Science vs. Scientism

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry 17 Comments

I spent my last post explaining how the philosophy of Pragmatism was shaped by hard science and now I am going to explain how one of the ironies of Pragmatism is that although it was heavily influenced by science, it was also battling against the encroaching materialistic worldview of science. This is a debate that continues to this day to define many of the contours of American Philosophy. In this post I want to begin to outline some of my early – and most likely poorly formed – thoughts on this topic and expose myself to the sharp minds of you my readers, for the betterment of my understanding and our investigation.

One crucial distinction that must be understood to be able to perceive what this ongoing debate is about is the distinction between science and scientism. Science is a method of inquiry and the knowledge acquired by that method. The scientific method – inquiry by hypothesis, experimentation, observation and conclusion – was the explosive discovery that ignited the age of Enlightenment in Europe and skyrocketed humanity out of the Dark Ages. Scientism as described by Joseph Margolis in his book The Unraveling of Scientism is “the assured validity of a metaphysics deemed…overwhelmingly favored by the self-appointed champions of science.” In other words, as I understand it, scientism is the belief that the methods of science and the worldview of science are obviously correct over all other methods and worldviews.

The first Pragmatists were scientifically inclined and even scientifically trained, yet they still opposed this type of scientism.  Even Chauncey Wright, a most ardent empiricist, materialist and even nihilist, was disinclined toward scientism. In fact it was the strictness of Wright’s adherence to empiricism that might account for his insistence that his belief in God, and Religion in general, should be held separate from the demand for scientific validation.

Both Chauncey Wright and Charles Sanders Peirce were professionally occupied with scientific measurements and both were very familiar with the limits thereof. For this reason neither of them felt that any of our so-called natural laws could be taken as fact. The measurements that human beings are able to make are always approximate and therefore no law could ever be proven beyond being a useful approximation. For this reason we cannot assume that we are correct about our scientific theories or conclusions, but can only state that those theories and conclusions are the best fit to the evidence that our current ability to measure yields. Wright would therefore never want to generalize in the way that scientism does and to assume that the ideas and methods of science have some special advantage beyond what is verifiable through direct observation and measurement.  

In a later post I will expand on how this position led Charles Sanders Peirce to develop a powerful evolutionary metaphysics, but for now I want to explain more deeply what I see as scientism by illustrating with any example. On this blog the notion of Occam ’s razor has been used in comments to argue in favor of Natural Selection over teleology, and for Behaviorism over freewill. Occam ’s razor as I understand it is a rule of thumb for inquiry. It states that given two explanations for the same phenomenon it is best to assume the one that requires the least number of assumptions is correct. Certainly this is a good guide for reason and inquiry, but it is not a proof.

If we argue that the theory of Natural Selection explains evolution and then use Occam’s razor to assert teleology is not part of the evolution process then I feel that we are slipping into scientism. This, in my mind, is an over-extension of Occam’s razor. Just because the explanation of Natural Selection does not require the assumption of teleology doesn’t mean that there is no teleology. In fact the use of Occam’s razor circumnavigates the real issue at hand which is that Natural Selection cannot explain all of evolution. It explains a great deal of evolution, but to say that it proves that all of evolution takes place without any guidance other than chance variation and survival of the fittest is extending and generalizing the theory beyond what it could possibly be validated through observation and therefore Natural Selection can only be a theory that could never be completely proven. Some would say that it is the best theory we have to explain evolution, but others would claim differently. Neither could prove their point.

My point here however is not about this particular argument; it is to illuminate the idea of scientism as I am coming to understand it. The scientism in this example rests not in the argument, but in the fact that the agreement with the methodology of Occam’s razor is presumed to be a complete assurance of the validity of the claim. In other words it is assumed that agreement with Occam’s razor is proof enough and this kind of scientism often expresses a sense of obviousness designed to make any disagreement seem ridiculous. In Margolis’ book he writes about how over the last century scientism and the philosophies that have latched onto it, have not come any closer to proving their superiority in explain certain critical aspects of reality like human knowledge, human behavior or ethical conduct, in spite of working explicitly to do so.

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Carl
11 years ago

A good treatment of Occam’s razor (cut and paste URL): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam's_razor

Nishad
Nishad
11 years ago

Our understanding of evolution is itself evolving, and future understandings of evolution may well be based on yet to be discovered evidence for teleology

And maybe the principle of Occam’s Razor contradicts itself ie is Occam’s Razor itself one of the least number of assumptions that we need to make?

