Addendum to Quillette on Scientism

The online journal Quillette has generously published an article of mine making a philosophical argument against scientism. As expected, it provoked a great deal of heated feedback, some of which even showed evidence of having read the essay. Many of the comments were irrelevant, but nevertheless, some did raise points that I think are worth addressing for the sake of expanding the argument beyond the bounds of space which I was allotted for the original article.

“Scientism” is a dreadful word. It’s bad enough that there are terms like “fascism,” “fundamentalism,” and “illiberalism,” whose definitions are as vague or more as that of our Word of the Day, but which at least have the virtue of being convertible into the personal designation with the suffix “ist” while retaining the same meaning; a virtue which “scientism” lacks, as an attempt to derive the term for a person who embraces scientism leaves us with “scientist.” In attempting to pass from the name of a philosophy to the name of the person who embraces it, we are waylaid by the linguistic incompetence of the term into accusing practitioners of science as being adherents of scientism, when the whole point of designating the position in the first place is to make a distinction between the practice of science and its exaltation to the highest form of knowledge.

Nevertheless, while the word itself is bad linguistically and often unclear, it happens to be the term that societal discourse seems to have settled upon to try to capture a real trend in modern thought. At least some people do, in fact, identify as embracing scientism; and more importantly, the general trend towards trying to explain things that have traditionally been regarded as beyond the pale (or at least partly beyond the pale) of empirical inquiry, especially the mind, ethics, etc., all at least imply a trend towards thinking that science is the only, or highest, form of knowledge.

People have objected that my definition of scientism as “the notion that science is the only source of knowledge” is a strawman. Some people even suggested that no one professes to adhere to scientism, a claim which I find odd in light of Quillette’s publication a week before my article of a piece by Thomas Cortellesi entitled “In Defense of Scientism.” It was suggested that if the definition of scientism was changed to “science is the primary source of knowledge,” then my refutation of the position would be in tatters. The only thing in tatters, in that case, is the objector’s ability to understand the significance of what I had said in the article, for of course the whole thesis which I was defending was that science is a derivative source of knowledge. Whatever we know through empirical inquiry presupposes certain metaphysical assumptions (of which the validity of induction is only one) that cannot themselves be defended empirically, and must be defended philosophically. Therefore, whether scientism is defined as saying that science is the only form of knowledge, the highest form of knowledge, the ideal method of inquiry, etc., the argument I made from the problem of induction refutes all of them, for the same reason: that science presupposes things which it cannot prove, and thus whatever means we use to establish those presuppositions must in fact be the primary source of knowledge.

Furthermore, as I pointed out in the article, there are public figures who are willing to defend scientism by name, with one of the most prominent being the philosopher Alex Rosenberg, who describes his beliefs in this interview:

Scientism is the view that science is our best guide to the nature of reality. Its methods and its findings are our best account of the nature of reality…That’s what scientism says: there are no deeper explanations than those that science provides, and science provides explanations for a broad range of questions that many people might look to philosophy or to religion for answers to…Now, at the end of the 20th, beginning of the 21st century, there’s still a package of problems that the sciences can’t yet answer, of which I think, as I said, the nature of our knowledge of mathematical truths is one. Do I think that science will never answer them? No, that’s what scientism consists in. It’s the prediction that eventually we’re going to successfully answer these questions.

Even without Rosenberg’s example, however, I think I may be excused from the accusation of “strawman” by examining what another self-professed defender of scientism has actually said, taking Steven Pinker’s article on the subject in the New Republic as an example.

Pinker’s piece identifies scientism as having two ideals: that the world is intelligible, and that acquisition of knowledge is hard. Given this definition of scientism, one might reasonably ask what would constitute non-scientistic knowledge. Presumably, for knowledge to not be scientific, it would have to avoid at least one of the two ideals of scientism – that the world is intelligible, and that acquisition of knowledge is hard. But this is absurd. No enterprise that purports to give knowledge about the world could ever in principle reject the claim that the world is intelligible; to do so would be a manifest self-contradiction. And while I suppose it isn’t equally contradictory to affirm that something might be a source of knowledge but assumes that acquisition of knowledge is easy, would Pinker or anyone else really want to defend the claim that a system which assumes that finding out how the world works is easy is a legitimate claimant for rational inquiry? But if there are no candidates forthcoming for non-scientific knowledge under Pinker’s definition of scientism, then we’re forced to conclude that scientism in his definition does amount to the claim that science is the only form of knowledge.

To complicate things further, Pinker refers to “the defining practices of science” as being “open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods.” Science requires “skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests,” and any scientific movement must “nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs.” Several of these characteristics are obviously fundamental to any discipline which claims to be reasoned truth-seeking, and are found in the humanities as well: skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and peer review. Empirical testing seems to be the real differentiator, as it’s the thing that disciplines which are generally recognized as scientific (physics, biology, geology, chemistry, etc.) have that the humanities don’t.

It seems, then, that Pinker’s definition of science would be the practice of rational inquiry that is characterized by the use of empirical tests and everything that goes with them; e.g., forming hypotheses, updating hypotheses after tests, using the criterion of falsifiability, etc. But this presents a dilemma: does he believe that all rational inquiry is necessarily comprised of empirical reasoning? If he does, then his definition of scientism is refuted by my article. If he doesn’t, then he must concede that science is only one form of rationality alongside others, in which case it’s a misnomer to use the term “scientism” to refer to the general practice of rational inquiry. In that case, I would grant that Pinker does not embrace scientism as I define it in the article – but would still maintain that he’s more than ambiguous enough on the subject that reasonable people could think that he does. And furthermore, it’s incontestable that at least some people are prepared to defend scientism by name, as with Rosenberg above.

All of this comes back to the more general problem with scientism which the Thomist philosopher Edward Feser has identified with another dilemma. If “science” is taken to mean “rational inquiry” in a broad enough sense to include examining its own assumptions, then its object of investigation isn’t just empirical data, and “science” just refers to reasoning in the general sense – in which case the claim that “science is the highest / only source of knowledge” is trivially true, and is so broad that it can no longer rule out philosophical argument as a legitimate form of knowledge. But if “science” is taken in the more usual sense of “empirical inquiry into the natural world,” then scientism is self-refuting, for the reasons that I gave in my article, among others.

Finally, several people have given objections in the form of:

“This is so shallow, you didn’t even address ______________ (Karl Popper’s redefinition of science away from the inductive, modern physics’ view of time and its alleged relevance to the PFT, applying empirical reasoning to the micro-level, etc.).”

Well, yes, I confess: I didn’t write a comprehensive philosophical treatise that addresses the problem from all angles, answers all of the major objections to the argument, and situates the problem of induction within 20th and 21st century philosophy of science. Now if anyone commenting is willing to show how my failure to write an encyclopedic treatment of the issue is relevant to my having published an introductory article on a site that publishes for the popular audience, I’ll be glad to consider whether there’s a problem.

Until then, as they say, I rest my case.

Additional Reading

Maverick Philosopher’s commentary on Steven Pinker’s essay.

Edward Feser’s collection of posts on scientism.

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