Rosenhouse on scientism, part 2

December 28, 2011 • 4:38 am

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.

27 thoughts on “Rosenhouse on scientism, part 2

  1. Problems occur with pure philosophy when some philosophers claim, in all seriousness, that coming up with the hypothetical notion of p-zombies therefore disproves materialism. (Thankfully, others call them idiots.) That’s the sort of error that’s bad enough to say “actually, how did your field ever let this through?”

  2. As far as I can tell, “scientism” is just a dysphemism for “any refusal to lower the standards of evidence and logic however much it takes to give my unjustified beliefs a free pass.”

  3. In The New York Times on February 19, 2006, Leon Weiseltier called scientism “one of the dominant superstitions of our day.”

    Science is a method of inquiry based upon sense observations. Scientist use operational definitions. Metaphysics is a method of inquiry that is based on knowledge gained from our ability to make ourselves the subject of our own knowledge. Example: Humans have free will.

    People guided by scientism consider metaphysical truths to be untrue or void of content. They insist on getting a definition of free will, for example, and not getting one, assume that free will is an illusion. They live their lives as if they had free will (they feel guilty, apologize, and promise not to do it again), but in philosophical works say that free will doesn’t exist:

    “Free will is commonly interpreted to mean ‘the power of directing our own actions without [total] constraint by necessity or fate.’ The conviction that human beings are endowed with such a power is pervasive, even more so than a belief in the human soul…As a philosophical concept, free will is like an onion whose skin has been completely peeled away: at its core, it ceases to exist. (Lee M. Silver, Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality, p. 59)

    Another example of scientism is this:

    “This book proposes a theory of consciousness that stays carefully on the functional level and does not to try to ‘explain’ how awareness could have emerged from a material thing such as a brain. I believe that we might someday understand how this came to be. However, in my opinion, our present intellectual and scientific resources are not sufficient to give us even the beginnings of such a theory.” (Merlin Donald, p. 9 of A Mind So Rare)

    There is a tremendous amount of evidence that science will eventually solve all scientific questions like the cause of the universe 14 billion years ago. The evidence is that the scientific method has always worked. But the question Donald thinks will be solved (What is consciousness?) is not a scientific question. Another non-scientific question is: What is causality?

    Rational people, aware of the structure of the human mind, know that human beings are embodied spirits.

    This is discussed more fully in my essay at

    1. I found these statements in your link:

      “An example supportive of Lamarkism is that the feet of infants have thick soles. It is not unreasonable to think that having thick skin where there is a lot of friction is an acquired trait”


      “Natural selection only explains the adaptation of organisms to their environment, not the increase in the complexity of organisms as they evolved from bacteria to mammals (common descent)”

      Threw me somewhat!

      1. This bit of his is not word-salad:

        (What is consciousness?) is not a scientific question.

        That is quite plainly clear & pure distilled utter bollocks.
        Bloody philosophers…

    2. “Rational people, aware of the structure of the human mind, know that human beings are embodied spirits.”

      I can’t refute this; reading it exhausted me. Also, I’m several orders of magnitude dumber now than I was before I read it, so I’m quite without the ability.

  4. I think the problem is much simpler: the single rational thinking is based on baesian rules, logically prooved to be true.
    Common science, historical research or social science are particular form (more or less complete) of bayesian reasoning.
    Even religion is (was) a part of a bayesian reasoning, but the God hypothesis is not a valid one, exactly because creationism is not a valid hypothesis in this formalism.

  5. How about this “scientistic” take on Hillel:

    Do not claim truths to your neighbor with persuasions you would not have him apply to you: this is the whole of rational discourse; the rest is commentary.

    (The word “persuasions” embraces not only rhetorical tactics and evidentiary standards but also threats and torture.)

  6. Hmm. I was a bit taken aback by Rosenhouse’s tossing out of the “natural world” phrases.

    Unless I’m mistaken, science does only concern the natural world. And so does history. By definition, isn’t everything we see and do and know within the natural world? Historians know things by checking primary documents, and drawing conclusions by inferring facts from materials. The social sciences study the behaviors of people, which is certainly something that happens within the natural world.

    Why is it that when suddenly we’re discussing human nature, we suddenly think it is outside the realm of the natural world? Are we now supernatural? Have we become God?! I thought the only field that didn’t study the natural world, and therefore studied that which is supernatural, was theology!

