I’ve been seeing scientism more and more often recently in my travels around the internet. Briefly, scientism is the attitude that the only type of knowledge which is valid when speaking about reality or the world is knowledge arrived at through the scientific method, quantitative data representing specific measurements of a certain phenomenon or set of phenomena. It can also refer to the notion that through science, all questions will eventually be answered, all problems solved and that this is an inevitability; a simple matter of time.
This seems to be an attitude that began to come to prominence in the 17th century, in no small part due to the rhetoric of Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon. These men claimed that by learning how the physical world worked, we could become “masters and possessors of nature.” This is almost a direct quote from Genesis: “and God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” I find this to be a curious example of religious thinking to have occurred in the minds of two of our most well-known proponents of science. Rather than invoking a non-material deity, they invoke the abstractions of “science”, “reason” and “logic” in its place.
Both Descartes and Bacon elevated the use of reason and logic through attacks on other human faculties such as creativity, memory and imagination; all aspects of cognition which are commonly denounced as vague or unimportant by proponents of scientism. Bacon, in his efforts to classify learning, demoted poetry and history to a second-class status.
In the enlightenment period, there came to prominence a sort of “Better-Living-Through-Science” rhetoric, with individuals like Denis Diderot claiming that the result of collecting, organizing and preserving all human knowledge (except of course that considered to be frivolous and unscientific by those invested in science) would be that “our children, becoming better instructed, may become at the same time more virtuous and happy.” A cursory glance around at modern Western culture where science has come to prominence and flourished will show that this is hardly the case. If we are to believe such grand claims about the efficacy of science, we should see far more of a measurable result from the use of it. That we do not see such a great degree of change in the virtuousness or the happiness of our children today suggests that perhaps there is more to the problem than Diderot or proponents of scientism today suggest.
We see the beginnings of religiosity in the attitude of scientism during the French Revolution, where many churches were converted into “Temples of Reason” and held quasi-religious services for the worship of science. It would seem to me that if these people were logically and evidentially convinced of the validity and usefulness of science, they would need no such demonstrations of piety and worship.
The 19th century saw the rise of positivism, founded by August Comte. Comte claimed that there was simply nothing in the world that could be called transcendent, and that nothing metaphysical could have any claim to validity whatsoever. He claimed instead that the only valid data was to be acquired through the senses. It should be noted that modern developments in quantum mechanics, neuroscience and psychology show that the senses are not only fallible in the sense of our own inattention to them, but also must as a result of their constitution and form, distort reality.
The human eye bends light differently to a spider’s eye, and the tangle of nerves in each body interprets this sensory data along different lines, toward different biological and in our case, and perhaps the spider’s, ontological ends. Therefore, a human nervous system produces a human reality, a spider’s nervous system, a spider reality, and so on. To speak then of the senses as the only valid method for acquiring data about the world is to confuse them for a perfect instrument, one without bias or distorting influence. As Alfred Korzybski pointed out, we can truly speak only of the limitations of our nervous systems; the reality that lies beyond that is unspeakable. If we begin to believe, as positivists did, that we can ultimately rely on our senses in a final and all encompassing fashion to deliver us to the promised land of truth, we risk falling into the domain of reification, that is, confusing our descriptions of reality for reality itself.
In Comte’s conception, the task of scientists was on the one hand to demonstrate that all phenomena, including human behaviour and experiences, are subject to invariable natural laws; and on the other to reduce the number of these laws to the smallest amount possible, with the goal of ultimate unification under the laws of physics. He also understood intellectual history as having a clear trajectory, which he termed the Law of Three Stages: each branch of knowledge passes through three stages: the theological or fictitious, the metaphysical or abstract, and lastly the scientific or positive state. Note how Comte presupposes that science is the last and ultimate state, a belief ultimately unscientific in its formulation and in its ability to be tested, yet one that is characteristic of modern supporters of the attitude of scientism. Comte believed that in time, an ideas outside of this realm of science would be understood as pure fantasy or mere superstition, unworthy of consideration.
In the twentieth century, positivism gained a prefix. Logical positivism originated from a group known collectively as The Vienna Circle, who revisited the fundamental tenets of Comte’s ideas and proposed to enhance them with symbolic logic and semantic theory. In their system, there are two and only two kinds of meaningful statements: analytic statements (including logic and mathematics) and empirical statements, subject to experimental verification. Anything outside of these narrow boundaries is an empty concept, for all intents and purposes, meaningless.
Karl Popper, the noted philosopher of science, pointed out that few statements in science, unfortunately for the logical positivists, can actually be completely verified. As a result, Popper proposed that the priniple of falsifiablity should replace experimental verification as a demarcation of what qualifies as science.
