Scientism: ‘Yippee’ or ‘Boo-sucks’? — Part I

S30694-masterimage-R4224-the-danger-of-scientism[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of Scientia Salon’s special “scientism week” and could profitably be read alongside other entries on the same topic on this site, such as this one by John Shook and this one by yours truly. My take on the issue is very different from that of the authors who contributed to this special series, and indeed close to that of Putnam and Popper — as it should be clear from a recent presentation I did at a workshop on scientism I organized. Also, contra the author of the third essay in this series (but, interestingly, not the author of the first two!) I think the notion that mathematics is a part of science is fundamentally indefensible. Then again, part of the point of the SciSal project is to offer a forum for a variety of thoughtful perspectives, not just to serve as an echo chamber for my own opinions…]

by Robert Nola

Charges of ‘scientism’ and ‘scientistic’ abound in writings about science, its character and scope. Most agree that these terms have a pejorative connotation, though others are more than willing to accept the pejorative epithet. What often remains elusive is the content of the claims alleged to be scientistic. Below is one attempt to investigate some broad theses to which some adopt an anti-attitude and call them ‘scientistic’ while others adopt a pro-attitude and are happy to be called ‘scientistic.’ In general, scientism concerns whether or not there are limits to a scientific approach to the world. Some claim that there are no bounds, others claim that there are limits to the application of science and its over-extension to some domains is improper or illegitimate, hence the charge of scientism when science claims total dominion.

Some of the contested theses can be broadly characterized as follows. The first is an epistemic thesis which claims that there is just one way of knowing about the world and that is found in science. Those who oppose this thesis claim that there are ways of knowing other than those found in science. Call the condemned thesis ‘epistemic scientism.’ Science simply overextends itself as far as ways of knowing are concerned.

Secondly, there is a methodological thesis, which claims that the methods employed in the natural sciences can be extended to all the other sciences. Those who oppose this thesis claim that there are methods which are distinctive of the human and social sciences. Call the condemned thesis ‘methodological scientism.’ One form the controversy over methodological scientism takes is the debate about the extent to which laws and law-like explanations of the natural sciences can also be found in history and the human and social sciences; those who reject this kind of methodological scientism often advocate explanations which are teleological or purposive in character. This harks back to the old NaturwissenschaftenGeisteswissenschaften debate [1]. A more recent version of this can be found in the opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution, which eschews teleology and purposiveness [2]. Here a different version of methodological scientism will be discussed as it emerges in Hayek and Popper.

Thirdly, there is a metaphysical thesis that everything in the long run is material (especially the mental). This claim can take a number of forms such as: all the sciences can be reduced to physics; or alternatively all the items in science can be shown to supervene upon the physical. Opponents of this view would want to claim that the non-physical sciences are emergent, or have some form of independence from the physical sciences. Call the condemned thesis ‘materialistic scientism’ (or ‘physicalistic scientism’ if the older talk of materialism is no longer apposite). Opponents would also reject the attempt to find a “theory of everything” as part of the hubris of materialistic scientism. They might also wish to have a place in their ontology for souls or the supernatural; the invasion of science into these domains, and the domain of religion in particular, is simply more of the hubris of scientism. In what follows, these three kinds of scientism, and others, are explored further.

Contestations of Scientism

For some the use of the word ‘scientistic’ is deeply condemnatory of certain intellectual tendencies. For others it is an epithet worn as a badge of honor. In a highly condemnatory mood Putnam tells us:

… I regard science as an important part of man’s knowledge of reality; but there is a tradition with which I would not wish to be identified, which would say that scientific knowledge is all of man’s knowledge. I do not believe that ethical statements are expressions of scientific knowledge; but neither do I agree that they are not knowledge at all. The idea that the concepts of truth, falsity, explanation, and even understanding are all concepts which belong exclusively to science seems to me to be a perversion. [3]

It is hard to know what to make of the last sentence as most are able to resist the perversion of thinking that the listed concepts belong exclusively to (some? all?) empirical science. Though much philosophical analysis has gone into each of them, they remain at best part of the meta-theory, or philosophy, of science — and other endeavors as well. However, a substantial epistemic claim is said to be scientistic: ‘scientific knowledge is all of man’s (sic) knowledge.’ In addition we also find an expression of what we might call ‘ethical scientism,’ the illegitimate extension of the domain of science to the realm of ethics.

