Guest post: BioLogos begins series on scientism

December 9, 2011 • 5:27 am

Here’s a guest post, again by the eagle-eyed Sigmund, who spotted a new series of essays at BioLogos about the dreaded curse of scientism.  (As usual, those people can’t limit themselves to a single installment.)

The “S-word”

by Sigmund

Earlier this week BioLogos began a new series of posts by MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson, “Science and scientism.

You’ll remember Hutchinson from such BioLogos films as ‘Ian Hutchinson on New Atheists‘—where he took the road of ignoring all the real arguments of the new atheists and instead tried to defeat his chosen foe by applying the label ‘militant’ (presumably the old fashioned tactic of calling us godless communists needed to be updated.)

Well, it appears that ‘militant’ isn’t quite enough. A new, even scarier, label is required and yes, it’s the current apologetic mot de jour, “scientism”.  Hutchinson has written a whole book on the subject entitled Monopolizing Knowledge, and this BioLogos post promises to be the first of a series of articles on the subject.

Hutchinson’s website describes ‘Monopolizing Knowledge’ as follows:

A scientist refutes religion-denying, reason-destroying scientism

Can real knowledge be found other than by science? In this unique approach to understanding today’s culture wars, an MIT physicist answers emphatically yes. He shows how scientism — the view that science is all the real knowledge there is — suffocates reason as well as religion. Tracing the history of scientism and its frequent confusion with science, Hutchinson explains what makes modern science so persuasive and powerful, but restricts its scope. Recognizing science’s limitations, and properly identifying what we call nature, liberates both science and non-scientific knowledge.

Hutchinson defines scientism as “the belief that science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge”, yet it is soon apparent that the word “knowledge” is being applied in a very loose manner.

Because religious knowledge differs from scientific knowledge, scientism claims (or at least assumes) that it must therefore be inferior. However, there are many other important beliefs, secular as well as religious, which are justified and rational, but not scientific, and therefore marginalized by scientism. And if that is so, then scientism is a ghastly intellectual mistake.

Hutchinson implies that there are other ways to obtain knowledge:

I am not at all interested in limiting the ways of obtaining knowledge to those avenues that we call “scientific”.

Although these alternative avenues aren’t mapped out  in the current post, one presumes his next installments will expand on these alternative methods of knowledge acquisition. Unfortunately, after reading the first installment I have to doubt we’ll see anything more than the standard line of “science cannot explain beautiful music, art or poetry”.

I’ve begun to view the use of the term “scientism” as the philosophical analogy of using the “N-word”.  Scientism, the “S-word”, might be used as a positive term by a tiny minority of individuals, trying to reclaim the term from those flinging it about as a pejorative, yet the standard use remains that of a slur.  The aim seems to be to portray those committed to methodological naturalism as  devoid of emotion or feeling—the type of individual who would probably judge the merit of a Beethoven symphony using an oscilloscope.

This is not to say that noting the use of “scientism” is entirely without value.

Like the N-word, hearing the S-word tells us precious little about whom it is aimed but reveals a huge amount about the speaker.

Hutchinson promises more in the upcoming installments that will expand on the reasons why evangelicals should fear “scientism” and its dastardly practitioners. Rest assured that we’ll keep you informed if he manages to, metaphorically, pull a (pre-Cambrian?) rabbit out of the hat.

105 thoughts on “Guest post: BioLogos begins series on scientism

  1. Because religious knowledge differs from scientific knowledge, scientism claims (or at least assumes) that it must therefore be inferior. However, there are many other important beliefs, secular as well as religious, which are justified and rational, but not scientific, and therefore marginalized by scientism. [emphasis mine]

    Note the blatant equivocation from “knowledge” to “beliefs” that is on display here.

  2. The trouble with the word “scientism” is not that it is a slur, but that it is pernicious in encouraging bad thinking. It’s an attack on the very notion of a coherent epistemology.

    1. Exactly. Science is notoriously difficult to define, that subject has been been beaten down to death, but I have always found a simple definition of science as “proper epistemology” to be more than sufficient, because that’s really the least encompassing term that captures all of it. And proper epistemology is indeed all you need to explain the world around you, almost by definition, so the use of the label “scientism” as a pejorative is an attack on proper epistemology itself. Not surprising because bad epistemology is a defining characteristic of religion and it is in desperate defense of religion that all of this is being done, but it has to always be exposed for it is.

      1. I’m not sure epistemology is a useful term, being, first of all, a branch of philosophy, and more important, probably not understood by most of the people whom we bemoan for their lack of science education. A phrase such as “the systematic application of common sense” would resonate more with most people.

  3. I see a whole in the quote “Because religious knowledge differs from scientific knowledge, …. However, there are many other important beliefs….”

    He starts with knowledge and ends with belief. I know defining knowledge as “true justified belief” has its problems, but whatever knowledge is, it isn’t identical to belief.

  4. “Although these alternative avenues aren’t mapped out in the current post, one presumes his next installments will expand on these alternative methods of knowledge acquisition”

    I doubt it. What other method could there be of studying the world around us other than studying the world around us. The people who use the word scientism in this sense are never bold enough to be honest and state that they want “make-believe” to be given equal credibility.

