If you drop a hammer on your foot, is it real or is it just your imagination? You can run that test, you know, a couple of times, and I hope you come to agree that it’s probably real. –Bill Nye
A great deal of time and attention has been taken up in the last few generations on the question of religion and science: Do they conflict? If so, how? And with what consequences? Or can they be reconciled, or have they been already? How can we sort conflicting truth claims, and what sorts of answers can reasonable and informed people give to questions of meaning, value, and our place in the cosmos?
These are good and important questions, but today I would like to draw attention to a different but related “conflict,” one that is perhaps not as familiar, but really ought to be, because it has been going on for some time now, and may, in the long run, prove just as important. This is the “conflict” between science and philosophy, but more properly, the conflict between scientism and philosophy. As our opening quote, taken from Bill Nye’s recent comments to a philosophy student who asked him about this indicates that he believes that philosophy is, to put it charitably, bunk. Science, not philosophy, answers our questions about the world; to the extent that we occupy ourselves with philosophical questions, we are wasting our time. They only seem important or interesting, but really they are just so much metaphysics, speculation, and navel gazing. What we really ought to be doing, Nye believes, is peering down a microscope, or reading about Darwin. Then, he feels confident, all our questions—all our real questions, or at any rate the vast majority of them—would be answered simply and persuasively. What a shame it is that people waste their time with philosophy.
Scientists who weigh in on such issues publicly often say things like this. Michio Kaku, for instance, shakes his head sadly at anyone who isn’t a scientist, and wonders how they could be so dull. Stephen Hawking once remarked that even determinists look both ways before crossing the street—no doubt in the sincere belief that he had said something meaningful—and has elsewhere opined that “philosophy is dead.” And we’ve had similar comments from E.O. Wilson, Lawrence Krauss, Niel de Grasse Tyson, Sam Harris, and many other scientists who really ought to know better.
The name for this general disposition is scientism, and much has already been said about it. Philosophers of science Massimo Pigliucci, Edward Feser, Michael Ruse, and many, many others have offered persuasive criticisms. I have argued elsewhere that it is contributing to a growing trend on the left, quite as ferocious as anything on the right, toward anti-intellectualism and bigotry, and that it is at bottom incompatible with the principles of a humane, open, and free society. But I have not yet discussed its claim to be a genuine theory of knowledge. I believe that it is not, for reasons I will try to explain below.
The poverty of scientism consists, in the first place, in its lack of curiosity. While science has built its success on careful, persistent, indeed heroic, inquiry into the natural world, and scientists may justly boast of the accomplishments of their forebears, one does not become careful, persistent—certainly not heroic or curious—simply by completing a required course of study at the university, by being employed at a laboratory, or, in Bill Nye’s case, by running a children’s program on public television. These are professional, not moral, accomplishments, and many people who fit this description are no more wise, curious, rational, humane, intelligent, virtuous, or, in short, deserving of our respect, than people who work in other, less-celebrated fields.
In my experience, many people who have no such professional accomplishments are admirably curious, and not only about science, as Bill Nye or Lawrence Krauss would prefer, but also about literature, the arts, history, religion, philosophy, and many other fields. When we contrast the broad curiosity of the educated public with the blunt disinterest shown by the advocates of scientism, I think it is clear who has the more genuinely scientific spirit. It is certainly true that the physical sciences rely heavily on mathematics, rigorous theoretical models, specialized equipment, and many other things that we who are not scientists do not have easy access to, and that give them a powerful advantage when explaining certain kinds of natural phenomena. But without the spirit of curiosity, these things could have never been produced in the first place, and would have little value today. When the advocates of scientism discourage our curiosity, they are not living up to the highest ideals of their own profession, but articulating a very narrow and dogmatic point of view.
