Scientific Fundamentalism

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 24 Comments

To finish (at least for the time being) with this idea of Scientism vs. Science. I want to take it a little further so that I hope I am able to make clear what I percieve as a problem that arises  sometimes (and not always) in the scientifically minded. As I attempted to make clear in my last post, I do not feel – at this point at least – that science itself is problematic. I feel that science is sometimes applied and generallized in ways that are problematic. This isn't really a problem of science itself; if anything it is a problem of the philosophy of science. Getting back to this idea of Scientism, I believe that Scientism could also be called Scientific Fundamentalism. Science is a method of inquiry utilizing hypothesis and experimentation. Science is also the body of knowledge accumulated through that method. Scientific Fundamentalism is the belief that all knowledge gained through, and all conclusions drawn from, the scientific method are true. When this kind of Scientific fundamentalism is confused for the scientific method it creates a bounded circular reality in which things are true according to scientific fundamentalism (now confused with the scientific method itself) because they were produced by the scientific method. Conversely, knowledge which is not gained through the scientific method is at best suspect and often dismissed as illogical and untrue because it was not obtained through the scientific method.

Adherence to this scientific fundamentalist view over time can lead to the creation of what I see as a very limited worldview. In other words if you only believe in knowledge which is obtained through the scientific method, soon you only see as real things that have been, or conceivable could be, obtained through the scientific method. Your fundamental notion of reality becomes bound by what has been, and what you can imagine could be, confirmed through experiment, observation and measurement. The scientific worldview that results tends to have certain fundamental characteristics. It tends to be materialistic in the sense of seeing the world as made up of only those things that can be observed and measured. It also privileges the third person, objective, external perspective of reality to the first person, internal, subjective perspective of reality. And it sees the world as constructed from the bottom-up, with parts combining to form wholes, as opposed to top-down with wholes exerting influence over the development of the parts that create them. This leads to a view of an unintelligent process of creation proceeding blindly as opposed to a process guided by a larger whole.

The problem with any form of fundamentalism is that it inherently limits inquiry by establishing boundaries around what is possibly real. Christian fundamentalism limits what is real with a literal interpretation of the bible. There can be an argument made for the moral value of adherence to a literal interpretation of the bible, but most of us would agree that it creates a very limited, predetermined worldview. Scientific fundamentalism works the same way. By using the criteria that only knowledge that is obtained through the scientific method defines what is real, and then taking the even bigger step of applying that criteria (consciously or unconsciously) not only to the knowledge at hand, but to all possible knowledge, we draw a circle around not only everything that is real, but also everything that could ever be real. Both of the original Pragmatists, Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, as well as their friend and mentor Chauncey Wright, were opposed to such scientism albeit for different reasons.

Chauncey Wright was too much of an empiricist to fall into scientism. He believed that only things that had been empirically measured were true and he did not believe in generalizing measured results to included as yet unmeasured instances. Peirce followed Wright in this strict empiricism. Both men would go so far as to say that just because the three angles of every triangle ever measured add to 180 degrees doesn’t mean that every triangle that could ever be measured would add up to 180 degrees. Further they would also say that because our ability to measure the angles of a triangle is limited by the instruments that we use to measure with, we can’t even be sure that the angles add to 180 degrees. They were in affect too scientific to believe in the superstition of scientism.

Peirce had an additional reason for avoiding scientism. Peirce’s famous motto and guiding principle was “Do not block the way of inquiry.” Peirce was by far the most accomplished scientist of the early Pragmatists, but he would never adhere to a scientism that would limit the ability of his expansive mind to encompass new and diverse information. William James was a trained doctor, and he was also the most mystically and morally inclined of the three. He avoided scientism because it ruled out the possibility of belief in mystical, religious, and paranormal experiences that he was so drawn to and he felt held moral advantage for humanity.

The Pragmatism that was first conceived by Peirce and James was a magnificent creation. It was in almost equal parts an extension of the scientific method and especially Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection into the world of philosophy. At the same time it stood as a defense of the mystical and religious in the gathering battle with materialism of scientism.

