Scientism is a belief in the 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—to the exclusion of other viewpoints. Accordingly, philosopher Tom Sorell provides this definition of scientism: "Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture." 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". The term "scientism" frequently implies a critique of the more extreme expressions of logical positivism and has been used by social scientists such as Friedrich Hayek, philosophers of science such as Karl Popper, and philosophers such as Hilary Putnam and Tzvetan Todorov to describe (for example) the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable. Philosophers such as Alexander Rosenberg have also appropriated "scientism" as a name for the view that science is the only reliable source of knowledge.
Scientism may refer to science applied "in excess". The term scientism can apply in either of two senses:
- To indicate the improper usage of science or scientific claims. This usage applies equally in contexts where science might not apply, 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 claims made by 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.
- To refer to "the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry", or that "science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective" with a concomitant "elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience".
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.
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 of the modern West. British writer and feminist thinker Sara Maitland has called scientism a "myth as pernicious as any sort of fundamentalism."
Reviewing the references to scientism in the works of contemporary scholars, Gregory R. Peterson detects two main broad themes:
- 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;
- It is used, often pejoratively, 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).
Mikael Stenmark proposes the expression scientific expansionism as a synonym of scientism. In the Encyclopedia of science and religion, he writes 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).
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. This idea has also been called the Myth of Progress.
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."
Intellectual historian T.J. Jackson Lears argues 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. Philosophers John N. Gray and Thomas Nagel have leveled similar criticisms against popular works by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, neuroscientist Sam Harris, and writer Malcolm Gladwell.
Relevance to science/religion debates
Several scholars use the term to describe the work of vocal critics of religion-as-such. Individuals associated with New Atheism have garnered this label from both religious and non-religious scholars. Theologian John Haught argues 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." Haught argues this belief system is self-refuting since it requires its adherents to assent to beliefs that violate its own stated requirements for knowledge. Christian Philosopher Peter Williams argues it is only by conflating science with scientism that new atheists feel qualified to "pontificate on metaphysical issues."
Philosopher Daniel Dennett responded to religious criticism of his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by saying that "when someone puts forward a scientific theory that [religious critics] really don't like, they just try to discredit it as 'scientism'".
Non-religious scholars have also linked New Atheist thought with scientism. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel argues neuroscientist Sam Harris conflates all empirical knowledge with that of scientific knowledge. Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton argues Christopher Hitchens possesses an "old-fashioned scientistic notion of what counts as evidence" that reduces knowledge to what can and cannot be proven by scientific procedure. 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.
Michael Shermer, founder of The Skeptics Society, draws a parallel between scientism and traditional religious movements, pointing to the cult of personality that develops around some scientists in the public eye. He defines scientism as a worldview that encompasses natural explanations, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason.
Gregory R. Peterson writes that "for many theologians and philosophers, scientism is among the greatest of intellectual sins".
Susan Haack argues that the charge of "scientism" caricatures actual scientific endeavor. No single form of inference or procedure of inquiry used by scientists explains the success of science. Instead we find:
- the inferences and procedures used by all serious empirical inquirers
- a vast array of tools of inquiry, from observational instruments to mathematical techniques, as well as social mechanisms that encourage honesty. These tools are diverse and evolving, and many are domain-specific.
Philosophy of science
In his essay Against Method, Paul Feyerabend characterizes science as "an essentially anarchic enterprise" and argues 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. He depicts 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."
[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.— Feyerabend, Against Method, p. viii
Rhetoric of science
Thomas M. Lessl argues that religious themes persist in what he calls scientism, the public rhetoric of science. 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 argues that without scientism, there would not be a scientific culture.
Religion and philosophy
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.
Rationalization and modernity
In the introduction to his collected oeuvre on the sociology of religion, Max Weber asks 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 distinguished 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.
"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" is better suited to literary expression, the former being "intersubjectively accessible experiences" that can be generalized in a formal language, while the latter "must generate an intersubjectivity of mutual understanding in each concrete case":
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…
Standard dictionary definitions include the following applications of the term "scientism":
- The use of the style, assumptions, techniques, and other attributes typically displayed by scientists.
- Methods and attitudes typical of or attributed to the natural scientist.
- An exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation, as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities.
- The use of scientific or pseudoscientific language.
- The contention that the social sciences, such as economics and sociology, are only properly sciences when they abide by the somewhat stricter interpretation of scientific method used by the natural sciences, and that otherwise they are not truly sciences.
- "A term applied (freq. in a derogatory manner) to a belief in the omnipotence of scientific knowledge and techniques; also to the view that the methods of study appropriate to physical science can replace those used in other fields such as philosophy and, esp., human behaviour and the social sciences."
- "1. The collection of attitudes and practices considered typical of scientists. 2. The belief that the investigative methods of the physical sciences are applicable or justifiable in all fields of inquiry."
