What is Scientism, And Why Is It Bad?

The charge of scientism is both unreflectively made and unreflectively dismissed; wielded by cranks and bores and brushed off by the smug and the superficial. Given this, its meaning, and its significance, is unclear. Some believe, indeed, that it has none. Steven Pinker says it is “more of a boo word than a label for a coherent doctrine”. Daniel Dennett says it is “an all-purpose, wild card smear”.

One can readily accept that foes of scientism have sometimes resembled cranky farmers, standing in their fields and screaming, “Get off my land!” Nonetheless, the charge is meaningful, and often necessary.

Pinker was mistaken in suggesting that there is no doctrine that could be called scientism. Some philosophers, indeed, have accepted the term. In its substantive form, scientism is a radical kind of verificationism, the idea that meaningful statements must be verifiable through scientific methods. Metaphysical, moral and aesthetic statements, then, are meaningless on anything but an emotional level. Some are unashamedly convinced that this is true. Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist Guide to Reality was a book-length argument for scientism that promoted what he called “nice nihilism”. Somehow the perspective never quite caught on.

Different arguments can be levelled against the idea. Raymond Tallis, the philosopher and neuroscientist, rejects the modern tendency to spurn metaphysics. “Fundamental physics,” he has claimed, “Is in a metaphysical mess and needs help.” As an example he offers “recent attempts to explain how the universe came out of nothing, which rely on…the inexplicable free gift of the laws of nature waiting in the wings at the moment of creation.” To be sure, such a view has opponents – like James Ladyman and other advocates of naturalized metaphysics – but the very argument illuminates the relevance of philosophy and not just the empirical sciences.

The most egregious forms of scientism, though, are superficial and unsystematic: not embracing Rosenberg’s reductionism wholesale but extending the proper limits of the natural sciences by inflating the value of quantifiability.

Take Sam Harris’ attempt to solve the is/ought dilemma, which smuggles ethical assumptions into what he claims is a scientific argument. He is right, of course, that science can help us to determine what is good, by, for example, telling us what is most probable to maximise pleasure and minimise harm. The “is” part is not entirely unconnected from the “ought” part. Yet Harris is more tendentious when he tries to bridge the gap, writing, in The Moral Landscape:

To say that morality is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal), because we must first assume that the well-being of conscious creatures is good, is exactly like saying that science is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal), because we must first assume that a rational understanding of the universe is good. We need not enter either of these philosophical cul-de-sacs.

This is a strange comparison. What is at issue in Harris’ unscientific alternative universe is not the epistemological value of science but the extent to which men value epistemology. If we made a collective judgement that the sky was green it would remain blue nonetheless. If people did not value the well-being of conscious creatures, though, what scientific basis would it have as a moral criterion?

Granted, people tend to care about their own well-being, though even here conceptions of “well-being” are contentious. There are some grounds for agreement – no one would suggest it might enhance well-being to be burned alive – but elsewhere things are murkier. Naive utilitarianism has no defence against coercive wireheading.

Even trickier for Harris is the difficulty (I would say impossibility) of making a scientific case for universalism. Even if one cares about one’s own well-being, and the well-being of one’s friends and family, one might not care about the lives of strangers. Harris writes:

...to say that we ought to treat children with kindness seems identical to saying that everyone will tend to be better off if we do…

I am not at all convinced that saying we out to treat children with kindness is identical to saying everyone will tend to be better off if we do. Beneath the modern world, which is so good for many of us, are the bones of millions of starved, neglected, overworked or outright murdered children. No believer in natural selection could be confident we would be better off if those kids had received more kindness.

More significantly, Harris overlooks the question of how kind men and women are and should be towards different children. Mums and dads prioritise their childrens’ interests over those other people. One cannot scientifically determine the extent to which we should restrain natural human favouritism.

“Resisters to scientific thinking,” Steven Pinker has observed, often object that some things cannot be quantified”:

Yet unless they are willing to speak of issues that are only black and white and to foreswear using the words more, less, better and worse (and for that matter the suffix -er), they are making claims that are inherently quantifiable. 

As I have written, “better” and “worse” are not always quantifiable concepts. Nor are “uglier” and “more beautiful”. Yes, our aesthetic ideas, to some extent, are products of our evolution. Yet one could not make a solely scientific argument for Turner’s paintings being more beautiful than Thomas Kinkade’s. Thank God! What could reduce the value of a work of art more savagely than the official application of a unit of aesthetic worth? The shiver that ascends one’s spine in the presence of beauty would shrink before the presentation of scientific data.

Science alone cannot determine what is valuable, nor can it be the sole guide of rational decision-making. In his book Rationalism in Politics, Michael Oakeshott observed that knowing recipes and knowing how to cook are very different things. No sensible person would deny the value of systematic evidence in politics. Yet a danger of scientism is that it encourages analysis abstracted from experience; obscuring the complexities of practical wisdom. An example of this dangerous tendency was provided by the academic architects of the Vietnam War, who, David Halberstram suggested in his book The Best and the Brightest, created “brilliant policies that defied common sense”.

The boorish yet brilliant Nassim Nicolas Taleb has written of the randomness and risk that makes a scientific comprehension of all the variables of political calculuses difficult if not impossible. This does not make science irrelevant but illuminates the needs for robustness and restraint to protect us against hubris.

To criticise scientism is not to criticise science. One is able to acknowledge its explanatory power without being forced to accept its predominance.

Nonetheless, people who value philosophical, historical and artistic concepts should not be afraid to maintain their relevance. In his essay “The Two Cultures” CP Snow observed the separation of the sciences and the humanities. I hope there can be a “third culture”, which some aspire to build, but its existence depends on two collaborators meeting and not one culture imagining itself as a conquering hero.

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About bsixsmith

I am a writer of stories and poems - published by Every Day Fiction, The London Journal of Fiction, 365 Tomorrows and Det Poetiske Bureau - and a columnist for Quillette, Areo and Bombs & Dollars.
This entry was posted in Rationalism, Scepticism, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

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