Spelling out Scientism, A to Z

atomby John Shook

Friends of religion or spirituality are heard to cry “Scientism!” on occasion. Cultural opponents to scientific or technological strides have used “Scientism!” as a clarion call for resistance as well. Quieter voices have been asking, “Is scientism what I think it is?” The label of scientism may be irretrievably lost to rhetoric and polemic, but it does involve science, which deserves far better. Let us try to speak to this thing called scientism.

The guardians of sanctity and the prophets of doom make it pretty clear what it is they are trying to protect. It’s ultimately about some traditional folkway, somebody’s comfortable status, or some group’s rigid conviction. Eloquence abounds when such a righteous cause is to be praised. Scientism, we simply are supposed to see, is precisely that very bad thing which is threatening such a very good thing. And scientism should shut up and go away, and let us keep on doing things the way we like.

The critics of scientism apparently don’t compare notes among themselves, to see if they could agree with each other about what this “scientism” is. Nevertheless, it has acquired a pejorative stench in certain areas of public discourse. One just mentions it, to arouse distaste among one’s audience, to win every argument for one’s side. “Socialism” can work this way in some parts of the land, or “Darwinism.” It apparently doesn’t matter whether you, or anybody, can precisely say what this dreaded “scientism” would be.

Scientism-haters are sometimes heard to contradict each other, too. Is scientific knowledge good, or evil, or both? For example, an fMRI image taken of a person’s brain while meditating will garner praise from one religionist happy about a scientific “confirmation” of mysticism in the brain, while another religionist will take alarm about this scientific “reduction” of religiosity to the brain. Which is it?

I’ve never heard a clear definition or consistent position on “scientism” taken by the religious, or the spiritual, or the protectors of whatever is so good and holy about cultural matters. Then again, the scientific world, or the secular world, hasn’t displayed any unity about scientism either. Should friends of science accept the “scientism” charge and defend what others think of as intrusive science? Or should friends of science deny the charge and defend a humbly limited role for it?

This dilemma over “scientism” has similarly arisen for other science-friendly terms, such as “naturalism.” During my sojourns throughout the pro-science and secular world, I have often heard people announce how they don’t accept naturalism, although they make it clear how they aren’t into supernaturalism. These are often the same people who would sternly deny that their rejection of god is “atheism.” What’s in a name? Words truly matter, even while sweetly spoken, when they are used as labels on people.

Atheism might be included among the insinuations aroused by that harsh verdict of “scientism” delivered by the stern protectors of The Good. However, the religious are hardly the only ones eager to cast the first “scientism” stone at the latest breakout of enthusiasm over a scientific or technological breakthrough. Virulent condemnations of scientism can sweep through secular sectors, too. The loudest critics of scientism all sound pretty sure that plenty of science-worship has been going on, to the detriment of society and civilization.

What is really up there, inscribed on that high altar to science? Let’s take it from A to Z:

A. There is a thing called “science” with its own characteristic features distinctive enough to distinguish it from other human practices.

B. Plenty of knowledge about a subject can be gained by practical trial-and-error, but scientific knowledge of that subject is more reliable and valuable.

C. If there are people believing that something is true, but a science confirms that it can’t be so, then those people don’t really know.

D. There is a specifiable “scientific method” that possesses some definable core or essential steps, used by all genuine sciences.

E. There is no subject matter or kind of reality, or any field of experience and endeavor, that isn’t amenable to inquiry by scientific method.

F. Even if there is no singular “scientific method,” the methodologies used by scientists are universally applicable to anything that can be observed or can have empirical consequences.

G. Any explanation that hasn’t been tested (or can’t be tested) by scientific method(s) is no explanation at all and mustn’t be believed with any confidence.

H. Whatever people may think they know, they don’t really know unless some science or another among the social, life, or physical sciences can come along and approve that knowledge.

I. However the sciences may develop and undergo paradigm shifts, science itself is reflexively competent to fully understand how it works best without assistance from any other humanistic or philosophical field.

J. Whatever the sciences may acknowledge to be happening and have existence cannot be amended or overruled by any other field of experience or intellectual discipline.

K. Nothing can be happening unless empirical consequences and entities/forces/laws trackable by one science or another are somehow involved.

L. A thing isn’t independently real unless it can be theoretically confirmed, presently or in the future, by one science or another.

M. A thing can’t have any reality unless it can be theoretically confirmed by one of the biological or natural sciences.

N. A thing has no reality at all unless its existence is required by a theory of a single natural science enjoying the widest universality (physics). [1]

O. A subject matter that seems to have little or nothing to do with a natural science hasn’t been well-understood until natural scientists have reviewed and commented on it.

P. A thing cannot have value unless its existence has been scientifically confirmed and some science(s) can agree that it has some value, for an individual or an aggregate of individuals.

Q. There is no form of human relationship or type of social organization that cannot be understood and improved by the application of scientific inquiry and reformed by scientific knowledge.