A related word is "scientificism".
- As a form of dogma: "In essence, scientism sees science as the absolute and only justifiable access to the truth."
- Conflict thesis
- Demarcation problem
- Eliminative materialism
- Greedy reductionism
- High modernism
- Mad scientist
- Mary Midgley
- Non-overlapping magisteria
- Radical empiricism
- Relationship between religion and science
- Science of morality
- Science wars
- Scientific mythology
- Scientific reductionism
- Scientific imperialism
- Scientistic materialism
- Secular religion
- Social Darwinism
- Technological dystopia
- World view
- Sorell, Thomas 'Tom' (1994), Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science, Routledge, pp. 1ff.
- Allan Bullock & Stephen Trombley (Eds), The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, London: Harper Collins, 1999, p.775
- Rey, Abel (1909). "Review of La Philosophie Moderne". The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 6.2: 51–3. doi:10.2307/2011609.
- Maslow, Abraham, "Preface", Toward a Psychology of Being (1st ed.),
There are criticisms of orthodox, 19th Century scientism and I intend to continue with this enterprise.
- Hayek (June 1, 1980), The Counter Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason, Liberty Fund
- Hacohen, Malachi Haim (2002). Karl Popper: the formative years, 1902–1945: politics and philosophy in interwar Vienna. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-89055-7.
- Putnam, Hilary (1992). Renewing Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp. x.
- "Scientism does not eliminate the will but decides that since the results of science are valid for everyone, this will must be something shared, not individual. In practice, the individual must submit to the collectivity, which "knows" better than he does." Tzvetan Todorov. The Imperfect Garden: the legacy of humanism. Princeton University Press. 2001. Pg. 20
- Outhwaite, William (2009) , Habermas: Key Contemporary Thinkers (2nd ed.), Polity Press, p. 22.
- Rosenberg, Alex (2011). The Atheist's Guide to Reality. W. W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-34411-0.
- Peterson 2003, p. 753: 'the best way to understand the charge of scientism is as a kind of logical fallacy involving improper usage of science or scientific claims'
- Ryder, Martin, Scientism, Denver: University of Colorado, retrieved July 5, 2007
- Blackburn, S (2005). The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford paperbacks. Oxford University Press. pp. 331–32. ISBN 978-0-19-861013-7. LCCN 2006271895.
Scientism: Pejorative term for 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.
- Bannister, Robert, Behaviorism, Scientism and the Rise of The "Expert"
- Haack, Susan (2003), Defending Science Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books
- Collins, Michael (March 20, 1983), "A Critical Analysis of Competency-based Systems in Adult Education", Adult Education Quarterly 33 (3): 174–83
- Chargaff, Irwin (Dec 1997), "In Dispraise of Reductionism", BioScience 47 (11): 795–7, doi:10.2307/1313101
- Sawyer, R Keith (2000), "Connecting Culture, Psychology and Biology: Essay Review on Inghilleri's From Subjective Experience to Cultural Change", Human Development 43: 56–59
- Wieseltier, Leon. "Crimes Against Humanities Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don't let it happen". Retrieved 21 December 2013.
His essay, a defense of "scientism," is a long exercise in assimilating humanistic inquiries into scientific ones. By the time Pinker is finished, the humanities are the handmaiden of the sciences, and dependent upon the sciences for their advance and even their survival.
- Lears, T.J. Jackson. "Get Happy!!". The Nation. Retrieved 21 December 2013.
...scientism is a revival of the 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—explaining consciousness and choice, replacing ambiguity with certainty.
- Brunkhorst, Hauke (1995). "Chapter 4". In Seyla Benhabib; Wolfgang Bonss; John McCole. On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives. The MIT Press. p. 74. ISBN 0262522071.
- Maitland, Sara (1994). A Big Enough God: Artful Theology. London: Mowbray. p. 15. ISBN 026467331X.
- Peterson, Gregory R. (2003). "Demarcation and the Scientistic Fallacy". Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 38 (4): 751–761. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9744.2003.00536.x.
- Peterson, Donald R (June 2004), "Science, Scientism, and Professional Responsibility", Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 11 (2): 196–210, doi:10.1093/clipsy.bph072,
The term scientism is ordinarily used with pejorative intent.
- Hakfoort, C (1992), "Science deified: Wilhelm Osstwald's energeticist world-view and the history of scientism", Annals of Science 49 (6): 525–44, doi:10.1080/00033799200200441,
The term 'scientism' is sometimes used in a pejorative sense
- Bannister, Robert C (1991), Sociology and Scientism: The American Quest for Objectivity, 1880–1940, The University of North Carolina Press, p. 8,
Scientism... a term of abuse since Friedrich Hayek first popularized it in the 1940s..
