The Charge of ‘Scientism’, and Philosophy and Science!

by | March 16, 2018


By Dr. Stephen Law and Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Some scientists dismiss philosophy. They think science and empirical observation provide the sole window into reality. How can we gain insight into the nature of the world out there by sitting down, closing our eyes, and just thinking about it? How can we find out anything about reality by employing the armchair methods of philosophy?

Simultaneously, some philosophers and many religious people think such scientists are guilty of ‘scientism.’ That is, the arrogant assertion that all legitimate questions can only be answered by scientific methodologies.

For example, scientists, like Richard Dawkins, who think science is capable of revealing anything about the supernatural – let alone God – are supposedly guilty of hubris, of pride.

Dawkins and others are told to show some humility and acknowledge there are ‘more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in their scientistic philosophy.’ So, who is right? Is it those charging ‘scientism,’ or those who dismiss anything other than the deliverances of science as, well, bullshit?

On the one hand, Dr. Law is a professional philosopher. So, you may expect him to carve out a special non-scientific territory for philosophers. On the other hand, he supposes that in the hands of some – including many theologians – the ‘scientism!’ charge has become an unjustified and knee-jerk form of dismissal, much like ‘communism!’ in the past.

There do appear to be questions science can’t answer. Moral questions for example. Science is great at revealing facts about what is the case. Morality, however, is concerned not with what is the case, but with what ought to be. As the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume pointed out, observation does not reveal ‘ought facts.’

Hume also draws attention to the is/ought gap: It appears that premises concerning what is the case – certainly, premises of the sort that pure empirical science is capable of establishing – fail rationally to support moral conclusions: conclusions about what one ought or ought not to do. So, it appears science can’t supply answers to our most fundamental moral questions, either by direct observation or by means of an inference from what has been directly observed.

Or take the question: why is there something rather than nothing? Science points to the Big Bang to explain why the universe exists. But why did the Big Bang happen? Whatever science points to explain that will be more, well, something. So, it seems something must always be left unexplained by science.

Here is another question:

At a family get-together, the following relations held directly between those present: Son, Daughter, Mother, Father, Aunt, Uncle, Niece, Nephew, and Cousin. Could there have been only four people present at that gathering?

Actually, there could. It’s possible to figure that by doing some armchair, conceptual work. No scientific investigation is required or would even be relevant here. So, conceptual puzzles are puzzles that science cannot answer, but armchair methods can.

Now, philosophical puzzles also seem to have this conceptual character. Take the mind-body problem. Just how could the activities in our brains give rise to a rich inner world of subjective experience?

True enough, scientists might discover everything that’s going on in my brain as I savour the taste of this cheesecake, but surely, my experience couldn’t just be that brain activity, could it?

Isn’t there some sort of conceptual obstacle to identifying minds with brains? Many think there is: we can know, they think, from the comfort of our armchairs, that minds just couldn’t be brains.

However, whether or not there is such a conceptual obstacle about something requiring only armchair conceptual investigation to figure out, just as it only took armchair conceptual investigation to reveal there could, appearances to the contrary, be just four people present at that family gathering.

Our view is that philosophical problems are, for the most part, such conceptual problems. As such, they require armchair methods, not the scientific method, to solve them. At the same time, we agree with scientific critics of philosophy who say, “How can you discover anything about reality via armchair philosophical reflection or investigation?” You can’t.

Philosophical reflection can’t discover the basic nature of reality. Pure armchair theorising is an unreliable guide to reality. Science has shown that many of our armchair intuitions about time, space, matter, and so on, are wrong.

Still, while philosophical reflection can’t reveal how nature fundamentally is, it can on occasion reveal how nature isn’t.

Galileo ran a thought experiment to show Aristotle’s theory that a lighter and heavier ball will fall at different speeds cannot be correct. Galileo showed through philosophical investigation that Aristotle’s theory generates a contradiction: if the two balls are chained together, they will fall faster because their weight is now combined; they will also fall slower because the lighter ball will act as a drag on the heavier ball.

So, it seems there is an important role for pure armchair philosophical reflection even in science, contrary to the views of some scientists. However, we agree that armchair philosophical investigation can’t explain how nature is – it can at best reveal that certain descriptions cannot be true of it because they involve contradictions.