  5. The word has a grammatical weakness. “Racism” can have a “racist” but “scientism” can’t have a “scientist”. So what will they use as a label? The article uses “scientistic” as an adjective. That could work as a label too, but it might be confusing. What about “scientistist”?

  6. Also, “scientism” is defined in the introduction as:

    the belief that science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge

    However, Hutchison claims that:

    Because religious knowledge differs from scientific knowledge, scientism claims (or at least assumes) that it must therefore be inferior.

    So apparently, before we even got properly started, it’s already “scientism” if you consider science a more reliable source of knowledge than religion. Which makes me wonder how Hutchinson proposes we deal with situations where religion and science make contradictory statements. Maybe it’ll be in one of his next installments?

    By the way, who argues that “different” equals “inferior”? Also, in that quote he makes it look like nobody has ever given any reasons to doubt the reliability of religious knowledge. Is this just sloppy writing, or is this a deliberate use of language?

    Another telling fact: his plan seems to be to put scientific knowledge under the microscope, but he doesn’t appear to be planning to apply the same scrutiny to religious knowledge.

  7. Someone has to create a name for this sort of logical fallacy (correct me if it already exists) because it is so widely used and in no so many different situations – you create a label (or appropriate an already existing one), load it with negative connotations, then stick it to what you want to discredit and use the attachment of the label to the idea as an argument against it.

    Scientism is one of the best examples – it has been successfully loaded with so much negative meaning that it is enough to just toss the term into the discussion and most people will never question the notion that scientism is bad, and the intellectual merits of the idea don’t matter at all.

    It is great that a small group of people are trying to reclaim the term, but we need more than just a small group of people. And we need people to always point out the fallacy when it is used in debate and online conversations

    1. While it’s similar to a strawman, I think kindergarten teachers have covered it: “name-calling.”

      Or maybe that’s just what the liberal cryptofascist PC police of scientism want me to think.

      1. It’s a classic strawman argument.

        That is the logical fallacy of claiming for your opponent a position he does not hold. Because it is so much easier to knock down a position that your opponent doesn’t hold than the one they do.

        No scientist of my acquaintance would ever declare him/herself an adherent of “scientism”. Not all knowledge can be gained with one’s eye peering through a microscope.

        That doesn’t mean the scientific method isn’t the most accurate and reliable way of determine “true facts” about the natural world around us. It is. But that’s “science”, not “scientism”.

        1. That’s not what I was referring to. I for example am perfectly happy to call myself an adherent to scientism and I am not the only one.

        2. Not all knowledge can be gained with one’s eye peering through a microscope.

          What knowledge can or has been gained other than by science – as Jerry says – broadly defined? That is, other than by proper epistemology?


    2. Same phenomenon at work in politics has made “socialism” and “liberalism” dirty words despite the fact that all U.S. politics have always been liberal (even the conservatives are liberal, i.e. they believe that individual rights are a good idea and the representative democracy is better than totalitarianism) and that since the great depression the U.S. has been decidedly socialist in ways supported by conservatives (try suggesting to your average “conservative” that we discontinue social security and medicare, watch how quickly he starts raving about the importance of socialism without actually using the word).

      I think “poisoning the well” is a fine label for this phenomenon. The general idea is that you point at a position and say “Anyone willing to support this position is a bad, bad person,” in the hope that people will not support such a position for fear of being considered a bad, bad person.

  8. Claims of scientism is quite a nice bit of hypocrisy. Religious belief, for it is not knowledge about anything real, is inferior to knowledge gained from science. That knowledge can be trusted. One always sees the religous depending on this science that they so decry. I guess that some degrees of “scientism” are okay if it’s convenient.

    Religion is only baseless opinion that one knows the mind of something that can’t be supported by evidence in the least.

  9. I think this entire article is based on a conflation of what we want to be true and what can be shown to be true. I think of science as the techniques to separate the two. Feynmann put it best by defining science as the skill of “not fooling ourselves” since we are the easiest ones to fool. This article (and I predict this entire series) will be based on the fact that the author refuses to make the distinction. Science should be about the evidence and not about the beliefs of the scientist. The better the scientist the better they can separate the two things. A good scientist goes where the facts take them, a poor scientist tries to find the facts to take them where they already want to go. Sadly, some people are considered good scientists because they are lucky enough to have their preconceived beliefs turn out to also agree with the facts. When facts contradict established ideas, the ideas must change. Scientific ideas change, religious ideas fight change as much as possible. It is very hard to change the divine and infallible even when they are wrong. Interestingly, the divine and infallible are frequently shown to be in error.

    1. Interestingly, the divine and infallible are frequently shown to be in error.

      Which, as I said in #7, it seems Hutchinson isn’t going to discuss.

    2. “conflation of what we want to be true and what can be shown to be true”

      Religious people, I think, believe in objective truth, like skeptics do. The strange thing is that when challenged about their objective truth claims, they often resort to postmodern looking defenses as if they were only making subjective claims.

      The typical “beautiful music, art or poetry” thing can’t be called objective knowledge, it’s about whatever the artist was trying to express or the observer is experiencing as a result which is the definition of subjective.

