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.
“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.” This is the key part. Its clear that to convince people to take up the scientistic view, you have to do more than science. If they hold it as a belief that we ought to hold, there has to be some reason outside of doing science for us to hold it, that is, a non-scientific reason.
It blows my mind that these advocates of so called “rationalism” and “being logical” refuse to engage with the material they are so eager to dismiss. All of them clearly haven’t seen anything of philosophy outside of a wikipedia article or the likes. Where’s their curiosity, their willingness to be proved wrong? Apparently not there if its something they don’t want (at face value) to be part of their world view. Ironically a very un-scientific approach to things.
Truly, the mere name and symbol of reason too often passes for the genuine article.
I think you might really enjoy Bayesian Rationalists(http://lesswrong.com). They are generally much more reasonable about taking new propositions seriously.
I really enjoyed the article Daniel. Thanks! If you have any books to recommend on science pertaining to its project and limits, I’m all ears. I’ve been meaning to explore the topic more after reading a bit of Kuhn.
Craig Reukers says
Hi Cezary, I can’t praise highly enough The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch. In the process of defending and promoting what he finds the most compelling explanation, from the available evidence, of the physical world, he grounds an entire world view in a thorough philosophical effort. Not only does it explicate some solid philosophy of science, and itself for that matter, in a very accessible manner, in the process of doing so Dr Deutsch lives the example of a celebrated scientist who has done the hard philosophical yards to get his case across. There has been such bad philosophy as he puts it, especially around his quantum field (pun intended) one figures he felt it necessary. That is, that his Everettian Multi-Universe view was so undeserving of its underdog status, especially to the degree it was undervalued that he had little choice. Anyway, he takes a well intentioned swipe at scientism in the process and guides us on the path to (not infallibly) solving all the rest of the problems of the world – the path at a beginning of infinity. And overall it’s a fun read.
Evan Hadkins says
Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge is great. Not dazzling prose but clear and rigorous – and he was a chemist, so knows science from the inside.
Daniel Halverson says
Hi Cezary. Thanks for your encouragement.
Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions certainly undermines any absolutist truth-claims for the sciences, and has been very influential.
Nonsense on Stilts, by Massimo Pigliucci, addresses this topic directly.
Also Friedrich Hayek, Counter-Revolution of Science. Though dated and often in dialogue with claims that are not heard so often today, it contains many cogent and clearly-stated arguments against scientism.
Hasok Chang’s book Is Water H20? makes a strong and closely supported argument for theory pluralism, and shows how the insistence that there must be only one True Theory at any time has actually hindered science in at least one field, chemistry.
I haven’t read Ronald Giere Scientific Perspectivism, but it’s been recommended to me by people whose judgment seems reliable, and is brief.
Karl Popper’s work also has the consequence that scientistic claims cannot be accepted at face value.
Hope that helps.
The philosopher Susan Haack wrote a good book on this subject.
Thanks for this resource.
s. wallerstein says
Even if philosophy is completely useless, from the standpoint of the most conventional definition of “useless” (it doesn’t not increase GDP or lower the infant mortality rate or facilitate more rapid internet connections, etc., etc., what is the problem with a group of people getting together to talk about or argue about what used to be called “deep questions”?
Philosophers don’t pollute, they don’t exploit anyone or any animal, they don’t use anyone as a means, they don’t produce weapons of mass destruction (unlike some scientists), they don’t sell or push junk food or cigarettes, they don’t make much noise, they try as hard as they can to be truthful and honest, etc.
That is, philosophers live much more righteous lives than most people do. So, I don’t quite understand why all those big-name scientists pick on philosophers and not go after those who are causing harm to humanity and to the environment. Could it be that it’s easier for scientists to pick up on harmless philosophers than on polluters, than on Wall St., than on the Pentagon, etc.?
Daniel David says
I think you might be biting off a little too much here. Philosophical reason has certainly been invoked to justify cruelty to animals (Descartes!) and to explain away harmful political and social agendas. I’ve also heard more than one marketer say they’ve found a Heidegger or Debord useful in making their products more appealing. Or consider the Breakthrough Institute, whose political, environmental and technological stances are bound by a philosophical stance. Whatever one thinks of that stance going in, it will certainly be implicated in whatever results the policies they influence end up producing.
