Scientism

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Scientism is the promotion of science as the best or only objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values. The term scientism is generally used critically, implying a cosmetic application of science in unwarranted situations considered not amenable to application of the scientific method or similar scientific standards.

Contents

Overview

In the philosophy of science, the term scientism frequently implies a critique of the more extreme expressions of logical positivism [1] [2] and has been used by social scientists such as Friedrich Hayek, [3] philosophers of science such as Karl Popper, [4] and philosophers such as Hilary Putnam [5] and Tzvetan Todorov [6] to describe (for example) the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measured or confirmatory. [7]

More generally, scientism is often interpreted as science applied "in excess". The term scientism has two senses:

  1. The improper usage of science or scientific claims. [8] This usage applies equally in contexts where science might not apply, [9] such as when the topic is perceived as beyond the scope of scientific inquiry, and in contexts where there is insufficient empirical evidence to justify a scientific conclusion. It includes an excessive deference to the claims of scientists or an uncritical eagerness to accept any result described as scientific. This can be a counterargument to appeals to scientific authority. It can also address the attempt to apply "hard science" methodology and claims of certainty to the social sciences, which Friedrich Hayek described in The Counter-Revolution of Science (1952) as being impossible, because that methodology involves attempting to eliminate the "human factor", while social sciences (including his own field of economics) center almost purely on human action.
  2. "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", [10] or that "science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective" [5] with a concomitant "elimination of the psychological [and spiritual] dimensions of experience". [11] [12] Tom Sorell provides this definition: "Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture." [13] Philosophers such as Alexander Rosenberg have also adopted "scientism" as a name for the view that science is the only reliable source of knowledge. [14]

It is also sometimes used to describe universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or the most valuable part of human learning—sometimes to the complete exclusion of other viewpoints, such as historical, philosophical, economic or cultural worldviews. It has been defined as "the view that the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society". [15] The term scientism is also used by historians, philosophers, and cultural critics to highlight the possible dangers of lapses towards excessive reductionism in all fields of human knowledge. [16] [17] [18] [19] [20]

For social theorists in the tradition of Max Weber, such as Jürgen Habermas and Max Horkheimer, the concept of scientism relates significantly to the philosophy of positivism, but also to the cultural rationalization for modern Western civilization. [7] [21]

Definitions

Reviewing the references to scientism in the works of contemporary scholars, Gregory R. Peterson [22] detected two main broad themes:

  1. It is used to criticize a totalizing view of science as if it were capable of describing all reality and knowledge, or as if it were the only true way to acquire knowledge about reality and the nature of things;
  2. It is used, often pejoratively, [23] [24] [25] to denote a border-crossing violation in which the theories and methods of one (scientific) discipline are inappropriately applied to another (scientific or non-scientific) discipline and its domain. An example of this second usage is to label as scientism any attempt to claim science as the only or primary source of human values (a traditional domain of ethics) or as the source of meaning and purpose (a traditional domain of religion and related worldviews).

The term scientism was popularized by F.A. Hayek, who defined it as the "slavish imitation of the method and language of Science". [26] Karl Popper defines scientism as "the aping of what is widely mistaken for the method of science". [27]

Mikael Stenmark proposed the expression scientific expansionism as a synonym of scientism. [28] In the Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, he wrote that, while the doctrines that are described as scientism have many possible forms and varying degrees of ambition, they share the idea that the boundaries of science (that is, typically the natural sciences) could and should be expanded so that something that has not been previously considered as a subject pertinent to science can now be understood as part of science (usually with science becoming the sole or the main arbiter regarding this area or dimension). [28]

According to Stenmark, the strongest form of scientism states that science has no boundaries and that all human problems and all aspects of human endeavor, with due time, will be dealt with and solved by science alone. [28] This idea has also been called the Myth of Progress. [29]

E. F. Schumacher, in his A Guide for the Perplexed , criticized scientism as an impoverished world view confined solely to what can be counted, measured and weighed. "The architects of the modern worldview, notably Galileo and Descartes, assumed that those things that could be weighed, measured, and counted were more true than those that could not be quantified. If it couldn't be counted, in other words, it didn't count." [30]

Intellectual historian T.J. Jackson Lears argued there has been a recent reemergence of "nineteenth-century positivist faith that a reified 'science' has discovered (or is about to discover) all the important truths about human life. Precise measurement and rigorous calculation, in this view, are the basis for finally settling enduring metaphysical and moral controversies." Lears specifically identifies Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker's work as falling in this category. [31] Philosophers John N. Gray and Thomas Nagel have leveled similar criticisms against popular works by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, atheist author Sam Harris, and writer Malcolm Gladwell. [32] [33] [34]

