Scientism

Wikipedia defines scientism thusly:

“Scientism is a term used, usually pejoratively, to refer to 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. 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.””

– All the references, including the citation for that quote are available here

People have accused me of scientism, but have never given me the definition above as an explanation. I’ll give you the two definitions accusers have given me along their accusations:

“The view that the entire universe can be explained by science”

– I can’t remember all the people who use this definition, sorry. It is the one most often directed at me though.

“The view that all of knowledge can be attained from the sciences”

– This is an approximate and distilled sentiment from AaronDarrisaw made under his post. The post and the linked video are definitely worth engaging with.

I want to look at all three definitions with respect to the accusation that I believe scientism to be true. The first one I want to look at is the one I cannot cite; the idea that science can explain the entire universe. I remember the accuser accused me and then said something akin to “the statement the universe can be explained by science is a philosophical and non-scientific claim, therefore scientism refutes itself”. Give that a second to sink in; that is elegant. Elegant though it may be, I can express it as “science has demonstrated itself through adaptation, producing theories with predictive power and repeatability that it can create a complete picture of the universe”. That is not a claim beyond the scope of science. So scientism can be expressed in a way that is not self-refuting.

That doesn’t mean that it can’t be refuted. All I need to do is find one thing that populates this bubble of space/time that is beyond the scope of science. Subjectivity. Subjective experiences, personal values. These things definitely exist, they are definitely true but they are not scientific truths. And I believe this claim. Therefore I am not a culprit of scientism, according to the definition I cannot source.

The Wikipedia definition closely relates to the definition I have just looked at. I want to have a look particularly at the sentence that adds bulk to the Wikipedia definition that is absent in the first definition I looked at: “empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints”. One of the biggest problems with scientism (experiential problems, not rational problems) is that it cuts its followers off from the significance of “value”. But that won’t matter to its followers, because what is experience if not a neurological state and hormone fluctuation, measurable by science? (I like to think I gave my answer to that here.) Although subjective experiences probably do emerge out of a context that science can describe, science cannot describe or value the experience itself. Anyone that believes in value (which I do) is necessarily not a follower of scientism.

The last definition I wish to discuss was probably the most articulate accusation of scientism I have ever received. In fact, it did take me aback at first. It took me aback partly because I’ve never seen myself as involved in philosophy enough to be given a label, and partly because I thought I’d defended myself against this accusation before but here it was staring me in the face and I didn’t know whether to accept or reject it. In fact, it prompted me to put up this post I had written while I was in Germany to extend my post about the fact I meditate. In the post I make two distinctions: one to separate knowledge from values, experiences and judgements; one between a mental universe (one in your head) and the celestial universe (the star-filled one we normally refer to). I then go so far as to say non-knowledge things like values and judgements and emerging experiences populate your head, but not the celestial universe.

This is where the last definition of scientism comes into play in a different way to the other two: is science the only way to acquire knowledge. No. Is it the best? Yes. Maths and logic are not knowledge. These are tools that can be used to acquire knowledge, but they underpin science—and science is more powerful than either of them alone. Any logically sound syllogism (i.e. P1+P2=conclusion) can give you a conclusion, but it is premises underpinned by repeatable observations and theories with predictive power that lead to knowledge. If your claims are not underpinned by evidence from the real world you are stabbing in the dark at your claims and hoping they are true.

Beauty is a judgement, not knowledge. I can judge a person or a thing beautiful and you can disagree and because it is a judgement neither of us are wrong. Love is an experience, and although “I experienced love” is knowledge, the experience itself an experience (and if you ask me, experience outweighs knowledge every time; I’d rather be happy but ignorant than miserable and knowledgeable). Justice is a value, and although I believe that if one were to define justice robustly one could measure the justice, objectively, of any given situation (like morality) but you’d be free to not hold my definition of justice highly, or disagree with the definition: it is, at bottom, about what you value. These three things may be true (we could always have a long conversation about what truth is). But they are not knowledge.

Please note, I do not mean to diminish love or beauty by saying they are not knowledge. Knowledge is by no means the most important thing in the universe; a life of knowledge without the ability to bathe in your experiences or act on your values does not strike me as a good life. Experience is the most valuable thing in in the universe (according to my own values). This may not come across because I have dedicated so much of this blog to a knowledge claim.

Although I have gone well over my intended word count, I do want to take a paragraph to discuss that truth claim: God. It is more relevant in this context for me to identify as an agnostic, and not an atheist (I am an agnostic atheist: don’t know and don’t believe). Any method of knowledge (and science is still the best) is limited to acquiring knowledge about this universe. Therefore God is only knowable if He interacts with this universe. People who feel they have had a personal experience with God believe that God has interacted with the universe through their mental universe. But many others claim to know of God, even though they believe in a non-intervening God. A non-intervening God is something you should be agnostic about: you cannot know. Science is dusting for God’s prints at the beginning of the universe at the moment (because everywhere else has been thoroughly checked) and if science cannot find God their either we should be agnostic. Science cannot tell us whether there really is a non-intervening God, but neither can anything else. Whether there exists a non-intervening God is unknowable. Whether there exists an intervening God is discoverable.

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