Indeed it is characteristic of scientism that its advocates talk a great deal about the need to set off on daring intellectual adventures, to make bold new discoveries, to harbor a fearless spirit of inquiry, and so on. But when we turn from these heroic proverbs to the actual contents of the knowledge they set before us, we pretty generally find that it is what we have known all along. The wise and knowing fathers of science, they tell us—Newton, Heisenberg, Einstein, and the rest—answered our questions simply and convincingly long ago. What we must do, children, is sit at their feet, gaze in wonder at their accomplishments, and wait in rapt anticipation for the next triumph to come bursting forth from the laboratory. It will, they promise, tidy up the last few mysteries that impertinently haunt our imaginations. It never seems to occur to these people that Newton, Einstein, and Heisenberg all flatly contradicted each other, that if any of them was right, the other two must have been wrong, or that, indeed, since the hotly anticipated new theory will very likely contradict all three of them, it’s more likely that they’re all wrong, if we take their theories to be statements about the literal and mind-independent nature of reality.
Now, here we have something that calls for a genuine spirit of inquiry. How is it that Newtonian dynamics is wrong—that it asserts that time and space are invariant when they are not, that light is unaffected by gravity when it is, that only Euclidean geometry is cognizable when we know this is not the case, and, in short, presents a general world-picture that we now know is mistaken—and yet this system enabled and enables many successful predictions, and has been justly praised as one of the great accomplishments of the human mind? How is it that Einstein’s relativity has been confirmed with such astonishing precision on the scale of stars and planets, and yet consistently yields false predictions on the scale of galaxies and superclusters? Or if, as the physicists are always telling us, it has survived every test that has ever been thrown at it, how is it that they also tell us that we must suppose most of the universe is made of mysterious and invisible substances called dark matter and dark energy, whose outstanding property is not that they have been observed, but that they have not, and may never be? If they need to hypothesize this invisible substance in order to balance their equations, how is it that “relativity has survived every test that has ever been thrown at it?” Or if it is not a hypothesis, but definitely exists, where is the evidence? (Here, notice, they will generally appeal to gravitational lensing, which is to say, to relativity—which is, as any philosophy undergraduate will be able to tell you, begging the question.) Or consider again that quantum mechanics flatly contradicts the causal determinism of Newtonian dynamics and relativity, and posits instead a probabilistic universe that, bizarrely, appears to depend for its mere existence on the fact of observation. What are we to make of this strange phenomenon? And how is it that the same mathematical model admits of a dozen or more interpretations about actual events at the subatomic scale, all of which flatly contradict each other, and that we have no good method for deciding between them? Why does Stephen Hawking think that the multiverse interpretation is the only one that is possible or reasonable when no one has ever observed one of these multiverses, and that it is indeed a consequence of the theory that they may not be observable at all? Isn’t the whole point of science that we can observe such things? What about string theory, which is mathematically beautiful but has no observational consequences (yet) and has so far made no meaningful predictions at all? Does that count as science? While we’re at it, what is science?
My point is not that I can answer these questions decisively. I have answers to some of them—I like to think good answers—but so do other people, who have different ideas. When we get together and discuss them we are either analyzing the logical structure of arguments, or speculating about the nature of time and space, or trying to assemble a perspective on science that is independent of the truth or falsity of any particular scientific theory, or discussing other such matters that people who aren’t scientists—one would like to think scientists themselves—might be curious about. Here I suppose the advocate of scientism will say that science will eventually answer all these questions. Well, that is not a claim about what science has answered, but about what it will answer. It is, in other words, a matter of speculation, and therefore of philosophy. Or perhaps they will say that science already has answered these questions, and if only philosophers would stop reading their philosophy books and look down a microscope every once in a while they would see that. But if that’s true, how do they resolve all these contradictions we’ve already alluded to? Are they saying the truth can contradict itself and we live in an incoherent universe? Or if scientific theories are absolutely, positively true right this very moment, how is it that science progresses at all? Haven’t our past experiences of scientific progress all upturned our previous understandings, even our scientific understandings? May we not infer, then, that future ones will similarly overturn our current understandings?