R. There is no worldview that cannot be improved by the infusion of scientific knowledge and the replacement of non-scientific ideas.

S. No worldview has serious legitimacy unless it agrees with the natural sciences that humanity has no special place, purpose, or destiny.

T. No virtue, moral norm, or ethical principle has serious legitimacy unless it has been confirmed by, or derived from, scientific knowledge about humanity and reality.

U. Cultural folkways or social institutions that rely on ideas/values about matters which no science can accept as knowable, ethical, and real should be eliminated or at least marginalized.

V. A highly worthy life is one guided by a scientific outlook on the world.

W. The worthiest culture for humanity is the one technologically controlled by the scientific worldview.

X. The most thoroughly scientific culture should displace and marginalize all other cultures across humanity.

Y. The supremely scientific culture should eliminate all rival cultures and control the destiny of humanity. [2]

Z. The supremely scientific culture should control the course of humanity as well as all posthuman sentient forms of life, including AI life forms, that may arise from humanity.

I suppose one meta-scientistic view should be added: There is something clearly definable as “scientism.” Admirers of both scientism and meta-scientism may survey this list and fail to find just what scientism should mean. I’ve no quarrel with them, because the point of this list isn’t to identify what scientism truly means, or to list everything that has ever been defended in the name of scientism. I would be greatly pleased, however, if defenders of science, and especially those who are willing to answer to charges of scientism, would at least be specific about what they are defending and what they aren’t.

Critics launching charges of “scientism,” despite their vagueness, often hint at some of these views, and even manage to hit upon one, sometimes inadvertently. The most careful of critics are worth the attention when they do precisely explain the kind of scientism that troubles them, and why it darkens their dreams. As for the rest of the critics, they would help everyone by explaining exactly where they are dipping their spoon into this alphabet soup of scientism.

It would be even more helpful, and hence probably too much to ask, if scientism’s critics would explain how they think they are going to refute scientism. The obvious way is to directly challenge science, and prove that science can’t know what it thinks it does. Few critics of scientism trouble themselves with that task nowadays. They often don’t comprehend the objectionable science in the first place, and they are too proud or busy to learn. And their admiration for some non-scientific doctrine or another may be too embarrassing to defend in public.

Instead, the preferred strategy, involving the least amount of preparation, goes something like this. First, throw down a challenge against some monstrous form of scientism. Second, only attack a weak version of scientism, as if hard knocks against mild scientism are sure to bring down the towering version.

Here’s a good example. It is depressingly common nowadays for a pundit to shrilly warn against Scientism S or Scientism T, and “refute” that dreaded scientism by declaring that, as any educated person should know, Scientism A or Scientism D can’t be true. Bruising a meeker scientism in order to chase away the stronger one appears to run counter to common sense. Still, this strategy is applied so frequently that the anti-scientism crowd’s fondness for it must have a basis somewhere. Perhaps lingering mirages from postmodernist droughts of anti-science still haze their minds. If only there was no such thing as “science”! If only no one had to take any scientist’s knowledge seriously! But the fact is: if you want your anti-scientism to be taken seriously, please take science more seriously first.

There is a little method to the anti-scientism crowd’s antics. Although each view on this alphabetic scientism list has some relationship with neighboring views, they aren’t simply re-statements of each other. Logically, it is the case that one of these views can be correct but the others needn’t be. You could accept any single view, or any subset of these views, and withhold assent from the rest without contradicting yourself. From a practical standpoint, however, accepting the scientism of one letter while denying most or all of the earlier letters is very hard to justify.

That is why scientism is usually taken to be based on prior acceptance of one or another sort of naturalism. Most of these letters, especially A through V, do coincide with various positions taken by paradigmatic naturalists over the past two centuries. If some consistent subset were selected out, there is a fair chance that a self-proclaimed naturalist has staunchly defended just that subset as the genuine kind of naturalism. A naturalist typically accepts one letter, along with most of the previous ones in the series. For example, many naturalists accept G, and hence they can endorse E or F, along with A, B, and C, and possibly D. A naturalist who endorses K or L probably endorses most of the preceding letters. Some famous naturalists agreed with only a small subset of these views, and stridently disagreed with each other over which subset is acceptable.

Interestingly, Scientism N may represent the farthest that naturalists may go. N is a serious sort of scientism, to be sure, but at this point naturalism and scientism could part ways. Although Scientism R and Scientism S may be tempting for strict naturalists, Scientism T might go too far. Strict naturalists may not want to get involved with evaluating normative matters, or even admitting normative matters into the strictly naturalistic worldview. The strong Scientisms U through Z wouldn’t be stridently defended by a thinker feeling more comfortable with broad relativism, narrow subjectivism, emotivism, egoism, or outright nihilism.

It just isn’t the case that the staunchest promoters of strong Scientism would have to all be among the strictest of naturalists. However, ‘looser’ naturalists, able to easily situate knowledge about values, morals, and ethics amongst the sciences, would be in a position to apply that “web of belief” to the common plight of humanity. Scientism can be for the strong of heart, as well as the strong of mind.

