Debate over scientism often consists of critics arguing that certain areas of knowledge are beyond the domain of science. The realm of morals is a common example, as are ‘why’ questions and the supernatural. Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci can be relied upon to play the role of critic, for example writing:
[Richard] Dawkins and [Jerry] Coyne … insist in applying science to the supernatural, which is simply another form of the same malady that strikes [Sam] Harris: scientism, the idea that science can do everything and provides us with all the answers that are worth having.
This claim that science cannot deal with the supernatural is widely accepted even among scientists. For example, the website “Understanding Science” says in its introductory “What is science?” account:
Science cannot support or contradict the existence of supernatural entities. It deals only with natural phenomena and explanations.
The claim is particularly widespread in America, partly as a political tactic to avoid science appearing to contradict religion. By intentionally limiting science, the hope is to avoid a clash that might imperil support for science amongst a highly religiose populace. Any attempt by science to talk about the supernatural or gods is deemed ‘bad science’, and any attempt by religion to contradict factual scientific findings is labeled ‘bad religion’. Thus the American National Academy of Sciences declares:
Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.
It also produces a religion-friendly booklet Science, Evolution, and Creationism that says:
Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science.
In contrast, biologist Jerry Coyne has argued several times that science can test the supernatural; physicist Sean Carroll tends to agree, as does philosopher Russell Blackford, while skeptic Michael Shermer disagrees, saying that “Science operates in the natural, not the supernatural”.
So how can intellectuals of similar world view (everyone named above is an atheist) reach opposite conclusions on this point? The answer is that ‘supernatural’ is an ill-defined, colloquial word, and thus the disagreements amount to different interpretations of what the claim “science can/cannot deal with the supernatural” amounts to. Continue reading