Posted by: gcarkner | January 18, 2013

Key Markers of Scientism

Six Cultural Identifiers of the Ideology of Scientism

Point of Reflection: Although scientism (and philosophical positivism as per A.J. Ayer) has been academically discredited by many philosophers and scientists in the twentieth century, it still seems to dominate popular thinking, even among many bright science students and scholars. In order for a belief to be considered valid or credible, scientism requires that it be scientifically testable.We need to unpack this more. A valid, while limited, approach to knowing (science) somehow morphs into a dogma: an exclusivist ideology (scientism). In many people’s hearts and minds, it assumes its location within a Closed World System. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor captures the potency of its ideology.

We can come to see the growth of civilization, or modernity, as synonymous with the laying out of a closed immanent frame; within this civilized values develop, and a single-minded focus on the human good, aided by the fuller and fuller use of scientific reason, permits the greatest flourishing possible of human beings…. What emerges from all this is that we can either see the transcendent as a threat, a dangerous temptation, a distraction, or an obstacle to our greatest good. (A Secular Age, p. 548)

What are the markers of the scientism outlook? Perhaps the following succinct six points can assist our inquiry into the matter on campus in the year ahead. Hard Question: Does the broken ideology of scientism police our minds in ways of which we are unaware?

1. The Epistemological Claim: No knowledge is deemed valid or justified unless its claims can be tested and verified empirically through experimentation, observation and repetition. This criterion is part of an intellectual infrastructure which controls the way people think, argue, infer, and make sense of things. Truth claims that do not submit to this kind of scrutiny become irrelevant, invalid, or unacceptable. This principle of knowledge is heavily weighted or biased towards the instrumental and mechanistic.

2. Utopian Sentiment: Science is seen as the futuristic guide to human progress intellectually and culturally. The past tradition, especially that influenced by Christian religion (or any religion for that matter), is taken as false opinion and superstition (even dangerous). It is seen as detrimental to or restrictive of human progress. The growth of scientific knowledge guarantees social and political progress—humans are seen to be flourishing and getting better because of science, technology and medicine. Scientism inherently assumes a warfare model in science-religion relations. It assumes that as science advances, religion is culturally replaced or displaced, demoted in importance to the point of redundancy. The progress myth entailed in scientism reaches a utopian pitch at times. This is the tone we often find in ‘Wired Magazine’, or the ‘Humanist Manifesto’ or our posthumanist friends.

The next century can and should be the humanist century. Dramatic scientific, technological, and ever-accelerating social and political changes crowd our awareness. We have virtually conquered the planet, explored the moon, overcome the natural limits of travel and communication; we stand at the dawn of a new age … Using technology wisely, we can control our environment, conquer poverty, markedly reduce disease, extend our lifespan, significantly modify our behavior, and alter the course of human evolution. (Humanist Manifesto II, p. 5)

3. Intellectual Exclusion or Hegemony: Insights from the humanities, philosophy and theology are treated with the hermeneutic of suspicion. Scientific rationalism dismisses faith as mere fideism (belief without good reasons) or irrationality. Scientism pits truth against beauty and goodness. To be poetic is taken to be trivial or irrelevant. Scientism’s inherent materialism entails that “science” refuses mystery, the metaphysical or anything transcendent, even the metaphorical or epiphanic. Certain human ways of knowing are shut out.

4. Anthropological Implications: People are viewed as sophisticated cogs in the cosmic machinery, or simplified as the most intelligent animals. All human characteristics, including mind or soul, are believed to be explicable in terms of body (neuron networks, DNA makeup, biochemistry or physiology). There is a philosophical reductionism at work, i.e. the higher is explained in terms of the lower, mind in terms of brain, human social behaviour in terms of physics and chemistry. Humans are appreciated mainly for their instrumental value: earning capacity, socio-political usefulness and their excellencies of giftedness. (Note Craig Gay, The Way of the Modern World. or E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed for a fuller explanation.)

5. Implications for Ethics: Science is seen to normatively provide a more reliable and superior decision-making guide; it becomes the new alternative to religion and morals in discerning the good and the shaping of the moral self. In a moral sense, science moves into dominance as a culture sphere, absorbs and redefines morality in scientific categories, according to a scientific agenda. Scientific principle and rationality is seen to be applicable to all, and thus is much less divisive than religion. Religious or personal moral values are to be kept to the private sphere of one’s life, but not to be part of public discourse. (Lesslie Newbigin, Foolisness to the Greeks) It is also important to note here that scientism’s ethical outlook objectifies the world, giving one a sense of dominance or control over it. Knowledge or expertise offers privilege to those in power. Ethical self-justification can occur.

6. What About Language? Within a scientistic worldview, knowledge depends on a designative (versus an expressivist-poetic) tradition of language.  Designative language (Hobbes to Locke to Condillac) traps the pursuit of wisdom within language and confines it to immanence where language and its relationship to truth are reduced to pointing or representation. Language primarily designates objects in the world; the object is held and studied at a distance, observed but not participated in.  One assumes a use of language based on quantitative judgments that are non-subject-dependent (objective). This view of language contributes to scientism’s mechanistic understanding of the universe, rendering it disenchanted. (See Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge for a critique of this dimension)

To sum up, scientism is the notion that natural science constitutes the most authoritative (if not the only legitimate) epistemology or form of human knowing, and that it is superior to all other interpretations of life. It assumes an immanent, Closed World System, which rejects the validity of any transcendent elements. There is a strong attraction to the idea that we are in an order of nature and do not and cannot transcend it. In scientism, the study and methods of natural science have risen to the level of an ideology, and so have morphed into a form of methodological imperialism. Scientism also indicates the improper usage of science or scientific claims in contexts where science might not properly apply, such as when the topic is perceived to be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry (e.g. to determine a worldview or final purpose). The stance of scientism thus may indicate in an overconfident fashion a scientific certainty in realms where this is actually impossible, overreaching its proper limits in a process which can thereby ironically discredit science itself. We propose that good science is not compatible with scientism  and that scientific advancement in no way spells the end or irrelevance of religion (Philosophers Charles Taylor and Alvin Plantinga agree). What do you think about these things?

This is a short excerpt from my paper called “Scientism and the Search for a Integrated Reality” which lays out the critique in much more detail. An upcoming (January 2013) GFCF speaker, MIT Plasma Physicist Ian Hutchinson, has written a new book on scientism called Monopolizing Knowledge:

~Gordon Carkner, PhD in Philosophical Theology, University of Wales

See my complete article: Scientism and the Search for an Integrated Reality SCIENTISM

Plasma Physicist Dr Ian Hutchinson of MIT will address this topic next Wednesday, January 23 @ 4:00 pm in Woodward IRC Room 5, UBC (Wesbrook Mall @ University Blvd) Reception to follow.  Oxford scholar Terry Eagleton comments of Dawkins’ atheism

See other articles on Scientism Series  by Gord Carkner in this GCU Blog


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