What have we been able to spell out about scientism? If alphabet soup isn’t to your taste, maybe this whole exercise seems like a waste of time. Perhaps you wish that those degenerating culture wars weren’t prolonged by pointless disputes over something like “scientism.” Scientism is just one of those throwaway political words, you might be thinking, wielded for polemical puncturing while lacking any substantive force.

Maybe so. Still, there are real ideas and serious positions on this alphabetic list. No matter what labels they get, they do spell trouble for those valiantly defending the ways of yesterday. How will those seeking a better tomorrow signal where they want to go?


John Shook received his PhD in philosophy at Buffalo. He was a professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University from 2000 to 2006. He then left OSU to become Research Associate in Philosophy, and Instructor of Science Education, at the University at Buffalo. He teaches courses for the entirely online Science and the Public EdM program at Buffalo. He has also worked with several secular organizations, including the Center for Inquiry, the American Humanist Association, the Institute for Humanist Studies, the Humanist Institute, and the Society of Humanist Philosophers. He wrote The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (and Everyone in Between).

[1] A defender of M but not N would hold that some kinds of biological matters will never be reducible without remainder to chemistry/physics. It may be the absence of a bridging law, or it may be about teleological explanation. Lots of matters involving consciousness or attentive reasoning, for example, may at last get their natural place with brain functionality, but they could remain invisible and unreal to physics. John Dewey affirms M but rejects N. As do I.  The fault line between M and N is the one of the greatest, sharply dividing naturalists over the past 200 years, and I don’t foresee how it will vanish. N makes far vaster philosophical claims than just M.

[2] W affirms worthiness to some scientific culture but it does not authorize displacement of rivals.  E.g., we admire our American culture, but we shouldn’t impose it on other continents.

X endorses the complete domination of the most scientific culture over all other cultures around now. E.g., the most radical scientific culture we can imagine now should promptly be used to assimilate or degenerate all other lesser cultures around the whole world. Other cultures would be reduced to Amish-like status on reservations.

Y approves of radical monoculture — utter and final assimilation of all humanity into the most radical scientific culture possible.

There are huge ethical differences between W, X, Y, and Z — and these options sharply divide pro-scientism radicals already. Transhumanists are bitterly divided among them right now, and between that foursome and weaker options.


44 thoughts on “Spelling out Scientism, A to Z

  1. Hmmm, well I’m a pretty ardent fan of scientism, but there is much there that I wouldn’t agree with and would not agree to be “scientism”. Has the author ever actually discussed scientism with scientistically-minded scientists (the ones who are most guilty of holding to scientism), or is that just a philosophers-talking-to-philosophers article?

    If you want a succinct statement of scientism I’d put it: As far as we can tell, all human knowledge derives from empirical contact with empirical reality; since empirical reality seems to be (as far as we can tell) a unified whole, our knowledge of reality is also unified and seamless; there are no “other ways of knowing”, no uncrossable demarcation lines, no non-overlapping “magesteria”. Nature (of which we are part) appears to be a unified whole, and what we call “science” is the set of methods that we have found, empirically, to be the best for gaining knowledge about the universe.

    Given that, I would disagree with the above propositions A, B, D, G, H, I, J, L, M, N, O, P, Q, T, U, V, W, X, Y and Z.


  2. I think that you are kind of missing the point that many people who criticise scientism are strong supporters of science and even in science having a wider role in the decisions of society in general.

    The “protecting their turf” idea is mostly a red herring.


  3. In fact I don’t think, among all of those points, you really get at what people mean by scientism. The closest is this:

    E. There is no subject matter or kind of reality, or any field of experience and endeavor, that isn’t amenable to inquiry by scientific method.

    But if you will just change it to :

    E. There is no subject matter or kind of reality, or any field of experience and endeavor, that isn’t decidable by scientific method.

    Then we could probably do away with the rest of them.


  4. But I would also give an honorable mention to those who seem to imply that anything a scientist says must be science.

    Or those who try to pass off vaguely sciency waffle as science.

    Or those who preface some muddled metaphysical musings with the words “Science tells us that …” and firmly believe they have thereby provided scientific support to their ideas.


  5. And, yes, I am sorry I am running off at the mouth somewhat, but I promise this is the last.

    I just have to mention those who say that everything is decidable by science and then promptly redefine science as any method by which something might be decidable and thus make the proposition true by definition.

    And, believe me, I have no turf to protect in criticising scientism. I think that the discipline which stands to lose the most from scientism is science itself.

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  6. The notion of scientism in internally inconsistent. An “-ism” is an ideology. By definition, no ideological statement can be disproven. They are all cultural belief and faith based. No ideological statement has an empirical referent. Evidence is entireley irrelevant to ideological statements. Mainly, they are felt to be valid based on the numbers of people who say them.

