The idea that science is making philosophy and religion largely redundant reappeared recently in the form of an essay in The New Republic (subscription required) by evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker. While repudiating the belief that scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems, the Harvard professor defends another version of “scientism” that comes very close to it, as philosopher Marie I George explains in the following article.
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Scientism: legitimate label or boo-word?
Marie I. George
Steven Pinker in his recent article, “Science is not your enemy”, maintains that the “term ‘scientism’ is anything but clear, more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine.” “Scientism,” however, according to current usage arguably has two readily defined, closely related meanings. In the first instance “scientism” names a position that Pinker (rightly) claims is lunatic, namely, that “scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems.”
That a position is lunatic does not mean that it is not espoused by certain high-profile authors. For example, the biologist Richard Lewontin once affirmed (New York Review of Books Jan. 9, 1997) that the primary problem involved in getting a “correct view of the universe in people’s heads” is “to get them to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world…and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth.” (Of course, not only is this affirmation self-refuting, since it is proposed as a truth, but has not been established through scientific experiment, it is also contrary to common sense. For example, knowledge of truths such as the brute fact that dogs need food to live does not require scientific inquiry.)
While relatively few people embrace the extreme version of scientism, nonetheless numerous individuals embrace it in a weaker form. While they do not go so far as to proclaim science the sole arbiter of truth, they do have what I define as an attitude or mindset that chronically overestimates what science can teach us, an attitude rooted in ignorance of the limitations of the scientific method,. A method or a way or proceeding has to fit what is being studied if it is to prove fruitful. So, for example, to expect to discover the existence of non-physical entities through empirical observation is absurd.
This kind of expectation, nonetheless, is all too common. For example (following the discovery in 1995 of a micro-organism -- Symbion Pandora -- living on the lips of some lobsters) the editors of the prestigious medical journal The Lancet voiced the hope that “a scientist as inquisitive as the one looking in the lobster’s mouth and marveling at S Pandora will come across evil, maybe from the preserved brains of those afflicted….Should that happen, evil will be classifiable and may even prove reversible.” And Pinker himself laments that even non-believers revile “the application of scientific reasoning to matters of religion,” as if questions concerning God, the afterlife, etc. could be answer through experimentation.
As Aristotle observed long ago, people can get in the habit of using a given method successfully and then wrongfully conclude that method works everywhere. A proper education can help prevent this from occurring. A liberal education includes a philosophical reflection on the different branches of learning and their methodologies. Pinker’s assertion that science is “indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality” shows gross ignorance of the sort of question that can and cannot be answered using the scientific method with the accompanying overconfidence in science’s explanatory power -- this is precisely what constitutes scientism in its second sense.
What questions can science answer?
Those that can be answered through observations generally made in the context of experiments that are performed in view of testing hypotheses. Science then plainly cannot establish that “the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being,” as Pinker claims it does. Laws do not “govern” in the manner intelligent agents do; rather they simply expresses a regularity among natural phenomena (e.g., when the temperature of a gas goes up, so does the pressure it exerts against the wall of its container according to the formula PV=nRT).
That the laws of nature were or were not put in place by an intelligent being in order to achieve a goal or goals is not able to be established or overturned by any scientific experiment. Pinker blithely goes on to tell us that science has taught us that there is “no providence…no answered prayers” without the least reference to any experiment, and it is plain that none could ever establish these things. (Yes, experiments as to whether prayers are answered have been attempted. The experimenters generally fail to consider the possibility that God is not interested in participating in their experiment, or that perhaps the way a prayer is answered is not by the empirically observable recovery of physical health, but by spiritual comfort and/or strengthening.)
Pinker is hardly the only one to overestimate science’s role in human knowledge. Contrary to what he seems to believe, many other thinkers are rightly accused of scientism. Biologist William Provine, for example, in his essay “Evolution and Foundation of Ethics,” asserts that: “Modern science directly implies that the world is organized strictly in accordance with mechanistic principles. ... There are no gods and no designing forces that are rationally detectable.” Provine appears to identify “rationally detectable” with detectable through empirical observation, something which obviously is unable to detect an immaterial entity; not to mention he speaks as if philosophical arguments for God’s existence starting from natural phenomena had not been proposed by philosophers, starting with Aristotle. It does not appear to cross his mind that perhaps the scientific method cannot answer this question.
Provine goes on to tell us that science also directly implies that “when we die, we die and that is the end of us.” While a philosopher might propose a defense of materialism, and infer such a position from this defense, it can in nowise be tested through an experiment. Plainly Provine’s scientism does “threaten…the spiritual health of our nation,” contrary to what Pinker would have us believe.
The same is true of many of those who propose bio-psychological explanations of religion, such as Pascal Boyer in Religion Explained, and Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. The same applies to the view that science has shown that people do not have souls. Biologist Steven Jay Gould, in Ever Since Darwin, articulates the widespread view that evolutionary continuity between ourselves and chimpanzees renders the concept of soul antiquated. Yet, does material continuity explain the human capacity for abstract thought? This is plainly not a scientific question, but rather a philosophical one.
Pinker observes that “the intrusion of scientific reasoning into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented,” but does not acknowledge how often this resentment is well-founded. This is not surprising given his ignorance concerning the sort of questions that scientific reasoning is capable of answering. Pinker, for example, rightly notes that the exploitation of African Americans in a study of syphilis is not an unavoidable consequence of science, but he fails to note that science has nothing to say as to the moral rightness or wrongness of this study. Here the appropriate form of reasoning is moral reasoning based on the fundamental non-scientific principle familiarly referred to as the “Golden Rule.”
Pinker while giving lip service to the difference between fact and value is quick to assert that we need science if we are to have “the moral values of an educated person.” Ethics has its own principles and its own methodology, and they are quite different than those of science. Science can certainly help in the application of moral principles and conclusions, but not in the very formulation or derivation of them. For example, our ability to correctly apply the moral principle, “Do unto others…”, is helped by science which informs us that second hand cigarette smoke is bad for human health. The moral principle at the root of this reasoning, however, is not the result of some experiment.
Pinker naively wants to rehabilitate “scientism” with a positive meaning delimited in terms of a commitment to the notions that the world is intelligible and that the acquisition of knowledge is hard. Of course, the realist philosophers, such as Aristotle, acknowledged these two things long before the birth of modern science. It would be nice to see some “hard work” behind Pinker’s sweeping statements, for example: “The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism—requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value.” Instead we are given bald, unscientifically founded assertions, such as that “all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken.” Whether or not a human being is the product of solely material evolutionary causes is not a question science is able to answer. Pinker’s assertion reveals his gross ignorance of what sort of question is philosophical and what sort is scientific.
It is not difficult to see, then, that overweening confidence in the ability of science to answer questions that lie outside the reach of its method is far from being a rare phenomenon nowadays—indeed Pinker provides us a prime example of it. Again, the antidote to scientism is philosophical training consisting of reflection on the different methodologies appropriate to the various subject matters. Limiting oneself to scientific training alone makes it all too easy to unwittingly import the scientific method into areas where it does not apply.
Marie I. George is Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University, New York. An Aristotelian-Thomist, she holds a PhD from Laval University, and a MA in biology from Queens College, NY. She has received a number of awards from the Templeton Foundation for her work in science and religion.