All too often in contemporary discourse, we hear about science overstepping its proper limits—about its brazenness, arrogance, and intellectual imperialism. The problem, critics say, is scientism: the privileging of science over all other ways of knowing. Science, they warn, cannot do or explain everything, no matter what some enthusiasts believe. In Science Unlimited?, noted philosophers of science Maarten Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci gather a diverse group of scientists, science communicators, and philosophers of science to explore the limits of science and this alleged threat of scientism.
In this wide-ranging collection, contributors ask whether the term scientism in fact (or in belief) captures an interesting and important intellectual stance, and whether it is something that should alarm us. Is scientism a well-developed position about the superiority of science over all other modes of human inquiry? Or is it more a form of excessive confidence, an uncritical attitude of glowing admiration? What, if any, are its dangers? Are fears that science will marginalize the humanities and eradicate the human subject—that it will explain away emotion, free will, consciousness, and the mystery of existence—justified? Does science need to be reined in before it drives out all other disciplines and ways of knowing? Both rigorous and balanced, Science Unlimited? interrogates our use of a term that is now all but ubiquitous in a wide variety of contexts and debates. Bringing together scientists and philosophers, both friends and foes of scientism, it is a conversation long overdue.
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The Sciences and Humanities in a Unity of Knowledge
Much of the concern about a sinister intellectual tendency called scientism involves the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. Scholars in disciplines such as history, philosophy, and literary studies appear nervous about loss of political support and erosion of public funding. Their nervousness is justified, because there's a widespread cynicism about the humanities, some of which may indeed result from glorification of science and technology.
The philosopher of science John Dupré complains that much philosophical work in metaphysics shows an unhealthy reverence for science. He suggests that science — when "construed broadly and preanalytically" — "means little more than whatever are our currently most successful, or even just influential, ways of finding out about particular ranges of phenomena." He adds, however, that "abuse of an excessively rigorous and restrictive conception of science is part of what I mean by the (intentionally abusive) term scientism" (Dupré 1993, 167). As we'll see, the popular and historical meaning of the word science is indeed relatively narrow and "restrictive." Confusion — or certainly the "abuse" that Dupré refers to — arises only if it's thought that all legitimate inquiry falls into that restricted area.
Dupré writes facetiously of "the unity of scientism" to refer to the sociological unity of people who are institutionally certified as scientists. This tends, he claims, to give certified scientists and their work a dubious epistemic authority (1993, 222). He adds that another aspect of scientism could be called mathematicism (223): the enhanced prestige accorded to those parts of science that give mathematical methods a central role. (As an alternative, we could call this tendency "mathematics fetishism.")
Dupré's views follow, in part, from his rejection of the idea of an ultimately orderly universe. Yet we need not adopt his specific approach to metaphysics to suspect that he has a point about mathematics. Some fields of inquiry produce reliable results with little in the way of mathematical systematization (though they may demand skilled and arduous detective work). These fields may be unfairly denied academic and popular prestige. Other fields — perhaps some areas of the social sciences — may be dauntingly mathematical, yet relatively unimpressive in their empirical results. Without mathematicism, Dupré claims, "substantial parts, at least, of a number of disciplines would sink without a trace" (1993, 224).
Much science is of course precise in its methods and robust in its core findings. Modern science's use of sophisticated mathematics has been integral to its success. But Dupré's concerns about current intellectual trends do not appear merely silly or specious. Among these trends, we often see an unhelpful mimicry by the social sciences and humanities of the superficial trappings of the natural sciences. At the same time, strangely or not, we can see widespread resentment of science (within some humanities departments, of course, but also in the culture at large). Following Susan Haack (2007, 18–19), we can identify various kinds of science envy and antiscience — with the latter manifesting as hostility to science or as science denialism.
Indeed, pace Dupré, we might wonder whether institutionally certified scientists, or at least some of them, should actually be accorded more epistemic authority by the general population. Consider the political successes of some kinds of science denialism, especially denial of climate change. Before we worry too much about glorification of technoscience, is it really a good thing that inconvenient scientific findings can be impugned so easily and effectively in current political debates? Conversely, would it have been a bad thing if the current generations of voters in Western liberal democracies had been socialized to have more respect for scientific consensus?
Among all this, much scientism talk — weaponized accusations of scientism — comes from theologians and religious apologists. These individuals do not merely strive to defend the humanities. They contend, rather, for supernatural or nonrational ways to obtain knowledge about the world and the human condition. John F. Haught is just one of many theologians who accuse Richard Dawkins and other publicly outspoken atheists of scientism (e.g. 2008, 18–19, 63). Haught views scientism as a belief that scientific methodology — whatever exactly that might be — can answer all questions, including those relating to meaning, values, and the existence of God. Another high-profile theologian and fan of the word scientism, Alister McGrath, explicitly defines it along similar lines: "The clumsy word 'scientism' — often glossed as 'scientific imperialism' — is now used to refer to the view that science can solve all our problems, explain human nature or tell us what's morally good" (2011, 78).