Relevance to debates about science and religion

Individuals associated with New Atheism have garnered the scientism label from both religious and non-religious scholars. [35] [36] Theologian John Haught argued that philosopher Daniel Dennett and other New Atheists subscribe to a belief system of scientific naturalism, which holds the central dogma that "only nature, including humans and our creations, is real: that God does not exist; and that science alone can give us complete and reliable knowledge of reality." [37] Haught argued that this belief system is self-refuting since it requires its adherents to assent to beliefs that violate its own stated requirements for knowledge. [38] Christian philosopher Peter Williams argued that it is only by conflating science with scientism that New Atheists feel qualified to "pontificate on metaphysical issues". [39] Daniel Dennett responded to religious criticism of his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by saying that accusations of scientism "[are] an all-purpose, wild-card smear ... When someone puts forward a scientific theory that [religious critics] really don't like, they just try to discredit it as 'scientism'. But when it comes to facts, and explanations of facts, science is the only game in town". [40]

Non-religious scholars have also linked New Atheist thought with scientism and/or positivism. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel argued that neuroscientist Sam Harris conflated all empirical knowledge with scientific knowledge. [41] Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton argued that Christopher Hitchens possessed an "old-fashioned scientistic notion of what counts as evidence" that reduces knowledge to what can and cannot be proven by scientific procedure. [42] Agnostic philosopher Anthony Kenny has also criticized New Atheist philosopher Alexander Rosenberg's The Atheist's Guide to Reality for resurrecting a self-refuting epistemology of logical positivism and reducing all knowledge of the universe to the discipline of physics. [43]

Michael Shermer, founder of The Skeptics Society, drew a parallel between scientism and traditional religious movements, pointing to the cult of personality that develops around some scientists in the public eye. He defined scientism as a worldview that encompasses natural explanations, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason. [44]

The Iranian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr has stated that in the Western world, many will accept the ideology of modern science, not as "simple ordinary science", but as a replacement for religion. [45]

Gregory R. Peterson wrote that "for many theologians and philosophers, scientism is among the greatest of intellectual sins". [22] Genetic biologist Austin L. Hughes wrote in conservative journal The New Atlantis that scientism has much in common with superstition: "the stubborn insistence that something ... has powers which no evidence supports." [46]

Echoing common criticisms of logical positivism and verificationism, philosopher of religion Keith Ward has said scientism is philosophically inconsistent or even self-refuting, as the truth of the statements "no statements are true unless they can be proven scientifically (or logically)" or "no statements are true unless they can be shown empirically to be true" cannot themselves be proven scientifically, logically, or empirically. [47] [48]

Philosophy of science

Anti-scientism

Philosopher Paul Feyerabend, who was an enthusiastic proponent of scientism in his youth, [49] later came to characterize science as "an essentially anarchic enterprise" [50] and argued emphatically that science merits no exclusive monopoly over "dealing in knowledge" and that scientists have never operated within a distinct and narrowly self-defined tradition. In his essay Against Method he depicted the process of contemporary scientific education as a mild form of indoctrination, aimed at "making the history of science duller, simpler, more uniform, more 'objective' and more easily accessible to treatment by strict and unchanging rules." [51]

[S]cience can stand on its own feet and does not need any help from rationalists, secular humanists, Marxists and similar religious movements; and ... non-scientific cultures, procedures and assumptions can also stand on their own feet and should be allowed to do so ... Science must be protected from ideologies; and societies, especially democratic societies, must be protected from science ... In a democracy scientific institutions, research programmes, and suggestions must therefore be subjected to public control, there must be a separation of state and science just as there is a separation between state and religious institutions, and science should be taught as one view among many and not as the one and only road to truth and reality.

Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, p. viii [52]

Pro-scientism

Physicist and philosopher Mario Bunge used the term scientism with a favorable rather than pejorative sense in numerous books published over several decades, [53] [54] [55] [56] and in articles with titles such as "In defense of realism and scientism" [57] and "In defense of scientism". [58] Bunge dismissed critics of science such as Hayek and Habermas as dogmatists and obscurantists:

To innovate in the young sciences it is necessary to adopt scientism. This is the methodological thesis that the best way of exploring reality is to adopt the scientific method, which may be boiled down to the rule "Check your guesses." Scientism has been explicitly opposed by dogmatists and obscurantists of all stripes, such as the neoliberal ideologist Friedrich von Hayek and the "critical theorist" Jürgen Habermas, a ponderous writer who managed to amalgamate Hegel, Marx, and Freud, and decreed that "science is the ideology of late capitalism."