TomH
TomH
11 years ago

“Science is a method of inquiry and the knowledge acquired by that method.” What method? What knowledge? How do we know that we have knowledge? Feyerabend showed that if history is any judge, then science is a hodge-podge chaos of methods. Laudan showed, using history, that all attempts to formulate demarcation criteria have failed. He showed that the modern definition of “science” is very heterogeneous. Very little effort is required to advance the case Laudan began to show that the formal definition of “science” can be rendered so heterogeneous as to be meaningless. Others have questioned how we know that… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

Welcome to flatland!

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

There are some very powerful and valid criticisms of science and I am reading a few right now that are helping me see both what was absolutely unprecedentedly remarkable about science and also what its shortcomings are if it is extended beyond where it reasonably applies. Tom, I have not as yet met with criticisms as definitivly negative as what you are saying comes from Laudan, and I see a great danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater if we, as Carl implies, relativise everything.

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Sorry to cut and paste, as this blog is a great forum for original expression. But this topic requires more expertise than I can muster. So I turn to Michael Shermer on “The Scientific Method”. Elements of the scientific method ( hypothetico-deductive): Induction — Forming a hypothesis by drawing general conclusions from existing data. Deduction — Making specific predictions based on the hypothesis. Observation — Gathering data, driven by hypothesis that tell us what to look for in nature. Verification — Testing the predictions against further observations to confirm or falsify the initial hypothesis. Through the scientific method, we may… Read more »

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

The purpose of the above post is to set forth a concise defininition of the scientific method to allow those who are skeptical to make their case.

Carl
11 years ago

Thank you, Brian.

TomH
TomH
11 years ago

Wow! You all really need to move into the 20th century! (Yes, I know that it’s the 21st, that’s the point.) Read your 20th century Feyerabend. Shermer is a joke.

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

TomH: I was hoping for a thoughtful discussion, not name calling. Shermer has a great sense of humor, but he himself is not a joke nor are his ideas. Care to make your point more clearly?

TomH
TomH
11 years ago

Brian, I didn’t intend to offend. Shermer is a crank when it comes to philosophy of science. He is current as of 1950 or so.

Have you read Feyerabend’s “Against Method” yet? Here is the conclusion for those who lack the time to read the whole thing. http://www.galilean-library.org/manuscript.php?postid=43843

Richard Feynman, it turns out, was an excellent philosopher as well as an excellent teacher of physics. His talk, “What is science?”, predates even Feyerabend. http://www.fotuva.org/feynman/what_is_science.html

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

Ah! the discussion is becoming hot ! To Tom, as a scientist I would certainly not qualify Mister Feynman of a good philosopher. One just has to read the text that you gave to us to understand that he is just playing with words, and is not very serious in his philosophical views. Surely he is joking, Mister Feynmann …! AS for feyerabend’s,if udnertsood well the conclusion that you gave to us to read, what he addresses here is the sociology of the sicentific community, which is closer to the mythical society than anything else. This I would most certainly… Read more »

TomH
TomH
11 years ago

Catherine:

You might go back and re-read that first paragraph in the Feyerabend link.

TomH
TomH
11 years ago

Feynman was ever an advocate of freedom and creativity in the investigation of nature. It is ludicrous to suppose that he was joking in his article which argued that very thing and was opposed to dogmatism in method.

Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

If “scientism is the belief that the methods of science and the worldview of science are obviously correct over all other methods and worldviews” (par. 2), what other “methods” or “worldviews” are 1) as useful, 2) as self-correcting, 3) as testable, 4) reflect perceivable reality as accurately? Virtually any form of theology is impervious to correction nearly all the time. When the facts don’t fit the “truth”, facts are dispensed with. By the above definition, I suspect I agree with “scientism”, despite the pejorative connotations which that implies. Are scientists defensive about their favorite ideas? Do not all scientists follow… Read more »

TomH
TomH
11 years ago

Chuck,

You aren’t getting the picture. Scientism is a philosophical position. It advocates that science is the _only_ reliable method. This means that scientism is _not_ reliable, since scientism _isn’t_ science and isn’t testable by scientific research. Scientism is therefore self-contradicting.

Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

TomH, I was previously unfamiliar with the term “scientism” so I just whipped out my “Oxford Companion to Philosophy” which says: “A successful accusation of scientism usually requires a restrictive conception of the sciences and an optimistic conception of the arts as hitherto practiced. Nobody espouses scientism; it is just detected in the writings of others. Among the accused are…W.V. Quine and Logical Positivism.” So as I previously supposed it is used only in the pejorative sense. Now if scientism fails as per your schema (rephrasing it – if the knowledge and methods of science is a Set, Scientism is… Read more »