Moving on to the modern day, we see from the scientific community itself a round dismissal of scientism and associated attitudes of certainty towards the role science is playing and will play in human affairs. Physicist Ian Hutchison notes that “…the health of science is in fact jeopardized by scientism, not promoted by it. At the very least, scientism provokes a defensive, immunological, aggressive response from other intellectual communities, in return for its own arrogance and intellectual bullyism. It taints science itself by association.”
As Thomas Burnett from the American Association for the Advancement of Science points out, “…it is one thing to celebrate science for its achievements and remarkable ability to explain a wide variety of phenomena in the natural world. But to claim there is nothing knowable outside the scope of science would be similar to a successful fisherman saying that whatever he can’t catch in his nets does not exist . Once you accept that science is the only source of human knowledge, you have adopted a philosophical position (scientism) that cannot be verified, or falsified, by science itself. It is, in a word, unscientific.”
This kind of rigid attitude towards science is turning it slowly into a church. Science has always been essentially anarchic, not subject to strict and rigid definitions of its purpose, capabilities or destination as the philosopher of science Paul Feyeraband points out:
“Science 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.”
Indeed the very assertions of scientism are self defeating, as the truth of the statements “no statements are true unless they can be proven scientifically (or logically)” or “no statements are true unless they can be shown empirically to be true” cannot themselves be proven scientifically, logically, or empirically.
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.”
The Myth of Progress, the idea that science can incrementally deal with all aspects of human problems and endeavours, and that it has no boundaries, is what I take most umbrage with. Progress is not unequivocally a good in and of itself. It does not necessarily better the human condition and in some ways it makes it much, much worse, examples of this would be the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear arms.
In an article in New Republic by John Gray, we see a clear example of the fallibility of taking science to be final and ultimate truth: “Academic writing is rarely a pursuit of unpopular truths; much of the time it is an attempt to bolster prevailing orthodoxies and shore up widely felt but ill-founded hopes. There are many examples of academics who have distorted fact or disregarded evidence in order to tell an edifying tale that accords with respectable hopes. Consider the celebrated Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb. When they published “Soviet Communism: A New Civilization?” in 1935, they were not applying rigorous methods of sociological research; they were reiterating the idle prejudices and fantasies that shaped opinion throughout much of the Western world at the time.
When, in later editions of the book published in 1941 and 1944, they removed the question mark from its title, they were displaying a confidence that reflected the pro-Soviet mood that prevailed in Britain during World War II and its immediate aftermath, rather than any new findings. Nor were the Webbs at all unusual in forming their theories on the basis of political fads and ephemeral moods. From the 1950s and 1960s onward, a school of sociology developed that promoted “convergence theory”—the notion that the former Soviet Union, along with other advanced industrial societies, would eventually adopt the core institutions of Western liberal democracy. (Francis Fukuyama’s “end-of-history” thesis was an apocalyptic version of this theory.)
There was never compelling evidence of any strong trend to this effect, and the upshot in Russia has been altogether different. Of course this has not prevented similar theories being invoked today and applied to China and the Middle East. Appealing to the desire for security from conflict and the urge to believe that our place in the world is underwritten by history, the fantasy that societies everywhere are slowly becoming more like our own shapes the social sciences as much as it has ever done.”
Scientism, Gray points out, is in part a refusal to accept that intractable difficulty is normal in human affairs. In any good story, there must be an antagonist, some salt in any stew to make it tasty and not bland and uninteresting. So with life. Many human conflicts, Gray goes on to say, even ones that are properly understood, do not fall into the category of soluble problems.
“No new discoveries in sociology or psychology can enable such conflicts to be wholly overcome; deeply rooted in history, they can only be coped with more or less resolutely and intelligently. Acknowledging this humbling truth is the beginning of wisdom, and of the long haul to something like peace.”
Under the banner of hard realism, the proponents of scientism are in fact unwilling to confront the reality of the raw facts of human misery, the abuse of power, the double-edged fragility of so-called progress; preferring instead to inhabit a fantasy world in which it can be cleverly conjured away.
Now there are obvious, massive problems with this attitude from the get-go. Firstly, not all areas of life are quantifiable. We cannot count the way in which your relationship with your mother has felt to you over the last decade. We cannot quantify the sense of insight or discovery that comes with stumbling across a novel new connection between some aspect of the world and another. The reason is not simply because we don’t have the right tools yet, or that science has “yet to” become sophisticated “enough” to study these phenomena in a quantifiable sense; rather it is that these systems and phenomena are simply not countable, because they do not consist of distinct packets or bits which can be honestly separated out and numbered.
