Scientism is usually an accusation, an insult hurled at someone who is accused of not knowing the limits of science, and of arrogantly and ignorantly stomping all over areas of human interest that are the proper domain of “other ways of knowing”. Yet, increasingly, the word “scientism” is being claimed by defenders and supporters of a scientistic outlook. This can lead to differing definitions of “scientism”.
I personally define “scientism” to mean the claim that any questions to which humans can know the answer (with some confidence in the reliability of their knowledge) are answerable by science, and that science is the right tool to gain that answer. Or, stating the same another way, any method of finding such answers becomes part of science. A third way of saying this is the assertion that there are no “other ways of knowing” that are fundamentally distinct from science and that can do better than science.
Thus science is largely defined by “what works”, being the set of methods that have been established to give reliably true answers, methods that have been selected and honed precisely as a result of finding out what does work.
The underlying idea is that the natural world is a seamless whole, with no clear and uncrossable divides between different domains. Hence, knowledge about the world is also a seamless whole, and principles of evidence and reason apply the same everywhere. Thus evidence- and reason-based enquiry is the proper tool for investigating any area of human interest.
This is an explicit rejection of the “non-overlapping magisteria” idea that different areas of human enquiry are divided into rigidly demarked zones where different rules apply. No-one has established that different rules do apply, and the claim is usually made as a way of avoiding tiresome requests for evidence. Science keep out! We don’t want to have to supply evidence, we want to believe whatever we want to believe without having to justify it in any objective fashion!
This raises the question of what we mean by “science”. Those who use “scientism” as an insult will usually adopt an ultra-narrow definition of science: “what can be prodded and measured in a laboratory”. And they would be right to sneer at anyone who really did think that science in an ultra-narrow view encompasses all that there is to human experience.
More usually, a definition of “science” might encompass those disciplines in the science faculties of universities. Thus someone defending “scientism” could be taken to be dismissing the whole range of the humanities and the arts (and perhaps even the social sciences). Again, though, such a creature is a straw-man.
Those espousing scientism recognise that it only makes sense in terms of a much broader concept of “science”, a broad concept of evidence- and reason-based enquiry, a pragmatic concept encompassing what does actually work in producing reliable answers.
This rests on the claim that knowledge is a seamless whole, and that ideas of evidence and reason apply throughout. Any divisions into areas of knowledge are arbitrary (for example biochemistry and neuroscience and psychology merge seamlessly), and there are no areas of enquiry for which science is the wrong tool, or areas that can only be explored by “other ways of knowing”.
But, it is often objected, usually in an aghast tone, wouldn’t this relegate history and art and economics and morals and many other things to the dustbin?, and isn’t that obviously the sort of bunk that would only be claimed by the most idiotic and arrogant of scientists?
It would have that implication only if coupled with a narrow view of science; and those espousing scientism do not see science as narrow. They are not rejecting everything outside of a narrow world of science, they are viewing everything as a holistic whole, a synergy and consilience of knowledge in which any distinctions between these disciplines are arbitrary, and in which rules of evidence and reason apply across any arbitrary boundaries.
To support this idea I’ll examine the demarcation lines that are claimed by the NOMAds, and by those using “scientism” as an accusation, and I’ll argue instead for the consilience of knowledge as a seamless and unified whole.
Hard science versus messy complexity
One source of confusion is the idea that “science” is restricted to hard facts and things that can be definitely measured and securely quantified. Or that science is restricted to certain highly formalised methods.
But this is not so. Science is a pragmatic enterprise of doing the best one can, and of constantly trying to do better. Thus science uses securely quantified measurements when it can. And science uses a “gold standard” of repeated, controlled double-blind experiments when it can. But often these things are impractical and can’t be done, and in such cases doing the best one can is still science.