Also, in my experience, the philosophical acumen or learning of a given person doesn’t always have significant bearing on the pleasantness of their character or how rigorously they practice whatever ethics they subscribe to. It also doesn’t indicate how much attention they pay to subjects outside of philosophy that may also be relevant to their lives. In fact, some of the most philosophical people I’ve known have also been some of the most talented rationalizers of their own behavior, and I say this as someone who loves philosophy, ideas and conversation. So I don’t think that philosophers are necessarily good people, only that they can be. Other ingredients are necessary.
But on that last point, I agree entirely: given that most of the science going on today is funded by those sorts of entities you mentioned, small wonder that there seems to be a blind spot in their own engagements with the world. And I imagine that they enjoy having near total authority on truth and don’t like it being called into question by philosophical inquiry.
Science has become and end in itself in our society that doesn’t seem to need to answer to any greater good, and has devoted itself almost entirely to increasing human power simply for the sake of it. It doesn’t look to me like there are good things on the horizon for us.
“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.”
Iain Mcgilchrist addresses this inability to position the part within the whole, not only in science but in many other areas, quite brilliantly in The Master and his Emissary. Can’t recommend highly enough http://iainmcgilchrist.com/
Thanks for this resource.
Scientism is the naked worship of power. Philosophy and religion didn’t cure polio, invent the helicopter or determine the distance between Earth and Mars, so they are useless. Anything that doesn’t give humans the ability to navigate and manipulate their sensory experience is not just useless, it is meaningless. And truth itself is redefined as the “accurate prediction of objective observation” or in other words, ability to navigate and manipulate their sensory experience. Classical truth, beauty and goodness are literally nothing to scientism. Power is the only good. That’s why while it is impoverished it is ascendent.
The cognitive sciences are trying to understand beauty and goodness. Do soft sciences qualify as scientism?
Darrin R says
The “soft” sciences are sciences, and their adherents can fall prey to the same silly approaches to their fields as physical and life scientists. And some do.
The worship of science as the dispenser of technological goodies is certainly worrying. Not that we don’t want technological goodies. I do, at any rate. But why we can’t simply appreciate science and make use of it, why we have to -worship- it, is something I really don’t understand.
Usually what the scientistic position amounts to is either vacuously stretching the meaning of the term “science” to include everything the individual in question thinks is good and necessary, or else denying that any but a few very well-developed fields have anything to contribute at all. Neither of these are very attractive, since if science covers everything useful by mere re-definition, it’s not so special after all, where if younger fields are ridiculed and defunded while they’re still developing, it’s that much more difficult for them to reach maturity.
Lack of curiosity is indeed very disappointing to see coming from respected scientists (and Bill Nye), especially when they are public science advocates. And you’re right that they don’t even realize when they are engaging in philosophy.
But I actually think their lack of curiosity is a symptom, rather than the origin of their scientism. In their lives they’ve shown a very a high level of curiosity, and there’s a good chance that it extends to history, literature, art. If Lawrence Krauss or Stephen Weinberg were actually to read more than Kuhn’s book and a couple of Wikipedia pages, I suspect they could be brought around to appreciate it (at least some of it ) and even acknowledge that they frequently do it.
I think what they are really reacting against is religion, which they probably think is too cozy with philosophy. I wonder who or what your main target is in criticizing scientism? You quote Thomas Burnett’s AAAS article, but he has an explicitly religious take on scientism. His three prime examples are by Carl Sagan, Steven Weinberg, and E. O. Wilson, and they are all clearly about denying a higher power, not about science overstepping its bounds. Only Wilson’s could clearly be said to claim too much for science, and I’ll bet he’d be more temperate if he weren’t talking about religion. You and Burnett both talk about one definition of scientism being the claim that science provides the only way of knowing. I really hope you’re not including theology among the alternatives. If so, you’ve really lost me, because then we’re just back to the tired theism versus atheism debate.