- Stenmark, Mikael (2003), "Scientism", in van Huyssteen, J Wentzel Vrede, Encyclopedia of science and religion (2nd ed.), Thomson Gale, p. 783.
- Monastra, G; Zarandi, MM (2004), Science and the Myth of Progress.
- Orr, David (October 1992), "Environmental Literacy: Education as if the Earth Mattered", Twelfth Annual EF Schumacher Lectures, Great Barrington, MA.
- Lears, T.J. Jackson. "Get Happy!!". The Nation. Retrieved 21 December 2013.
- Gray, John. "The Knowns and the Unknowns". The New Republic. Retrieved 22 December 2013.
These theories show the continuing appeal of scientism—the modern belief that scientific inquiry can enable us to resolve conflicts and dilemmas in contexts where traditional sources of wisdom and practical knowledge seem to have failed.
- Gray, John. "Malcolm Gladwell Is America's Best-Paid Fairy-Tale Writer". The New Republic. Retrieved 22 December 2013.
... the mix of moralism and scientism is an ever-winning formula, as Gladwell's career demonstrates.
- Nagel, Thomas. "The Facts Fetish". The New Republic. Retrieved 22 December 2013.
Harris urges that we use scientific knowledge about humans to discover what will maximize their well-being, and thereby to discover the right way to live. This is an instrumental use of science, starting out from his basic moral premise.
- Robinson, Marilynne (Nov 2006), "Hysterical Scientism: The Ecstasy of Richard Dawkins", Harper's Magazine
- Stephen LeDrew on his ‘The Evolution of Atheism’ an Interview, 10 Dec 2015
- Haught, John (2008). God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Westminster John Knox Press. pp. X.
- Haught, John (2008). God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 17.
- Williams, Peter S. (2013). C.S. Lewis vs. the New Atheists. Paternoster. p. 1928.
- Byrnes, Sholto (10 April 2006), "When it comes to facts, and explanations of facts, science is the only game in town", New Statesman
- Nagel, Thomas. "The Facts Fetish". The New Republic. Retrieved 22 December 2013.
He says that the discovery of moral truth depends on science, but this turns out to be misleading, because he includes under "science" all empirical knowledge of what the world is like...Harris urges that we use scientific knowledge about humans to discover what will maximize their well-being, and thereby to discover the right way to live.
- Eagleton, Terry (2010). Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Yale University Press. p. 6.
- Kenny, Anthony (June 2012). "True Believers". Times Literary Supplement.
The main tenets of this philosophy are bracingly summed up in a series of questions and answers: Is there a God? No. What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.
- Shermer, Michael (June 2002), "The Shamans of Scientism", Scientific American.
- Chittick, William (2007). The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Bloomington: World Wisdom. ISBN 1-933316-38-1.
- Haack, Susan (2003), Defending Science — Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism, Prometheus Books.
- Feyerabend & Feyerabend 1993, p. vii: 'Imre Lakatos loved to embarrass serious opponents with jokes and irony and so I, too, occasionally wrote in a rather ironical vein. An example is the end of Chapter 1: 'anything goes' is not a 'principle' I hold... but the terrified exclamation of a rationalist who takes a closer look at history'
- Feyerabend & Feyerabend 1993, pp. viii, 9, 11.
- Feyerabend & Feyerabend 1993, p. viii.
- 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.
- Ward, Keith, Is Religion Dangerous?.
- Alston, William P (2003). "Religious language and verificationism". In Moser, Paul K; Copan, Paul. The Rationality of Theism. New York: Routledge. pp. 26–34. ISBN 0-415-26332-8.
- Habermas, Jürgen, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Polity Press (1990), ISBN 0-7456-0830-2, pp. 2–3.
- Olson, R. (2008). Science and scientism in nineteenth-century Europe. University of Illinois Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-252-07433-2. LCCN 2007005146.
- 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.
- Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 1987.
- Webster 1983.
- "Scientism", English Dictionary (Web ed.), Oxford, definition 1 .
- Webster 1983, Definition #3.
- Webster 1983, Definition #2.
- "Scientism", English Dictionary (Web ed.), Oxford, definition 2 .
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Houghton Mifflin; Bartleby, 2000, archived from the original on 24 January 2008.
- "Scientism", Faith and Reason, PBS.
- Feyerabend, P; Feyerabend, PK (1993), Against Method (3rd ed.), Verso, ISBN 978-0-86091-646-8.
- Peterson, Gregory R (2003), "Demarcation and the Scientistic Fallacy", Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 38 (4): 751–61, doi:10.1111/j.1467-9744.2003.00536.x,
the best way to understand the charge of scientism is as a kind of logical fallacy involving improper usage of science or scientific claims.
- Webster (1983), "Scientism", New Collegiate Dictionary (Ninth ed.).
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