The Folly of “Scientism”

In a recent article in The New Atlantis,  Austin L Hughes addresses a number of instances of scientific hubris, tags them with the popular label “scientism”, and asks:

Is scientism defensible? Is it really true that natural science provides a satisfying and reasonably complete account of everything we see, experience, and seek to understand — of every phenomenon in the universe? And is it true that science is more capable, even singularly capable, of answering the questions that once were addressed by philosophy? This subject is too large to tackle all at once. But by looking briefly at the modern understandings of science and philosophy on which scientism rests, and examining a few case studies of the attempt to supplant philosophy entirely with science, we might get a sense of how the reach of scientism exceeds its grasp.

I actually share Hughes’ view that the claims by some people (including Hawking and Mlodinow) that current cosmological theories theories answer the “why” question are preposterous – but on different grounds, as I see no evidence that the question has any meaning in the first place.

On ethical questions, Hughes correctly distinguishes scientific study of how ethics arose from the inappropriate application of not-properly-established scientific speculation to social engineering and from the silly efforts of Sam Harris to identify the goal of predicting moral decisions with the act of making them. But these are completely different sins, and so the adoption of a common label is inappropriate.

In fact I have always been offended by the term “scientism” ever since it was introduced in the 1960’s, because it seemed designed to sound like the typical position of a scientist (and so, despite pious disclaimers, to taint the latter in the public mind).

If some scientists are sometimes unjustifiably arrogant about the scope of what they have achieved or the potential power of their methods, then that is worth pointing out, but to define science as the search for all discoverable testable truths is not the same as falsely claiming to have found them. 

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