    What is called science, or really evidence-based statements from specific data, must, by definition, be disprovable. That is the nature of evidence-based statements. they are always contingent of the most predictable evidence/data.


  7. We use science to reverse-engineer the programs of nature, but what does science tell us about what should be the new programs to make and what should be done with them in our culture: what new technologies to make, what new forms of life to make, what governments and laws to make, … ?

    Maybe ‘engineerism’ is the pragmatic alternative to ‘scientism’.


  8. The author’s point is only that scientism means different things to different people and that it is helpful to specify more clearly what is meant by the term. Your rejection of all those propositions is only demonstrating his point. Other scientismists would choose a different set of propositions.


  9. I’m pretty sure that metascientistic propositions should include the notions that there is an objective reality; that knowledge is a proposition demonstrated to correspond to that reality; that intuition, psychological instrospection, logical analysis, metaphysical speculation or divine revelation have never attained knowledge; that direct observation is limited and can be erroneous; that rigorous, systematic testing of experience (a set of practices called scientific method) has been the only way to attain knowledge. I strongly approve these, but it seems to me that law, philosophy and religion do not.

    I strongly suspect the notions that people should only accept propositions about reality for which there is evidence; that knowledge is power, and therefore intrinsically desirable as a means to ends; that it is prudent to forego impossibilities and obey necessity and vital to correctly distinguish, and that the variability of human ends is something to discover, not to ordain, are probably essential to scientism. And that any suggestion that science and technology as such are somehow setting any goal other than the satisfaction of curiosity is wrong. Such insinuations may even be willfully obscurantist.

    Given that the historical origins of science are lost in the ordinary activities of human beings, I can’t even wholly agree with proposition A. The phrase scientific boxing is not an oxymoron in my view, but how easy is it to distinguish the sweet science from fighting?

    As for proposition N, the phrasing seems very odd to me. I would have written that nothing is real unless it has a physical cause. Whether or not we can create a physical model that can predict the phenomenon seems like an unconscious reimagining of God’s Providence. Accepting or rejecting N then becomes the dividing line between a secularized Calvinism and Arminianism.

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  10. Hi DM,
    Well ok, but having 26 different “aspects” to scientism and thus 2^26 (= 67 million) different definitions of “scientism” isn’t all that helpful. We should narrow down to versions of scientism that are not strawmen but would be seriously defended by significant numbers. From reading various science-oriented blogs it seems to me there is a wide enough advocacy of “scientism” based on the propositions that knowledge is empirical and a rejection of NOMA.

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  11. Hi Robin,

    I just have to mention those who say that everything is decidable by science and then promptly redefine science as any method by which something might be decidable and thus make the proposition true by definition.

    That would be me! I plead guilty to exactly that. First, science is entirely pragmatic: in the search for knowledge it adopts whatever methods work. We reject throwing rune stones as a method of gaining knowledge not on ideological grounds but simply because it doesn’t work. So science is indeed any method that leads to reliable knowledge. From that it does indeed follow that everything that is decidable is decidable by science (so long as we’re talking about propositions about what is true about the world; science is about knowledge and thus scientism is about how we gain knowledge).

    The above does indeed make the proposition “true by definition” but the idea is not trite — the claim is that the principles of evidence and reason apply the same throughout the sphere of knowledge, and thus is a rejection of NOMA.

    E. There is no subject matter or kind of reality, or any field of experience and endeavor, that isn’t decidable by scientific method.

    The claim should be that whatever knowledge is attainable by humans is attainable by science. No-one claims that science is omnipotent, and there are plenty of questions that neither science nor humans can ever answer.


  12. The notion of scientism in internally inconsistent. An “-ism” is an ideology. […] No ideological statement has an empirical referent.

    This sort of wordplay does not amount to an argument. Scientism is indeed a worldview deriving from empirical evidence of how the world is. Thus it is refutable. Simply show that basic ideas of evidence and reason are different for different aspects of the world, and you will have disproved scientism.


  13. Hi Coel,

    “Well ok, but having 26 different “aspects” to scientism and thus 2^26 (= 67 million) different definitions of “scientism” isn’t all that helpful.”

    But the author’s point is not to define scientism. It is to illustrate that there are a huge variety of positions that are often unhelpfully lumped together under the same label. For any meaningful discussion about scientism to be had, we must first clarify what propositions we take scientism to entail.

    This doesn’t mean that we need to agree on one universal definition, it just means that we need to provide a context for any statements we make about scientism.


  14. Excellent alphabets. But, for what?

    Are you trying to convert a few religious fundamentalists? You will definitely fail. In fact, there is no need for that as most people (including many of them, themselves) know that their view on science carry no weight on science.