      I think the appropriate response is something like “I thought you believed in objective truth and that’s what I thought we were talking about. You can claim whatever methods you’d like for subjective knowledge. Let me know when you want to discuss a method besides science for reliably determining what’s objectively true.”

  10. I watched the KY debate between Jerry and John Haught where this issue of “ways of knowing” was part of the discussion. Haught kept harping on this. I was thinking whenever he said it that spiritual “ways of knowing” about the universe are individual, and therefore pretty useless to society as a whole. Anyone’s way of “knowing” about the universe based upon imaginary scenarios, gods, etc. may be of some use and/or comfort to the individual in his/her mind, but that is where it stays, as no two person’s spiritual “knowledge” is the same, and based upon feelings rather than evidence that can be shared and observed by multiple people. I would venture to guess that Hutchinson’s “way of knowing” will turn out to be just as individually driven and tied to imagination as the whole scenario about the world that Haught laid out.

  11. “Scientism, the ‘S-word’, might be used as a positive term by a tiny minority of individuals, trying to reclaim the term from those flinging it about as a pejorative, yet the standard use remains that of a slur.”

    Among those embracing scientism as a positive term for a whole worldview is Alex Rosenberg in his new book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. Those worried by scientistic overreach – the imperious put down of all the humanities as mere entertainment, incapable of offering even a shred of real knowledge – will find in Rosenberg a perfect example. But his thesis about mind and meaning is so extreme (and imo so philo-scientifically unsound) that I suspect he won’t find many supporters in the naturalistic community (we’ll see!). We can champion empiricism as the unrivaled route to establishing factual claims about the world without buying Rosenberg’s conclusion that “the self, the will, the purposes, projects, and plans that seem to guide people’s lives, along with their moral, aesthetic, and other values” are unnaturalizable fictions. For Hutchinson, Rosenberg is the perfect straw man of scientism come to life.

    1. As far as we can tell, there is indeed absolutely no purpose to our existence and morality, aesthetics and everything else are indeed fiction.

      There isn’t anything wrong with pointing it out if that’s what our best current understanding is, which is the case.

      1. Rosenberg not only denies that there’s no (ultimate) purpose to our existence, but that we ourselves have no purposes, intentions, or beliefs – literally! I’ll be curious to see if you or others here follow him in this should you read his book.

        He doesn’t however deny the existence of morality, only that there are no normative moral truths (hence his nihilism). On his view, basic “core morality” is part of our genetic makeup, and predisposes us to cooperation and being nice (hence his “nice” nihilism). Interestingly, he says that scientism has progressive, left wing implications for social policy. This is good, but naturalism, not scientism, is a more plausible basis for being progressive,

        1. I haven’t read the book so I am commenting on what I see about it.

          Whether we have “purposes, intentions or beliefs” depends on how you define those things, I don’t know how exactly he defines them. But as far as purpose of our existence goes, there is none, and there is no such thing as objective morality. Those are things I agree 100% with. I don’t quite agree that we are genetically programmed to be nice – we are genetically programmed to reproduce ourselves and be nice when being nice suits that goal. If it doesn’t we can be really nasty and we indeed have been historically.

          Which has very serious implication to social policy because our social policy (and culture in general) right now is built on the fundamental assumption that people are inherently nice to each other. And that’s not the case, therefore a more realistic and working social policy should be aiming that keeping those nasty aspects of human nature in check. That too means something very left-leaning but of a different kind

        2. Rosenberg not only denies that there’s no (ultimate) purpose to our existence, but that we ourselves have no purposes, intentions, or beliefs – literally! I’ll be curious to see if you or others here follow him in this should you read his book.

          Although I also haven’t read the book, I suspect Rosenberg denies these things in the same sense that Jerry denies free will. That is, Jerry doesn’t deny that, as human beings, we have direct veridical experiences of choosing and willing. These things are absolutely undeniable, and if all you mean by “free will” is “the veridical experience of choosing and willing” then Jerry will happily concede that he believes in free will as defined for the purposes of present discussion.

          However, Jerry would probably then argue that “the veridical experience of choosing and willing” is not what free will is commonly understood to mean, i.e. if you’re not explicitly defining or qualifying a statement about “free will” then most people will assume you’re talking about contra-causal free will or something very much like it.

          Similarly, I suspect Rosenberg concedes that there are processes that correspond to the veridical experience of “intention,” “belief,” and “purpose” — which none of us can honestly deny — but that these processes are not basic, i.e. they can be decomposed into more basic processes that are not explicitly teleological. (Alternately, they might be categories rather than basic concepts, i.e. there could be many different processes at work all of which we lump under the term “belief”. It’s unlikely that my belief that the black cat is black is based upon the same cognitive processes as my belief that the black cat is composed of molecules. The first is wholly veridical — I cannot honestly deny that the black cat is black — while the latter is based on a long and complicated chain of scientific inference.)

          So your problem with Rosenberg is likely semantic, but I’d have to read his book to know for sure.

        3. “no purposes, intentions, or beliefs – literally! I’ll be curious to see if you or others here follow him in this should you read his book”

          I’m guessing he’s using definitions for those ideas that require dualism to be true in order to exist. Similar to a fact being a true statement about some aspect of the universe, I like to define a belief as being a true statement about someone\something’s model of the universe. That way, it doesn’t depend on what consciousness is or even whether something is conscious so a computer simulation could also be described as believing certain things. I don’t think the word “belief” loses anything important defined in such a way.

