Scientism

Earlier, I just pointed out that if life and/or evolution was designed, science could not detect it. It is the clear implication of the limitations of science we have discussed.  Now, if you bristled at that conclusion and find yourself in disagreement, it is probably because you subscribe, consciously or subconsciously, to scientism.

So what is scientism?

PBS defines scientism as follows:

Unlike the use of the scientific method as only one mode of reaching knowledge, scientism claims that science alone can render truth about the world and reality. Scientism’s single-minded adherence to only the empirical, or testable, makes it a strictly scientifc worldview, in much the same way that a Protestant fundamentalism that rejects science can be seen as a strictly religious worldview. Scientism sees it necessary to do away with most, if not all, metaphysical, philosophical, and religious claims, as the truths they proclaim cannot be apprehended by the scientific method. In essence, scientism sees science as the absolute and only justifiable access to the truth.

This is not bad, but the author confuses things some by conflating science with the scientific method.  We could get into that if you want, but let’s move to a better description as found in the Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics.

Scientism is a philosophical position that exalts the methods of the natural sciences above all other modes of human inquiry. Scientism embraces only empiricism and reason to explain phenomena of any dimension, whether physical, social, cultural, or psychological. Drawing from the general empiricism of The Enlightenment, scientism is most closely associated with the positivism of August Comte (1798-1857) who held an extreme view of empiricism, insisting that true knowledge of the world arises only from perceptual experience. Comte criticized ungrounded speculations about phenomena that cannot be directly encountered by proper observation, analysis and experiment. Such a doctrinaire stance associated with science leads to an abuse of reason that transforms a rational philosophy of science into an irrational dogma (Hayek, 1952). It is this ideological dimension that we associate with the term scientism.

If you place the natural sciences above all other modes of human inquiry, then the realization that science may be unable to detect design will be perceived as a threat, especially if you are using natural sciences as a foundation for your metaphysics.  If science is supposed to support one’s metaphysics, then it will become essential to believe that science has no such blind spot.  It will, in fact, infuriate you to think otherwise.

Let’s move on to the next part:

Epistemological scientism lays claim to an exclusive approach to knowledge. Human inquiry is reduced to matters of material reality. We can know only those things that are ascertained by experimentation through application of the scientific method. And since the method is emphasized with such great importance, the scientistic tendency is to privilege the expertise of a scientific elite who can properly implement the method. But science philosopher Susan Haack (2003) contends that the so-called scientific method is largely a myth propped up by scientistic culture. There is no single method of scientific inquiry. Instead, Haack explains that scientific inquiry is contiguous with everyday empirical inquiry (p. 94). Everyday knowledge is supplemented by evolving aids that emerge throughout the process of honest inquiry. These include the cognitive tools of analogy and metaphor that help to frame the object of inquiry into familiar terms. They include mathematical models that enable the possibility of prediction and simulation. Such aids include crude, impromptu instruments that develop increasing sophistication with each iteration of a problem-solving activity. And everyday aids include social and institutional helps that extend to lay practitioners the distributed knowledge of the larger community. According to Haack, these everyday modes of inquiry open the scientific process to ordinary people and they demystify the epistemological claims of the scientistic gate keepers. (p. 98)

I have never read Susan Haack before, but I should.  It appears that her critique is the same one I have been making for at least a decade now.  Read that paragraph over a few times and let it sink in.

The description then becomes even more thought-provoking:

The abuse of scientism is most pronounced when it finds its way into public policy. A scientistic culture privileges scientific knowledge over all other ways of knowing. It uses jargon, technical language, and technical evidence in public debate as a means to exclude the laity from participation in policy formation. Despite such obvious transgressions of democracy, common citizens yield to the dictates of scientism without a fight. The norms of science abound in popular culture and the naturalized authority of scientific reasoning can lead unchecked to a malignancy of cultural norms.

Whoa.  Now it should start to become clear why it is that the Creationist Movement, the ID Movement, and the New Atheist movement are so strikingly similar – they all draw heavily from the well of scientism as they engage the culture.  As I noted when I first started this blog:

This would mean that science can never detect design, even if it exists, as science cannot be built upon such a subjective foundation. And this is a bitter pill for many. Part of this is, of course, cultural. We have all been shaped by a culture that invests science with great authority. This becomes clear even in the realm of pop culture, where a late night TV ad for a new diet pill claims to have “scientific studies” showing it works. So everyone wants science to be able to resolve this issue and everyone wants science to be on their side.

The ID people will tell me, “But if your views are not science, no one will take them seriously.”  The New Atheist people will me, “Since your views are not science, there is no reason to take them seriously.”  Fine. Who cares? But don’t lose sight of the fact that embedded in such demands and complaints is a lack of respect for critical thinking and intellectually honesty.  How so?  Y’see, I don’t view critical thinking and intellectual honesty as valuable or important only if they can be absorbed by the cultural label ‘Science’ in order to get attention.

