The question of the "pernicious influence" of scientism on modern life and philosophy gets raised fairly often here at PEL. I get the sense that Wes and Seth think the influence 'quite pernicious' while Mark thinks 'not so pernicious'. (Correct me if I'm wrong guys). So I thought it would be helpful to clarify what is implied by the term, so that we might open the way for some good discussion of the issue. In my view, when we explicate the problem and put it in the right light, we should see that it is the essential problem of modern philosophy.
I recently came across the following article by Hannah Arendt, written late in her life during the 1960s. I felt that she gives here a good expression of the issue. It would not be mere political correctness to say of Hannah Arendt that she is a philosopher of the first rank, and a better critic of the modern age, our science and politics, than Heidegger was. She recognized the import of Heidegger's diagnosis of the ills of modern existence (as one of his students) while not falling prey to the naive neglect of politics in his philosophy and the terrible choices wound up making in that arena.
Her general view is shaped by the premise that, essentially, all modern philosophy and thought shows evidence of being crippled by an underlying mistake made during the development of British and European Enlightenment thinking in the 17th century. The mistake was the demotion of the classical political sense of reason and rationality, as expressed in Aristotle, for an ideal of universal rationality modeled on modern physical science, the tradition begun by Descartes.
Modeling itself on the physical scientist, modern thought tries to replace everywhere in the problems of the human condition the classical goal of philosophical and political wisdom with the goal of 'scientific' techniques, perfectly repeatable methods, and a generally utilitarian, technological attitude. Making matters even worse, the latter goal gets confused with 'reaching reality'.
In brief: modern, scientistic philosophies (Descartes, Kant, Bertrand Russell, Daniel Dennett) think that people begin alien to reality so therefore need method, procedure, and technique for reaching reality, while post-modern, anti-scientisitc philosophies (Hegel, Heidegger, Arendt, the later Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty) reject that notion as the fatal, false premise of modern thought generally, destining us for skepticism, and instead conceive of methods, techniques, and procedures as ways people change and reorganize their thinking about a reality that thought never was or is essentially apart from. Therefore the modern feels bound to the limitless problem of representation where the post-modern feels free to conceive philosophies as normative expressions of how one should think. (Recent British and American analytical philosophy remains Cartesian and Kantian in this sense, and its repeated failures to establish logically fixed epistemic foundations through a scientific method is a symptom of the disease).
On PEL, Mark is tuned in to this pivotal axis whenever he pauses to check if we are 'getting it right' or 'messing up' within a particular philosophy. Mark's phrasing here shows the normative nature of the methods held within a philosophy.
The modern switch of rank in the sense of rationality, demoting the political and promoting the technical-methodical, Arendt recognizes as the disfiguring root of most problems and failures in modern thought and many of the resulting dissatisfactions we feel in everyday modern life.
The question raised is addressed to the layman, not the scientist, and it is inspired by the humanist’s concern with man, as distinguished from the physicist’s concern with the reality of the physical world. To understand physical reality seems to demand not only the renunciation of an anthropocentric or geocentric world view, but also a radical elimination of all anthropomorphic elements and principles, as they arise either from the world given to the five human senses or from the categories inherent in the human mind.
[The scientist] has also been forced to renounce normal language, which even in its most sophisticated conceptual refinements remains inextricably bound to the world of the senses and to our common sense. For the scientist, man is no more than an observer of the universe in its manifold manifestations. The progress of modern science has demonstrated very forcefully to what an extent this observed universe, the infinitely small no less than the infinitely large, escapes not only the coarseness of human sense perception but even the enormously ingenious instruments that have been built for its refinement. The data with which modern physical research is concerned [...] are not phenomena, appearances, strictly speaking, for we meet them nowhere, neither in our everyday world nor in the laboratory; we know of their presence only because they affect our measuring instruments in certain ways. And this effect, in the telling image of Eddington, may "have as much resemblance" to what they are "as a telephone number has to a subscriber."
Great post Tom. The question of how exactly to treat scientism is an important one. As science continues to prove its efficacy in understanding the physical world, the expectation that it can explain the human one continues to grow. However, I would argue that, for all that those two worlds inform each other, the world of human meaning cannot be fully explained by physical processes. In fact, science’s success in giving explanations of human meaning is going to be dependent upon an appeal to common experience, the understanding of which will be inherently unscientific.