    1. I tend to agree with you here.
      I suspect the difference between science and history is that science always deals with primary sources (in other words the results of physical investigations) while history is often based on secondary sources – someone elses interpretation of the primary sources (which for much of historical deatail are, unfortunately, unavailable.)

    2. I agree Zach. I was raised religiously to believe that human beings are ‘special’ and it took some fighting on my part to form my own conclusion that human beings are animals in exactly the the same sense that all the other mammals are. Claims that human culture is (what… super? sub? equi?) -natural are, it seems to me, artifacts of Thomism.

      I hasten to add that I agree, however, with Rosenhouse’s conclusion regarding the trivialization of the matter by Paolini.

    3. “Hmm. I was a bit taken aback by Rosenhouse’s tossing out of the “natural world” phrases…Unless I’m mistaken, science does only concern the natural world. And so does history.”

      I agree, and I think Jason ceded too much territory here to the critics. It works to their advantage to admit the existence other ways of knowing because it makes it more plausible for them to slip in one more.

      Rather than limiting science to the “natural world”, I would say that science, broadly construed, is the only means of gaining knowledge of things that exist outside of our imaginations. Things like mathematics arguably exist only in our minds.

      1. Something to be careful of: that formulation appears to concede the insides of our imaginations. I see no reason in principle why human notions of truth, beauty and qualia are not also reducible.

        (Asserting they are not is the purpose of the p-zombie thought experiment, wherein some philosophers attempt to claim that being able to imagine something tells us about how the physical universe works. Dr Pigliucci has attempted to put paid to this idiocy, but has not succeeded in convincing its believers that wishful thinking doesn’t shape the laws of nature, even if you slip in a syllogism.)

        1. “I see no reason in principle why human notions of truth, beauty and qualia are not also reducible.”

          I agree. I haven’t figured out a pithy way to restrict “imagination” to constructs like math and logic which come equipped with their own rules of manipulation, and truth has a different meaning.

    4. You have only considered one end of this trichotomy.
      There is also the ‘subnatural’ realm as well as the super version of same.
      Of course, this often refers to that special knowledge that is acquired via spin-doctors and politicians.

  7. I noticed Nick Matzke turning up on that thread to do a Berlinerblau and tell everyone to refrain from talking about scientism until they read the texts he links which are, apparently:
    “required reading for anyone deigning to comment on “scientism”.”
    One is an interminable lecture series by the odious Mary Midgely while the other is a paper in the ‘Journal of Religious Studies’ by Templeton winner Mikael Stenmark.
    That final one is interesting in that it provides yet another definition of scientism.
    “there is nothing outside the domain of science, not is there any area of human life to which science cannot be successfully applied.”
    Stenmark goes on to accuse Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, EO Wilson Carl Sagan and even Indian PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, of scientism!
    Basically anyone who advocates a materialistic worldview is liable to be accused of scientism.

  8. This becomes a discussion on what we observe as being science.

    Rosenhause does a bait-and-switch when he first tighten to “a method of investigation”, then loosen to “the large collection of methods” including deduction and append the dialectical method out of nowhere. If we go that route, anything printed in books is knowledge because science rely on printing.

    But I agree on the conclusion, religion is denied any status as a legitimate way of knowing because it works to replace factual knowledge with belief.

  9. Those accusing us of scientism choose that word (whether consciously or inconsciously) because they know that even the accused will not believe that science is the only way to know things and when they do so they can claim victory.

    If they were honest they would accuse us of empiricism as all of these other ways of knowing are empirical in nature.

    Science is a rigourous way to apply empiricism to the non-human natural world.
    History uses empiricism to determine what is likely to have happened in the past…

    Even things like what is beautiful is innately empirical in nature. I only know if a song is beautiful (to me) if I hear it or see the melody on a piece of paper and play it in my head.

    If I have no empirical knowledge at all of the song then I cannot know if it is beautiful (to me).

    The second reason to use the word scientism instead of empiricism (beside getting us to admit that there are nonscientific ways of knowing and thus claim victory against scientism) is to avoid pointing out that their claimed non-empirical way of knowing (like faith) have no empirical evidence in their favour and as soon as they do (whether in their favour or not) then they are not part of their claimed way of knowing anymore (like faith) but part of empiricism.

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