Scientism: An unsatisfying and unreasonable account of everything

Austin L. Hughes, Carolina Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina, has written an interesting article, “The Folly of Scientism“, in which he expresses concern over the widespread attitude that “natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth.” This is the ideology of scientism, which he defines:

Central to scientism is the grabbing of nearly the entire territory of what were once considered questions that properly belong to philosophy. Scientism takes science to be not only better than philosophy at answering such questions, but the only means of answering them.

Proponents of scientism assert the “universal competence of science.” Hughes disagrees with this bold claim. He asks:

Is it really true that natural science provides a satisfying and reasonably complete account of everything we see, experience, and seek to understand — of every phenomenon in the universe? And is it true that science is more capable, even singularly capable, of answering the questions that once were addressed by philosophy?

Hughes takes it as obvious that “philosophical training would be very useful to a scientist,” for example, in avoiding widespread errors in logic. Such training would be especially useful in defining the enterprise of science itself, so he employs Karl Popper’s criterion of falsifiability as a good example, for it seeks to distinguish science from pseudoscience and non-science. He observes:

Popper’s falsifiability criterion and similar essentialist definitions of science highlight the distinct but vital roles of both science and philosophy. The definitions show the necessary role of philosophy in undergirding and justifying science — protecting it from its potential for excess and self-devolution by, among other things, proposing clear distinctions between legitimate scientific theories and pseudoscientific theories that masquerade as science.

Hughes proceeds in the remainder of the article to demonstrate three areas of knowledge in which science comes up short in providing an adequate, or even satisfactory, account of things and explanation of them: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. With metaphysics, many scientists have confused necessary and contingent beings, leaving us without any ultimate explanations for existence itself. With epistemology, Hughes deconstructs popular understandings of evolution and a “misapplied Darwinism” to show that scientific accounts still fall short in providing persuasive answers. Einstein’s observation remains: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Finally, with the area of ethics, Hughes demonstrates how science as it is popularly expressed in Social Darwinism and evolutionary psychology attempts a reach that inherently lies beyond its grasp. “True ethical statements — if indeed they exist — are of a very different sort from true statements of arithmetic or observational science.”

Having supported his claim that science and scientists are well-served by philosophical thinking, Hughes concludes:

The positivist tradition in philosophy gave scientism a strong impetus by denying validity to any area of human knowledge outside of natural science. More recent advocates of scientism have taken the ironic but logical next step of denying any useful role for philosophy whatsoever, even the subservient philosophy of the positivist sort. But the last laugh, it seems, remains with the philosophers — for the advocates of scientism reveal conceptual confusions that are obvious upon philosophical reflection. Rather than rendering philosophy obsolete, scientism is setting the stage for its much-needed revival.… Continued insistence on the universal competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole.

The whole article is worth reading, and I encourage you to do so. Once again I note the absence of any legitimate space for theology or religion to speak authoritatively in relation to our knowledge. For all that the medieval philosophers held Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy in high regard, yet they highlighted two primary points of which philosophy or science remained ignorant: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and that same God revealed himself as personal “I AM” to Moses.

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2 Responses to Scientism: An unsatisfying and unreasonable account of everything

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