Tom McDonald says
Thanks Jon. You point out what I think is perhaps the most interesting areas for philosophical attention out there, that “As science continues to prove its efficacy in understanding the physical world, the expectation that it can explain the human one continues to grow.”
Ethan Gach says
Great overview Tom.
I’m curious, where would you locate the American Pragmatists in schism (James/Pierce)?
How identical are Rorty’s concerns with those of Hegle and subsequent philsophers?
Evan Guiney says
I really enjoyed Arendt’s article. I see her as asking one important question:
IF science is understood as fundamentally about a renunciation of anthropocentrism and a denial of cherished perspective, does it follow that its ultimate end is a physicalization of man and all his goals, an emptying out of all human value? She argues convincingly that it does.
But her argument is open to an important critique; that it is only true from one particular perspective. She ends her essay with a rumination from Heisenberg, on how from a certain perspective, man and all his tools, technologies and projects “disappear into some kind of mutation of the human race,” and she sees this as a terrible thing. But from another perspective, man, and all his tools, and science itself, viewed as a biological efflorescence is a thing of wonder and beauty and sublime praise! I mean, damn, that’s how I see it whenever I contemplate that perspective. So I think it’s a matter of gestalt.
Another way this difference of perspectives is felt is through another of Arendt’s informally proposed definitions of science; as roughly “a renunciation of appearances, as a search for the truth behind appearances”. But I, a practicing scientist, feel that same impulse from a different perpective: In my science I give unflinching affirmation to appearances, for that is all data is, appearance. I *take appearances seriously*, and because over centuries scientists have shown that taking appearances (one should just say “data”) seriously requires one to build models that include cells and DNA and signaling protein cascades, I now am engaged in studying those things. But although the models (and from this perspective “models” are somewhat analogous to “truths behind things”) are what we all talk about and try to understand, it is the *data*, the *appearances* to which I am faithful. I think this is a rich and productive view of science, but don’t really have space to elaborate it here.
I very much enjoyed Arendt’s main thesis, that the very human process of science folds back on itself and deprives man of his own humanity. I think there’s a lot of similarity here to my favorite part of Nietzsche, book three of the Geneology. I also think that this critique of scientism is, for once, meaningful and intelligible. Any thinker who adopts the perspective Arendt criticizes had best beware of the consequences she describes. However, I think this is really a critique of a specific perspective on science, and not as it sometimes seems Arendt is arguing, a critique of an ineluctable consequence of doing science. Fundamentally, I don’t think science has to be hostile to anthropomorphism and perspective. I know science, science is a friend of mine, and you, sir, are not the last word on science.
Nick Burbidge says
The late, great Sidney Morgenbesser to behavioural psychologist B. F. Skinner:
“Let me see if I understand your thesis: you don’t want to anthropomorphise PEOPLE?”
John Corfield says
What is Arendt’s contention?
Is she scared of science?
Does she want it all to accord with her experience?
She seems to think that as scientific method takes a stance outside of her reality it disempowers her, as it enjoys, takes delight in, abstraction which does not involve the senses, she claims it is missing something.
It is not, it cannot avoid being immersed in our senses. It may postulate laws and theories but only an idiot scientist would claim that these control ‘reality’, that it does anything more than describe reality as it appears to us. The fun is to generate more and more extensions of laws and theories using the scientific method until, maybe, the bubble bursts – but until then it seems to work, maybe it will succeed in applying it to everything, who knows. Luddist cries from the humanities that surely the world is not explicable, seem pathetic and weak – explication will never remove marvellous (explicable?) human attributes of awe and wonder.
Is this how it is or am I a, sometime and would be, scientist missing the point?
“modern, scientistic philosophies (Descartes, Kant, Bertrand Russell, Daniel Dennett) think that people begin alien to reality so therefore need method, procedure, and technique for reaching reality, while post-modern, anti-scientisitc philosophies (Hegel, Heidegger, Arendt, the later Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty) reject that notion as the fatal, false premise of modern thought generally”
That’s a nice way of pointing out some distinctions, and I can see that it’s helpful for didactic purposes to divide everyone into two camps.
But as soon as you’ve drawn the line, IMO it starts to look like a false dichotomy. For the purposes of a given explanatory strategy, a scientific (or even a “scientistic”) approach might be exactly what’s required. It works, as we all know already (http://xkcd.com/54/). But it in other explanatory contexts – like the one Hannah Arendt is operating in here – we might prefer a different approach. That’s fine too.
Stay flexible. Choose the best tool for the job.