So then, why all the worry? I think we’re talking about a small number of public figures who are in fact fairly open-minded and can be convinced by good arguments, but their public anti-religion stance is clouding their vision a bit. Some disappointing willful ignorance, and a bit too much polemics, but hardly a threat to society. I am a scientist, and I know many, and I can promise you that most of them don’t fit your profile of a scientism advocate. Many of them are interested in philosophy, literature, history, and a few are even religious.
Hi Allen. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
Very often profound contempt for a field is found in combination with profound ignorance of it. Just going by the video, what does Nye really seem to know about philosophy? The ignorance is unavoidable. We just can’t learn everything, and I certainly don’t think Nye has a professional obligation to learn philosophy. But the contempt part is a decision, and easily corrected.
I read the AAAS’s decision to include Thomas Burnett, a former associate editor at the BioLogos foundation, as an implicit rebuke to people like Krauss and Wilson, who are anxious to conflate science with atheism, materialism, liberalism, and various other of their opinions. The AAAS is not concerned with the promotion of atheism, materialism, liberalism, or any other such view, but only of science. According to a poll from the Pew Center for Research, roughly half of the scientists in the United States do believe in some form of divinity or other, and it is a good bet that there are many others who are politically conservative, or who reject materialism. (http://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief/)
It is not in the interest of science, or of society as a whole, to forego the good will and services of people who might otherwise be enthusiastic and productive contributors on such narrow grounds. Francis Collins, for instance, is both a Christian and, as the former director of the Human Genome Project, a very accomplished administrator and biologist. Yet there were people who objected to his appointment as the director of the National Institutes of Health for reasons which can only be described as ideological. So while he’s been working to build the credibility of science with his fellow Christians, these people have been working to attack and diminish his credibility as a scientist, where one would think, just on pragmatic grounds, that they would support his efforts.
As far as the source of the worry – as an (aspiring) historian of science, most particularly in its political and its cultural aspects, the evidence I am accustomed to dealing with strongly suggests that this view of the world – I mean the “only science produces knowledge” view of it, which is scientism – does indeed pose a threat to the values of an open and humane society. There are many people, unfortunately, for whom the mere repetition of the words “science” and “reason” can effectively substitute for the genuine article, and who are only too happy to surrender the burdens of epistemic, moral, and political responsibility for the privilege of denouncing other people. I certainly think it is important to combat this pernicious superstition. In this regard, a little philosophy goes a long way.
But I agree with you that most scientists probably do not share this view – hence in their willingness to allow Thomas Burnett to address this topic, the AAAS showed a spirit of humility and tolerance that is sadly lacking in the public and oft-repeated views of Krauss, Dawkins, Dennett, and other people who are working diligently to get their prejudices passed off as science. As Thomas Burnett rightly pointed out, the problem with scientism, among other things, is that it is unscientific.
R. Underwood says
I regard the high priests of scientism as the most venomous and dangerous enemies of life that we have ever had to endure on earth – they themselves are a direct refutation of their beloved natural selection theory (that nature gave birth to something so antithetical to life as the priest of scientism means that nature selected a type of human who is undoubtedly the greatest threat to man’s survival and the survival of all life on earth. Is nature really capable of producing something so unnatural, such a monstrous piece of anti-nature as the priest of materialist scientism who pompously declares that life has no meaning, that man is naught but a biological robot, a biologically determined bag of selfish genes, that we live in an insignificant corner of an insignificant universe, that all of creation is the result of a mere illogical accident, ad nauseum – is there anything lower that could be said of man and man’s existence on earth? Have we not here reached the lowest water mark possible in terms of the conception man? Are there men so degenerate as are capable of regarding themselves as such, as the apes of scientism – and if so, are they really human at all, or some aberration, some error, a perverted, corrupted form of human, or possibly not human at all? Has man become so sick, crippled and perverted that he is able to buy this nonsense without protest? Who are these enemies of Man to speak so lowly of him? The project to undermine life, to degrade and diminish life has reached it’s goal here – that people buy into this degraded conception of man is only an indication of the extent to which the majority of humans are divorced from the real, from their instincts, how far removed they have become from reality, and testimony to the fact that they are no longer vitally alive….science pertains to the ego level of mind. It is the ego that wishes to know, to reduce the unfathomable miracle of existence to something it can grasp, to something small and mean and petty like itself. But the ego, as is well known, is but a barrier to the real, and thus whatever science can do on the practical level, it can never give us Reality. Really, it can give us only shadows in the mind, a shadow world of ideas, concepts, theories – but never the Real. Moreover, materialism is an outdated ideology and moreover, it is very boring and only has appeal, I think, to the dullest, deadest, shallowest and least imaginative of people – like the high priests of scientism and the media propagandists of scientism – advocates of a very dangerous and extreme nihilism, and it’s very sad that hardly anyone alive today can see through them and the agenda they serve.