          I’m assuming purpose and intention are synonymous, and he is defining them in a way that depends on a definition of free will that depends on dualism. I’m guessing we don’t want to define them such that we could say a thunderstorm intends to flood a river, etc. I would define intent to mean that someone\something is choosing actions based on what its internal simulation of the universe predicts will produce a given result. I think that captures the meaning well enough.

        4. “But his thesis about mind and meaning is so extreme…that I suspect he won’t find many supporters in the naturalistic community…”

          For me, reading his book was the intellectual equivalent of a dip in the Antarctic ocean: invigorating and challenging. He takes “the physical facts fix all the facts” to its logical conclusions. Tom Clark, re-read Chapter 10: You’ve Got To Stop Taking Yourself So Seriously.

          1. I haven’t read Rosenberg’s book, but from what is mentioned, it just sounds like a statement of the wellknown (if extremely controversial) position of eliminative materialism.

  12. The extreme flip side of this is that emotional bias and subjective phenomenology place bids to become the arbiter of reality. Again, your reference to “ways of experiencing” is a much more generous and accurate description of what is really going on than the nebulous insistence by others to have laissez-faire access to the phrase “ways of knowing.”

  13. Another gem from Hutchinson’s article:

    However, scientism rapidly becomes much more. It becomes an all-encompassing world-view; a perspective from which all of the questions of life are examined: a grounding presupposition or set of presuppositions which provides the framework by which the world is to be understood. In other words, it is essentially a religious position.

    Note how he implicitly defines religion here as “a set of presuppositions by which the world is to be understood”. Assume we grant (for the sake of argument) that scientism is indeed the set of presuppositions he claims it is*. If that would be a problem for scientism, though, wouldn’t that be a problem for religion itself too? But presumably, being a writer for BioLogos and a Christian, wouldn’t he consider adopting a religious world view as entirely acceptable, presuppositions and all? Then how could this be a strike against scientism?

    It always amuses me to see defenders of religion trying to score points by saying the position of their opponents is “just like religion”.

    *) Which I personally don’t accept. I mean, one could obviously define scientism as such, but I doubt you could find many people where you could honestly apply that definition to their world view.

    1. I love it when someone plays the “science is just a religion too” card.

      “OK, that means we can directly compare them. Our priests can walk on the moon. Our priests can double the human lifetime, even for non-believers. What miracles can your priests perform? None? Oh, that isn’t what you meant by the comparison?”

      1. This has precedent in the Bible. 1 Kings 18 – Elijah challenges the priests of Baal to see whose god is mightier. Both are challenged to have their gods set fire to a sacrifice and YHWH does it while Baal is unable to.

        How many believers would go along with a similar challenge? Priests of YHWH get your god to take you to the moon. “Priests” of science, follow your scientism. Whoever gets to the moon first has the superior philosophy.

        It may have worked for Elijah, but I doubt it would carry much weight these days…

  14. I saw Hutchinson speak a few years ago, on the topic of science and religion. It no longer surprises me that fusion research seems to be going nowhere.

  15. Comic sans.

    You need the typeface Comic sans to adequately convey the true meaning of his post. Which is laughable nonsense.

    Who in the world besides theists are claiming that science is the source of all knowledge? That’s not even a strawman — it’s just a lump of straw.

    And please, oh please, tell me what “knowledge” theism can provide other than cover for one’s superstitious beliefs in supernatural entities? And how do you KNOW that your superstitious beliefs in supernatural entities are the correct ones (in other words, “true knowledge”) — and not just lies implanted by Satan. Or alternatively, untrue beliefs based on swallowing as credible myths told in a 2000+ year old collection of fairy stories and revisionist Jewish history?

    He’s written a book about this? Trees have died for this?

    I mourn for the state of intellectual discourse. If I, a mere mortal, can see straight through to the empty core of this vacuous rhetoric, I can’t wait until the enlightened ones show up. R. Joseph? Jacques? Pray come down from Olympus and fight a true intellectual battle!!

      1. Ah. A (sneer) philosopher. Yes, I should have qualified my statement.

        Whatever idiotic idea that can be implanted in the unformed brain, some philosopher is going to seize on it.

        This is why philosophy that is independent of empirical justification of claims is useless. It’s theology. Nothing more.

        Now, show me a scientist who claims to be an adherent to scientism.

        1. Rosenberg of course claims he’s doing empirically informed philosophy, that is, simply stating the facts about mind, meaning and morality as science sees it, and he calls it, proudly, scientism. But he runs completely off the rails philosophically (and scientifically too, I think) in denying any ontology and explanatory framework above that of physics plus a little neuroscience (kind of like Jerry saying that our decisions are determined by the laws of physics). Which then leads Rosenberg to conclude that the humanities are a joke and that mental states like beliefs and intentions don’t exist. Folks tempted by scientism, or wanting to defend it as a viable worldview (as opposed to a more balanced naturalism), might want have a look at Rosenberg’s book. It’s a cautionary tale.