Mario Bunge, Evaluating Philosophies [59]

In 2018, philosophers Maarten Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci co-edited a book titled Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism in which a number of chapters by philosophers and scientists defended scientism. [60] For example, Taner Edis in his chapter "Two Cheers for Scientism" wrote:

It is defensible to claim that scientific, philosophical, and humanistic forms of knowledge are continuous, and that a broadly naturalistic description of our world centered on natural science is correct ... At the very least, such views are legitimate—they may be mistaken, but not because of an elementary error, a confusion of science with ideology, or an offhand dismissal of the humanities. Those of us who argue for such a view are entitled to have two cheers for an ambitious conception of science; and if that is scientism, so be it.

Taner Edis, "Two Cheers for Scientism" [60]

Rhetoric of science

Thomas M. Lessl argued that religious themes persist in what he calls scientism, the public rhetoric of science. [61] There are two methodologies that illustrate this idea of scientism. One is the epistemological approach, the assumption that the scientific method trumps other ways of knowing and the ontological approach, that the rational mind reflects the world and both operate in knowable ways. According to Lessl, the ontological approach is an attempt to "resolve the conflict between rationalism and skepticism". Lessl also argued that without scientism, there would not be a scientific culture. [61]

Rationalization and modernity

In the introduction to his collected works on the sociology of religion, Max Weber asked why "the scientific, the artistic, the political, or the economic development [elsewhere] ... did not enter upon that path of rationalization which is peculiar to the Occident?" According to the German social theorist Jürgen Habermas, "For Weber, the intrinsic (that is, not merely contingent) relationship between modernity and what he called 'Occidental rationalism' was still self-evident." Weber described a process of rationalisation, disenchantment and the "disintegration of religious world views" that resulted in modern secular societies and capitalism. [62]

"Modernization" was introduced as a technical term only in the 1950s. It is the mark of a theoretical approach that takes up Weber's problem but elaborates it with the tools of social-scientific functionalism  ... The theory of modernization performs two abstractions on Weber's concept of "modernity". It dissociates "modernity" from its modern European origins and stylizes it into a spatio-temporally neutral model for processes of social development in general. Furthermore, it breaks the internal connections between modernity and the historical context of Western rationalism, so that processes of modernization ... [are] no longer burdened with the idea of a completion of modernity, that is to say, of a goal state after which "postmodern" developments would have to set in. ... Indeed it is precisely modernization research that has contributed to the currency of the expression "postmodern" even among social scientists.

Habermas is critical of pure instrumental rationality, arguing that the "Social Life–World" of subjective experiencing is better suited to literary expression, whereas the sciences deal with "intersubjectively accessible experiences" that can be generalized in a formal language, while the literary arts "must generate an intersubjectivity of mutual understanding in each concrete case". [63] [64] Habermas quoted writer Aldous Huxley in support of this duality of literature and science:

The world with which literature deals is the world in which human beings are born and live and finally die; the world in which they love and hate, in which they experience triumph and humiliation, hope and despair; the world of sufferings and enjoyments, of madness and common sense, of silliness, cunning and wisdom; the world of social pressures and individual impulses, of reason against passion, of instincts and conventions, of shared language and unsharable feelings and sensations...

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See also

Related Research Articles

Historians of science and of religion, philosophers, theologians, scientists, and others from various geographical regions and cultures have addressed numerous aspects of the relationship between religion and science. Critical questions in this debate include whether religion and science are compatible, whether religious beliefs can be conducive to science, and what the nature of religious beliefs is.

Philosophy of science The philosophical study of the assumptions, foundations, and implications of science

Philosophy of science is a sub-field of philosophy concerned with the foundations, methods, and implications of science. The central questions of this study concern what qualifies as science, the reliability of scientific theories, and the ultimate purpose of science. This discipline overlaps with metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, for example, when it explores the relationship between science and truth. Philosophy of science focuses on metaphysical, epistemic and semantic aspects of science. Ethical issues such as bioethics and scientific misconduct are often considered ethics or science studies rather than philosophy of science.

Paul Feyerabend Austrian-born philosopher of science

Paul Karl Feyerabend was an Austrian-born philosopher of science best known for his work as a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, where he worked for three decades (1958–1989). At various different points in his life, he lived in England, the United States, New Zealand, Italy, Germany, and finally Switzerland. His major works include Against Method, Science in a Free Society and Farewell to Reason. Feyerabend became famous for his purportedly anarchistic view of science and his rejection of the existence of universal methodological rules. He was an influential figure in the sociology of scientific knowledge. Asteroid (22356) Feyerabend is named in his honour.