Some systems lend themselves to this sort of calculus-style thinking, for example, we can perform advanced acts of quantification with regards to the amount of cars flowing in and out of a city on a certain road between two arbitrarily selected points in time. Others do not. To believe that all systems and phenomena are of the countable kind is simply to reduce all phenomena into terms which we are comfortable with in the present moment; it is not a sensible or useful way of approaching the ever expanding edge of human knowledge.
In fact, we may come to see that quantification itself is more of a description of the limits of our nervous systems than it is a description of “reality”, whatever that may be. In the light of this realisation, systems are neither quantifiable nor not quantifiable, but rather we may perform acts of quantification on facets of our perception which we isolate from the total array of signals registering on our nervous systems and call “systems”.
Clearly then, it is not simply a “matter of time” or inevitability that science will answer all of our questions; as the nature of what we are studying is ultimately defined by us, limited by our nervous systems and the frameworks of thinking and understanding we have already set in place. Our questions, and that to which we address them, are in flux.
In addition to the fuzzy nature of reality and our perceptual apparatus, alongside the fact that we exist in a reality where things do not come broken up into neat and separate packets; our major scientific paradigms have been overturned more times than we can remember. In fact the reason you are able to read this in the format you are is due almost entirely to the discovery of quantum mechanics in the early twentieth century, which allowed for more complex and sophisticated methods of computing. The history of progress in science is a history of commonly held attitudes and ideas about the special and final nature of our answers being shown to be utterly misguided.
In light of this, how can any self-respecting and self-aware scientist or consumer of science believe that we can be certain that science is leading us to a complete or final understanding of all human questions? This seems to me to be an attitude of premature certainty of the same kind as a pious but secretly uncertain religious believer who must constantly remind everyone of the fact, lest he be exposed to any form of stimulus that might exacerbate his existing misgivings.
We see out of this kind of attitude emerging a class of people who call themselves “experts”, and who can generally hang on to the title for a few decades before a new “expert” arises to replace them. An expert is someone who has claimed to have special knowledge in a field, and if they provide substantial proof that this is the case, then and only then should we take them any more seriously than the average joe.
Experts are obviously a required aspect of modern society. Looking at the state of human knowledge as it is today, our collected history, philosophy, art, music, our religious rituals, oral histories, stories and so on, no one individual can hope to gain competency in all these areas simultaneously. So it is only sensible that we have certain interested folk pursue their area of study to the utmost and become incredibly well versed in said area. This results quite often in fantastic discoveries and breakthroughs, but it can also lend itself to egotism and a certain calcification of ideas and attitudes past the point of their validity or usefulness.
Part and parcel of this domain are individuals who have enormous blind-spots in their thinking, or outmoded biases. Richard Dawkins is operating from a model of the universe that became outdated in the early 20th century with the discovery of quantum mechanics and the various non-deterministic and experimentally valid fields that emerged alongside and after; chaos theory, Thom’s catastrophe theory, Prigogine’s work into evolutionary thinking, and the work of eminent psychologists and philosophers such as Maslow, Watts, Grof and Laing.
Dawkins still uses the metaphor of a deterministic, mechanistic physical universe that operates based on eternal and immutable laws; which when one examines it closely is nothing more than Christianity minus the deity. It does not accurately reflect the world as we know it according to modern science.
And yet, he uses this outmoded image of reality as a way to claim intellectual authority over anyone and everyone who disagrees with his hard-line materialist attitude. He roundly dismisses altered states of consciousness as illusory or worthless, is unsophisticated in his explanations of religious ideas and seems to have no room whatsoever for odd phenomena, whether psychological or physical, preferring to blame the perceiver of the phenomena and engage in ad hominem attacks against their sanity.
Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide take this irritable poseur as an expert on all things religion and science, and that is a mistake we as a culture and a species cannot afford to make.
The issue with blaming scientists and never science itself is that we may fall into the whole dialogue of “Can’t you see that God is perfect, it’s just his followers that ruin everything?” We run the risk of veering over into religious belief and idolatry towards the edifice of science, the idea of science, and in doing so we de-legitimize criticism of science itself. Science thrives on criticism, to do this would be self-defeating in a very real sense.
The idea that science is the only way to know anything with any degree of certainty, that knowledge or insight achieved through non-scientific means is unreliable, or at worst, insane nonsense, is not only a falsehood but a put-down philosophy. It renders human experience as ultimately worthless, and says to the common human, “Your life, your experiences, your discoveries are all subject to complete dismissal, simply because of the manner in which you came to them.”
I’m not saying that theoretical knowledge should be discarded, only that it should take a back seat to personal experience and understanding. Of course, the only way to have that personal experience is often to discard all methods and approaches and just jump in to life, making sense of it by participating in it.