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Nishad
Nishad
11 years ago

Scientism commits a performative contradiction

If the scientific method is the only way of obtaining reliable knowledge, then the very assumption that “the scientific method is the only way of obtaining reliable knowledge” is unreliable, since it is not an assumption that can be verified using the scientific method

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Very well written, Jeff, and has me thinking. What aspect of reality eludes the scientific method? The closest you come to an answer is the “first person, internal, subjective perspective of reality.” And Shermer’s outline of the scientific method which I posted here earlier says the same. I’ll submit however that these revelations are not included in the scientific method for good reason, not necessarily because they are invalid, but because they are not tranferrable to others, not useful in different situations, and history shows they are often misused to dupe the credulous. Furthermore, if a new approach has utility… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

Two thoughts: 1. What is the definition of “truth” implied by this discussion of science, scientism, etc.? Or, stated another way, how do we determine what is true, in general? 2. There is very good science, following Skinner’s methodology and measurement approach, of “first person, internal, subjective” reality. Counting thoughts, feelings, etc. yields very orderly data that can be used to monitor the impact of various interventions or variables and guide application of such behavioral technologies as covert conditioning, systematic desensitization, etc. The only issue is that only one person can do the counting, so there could be some question… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

This is getting interesting now and I realize that I have to get clearer about what it is exactly that I am going on about. It is ironic, because this is one of the few forums that I engage in where I am on the other side from science. Usually I am the scientific one in most groups. Brian, I am not totally sure that science will come up with the answer to the interior problems of reality – but it could certainly help, as long as it is in a healthy dialog with philosophy and religion. That is more… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

What came up in connection with this blog is that ‘time and space’ are structures in the human brain that help us to understand reality. Quantum physics has shown that science has to go beyond that. It is quite sure that empirical science will never be able explain. It seems our thinking has evolved from one-dimensional into two- en than three dimensional, our brains might still evolve.. I read that ‘mathematics is the language of the universe’, so who knows. I still think that there are things in the universe that do exist, but that we aren’t able to perceive… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

Jeff, I would never suggest that physics and biology and chemistry alone could explain or account for human behavior. That is why Skinner’s separate science of behavior, based on measurement of behavior frequency as the indicator of probability, is outside of those sciences. It has similarities in that it uses standard units and dimensions of measurement, experimental method, and systematic observation. But it has its own subject matter. Because of all the fuzzy and horribly incorrect interpretations and communications of the experimental analysis of behavior and its applications that have occurred over the years, behavior science is also rather misunderstood,… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

Carl here is where you can (and have) help me out. I definitely share your enthusiasm for the benefits of measurement in investigation and yet still I see the way you are expressing it here as potentially limiting. The reason for that is that even though I agree that reason without measurement can be baseless, I also see that measurement doesn’t ensure grounding in reality. I came to this conclusion when I was an engineer and realized that often we can fit almost infinite theories to our measured data, sometimes chasing fictions for months or even years. Measurements don’t lie,… Read more »

David Noel Lynch
11 years ago

Science by definition is confined to the past by the requirement to collect and analyze data. Even the most accurate prediction of a future event by Science must come to pass before the prediction can be analyzed for accuracy. Science is the study of the past… The language of Science, Mathematics, is a collection of abstract concepts such as the number one.. When you apply context to the number one, you introduce errors. One apple and one orange will never equal two apples nor two oranges. Since the Universe is made of atoms, no thing can be nothing, thus 0.0… Read more »

David Noel Lynch
11 years ago

the above post did not like the mathematical symbols… please delete

Carl
11 years ago

Jeff, What you describe is not the experimental analysis of behavior, but some form of naturalistic observation — a little like Freud vs. Skinner. What behavior science seeks is to establish what are called functional relationships. That means there is a functional or causal relationship between two variables. One must systematically change one of those variables and then measure the impact on the other. Behavior analysts do this one organism or person at a time and look for regularities across individuals — what is called “replication.” In the case of the intersection, if the aliens had control of the lights,… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Wow ! I come late again and what a dialogue ! I am really impressed and once again I find myself agreeing fully with Carl. Many things have ben said. I would like to make just a few remarks. Like Carl’s, my vision of science is quite pragmatic. A physicist’s theory re-constructs the world around with two major rules which are 1. to have a theory logically consistent 2.and a set of experimental tools to check this theory. That is the minimal requirement. Now why does it make science so important ? it is becasue the re-construction of the world… Read more »

Carl
10 years ago

Catherine, I don’t think that behavior science or behavior analysis (and I distinguish behaviorism, a philosophy, from behavior science) per se distinguishes in quite the way you are suggesting. But there are some important distinctions. First, behavior science distinguishes between two huge categories of behavior: operant behavior and respondent behavior. Operant behavior is behavior that operates on the environment to produce an effect. This was Skinner’s focus, and it encompasses most of the day to day “activity” in which we engage. When we teach or learn new skills, manage people, help change habits, learn disciplines, exert effort, gain self-control, etc.,… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

There is something I would like to say again in this whole discussion. It is all very interesting to read but it seems to follow that very old discussion if science should be quantitative or qualitative. While I think we need both. To give a small example: I once did an assertiveness training, which is a kind of behaviourism training. I literally learned what to do when I was offended by someone, which words to say, it was taped and I could watch it, learn and see that in every conversation someone is above and someone is beneath etc.. This… Read more »

