Scientism 101: Introduction.

Scientism is under discussion again, due to what will be an ongoing series at Biologos — which I don’t read myself — about it by MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson based on his book Monopolizing Knowledge. And the usual suspects have chimed in, both in posts (Jerry Coyne through a guest post by Sigmund and Ophelia Benson at least) and in comments on those posts (see the WEIT comments for examples). So, since I’ve accused at least Coyne of scientism before and had a specific meaning for it and since I already long ago replied to Larry Moran about other ways of knowing that are not science (and are not religion), I think it’s finally time for me to engage with scientism in some depth, at least as to how I use the term. This will cover multiple posts, and thus for the first time I’m actually using tags! Shocking, I know.

Anyway, this is the introduction, where I outline the basic terms and my basic framework that I’ll go into far more details about later.

First, I do agree with Hutchinson’s basic definition of scientism, but later I’ll go into much more detail on what that exactly entails. But here it is:

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

Now, Sigmund is trying to make the “S-word” like the “N-word” and have it say something about me. What he says that says about me is quite unlikely to be accurate, but his big concern is, presumably, about the pejorative aspect of the term:

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.

I wouldn’t go that far. But I do use it as a pejorative. Not, of course, to simply slur those who hold a methodological naturalistic position (it’s not clear that all methodological naturalists would be guilty of scientism) or even as an attempt to portray those who hold scientistic views as, well, anything, really. I use the term “scientism” as a pejorative because I think that scientism is, in fact, a philosophical position that is wrong and, in my mind, obviously wrong. I, therefore, use it no differently than someone who uses “creationism” as a pejorative, or “Darwinism”, or “dualism”, or “materialism”. I claim that someone is guilty of scientism because I think they hold that philosophical position, and it gets a negative connotation from me because I think that position is wrong. If you want to change my use of the word, don’t try to “reclaim” it by simply using it positively or saying that you are, indeed, guilty of scientism and proud of it, or “reclaim” it by redefining the position to something that those accusing you of scientism don’t actually accept and then arguing that it isn’t a bad thing (Coyne did that to me in his response to my initial accusation in the link above). No, argue for your position. Argue for why you think the position is at least not obviously wrong and, even better, why it’s actually right. I’m willing — and, as I say, going — to argue for my view in the next few posts; if you don’t the term scientism being used as a description of a philosophy that is obviously wrong, then don’t just whine that I’m using it that way, but defend your position.

Note that I do find the term “scientism” unfortunate, because as has been said elsewhere if we wanted to talk about an adherent of scientism the natural way to do that would be to call them a “scientist”. But that, in my mind, makes an association that I don’t like and don’t hold. I — and, I suspect, most opponents of scientism — have no problem with scientists in general, because we have no problem with science. That science gives us knowledge and so is a way of knowing — at least in terms of its method — is, to me, undeniable, and in no way problematic to me. What I disagree with is the idea that science and the methods of the natural sciences are the only way to get knowledge. I think this obviously false, as I have said a few times already. But that science is good, useful and gives knowledge is not something I dispute. Thus, I have no problem with scientists. I do have a problem with those who adhere to scientism … and I will continue to refer to those who adhere to scientism not as scientists — since I think scientists need not accept scientism — but as adherents to scientism to make that distinction abundantly clear. So if you want to claim that I’m opposing science, please try to note that distinction and, well, don’t.

Finally, the elephant in the room: religion. Many attacks on people who oppose scientism start and end with religion, and in some cases it’s even accurate. But it isn’t accurate in all cases, and certainly isn’t accurate in mine. Mostly, this is because I don’t actually consider “religion” per se to be a “way of knowing”. Part of this is due to my strong agnosticism; I don’t think that you can know whether God exists or not, and so see it as being very difficult to be a “way of knowing” if your main subject matter is unknowable by definition. The second is that I see religion as being more of a set of propositions or beliefs, or a theory, or a hypothesis about how the world is, and those things are not ways of knowing. They can be evaluated by ways of knowing and so we might be able to come to know them, but they are the objects of ways of knowing, not ways of knowing themselves. And so religion which can be seen as a hypothesis about the existence of one or more gods is not a way of knowing. So my concern, then, is not over the clash between science as a way of knowing and religion as a way of knowing, because I hold that religion is not a way of knowing, and so no useful clash at the level of ways of knowing can be formed.

So what, then, is my concern? Other things that are ways of knowing but are not science. The two that most concern me are philosophy (obviously) and common sense reasoning. I hold that both of these are ways of knowing, both of these are good and useful and produce knowledge, and yet neither of them are scientific; there is an interesting distinction between the methods of science and the methods they employ. Originally in my reply to Larry Moran I argued that science is skeptical and these two are not, and that’s why they aren’t the same thing. I think that likely to be true for common sense reasoning, but I don’t think that that’s the case for philosophy anymore. No, now I think that the difference is that philosophy is not empirical in a strong sense; it will use empirical investigation but does not limit itself to that while science does insist on empirical evidence for all of its claims. Thus, both reject at least one major presumption that science qua science makes, and yet both still produce knowledge. Later posts will hopefully examine what knowledge they produce and what their subject matter is.

