Who’s Afraid of Scientism?

Russell Blackford

One fashionable criticism of outspoken atheists is that we demonstrate the vice of scientism—whatever that is exactly. This criticism comes from many theologians, such as John Haught, but also from some secular philosophers. The critics seldom define scientism, and I doubt that they can agree on a definition. Is it skepticism about specifically religious “ways of knowing” such as mystical rapture and divine inspiration? Is it perhaps no more than enthusiasm about science? In either of those cases, what’s so wrong with it?

The best sense I can make of Haught’s prolific discussions of the issue is that scientism, at least for him, amounts to the belief that scientific methodology—whatever that is exactly—can answer all questions. That seems consistent with some dictionary definitions, such as this one from Merriam-Webster: “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities).” In his 2008 book God and the New Atheism, Haught offers some examples of what he considers to be science’s limits and suggests some questions that he thinks it cannot answer. How do I know someone loves me? How should I understand a particular work of literature? How do I, or how should I, respond to nature? For Haught, questions about God also fall into this category.

Critics of alleged scientism fall into two main categories. Some want to find a place for religion within a scientifically informed understanding of reality. Others seem more worried about encroachments by science on the humanities. Michael Ruse, a prominent philosopher of biology, appears to fall into both camps. Although he is not a religious adherent, many of his publications argue that science leaves room for religious faith and is, in some sense, compatible with it. However, he also seems worried about the relative standings, in terms of funding and prestige, of the sciences and the humanities.

Consider a recent online dustup between Ruse and evolutionary psychologist David Barash. In a December 10, 2011, post on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog Brainstorm, Barash wrote: “I love science, and you should, too, if only because it provides us with the best (perhaps the only) way of genuinely knowing the world.” From there, he segued into a discussion of fascinating questions that science has not yet answered. The post was mostly about the mystery of why Homo sapiens evolved to be one of the few mammalian species in which ovulation is concealed.

The following day, Ruse replied on the same site in a post simply titled “Scientism.” He showed no interest in Barash’s substantive topic but instead pounced on his opening sentence. Ruse claimed that there are many things that we can know only by means other than science. He offered some examples: what he takes to be mathematical facts, moral facts, and the claims of philosophical epistemology. In the last of these categories, we have meta-level facts about what kinds of facts we can know and how. Thus, according to Ruse, if it were true that science is the best (and perhaps only) way to obtain genuine knowledge of the world, it is not a truth that has been discovered through scientific investigation.

Ruse concludes with a plea for “the scientific community not to fall into the trap of the religious and think that they uniquely have the answers to every question worth asking.” In excusing himself for a “cross” tone, he explains that he is concerned about funding and political support for the humanities if it comes to be believed that science can answer all questions that are worth asking.

At this stage, it’s tempting to say that Barash spoke slightly loosely and that Ruse overreacted in making such a fuss about it. However, it’s not so simple. First, I think that Barash had a point. Second, Ruse also had a point in wanting to support the humanities. But third, science does tend to undermine religion: efforts to accommodate religious faith within a scientifically informed understanding of the cosmos are always likely to run into trouble. How can I think all those things at once? It depends on getting some clarity about the tricky relationships that exist among science, religion, the humanities, and our everyday ways of experiencing and understanding the world.

 

As we consider both the power of science and what limits it might have, it’s well to reflect on the intellectual revolution that began in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and was associated with such figures as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Leeuwenhoek, Boyle, and Newton. As it continued, this revolution produced a new breed of empirical investigators—the breed who eventually, in the nineteenth century, came to be known as “scientists.” They developed a range of techniques and took them to unprecedented levels of precision and sophistication. They refined the use of hypothetico-deductive reasoning. They used converging inductions from more or less independent lines of inquiry. They utilized mathematical modeling, carefully controlled experimental setups, and new instruments that extended the human senses.

In a sense, Barash is right. As science advanced, its practitioners discovered and examined phenomena that had previously eluded all human efforts to study them. These included very distant or vastly out-of-scale phenomena; very small phenomena; and phenomena from deep in time, before human-made structures and written records. Science developed a radically new and increasingly compelling description of the cosmos, our place within it, and humankind. In that sense, it really has become our best and indeed only guide to the overall reality within which we find ourselves. Without science, we are confined to knowledge of a sort of middle world that is in scale with ourselves, and even here the methods developed by scientists have become helpful in a multitude of ways.

Science continues to investigate questions that long resisted the best efforts of scholars and philosophers. There’s a great story to tell about how it does that and how it developed the appropriate techniques. On the other hand, we are not dishonoring science if we also give an honored place to the humanities and worry about their public support in the future. Nor do we dishonor science if we acknowledge that there are questions that we can sometimes answer pretty well without needing to act like scientists. Indeed, our ancestors were not totally helpless in figuring out the world before the scientific revolution.