    Are you trying to save ‘some’ (quite a lot) falling scientists? You will probably fail too, as most of them are very powerful. Almost twenty years ago, someone discovered that there are some connections among ‘five’ different string theories and thus ‘speculated’ an ‘M-theory’. After 20 long years, no such an M-theory was constructed, but it was hyped as the TOE (theory of everything). Today, thousands of top physicists are string-theorists. Are they doing science? A new particle (a boson to be exact) was discovered at LHC almost two years ago, and it was ‘named’ as Higgs boson. But, two years went by, no ‘positive’ (99.99%) evidences showed it is indeed a Standard Model Higgs boson, and everyone is waiting for the 2015 ‘the run two’ to confirm it (if ever). Is this meeting your alphabets?

    A few days ago, someone just conferred me a new title, the ‘crank’. With this great new title, a new principle can be constructed.
    One, the crank statement: the ‘final’ physics theory is here and known. All open questions (dark matter, dark energy, etc.) are resolved.
    Two, the crank failure: there is no way of any kind that this crank can ‘implement’ this final theory into a ‘physical’ manifestation (from inflation, big bang, …, to the universe of today).
    Three, the crank impotency principle (CIP): something in this ‘physical’ universe is unreachable by any kind of crank.

    With this CIP, many atheists’ arguments become crank too.


  15. What statement in any research study cannot be falsified? Meaningful statements claiming facts, truth, evidence can predict measurable things in the future. What other kind of meaningful statements are there?


  16. OK, we are really just talking about verbal behavior, mainly in English, or statements. There really is no common pattern of behaviors or statements than can be called “science” – that is a journalistic and philosophical claim and “higher order concept.”. What is called science in everyday language is really just specific experimental studies with specific data and measurable results that predict the future. What is called science are specific statements that predict the future in some measurable way. Measurement implies it is an inter-subjective statement.

    There really is no event or behavior in this article outside of statements.


  17. It’s still unclear to me who you have in mind when referring to the anti-scientism crowd, or the scientism crowd for that matter. I think your opening observation that scientism may be irretrievably lost to polemics is about as accurate a statement as one could hope for.

    My encounters with the term have been largely on the pejorative side. It’s used by those who feel besieged with the ever-increasing scope of science and find its influence threatening, which encompasses an extremely large group of people spanning a wide demographic. Your run-of-the-mill creationist will understand and use the term far differently than the Oxford educated humanities professor than the anti-globalization activist than the New-Age (woo woo) Guru than the bioethics adviser for a former President.

    I would hazard a guess that most human beings are not all that enamored with the disenchanted modern world in which they participate day in and day out. And unfortunately they associate that disenchantment with science. It’s something of a misattribution but it’s there nonetheless.

    The more interesting question for me is, why this pervasive death-grip on enchantment?


  18. John Shook, thank you for this thoughtful, entertaining piece and your novel presentation of it. I confided to a friend on google+ that certain aspects of emphasis and tone initially confused me, and the thought did occur to me that with some careful editing I might have been reading a piece in “The Onion.” The thought also occurred that one might attempt to model a flow chart on the propositions that might provide a designation of one’s essential position on the matter.

    But in no way do I mean to suggest any sarcasm or condescension. In fact, the whole piece underscores my own ignorance of the subject. As I began to read through your itemized propositions, curious as to my assent or dissent, I would feel dissatisfaction with some of the wording and make modifications, only to accept as I went along that some subtleties in position and nuance were being expressed that were beyond my grasp. In this regard, I found your footnotes helpful.

    Lest you think I was totally impressed, however, let me at least express some dissatisfaction with this: “Perhaps lingering mirages from postmodernist droughts of anti-science still haze their minds.” Clever, but perhaps gratuitously insulting. It also crossed my mind that scientists would perhaps better spend their time writing proposals for funding their research projects than engaging in this debate. And, then, there’s this question–more of an aside–prompted by your statement “if you want your anti-scientism to be taken seriously, please take science more seriously first.” I couldn’t help thinking how one might respond if in a different context this were phrased “if you want your anti-religionism to be taken seriously, please take religion more seriously first.” In other words, I doubt this debate can be reduced to a lack of seriousness by non-scientists while at the same time recognize that you are perhaps being diplomatic or euphemistic when you say this.

    Given the exponential growth of scientific knowledge over the past couple of centuries, it may be unrealistically simplistic to reduce this matter to one of unseriousness. But there is movement in the direction of greater specialization in philosophy. For example, I recently read online an interview in 3AM magazine with a philosopher of biology. As for the uncredentialed, interested reader such as myself, there is a different problem since much of our information is largely simplistic and derived from frequently misleading two minute segments on popular news shows or in popular digital media such as the Puffington Post. But blogs like Scientia Salon and your generous contribution do much to correct misperceptions and to enrich discussion for those in the general public who have time and interest.

    At any rate, here is how I scored myself on your propositions: 1 outright Yes, 3 qualified Yes, 17 No, 2 qualified No, 3 ambivalence and confusion. As a result, I’m going to assume that I should refrain from further opinion on this debate.


