What is Scientism and Why Does it Hurt Science?

Scientism and science

It may seem peculiar that ‘church’ and ‘science’ appear the way they do in the title of this piece, but what has happened in the modern era of appealing to science as a sort of a god, warrants nothing less. Science is the pursuit of knowledge, but today we generally use the term in a more rigid way – as that area of study which systematically explains the physical world. But the question that should quickly follow should be this: is the physical world all there is to be known of reality? And this is precisely where the modern use of science begins to shake under the weight of proper epistemology.

Science is a worthwhile pursuit. It helps us get a better understanding of the physical world, helps heal the sick and hurting, and often helps improve our lives. But our modern culture has absolutely fallen in love with empiricism. People today have very little use of anything other than what they can see, hear, touch, taste of feel. And, this is precisely why science as the revealer of the physical world has led many to think that it is the absolute authority over all other matters of thought.

However, despite its many benefits, science does not stand alone as the sole source of knowledge and does not have absolute authority over our knowledge of reality. Many would claim that it does and this is position is what leads people to the church of science where the dogma of such a position lays victim to the presuppositions that need to be met before science can even be done. This church of science is called scientism. It is the view that the natural sciences have absolute authority over all other interpretations of life, such as philosophical, religious, spiritual, or humanistic explanations, and over other fields of inquiry, such as the social sciences.

But the notion that science has the ability to explain all of reality is self-defeating since the notion itself is not a scientific one. Aside from the obvious issues, there are other larger problems with scientism. First, without much effort we can list multiple things that we can know without the use of science. For example, logical and mathematical truths cannot be proven by science. Science actually presuppose them as true. Otherwise no science could ever be done. Metaphysical truths, such as the existence of other minds or the reality of the external world or that the past was not simply created five seconds ago, cannot be verified by science. Ethical statements, such as statements of value, are not accessible via the scientific method. Aesthetic judgements cannot be scientifically proven. Lastly, and most ironically, science itself cannot be justified by science. Science is full of unprovable assumption (as reasonable as they may be).

The First Problem of Scientism

The initial problem of scientism is its initial bias of epistemic inclusion. Scientism is generally utilized in order to avoid evaluating evidence in favor of evaluating whether the evidence counts as science. Unfortunately scientific words, like “fact” and “proof,” are often used by people who also choose to avoid any alternate explanations. As philosopher, Susan Haack, puts it,

“…inevitably, the honorific use of ‘science’ encourages uncritical credulity about whatever new scientific idea comes down the pike. But the fact is that all the explanatory hypotheses that scientists come up with are, at first, highly speculative, and most are eventually found to be untenable, and abandoned. To be sure, by now there is a vast body of well-warranted scientific theory, some of it so well-warranted that it would be astonishing if new evidence were to show it to be mistaken – though even this possibility should never absolutely be ruled out.”

Even within its own walls, science needs to be open to constant refinement. Needless to say people should be allowed to scrutinize theories without fear of being branded intellectual heretics by the orthodoxy of scientism, who are often less interested in the actual science and more interested in guarding the gates of naturalism at all cost, even at the cost of intruding on science itself. Those who uphold the orthodoxy of scientism are generally more interested in making sure they draw the bold and uncrossable lines to identify what is and is not science, rather than being concerned with and doing the actual work of science. They are far more interested in denying the observations and research of the theories they themselves do not hold, preoccupied with clarifying the scientific method for usually no other purpose than to keep contrary hypotheses out of competition. Nothing should put scientific theories beyond scrutiny. Consider the fact that Ptolemy’s model of the solar system (Figure 1) was used successfully by astronomers for 1200 years, even though it had Earth in the wrong place.

Additionally, it is sadly too often the case that “scientific” manners, trappings and technical terminology are used to justify extravagantly speculative theories that have no real evidence, but are merely inferences based on nothing more than expectation from a prior commitment to naturalism, as is the case with the claim that religion is an evolved phenomenon.

The Faults of Empiricism

In today’s age of empiricism, we have crowned science as ruler and given it free reign to venture unchallenged into all arenas and allowed it to be used to speculate beyond its limitations to provide speculative answers to a variety of questions. However, though there is nothing wrong with science having a say in human matters and contributing to our wealth of knowledge, the day science takes a level of authority it simply lacks the tools to govern with, is the very same day we dismiss the groundwork for all of knowledge. Science cannot march in as a dictator and assume a monopoly on truth. The infatuation of the modern age with science, however, has blinded many to these realizations. If we insist on the dictatorship of science and if science rules alone, it “rules” on the unseen bed of suicide.

5 thoughts on “What is Scientism and Why Does it Hurt Science?

  1. Pingback: Scientism – The Church of Science by Arthur Khachatryan « Ratio Christi-At The Ohio State University

  2. Pingback: Scientism – The Church of Science by Arthur Khachatryan « Ratio Christi-At The Ohio State University

    • Arthur Khachatryan says:

      It is an entirely relevant question (perhaps a secondary one) if you consider what I was trying to accomplish with the way I phrased things. First, certain definitions of science DO actually have such limits:

      //such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena// Merriam Webster Dictionary (def. 3b)

      //systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.// Dictionary.com (def. 2)

      But again, that is secondary. I think you may have misunderstood the point I was trying to make – I was merely trying to contrast the actual proper definition of the word with the uses and understanding of the word in modern diction.

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