Anthony Verbalis says
Congratulations. I am no materialist, but your screed has accomplished the seemingly impossible. It makes me want to defend them.
Science is a powerful tool, and a window on reality. That it is incapable of describing all of reality is not a flaw. I happen to believe that those scientists who believe it can explain everything are wrong, but even they can be, and most often are, genuinely good people.
Even if a scientist is a materialist, it is quite wrong to place him/her in the category of “dullest, deadest, shallowest and least imaginative of people”. Such a statement is simply ill-informed, and says much more about the lack of curiosity and imagination of its author than it does about the characteristics of actual scientists.
R. Underwood says
The ideology of materialism is shallow – and you cannot separate scientific materialism from the shoddy egocentric consumerist materialism of the contemporary world. They go hand-in-hand. The veracity of any world-view or belief-system is to be found in the world it engenders – does it augment and enoble existence or does it diminish, debase and denigrate it? Does it enoble and uplift mankind or turn him into a kind of debauched ape?
The contemporary world of the glorious scientific age – what would the gods say of it? Is it something we can kneel before or is it something to make you puke?
As someone said recently: “For anyone who honours life, this world is horrendous.” And so it is.
R. Underwood says
The ideology of materialism is shallow – and you cannot separate scientific materialism from the shoddy egocentric consumerist materialism of the contemporary world. They go hand-in-hand.
The veracity of any world-view or belief-system is to be found in the world it engenders – does it augment and enoble existence or does it diminish, debase and denigrate it? Does it enoble and uplift mankind or turn him into a kind of debauched egocentric ape?
The contemporary world of the glorious scientific age – what would the gods say of it? Is it something we can kneel before or is it something to make you puke? As someone said recently: “For anyone who honours life, this world is horrendous.” And so it is.
Reality is not something to be described – but something to experienced.
This was a compelling blog post, for sure. The only true exploration I have down regarding “scientism” is I read Curtis White’s The Science Delusion. I don’t remember much of it except for how I felt while reading it which was basically me laughing at how bad and misleading, and confused it was. However, I think what you described here as “scientism” certainly does exist.
I agree with one of the above commenters that I think advocates of “scientism” are, basically, mimicking Hitchens (although Hitchens would never have been so dull) and its mostly political. By that I mean mostly trying to combat the obvious lack of scientific literacy and the deleterious affects that is having on our society. Krauss, for example, intentionally tries to provoke and true does feel that nothingness doesn’t mean what philosophers fault.
Come to think of it, isn’t this just positivism?
It’s certainly understandable that a scientist would get annoyed at having the knowledge they produce condemned by people who don’t really know anything about it – though one can hardly approve of them responding in the same spirit! The interests of science are, in my opinion, better served by people who can share their enthusiasm for science without making exaggerated claims for it, or putting down people who work in other fields.
Positivism is the philosophy I pointed to that “that insist quite rigorously on the literal, factual, logical, known truth of scientific theories.” While I certainly disagree with the positivists, I don’t think anyone could say that they’re not willing to discuss science philosophically, or that they’re opposed to curiosity as such. To give just one example, the positivist philosopher CG Hempel made a contribution to the philosophy of history, which I discussed in an earlier article, and positivists have been very productive in epistemology, language, and logic. Since they can offer a reasoned defense of their views, and generally are interested in expanding rather than restricting inquiry, I do not think it would be fair to include them in my overall rebuttal, even though they do have some things in common with the modern advocates of scientism,
Hi, I am a biologist and I have always been interested in art, philosophy, beauty. When I first entered the lab I had this impression that all scientists were well-rounded people with similar intillectual persuits, but I was mistaken. I realised that being good at science had nothing to do with being well rounded and I have found the most narrow minded people within my field. So, here is one scientist who agrees with your article. By the way I am also a ” doctor of philosophy ” a designation bestowed on many scientists(ironic right?)
