooded Scientism of this sort is rare, the above scenario plays our routinely in Intelligent Design as well as other areas of dispute.
The above more or less covers most variants of scientism but the following ideas are so closely related and so intertwined that they properly should be considered aspects of scientism, too.
Science as Club for Ending Debate
I refer firstly to the virtually uncontested and unqualified deference in our society in nearly all quarters to the findings of Big Science. If someone says “Science has shown…” you are expected to cease all questioning immediately in much the same way that atheists expect Christians to stop thinking when provided chapter and verse. The complexities of reality are such that there are really few things that Science has definitively shown. In pretty much all of the really interesting areas of life, opinions–even among scientists–vary widely. Last week you are told drinking coffee is bad for you. Today you wake up and a study shows that is good for you. Further study of any kind, scientific inquiry included, means uncovering nuance and exception galore, not to mention bias and conflicts of interests. But you are suppose to sit down and shut up upon hearing “Science has shown…”
Naturally, those who behave this way deny that they are behaving this way or find ways to justify it. Or they might lead you on with some gesture of good will inviting you to look at the source material but when you do so and begin offering your own interpretations of what has allegedly been discovered, you learn that only their interpretation is valid.
The worst part of this is that very often what we think has been ‘scientifically shown’ comes to our attention by media headlines and headlines only. Beyond that, much of what we think we know we have not checked for ourselves. I’m not saying that’s necessarily bad. We can’t know everything. But a certain amount of humility seems warranted, and in those suffering from the ailment of scientism, it is nearly always lacking. The irony is that they will claim to be taking the humble road (“I just follow the evidence!”), but when they trounce you for thinking for yourself, the truth is revealed that only their take on the evidence is reasonable. Those afflicted with scientism tend to think they are humble, but, even if not in demeanor, exhibit a great deal of arrogance.
Scientific Inquiry Always Righteous
This form of scientism is one of the most worrisome. Sometimes we forget that scientists are humans, too. No, really. They are. Even if we might say that knowledge gained by any means was always virtuous we would have to admit that the people (all of us) involved in that quest aren’t always virtuous. For a quick example of this scary mindset consider Obama’s recent pledge to take the ‘politics out of science’ in regards to embryonic stem cell research. The implicit belief that Science, left alone, will have only beatific results, is dangerous.
While I certainly don’t deny that ‘politics’ has harmed the quest for truth and I don’t deny that the quest for truth is noble in its own right, we must always remember that the questers- you and me- are fallible and require checks and balances at every turn. This is true even when pursuing Scientific Inquiry.
Consider the following examples (I’ve talked about these elsewhere on this blog, too).
It is well known that the Nazis generated excellent scientific insight on the human being. This is because the Nazis had no problem experimenting on living humans. The United States is not innocent, either. The most famous example of a vile scientific endeavor would be the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. Tragically, black men with syphilis were left intentionally untreated just to see what would happen.
What we should do with information acquired this way remains an ethical dilemma. Clearly, though, we cannot say that Science is the highest moral virtue. It is not a virtue at all. It is, to put it most charitably, a process or method by which we acquire truth–but so is torture. Adherents to scientism are usually the first to defend the acquisition of ‘knowledge for the sake of knowledge’ without reference to moral implications when it comes to the work that scientists do, and likewise the first to denounce torture. But both are methods and processes by which we acquire truth. We are intuitively squeamish about the morality of using torture, as we ought to be. The point here is not to show that the two methods are ethically equivalent, but to highlight the fact that common sense tells us that how we get information is important.
Indeed, it is precisely because of the prestige of science, and its ability to acquire knowledge, refine processes, etc, that makes it all the more dangerous if we fail to recognize that the scientists themselves are humans, with all the failings that humans have. Indeed, the effectiveness of torture as a method has improved greatly because of the work of scientists! Moreover, scientists are positioned to create technologies and applications with widespread, and often deadly, implications.
Examples are numerous but it is worth mentioning an obvious one: the Atom bomb–and if ever there were a place for politics to be involved in the pursuit of science it is here. Just because something can be done and scientists made it possible, it doesn’t follow that society shouldn’t have some role in addressing how that information or technology is used.
The Jurassic Park lesson applies here. Just because you can do something it doesn’t mean you should. Both sides of this equation is important. Scientism doesn’t give much attention to the ‘should’ side of the equation for a variety of reasons, or when it does, it argues that scientists themselves are the best persons to judge the moral and ethical aspects of the situation.
This is nonsense. Just because somebody knows how to create a bio-weapon it doesn’t follow that he is also able to decide when, how, and if, it ought to be employed. The day when only Scientists are allowed to decide all aspects of the question is the day the Brave New World has arrived.
Scientism as Fundamentalist Faith: “Atheism of the Gaps.”
Last but not least one often hears the supreme conviction that given enough time and research Science will unravel all that there is to be known (see Positivism, above). You could call this view “Science of the Gaps.” The Myth is that Science is steadily eating away at our ignorance of the world. Religion (so goes the Myth) has always been about the ‘gaps,’ positing God or some other supernatural or mystical explanation for those areas we are ignorant about. Science is steadily making these areas smaller and smaller and will continue to do so until there are no areas left. All that is needed is time, research dollars, and a few lucky discoveries.
