For those interested in the pejorative term of “scientism,” applied so often to atheists, note that over at EvolutionBlog Jason Rosenhouse continues his discussion of the issue with a new piece, “A follow-up post about scientism.” He’s adding a few notes in response to discussions on other websites, including my post on Paul Paolini’s definition of scientism at Rationally Speaking.
Jason makes some good points, one of them being this:
Moving on, my next point was that it is very easy to fall into a definitional morass when discussing this issue. The correctness of the assertion that science is the only way of knowing depends a lot on how you define the phrases “science” and “way of knowing.” It is very easy to render this discussion trivial by taking a sufficiently narrow definition of science.
For example, if you define science so that it is limited entirely to questions about the natural world, then it is obvious that science is not the only way of knowing. Historians produce knowledge, but they do not study the natural world. I would be very much surprised, though, if any of the folks typically accused of scientism actually reject historical scholarship as a legitimate route to knowledge. If history is the refutation of scientism, then no one is guilty of scientism.
It is certainly true that in everyday usage, when people use the word “science” they are usually thinking of something related to the natural world, probably physics, chemistry or biology. But it is equally true that people don’t usually have abstract discussions about ways of knowing. From my perspective, while it may seem odd to consider history a science, it is even odder to say that scientific knowledge is different in some fundamental way from historical knowledge. It is far more natural to say that they are the results of very similar methods applied to different questions.
Every science educator I have ever met has emphasized to his students that science is best thought of as a method of investigation. If you take that seriously, it is clear that the large collection of methods employed by scientists in their work can be applied just as well to questions that have nothing to do with the natural world. The reason we have a term like “social science” is to capture the idea that there are fields of inquiry with enough of the attributes of science to be worthy of the label despite not studying the natural world. I would further note that people routinely speak of having a scientific mindset or of taking a scientific approach to a problem.
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. Academic turf-protection is not something I care much about. My interest is in how you justify knowledge claims, and the methods employed in all of these disciplines strike me as instances of applied common sense, to borrow Thomas Huxley’s definition of science.
I agree, of course, though my custom of sometimes construing science broadly, so as to mean “finding out stuff via empirical investigation and reason” hasn’t met with universal approbation.
And, after discussing various “ways of knowing” that are ruled out as illegitimate, Jason concludes:
The really important thing, as I see it, is that religion be denied any status as a legitimate way of knowing. After that, everything else is a detail.
After all, accusations of scientism are levelled most often by those defending religion—and occasionally philosophy. (As a fellow cultural Jew, it hasn’t escaped my notice that Jason’s comment here is an obvious play on a famous statement by Rabbi Hillel.)
As for Paolini, recall that he defines scientism like this:
We shall say that a belief is scientistic just in case it is falsely justified by a pro-science belief; that is, if a belief appeals to a pro-science belief that does not in fact warrant it, then that belief is scientistic.
Jason’s response is stated much more succinctly than mine:
My problem with Paolini’s definition is that it seems like a trivialization of the term “scientism.” When you accuse someone of being in thrall to an “–ism,” you usually have something more in mind than the claim that he made a bad argument. Referring to an “ism” suggests that the person is not merely mistaken, but mistaken precisely because he adheres to a blinkered and erroneous view of the world. In Paolini’s account, by contrast, you are guilty of scientism the moment you make a certain sort of fallacious inference, with no reference to any broader worldview. I don’t see why we need a special epithet for people who make bad arguments starting from pro-science propositions. Just criticize the argument and be done with it.