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Can we (science and philosophy) just get along?

The recent article in NYT section "The Stone", "Can Physics and Philosophy Get Along?" ( is but the latest echo of an often intense contemporary debate between "scientism" and the defenders of philosophy. (I use the term "defenders of philosophy" on purpose as the charges against scientism are also being brought by various defenders of religious faith. This discussion is NOT about the science vs. religion debate.)

The focus of our discussion will be the apparent need to "defend" the philosophical tradition against a recent tendency in the writings of many contemporary popular science authors to dismiss it in favor of what Christine Korsgaard calls the "The Scientific World View" - the notion that only science can increase the cache of our knowledge.

What is "Scientism"?

Here are a couple of dictionary definitions of the term:


scientism (uncountable)

1. The often dogmatic belief that science is the only source of knowledge.

2. The belief that the assumptions, methods of research, etc. of the physical and biological sciences are equally appropriate and essential in all other disciplines including the humanities and the social sciences.

Merriam Webster online dictionary:

sci·en·tism noun \ˈsī-ən-ˌti-zəm\

1: methods and attitudes typical of or attributed to the natural scientist

2: an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities)

It takes but one casual look around to notice the marvelous accomplishments of modern science. One would need to be intellectually blind and deaf to denounce the value of scientific methods and their potential to both enhance life and contribute to our understanding of the world.

But it is one thing to acknowledge the value of empirical inquiry (the realm of science) and quite another to say that it is the ONLY inquiry worth pursuing.

One can almost understand it when New Atheists (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett) resort to overstating the value of science - their project is clear: combating religious belief. Whether they are justified or not in their complete dismissal of the value of religious belief in human life is not the point here. Their position is an activist one - the pendulum is bound to swing far in the direction of the preferred alternative to religion, science, and the general promotion of secularism.

But when an eminent author like E.O. Wilson ("Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge") dismisses all of Kant's moral theory in one short paragraph that could be summarized as saying that Kant's philosophy is so difficult to understand because it might just be wrong, even those with little acquaintance with philosophy ought to pause and wonder: How can anyone with any intellectual credentials say this?

Recent advances in neuro-biology (see Patricia Churchland video here: have been used to "put to question" our assumptions about ethics and morality.

The implied conclusion is often that neuro-science will ultimately be the final arbiter as to all questions about ethics and morality.

This again reveals the fundamental lack of understanding as to what ethics is, what its questions are and what sort of answers it seeks. Ethical inquiry is only partially concerned with the origins of morals - its scope is much larger and not limited to the "Why" and the "How"; "Ought" dominates its horizon... and is promptly ignored by the scientist all too eager to tell us about observed behavior of some poor monkey or a rat, or whatever other creature exhibited certain "moral" behavior. As if we need yet another proof that morals do not descend from heaven.

The NYT article mentioned above is another example of the rift between science and philosophy in the realms of cosmology and metaphysics.

So why is "Scientism" on the offensive? We live in a world increasingly free of superstition and religious dogma, so it can't be that we are dealing with a reactive instinct causing the pendulum to swing too far in one direction.

Is this a purely American phenomenon? After all, this is a country in which a disturbing number of people still believes that the Earth is only a few thousand years old.

Is it the result of increasing lack of philosophical education even among the "educators" themselves?

Perhaps popular science books sell better with a bit of controversy sprinkled about?

Whatever the reason for this, it is a reason for concern - for spreading ignorance (whether intentionally or by omission) is something we all ought to be concerned about.

Especially the scientists among us...

NOTE: The PW regulars will notice that this write-up has a polemical ring to it. This is exactly what I am going for this time around. Please feel free to take sides in this discussion - the side I'm taking is clear, so sharpen your neurons and let's have a good debate!

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  • Margaret D.

    The current issue (July) of Harper's has an interesting review of three books about or related to scientism ("Reason for Living: The good life without God" by Christopher R. Beha). I don't think the article can be accessed online yet, but the magazine should be out in bookstores and libraries now.

    June 15, 2012

  • Goran

    Please see the Discussions section for my comments and continued pre-meeting discussion

    June 5, 2012

  • A former member
    A former member

    Ryan, I appreciate the point you have articulated. I think and express myself in natural/supernatural metaphors and consider this in itself a beautiful thing.

    June 5, 2012

  • Margaret D.

    Well, I would disagree with those particular Christian debaters. I'm looking forward to an interesting discussion!

    May 29, 2012

  • Bernie D.

    "In my view, it's not scientism simply not to believe in anything supernatural." From the atheist-Christian debates I've seen, where the Christian uses the "scientism" as a pejorative, they would accuse you of scientism if you said the supernatural world doesn't exist (ignoring God, his holy books, and his prophets). Without that godly stuff (divine inspiration), there would be no theology and no gospel (no heaven and no hell).

    May 29, 2012

  • Margaret D.

    Bernie, I suspect it's the "imagination and superstition" phrase that gets their back up and results in the retaliation of "scientism." In my view, it's not scientism simply not to believe in anything supernatural. Rather, it would be a dogmatic and closed-minded approach that refuses to consider any possibility that philosophy, poetry, meditation, etc. might be useful in bringing us a greater understanding of the world.

    May 28, 2012

  • Bernie D.

    I like to frame it like this, making this statement:
    "All knowledge is gained through induction and deduction."

    When I say that, religious people can object by not allowing "divine revelation" and they accuse me of "scientism." I say their divine revelation is nothing more than imagination and superstition. They say I have shut myself off from other realms of truth by not honoring "divine revelation." I don't believe in anything supernatural, so they accuse me of 'scientism."

    May 28, 2012

  • Goran

    I have posted a short note on Logical Positivism to the Files section as it is somewhat relevant to this discussion. For those wanting to know more about Logical Positivism and the Vienna Circle movement, follow the IEP link to the Analytic Philosophy article. (Logical Positivism is discussed in section 3)

    May 28, 2012

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