  19. I’m very glad someone wrote this article. The manoeuvre John Shook described in the article is one I’m all too familiar with with critics of scientism. One move I often see is to attack scientism for its negative consequences (close to W or Y) as an attack on people who defend a science-based understanding of reality. Yet if you try to defend a science-based view solely on epistemic grounds, these same critics find little to complain about. Except that the criticisms against scientism don’t abate.

    I’d really like to see scientism as a label die, not because there isn’t something definable as scientism, but that it’s hard to untangle legitimate and illegitimate versions of scientism from the pejorative use. My favourite example of this is Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape, where he tries to dissolve the IS/OUGHT distinction by appealing to neuroscience that shows our brains don’t make the distinction. It could be called an act of scientism, just as interpreting ethics as illusory as J.L. Mackie did by appealing to the facts of the world, yet Mackie’s view is taken seriously while Harris is (rightly) derided. In either case, calling it scientism isn’t adding much to the discussion.

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  20. I don’t necessarily see the word “scientism” being used as a bad thing. It’s surprising to me how little people care about the word like pseudoscience being used (even though it does not have a precise definition) but when it comes to talking about possible epistemological limits of science (on the scientism end), than suddenly it’s not okay to use any type of labels.

    Now, granted I agree with Dr. Shook that it’s better to be precise and actually explain what is wrong with a particular area of science but not everyone has time for that. As a working scientists myself, I don’t always painstakingly explain why “neurolinguistic programming” is pseudoscience every time it comes up and I use the label pseudoscience to get my point across even if it doesn’t have a very precise definition. If someone really is curious about the details, I’d be happy to go into the details. Similarly, I see Sam Harris’s moral landscape as something I would label “scientism” precisely for over applying science to normative moral claims (as opposed to Massimo’s concept of sci-phi, using philosophy and science together and appropriately to tackle the big questions in life)

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  21. Coel wrote: ”That would be me! I plead guilty to exactly that. First, science is entirely pragmatic: in the search for knowledge it adopts whatever methods work.”

    The problem is, that if we take your definition of scientism:

    ” whatever knowledge is attainable by humans is attainable by science”

    and substitute your definition for science, it says:

    ”whatever knowledge is attainable by humans is attainable by any method by which knowledge is attainable”

    In other words, nothing at all.

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  22. Hi Robin,
    You’re right. *That* bit says nothing at all. But, as my next paragraph stated: “the idea is not trite — the claim is that the principles of evidence and reason apply the same throughout the sphere of knowledge, and thus is a rejection of NOMA”. That’s the content. Thus, scientific methods can be applied legitimately and fruitfully in all fields in which humans try to gain knowledge.

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  23. Coel, just a point of clarification, you are restricting your application of the scientific method here to specific fields of inquiry in which there is an agreed upon empirical objective, not necessarily to those in which the objective may be less clear but may nevertheless yield knowledge or meaningful experience such as an aesthetic endeavors or the simple act of engaging in play. Is this correct?


  24. I would apply the scientific method to all areas of knowledge, not just those with an “agreed upon empirical objective”. However, science is only a tool for seeking knowledge. There are plenty of aspects of human life that are not primarily about seeking knowledge. “The simple act of engaging in play” is one, appreciating music is another.


  25. Thanks, Coel. So perhaps what you are saying is that science is only “one” tool for seeking knowledge, albeit the “best” or “most fruitful” or “most legitimate” depending on the type of endeavor one is engaged in?


  26. No, rather I’d say that science is the only toolkit for seeking knowledge. (Or rather, “science” is the term we give for that set of tools that have been found to work when seeking knowledge.) I’m also asserting that all such tools rest on empiricism, and that the basic rules of evidence work the same in all subject areas, and thus that the scientific toolkit is coherent and consistent and works well in all areas Thus there are no “other ways of knowing” and no NOMAs.


  27. Pseudoscience is precise enough. One of the points in The Philosophy Of Pseudoscience is while there isn’t one single method of determining pseudoscience, what’s pseudoscience and what isn’t is generally agreed upon.

    The difference between pseudoscience and scientism, at least from my perspective, is that scientism is sometimes levelled against a perfectly valid aceptance of scientific understanding, so it’s pejorative use can be misleading. Pseudoscience, on the other hand, is only used to skirt over valid understandings of science when the label is misused. Misusing pseudosicence would be akin to calling homoeopathy science, a different case from where scientism is levelled against those who accept that we evolved, or that we are physical beings.


  28. Coel wrote: “But, as my next paragraph stated: “the idea is not trite — the claim is that the principles of evidence and reason apply the same throughout the sphere of knowledge, and thus is a rejection of NOMA”. That’s the content.</i?"

    Sorry I didn't read properly, but that simply contradicts the first part of your post.

    Your statement was " I plead guilty to exactly that.”, but the proposition you were pleading guilty to said nothing whatsoever about consistency of principles. In fact you were advancing another proposition that the principles of evidence and reason apply the same to all spheres of knowledge.

