Scientism: Monster or Myth. – Christopher Morris.

Superficially, this article is about ‘Scientism’, what people think it is and whether it’s good or bad, but underpinning that debate is a more fundamental problem: ‘Labelling’.  Of course, labels can be very useful; if you pick up a can in a supermarket you need to know whether it contains caviar or dog food (unless you feed your dog caviar, in which case you probably have other problems to worry about).  However, not all things can be so easily described with simple labels.  Humans and their ideas, for example, are extremely complicated things so that, while it may be handy to have a means of making a quick initial judgment about someone, generally our first response should remain provisional until we know more about them.  As an illustration of this, I have no objection to being provisionally labelled as an atheist or an agnostic in the context of this blog but in my everyday life I tend not to define myself as such because those labels imply having a relationship with religion, albeit a negative one, that I feel would give an inaccurate impression.

So, if we pick up a can of Scientism from the supermarket are we going to find caviar or dog food inside?  Actually there seem to be two very different cans labelled ‘Scientism’ on the shelf, one is part of the academic debate about the status of the social sciences and is used, by more philosophically-minded social researchers, to criticise the positivism of those social scientists who believe that they can transfer the objective methodology of the physical sciences to their analyses of human phenomenon.  This debate began towards the end of the 19th century with Wilhelm Dilthey’s development of hermeneutics as a way of understanding human social phenomenon subjectively in opposition to the widely accepted view of Auguste Comte and others that all knowledge could be held objectively, however, as an indication of the complexity of the debate, both John Stuart Mill and Emile Durkheim have been held as exemplars by both sides.  Max Weber and Georg Simmel strengthened the opposition with their explicitly anti-positivist elaboration of ‘verstehen’, that is an interpretive understanding rather than the positivist ‘explanation’ of the physical sciences and the debate continued throughout much of the next century.   Although probably not many members of the general public ever became fully aware of it, at times this was intensely contested, especially from the 1950s and through the 1970s, as governments in the immediate post-war period saw the possibility of using social science to solve the problems that had led to the crises of the first half of the century and, consequently, it did have the potential to make a real difference to people’s lives.  However, this controversy had almost no impact on the work of the physical sciences and there is very little evidence of any physicists expressing the opinion that social scientists must use properly scientific methods in their research. Mostly, it played out in the writings of philosophers such as Karl Popper who feared that, unless all traces of what he saw as Hegelian relativism were swept away by an objective social science, we would never eliminate the possibility of totalitarian governments continuing to be a threat to freedom and democracy and Ernest Gellner who criticised Wittgenstein and his followers such as Alisdair McIntyre and Peter Winch similarly for what he saw as the political danger presented by their relativism.  By the 1980s it was becoming apparent that the project of a social science producing consistently reliable predictive laws was not making the expected progress and that the analysis of society was unlikely to derive useful knowledge purely through positivism and objectivity, although that aspiration, derived from the Enlightenment to see society objectively was, in itself a major step forward in human thinking and the accumulation of empirical data remains an essential part of the social scientist’s job description.

The debate gradually become part of a wider development of a philosophy criticising and attempting to go beyond the mechanical rationality of the Enlightenment derived from Descartes’ radical separation of material and thought, and as a reaction against the various forms of positivism fuelled by the rapid progress of science to which Cartesian Dualism had opened the door. Although this has been characterised as a straightforward fight between scientists and philosophers, positivism and relativism, it’s not quite as simple as that.  In fact, many scientists have criticised positivism and many philosophers have supported it and some positivists have argued against scientism and so on.  For example, Heisenberg wrote that “positivists have a simple solution: the world must be divided into that which we can say clearly and the rest, which we had better pass over in silence.  But can anyone conceive of a more pointless philosophy, seeing that what we can say clearly amounts to next to nothing?  If we omitted all that is unclear we would probably be left with completely uninteresting and trivial tautologies” and Steven Weinberg, in his book “The Dreams of a Final Theory”, argued that various forms of positivism have actually hindered the progress of science when they were taken too seriously for too long:

The rapid growth of many forms of post-modern ideas in the 1970s resulted in a wide spectrum of views opposing the possibility of an equivalence between knowledge and science, ranging from the most extreme sociology of knowledge (that all knowledge is socially constructed) presented by, for example, David Bloor to the more modest synthesis of Paul Ricoeur who recognised the need to retain some existential element in the formation of individual identity.  Naturally, this critical analysis of science produced an equal and opposite reaction among some scientists and other commentators who felt that possible future achievements of science would be under threat if government funding for science education and research were to be reduced because of a lack of confidence in scientific results or, like Popper and Gellner before them, worried about the political consequences of relativism.  Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins and Alan Sokal all engaged in strong criticism of something that they labelled ‘Postmodernism’ which they saw as simply anti-scientific or non-rational views expressed in language that failed to convey any recognisable meaning:

At this point we come to the second can of ‘Scientism’ on the supermarket shelf.  This one seems to be an attempt by Christian apologists to suggest that ‘Scientism’ has come to occupy something like the role of a religion for some set of people labelled as ‘New Atheists’ (according to Wikipedia, invented in 2006 by Gary Wolf) and used as a weapon to attack Christianity.  Now, as we can see with Hitchens, Chomsky, Dawkins, Sokal and others in their attack on something they perceived as being a threat to their world, it is very easy (or perhaps emotionally satisfying) to erect a label to shoot at without having to worry too much about what it covers.  So, is this ‘Scientism’ anything more than a label to be targeted?  Typing ‘Scientism and Dawkins’ into a Google search produces over seven million results and, while I haven’t checked all of them, the first few pages are dominated by criticism, some of it quite ferocious, of Dawkins by Christians interestingly using very similar language and arguments to those that Dawkins used against postmodernists.  And, just to be clear, I’m not interested in defending Dawkins even if I thought he or his views needed defending.

The essential problem of any view that might be labelled as ‘Scientism’ which those of us who want to disagree with it, including Christian apologists, object to is the idea that we are allowed to know very little or nothing at all that hasn’t been checked and confirmed by science.  Common sense would suggest that this is an odd claim; I know that I love listening to the music of Miles Davis and, while I can admit that there may be a scientific explanation of why that sound appeals to me, a scientific explanation wouldn’t tell me anything I don’t already know, wouldn’t make the music any more appealing and wouldn’t make any difference in my ability to communicate my enjoyment of it to other people.  Consequently, I don’t feel that scientism can be a threat to my taste in music but, clearly, some Christians do perceive it to be a problem that has to be taken very seriously.  So what sort of problem is it?  Much of this has to do with what we understand by ‘science’ and ‘knowledge’; presumably it’s easier for someone working as a scientist to see science as the general process of deriving knowledge through reasoning based on empirical observations than those of us not working as scientists who perhaps see science as a very specialised form of inquiry with results that don’t necessarily impact immediately on our everyday lives. However, the biggest problem seems to be that the label ‘Scientism’ has been defined by some as a religion and, specifically, as a rival religion to Christianity.  Does this possibility stand up to any critical analysis?  I would have to say no; the opinion of a handful of people expressing a fairly vague notion that only knowledge derived from science is meaningful or that science can ‘explain’ everything can hardly be said to represent a substantial world-view no matter how authoritative those people appear to be.  I don’t, for example, think Stephen Hawking’s opinion of what we know about being human is any more authoritative than mine – presumably all of us humans are capable of knowing what it feels like to be human even if some can express it more interestingly than others.  Can the ‘New Atheists’ (or any atheists, for that matter) be shown to have had a direct effect on people losing their faith?  I think that would be unlikely although, of course, I would be interested to see evidence to the contrary.

In conclusion, then, is ‘Scientism’ a myth or a monster?  My opinion would come down on the side of myth, but possibly in the sense that Georges Sorel used the concept and that would a whole new debate!

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