No one doubts the right of a scientist to participate in these discussions or defend their point of view. That is not the issue. They are indeed very welcome, and I think that when they do participate they generally find that most philosophers have a very respectful attitude toward science, though hardly a credulous one. There are forms of philosophy that insist quite rigorously on the literal, factual, logical, known truth of scientific theories, and the scientist who believes this is welcome to argue that point of view. Then again many, perhaps most, scientists do not take such a simplistic and unpersuasive view of their work, and see other kinds of philosophy as a partner in their discoveries. This was, indeed, the case with Einstein and Heisenberg, and even more so with Newton, who spent more time on theology than he ever did on physics.
The issue with scientism is not that its philosophical arguments are questionable, although they are. The issue is that the advocate of scientism does not understand that he is involved in a philosophical discussion at all. Indeed he resents the existence of this discussion, feels threatened by it, and is deeply troubled when he reflects that other people value what he does not understand. He does not want to sit at the table with other reasonable and informed people. He wants to kick over the table, denounce the people who are sitting at it, appeal to his authority as a member of the lab-coat-wearing elite, and, in short, to stifle our curiosity and our willingness to think for ourselves. When he says we ought to be curious, he does not mean we ought to be curious in a general sort of way, about the good life or knowledge or history or the arts, but only about his particular field of interest, his personal claims to knowledge, and how we can contribute to the project he thinks is the only one worth pursuing. It never seems to occur to him that the same curiosity that led him to embark on a scientific career, in what was perhaps a more idealistic and open-minded youth, might have led someone else into a different field of knowledge, and that they too might have something worthwhile to say.
Advocates of scientism sometimes complain that the charge of “philistinism” is not specific enough, that it refers to a very vague and self-entitled sort of contempt felt by the speaker rather than any substantive argument. They say they literally don’t understand what it means, but if only someone would explain it to them they would relish the chance to learn and grow. Well, to repeat what has been repeated clearly and ably ever since there has been such a thing as science and therefore people to get dogmatic about it, this is what the charge consists of: Scientism is philistine because it does not appeal to our reason, but to our prejudices; it does not try to expand our horizons, but to limit them; it does encourage our curiosity, but fears it; it is, in short, not just an abuse of philosophy and every other field, but of science, for it has nothing at all to do with the genuine spirit of scientific inquiry, which is the willingness to discuss ideas in an open, critical, rational way. To the extent these people persuade anyone that their prejudices ought to count as science, I think it’s a loss to everybody.
This is what Thomas Burnett, writing for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest association of professional scientists in the world, had to say about it:
Science is an activity that seeks to explore the natural world using well-established, clearly-delineated methods. Given the complexity of the universe, from the very big to the very small, from the inorganic to the organic, there is a vast array of scientific disciplines, each with its own specific techniques. The number of different specializations is constantly increasing, leading to more questions and areas of exploration than ever before. Science expands our understanding, rather than limiting it.
Scientism, on the other hand, is a speculative worldview about the ultimate reality of the universe and its meaning. Despite the fact that here are millions of species on our planet, scientism focuses an inordinate amount of attention on human behavior and beliefs. Rather than working within carefully constructed boundaries and methodologies established by researchers, it broadly generalizes entire fields of academic expertise and dismisses many of them as inferior. With scientism, you will regularly hear explanations that rely on words like “merely,” “only,” “simply,” or “nothing more than.” Scientism restricts human inquiry. … it is, in a word, unscientific. (http://www.aaas.org/page/what-scientism)
I hope that all people who are genuinely curious about the world we live in will stay curious, and will act on their curiosity, whether or not they are scientists. I hope they will recognize scientism for the impoverished dogma it is, reject its claim to restrict legitimate inquiry, and will think, not less, but more philosophically about science and indeed everything else. But this is just one of many reasons why scientism is an impoverished and fundamentally unserious point of view.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.