religion and science

Scientism [sahy-uhn-tiz-uhm] is belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints. Philosopher Tom Sorell describes it as: ‘putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.’ It has been defined as ‘the view that the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society.’

The term scientism frequently implies a critique of the more extreme expressions of logical positivism (verificationism) and has been used by social scientists such as Friedrich Hayek, philosophers of science such as Karl Popper, and philosophers such as Hilary Putnam and Tzvetan Todorov to describe the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable.

Scientism may refer to science applied ‘in excess.’ The term scientism can apply in either of two senses. I can indicate the improper usage of science or scientific claims, or to ‘the belief that the methods of natural science form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry’ (i.e. that ‘science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective’ with a concomitant ‘elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience’). The first usage applies equally in contexts where science might not apply, such as when the topic is perceived to be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry, and in contexts where there is insufficient empirical evidence to justify a scientific conclusion. It includes an excessive deference to claims made by scientists or an uncritical eagerness to accept any result described as scientific. In this case, the term is a counterargument to appeals to scientific authority. The second usage is employed by by historians, philosophers, and cultural critics to highlight the dangers of lapses towards excessive reductionism in all fields of human knowledge.

For social theorists in the tradition of Max Weber, such as Jürgen Habermas and Max Horkheimer, the concept of scientism relates significantly to the philosophy of positivism (the methodological decision to base human knowledge solely on the scientific interpretation of observational data), but also to the cultural rationalization of the modern West. British writer and feminist thinker Sara Maitland has called scientism a ‘myth as pernicious as any sort of fundamentalism.’

Scientism is often used pejoratively, to denote a border-crossing violation in which the theories and methods of one (scientific) discipline are inappropriately applied to another (scientific or non-scientific) discipline and its domain. Author Mikael Stenmark proposes the expression ‘scientific expansionism’ as a synonym of scientism. In the ‘Encyclopedia of science and religion,’ he writes that, while the doctrines that are described as scientism have many possible forms and varying degrees of ambition, they share the idea that the boundaries of science (that is, typically the natural sciences) could and should be expanded so that something that has not been previously considered as a subject pertinent to science can now be understood as part of science (usually with science becoming the sole or the main arbiter regarding this area or dimension). According to Stenmark, the strongest form of scientism states that science has no boundaries and that all human problems and all aspects of human endeavor, with due time, will be dealt with and solved by science alone. This idea has also been called the ‘Myth of Progress.’

Economist E. F. Schumacher, in his ‘A Guide for the Perplexed,’ criticized scientism as an impoverished world view confined solely to what can be presently understood: ‘The architects of the modern worldview, notably Galileo and Descartes, assumed that those things that could be weighed, measured, and counted were more true than those that could not be quantified. If it couldn’t be counted, in other words, it didn’t count.’ Intellectual historian T.J. Jackson Lears argues there has been a recent reemergence of ‘nineteenth-century positivist faith that a reified ‘science’ has discovered (or is about to discover) all the important truths about human life. Precise measurement and rigorous calculation, in this view, are the basis for finally settling enduring metaphysical and moral controversies.’ Lears specifically identifies Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s work as falling in this category. Philosophers John N. Gray and Thomas Nagel have leveled similar criticisms against popular works by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, neuroscientist Sam Harris, and writer Malcolm Gladwell.

Several scholars use the term to describe the work of vocal critics of religion-as-such. Thinkers associated with ‘New Atheism’ have garnered this label from both religious and non-religious scholars. Theologian John Haught argues Daniel Dennett and other new atheists subscribe to a belief system of scientific naturalism, which holds the central dogma that ‘only nature, including humans and our creations, is real: that God does not exist; and that science alone can give us complete and reliable knowledge of reality.’ Haught argues this belief system is itself self-refuting since it requires its adherents to assent to beliefs that violate its own stated requirements for knowledge. Christian Philosopher Peter Williams argues it is only by conflating science with scientism that new atheists feel qualified to ‘pontificate on metaphysical issues.’ Dennett responded to religious criticism of his book ‘Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon’ by saying that ‘when someone puts forward a scientific theory that [religious critics] really don’t like, they just try to discredit it as ‘scientism.”