Science is about the degree of reliability. Nothing is ever finally certain beyond any possibility of revision, but we can still try for and still attain high degrees of certainty and reliability. And securely quantified measurements and repeated, controlled, double-blind experiments are used because they have been found to minimise human bias and to give the most reliable and secure results. But, where they can’t be done, doing your best is still science.
Let’s take the example of astrophysics, accepted as a “hard” science. Yet in astrophysics (at least beyond our Solar System) we can’t do experiments, we can’t prod astronomical objects in the lab — all we can do is observe. Many times unique events happen, and we see astronomical objects behaving like none has behaved previously. And every actual star or galaxy has its own individual characteristics, and is different from every other star or galaxy.
So we do the best we can, yet it is still science, and it transitions smoothly into Solar System objects, onto which we can land probes, and from there to Earth-bound physics laboratories where we can prod and dissect and perform repeated experiments. Indeed, some of the most profound advances have come from crossing that (non-existent) divide: Newton’s great insight into gravity came from contemplating our Moon, and realising that the force that kept the Moon in its orbit was the same force that caused an apple to fall in an orchard.
So the fact that, in some areas of investigation, you may not be able to perform controlled, repeated experiments and get out hard numbers in no way prevents that investigation from being part of science.
What about pre-scientific people and folklore?
The accusation can arise that anyone defending scientism is arrogantly asserting that pre-scientific peoples knew nothing at all about the natural world, and that folklore cannot, even in principle, contain any worthwhile insight. This is, of course, a straw-man. The heart and starting point of science is observation, the gathering of empirical evidence about the world. And of course “pre-scientific” people did just that and gained extensive knowledge of their environment and of how to hunt and farm and live. There is no rigid dividing line between this and today’s science. The difference is only of degree, of the refinement and improvement of evidence-gathering and evidence-testing methods, now formalised into today’s scientific methods.
What about history
History is not usually regarded as a “science”, but the crucial question is whether there is any clear demarcation line between history and the (other?) sciences, requiring fundamentally different rules of evidence and reason.
One pointer that there cannot be is the fact that our very distant history (paleontology) is classed as a science, and this merges seamlessly into archaeology, which can cover human history both before and after the written record, and this meshes seamlessly with written-record history. It would be ludicrous (or, rather, it would be entirely arbitrary) if the distant history of our species was a science but the more recent history of our species was not. And where would the dividing line be? Would the rules of evidence change radically one morning at some date BC?
Or, let’s again take astronomy. If you are figuring out the physics of exploding stars (“supernovae”), which are rare enough that none has occurred in our galaxy in recent times, you observe the remnants of older supernovae. And if you are calculating the energies and speeds of the explosion you need to factor in when it happened. And for that you might only have historical records, for example the Chinese records of a supernova in AD 1054, whose remnant we see today as the Crab nebula. This combination of hard science and historical record shows that they are part of the same “magisterium” of knowledge, where the same rules of evidence and reason apply.
Granted, we can’t do controlled experiment about the past, but nor can we about our neighbouring stars and galaxies. And yes, we may have limited and incomplete information about some part of history, say a few scraps of manuscript with no corroboration, but that’s often the same with astronomical observations. Historians would love lots of corroborating texts, if they could get them. And astronomers would often like more observations, if they could get them. There is no difference in principle.
One philosophical point is that the “gold standard” of the scientific method often asks that hypotheses must generate predictions which can then be tested, verifying or refuting the hypothesis. This tactic minimises human bias, and a theory which can successfully predict what was previously unknown is likely to be true.
Sometimes it is falsely claimed that such predictions must be about the future, and if so that would present a clear difference between science and history. However, predictions need not be about the future, they need only be about things that are currently unknown (such that the biases of a human making the prediction are minimised). And one can indeed make predictions about history and then verify them: for example one could predict a previously unknown Roman emperor, whose existence is then confirmed by unearthing a coin stamped with his image.
What about politics, economics and the humanities?