In the following sections, I argue that we can defend humanistic scholarship without endorsing any mysterious "ways of knowing." We needn't, for example, believe that knowledge can be obtained through divine revelation, recourse to holy books, mystical rapture, or faith (defined in a manner that contrasts with reason), or via a built-in sensus divinitatis that gives us an immediate apprehension of God.
I propose that we abandon the word scientism. In the next section, I'll start with a closer look at this difficult word.
Of Scientism, Science, and Scientists
As philosophers are invariably (and painfully) aware, dictionaries have their limitations. To say the least, they can be unhelpful for pinning down the nuances of concepts. There is, perhaps, something old-fashioned and out of favor about recourse by philosophers to dictionary definitions (see Sorell, this volume). On this occasion, however, I am heavily indebted to the Oxford English Dictionary. It provides plausible and illuminating definitions of scientism and related words such as science and scientist. In fact, the OED offers two definitions of scientism. For the record, the first: "A mode of thought which considers things from a scientific viewpoint." (Well, that sounds harmless enough!) For present purposes, however, we should focus on the word's complex second definition:
Chiefly depreciative. The belief that only knowledge obtained from scientific research is valid, and that notions or beliefs deriving from other sources, such as religion, should be discounted; extreme or excessive faith in science or scientists. Also: the view that the methodology used in the natural and physical sciences can be applied to other disciplines, such as philosophy and the social sciences.
The OED traces this usage back to 1871. Its definition is helpful in contrasting scientific research with other putative sources of knowledge such as, specifically, religion. As we'll see, however, the definition raises further issues. I'll soon return to them, but for a start, what counts as specifically scientific research, and what, exactly, is the "methodology used in the natural and physical sciences"?
Meanwhile, the OED provides several definitions of science itself, allowing some room for Dupré's broad, preanalytical construal. However, the dictionary indicates that since the mid-nineteenth century, the most usual meaning of science when the word is employed without qualification is narrower:
The intellectual and practical activity encompassing those branches of study that relate to the phenomena of the physical universe and their laws, sometimes with implied exclusion of pure mathematics. Also: this as a subject of study or examination.
This usage dates back to 1779. Notably, it is the definition for which the OED asks us to compare the depreciative usage of scientism.
Also relevant, perhaps, is the concept of a science, for which the OED defines a relevant usage that it traces to 1600:
A branch of study that deals with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less comprehended by general laws, and incorporating trustworthy methods (now esp. those involving the scientific method and which incorporate falsifiable hypotheses) for the discovery of new truth in its own domain.
As for the word scientist, see the following: "A person who conducts scientific research or investigation; an expert in or student of science, esp. one or more of the natural or physical sciences." According to the OED, this usage dates to 1834 and 1840: to proposals first made in print by William Whewell, who sought a word that could be used to "designate the students of the knowledge of the material world collectively." He wanted something narrower than philosopher, but broader than the words referring to practitioners of specific sciences. Thus, scientist was coined by analogy to artist. In Whewell's understanding of the latter term, it included musicians, painters, and poets, among others. Whewell considered scientists to include, as examples, mathematicians, physicists, and naturalists.
This cluster of definitions from the OED captures the popular and historical understandings of the terms science and scientist without the need for endless introspection and conceptual analysis. For example, it makes sense of the common distinction between a university's faculty of science and its other faculties (often including a faculty of "arts" or "liberal arts" or "humanities" — with the social sciences frequently being housed with the humanities rather than within the science faculty).
As already noted, the OED also captures the theological element in much nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century complaint about scientism. More generally, it includes the oft-expressed suspicion that there is an excessive deference to science. Still, dictionary definitions do not tell us what kind of "faith in science or scientists" counts as "extreme or excessive." The OED also leaves unclear whether or not mathematics is part of science ("sometimes with implied exclusion of pure mathematics"), and whether or not mathematicians are scientists (Whewell evidently thought they were). It is unclear from the OED definitions whether individuals who make accusations of scientism imagine its proponents to include mathematical theorizing among their "valid" sources of knowledge.
If it comes to that, how should we regard historical scholarship, much of which consists of locating, translating, and reconciling inscriptions and documentary records? This is not usually regarded as a form of scientific research. But do the scientism accusers imagine that their antagonists — people whom they view as scientism proponents — reject historical scholarship as a source of knowledge? In the absence of sociological investigation, it is not clear what the alleged proponents of scientism actually believe about this — or even what their accusers believe they believe.