If open-ended curiosity, guided by critical thinking and intellectual honesty, is worthless to you because such inquiry is not science, then you embrace scientism.  You are the product of your culture.

Advertisements

15 responses to “Scientism

  1. Since even the hardest science is built upon a subjective foundation — that reality is rational and discoverable by systematic, empirical investigation — I see excluding the subjective from science as inconsistent hogwash.

  2. A scientistic culture privileges scientific knowledge over all other ways of knowing. It uses jargon, technical language, and technical evidence in public debate as a means to exclude the laity from participation in policy formation.

    I can’t think of a modern state that fits that description. In fact, taking the US as an example, it would seem many politicians deride and dismiss scientific evidence, for instance on climate change. So scientism would certainly be a bad thing if practised anywhere.

  3. Bilbo,

    I’m curious. Why do you insist that “the subjective” should be considered part of science, rather than taking the tact that things that aren’t science are still important, or even valid ways of acquiring knowledge?

  4. Alan,

    There are plenty of scientists who doubt hukmans arecausing the climate to change.

  5. You’re missing the point of my comment and that of the thread, Joe.

  6. You had a point?

  7. Try then addressing the point of the thread , Joe. Or, if you prefer, carry on.

  8. Right-

    MG:

    Earlier, I just pointed out that if life and/or evolution was designed, science could not detect it.

    I disagree with that.

    But I do agree that science is not the only way to go about investigating something.

  9. Michael,

    I see two conflicting arguments here, though I could be wrong.

    First, you are asserting that your approach is not science but simply

    “open-ended curiosity, guided by critical thinking and intellectual honesty”

    But you simultaneously acknowledge Haack’s assertion that science is not limited to the scientific method but that it should include “everyday modes of inquiry”:

    “…scientific inquiry is contiguous with everyday empirical inquiry. Everyday knowledge is supplemented by evolving aids that emerge throughout the process of honest inquiry. These include the cognitive tools of analogy and metaphor that help to frame the object of inquiry into familiar terms.”

    Sounds like a description of your own Design Matrix. An “everyday mode of inquiry”, as the article says,which relies upon analogy, metaphor, and honest inquiry.

    If Susan Haack says your approach is contiguous with scientific inquiry and therefore part of science – then why should you so vehemently disagree?

  10. Hi Chunkdz,

    Excellent question. Gotta run at the moment, but I’ll try to post an new entry about this tonight.

  11. Gregory Arago

    Hi Folks,

    As many of you know, I am against scientism and am a scholar writing papers, presenting at conferences and speaking to students about this.

    However, the following statement is every bit as ridiculous as ‘scientism,’ because it fundamentally confuses different realms of discourse:

    “Everyday knowledge is supplemented by evolving aids that emerge throughout the process of honest inquiry.”

    Let us be clear: ‘aids’ do not ‘evolve’ because they are human-made things. One either *chooses* to change an ‘aid’ or not to do so. There is absolutely no reason to use the term ‘evolve’ or ‘evolution’ here other than if one *desires* to ‘appear scientific,’ because evolution is broadly considered a ‘scientific theory.’

    I would take the tack of Nullasalus, saying “things that aren’t science are still important” and also that ‘reflexive’ thought can be considered as a ‘type’ of ‘science.’

  12. Hey chunk,

    I’ll try to reply to your question tomorrow; I just came across Feser’s article and wanted to post that first.

    Hi Greg,

    Saw your comment over at BioLogos about wanting to see a debate/exchange between BioLogos and BioLogic. It gave me a nice grin.

  13. Gregory Arago wrote:

    Let us be clear: ‘aids’ do not ‘evolve’ because they are human-made things. One either *chooses* to change an ‘aid’ or not to do so. There is absolutely no reason to use the term ‘evolve’ or ‘evolution’ here other than if one *desires* to ‘appear scientific,’ because evolution is broadly considered a ’scientific theory.’

    I’ve always taken the word “evolve” to mean “change over time”. In this sense the word is used appropriately in the article.

    I get the impression you wish to attach some concept of autonomy or emergence to the word – a dangerous injection of metaphysics in my opinion.

  14. Pingback: My Inner Felix «

  15. Gregory Arago

    Thanks Mike! Thought you might like that one : ) Would you be involved in such a discussion/exchange as a helpful mediator? Have you ever met or spoken with D. Axe?

    Hi chunkdz,

    Allowing the definition/meaning of ‘evolution’ to include ‘change-over-time’ gives an unfair monopoly to evolution over change. All of the dictionaries that do this need to be edited. You heard it here first.

    Change is the ‘master category’: one cannot have evolution without change, but one can have change without evolution.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s