Mario Bunge Argentine philosopher

Mario Augusto Bunge was an Argentine philosopher of science and physicist who was mainly active in Canada.

Obscurantism Aiming to hide information or insight

Obscurantism is the practice of deliberately presenting information in an imprecise and abstruse manner, often designed to forestall further inquiry and understanding. There are two historical and intellectual denotations of Obscurantism: (1) the deliberate restriction of knowledge—opposition to disseminating knowledge; and (2) deliberate obscurity—a recondite literary or artistic style, characterized by deliberate vagueness.

The demarcation problem in the philosophy of science and epistemology is about how to distinguish between science and non-science, including between science, pseudoscience, and other products of human activity, like art and literature, and beliefs. The debate continues after over two millennia of dialogue among philosophers of science and scientists in various fields, and despite a broad agreement on the basics of the scientific method.

The science wars were a series of intellectual exchanges, between scientific realists and postmodernist critics, about the nature of scientific theory and intellectual inquiry. They took place principally in the United States in the 1990s in the academic and mainstream press. Scientific realists argued that scientific knowledge is real, and accused the postmodernists of having effectively rejected scientific objectivity, the scientific method, empiricism, and scientific knowledge. Postmodernists interpreted Thomas Kuhn's ideas about scientific paradigms to mean that scientific theories are social constructs, and philosophers like Paul Feyerabend argued that other, non-realist forms of knowledge production were better suited to serve people's personal and spiritual needs.

Postpositivism metatheoretical stance that critiques and amends positivism, arguing that theories, hypotheses, background knowledge and values of the researcher can influence what is observed

In philosophy and models of scientific inquiry, postpositivism is a metatheoretical stance that critiques and amends positivism. While positivists emphasize independence between the researcher and the researched person, postpositivists argue that theories, hypotheses, background knowledge and values of the researcher can influence what is observed. Postpositivists pursue objectivity by recognizing the possible effects of biases. While positivists emphasize quantitative methods, postpositivists consider both quantitative and qualitative methods to be valid approaches.

Hans Albert German philosopher

Hans Albert is a German philosopher. Born in Cologne, he lives in Heidelberg.

In social science, antipositivism is a theoretical stance that proposes that the social realm cannot be studied with the scientific method of investigation applied to nature and that investigation of the social realm requires a different epistemology. Fundamental to that antipositivist epistemology is the belief that the concepts and language that researchers use in their research shape their perceptions of the social world they are investigating, studying, and defining.

The philosophy of social science is the study of the logic, methods, and foundations of social sciences such as psychology, economics, and political science. Philosophers of social science are concerned with the differences and similarities between the social and the natural sciences, causal relationships between social phenomena, the possible existence of social laws, and the ontological significance of structure and agency.

In social theory and philosophy, antihumanism is a theory that is critical of traditional humanism, traditional ideas about humanity and the human condition, and to philosophical anthropology. Central to antihumanism is the view that concepts of "human nature", "man", or "humanity" should be rejected as historically relative, ideological or metaphysical.

Positivism Philosophy of science based on the view that information derived from scientific observation is the exclusive source of all authoritative knowledge

Positivism is a philosophical theory stating that certain ("positive") knowledge is based on natural phenomena and their properties and relations. Thus, information derived from sensory experience, interpreted through reason and logic, forms the exclusive source of all certain knowledge. Positivism holds that valid knowledge is found only in this a posteriori knowledge.

Antiscience is a position that rejects science and the scientific method. People holding antiscientific views do not accept science as an objective method that can generate universal knowledge. They also contend that scientific reductionism in particular is an inherently limited means to reach understanding of a complex world.

Inductivism is the traditional model of scientific method attributed to Francis Bacon, who in 1620 vowed to subvert allegedly traditional thinking. In the Baconian model, one observes nature, proposes a modest law to generalize an observed pattern, confirms it by many observations, ventures a modestly broader law, and confirms that, too, by many more observations, while discarding disconfirmed laws. The laws grow ever broader but never much exceed careful, extensive observation. Thus, freed from preconceptions, scientists gradually uncover nature's causal and material structure.

Laurent-Michel Vacher was a French-born, French Canadian philosopher, writer, journalist and teacher.

An index list of articles about the philosophy of science.

Criticism of science

Criticism of science addresses problems within science in order to improve science as a whole and its role in society. Criticisms come from philosophy, from social movements like feminism, and from within science itself.

<i>Knowledge and Human Interests</i> 1968 book by Jürgen Habermas

Knowledge and Human Interests is a 1968 book by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, in which the author discusses the development of the modern natural and human sciences. He criticizes Sigmund Freud, arguing that psychoanalysis is a branch of the humanities rather than a science, and provides a critique of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

A non-science is an area of study that is not scientific, especially one that is not a natural science or a social science that is an object of scientific inquiry. In this model, history, art, and religion are all examples of non-sciences.