    That appears to be false since we clearly apply the principles of deductive proof in mathematics and inductive methods only sparingly and where no deductive method is available. Physics, on the other hand, uses almost entirely inductive methods and deductive methods only at the stage of preparation of a hypothesis.

    It would make no sense to insist that the principles by which we do mathematics must be applied the same way to physics or vice versa. We use whichever principles are appropriate to each field of knowledge.

    As for NOMA, of course – we all reject it, it was always a stupid idea. Personally I would prefer to remember Gould for the smart things he said and not keep dragging out one of his blunders.


  29. I would not characterise Sam Harris’ attempt to make a point about facts and values via a couple of brain imaging exercises as scientism. I would call it pseudo science.


  30. If I might step in, I think Coel is saying that scientific (or science-like) approaches are really all we have for reliably finding knowledge. However, science isn’t everything because there are many non-scientific human endeavours which are not about finding knowledge at all.


  31. Thanks, guys, but I don’t think we’re going to make much headway here. Coel, used the term empirical or empirically at least 4 times in his original comment on the post. Robin seemed to be having certain difficulties with some of Coel’s statements, so I asked if he was restricting his “application of the scientific method here to specific fields of inquiry in which there is an agreed upon *empirical* objective.” He then began to talk about toolkits and tools and ended with the conclusion that there are no “other ways of knowing.” DM, you attempted to qualify this by reorienting the focus on the method and its reliability. But this really doesn’t satisfy my curiosity about Robin’s earlier restatement (”whatever knowledge is attainable by humans is attainable by any method by which knowledge is attainable” / In other words, nothing at all.) So there may be some equivocation in play here that revolves around the notions of explanation and knowledge, i.e., what constitutes a robust scientific explanation and what constitutes knowledge. Coel seems to be saying that knowledge is only knowledge when obtained by the scientific method. You seem to take a more conservative stance by qualifying the knowledge so obtained as more reliable. Unless I’ve misrepresented them, I think I now understand your respective viewpoints, although I’m still uncertain as to Robin’s. I’m not sure whether she agrees or disagrees with Coel.

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  32. Or basically that all of the reliable ways we have for finding knowledge are all we have for reliably finding knowledge.

    Unless someone wants to be explicit and outline what this approach entails. It is no good just saying things like “empiricism”, because casting the I Ching or reading entrails are empirical approaches.


  33. Kelskye, I think pseudoscience is a fuzzy concept as well, or at least the boundary between science and (some) pseudoscience is fuzzy. Scientism faces the similar level of fuzziness IMO, there are clear examples (Harris) and there are not so clear examples (consciousness topics). It’s perfectly fair that the accused asks for details after an accusation is made. However, that is something that we can perhaps have reasonable disagreements on.

    Your second point is more interesting. I will quote Massimo here (See my next post) in that I think he highlights a very much parallel situation between misuse of pseudoscience and scientism (and for that matter science).


  34. >>>So, once again, let’s revisit the issue of scientism, this time using a different take, which I hope will help us make some progress. I have begun to think of scientism as in a sense the opposite extreme of pseudoscience: while pseudoscientific notions arise from science badly done (or non-science masquerading as science), scientism is about science overreaching (or science trying to expand into non scientific domains).

    Interestingly, the word pseudoscience can also be used to deflect genuine criticism: oh, you are just throwing pseudoscience at me in order to dismiss what I do without argument, says the ufologist (or astrologist, or homeopath, or…). And of course it is perfectly true that both scientism and pseudoscience can indeed be used inappropriately, just like the term science itself can and has been invoked to prop up all sorts of bad doctrines (scientific psychoanalysis, scientific Marxism, phrenology, eugenics, and so forth).

    So the problem isn’t with the fact that some people misuse a given term, the problem is whether that term actually refers to something worth talking about. Science surely does; and so does pseudoscience. Things are no different for scientism, but we need to talk about concrete examples rather than conceptual generics.<<<


  35. He goes on to provide examples, which are available at the link above. But I agree that obviously we should prevent misuse of scientism towards valid scientific enterprise but just because some people misuse it doesn’t mean we ought not use it at all. People misuse the term “science” to mean all valid knowledge but that is expanding science’s definition out for what appears to be no good reason. Philosophy actually would be a better, more all encompassing term but of course I’m partial toward’s Massimo’s “Scientia”. Doesn’t mean we should stop using science because some people misuse it.


  36. I’m not sure of the value of this exercise. It would be helpful to at least provide some examples of specific criticisms of scientism, rather than simply pointing to an amorphous blob. Some criticisms are bad and unfounded, others less so, but the overwhelming impression of this post is that the criticisms are, if not merely intellectually shallow, possibly incoherent.

    Put it this way: Suppose that someone were interested in criticizing the various pictures of science as defended, by, say a Sam Harris or a Jerry Coyne. Which of the above statements do they subscribe to? Have their descriptions of science been rigorous enough to distinguish between any (all?) of the positions sketched? As the author surely knows, the best criticisms of the new defenders of scientism is that they fail to have a sufficiently nuanced view of science to effectively distinguish it from any possible manner of rational thinking, and that this distinction is non-trivial.