          1. Once again, you make the explicit assumption that he is wrong. And that’s not a good assumption.

            As far as we can tell it is indeed all cold impersonal colorless physics. There is no basis whatsoever to think otherwise, except for centuries of cultural baggage accumulated in times when there was no physics, baggage that it is very difficult to get rid of at this point, both because of how deeply it is embedded in our culture and thinking and because people still don’t know much physics.

            The humanities are mostly a joke, and a very dangerous one, because their obsessive anthropocentric focus has set up and helped maintain a dominant worldview that is completely disconnected from reality, worldview that puts man in the center of everything, focuses of morality, emotions and various issues of intraspecific competition and mostly forgets about the physical world we live in and our place in it. That is not to say that humanities are a joke in principle, they are not and they should play an important role in understanding human behavior. But the majority of humanities as they have existed throughout the centuries have done little more but to impeded and obscure understanding of human nature and the place of human in the cosmological order. And since all advances that have overthrown some of those misguided views have come from science, it is understandable that the generalization “humanities are useless, science gives you all the answers” arises. It is not an absolutely accurate generalization, but is mostly true.

            1. “That is not to say that humanities are a joke in principle, they are not and they should play an important role in understanding human behavior.”

              This is exactly what Rosenberg denies. For him, we learn almost nothing from the study of history, and the arts and literature teach us nothing about ourselves. But this only part of his hyper-reductionism/eliminativism. I think Massimo will be reviewing him shortly, should prove interesting.

              My case against Rosenberg’s scientism is sketched at and at

          2. What is wrong with “saying that our decisions are determined by the laws of physics”? Given a naturalistic worldview, it’s tautological, since the laws of physics then describe how every particle in the universe moves with no exceptions. How is that “denying any ontology and explanatory framework above that of physics plus a little neuroscience”? Just because everything is made of fundamental particles doesn’t mean that we can’t describe things at a higher level, it just means we can always use the particle level if it’s convenient.

            1. “Just because everything is made of fundamental particles doesn’t mean that we can’t describe things at a higher level, it just means we can always use the particle level if it’s convenient.”

              I’d suggest that it isn’t that convenient in explaining human decision-making. Although our decisions and actions are certainly consistent with the laws of physics, it isn’t particularly illuminating to say they are determined by those laws. What determines our decisions is more usefully explained at higher levels of description, in terms of the various bio-neuro-psycho-social-economic laws that are empirically discovered to govern human behavior.

              1. I agree with everything you just said. Talking about humans at the particle level isn’t useful for any practical purpose like explaining behavior, but it is sometimes useful for making conclusions about how human thought works, e.g. it is predictable in principle, a computer simulation could duplicate thought, relatedly, AI is possible, everything we call a thought or belief is somehow encoded in the physical structure of the brain, etc.

  16. “Because religious knowledge differs from scientific knowledge, scientism claims (or at least assumes) that it must therefore be inferior.”

    Umm, is this sentence saying that scientism claims that scientism is inferior?

    “However, there are many other important beliefs, secular as well as religious, which are justified and rational, but not scientific, and therefore marginalized by scientism.”

    There is an important rider on the idea that a belief is justified and rational, in that the facts that support that belief should at least exist, let alone not contradict the said belief. Beliefs without any supporting facts are just subjective fancies (or aesthetics, if you will). Beliefs that are shown to be contra to facts are otherwise known as delusions.

    As others have stated, I can see that this is going into the whole “art, feelings and emotions” way-of-knowing. Ick.

  17. The aim seems to be to portray those committed to methodological naturalism as devoid of emotion or feeling—the type of individual who would probably judge the merit of a Beethoven symphony using an oscilloscope.

    Erm…you do know that the most passionate, most dedicated, and most skilled musicians do exactly that, don’t you?

    I mean, what else do you think goes on in music schools and conservatories?

    When at ASU, in various music theory or “form and analysis” classes, we analyzed Beethoven symphonies to better understand what makes them tick. One of my fonder memories is of analyzing Mozart’s theme and twelve variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and then writing our own thirteenth variation. I also excerpted the finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in another exercise in that same class and incorporated it into something in a much more modern style. I think it was actually a music history class where we did a formal analysis of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, because there’s no better way to teach the historical importance of motivic development than by getting your hands really dirty with that work.

    Really, this notion that all there is to music is the warm fuzzies you get from listening to your favorite piece is like claiming that there’s nothing more to interpersonal relationships than the orgasm. Sure, that part is really important and it’s quite nice, but if you think that’s all there is to it…well, in that case, I really, really, really feel sorry for you and all you’re missing out on.

    And, to bring it back on topic, that’s exactly the difference between the scientific and religious approaches to understanding the world. There’s no curiosity in religion — that sort of thing isn’t allowed. The scientist, on the other hand, will want to try to understand what’s going on and make it better.

    Even suggesting that these sorts of things can be improved upon is an insult to the creator god — it means that the perfect creation isn’t quite so perfect, after all. And the hubris of the creations that would try to best their creator and thereby challenge the authority of the creator’s chosen spokesperson!



    1. I regularly drive by a Baptist Church that has one of those changeable signs in front of the property. This weeks sophomorism is:

      “Everything is in God’s hands.
      Leave it there.”

