Philosophy Word of the Day – Scientism

The term scientism is used to describe the view that natural science has authority over all other interpretations of life, such as philosophical, religious, mythical, spiritual, or humanistic explanations, and over other fields of inquiry, such as the social sciences. The term is used by social scientists like Hayek[1] or Karl Popper to describe what they see as the underlying attitudes and beliefs common to many scientists. They tend to use the term in either of two equally pejorative[2][3] directions:

  1. To indicate the improper usage of science or scientific claims.[4] as a counter-argument to appeals to scientific authority in contexts where science might not apply,[5] such as when the topic is perceived to be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry.
  2. To refer to “the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry,”[3] with a concomitant “elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience”.[6][7] It thus expresses a position critical of (at least the more extreme expressions of) positivism.[8][9]

(Via Wikipedia)

This is the fundamental mistake the New Atheists (and scientific atheists more generally) make.  Science becomes a Procrustean bed that is exalted as the standard for any belief to count as true or rational.  This ignores the fact that there are wide domains of intellectual inquiry that lie beyond science’s purview – for example, politics, history, philosophy, psychology, theology, and ethics, to name a few.

Science is good and beneficial in its own domain, but in our culture it tends to overstep its boundaries and attempts to force the rest of the academic disciplines to submit to its rule.

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4 thoughts on “Philosophy Word of the Day – Scientism

  1. Pingback: First Things on Priest, Scientist John Polkinghorne | Phasing

  2. Pingback: First Things on Priest, Scientist John Polkinghorne « Cloud of Witnesses

  3. Without necessarily disagreeing with your point entirely, it seems to be you are making several assertions without valid reason:

    – Why should those disciplines (or at least parts of them) not be in within ‘science’s purview’? How do you know they will always remain outside?

    – Do the ‘New Atheists’ really make that mistake? I doubt it.

    – Does ‘science’ really ‘attempt to force the rest of the academic disciplines to submit to its rule’? How? I don’t see that. In fact, if there is anything happening in the West these days, especially the US, it is an attempt to undermine science.

    • Hi Richard,

      Thanks for your insightful questions. There certainly is some overlap in some cases between science and the other disciplines I mentioned, but for the most part, they are carried on apart from science. Historians look at old documents and artifacts to try to reconstruct the past; philosophers work with concepts, logic, and language (for the most part) to try to understand the world; and artists use their intuitions and training to create music or poetry or drama. All of these are rightfully done apart from reference to science (except in some special cases — for example, philosophy of science).

      As far as I can tell, the New Atheists are thoroughly steeped in scientism. For example, Richard Dawkins writes in The Devil’s Chaplain: “Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: ‘Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?’ And next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say” (p. 248).

      The problem is, the only thing Dawkins and the others will allow to count as “evidence” is scientific evidence. But if this is the only evidence that counts, the rest of the academic disciplines are in trouble, because it appears they don’t really know anything (because it’s not scientifically validated).

      The last point is harder to demonstrate, but in my experience, much of our culture has bought into scientism. Probably the vast majority of college students today believe that if you can’t demonstrate something scientifically, it’s not true or real, or you’re irrational for believing it (which is the death knell for art, philosophy, morality and ethics, psychology, etc.) It’s not an understatement to say that this is the reigning orthodoxy of the university today — and it has filtered down into the larger culture to a great extent.

      You’re right that there are some people, some of them religious, who reject or misunderstand science. But science has the upper hand by far in terms of cultural power, I think.

      Thanks again for the thought-provoking questions.

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