Have we conceded that the charges of ‘scientism!’ against Dawkins and others are correct? No. To acknowledge questions and puzzles that science is the inappropriate answer does not mean the supernatural, the gods, or God are off limits to the scientific method.

God and the supernatural are normally unobservable. However, the unobservable is not off limits to science. Electrons are not directly observable. Same with the distant past of this planet (unless, of course, a time machine is invented).

Yet, we can confirm and refute theories about unobservables via the scientific method. Why? Because existence of electrons and the Earth being older than 6,000 years have observable consequences.

But many claims about God and the supernatural have observable consequences too. Take, for example, the claim about God answering prayers. Two large scale double-blind studies – researchers and participants do not know the control group or the experimental group – have been done on the effect of petitionary prayer on heart patients.

Both revealed prayer had no effect. There was an absence of evidence for prayer working. But there was not just an absence of evidence for the efficacy of prayer, there was also evidence of absence – evidence that prayer does not work in that way.

Maybe science cannot in principle answer all questions. Maybe some claims are off-limits. That prayer works is not one of them.

What motivations might be behind the charge of scientism? One seems to be shutting down debate, and immunise religious and supernatural claims against scientific refutation. Bishop James Heiser writes:

“The efforts of scientists to disprove the existence of God is not a pursuit of Science, but Scientism” (Heiser, 2012).

Bishop Heiser seems to have an image of some scientists rubbing their hands menacingly together, cackling, and actively working to disprove the existence of the supernatural or God.

As should now be clear, even if that were the aim of some scientists, efforts to test claims concerning the existence of the supernatural or even God do not necessarily involve an embrace of ‘scientism.’ Perhaps science cannot answer every question.

Still, it may be able to answer various questions about the supernatural, including various questions about God. To believe this is not, in fact, to embrace scientism. And to point out that scientism is false is not to discredit such investigations. In their paper, ‘Has Science Disproved God?’ Ashton and Westacott write:

“It is important to note that science, unlike scientism, should not be a threat to religious belief. Science, to be sure, advocates a ‘naturalistic’ rather than ‘supernaturalistic’ focus, and an empirical method for determining truths about the physical world and the universe. Yet, the proper mandate of science is restricted to the investigation of the natural (physical, empirical dimension) of reality. It is this restriction that scientism has violated…” (Ashton and Westacott, 2006, 16).

Science is, in fact, capable of investigating the supernatural.

When a believer is stung into doubt about the lack of evidence for their belief in, for example, petitionary prayer, they can be lulled back to sleep by repeating over and over, ‘But this is scientism! It is beyond the ability of science to decide!’ The spell is cast, and the faithful return to their slumber.

No doubt some things will forever remain beyond the ability of science, and perhaps even reason, to decide. We’re happy to concede that. Still, there’s plenty within the remit of the scientific method, including many religious, supernatural, New Age, and other claims that are supposedly ‘off limits.’

However, because the mantra, ‘But this is beyond the ability of science to decide’ has been repeated so often with respect to that sort of subject matter, it is now heavily woven into our cultural zeitgeist. People simply assume it is true for all sorts of claims for which it is not, in fact, true.

The mantra has become a convenient factoid that can be wheeled out whenever a scientific threat to belief rears their head. When a believer is momentarily stung into doubt, many will attempt to lull them back to sleep by repeating the mantra over and over.

The faithful murmur back: ‘Ah yes, we forgot – this is beyond the ability of science to decide…. zzzz.’

Original Publication in Conatus News.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

Category: Opinion Tags: , ,

About Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere. You can contact Scott via email, his website, or Twitter.

6 thoughts on “The Charge of ‘Scientism’, and Philosophy and Science!

  1. Mark

    “So, who is right? Is it those charging ‘scientism,’ or those who dismiss anything other than the deliverance of science as, well, bullshit?”

    Obviously it’s the latter, because the very dismissal of knowledge via anything other than the deliverance of science is not a scientific statement, it is a philosophical one, a.k.a. an armchair philosophical conclusion.

    “How can you discover anything about reality via armchair philosophical reflection or investigation?” You can’t.”