In contrast Rosenberg happily accepts the pejorative label of scientism which, he says, has two related meanings:

According to one of these meanings, scientism names the improper or mistaken application of scientific methods or findings outside their appropriate domain, especially to questions treated by the humanities. The second meaning is more common: Scientism is the exaggerated confidence in the methods of science as the most (or the only) reliable tools of inquiry ….’ [4]

Rosenberg’s first account of scientism, once its pejorative connotations are dropped, is closely related to the thesis of Descriptive Scientism (DS) discussed below. His second account is akin to Putnam’s epistemic scientism (I’ll get to this a bit later) — except Rosenberg endorses what Putnam condemns.

After spelling out their own stance concerning empiricism and materialism in opposition to much current metaphysics, Ross, Ladyman and Spurrett say: “Let us call the synthesized empiricist and materialist — and resolutely secularist — stance, the scientistic stance. (We choose this word in full awareness that it is usually offered as a term of abuse.)” [5] To further raise the hackles of those who would abuse them, they call the first chapter of the book ‘In Defence of Scientism’! True, those who adopt the scientistic stance have no truck with any kind of supernaturalism. But it remains an open matter if any descriptive account of scientism ought to be empiricist in any sense. Perhaps a better case can be made for the scientistic also adopting materialism, or physicalism.

Ladyman et. al. endorse a special kind of naturalized metaphysics. At a good guess (and setting the niceties of interpretation aside) it has some affinity with the doctrine of metaphysical materialism that Putnam excoriates:

… metaphysical materialism has replaced positivism and pragmatism as the dominant contemporary form of scientism. Since scientism is, in my opinion, one of the most dangerous contemporary intellectual tendencies, a critique of its most influential contemporary form is a duty for a philosopher who views his enterprise as more than a purely technical discipline. [6]

Strong stuff! Here the term ‘scientism’ is not merely pejorative (after all it is materialistic scientism); it is also given some descriptive content by linking it to a version of materialism or physicalism. We may take it that the metaphysical materialism which Putnam condemns and the naturalized metaphysics which Ladyman et. al. praise are, as doctrines, both in the same ball-park as what has been characterized here as “materialistic scientism.”

As a final example, consider Margolis’s “unravelling of scientism” when he takes on board two aspects of scientism already distinguished:

“Scientism” signifies the assured possession of a privileged methodology or mode of perception, or even the assured validity of a metaphysics deemed ineluctable or overwhelmingly favored by the self-appointed champions of “Science” [7]

Here we can detect not only epistemic scientism but also a materialistic scientism which adopts a metaphysics based exclusively in science. But like many doctrines that are said to be scientistic, considerable effort needs to be devoted to discovering just what positions are being attacked.

A helpful approach to these issues can be found in the on-line Oxford English Dictionary. It gives two broad uses of the term ‘scientism,’ one which is descriptive and the other negative and pejorative.

  1. A mode of thought which considers things from a scientific viewpoint.
  2. Chiefly depreciative. (1) (a) The belief that only knowledge obtained from scientific research is valid, and (b) that notions or beliefs deriving from other sources, such as religion, should be discounted; (2) extreme or excessive faith in science or scientists. Also: (3) the view that the methodology used in the natural and physical sciences can be applied to other disciplines, such as philosophy and the social sciences. [numbering added]

Both (A) and (B) need unpacking as they harbor a number of different claims which need to be distinguished. For example, B1(a) is a thesis of epistemic scientism while B1(b) is at best an instance of what scientistic advocates of (a) would rule out. Finally, a picky point about B1(a); being valid is confused with being true. One of the features of the claim ‘a person knows that p’ is that p is true (and not valid even when p is a logical truth).