      Really? The Japanese tsunami is in god’s hands? And the clean-up?

      Our economy? God’s going to deal with the European debt crisis and US unemployment?

      It’s sad, but people really do think this way…and think their inanities are important enough to announce to whatever part of the world happens to be driving by their church that week.

      1. It’s sad, but people really do think this way…

        Except when someone points out that this makes God responsible not just for all the good things in the world, but also for all the bad.

        1. Oh no. That’s “free will”. Or “Satan”. Or “godless homosexuals.”

          God is never responsible for the bad thing.

          1. Or it’s Eve, who gets all the blame for The Fall.

            Yes, it’s all the fault of teh wimmins. If only they’d keep their yaps shut and stop tempting us with their ripe, juicy fruit, nothing bad would ever happen.

            And that dear reader, is the Alpha and Omega of Christian theodicy.


              1. You’ve only just now figured it out?

                I’d think the whole nudity, shame of nudity, “forbidden fruit,” tree of knowledge (“in a Biblical sense”), painful childbirth being the punishment, and on and on and on would have given it away….


    2. Thanks Ben Goren,

      I was going to post something along similar lines. Music theory was recast in scientific terms in the 50s and 60s and it’s been thriving this way ever since. Meanwhile, at least since Helmholtz there has been a field of music psychology (music cognition is a huge thing now), which combines acoustics, psychoacoustics, cognitive psychology, information theory, signal processing, and so forth. Turning an oscilloscope on a Beethoven symphony (or more likely, making a spectrogram of it) is a fine way to learn some things about Beethoven, orchestral acoustics, audition and perception.

      And in any case, if you’re worried about judging merit, there are plenty of purely musical reasons we think that Beethoven was a more skilled composer than a warmer fuzzy like Elton John, based strictly on “soulless” analysis.

      1. Funnily enough, I both have an oscilloscope and occasionally send music through it- although in my case its not to measure anything, I just like the way the waveforms look on my old-school analog cathode ray oscilloscope!

    3. Well said, as usual. Religionists keep harping about the “fact” that science can’t answer questions about art but never bother to dig too deeply into what that would actually mean.

      In fact, the notion of “craft” is widely considered an integral part of art, and craft is in turn a mechanical rule-based system that one must learn (usually in a pedagogical system) pretty much exactly the way science is learned. In fact, Thomas Kuhn argued that (for example) painting in the middle ages should really qualify as a science. This is because before the renaissance, no (western) painting was realistic in terms of perspective or, usually, even basic anatomy. Leonardo da Vinci and others developed (by scientific inquiry, such as Leonardo’s close study of anatomy, or experimentation with the actual practice of painting) techniques by which realistic three dimensional scenes could be represented on a 2-dimensional canvas. Why should certain distortions of a representation on a 2-dimensional field cause a human being to “mistake” the 2D field for a 3D one? That is absolutely a question for science to answer.

      So science can certainly be brought to bear on questions about craft or technique which are undeniably part of any cultural practice that most people would call “art”. Ultimately, I think science can also be brought to bear on aesthetics in general and on theories of content (both will require further advances in cognitive neuroscience which I have no doubt are forthcoming). So when theists say “science cannot answer these questions” they should properly say, “science has not yet answered these questions”. To assert that science cannot be relevant to what it merely has not yet been relevant is to beg the question under consideration unless such an assertion is coupled with evidence or argument, neither of which seem forthcoming.

      1. Yes! I’m still reading Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music. The next chapter is “My Favourite Things: Why Do We Like The Music We Like?”

        I don’t doubt that Levitin will show that science can, indeed, answer at least some questions about æsthetics.


        1. Great book. I don’t think Levitin conclusively demonstrates that science can account for aesthetics but he certainly points out a lot of possibilities for how science (and neuroscience in particular) could account for aesthetics in the light of further discoveries in cognitive neuroscience. Certainly my conjecture that science will eventually be able to do so is based partially on Levitin’s book. Incidentally, Oliver Sachs’ _Musicophilia_ is a great companion read for _This Is Your Brain on Music_ if you haven’t read it yet. It focuses more on the “phenomenology” of music rather than the neuroscience, though there is plenty of neuroscience in it. As a result they end up complementing each other quite nicely.

        2. And if you want something yet more technical, you can look at “The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music” edited by Peretz and Zatorre. There’s also a peer-reviewed journal called “Music Perception” which goes in lots of directions.

    4. …the type of individual who would probably judge the merit of a Beethoven symphony using an oscilloscope.

      I was going to say that I was highly incensed at reading this passage (having my character so impugned and maligned). Incensed, I tell you. Harumph.

      As usual though, Ben beat me to the punch.

    5. Indeed – as someone who is almost completely without musical talent – I’ve often wondered at the astonishing signal processors that my colleagues and friends seem to have. Many of them are also capable of showing in some terms or other what they are capable of perceiving – the physics of the sound, etc. – and I find it incredible that what would require me to use instruments to detect they just pick out.

  18. This site is much about the defence of the epistemological position that knowledge can only be obtained through reason, observation, experience, ingenuity and hard work. Theists, post modernists and sundry other quacks vociferously contest this. But what have they to show that is better than revelation, miracles, blind faith, numerology, homeopathy and faith healing?