Our forebears did have many misconceptions, and the reliable knowledge they did possess was confined to the middle world. All the same, they observed events around them, often understood how other people felt about them, kept historical records, translated texts from foreign languages, and developed some impressive mathematics. Humanist scholars performed staggering intellectual feats in fields such as legal theory, history, and literary interpretation. Recognizing this does not dishonor science in any way.

We don’t need to engage Ruse in esoteric debates about whether mathematics is a branch of science or something else, whether there are objective (yet nonscientific) moral facts, and how we should regard meta-level philosophical claims about how to discover truth. These are all controversial fields of inquiry perhaps worthy of address on other occasions, but for our present purposes it doesn’t matter whether or not we agree with Ruse. Either way, there are many clear-cut examples of humanist scholarship discovering perfectly good facts about, say, historical events or the provenance and likely meanings of ancient texts. No atheist, however out spoken, need deny any of this.

Rather, what we should understand is that the sciences and the humanities are continuous with each other and can draw on each other. For example, literary scholars can use computers to analyze texts and help determine their authorship; archeologists and historians can use scientific techniques to date artifacts and locate hidden ruins. The possibilities are endless. We can identify the different historical roles played by humanistic inquiry and science, and we can distinguish the sciences and humanities for good practical purposes (particularly pedagogical ones) that should not simply be brushed aside. However, they have influenced each other and are not totally alien to each other—where we put the boundary between them is, to some extent, arbitrary.

 

Let’s return to Haught’s examples of questions that science supposedly cannot answer. How do I know someone loves me? How should I understand a work of literature? How do I, or how should I, respond to nature? No doubt people were answering questions like these long before the rise of science, and we continue to answer them in ways that are not especially scientific. But so what? No atheist need ever deny any of this. What we should deny is merely that anything spooky is involved.

If I know that someone loves me, there will be objective evidence that she does. I don’t need to be a scientist to observe this evidence—it’s a matter of ordinary human experience—but that is not a limitation on science. It’s not as if your being a scientist somehow disqualifies you from experiencing love. Nor is anything spooky involved when we respond to nature: our senses reveal natural phenomena to us in an ordinary, familiar way, and they doubtless provide us with relevant knowledge (perhaps of the immensity of a canyon or the intricacy of a spider’s web). We may experience what we perceive as being beautiful, sublime, or astonishing, but that is not primarily a cognitive experience. It’s just obscurantist to characterize this as a conundrum concerning the question, “How should I respond to nature?” Human responsiveness to nature is a fascinating phenomenon that science can study, but it does not provide us with a supernatural source of knowledge of the world.

Interpreting works of literature is a different matter. The process will involve familiarity with literary tropes and traditions of interpretation, and it will also involve evidence (if the heroine’s dog cowers under the table when X walks into the room, X is coded as a villain). Perhaps there are no objectively correct interpretations of literary texts, binding on all rational beings as simply true, but there are facts about what interpretations are richer and more coherent than others, at least given a cultural context or tradition.

Nothing I have said can be dismissed as scientistic; in particular, it gives due credit to the humanities. None of it, however, should lead us to think that religion or any of its distinctive “methods,” such as mystical experience, provides us with a special source of knowledge. To be blunt: religion does not give us reliable reports of a transcendent order of things, and science really does undermine religion in numerous and varied ways. The emerging scientific picture of the cosmos often clashes with religious claims, rendering them less plausible even when not outright contradicting them. Indeed, progress in the humanities can also undermine religion, as when textual-historical study of the holy books casts doubt on their provenance and credibility.

We could go deeper into these issues, but let it suffice to say that religious claims are not insulated from our rationally acquired knowledge of the world, whether obtained from the humanities or the sciences. In theory, there might have been a divinely pre-ordained harmony between religion on the one hand and, on the other hand, the sciences and humanities. After all, the claims of some religion or other might have turned out to be true. Scientists and scholars such as historians might have confirmed the religion’s claims and merely added color and detail. But that, as it turns out, is not the reality we live in.

It’s no use harping on the alleged limitations of science and frightening us with accusations of scientism. We should give due credit to ordinary human experience and the traditions of the humanities, but we needn’t concede any intellectual authority to religion.

Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford is a conjoint senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and a regular columnist for Free Inquiry. His latest book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism (2019), is published by Bloomsbury Academic.


One fashionable criticism of outspoken atheists is that we demonstrate the vice of scientism—whatever that is exactly. This criticism comes from many theologians, such as John Haught, but also from some secular philosophers. The critics seldom define scientism, and I doubt that they can agree on a definition. Is it skepticism about specifically religious “ways …

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