Scientism 101: Philosophy as the only way of knowing …

The next post in my series on scientism.

One of the more annoying aspects of the whole scientism debate is the assertion that science is in fact the only valid way of knowing. Whether one considers the term “science” to have a narrow or broad definition, to insist that it is somehow appropriate for the term for all valid ways of knowing to be science seems obviously wrong and quite possibly offensive to any other field of endeavour that is not science. This, then, may explain some of the harsh reactions to scientism of that sort. This is made all the worse by the fact that there aren’t any really good arguments for doing so; there’s no reason to take science as that term.

So, in order to demonstrate how ridiculous it is to simply assert that science in any way of taking it should be considered the only way of knowing, I’d like to outline the case for a term that has far better arguments in favour of it being the only valid way of knowing than science: philosophy.

1) Etymological: Now, in general, etymological arguments are really, really bad. But some have raised them for science, using the fact that science means “knowledge” in the Latin (among some other meanings). However, in the Greek philosophy means “love of knowledge, wisdom”, which is its origin. At best, they’d be equal, but I think we can say that a love of knowledge would be more likely to support knowledge-seeking behaviour than simply having knowledge would, and so as a method or way of knowing philosophy has the two required elements: knowledge, and a motivation to acquire knowledge. So if we take this seriously — and, I hasten to repeat, we shouldn’t take etymological arguments seriously — then philosophy wins.

2) Longevity – Philosophy has been around for thousands of years. Science is a relative newcomer at a couple of centuries. It would seem that the field that’s been around longer should get first crack at being considered the best at what it does than the latecomer.

3) Origin: Science was created by philosophy, and philosophical discussions. Philosophy, in fact, has created pretty much every field we’ve ever known, and they’ve grown out of the initial philosophical examinations. Philosophy, however, has never been created by any of the other candidates.

4) History: Historically, science was a part of philosophy, called natural philosophy, before it “broke off on its own”. Thus, it would be not unreasonable to argue that the specific methods of science are, in fact, special cases of philosophical methods, tailored to natural philosophy. It, however, makes little sense to claim that the methods of philosophy are simply scientific methods when what at least used to be considered scientific methods — narrowly construed — were subsets of philosophical methods.

5) Breadth: Looking at history again, every single problem of interest has been and still is of interest to philosophy. Thus, its subject matter covers everything that it could possibly be interesting to know. Traditionally, there have been large areas of knowledge that science has had no interest in, and so it seems a bit odd to claim that the term science should be expanded to include areas that it used to not care about.

6) Success: This is the biggest argument that those who advocate scientism use to justify calling it science: science has been successful. Note, of course, that this argument relies on it being the narrower definition, not the broader one, because all the fields that find knowledge at all would have success in the same way as science would, being science and all. But, anyway, while science can take credit for vast advances in our understanding of the natural world, philosophy can take credit for science itself, and the scientific method. Science succeeds, then, only because philosophy has produced the knowledge it relies on to succeed. And the same can be said about any number of fields. Also, if we know anything about ethics or philosophy of mind or epistemology, it is philosophy that has produced that knowledge. So all the knowledge that science has is owed to the success of philosophy, and philosophy has had successes that science has not even grasped. Philosophy wins.

Now, let me make it clear that I think that arguing for one way of knowing and for whether there should be a broad term called “philosophy” or “science” for what is common to all ways of knowing is ludicrous. However, the purpose of this post is to point out that if you are going to do that it makes far more sense to use “philosophy” as opposed to “science”. That someone would think that “science” is the better term is indeed likely to be engaging in scientism, and in an unreasonable insistence that science — narrowly construed — is the ideal way of knowing and all the others are inferior and subordinate to it. Otherwise, why think that science is the right term? What is it about the term “science” that makes them think that it can in any way stand for all possible valid ways of knowing?



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