Scientism as a Descriptive Claim

Sometimes ‘scientism’ is linked to the attributes of a particular kind of person, as Hayek points out:

Murray’s New English Dictionary knows both “scientism” and “scientistic,” the former as the “habit and mode of expression of a man of science,” the latter as “characteristic of, or having the attributes of, a scientist (used depreciatively)”. [8]

However not all uses of the term ‘scientistic’ need be pejorative; having the characteristics or attributes of a scientist can be merely neutrally descriptive in some contexts. What needs to be added is that these characteristics (in their context) are misplaced or inappropriate (as in (B2) in the definition). Here descriptive scientism will be taken to be a thesis independent of the characteristics of persons, as in the Dictionary definition (A) above.

(A) needs clarification. Are scientific considerations to be applied to all or only some things? And what is meant by ‘things’? Talk of things is too narrow. Let us say that each science is about some domain which includes not only things but also (observable or unobservable) happenings, facts, kinds, the properties and relations of things, and the like. We can also say that a scientific viewpoint is adopted towards such a domain. One example of such a domain is astronomy; this started with the Ancient Greeks who considered mainly the motion of the heavenly bodies and geometrical models of the motion, but it is now a vastly expanded domain with quite different models and theories. Other domains include human and animal physiology, the evolution of species, organic chemistry, and the like.

Not anything ought to count as a domain for science; so restrictions need to be imposed. Is mathematics to be counted as a domain? If we understand the sciences to be an empirical investigation into our contingent world of items to be found in the space-time framework then mathematics is not a domain for science so understood. On the whole mathematics is commonly a deductive enterprise (allowance needs to be made for probabilistic inference and deductions using computers); it is not an empirical investigation into contingent mathematical items to be found in space-time (though for some extreme nominalists and empiricists about mathematics this would be open to dispute). Also logic is not to be counted as a domain of science for the same reasons. Of course, both mathematics and logic play an important role in science and without either the sciences would be impoverished. But from this it does not follow that mathematics and logic are domains of science. Other contentious domains will be mentioned shortly.

Let us introduce the idea of the scientification of some domain. This is the process in which, up to some time, a domain had not been considered from a scientific point of view, but was so after that time. What the process of scientification involves can be left open. But as a scientific stance is taken towards a domain some of the features characteristic of a science will emerge, such as: the collection and/or classification of data; the construction of models or theories; the proposal of rival hypotheses and their testing; carrying out experiments; the application of mathematics, etc. Thus to take an historical example, the domain of electrical happenings which includes lightning was not scientized at the beginning of the 18th century; but shortly after that time the domain became progressively scientized (and this is still an on-going project as we learn more about electrical happenings).

Now we can state a quite general version of (A) from the dictionary definition which we can call ‘Descriptive Scientism’ (DS):

(DS) For every domain of facts or happenings D there is some theory or scientific stance which yields a science of D (perhaps after a period of progressive scientization).

Now (DS) is quite general, unlike the less specific version (A). (A person could endorse (A) but not (DS).) (DS) holds for those domains which have been scientized; and it also holds for those domains for which a scientific stance does not now exist and which remains to be developed in the future (i.e., the process of “scientification” has hardly commenced now). The generality of (DS) entails that for any as yet un-scientized domain there is a time at which it will ultimately become scientized (for example, the case of the domain of electricity at the beginning of the 18th century). (DS) expresses an as yet uncompleted project concerning the application of science to all domains.

There is much inductive evidence in support of (DS). Since the beginning of the scientific investigation of domains within the natural, life and social worlds, (DS) has many clear instances in its favor. (DS) should also allow for progressive scientization: a science might undergo a “revolutionary” change as it develops theories about its domain (for example the change from Newtonian physics to relativistic and quantum physics). And with progress it should allow for the subsumption of one domain within another (e.g., the domain of classical thermodynamics has been subsumed within the domain of mechanics).