The human species is a part of the natural world, just like any other animal species. And that means it is amenable to the methods of science, just as other species are. We call this science “anthropology”. Of course, such is the importance of ourselves and our societies that the science of social anthropology becomes expanded into whole fields such as “economics” and “politics” and the other “humanities”, which are usually not classed as “science”.
But is there an uncrossable dividing line? No. It is only arbitrary convenience which says that studying the politics within a troop of chimpanzees is a “science” but that studying the politics of humans is not.
And yes, human affairs are very complicated and hard to predict — which might seem very different from, say, the simplicity of particle physics — but then the weather and the climate are also complicated and hard to predict. Highly complex systems are indeed harder to analyse than simple ones, but the same rules of evidence and reason apply, and the study is still scientific. The onus is on those who argue for an uncrossable line to argue for where it is and why it is uncrossable.
Art and literature and theatre and …
One of the most enjoyable aspects of being human is our aesthetic senses and their fulfilment from a range of different arts such as painting, literature, film and dance. And as repositories of much of our human understanding of ourselves and of each other, these arts convey deep lessons for humanity. The question is not whether there are truths about humans to be found in the arts (that’s obviously true), it is whether such truths are of a nature that is fundamentally incompatible with scientific investigation. Again I would assert that they are not. At root both derive from our observations of ourselves and each other. Our human society is of such importance to us that we spend much of our lives interacting with other humans, observing them and trying to understand them. And over evolutionary time we have developed strong social instincts, which will have been honed (by natural selection) according to the truth about human nature. Empirical reality is the source both of our science about humans and of our artistic interpretations of humanity.
Surely morality destroys the argument I’m making; surely human morality is a no-go zone for science; and surely any attempt to bring morals into the domain of science commits the naturalistic fallacy, an unjustified leap from an “is” statement about how things are to an “ought” statement about what humans should do?
But this is to misunderstand what morals are. Moral ideas are not some abstract realm of discussion where science cannot tread. Moral ideas are opinions and feelings of humans. And thus they are just as much an aspect of the natural world as any other property of biological animals.
Science can indeed tell you about the feelings of humans, and thus can tell you what moral judgements humans make, and it can tell you how and why moral sentiments arose in our evolution, and it can tell you why humans make the particular moral judgements that they make. Morals are “patterns” existing within a human brain, and that biological human brain is a proper subject of scientific study.
Of course science cannot tell you what you “ought” to do since the question doesn’t make sense in the abstract, and science cannot answer nonsensical questions — it only answers questions to which there are answers that human can know.
Once you properly understand morals as being the opinions and feelings of a human being, then it becomes apparent that science is indeed the correct tool to investigate the moral feelings that humans have and why they have them.
What about love?
Love holds a special place in the lexicon of those who disapprove of scientism. It is proposed as the prime example of something that science cannot measure or even know about. At some stage in the discussion they ask “what about love?”, and the scientist is supposed to fall silent, knowing he is beaten by its mere mention.
I find this baffling. What on earth is it about love that is supposed to be beyond science? Again, love is a pattern in a material, biological brain. It is a very real phenomenon, a particular pattern in a brain, just as a hurricane is a very real phenomenon, a particular pattern in the atmosphere. There is no sense in separating the world of human experience from the natural world, or in pretending that it is somehow outside the realm of rational understanding.
Science explains what love is, why it arose in our evolutionary history, and it explains why we tend to love the people that we do. And it increasingly explains the biochemistry of love (for example google the role of the oxytocin molecule).
If we ask how we know whether two humans love each other, then that answer is that we do so by observing how they interact with each other in everyday life. That is not saying that it is always easy (half the novels in the English language revolve around human misapprehension on this topic) but it is saying that there is nothing involved that is outside the realm of biology.
Of course humans are notoriously prone to biases and mistakes, so depending on introspection alone for evidence is highly suspect — which is why, where it is feasible, science asks for corroboration of ideas, in order to distinguish between something that is true and something that a human merely thinks is true. A good example of this is double-blind testing in medical trials, removing from the outcome the biases of both the patients and the doctors.