David Whinfield says
Great article. I think the poverty of scientism is that it views the world as completely solved in principle: it’s just a matter of filling in the blanks in the laboratory. Although science has to work within certain limits (methods, paradigms), it doesn’t have to limit the world with it, and my guess is that scientists don’t necessarily believe their work encompasses all there is (and Daniel’s response to Allan seems to confirm this). Scientism advocates can be defined as those who’ve found a rigidly closed system where all their beliefs are grounded (I was reminded of PEL’s Jaspers episode thinking about this). Whenever you try to attack the system ‘from the outside’, you have to use concepts they don’t agree with, but I think the argument above was accomplished in precisely the right way: pointing out their hypocrisy. Otherwise, philosophy would have to be degraded to some mere epistemological justification of science for it to be of value.
Just one last point. Why on earth are there so many people discussing the significance of impossibly complicated scientific concepts on the internet? I know in some instances (as found in this post) they are used as limit cases for what counts as a scientific theory, and discussing them is more a matter of philosophy of science than actual science; however, scientism advocates I’ve met in person or read online are seemingly passionate about subjects they have absolutely no chance of grasping, and I believe what I call ‘science PR documentaries’, like Cosmos, are to blame. They have an almost… spiritual atmosphere to them. Now, I know dilettantism first-hand (sometimes I don’t even read the book before listening to the PEL episode!), but you can find a whole new level of it in those seeking spiritual counsel from Einstein’s equations.
Scott Stratton says
Please allow me to join the ranks of those complementing your article; it was interesting, well-written, and well-argued. And on a personal (philosophical ) level I generally agree with you. Not being in either field professionally, but much more a wannabee of both, I have certainly met people (scientists and otherwise) that clearly advocate scientism. I defer to others who know more, but I do wonder, as someone else asked: how widespread a problem is it? Is it a minority – but a minority that dominates all the important “nodes” in the web of intellectual discourse; or a minority, but it’s a loud and vocal minority in a time and place that seem to value loud and cocksure and dismissive? I’m not sure if any sort of study had been done (or could be done), but it would be interesting to see how widespread Scientism is – both breadth and depth.
Just a few other related (but not necessarily relevant) comments that your article prompted 😉 :
– Scientism seems a bit like that generation in a family that has taken over the family business already rich and successful for decades. They waltz into a great situation, make a few changes, maybe: “bring them into the digital age” and poof! They are convinced that what they do is most important; their way the best way; and they obviously the best people to do it. But they grew up steeped in that world – it would take a person of great inborn curiosity and maturity, I think, to break free. Doesn’t excuse the behavior, but wondering if the analogy might not have something to it.
– Unfortunately, almost all of my philosophical study has had to be on my own: from books, papers, etc. – mentioned because it means I have no have a sense of the “vibe” in a living, breathing, modern philosophy department, which may point to the opposite of my observation: I can see non-philosophers in the academic and professional world thinking philosophy as being elitist and dismissive. Strictly from the written works, I developed a feeling as I was starting to study it, that philosophy was a bit dismissive of other inquiries. I think for me it was the tendency of many to see philosophy as more or less the ur-discipline; the one that pursues the hardest, most important questions and is the “ground” for all the other disciplines. That philosophy is the one that most “purely” pursues Truth. IMO, to the extent a philosopher feels that the philosophical project is the only one that can “justify” or create the grounds for other knowledge, I think it is very much like scientism (the other way of course). As only one quick example, I was so confused when I started studying Epistemology until I realized that a critical unstated assumption was operating (it was, of course, also a ‘stated’ assumption that I just hadn’t encountered yet) that was something like: “It is good and the highest goal to learn truth; whereas to think a falsehood was true – to be wrong that way (or in error) – is terrible and to be avoided at all costs. I found it odd because it seemed like such an unphilosophical thing to do – to leave assumptions unstated; to not try to justify why they exist and whether or not that intuition is correct and widespread and natural. LOL, it had never occurred to me to think anything like that. Hopefully my mind has opened in many ways since then (though I still find those assumptions so strange :))
– Can you imagine the rollercoaster of emotions that would go through a modern hard-core follower of scientism* if they were able to encounter and engage with some of the Great Scientists of yesteryear? To be a fly on the wall during Schrodinger’s stay with Niels Bohr? ALL they talked was philosophical issues, LOL. I very tiny sliver of me (that is not nice) would love to engineer such an encounter.