(DS) understood in this way has strong affinities with Quine’s account of naturalism. For Quine the whole area of epistemology is a domain which is to be scientized, and so falls within the scope of (DS): “Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter of psychology and hence of natural science.” [9] Quine adds other domains such as linguistics. In fact, the whole human subject is taken to be a domain which is to undergo scientization, thereby creating a further instance of (DS): “We are studying how the human subject of our study posits bodies and projects his physics [in fact any science] from his data, and we appreciate that our position in the world is just like his” [10]. Here the study goes reflexive since it will also involve how we do science; that is, how the subject goes from its input of stimulation of its perceptual apparatus to its output which is “a description of the three-dimensional external world and its history” [11].

Those with a pro-attitude to (DS) (like Quine) with its underlying programmatic character can be said to be scientistic (in a descriptive sense). But those with a negative attitude to (DS) are condemnatory in calling it ‘scientism.’ It is not merely that the program of (DS) cannot be completed; there is something undesirably illegitimate in supposing that it could be. This pejorative sense is captured in B2 of the Dictionary definition; there is excessive faith in the total dominion of science.

Setting aside pro- and anti-attitudes to what is intended to be a descriptive thesis, are there any clear counterexamples which would falsify (DS)? The task is to find at least one (suitably restricted) domain D for which not merely is there no scientific theory now, but also there is no such theory even in the longest of long runs, and thus no scientization is possible. Here contentious disputes can begin. One disputed domain not discussed here is the relation of science (which is meant to be descriptive) to the normative as found in the norms of reasoning or the norms of ethics. If one accepts Hume’s claims about the invalidity of is-ought reasoning, then there seems to be an insurmountable hurdle for (DS) to overcome in the domain of ethical norms. But this does not mean that science cannot bear in other ways on normative matters. Another disputed domain is that of religion. Some have alleged that scientific inroads have been made in the following ways: textual and historical investigations into holy books like the Bible and the way it fails to comport with science [12] that help support the view that they are of fallible human origin; advances in evolutionary psychology and the mechanisms it proposes as causes of religious belief; investigations into the alleged efficacy of prayer for those who have undergone serious operations [13]; and so on. This will not be discussed here. However, in the final section of this essay I will briefly mention one contentious domain, viz., how (DS) has a positive bearing on aspects of literature and literary criticism. After I will discuss the idea of alternative ways of knowing, a further important qualification will be made about how (DS) is to be understood.


Robert Nola is a professor of philosophy at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. His interests include philosophy of science, metaphysics, epistemology, selected areas in social and historical studies of science, atheism and the relationship between science and religion. With David Braddon-Mitchell he co-edited the volume Conceptual Analysis and Philosophical Naturalism (2008).

[1]  The Naturwissenschaften-Geisteswissenschaften debate in social science and history and the role of different accounts of explanation and causality as opposed to teleology will not be discussed here. Though he does not use the word ‘scientistic’ see the following:  G. H. von Wright (1971) Explanation and Understanding (Ithaca, Cornell University Press).

[2] See Thomas Nagel (2012) Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

[3] Hilary Putnam (1979) Mathematics, Matter and Method: Philosophical Papers, Volume 1 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, second edition): xiii.

[4] Alexander Rosenberg (2011) The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (New York, W. W. Norton): 6.

[5] James Ladyman, Don Ross, David Spurrett and John Collier (2007) Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized (Oxford, Oxford University Press): 64.

[6] Hilary Putnam (1983) “Why there isn’t a ready-made world,” Chapter 12 of Realism and Reason: Philosophical Papers Volume 3 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press): 211.

[7] Joseph Margolis (2003) The Unravelling of Scientism: American Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century (Ithaca, Cornell University Press): 6.

[8] Frederick A. Hayek (1942) “Scientism and the Study of Society Part I,” Economica, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 35 (Aug., 1942), 267-91: p.269, fn 1. Reprinted in F. A. Hayek (1952) The Counter-Revolution of Science, Free Press, Glencoe Il: 207 fn 6.

[9] W. V. Quine (1969) “Epistemology Naturalized,” in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York, Columbia University Press): 82.

[10] Ibid: 83.

[11] Loc. cit.

