The term "scientism" has been around since the late 19th century, but was known as a concept even in ancient times, and it has been applied frequently to the reductive mode of thought that sees all problems as reducible to strictly scientific problems. It's the "when all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" problem many atheists have who are blind to their own scientifically unverifiable assumptions as well as the whole range of legitimate beliefs that are immune to scientific testability.
The two main responses of New Atheists like Jerry Coyne and Jason Rosenhouse, two scientific bulls who frequently wander into the philosophical china shop, are that a) their beliefs do not meet the criteria of scientism, and b) there are no such things as criteria for scientism anyway. It's kind of hard to hold both these mutually exclusive positions simultaneously, but it is a feat Jerry and Jason attempt in almost every post they write on the subject.
The fact that you can't just take the methodologies and conventions of one body of knowledge and indiscriminately apply them in other intellectual disciplines was understood as early as the 4th century B.C. In Book I, ch. 3 of his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle asserts that it is the "mark of an educated man" that not every discipline admits of the same level of precision and that "precision ought not to be sought in the same way in all kinds of discourse."
In other words, you can't verify that, say, Caesar crossed the Rubicon with the same level of precision as you can determine the paternity of a child--and you can't use the same methods to determine the former as the latter--and vice-versa.
To use a technical term: Duh.
It's a simple concept, really, but Coyne and Rosenhouse just doesn't seem to get it. So, first, they feign ignorance. Says Rosenhouse:
But I've never entirely understood what scientism actually is. The usual definition is that scientism is the blinkered belief that science is the only reliable “way of knowing,” but this is vague until we have sharp definitions of “science” and “way of knowing.”And then there are those pesky terms "the" and "only". What do they mean? Are New Atheist scientists really so philosophically challenged that they can't understand a term that has been around in fairly common discourse in the scholarly community for at least 60 years?
Just pulling down a few random books from my office library shelves, I find very quickly this definition given by John Wellmuth, S.J., in the 1944 Aquinas Lecture at Marquette University. "The Nature and Origin of Scientism":
The word "scientism," as used in this lecture, is to be understood as meaning the belief that science, in the modern sense of that term, and the scientific method as described by modern scientists, afford the only reliable natural means of acquiring such knowledge as may be available about whatever is real. (pp. 1-2)He not only defines it, he describes it and lists its three chief characteristics:
- "the fields of the various sciences ... are taken to be coextensive, at least in principle, with the entire field of available knowledge"
- "the scientific method ... is the only reliable method of widening and deepening our knowledge and of making that knowledge more accurate"
- "either that philosophy should be made scientific by conforming to the methods and ideas of some particular science, or that the function of philosophy is to correlate and if possible unify the findings of the other sciences by means of generalizing on a basis of these findings, after ridding itself of outworn metaphysical notions."
the mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed ... a very prejudiced approach which, before it has considered its subject, claims to know what it he most appropriate way of investigating it. (p. 24)"Such an attitude," Hayek quotes physicist P. W. Bridgman as saying, "bespeaks an unimaginativeness, a mental obtuseness and obstinacy, which might be expected to have exhausted their pragmatic justification at a lower plane of mental activity." (The Logic of Modern Physics, 1928, p. 46).
Then I grab for a third book: Life is a Miracle, by Wendell Berry, who discusses how "this legitimate faith in scientific methodology seems to veer off into a kind of religious faith in the power of science to know all things and solve all problems, whereupon the scientist may become an evangelist and go forth to save the world." (p. 19)
There you have it: a philosopher, an economics, a scientist, and a novelist, poet, and essayist, over a 60 year period, all of whom have no trouble negotiating the term "scientism." But Jerry Coyne and Jason Rosenhouse just don't get it.
Maybe it's that narrow scientific training they got. Doesn't seem to transfer over too well into all those other disciplines that are supposed to bend the knee to science, does it?
If there is a problem with this definition, then what is it? There are four basic criteria for a good definition:
- that it have both a generic and differentiating element
- that the definition and the thing defined be coextensive
- that the definition be clearer than what is defined
- that the definition be universal (and not individual: you can't define 'Obama', but you can define 'president')
The definition of "scientism" is essentially a philosophical endeavor, a kind of question in which Coyne and Rosenhouse have no formal expertise, much less any demonstrated informal facility, and what makes it worse is that they don't seem have a clue that they're insufficient to the task. It's somewhat analogous to a literature professor trying his hand at physics and wondering what all this stuff about time and space really means after all.
To Coyne and Rosenhouse it's all just a religionist plot concocted to cover their own intellectual illegitimacy: "The relevant distinction between scientific knowledge claims and religious knowledge claims is that the former are based on reliable methods while the latter are not." Reliable meaning "scientific." By definition, of course.
The answer? "We should reject totally," says Rosenhouse, "the idea that there are two kinds of knowledge, scientific on the one hand and religious on the other." I would pass this off as merely an attempt by someone trained only in the use of a hammer to redefine everything as a nail, but it is even more strange than that.
Instead of erasing the line between science and religion such that science engulfs religion, instead Coyne and Rosenhouse, in erasing the line between the two, end up only with ... religion. Their religion. The religion of science--or, as we said before, scientism. It is, said Berry, "the religification ... of science." The scientist is no longer the dull gray figure putzing around the lab. No. He must be seen in a more heroic role. The scientist now, says Berry, occupies the "place once occupied by the prophets and priests of religion."
But the argument that Coyne and Rosenhouse think is the most telling argument proving that they are not, in fact, guilty of scientism is the very clever procedure of engaging in it in the very process of denying it.
After arguing that this whole "scientism" thing is just a religionist plot (he would say "creationist" plot except the BioLogos people have been using the term), Rosenhouse waxes scientistic in the very process of denying the existence of scientism:
So I don't think it is unreasonable, in the context of these sorts of discussions, to define science very broadly. It just seems silly to me to say that scientific knowledge is one kind of thing, historical knowledge is something else, philosophical knowledge is a third and mathematical knowledge is a fourth. Mathematicians primarily use deductive reasoning in their work, but deductive reasoning is not some special, mathematical approach to knowledge that is separate from what scientists do. The primary tool of philosophy is dialectical argumentation, but this, too, is not something that is foreign to scientific practice.In other words, how can there be such a thing as scientism (which is the belief that science is the only legitimate mode of intellectual inquiry) when, in fact, we know that science is the only legitimate mode of intellectual inquiry?
We know that everything is, in fact, a nail because, as you can plainly see, all we've got is there here hammer. QEP (Quod est procusum. Rough translation: "That which was to be
It's nonsense like this that contributes to people Massimo Pigliucci, an atheist scientist who is at least capable of making a competent rational case for his beliefs, charging people like Coyne with "hero worship and a selective dearth of critical thinking."