– Science dismissing Philosophy is a bit like going back in time and killing your own grandparents, right? Where must they think the Scientific Method and the idea of experimental science came from? For a LONG time they were the same thing; then philosophers and philosophy were instrumental in bringing on the renaissance and enlightenment (which made science possible); all that had to happen before Hobbes could even engage in his famous argument with Boyle over the proper method of inquiry – an almost entirely philosophical discussion.
– Just a quirky thought: within science, all the disciplines that are NOT physics have a hard time accepting that PHYSICS = SCIENCE = TRUTH and it’s nice they can add some footnotes when deriving, I don’t know … life? chemistry? everything else? I wonder what percentage of those holding a Scientism viewpoint are also physicists?
Thanks for letting me ramble on :-). A really great piece of work.
* So, what is a follower of Scientism called? Scientist seems really wrong; but ‘scientismist’ is really hard to say and type. It’s sooo awkward, however, maybe that’s just the label they should have :-).
Christopher Brown says
Fantastic article. It brings me great joy to see someone calling out the priests of science and their charlatan/evangelical approach to complex topics. Anyone condemning the art of philosophy is an ignorant fool with a bigoted heart.
Bodvar Skutvik says
I can hardly believe that this problem – very generally the mind/matter division – still bothers philosophy after it got its solution with Robert M. Pirsig’s “Metaphysics of Quality” (the MOQ). The problem came to the fore relatively shortly after Descartes made the subject/object split into reality’s foundation (what Pirsig calls the S/O Metaphysics (SOM) when the empiricists – Berkeley the best known – pointed out that “out there” in the physical, objective world there were only quantities so what we perceived as music is just pressure waves in the air, taste is just molecular configurations, smell likewise and vision just frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum (NB maybe molecules and electro-magnetism were unknown to the sixteenth century, but that does not matter) From here comes Bill Nye’s paradox
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.
Pain is just subjective an ought not “hurt” yet it is the only way we perceive the world so instead of being secondary it is primary. This led the venerable Immanuel Kant to step in and try to save common sense from what he called “Pure Reason” (Reinen Vernunft) but as the mentioned SOM also was his premise the salvation just cemented the paradox. He ended up with the Thing in Itself (das Ding an Sich) and the Thing for Us (das Ding f’ür Uns) and so great was Kant’s reputation that academy thought that this was the last word and closed the case. It took 150 years before another philosopher reopened it, namely Robert Pirsig. In his first book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (ZMM) he like Halverson here pointed to the “poverty of scientism” and its ominous reality of a material realm governed by natural laws completely indifferent to our subjective feelings. And than simultaneously that this reality only exists as a subjective theory. In that the book he also reaches the conclusion that this subject/object division that we now believes is from eternity came to be with the Geeks philosophers and only slowly came to be (our) metaphysics i.e. the hidden premise that we take for granted. In his next book “Lila, an inquiry into Qualities” he presents an alternative to SOM – the mentioned MOQ – that I am going to tell about in he next installment.
Evan Hadkins says
I love Pirsig too.
All great scientists are spiritual in their outlook. Only a dullard could fail to be awed and humble at the spectacle of this might Universe and it’s profound mystery.
Great article, and much more charitable than I was in my criticism of Bill Nye (http://paradoxoftheday.com/bill-nye-the-guy/)
I also don’t agree with this statement: “Isn’t the whole point of science that we can observe such things?”
