Scientism 101: Philosophism and Religionism …

The next post in my on-going series on scientism.

Jerry Coyne recently made a good point about the scientism debate:

And if “scientism” means “systematically flawed reasoning based on too much respect for science,” then we must also have a new term, “religionism”, meaning “systematically flawed reasoning based on too much respect for religion.” And we could also have “philosophism,” fallacies based on too much respect for philosophy. Religionism, of course, is pervasive, but we don’t see Pigliucci, or anyone else, accusing the faithful or repeatedly committing this logical error.

Now, this is based on Paul M. Paolini’s definition of scientism, which is not one I particularly favour (and, if you read Coyne’s attempt to reply to it, it’s not even particularly clear since Coyne seems to miss the point of it but, in fact, that’s an error that is consistent with Paolini’s at least broad statement). So the specifics of the definition are not what is good about this quote. What is good about this quote is the fact that he brings up — but unfortunately both uses incorrectly here and elsewhere — that if we have a scientism, can we have a philosphism or religionism as well, a case where philosophy and religion are imposing just as invalidly on science as we claim scientism cases impose on those fields?

And my reply is … absolutely. We don’t, I think, have a term for this because at least in our current culture philosophical and religious claims are generally ignored by science anyway; to get, say, philosophy of mind to be considered at all by science you have to go into an interdisciplinary field which by definition includes multiple fields, and even then it can sometimes be a hard row to hoe to get reasonable philosophical concerns considered. So, in general, we don’t have a term — or, at least, one that is in common use — for those cases because, in general, no one thinks it a problem. At best and at first blush, it would seem that those who would ever advocate such things quickly get brushed off and ignored by science fairly quickly, and aren’t taken seriously. And in general most people don’t expect science to take it seriously.

But is that really true? It might be reasonable to think that at least some of the “teach the controversy” advocacy does cross the line into religionism and, in fact, is something that a great many people think science should take quite seriously. Why should any creationist or ID position be taught in science classes when they aren’t scientific theories? Let’s take one potential response: Because science should consider those to be valid theories. But on what grounds should science accept creationist, ID or theistic evolutionary stories as being the default or preferred theory in science, or even as a valid one? The answer seems to be that there are religious reasons, from the claim that religions claim it to — more appropriate to theistic evolution — the claim that it makes sense of religious claims while also taking on all of the scientific data. Science can, quite rightly, say that reconciling their claims with religion are not their concern, and so can ignore the appeals to add those views due to religious issues.

However, there is another argument that wouldn’t be religionistic, which is that if science either directly or indirectly takes a religious position then since public schools are not allowed to take religious positions science would either have to not teach the things that take religious positions or make certain that the opposing religious positions are represented and represented fairly. Since Coyne likes to claim about how science and religion are incompatible and how evolution is incompatible with a theistic God, this might be a valid charge. Claiming that wouldn’t be religionistic though; at best, it would be political but political concerns do influence how and what things are taught in schools.

So, why is the first religionistic and the second not? The first claims that science should take the position seriously based solely on concerns raised from outside of science, in this case religion. The second does not claim anything about how science should consider the arguments, but points out that in order to teach it in public schools certain conditions must be in place. The key difference is that to be one of the “isms” we’re talking about here you have to be making a claim of how the other field should be thinking about it, not just a pragmatic claim.

But we can go a step further into non-“ismic” claims, because what I, at least, think we don’t want is a segmentation of all of these fields. We want it to be the case that relevant information and knowledge from all fields can be used to raise issues for or to guide other fields. We want it to be the case that scientific knowledge can guide philosophy and that philosophical conceptual analysis can guide science. So if empirical or scientific concerns can help us tease out ethical concerns, then there’s no problem with doing that (My essay on psychopaths does just that). And if concerns about things like epiphenomenalism may raise issues for straight neuroscientific theories of mind then there’s no problem with scientists looking at the philosophy and starting to sweat a bit. And I don’t even have a problem with science informing interpretations of religious works (especially since, well, I do that all the time). Having various fields inform each other is not a problem. The issue is not with the various fields presenting issues for the others for consideration, but with the insistence that those issues must be taken seriously because they are issues or knowledge generated by that field and so must be issues for the others. So saying that philosophy must accept determinism no matter how ludicrous that is philosophically because that’s science’s preferred theory. Or insisting that determinism cannot be true because it would eliminate moral responsibility, no matter what the scientific evidence says. Or saying that science must accept theistic evolution as a scientific theory on par with unguided evolution because it makes sense of religion.

There are, in fact, many people who take both extremes on all sides, either by insisting that the results of their fields should be just accepted by all others or by insisting that anything outside of their field has no impact on it. But they’re both wrong. We can have fields continuous with each other and influencing each other without making them the same field, and anything else is either one of our “isms” or an academic closed-mindedness that won’t help anyone.

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3 Responses to “Scientism 101: Philosophism and Religionism …”

  1. John Anngeister Says:

    Well I like the idea of calling any undue reliance upon theologisms outside their proper scope or range ‘religionism’ – but I hope someone beside Coyne can be credited with it (because he’s a flawed thinker in my opinion and doesn’t deserve it).

    I justify my accusation against Coyne by pointing out his ridiculous suggestion that ‘philosophism’ might equally well stand for too much reliance on philosophy or logic. He doesn’t get it. Neither the scientist nor the religionist can be whole without the aid of philosophy. The whole point of philosophy in my opinion is provide the tools to allow one and the same human being to do cutting edge science without foolishly mechanizing his higher life and shutting down his approach to God.

    Philo-sophism (a lover of sophism) if it had any meaning, would describe what Coyne specializes in, since I’m guessing he doesn’t have the time to study philosophy as it should be studied and wants to be free of it as much as possible.

  2. John Anngeister Says:

    I think philosophy has to establish enough authority with scientific minds to be able at least to limit them in the range of theories which are entitled to share the ‘authority’ of scientific method.

    This would for example rule out theories about the origin of life which are not accessible to experiment – like abiogenesis. Kant pretty much used the word ‘antinomy’ to classify all discussion of absolute origins, and scientists should know very well Kant’s reasons for doing so.

    Abiogenesis should not appear in biology texts as a theory of the origin of life while at the same time making claims to be representing a bona-fide scientific position – it should be made clear in the text that it is only a ‘belief’ held by scientists with no warrant of authority from scientific method. In my opinion. But I am not arguing that Biblical stories deserve to be introduced in these texts as ‘competing’ beliefs. That would be nonsense.

    It’s just that no scientist should feature as science a theory which has no factual basis but is simply post hoc – ergo hoc (which is a fallacy used by religious superstitions all the time).

  3. verbosestoic Says:

    Well, if Coyne ends up credited with that term he’ll always have it associated with the term “scientism”, since it was that term that “inspired” his coining of the term.

    I also agree that philosophy of science, at least, should be able to tell science what theories are acceptable and what the scope of science really should be, but I’m not sure how well that would be received by scientists like Coyne. Though that might be a good litmus test for some form of scientism; if you don’t allow philosophy of science to say things about what good science is, you’re definitely practicing scientism.

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