What I am suggesting is that people should distrust all existing forms of knowledge and all proponents of it; including the kind of pseudoscientific salesmen typified by Deepak Chopra, new age guru figures, religious authorities, and of course, as I’ve noted, so-called experts and scientists. If you rely only on the knowledge of others to inform you, you are cognitively stalling; you are choosing to leave abilities of understanding, creative synthesis and insight untapped for the sake of convention. The important act to engage oneself with is not the studious obsession with statistics typical of so many self-described “free-thinkers” and “scientifically-minded” individuals, but rather a clear headed direct engagement with the object of your curiosity.
The advantages of this attitude are obvious: instead of relying only and exclusively on so-called experts to push human understanding forward, we can re-legitimise personal understanding and start working on ways in which we can sift the wheat from the chaff, the shit from the shinola so to speak. We also gain the huge advantage of taking into account multiple perspectives, which seems to me the only sensible attitude in a relative reality.
We stand to gain from no longer alienating people from their own ability to learn and understand the world, in giving them the encouragement to seek their own answers, to feel and see and perceive and hypothesise more deeply and coherently than they had ever thought possible. This, if anything, will increase people’s interest in science as they begin to recognise the broad range of uses the method has and the accuracy it can produce.
There are people who exhibit a sort of reactionary irrationality towards all things scientific. We’ve all heard stories of pious religious people allowing their children to die from preventable diseases due to a distrust of modern medicine. I feel these attitudes tend to come from people who have become hostile towards science, as a direct result of the aforementioned holier-than-thou sneering attitude towards their personal experience conveyed by so many high profile scientists and commentators.
Their beliefs are not even so much what I would call personal in the strongest sense of the word; rather I would say that they have simply chosen a different expert. In many of these cases, this expert is not an MD, but a church leader or an alternative health guru. Perhaps if these people were more closely engaged with their own understanding of the world, actively seeking without the express condition of their efforts being scientific in order to be valid, they could more easily recognise that the appropriate solution would be demonstrably effective modern medical care. It is this attitude of self-inquiry and responsibility for one’s beliefs that I’m advocating, not merely exchanging scientific expertise for the “expertise” of fringe practitioners.
If we stop devaluing the personal experiences of these people in a snide, condescending fashion, there’s a very good chance they’ll engage with science in a constructive way.
So what are our alternatives, if we can’t simply leave understanding life up to the scientists? Simple introspection, study, philosophical inquiry, and the voluntary suspension of disbelief to get a first hand sense of the quality of thinking with a different set of basic assumptions.
An irrational, non-quantitative immersion in phenomena, the “flow” state in popular terms, is a major aspect of how we learn to dance, to play music, to self-express. States of free-association and stream of consciousness expression, play, have been instrumental in some of our greatest works of art and music, and if one studies the history of science they’ll find that major breakthroughs are almost unanimously attributed to these flashes of unplanned, non-methodical consciousness.
These aspects of our experience are not reducible to a simple variation or aspect of the scientific method, they are methods of knowing and understanding the world in their own right.
To repeat myself, I am not suggesting that we abandon the scientific method or that it is in some way undesirable; what I am arguing against is the notion that it is the only truly valid or reliable method of understanding our lives, and that it is applicable to every type of question. In addition, we can look to poetry, myth and metaphor as methods for grasping truths about the world we live in. Poetry, while not strictly rational, expresses facets of experience and perception which cannot be clearly stated in quantitative terms. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl conveys aspects of living in America during the fifties that cannot be gleaned from analytic histories of the time, or from scientific measurement of the situation.
One can argue quite convincingly that literature is just as important as science in our quest to understand the world around us, as did Aldous Huxley in his work, “Science and Literature”:
“…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…”
Myth, if not taken immediately as a description of historical events, or physical happenings, can give us profound insight into psychological experiences common across the vast majority of humankind. Joseph Campbell has drawn on the work of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung and given us a compelling account of the relationship between many religious experiences and symbol systems and the archetypal, universal experiences of birth, life and death in the human world. And metaphor, allusion, can engage our minds in ways that a direct, quantitative statement of the collected data with regards to a phenomenon cannot.
We wonder why people seem to be getting stupider, why hardly anyone is paying attention to science, why the public behave in irrational and foolish ways. Isn’t it obvious? We have devalued their very capacity to understand the world in their own terms, and as a result have created generations of people who cannot think for themselves and so are incapable of assessing the merit of anyone else’s ideas.
As long as we enshrine science and scientists in such an uncompromising way, I feel we are committing a sort of intellectual suicide. Science and scientists do not need to be taken a certain way or treated a certain way before the fact of their discoveries and their evidence; that would be tantamount to religion. And now, more than perhaps at any other time in our short history, we must broaden our intellectual horizons, seek novel solutions, overturn existing dogmas, and foster an attitude of compassionate understanding with regards to the relative realities of our human brothers and sisters.