PEL on Scientism

“…[scientism] is contributing to a growing trend on the left, quite as ferocious as anything on the right, toward anti-intellectualism and bigotry, and that it is at bottom incompatible with the principles of a humane, open, and free society.” Partially Examined Life on Scientism.

I used to discuss this a lot back at the old blog. (Sadly I was unable to export the posts in a fashion so they could be imported here). I’ve not talked about it in a long time simply because at a certain point it becomes uninteresting. Most people engaging in scientism simply don’t have much of a mind to even bother attempting to understand why philosophers ask the things they do. Often their view of philosophy is pretty distorted.

That said this is hardly new. I recall this quote from C. S. Peirce that bemoans a similar stance in the late 19th century.

It has been an unfortunate accident of our century that philosophy has come to be set off from the other sciences as if it were foreign and almost hostile to them. In the early years of the century, men like Hegel fancied that their philosophical methods were so strong that they could afford to rather emphasize the contrast. They fancied they were able to run the inductive sciences down, to outstrip them altogether. They had been educated in theological seminaries and they only knew natural science in a popular way from the outside. Pride must have a fall, generally involving more or less injustice; and the natural result of this Hegelian arrogance has been a mistaken notion that metaphysics, in general, not this or that system of it, but all metaphysics, is necessarily idle, subjective, and illogical stuff. This is a very serious accusation. It is not to be treated lightly on the one side or the other. The question is, can we find anything in metaphysics, not which shall contrast with other science now put beyond all peradventure, but falling in with it as in inward harmony with it, obeying its logic, and serving its turn? (Essential Peirce 2:37)

I often think it’s the teaching or encountering of difficult to understand philosophers like Hegel that leads to this attitude. I recall that Richard Feynman’s fairly anti-philosophy stance largely arose from taking a class on the notoriously difficult Alfred Whitehead while at MIT.

9 thoughts on “PEL on Scientism”

  1. When I was in high school and immediately after I had a strong desire to study philosophy. And so, I bought books and read a lit of philisophy material. Through that adventure I learned that philosophy in general was not what I had thought it was and I grew to have a great distaste for philosophy. I found out that most philosophy is just a flowery play on words that makes not a lot of plain sense.
    As I was reading this post it brought back the same memories- just what exactly is this flowery post even about?

    1. Not understanding doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense. Sometimes posts presume some background knowledge. In this case the topic was scientism which is roughly the view that the scientific method is the only useful way of gaining knowledge. Often it’s the view that philosophy is worthless and confusing without much sense. That is because they can’t understand it must not mean anything. This always struck me as funny since theoretical physics is far more confusing and counter to plain sense than most things in philosophy. (I’m a physicist by training, btw)

  2. I always detected a slight difference in what you and I mean by “scientism”, Clark. Let’s see if you agree:

    You seem to basically means the belief and any sources of knowledge other than science can safely, indeed ought to be ignored.

    What I mean, by contrast, is the belief that any belief that contradicts science ought to be rejected.

    My definition include a strong majority of analytic philosophy, while yours certainly does not. Do I have you definition about right?

  3. Well if we’re talking the semantics of how the term is used it has a slight range of meanings. One meaning is that non-scientific reasoning is devalued. An other meaning is that only knowledge from science in knowledge. While both of those entail what you say (belief that contradicts science ought be rejected) I think that by itself is a weaker, yet still used, type of scientism. Although the type of scientism I think that is most controversial is the stronger forms. Part of the problem of this latter point is the question of what it means to “contradict science.” Various philosophers have engaged with that at various times.

    I’m not sure this is really tied to analytic philosophy at all, although I suspect most analytic philosophers have a positive view of science. Yet not all embrace what I’d call scientism.

  4. “I’m not sure this is really tied to analytic philosophy at all, although I suspect most analytic philosophers have a positive view of science.”

    Yeah, that’s basically all I was getting at.

    I just wanted to make clear the point that when I reject scientism, I am rejecting FAR more than your do when you reject it.

    1. Yes, but I think you’re issues aren’t just with scientism but with science proper. Where that dividing line is probably isn’t entirely clear. (Which is usually the case with loosely defined semantics) I’m pretty sympathetic to a lot of criticism of science that philosophers of science make. I enjoy reading Latour for instance. Although honestly I think a significant portion of philosophical critiques are really semantic issues.

      Fundamentally once you reject there being a formal “scientific method” and realize it’s a social movement where the parts don’t all agree then of course there will be things in science one disagrees with. For instance look at the problem of fraud and replicability in science. To me that’s a real issue. Further it’s part and parcel of the social organization of science. Yet at the same time most scientists recognize this as a problem and are attempting to improve it.

      1. Yeah, I definitely go further than that. Quite frankly, I don’t care whether they iron our their social “wrinkles” or not. Since science will never provide us with anything but the most crass and lowly truths – if that’s even the right word for it – it simply wouldn’t matter to me all that much if all science magically became fully rigorous, replicated, verified and distributed.

        1. I definitely can’t agree with that. While I reject scientism I still think it’s the best way of knowing we have. I know some discount the value of that knowledge, even from a practical standpoint our technology and thereby quality of life seems tied to scientific advancement. While science is wrong at times, for the most established theories it’s probably not wise to bet against them.

          1. Well, I’m not betting that they’re wrong, just that it doesn’t matter whether they’re right or not. Who cares what science says?

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