Book Review: Science Unlimted? The Challenges of Scientism

This book should be read as a conversation. While they all agree that scientism has a place the dialogue is constructed around what the place is and the reach it has into areas outside the natural sciences. It is in Thomas Nickels’ “Strong Realism as Scientism:  Are We at the End of History?” where he exposes some of the pitfalls of inquiry. At the heart of his argument is the “end of history” mental state that is apparently a common phenomenon. We, for example, believe that we changes a lot in the past but will change little in the future. Scientists may be subject to the same frame of mind. (I would wish that the scientismists writing here would apply that principle to the scientism itself – to the assumption as well as to the methods and conclusions.)

As the authors provide some formal definitions for scientism I would like to proffer my own as a sort of conclusion from reading the work: Naturalism assumed. It’s science (whatever the term has come to mean) not only informing metaphysics but, according to some, even defining metaphysical conditions. With all of its implications, the assumption of naturalism allows a libertarian “science” to insinuate itself into other areas of human endeavor.

But not all of the contributors hold identical positions. There is a reasonable amount of civil disagreement among them on any particular, and even on the general theme. There is some difference as to the scope of science reach of scientism. But among them there is some agreement in encouraging a – and I hate to use this buzzword from 1990s IT work – “robust” science. Maybe “proactive” would be a better term. Scientific inquiry is treated as engaging the world around and not simply living the life of a lab rat. More on that later.

Some of the writers take a strong empiricist approach. This work might have found a home in the Vienna Circle. While avoiding the problem of verificationism they have endeavored to reinforce a new type of empiricism as the foundation for inquiry. It’s not “new” in the sense that it had no prior existence, but new in the sense that here it gains new life. Here empiricism is treated with all the respect due any deity.

Empiricism now becomes more than just the foundation for scientific inquiry. It is now the foundation for all enquiries. The authors have left the reader with this implication: The scientific method is a source for ethics as such is a foundation for social structures. One might be tempted to go to the more visible part of the 20th century and the various experiments in “scientific atheism” to argue against this conclusion. They might call that a straw man. Perhaps it is. In current events one would do well to identify Iceland’s eugenics program against Down’s Syndrome children as a more polite version of ugliness of the problem. Science, it seems, may determine morality but may never, must never, submit itself to any higher standard. It sets itself above.

Lest this be taken as a misrepresentation of the material, not all of the authors agree with this position. That was encouraging. But I raised it because there was enough agreement so that it can fairly be seen as a mainstream position. Rosenberg & Ruse both go into areas where scientific inquiry and scientism have great difficulty.

Science, it seems, has morphed into the idea that any rigorous investigation is scientific and thus legitimized. The old empirical scientific method is gone. Do you question historicity and seek to draw conclusions from an abductive (explanatory) model? That’s scientific. I largely agree. The allowance of abstract models is scientific – like a weather forecast.  But the fruit such a model differs so much from any laboratory or paleontological effort that any empirical classification seems to do damage to the term defining the movement. The fruit of the weather forecast is the prediction’s accuracy. It’s just numbers; it’s nothing more. Nothing is changed, nothing is repeatable, and verifiability happens only for a brief moment in time.

There is a misunderstanding of “religion” in the work. There is a popular idea that the model for all religions is the simpliciter “Out There intervenes here.” With this definition the empiricists only has to challenge the “intervenes here” and make it the defeater for the existence for the “Out There.” With no evidence for the “Out There” one has given cause to doubt its existence. The Judeo-Christian system is built differently. I would enjoy a discussion with one or more of the authors on this matter.

There is only one chapter in the work which I would classify as a poor argument. I won’t identify it here. When you read the book you will immediately pick up on the straw-man, black-and-white polemic. Fortunately the remainder of the writers were able to avoid that approach.

A good deal of time, and again with some divergence of opinion, is spend on the issue of morality and answering the is-ought problem. It’s good that they’re struggling with it. A fair follow-up question regarding science as a source for ethics this: Why is not science also a source for other matters from the humanities, such as music and poetry? Ode to Spot immediately came to mind. In other words, affecting ethics alone seems quite arbitrary, even polemic, from such a rationalist approach. It belies other motivations outside of inquiry. One day science may escape the tunnel where Rationalism has placed it.

Pigiucci’s section on “Scientism and Pseudoscience” dovetails nicely with Imke Lakatos “Science and Pseudoscience” in Philosophy of Science, An Historical Anthology.  I would recommend reading both sections in whatever sequence you choose.

Of course my observations are tainted by my understandings. At times the term “science” is employed in place “scientism.” But “science” and “reason” are methods. They are not to be confused with conclusions. There are no brute facts, whether one appeals to the evangelical C. VanTil or the Marxist Feyerabend, the conclusion is consistent. Science does not speak. No reputable scientist would say that it does. It is their reports which speak.

The authors will likely differ with my regular use of the term empiricism to describe the general approach here. They are certainly not logical positivists in the vein of Richenbach, Ayer, & Carnap. Yet the requirement of scientific rigor in evaluating almost everything around us makes this about more than just the natural sciences. A better term might be “cultural empiricism,” and it has some of the same characteristics as “cultural Marxism.”

The cultural Marxist works to destroy all of the dominant paradigms of the past. It matters not whether doing do leads to the orthodox position of a workers’ revolt and the establishment of a socialist government. What matters is following the principles, the methods of the revolution. Occupy, anyone?

Likewise the cultural empiricist broadens the investigatory rigor of the natural sciences and evaluates the rest of human existence in that light.  The undergrad, even the secondary school student, is now taught to look at everything materialistically and to apply some obfuscated tools of investigation to all of life. See the “science” of gender studies for millions of examples.

Lastly, there is a good challenge from Michael Ruse for the Christian epistemologist: “In the case of sentience, I find the Christian answer about as unsatisfying as that of Dennett. Indeed, I am inclined to think it worse. To say that we are made in the image of God is but the start of the discussion, and unpacking what this might mean is a formidable task.”  (“Why Really Good Science Doesn’t Have All the Answers “, Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism, 259) How might the question be answered and advanced?