    If we are to make headway in this dispute, wouldn’t it be better to pick some non-trivial representative of scientism (say Pinker or Rosenberg), and offer an assessment of that, or on the other side, a substantive criticism of those more rigorous views, and go from there? As matters stand, this is little better than speculating with a broad brush against a vaguely articulated foe.

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  37. Hi Thomas,

    Coel seems to be saying that knowledge is only knowledge when obtained by the scientific method.

    No, I’m saying that the “scientific method” is the set of tools that are found to be successful in producing knowledge. That does indeed make your re-statement true, but that is not the starting point.

    I am also asserting that the same toolkit works in all areas. You do not have incompatible and inconsistent toolkits working in different domains. Further, I am asserting that the only tools that are found to work are ones using empirical evidence.


  38. Hi Robin,

    the proposition you were pleading guilty to said nothing whatsoever about consistency of principles.

    True, but I was both pleading guilty to the charge and then explaining why it is not a trite stance. I do indeed regard the “scientific method” as the tools that have been found to work. Scientists are hugely pragmatic, and they would not refuse to use a perfectly valid and useful method of gaining knowledge just because it was somehow “not science”.

    Let me give you a real example. Astronomers studying a supernova remnant might need to know when it exploded. So they’d pore through ancient Chinese court documents trying to figure out if the Chinese saw it and when. If they get a date they then plug it into calculating physical values for the supernovae. They don’t say “Oh no, we can’t use that information, that is history, not science”, they instead see everything as a seamless whole and everything as in bounds. They might indeed consult the expertise of historians to help them, but they still regard themselves as “doing science”.

    That appears to be false since we clearly apply the principles of deductive proof in mathematics and inductive methods only sparingly and where no deductive method is available. Physics, on the other hand, uses almost entirely inductive methods and deductive methods only at the stage of preparation of a hypothesis.

    I would dispute the details there (e.g. physics uses deductive methods throughout), but that’s not that important. You accept that both physics and maths use both methods, just to different degrees. Fine, ok. “Different degrees” does not make an uncrossable demarcation line into an incompatible domain. There is a seamless transition, and much theoretical physics would be very akin to maths.

    Further, there would be that sort of difference in degree and difference in style throughout the sciences. You could equally point to differences in style between physics and biology and anthropology. The point is that it’s the same toolkit being used, the same basic rules of evidence.


  39. Hey Robin,

    How so? The problem isn’t with Harris’ methods or results pertaining to the brain imaging studies themselves (so far as I know) but with a misapplication and over-extension of the results into a non-scientific domain.

    That sounds like textbook scientism to me.

    Incidentally I’ve always found the most appropriate definition of scientism to be exactly that — the application of the methods of science to domains where they don’t belong. That’s why you get different flavours of resistance from literary figures, ethicists, and religious folks, each representing a different non-scientific way of producing something like “knowledge”.

    I think this could probably be made more precise, but I don’t see the variety of objections being a difficulty in itself. Representatives of each domain need to explain why scientific methods won’t produce appropriate results, and each defense might be made for different reasons.


  40. Agreed. Misuse of E is the core of what I call scientism.

    It’s me, Gadfly, since this is a WordPress blog and I can’t use my Blogger ID.

    I am glad that John came up with a check list. That said, I’m going to address his big picture rather than individual list items.

    I think that I personally, like Massimo, have specific items of critique when we say that “Person X” or, let’s sam, Sam Harris to be specific, is guilty of scientism. (I made the observation of Harris’ “Moral Landscape” in my Amazon review before seeing Massimo’s. In fact, I wrote longer than him as well as perhaps more specifically.)

    The flip side on this issue is that specificity cuts both ways. When specific charges of scientism are laid against someone, a specific reply is normally expected.

    What’s really at stake is that some scientists don’t like philosophers nosing around “their” territory. Philosophers of science have long, long known about this issue, as both John and Massimo know.

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  41. Hi joshua,

    I’ve always found the most appropriate definition of scientism to be exactly that — the application of the methods of science to domains where they don’t belong.

    That makes scientism wrong by definition, and just makes it a pejorative term for various sorts of going wrong. OK, I can see that some people use the term that way, but to me a more interesting discussion of “scientism” is one that sees it as a sensible and defendable doctrine that some scientists would indeed wish to defend.

    I also disagree with some of Sam Harris’s ideas, but I don’t see them as scientism, I see them as wrong, and as ideas that one can argue against from a scientism standpoint.


  42. Hey Coel,
    I’m not sure I understand. In what way is it wrong by definition? I’m describing it as a (meaningful) pejorative because that’s the way I see it used. I don’t really see the point of trying to turn it into a defensible doctrine. It doesn’t have to be defensible so much as we need to be able to show how people who use it precipitately are incorrect.


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