These areas today are ‘gaps’ in our knowledge, and those embodying this idea of Scientism believe that these gaps need not be of too much concern to us. Atheism is warranted because eventually Science will get to the bottom of these things, too.
Now, when I have confronted people with this view they haven’t usually rejected it. They counter that it is a ‘Science of the Gaps’ but unlike ‘God of the gaps,’ their application is justified. Science continues to progress and so their faith is reasonable: Science will continue to progress and ultimately uncover all there is to know and will be able to explain everything in naturalistic terms. Of course, if your method requires you to only entertain naturalistic explanations it obviously follows that you will only generate naturalistic explanations. Whether or not they are the true explanations is a different story (see positivism above).
So you see that the atheist lives by faith. 🙂
Upon inspection, then, it is not ‘science of the gaps’ but rather a ‘naturalism of the gaps’ that distinguishes scientism from a healthy attitude and regard to Science.
“But it is a reasonable faith!” they cry out.
Great! Now we see that it is possible for faith to be reasonable not necessarily blind! Take that, Dawkins!
The underlying question is whether or not a methodologically naturalistic Science really could cover all of the gaps. I would say definitely not. Are there things that can’t be reproduced and hence not ever, even in principle, amenable to direct scientific inquiry? I believe so. An easy example would be events in history. You cannot re-create the French Revolution and change aspects of it to see how things might have turned out differently, and thus test your interpretations. Also, eventually our investigations reach a point where we encounter a ‘brute fact.’ Something just ‘is’ and there is no way, in principle, to get beyond it. For example, the origin of the universe (on the currently accepted ‘Big Bang’ view) seems to be outside the scope of 100% scientific certainty, by definition. You’d have to be standing outside the universe in order to examine it exhaustively. I argue that this will never happen because it cannot happen. It is not a matter of what is possible given enough time, but simply what is possible.
Hence, positing the existence of God as the creator of the universe is not an arbitrary gap in which theism is poured in, but rather an inference from what, on presently accepted views, must be seen as a fundamental limitation of human inquiry. The ‘gap’ in this instance cannot possibly be bridged by methodologically naturalistic methods. Those afflicted with scientism fail to appreciate this limitation or the implications of it, which shows that it is not ‘science’ that is driving them, but philosophy. The great tragedy is that their appeal to a ‘naturalism of the gaps’ is usually invoked to ‘explain’ things that materialism, by definition, never could explain.
Perhaps the most violent battleground between the battle between ‘naturalism of the gappers’ and ‘God of the gappers’ is the human mind itself. Reductionists like Dennett are convinced that eventually even our thought life will be seen as no more than the manifestations of brain–and by ‘brain’ they mean raw matter. In short, where many see a fundamental limitation on where Science can reach, if only because we are using our Mind in the evaluation (think: cutting off the limb you’re standing on), those embracing this scientism believe that here, too, naturalism will conquer. The irony is that if they are ‘successful’ on this point, it will actually signify their total failure and unraveling of their worldview. But that is a different topic.
As an aside, I personally don’t care to much about the strident declarations of atheistic scientists about the allegedly materialistic nature of the Mind. There is my own experience of reality that I must consider, and I will not allow the authoritative dogmas of ‘Science’ to overthrow what I encounter introspectively. And by introspection I know that I am more than brain. I can’t speak for others… maybe Dennett himself is just a complex pile of pulp. 🙂 If ‘scientists’ declare that I do not exist, I will not for that reason decide that I must not exist, because ‘scientists’ said so. Only the one guided by scientism would argue otherwise.
Note how often in the above it seems as though Science and Naturalism come across as equivalent. As I have already said, this is because in practice, what is often presented as methodological naturalism is actually philosophical naturalism. This is the underlying source of much of the Scientism that I’ve witnessed.
I for one do not believe that Science needs to be equated with Naturalism, either in principle or in practice. If in the course of one’s scientific endeavors one uncovers reasons to suspect that something non-empirical is going on, one should be free to consider it. In that situation, it is not at all an instance of ‘God of the Gaps’ since one has uncovered a reason to generate the suspicion. It is not arbitrary and capricious. The inference was justified by whatever was uncovered, determined, or observed. In scientism, one is never free to even consider this inference, even if the evidence warrants it. A really ‘scientific’ mindset is free to consider any option that seems supported by the evidence.
In light of what I have said above it may come as a surprise that I have a very high view of Science. But it’s true. I believe that you need the right tool for the job and in many cases that tool is empirical scrutiny. But other jobs require other tools and no hemming and hawwing will change that. For some jobs a hammer, for others a screwdriver and others, pliers. You may have found that sometimes one gets lucky–a screwdriver is best for screws but at last resort a hammer did the trick. But try changing your lightbulb with a hammer and tell me how that goes. 😉
Let the hammer pound nails and the screwdriver drive screws and air compressor pump up the tire: the right tool for the job, and be wary of anyone who insists on using just one tool for all jobs, and watch out especially if they don’t want anyone looking over their shoulder while they are ‘at work’ and even berate you for suggesting other approaches.