[12] There are many books on the conflict between science and religion. There is an amusing take on science and the Bible in Steve Jones (2013) The Serpent’s Promise: The Bible Retold as Science (London, Abacus).

[13] See the interesting (negative) results of a clinic trial into the efficacy of prayer in: Herbert Benson, J. A. Dusek, J. B. Sherwood, P. Lam, C. F. Bethea, W. Carpenter, S. Levitsky, P. C. Hill, D. W. Clem, M. K. Jain (2006) “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (Step) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: A Multicenter Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessory Prayer,” American Heart Journal 151(4): 934-942.


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210 replies

  1. “Can one be a (100%!) physicalist and not be a scientismist? Perhaps.” – Philip Thrift
    Sure you can. You just need to be a physicalist who accepts the limits of science rather than trying to shoehorn a whole bunch of other stuff into the category which belongs elsewhere.

    “to say that mathematical objects are physical because math is the product of physical thinking brains is… a category mistake” – SciSal
    Exactly. It’s like thinking that poems are bits of ink formed into symbols and/or volumes of air manifesting patterns of vibrations.

    “I think the thing about math as science is whether it produces knowledge.” – stevenjohnson
    Only if you wrongly assume all knowledge belongs to science.

    “‘Unless you are a philosopher whose notion of truth does not include correspondence to reality, you would have to exclude pure math.” – stevenjohnson
    When you say it ‘does not include’ correspondence to reality, do you mean ‘does not deem to be necessary?’ Pure math is clearly not in conflict with a theory of truth which includes correspondence in the sense that correspondence is sufficient (ie, is one definition but not the only one). Is it your position that one can’t have knowledge of the truth of an analytic proposition. Suppose I say that I know that all centaurs have six limbs. Am I wrong to say that’s knowledge?

    “Formal logic is a branch of mathematics.” – stevenjohnson
    Huh? Seems to me it used to be thought to be the other way ’round before Godel, but I don’t know of anyone who’s made this clain.


  2. “The boundary between the USA and Canada is artificial, rather than indicating anything about the natural world, and the supposed distinctions between the areas of “science” and “philosophy” are similarly artificial, rather than indicating anything fundamental about epistemology.” – Coel
    I’d say the distinction is more like mountains versus plains, but if for the sake of the argument we accept that you’re right, I still don’t think it’s enough. When scientismists claim things that are philosophy as science, then that’s like saying Toronto is a U.S. city.


  3. Aravis your frustration is understood (and shared) but it was a dark day when there was a SciSal post that started with LOL! This reminded me of other quarters of the internet…


  4. You must forgive me for the ‘Lol’. I’ve been on the internet for too long!

    As for the frustration, it’s not disagreement, per se, that is frustrating. What is frustrating is twofold: (1) the sense that no matter what one says, it does not alter the course of the discussion, but merely invites the same responses and questions, over and over again; (2) the realization that Scientismists don’t want to be educated — worse, that they don’t seem to think there is such thing as being educated, in areas like Linguistics and Philosophy. So, it doesn’t matter that one has gone to graduate school, done years and years of research, published in peer-reviewed, highly selective journals, in a particular area — you have nothing to teach the Scientismist, because as far as he is concerned, everything is science and thus, everything falls under *his* area of expertise, not yours.

    Thus, we get invented or stipulated definitions of concepts that already have a well-established use, rejection of common, regularly-employed distinctions, self-assured, even brazen assertions of things that no credible person working in the field would accept, and the like. It’s this bundle of things that renders these discussions so frustrating.

    When I enter into discussions on topics in which I am not trained and have little or no expertise, I am first and foremost trying to learn something and listen more than I speak. This strikes me as the proper posture for someone in that position should take, and I only wish that the members of the Scientism crowd would do the same. Sadly, it does not really surprise me anymore, when I see them adopting this sort of posture, with respect to arts and humanities — there always was a strain of Philistinism amongst the more hardcore members of the scientific community — but it is surprising, almost shocking to see in an area like Mathematics and to find mathematicians engaged in exactly the same sorts of frustrating conversations, with Scientismists, who will not even grant *them* their areas of expertise.