Non-religious scholars have also linked New Atheist thought with scientism. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel argues neuroscientist Sam Harris conflates all empirical knowledge with that of scientific knowledge. Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton argues Christopher Hitchens possesses an ‘old-fashioned scientistic notion of what counts as evidence’ that reduces knowledge to what can and cannot be proven by scientific procedure. Agnostic philosopher Anthony Kenny has also criticized New Atheist philosopher Alexander Rosenberg’s ‘The Atheist’s Guide to Reality’ for resurrecting a self-refuting epistemology of logical positivism and reducing all knowledge of the universe to the discipline of physics. Michael Shermer, founder of ‘The Skeptics Society,’ draws a parallel between scientism and traditional religious movements, pointing to the cult of personality that develops around some scientists in the public eye. He defines scientism as a worldview that encompasses natural explanations, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason. Philosopher Susan Haack, however, argues that the charge of ‘scientism’ caricatures actual scientific endeavor. No single form of inference or procedure of inquiry used by scientists explains the success of science. Instead we find: the inferences and procedures used by all serious empirical inquirers, and a vast array of tools of inquiry, from observational instruments to mathematical techniques, as well as social mechanisms that encourage honesty. These tools are diverse and evolving, and many are domain-specific.

In his essay ‘Against Method: Outline of an Anarchist Theory of Knowledge,’ philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend characterizes science as ‘an essentially anarchic enterprise’ and argues emphatically that science merits no exclusive monopoly over ‘dealing in knowledge’ and that scientists have never operated within a distinct and narrowly self-defined tradition. He depicts the process of contemporary scientific education as a mild form of indoctrination, aimed at ‘making the history of science duller, simpler, more uniform, more ‘objective’ and more easily accessible to treatment by strict and unchanging rules.’ According to Feyerabend: ‘[S]cience can stand on its own feet and does not need any help from rationalists, secular humanists, Marxists and similar religious movements; and… non-scientific cultures, procedures and assumptions can also stand on their own feet and should be allowed to do so… Science must be protected from ideologies; and societies, especially democratic societies, must be protected from science… In a democracy scientific institutions, research programmes, and suggestions must therefore be subjected to public control, there must be a separation of state and science just as there is a separation between state and religious institutions, and science should be taught as one view among many and not as the one and only road to truth and reality.’

In the introduction to his collected oeuvre on the sociology of religion, Max Weber asks why ‘the scientific, the artistic, the political, or the economic development [elsewhere]… did not enter upon that path of rationalization which is peculiar to the Occident?’ According to the distinguished German social theorist, Jürgen Habermas, ‘For Weber, the intrinsic (that is, not merely contingent) relationship between modernity and what he called ‘Occidental rationalism’ was still self-evident.’ Weber described a process of rationalization, disenchantment and the ‘disintegration of religious worldviews’ that resulted in modern secular societies and capitalism. ‘Modernization’ was introduced as a technical term only in the 1950s. It is the mark of a theoretical approach that takes up Weber’s problem but elaborates it with the tools of social-scientific functionalism… The theory of modernization performs two abstractions on Weber’s concept of ‘modernity.’ It dissociates ‘modernity’ from its modern European origins and stylizes it into a spatio-temporally neutral model for processes of social development in general. Furthermore, it breaks the internal connections between modernity and the historical context of Western rationalism, so that processes of modernization… [are] no longer burdened with the idea of a completion of modernity, that is to say, of a goal state after which ‘postmodern’ developments would have to set in. …Indeed it is precisely modernization research that has contributed to the currency of the expression ‘postmodern’ even among social scientists.’

Habermas is critical of pure instrumental rationality, arguing that the ‘Social Life–World’ is better suited to literary expression, the former being ‘intersubjectively accessible experiences’ that can be generalized in a formal language, while the latter ‘must generate an intersubjectivity of mutual understanding in each concrete case.’ Aldous Huxley wrote on the matter in “Literature and Science’: ‘The world with which literature deals is the world in which human beings are born and live and finally die; the world in which they love and hate, in which they experience triumph and humiliation, hope and despair; the world of sufferings and enjoyments, of madness and common sense, of silliness, cunning and wisdom; the world of social pressures and individual impulses, of reason against passion, of instincts and conventions, of shared language and unsharable feelings and sensations…’


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