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  54. Mahner, Martin; Bunge, Mario (1997). Foundations of Biophilosophy. Berlin; New York: Springer-Verlag. p.  135. doi:10.1007/978-3-662-03368-5. ISBN   3540618384. OCLC   36630019. Finally, we should add a version of scientism ... This is the thesis that anything knowable and worth knowing can be known scientifically, and that science provides the best possible factual knowledge, even though it may, and does, in fact, contain errors. This form of scientism should not be mistaken for the neopositivist unification program, according to which every discipline should ultimately be reduced to one basic science, such as physics or psychology.
  55. Bunge, Mario (2006). Chasing Reality: Strife Over Realism. Toronto Studies in Philosophy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p.  264. doi:10.3138/9781442672857. ISBN   0802090753. OCLC   61174890. As for scientism, it is the thesis that the scientific method is the best strategy for attaining the more objective, more accurate, and deepest truths about facts of any kind, natural or social. ... True, Hayek (1955) famously claimed that scientism is something quite different, namely, the attempt on the part of some social scientists to ape their colleagues in the natural sciences, in ignoring the inner life of their referents. But this arbitrary redefinition involves confusing naturalism, or reductionist materialism (as practised, e.g., by the sociobiologists), with scientism.
  56. Bunge, Mario (2017). "Scientism". Doing Science: In the Light of Philosophy. Singapore: World Scientific. p.  137. doi:10.1142/10333. ISBN   9789813202764. OCLC   959200429. Scientism is the thesis that all cognitive problems are best tackled by adopting the scientific approach, also called 'the scientific attitude' and 'the scientific method.' While most contemporary philosophers reject scientism, arguably scientists practice it even if they have never encountered the word.
  57. Bunge, Mario (1986). "In defense of realism and scientism". Annals of Theoretical Psychology. Springer-Verlag. 4: 23–26. doi:10.1007/978-1-4615-6453-9_3. ISBN   978-1-4615-6455-3. As for scientism, I take it to be quite different from Tennessen's 'belief in some sort of scientific world view miraculously emanating from the main bulk of the testimony of the senses or so-called scientific results.' The brand of scientism I defend boils down to the thesis that scientific research (rather than the navel contemplation or the reading of sacred texts) can yield the best (truest and deepest) possible knowledge of real (concrete, material) things, be they fields or particles, brains, or societies, or what have you. ... I take the scientific method, rather than any special results of scientific research, to be the very kernel of scientism. Consequently, I cannot accept Tennessen's implicit approval of Feyerabend's antimethodology or 'epistemological anarchism'—the latest version of radical skepticism.
  58. Bunge, Mario (December 2014). "In defense of scientism" (PDF). Free Inquiry . Council for Secular Humanism. 35 (1): 24–31. Scientism is the thesis that all cognitive problems concerning the world are best tackled adopting the scientific approach, also called 'the spirit of science' and 'the scientific attitude'. While most contemporary philosophers reject scientism, arguably scientists practice it even if they have never encountered the word. However, the correct meaning of 'scientism' has proved to be even more elusive than that of 'science'...
  59. Bunge, Mario (2012). Evaluating Philosophies. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science. 295. New York: Springer-Verlag. p.  24. doi:10.1007/978-94-007-4408-0. ISBN   9789400744073. OCLC   806947226.
  60. 1 2 Boudry, Maarten; Pigliucci, Massimo, eds. (2017). Science Unlimited?: The Challenges of Scientism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p.  76. doi:10.7208/chicago/9780226498287.001.0001. ISBN   9780226498003. OCLC   975442387.
  61. 1 2 Lessl, Thomas M. (Fall 1996). "Naturalizing science: Two episodes in the evolution of a rhetoric of scientism". Western Journal of Communication. 60 (4): 1. doi:10.1080/10570319609374555.
  62. Habermas, Jürgen (1990), The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity , Polity Press, ISBN   0-7456-0830-2, pp. 2–3.
  63. Olson, R. (2008). Science and scientism in nineteenth-century Europe. University of Illinois Press. p. 4. ISBN   978-0-252-07433-2. LCCN   2007005146.
  64. Habermas, J; Shapiro, JJ (1971). Toward a rational society: student protest, science, and politics (paperback). Beacon Press. pp. 50–51. ISBN   978-0-8070-4177-2. LCCN   73121827.
  65. "Scientism", Faith and Reason, PBS

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