  5. Coel,

    “So what is the gap, in your eyes? Is it simply complexity”

    I’ll refer to biological organisms and machines. They both vary in complexity. There is something about biological organisms we don’t understand no matter their level of complexity.

    “it seems to me that there is nothing about a C. elegans that could not be in-principle replicated in some other physical substrate”

    If we understood the things we don’t, or could replicate what we can’t, then we would and could ? I don’t see the principle.

    “I’m not at all sure why the physical substrate is relevant for “intentionality” and “aboutness”, which is more about information processing”

    I’m also not sure substrate is relevant to the question, but either way the term is not used in the same way and doesn’t produce the same kind of definitional issues whether we’re speaking of biological organisms or machines.

    “So can you expound on why you see the biological and the non-biological as so distinct ?”

    Apart of what I mentioned so far, I guess it’s relevant, that functionally and evolution wise I don’t see the body as a substrate for the brain, and information processing wise considering the breadth of what we do not know I’m wary to try to quantify and compare the various importance, or the amounts, of processing being done in various parts of the body (of course for machines I don’t have those issues).


  6. The completely different tone in the thread under the BloggingHeads piece really struck me. I wonder if there’s a way to foster a more productive kind of discussion here.


  7. People in the BHTV thread struck me as being more open to being educated by the discussion. When people asked questions, they were actually interested in hearing the answers.

    Seemed like fewer people came to the dialogue with such ironclad commitments that they couldn’t actually *hear* what was being said.


  8. Daniel,
    I am glad you distance yourself from the lol. I share all the frustrations you subsequently elaborated. This shouldnt surprise you if you read what I wrote on the Philosophy of Language posts. All the same we at SciSal are here to engage the moderates and engage in rational argument between two sides who are frequently too annoyed even to engage each other. As such we should resist such divisive rhetoric (and I call upon you to call me out on subsequent occasions, I have already failed on a few occasions to make it through the MP filter).


  9. Hi marc,

    There is something about biological organisms we don’t understand no matter their level of complexity.

    There is obviously plenty about the complexities of organisms that we don’t yet understand, but saying they are fundamentally different from machines “no matter their level of complexity” sounds rather like vitalism to me.


  10. Coel,

    “Marc said: There is something about biological organisms we don’t understand no matter their level of complexity.

    There is obviously plenty about the complexities of organisms that we don’t yet understand, but saying they are fundamentally different from machines “no matter their level of complexity” sounds rather like vitalism to me.”

    Maybe I didn’t word that well. I surely don’t mean something like vitalism.

    It looks to me like the simplest organisms are doing computations that are not in the same league, or of a different kind altogether, when compared to what our most complex machines are doing. I’ve always felt this way, so I may be biased. It doesn’t help when I’m regularly reading empty, manipulative, or blatantly false statements in titles, articles and even sometimes research papers that say things like (in this case biology but it is not restricted to that field by any means) -we have provided a complete picture of a single cell for the first time- or -first-ever blueprint of a minimal cell- when we are nowhere near having that kind of knowledge.

    I’ve always been an avid science practitioner, enthusiast and supporter and I can’t fault enthusiasm but I think it fosters more progress when things are said clearly, e.g. “At all three levels, we found M. pneumoniae was more complex than we expected”, “Even more surprising, the proteins the genes make don’t necessarily always couple with their nearest neighbours – again contrary to previous assumptions. Instead, they often join up with proteins originating from other, distant operons, vastly increasing the bacterium’s flexibility and versatility when faced with a changed environment”, and “the depth and breadth of cellular complexity has turned out to be nearly unbelievable, and difficult to manage”.

    So if you ask me, could we build or replicate the complexity of biological organisms, even as simple (complex!) as C Elegans from the ground up in the future? Maybe, but for now it doesn’t seem it will happen any time soon, and I’m not supposing it eventually will either considering our current level of understanding on multiple levels, whether were speaking of a single bacteria, or more complex organisms, and from basic biology to neuroscience.



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