Don’t dismiss scientism too easily

Don’t dismiss scientism too easily Richard Dawkins Photo: Jana Lenzova
Everyday Philosophy

If there’s one thing philosophers hate, it’s scientism. This is, roughly, the claim that ‘science can answer all the meaningful questions that there are to ask’ or ‘the scientific method is all you need to acquire all the knowledge about the world that there is to acquire’.

Philosophers hate this for a predictable reason: if it were true, it would eliminate the need for philosophy. Every philosopher has probably had a conversation with some guy in his second year of undergraduate physics in which the phrases ‘philosophy never made planes fly’ and ‘science just works’ have made an appearance. Of course, science works very well at what it does (we respond through gritted teeth). It just doesn’t do everything.

In their loathing of scientism, philosophers are joined by religious people, and for equally predictable reasons. There’s no repeatable experiment that you can do to demonstrate the existence of God: the question of his existence is not generally taken to be a properly scientific question. If scientific questions are the only sorts of questions worth asking, then questions about God are not worth asking, and the whole enterprise of religion is so much nonsense. Richard Dawkins has sold a lot of books making variants of this argument.

Given that I am both a philosopher and a Catholic, you will win no prizes for guessing my general attitude towards scientism. But I think that our loathing sometimes leads both philosophers and people of faith to dismiss scientism, or something very like it, a bit too quickly. There’s a standard argument often used against scientism that might technically work, but is a bit too quick: it rushes too swiftly to a conclusion without dealing with some of the best reasons why people believe in something like scientism.

The standard argument runs like this: again, let’s take scientism to mean ‘the claim that the scientific method is all you need to acquire all the knowledge about the world that there is to acquire’. Now, what exactly constitutes ‘the scientific method’ is disputed, but we can pretty confidently state that it involves making falsifiable hypotheses to try to explain things about the world, and then duly trying to falsify them via repeatable experiments.

So, let’s think about the scientism claim again. Is it a scientific hypothesis? Is there any scientific experiment you could do to falsify it? To test its truth at all? It certainly doesn’t look that way. How, even in principle, could the scientific method tell us whether the claim ‘knowledge properly in the scope of science is the only sort of knowledge that there is’, is true? Whether or not such knowledge did exist, the scientific method would be unable to discover it.

But – aha! – if scientism isn’t a scientific claim, and its truth can’t be adjudicated by the scientific method, then by the logic of scientism you should disbelieve scientism: that scientism is true is not knowledge you can get from science. Scientism thus refutes itself.

That’s how the standard argument runs, and it’s true as far as it goes. Strict scientism is self-refuting. But is that as bad as it sounds?

You might laugh: self-refutation is about as bad as it gets for an argument. But all it takes for scientism to stop being self-contradictory is to weaken its scope a bit. Instead of claiming that the scientific method is all you need to obtain all the world’s knowledge, you can instead say that science is all you need to obtain almost all of the world’s knowledge. You might need some non-scientific philosophical justification for a few principles (like this new version of scientism itself), but that doesn’t have to be a big deal: philosophy can just tidy up the edges of a world that’s almost entirely explicable by science. Let’s call this ‘scientism lite’.

I’ve often heard responses like this from people tempted by scientism when I use the standard argument against it. They say something like: “Yeah, maybe scientism can’t technically ground or justify itself, but a lot of worldviews have problems doing that: and science still seems like the best way we have of answering the biggest and most important questions.”

They don’t see the standard argument as a reason to drop their scepticism about the idea of large realms of truth that science can’t access.

To challenge this sort of response, we must critique scientism on other grounds: that it can’t answer the hard problem of consciousness, that it struggles to explain moral truth, that it can’t offer any answer to the question of why there exists anything at all. Those arguments are well worth making.

The standard argument can certainly get people thinking: but over-reliance on it can make the case against scientism look glib and nit-picky, winning on a technicality while leaving much of the substance of scientism standing.