Carl
10 years ago

Radical Behaviorism says that your inner experience DOES count, that it arises from the same source as your outer experience, and that the same laws that apply to all of our behavior also include that inner behavior/experience. We can understand and develop our inner behavior as well as our outer behavior. Because we have tended to take a sort of intentionally mysterious approach to it in the past (perhaps thinking that it is really beyond analysis or understanding), we do not have nearly as many good case examples or studies of our analysis of inner behavior. It’s something of a… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

I read your blogs with great admiration. It is absolutely not my idea to say anything against behaviourism. I just think different fields have different focuses, that is why I love Integral so much. When I read about consciousness studies I see a different focus. I owe Andrew Cohen everything for explaining this in such a deep way. But now, reading this in a (kind of) scientific book, I suddenly understand it in a different way There is one sentence I read this weekend, which makes probably clear what I mean. It is probably very known to all of us:… Read more »

Carl
10 years ago

It seems to me that all of “what arises” — which I think of as behavior, whether apparently inner or outer — occurs in the same field of Awareness. That seems equivalent to what you say, that “Consciousness is what All connects.” I think we are in agreement!

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Thank you for your response. Probably we do agree, excuse me if I go to far, but I would be very interested to learn more about the connection between consciousness and behaviorism. The way De Quincey writes about it is that there is no scientific prove for cause and effect between for example a thought and the movement of the body which happens next. De Quincey says there is a shared consciousness in mind and body (micro level) and that is why movement follows the thought. What fascinates me so much is that it immediately becomes clear that that there… Read more »

Carl
10 years ago

Liesbeth, I think it’s probably true to say that there is no necessary causal relationship between thoughts and bodily movement in general, although I would suggest that in specific cases there can be. One way of describing this relationship in some cases is to say that events cause me to have a thought AND they cause me to move in a particular way. But I believe that it’s also the case in other examples that a thought, such as “I need to get out of bed” increases the likelihood that I will get out of bed in the morning. And… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago

Hello everyone, I am still in Australia, and although I haven’t been so active in participating in this discussion I have been reading from afar. I guess I wanted to pose one last question to Carl based on my earlier analogy of cars in an intersection. Assuming that the aliens do control the lights and give out tickets and are able to do controlled experiments as you say. Perhaps they really can in the end predict the behavior of the cars that pass through the intersection (although if a car comes from out of town for the first time I… Read more »

Carl
10 years ago

I don’t think anyone but the drivers themselves would know anything about their aspirations and thoughts and feelings unless they told someone about it in one way or another — through written or spoken language, music, art, mime, etc. Of course THEY (the drivers, observing their own inner behavior) would know about it, could count, record, and otherwise study the relationships between their inner behavior and other events — either other inner behavior or outer events. They could also learn to manage or control, and maybe predict, their own inner behavior. So it’s not clear to me why there would… Read more »

Chuck R
Chuck R
10 years ago

Jeff wrote: “…as opposed to top-down with wholes exerting influence over the development of the parts that create them.”(par. 3) I see that this likely emerges from your teleological approach, but do you have any examples of this? Meanwhile… Thomas Kuhn has a lot to say on the scientific method and what you term scientific fundamentalism in his “The structures of Scientific Revolution”. Very briefly, one cannot work without a viewpoint – paradigm – that structures how you view things, and guides what questions you ask and the methods you use to answer them. This is how we as human… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago
Reply to  Chuck R

Hello Chuck, I definitely appreciate your contribution here. You are addressing issues that I think about a great deal. After reading through many of your posts I think that you and I probably think very much alike (perhaps with a different emphasis.) In this comment for instance I think that fundamentally we agree on what scientific fundamentalism is – what you are adding is that many scientists – particularly the great ones – were beyond that. I believe also that was part of Kuhn’s point. I also do feel that there is something to the idea of scientism that is… Read more »

Frank Luke
10 years ago

Can we say that there are no absolutes, in science, truth, religion or anything else? Humans have that yearning for having truth nailed and absolutes established but as we see, beliefs–even long-held ones, can be swept into the dustbin of history giving way to new, more credible info. This process will probably continue as long as humanity continues to exist and continue to question and discover.

Frank Luke
10 years ago

In the marketplace of ideas, religions and science included in it, I submit that all ideas are stories and submitted as mere offerings of truth competing with other offerings that claim to be equally if not more true. With respects to all, to be battling over stories and suppositions disguised as truth is a contest to see who can win the most over to believing in your story or supposition, IMO. Some of the stories and suppositions seem to have more credence than others and enjoy adoption of the intelligentsia and those who give them credence until other more credible… Read more »