      1. Good point! Money vigorously circulates as soon as gullibility is involved. This truth has been solidly established by the opposing party.

  19. Enlightenment writings helped to insinuate scientism as an unacknowledged presupposition into much of the intellectual climate of the succeeding two centuries.

    Spoken like a true homeopath.

  20. “religious knowledge differs from scientific knowledge” I can’t argue since I have no idea what “religious knowledge” is, beyond the knowledge of the fact that religions exist. Why not to give an example?

    1. “Religious knowledge” certainly doesn’t mean “sociological/historical knowledge about religions”. It means “knowledge of facts about objects of religious belief (deities, angels, or demons)”.

    1. It’s a truly disturbing fact that there are scientists at MIT and Harvard (where they have a bunch of BioLogos pawns too) who do that kind of disservice to science and the scientific community

  21. Bleating about “scientism” is basically a loser’s gambit. If science really did demonstrate the existence of a religion-compatible deity, does anyone really think that the religious would be dismissing the research as “scientism”:

    “So, silly Mr. scientist, you’ve isolated DNA from the Turin Shroud and found divine messages embedded in the Y chromosome, but what does that really demonstrate? You may be impressed by that proof of the Riemann hypothesis, that to-the-second list of upcoming supernovae and those 100% effective anti-cancer drugs, but to sophisticated theologians, all you have demonstrated is your sad philosophical ignorance.”

    I can’t really see it…

    1. Yes, as I’ve often pointed out, if there were evidence in favor of any of the events of either testament, then the thing theists call “faith” would be considered a mortal sin.

      “What? You want us to believe without evidence? How Dare YOU ignore the evidence right in front of you!”

      I’ll also point out that faith isn’t really belief without evidence. Not in the way theists use it — and certainly not in the way that the vast majority of the so-called faithful demonstrate it.

      It’s credulity, not faith, that drives religion. Credulity that 2000-year-old myths have a basis in fact.

      1. And we are still having this conversation in 2011! People want pre-Enlightenment beliefs – and some days this just saddens me. I understand it as I have degrees informing my frameworks, however, what a bloody waste, when people could be creating poetry, paintings, enjoying repartee or reading great and lesser literature. Think I’ll have a cup o’ caffeine now to drown my sorrows.

  22. I would just be curious to know if he’s consistent enough to think that yes, indeedy, those $cientologists also have a difference ‘way of knowing’.

    Someone needs to ask him what he believes/feels (clearly, not what he thinks!) about $cientology.

    1. Oh no. He’s writing for BioLogos.

      Jeebus only. Evangelical, coming-any-second-now with a flaming sword Jeebus.

      Those other religions aren’t a different way of knowing. They’re misguided cults preying on innocents. There is no such thing as a “sophisticated” theology of $cientology, or Islam, or Hindu, or even Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

      It’s flaming-sword-bearing Jeebus or nothing at BioLogos.

  23. “Because religious knowledge differs from scientific knowledge…” – I. Hutchinson

    The difference between the former and the latter is that the latter exists.
    Theologians qua theologians know nothing. They have their beliefs and their subjective certainties, and that’s all.
    Of course, they will strongly object to this by asserting that their religious beliefs are successfully turned into knowledge by virtue of rational intuition, mystical apprehension, or divine revelation.

  24. “Can real knowledge be found other than by science?”

    I read this question as:

    “Can real knowledge be found other than by the scientific kind of sense perception called methodical observation?”

    Well, there is a pre-scientific source of knowledge which may be called common-sense perception, i.e. the ordinary everyday use of one’s natural senses outside scientific laboratories or observatories in order to find out what’s the case or going on in one’s life-world.
    Of course, pre-scientific common-sense perception is no less empirical than scientific perception. The former is simply less methodical and systematic than the latter—yet it gives us real (fallible) knowledge as well.

    What kinds of knowledge there are or can be depends on what kinds of realities (and facts) there are.
    That is, there can be no mathematical knowledge unless there is a mathematical reality populated by abstract entities; and there can be no ethical or aesthetic knowledge unless there is an ethical or aesthetic reality.
    And whether there are such abstract or normative realities is highly contentious among the philosophers.

    1. Yeah. The trouble is that if you try to apply common-sense on its own as the source of knowledge, you end up assuming philosophical intuition is a reliable black box, when it really just isn’t and your brain will blithely spout complete bollocks as it tries to answer questions from outside the ancestral evolutionary environment. And we discover these cognitive errors because science is less forgiving than common sense, even if lots of people (e.g., philosophers) agree on the common sense.

      Science is a very unnatural pursuit for the human brain. We only bother with it because it works.

      1. What I call pre-scientific common-sense perception is sense perception, which is different from pre-philosophical, naive reflection.
        Whether philosophical reflections and judgements resulting therefrom are justifiable in terms or rational intuitions or insights alone is another epistemological question, which is answered negatively by empiricists according to whom all synthetic, i.e. nonlogical and nonconceptual, knowledge is based on and derived from
        experience/sense perception.