Note that while these are, in fact, the two that most concern me, there may be other ways of knowing that count as well. For example, I consider the field of mathematics to be a separate way of knowing that works on a specific subject matter, and that we come to know the propositions of mathematics through mathematics, which is different than science (it’s even less empirical than philosophy, if you can imagine that). One of my main replies to scientistic arguments is that by that mathematics is not known, and it always shocks and appalls me to see how many people will simply agree that mathematics does not produce knowledge. However, mathematics simply doesn’t concern me as much as the other two. We might also get some separate ways of knowing in the social sciences and in the humanities, but again these don’t concern me that much and are more controversial.

So, then, where does this leave theology? For the most part, I’d argue that theology is, itself, not a way of knowing. It’s creating and examining theories about gods, but it doesn’t have a distinct method or way of knowing itself. It, then, borrows its way of knowing from other ways of knowing and applies them to that specific field, just like biology and physics both take the scientific method and apply it to their specific subject matter, doing their work in different ways. Thus, to the extent that theology is philosophical or scientific or mathematical or common sensical, it gets status as a way of knowing. Outside of those, however, it’s more a set of beliefs, hypotheses or theories than an actual way of knowing.

Thus, the not-so-short introduction to my examination of scientism. Note that this won’t be on a “post a day” schedule; I’ll post when I get the time and energy to post. Thus, if you link to this post you’ll get all of them because I’ll link to this post for every post in this series. Or you can just check out the handy-dandy tag to get them all, if this works [grin].


10 Responses to “Scientism 101: Introduction.”

  1. John Anngeister Says:

    You write:

    “I see religion as being more of a set of propositions or beliefs, or a theory, or a hypothesis about how the world is, and those things are not ways of knowing. They can be evaluated by ways of knowing and so we might be able to come to know them, but they are the objects of ways of knowing, not ways of knowing themselves. And so religion which can be seen as a hypothesis about the existence of one or more gods is not a way of knowing.”

    This way of viewing religion is at least controversial – outside the realm of Catholic and Protestant scholasticism. Thomism and Calvinism (to name only 2) can represent the very antithesis of living religion – to people who differentiate between religion and theology.

    You have a good argument otherwise, and I don’t mean that you should make it fit all religion, but rather than abstracting your field from all religion you might strengthen your positioin if you kind of bracketed the possibility that religion (as living faith differentiated from all points of theology) might be a way of knowing arrived at by acting-and-discovery – but not through mere thinking theologically.

    To take a negative example, by my principle a concept like the virgin birth (called by many churches an ‘article of faith’) is removed from the set of possible objects of faith because it offers no basis for action – there’s nothing I can ‘do’ about it.

    On the positive side, words of promise like “I will be with you always” and “I will send you a comforter” or “the reign of God is within you” are at least frameworks in which a person may launch out in a living, risking, test of their validity.

    Too often the ‘leap of faith’ is featured as a way to accept beliefs without argument, but it is (at least in Kierkegaard’s sense) more an attempt at appropriation of a situation that may be lived in.

  2. Sigmund Says:

    Interesting take on the issue. I might point out that accusations of scientism are not the preserve of the religiously inclined. Quite often the criticisms come from new age ‘woo’ merchants or those who advocate alternative pseudoscientific medicine.
    I suspect the major disagreements are over how one defines expressions like “knowledge” and “facts”. Scientists seem to define these in a different way to the way they are used by philosophers and theologians. For instance there are several ways to gain knowledge (if you define knowledge as information), however, define knowledge as justified information on facts about the natural world and it becomes much harder to argue that there are other primary (as distinct to secondary) sources of that type of knowledge

  3. verbosestoic Says:


    Well, first, I’m basing it on a base notion that pretty much everything that’s called a religion will claim that some objects exist or some events occurred. That, to me, makes it more of a set of beliefs than a way of knowing itself.

    Second, your other alternatives seem to me to not rise to the level of ways of knowing either, but that’ll have to wait for my rough definitions of knowledge and ways of knowing. But while a process of “acting-and-discovery” might itself be a way of knowing, I wouldn’t claim it unique to religion and still wouldn’t consider religion itself, then, to be a way of knowing like philosophy and mathematics are.

    Finally, I’ll take up faith as a way of knowing when I talk about ways of knowing, hopefully soon.

  4. verbosestoic Says:


    I think you’ve just demonstrated why I made the comment about religion, by saying “Well, sometimes it’s woo or pseudoscience too!”. That’s not my concern, and I don’t define scientism on the basis of disagreements over propositions where science seems fairly well proven and the others are not. I’m concerned wtih cases where science seems to be wandering into other fields and trying to hold them to the standards and interests of science without bothering to see what those fields actually do.

    As an example, I recently took a philosophy course on cognitive science and aesthetics, and I swear I’ve never defended science so much in a course (normally I’m the one who is critical that the scientific answers have really answered anything). One of the main complaints was that scientists looked in the brain or whatever and either came to conclusions that other examinations had already revealed, or that they had come to conclusions that blythely ignored all of, for example, art history and made claims that sharply contradicted it. Should those results be taken more seriously just because they are scientific? I defended a limited role for science by arguing that it provided useful and interesting data, but cannot defend the idea that in that sort of contradiction science should be given the inside track just because it is science. But these sorts of arguments and who might hold them will become clearer when I get into the types of scientism (which right now is tagged at something like the fourth post in this series).

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