    The very concept of reality is and will always be absolutely grounded in the contemplation of the armchair philosopher. The question will always remain: what is the basic nature of reality? This is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. It is therefore false to claim that one cannot discover anything about reality via philosophical refection. By extension, it is equally false to assert that the scientific method is the only means to understand reality.

    No doubt insecure religious folk use the term “scientism” to silence uncomfortable discussion. They should rest assured, however, that there is no real contradiction between a supernatural worldview and a naturalist method. The only real conflict is between a supernatural worldview and a naturalistic (or materialistic) worldview; the latter of which is the position held by adherents of the doctrine of scientism.

  2. Jim Atherton

    God is just another word for ‘the unexplained’. The current explanation of existence, i.e. the universe consisting of hundreds of billions of galaxies, in most cases still needs God to explain where it all came from, because that is something science still cannot explain.

    There is no real scientific evidence to prove the existence of the multi-verse, however, if past scientific experience is any guide that is no doubt what the real answer is. Infinity is something that by definition can never be reached. That would seem to be what existence/reality actually is, the infinitely possible rather than the infinitely impossible.

    Science has succeeded in explaining our surroundings and henceforth we can very probably just extrapolate forward from that infinitely.

  3. Albert Hoch

    I suggest a reasonable question to ask of any religious person is “How did God learn?”. Knowledge and its acquisition is a common experience. “My God is eternal.”; Is an evasive thing to say. The most truthful response; “I don’t know.”, is thoughtful.

    What do you think?


  4. Indi

    Science is, in fact, capable of investigating the supernatural.

    That is exactly the opposite of what science is. Making that claim is, itself, scientism.

    The example given – intercessory prayer – is misguided. When we do tests for the efficacy of prayer, we are not investigating anything supernatural. We are investigating explicitly natural phenomena. Put in plain English: We’re not testing whether the angels are listening, we’re testing whether the real-world effects exist. In point of fact, even we show that praying to God has no observable effects in the real world, that doesn’t prove there is no god or that God doesn’t listen to prayers.

    Also, you pooh-pooh any idea that scientists “like Dawkins” are guilty of scientism and imply that all such accusations are motivated by the desire to protect religious ideas from criticism… but then you say:

    There do appear to be questions science can’t answer. Moral questions for example. Science is great at revealing facts about what is the case. Morality, however, is concerned not with what is the case, but with what ought to be. As the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume pointed out, observation does not reveal ‘ought facts.’

    Meanwhile, Sam Harris literally wrote a book about how science solves morality.

    If “scientism” is the assertion that science can solve even things it can’t, and science can’t solve morality, then how is Harris’s claim that science can solve morality not scientism? (Incidentally, Dawkins supported the book, so yes, he’s guilty too.)

    1. Shawn the Humanst

      I read an interesting article about Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape that pointed out the debate is about The Good vs The Right, which is real in philosophy.

      Those who say science cannot answer moral questions think morality is a question of The Right. People who think it can think morality is a question of The Good.

      If it is The Good, then we can figure what leads to human flourishing. It was an interesting point I often see missing from the discussion on science and morality.

      1. Indi

        The thing is, that point is not missing from the discussion on science and morality. What you’re describing is (very basically) the question of consequentialism versus deontologicalism (usually in the form of utilitarianism versus Kantianism)… which is ethics 101.

        The only place that discussion is missing is in the book and in the arguments of those who support the book. There it’s taken for granted that the answer is consequentialism… which is asserting without justification that science can answer questions outside its scope… which is scientism.

        It’s alarming that people let this slide. Simply shrugging off the fundamental question and asserting your preferred truth then going on to argue based on it is the bread and butter of religious apologists, and we all know to recognize it and call it out. Yet Harris does it and “skeptics” are like: “Well, if you just accept his asserted context he’s making sense within it, so if you challenge him you must be on the side of religious apologists (as implied in this article).” Harris is trying to argue that his preferred ethical system is best… by making an assumption that his preferred ethical system is best. That’s no different from: “Okay, I’m going to prove God exists. Let’s start by assuming God exists (though this isn’t actually stated explicitly)… {mumble, mumble, dismissing minor objections that aren’t really the key objects}… therefore God exists.”

        Or in other words, that discussion is not really missing… it’s just being dismissed as in the article above as “if you’re not on the side of ‘scientists like Dawkins’, you’re on the side of religious apologists”.


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