        1. I don’t think you can make such a split.

          Perception and cognition are one system, as far as we can tell from neuroscience – and the fact that science itself is neither rationalist nor empiricist, but a fruitful hybrid of both.

  25. If scientism is the claim that extrasensory perception (clairvoyance, precognition, or telepathy), mystical apprehension or intuition (distinct from rational intuition) or vision, and (divine) revelation are not genuine sources of justification and knowledge, then I happily call myself an adherent of scientism.

  26. This is good. We need to knock down their silly defenses one at a time.

    It’s always good when your opponent reveals their tactics.

    As a popular tactic it’s a non-starter and dum:
    1. Nobody knows what the heck it is or means
    2. Anything related to philosophy is considered completely irrelevant to real life
    3. Trying to explain it to a popular audience will only make it more incomprehensible.

    They are running out of places to hide if this is their new strategy.

  27. “Hutchinson implies that there are other ways to obtain knowledge:

    ‘I am not at all interested in limiting the ways of obtaining knowledge to those avenues that we call ‘scientific’.'”

    I hope he lays his cards on the table, explicitly claiming that there is religious knowledge which is epistemically grounded in religious or mystical experiences as a sui generis kind of perception: extrasensory or supersensory perception.
    (Strictly speaking, ESP is nonsensory perception in the sense of not being a manifestation of any natural or supernatural sensory capacities, whereas SSP is a manifestation of supernatural sensory capacities, i.e. of a “sixth sense” or a “sensus divinitatis” (Calvin/Plantinga).

  28. “Unfortunately, after reading the first installment I have to doubt we’ll see anything more than the standard line of ‘science cannot explain beautiful music, art or poetry’.” – J. Coyne

    “[N]onscientific knowledge is, or can be, true knowledge in the many disciplines that do not lend themselves to the methods and presuppositions of natural science, e.g., the arts, humanities, history, most social studies, and theology.”

    (Hutchinson, Ian. “Science: Christian and Natural.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 55, no. 2 (June 2003): 72-79. p. 73) []

    1. The phrase “true knowledge” is redundant, since “false knowledge” is a contradiction in terms. False knowledge is nothing but pseudoknowledge, i.e. false belief mistaken for knowledge.

  29. “In his new book Monopolizing Knowledge (…), physicist Ian Hutchinson engages with the world-view he calls ‘scientism’: ‘the belief that science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge’ (page vii).”

    I think it is helpful to distinguish between epistemic sources of knowledge (e.g. experience and reason) and academic producers of knowledge (academic disciplines, sciences).

    Then scientism can be characterized as the view that an academic discipline is a knowledge-producer and thus a “true” science only if it is modeled on the natural sciences.

  30. Hutchinson obviously wants to sell theology as a producer of knowledge and thus as a science, and revelation and religious/mystical experience as genuine sources of knowledge.

  31. I note that Hutchinson fails the Widdowson test in changing scientism (sensu stricto) to scientism (sensu spurius) and tracing it back to Cheney instead of Pierce:

    “Scientism (sensu stricto) began as a label for the doctrine that truth is fixed, a priori and universal; that inductive science is the only means to its discovery and certainty is a realistic outcome. This doctrine was rejected by a particular group of philosophers of science belonging to a tradition pioneered by Charles Sanders Peirce in the late 19th c., […]

    Briefly then, my point is that challenging science’s claim to exclusivity by labeling it Scientism (lite) is very different from using the same label to challenge science’s claim to certainty (Scientism-sensu strictu). If the apologists, accommodationists and NOMAtics presume to claim some of the legitimacy of the philosophy of science by borrowing its terminology, they could at least get it right.”

    If Hutchinson is a working scientist, maybe he should start by checking his references. Because that piece wouldn’t pass peer review.

  32. To us it all comes down to prediction. If the knowledge comes from a magic pumpkin or a cereal box and predicts — who cares?

    Can anything that doesn’t predict even be called knowledge?

    It all appears to go back to the dictum “Shut up and calculate.” What we’re calculating is independent variables and real world empirical measurable results, duh.

    How is that any kind of “-ism?”

  33. >MIT professor in a technical field
    >biasing epistemology to make room for a god of the gaps

    goat cheese and merlot detected

    Seriously, Alan Lightman and Ian Hutchinson don’t need more education in science and engineering — they need more education and peer review from the humanities, because gods are things humans imagine.

    Their misunderstanding of gods reminds me of an article I read years ago in The New Yorker magazine where an author recalled a biology class where the professor asked the students to look through their microscopes and sketch what they saw in their lab notebooks. The professor saw the author’s lab notebook and exclaimed,

    I can’t believe it! You sketched the reflection of your eye off the eyepiece! You idiot! You drew your eye!

  34. As marketers, we know this tactic.
    1. Take a overly simplistic,but emotionally evocative description of your opponent’s beliefs.
    2. Characterize your opponent’s beliefs as more extreme then they are — specifically, in the direction that is most scary to your audience. “All scientists, say all of this all the time.” Translated: There is no room for you or your loved ones experiences, ideas , feelings, etc.
    3. Using the false and exaggerated characterization, trigger defensive emotions in your opponents so they end up a) defending against the false claims, wasting time and resources, b) look emotional and unreasonable.

    Clever, trick. It usually works.

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