But maths is different!
OK, so knowledge about the natural world is indeed all derived from empirical observation, but maths is different. Maths is a matter of reasoning from axioms using nothing but logic, and so it isn’t “science”.
True, maths is about reasoning from axioms. However, where did those axioms come from? And for that matter where do these rules of logic come from? There are only two possible answers here. The first possibility is that there is only one set of possible logically consistent axioms and rules of logic, and thus humans have arrived at them as the only possibility.
Or, alternatively, of the many possible axiomatic/logical systems, humans have arrived at our mathematics because it is the one that works in our universe. People knew, on purely empirical grounds, that 2 + 2 = 4 long before any mathematician wrote down axioms from which “2 + 2 = 4” follows. Thus any mathematical truth is ultimately derived from empiricism, even if that is through the intermediary of axioms that are founded in and justified by empirical
Time after time abstract mathematics has been found to be profoundly applicable to our universe, and that can only be the case if there is a deep connection between our maths and our world’s empirical reality — namely that the former is derived from the latter.
If the first of the above possibilities holds, namely that there is only one self-consistent possibility, such that any universe must concord with that one axiomatic/logical system, then again we ultimately derive our knowledge of it from empirical facts about our universe. Evolution will have programmed our brains with the logic that works, that corresponds to empirical reality — our brains would not be a useful tool unless that was the case.
Philosophy is addressed the same way. While philosophy is usually distinguished from science, since it is held to be reasoning from premises, as distinct from the empirical observation of science, again both the rules of logic and the premises are ultimately rooted in the reality of our world. At the every least, knowledge about our world (as opposed to knowledge about hypothetical logic systems) must derive from observation. Thus if we’re discussing the sphere of knowledge that is accessible to humans, there is no reason to suppose that maths or philosophy can, on their own (as opposed to when entwined with science), attain knowledge that science cannot.
And I defy anyone to produce a philosophical or axiomatic/logical system that is entirely abstract and self-contained and in no way derived from observed reality. Even if that were in principle possible, I severely doubt that a human brain — something steeped in our empirical reality as a result of eons of brute facts in the form of natural selection — would be capable of doing it.
So is everything science?
No it isn’t. Science entails an obligation to do the best you can. It is acceptable to draw conclusions from limited data if you have nothing more; and you can do without rigorous controlled experiments if they are impractical. But to be scientific you should be continually seeking to do better, testing your conclusions, and checking for biases.
If you don’t seek out best practice and actively try to look for flaws in your work then you’re not being scientific. If you avoid doing double-blind tests because you suspect they won’t give you the answer you want (hello homoeopaths!) then you’re not being scientific. If you rely entirely on introspection and your own feelings and don’t even look for corroboration, regarding it as unnecessary, then you’re being unscientific. If you pray for faith, and are thus actually asking and wanting to be biased in your assessment of evidence, then you’re not being scientific.
If you have an emotional commitment to a desired answer, then that in itself isn’t unscientific, but it is a warning flag that you are highly prone to a biased assessment and so to a false conclusion. If you think that holding to the desired answer is more important than the evidence for that answer then you’re being unscientific. If your emotional commitment to a faith (perhaps a religious faith) is clouding your judgement over the evidence for that faith then you’re being unscientific. And if you point airily at “other ways of knowing” as an excuse to pretend that you don’t need to provide evidence then you are being unscientific.
So the natural world is a unified whole and all aspects of that world and all areas of human interest are accessible to investigation using observation and reason. And because the natural world is a unified whole the resulting knowledge we gain about that world is a seamless entity in which the same rules of evidence and reason apply throughout.
It is a mistake to think that different areas of human concern are demarked into different zones in which fundamentally different rules apply, and in which radically different “ways of knowing” operate. The claim that this is so is usually an attempt to cling to ideas derived from wishful thinking while avoiding any obligation to provide evidence for them.