I don’t think observation is what defines science any longer, it might have been some centuries ago. Corroboration I’d not necessarily through observation (didn’t Einstein famously ignore the ‘drawing’ of light patterns, because he knew if it’s truth without observation?).
Ma 2 pennays…….philosophy, religion, and science all share the common ground called the Unconscious. They all emerged from there. Science will eventually turn its eye in that direction and then realize that it too is a subset. It will then look upon philosophy and religion with a softer, more understanding, eye. It will gain some humility.
Frank Netzlaff says
If you want to read about scientists which used their philosophical interest to push forward their science I recommend “A world without time” about the friendship between Goedel and Einstein. Goedel was fascinated with phenomenology and Einstein by Kant. There is also an interesting summary of their confrontation with logical positivism in their time. I highly recommend it.
Duncan Parks says
Wow. What a great example of RTFA (or, in this case, WTFV). The author seems to have listened to the question and stopped after 20 seconds, assuming that the student had accurately summed up Nye (and the “scientism-ists” position) accurately. Otherwise, he might have heard Nye say, first, that he doesn’t agree that de Grasse Tyson or Dawkins have completely dismissed philosophy, but more importantly, that philosophy “doesn’t always give an answer that’s surprising…that it doesn’t lead you someplace that is inconsistent with common sense.” Nye recognizes (as Krauss and others have argued) that academic philosophy – the kind of things discussed in philosophy departments – doesn’t seem to inspire scientific thinking anymore.
Quantum is a perfect example. Max Planck wasn’t trying to answer a current philosophical conundrum when he invented the quantum; he was trying to make a model of blackbody radiation, and what he came up with basically defied common sense. But it worked really well, and Einstein, Bohr, Schroedinger, and the rest developed it into a superbly accurate and predictive theory (and superb here is really an understatement). In the end we have a theory that has shown that matter has both wave and particle properties. Philosophers have certainly argued a lot about whether matter is continuous or discrete – but that it would turn out to be both? That’s just crazy and irrational, and that’s *exactly* why it was not seriously considered in philosophy circles. But it turns out to better describe matter than anything else, by the standard of the empirical test.
Incidentally, the problem of the multiple interpretations of quantum is not really a scientific problem, even though lots of scientists discuss it. It is a problem (IMHO) of figuring out how to make human causal sense of a scientific result. None of the different interpretations has experimental implications (at least at present); they just try in different ways to reconcile the phenomena of quantum (which have been utterly beyond human experience until about a hundred years ago) with human notions of cause and effect. Trying to reconcile quantum with Kant’s categories, if you will. The problem of “How do we make sense of quantum mechanics?” (and the emphasis should be on “we”) is indeed a philosophical one, and all about human ways of thinking.
In that vein, I doubt folks like Nye would deny they are doing any philosophy (in the broadest sense of the word); they are obviously empiricists, and have a knowledge criterion of predictive power in the material world. Nor would an astute scientist argue that the origins of scientific ideas are utterly cold or rational; humans come up with theoretical ideas, and some rather eclectic folks have come up with some crazy ideas that have turned out to be tremendously effective in explaining material phenomena. Of course many more crazy ideas turned out not to explain much at all. By the criteria of philosophy, the crazy or irrational stuff would get discarded, because that’s the coin of the philosophical realm – does it make sense (to philosophers)? In science, however, the ultimate criterion is “does it match what we can observe?”, and crazy ideas can gain traction if they work. That’s what Nye is getting at; if we want to grow in our understanding, it’s time to abandon “does it make sense to us?” for “does it explain the world better?”. Perhaps you could find a discussion along those lines in a phenomenology course (if you can get through the ridiculously obtuse jargon), but I rather doubt you’ll find the inspiration for the next scientific breakthrough.
Perhaps it would be good to close with a quote from JBS Haldane (or Sir Arthur Eddington, if you like): “…my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” That’s Nye’s argument in a nutshell.
Duncan Parks says
Sorry, one other thing: Newton’s theory actually predicts gravitational bending of light rays; the difference between his theory and Einstein’s is that Newton predicted half as much bending as Einstein, and Eddington’s measurements of the eclipse of 1919 confirmed Einstein’s prediction.