The OED definitions may help us to distinguish those fields that count as sciences from others that are less theoretical and general in their findings and/or less reliant on postulating falsifiable hypotheses. I doubt, however, that these definitions will enable us to distinguish in any sharp or certain way between the sciences and the humanities. And what about economics, political science, anthropology, and other disciplines within the social sciences? Are these part of science — in a strict sense — or not?
In discussing science's epistemic limitations, McGrath emphasizes its reliance "on the application of observation and experiment in investigating the world" (2011, 77). No doubt the natural sciences do this, but much the same can be said of the social sciences and the humanities. An ancient inscription on a monument is observable, and so is the text of Macbeth or Les Misérables, or the latest judgment from the High Court of Australia on freedom of political speech. By itself, reliance on observation does little to distinguish science from other fields of inquiry. Moreover, if science is hindered in its ability to answer questions because — quelle surprise! — it relies on observation, then much the same applies to the humanities disciplines. I cannot, for example, discover what a newly unearthed royal proclamation states about the events in an ancient battle unless the text is observable by human beings.
To be fair, McGrath also emphasizes experimentation, and here he may be on firmer ground. Nonetheless, it's unlikely that there is a single straightforward criterion for distinguishing science from other forms of serious knowledge production (or for distinguishing scientists from others who make genuine contributions to the sum of human knowledge).
In addition to the definitions that I've cited so far, the OED defines scientific method: "A method of observation or procedure based on scientific ideas or methods; spec. an empirical method that has underlain the development of natural science since the 17th cent." It then elaborates on this at some length, in a way that mentions various approaches to science while tending to emphasize hypothetico-deductive reasoning: the formulation and testing of hypotheses. Although this account has merit, and what it describes is recognizable within scientific practice, hypothetico-deductive reasoning is employed in all areas of human inquiry. Conversely, much work in science is based on close, systematic observation more than on successive conjectures and refutations. Indeed, the OED states: "There are great differences in practice in the way the scientific method is employed in different disciplines (e.g. palaeontology relies on induction more than does chemistry, because past events cannot be repeated experimentally)."
The natural sciences tend to rely more heavily on carefully controlled experiments than do the social sciences and — especially — the humanities. However, all these broad fields of inquiry depend, in one way or another, and to some extent or another, on observations and experiments. Thus, Dupré makes a worthwhile point when he doubts that we can distinguish sharply between scientific and nonscientific forms of inquiry, while also emphasizing the importance of distinguishing between projects that genuinely contribute to knowledge (whether or not they are, strictly speaking, "scientific") and spurious projects that misleadingly purport to be scientific (1993, 222). He concludes that science "is best seen as a family resemblance concept" (242).
Likewise, Haack's account of science represents it as continuous with other kinds of serious evidence-based inquiry. It is, however, "more so" in its efforts to overcome human frailties and epistemic disadvantages: hence science's array of observational instruments, its care in contriving and controlling the circumstances in which evidence is obtained (often involving attempts to isolate particular variables), and its conspicuously mathematical character (see Haack 2007, 24–25, 99–109).
There may be no single straightforward methodology that is unique to science, but there are approaches to inquiry that are distinctively scientific. This becomes clearer when we consider the early history of Western science. Much pleasure can be found in reading any detailed account of its rise in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries — such as Stephen Gaukroger's The Emergence of a Scientific Culture (2006). Science developed hypothesis by hypothesis, contributor by contributor, and step by step; as it did so, it interacted with much else, such as the broader literary and intellectual culture of Europe.
The great founders and practitioners of the Scientific Revolution were obsessed with thought experiments, actual physical experiments, and each other's ideas. They showed a fascination with the new tools that became available during their lifetimes. These included scientific instruments (such as the telescope) that extended the human senses, precisely crafted experimental equipment, and developments in mathematics. As the sciences took shape, their practitioners were able to engage in systematic study of phenomena that had previously resisted human efforts. These included very distant or vastly out-of-scale phenomena such as those studied by astronomers, very small phenomena such as the detailed composition and functioning of our bodies, and (somewhat later, with the advent of scientific geology) phenomena from deep in time before any human artifacts, buildings, or written records.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction
1 The Sciences and Humanities in a Unity of Knowledge
2 Plus ultra: Why Science Does Not Have Limits
3 Scientism and the Argument from Supervenience of the Mental on the Physical
4 Two Cheers for Scientism
5 Scientism and the Is/Ought Gap
6 The Trouble with Scientism: Why History and the Humanities Are Also a Form of Knowledge
8 Strong Realism as Scientism: Are We at the End of History?
9 The Fundamental Argument against Scientism
10 Scientism and Pseudoscience: In Defense of Demarcation Projects
11 Strong Scientism and Its Research Agenda
12 Economics and Allegations of Scientism
13 Why Really Good Science Doesn’t Have All the Answers
14 Scientism (and Other Problems) in Experimental Philosophy
15 Against Border Patrols
List of Contributors