“Scientism” is a slippery category, thus making it ideally suited for charges and accusations that are difficult to refute. For those who are more familiar with my views, it should come as no surprise that I accuse almost all intellectuals within the Bloggernacle of advocating “scientism”, a label which they strongly – and with some reason – reject. Their idea of “scientism” is a much more localized and extreme group of people from which most such intellectuals seek to distance themselves. As such, these people are strong advocates of “epistemological humility” – as defined by the distinction that they wish to emphasize between themselves and those more extreme advocates of scientism. By disentangling the 5 different levels of legitimacy that we might attribute to science I wish to clarify why I stand by my accusing so many others of scientism and why I am so dismissive of their pretensions to “epistemic humility”.
To anticipate a bit, the 5 levels are as follows:
- Science is king and you are its subjects.
- You are king and science is your only adviser.
- You are king and science is your most important adviser, above all others.
- You are king and science is one among many advisers.
- You are king and science is your subject.
- Science is king and you are its subject – you must always hearken to science. Within this view, our own wishes and desires have no claim upon science since it unilaterally dictates truths and values to us, never the other way around. This position is so extreme that it is difficult to find anybody who truly fits the bill – although Henri de Saint-Simon, August Comte (the two inventors of modern sociology) and Vladimir Lenin are all close enough for our purposes. Even the post-cold-war advocates who we usually associate with the name of “scientism” condemn this group for giving science far too much authority and say-so in how we run our lives.
- You are king and science is your only adviser – you mustn’t hearken to any others. These are the largely post-cold-war advocates of scientism – most strongly associated with the post 9/11, New Atheist movement – who think that science and only science can tell us anything concerning truth. These people think that religion is both morally bankrupt and potentially dangerous. While these people do not think that science should necessarily dictate every aspect of our lives, they are utterly dismissive of any non-scientific challengers. When intellectuals within and without the Bloggernacle speak of “epistemic humility” as an antidote to “scientism”, this is what they are objecting to.
- You are king and science is your most important adviser, above all others – you can hearken to others, unless science says otherwise. These are intellectuals allow for non-scientific sources and traditions of truth and values… so long as they do not contradict those of science. When such a contradiction between science and religion does arise, such intellectual strenuously seek to dissolve it, for if we must decide which one has the “real” truth, the answer is obviously science. To take a stand against well-supported science would be “irrational” and it is this assumption that largely motivates apologetics. These people who are so dogmatic with respect to those below, while at the same time claiming to be so humble with respect those those above, are who I accuse of “scientism”.
- You are king and science is one among many, relatively equal advisers – you can hearken to others and they will sometimes trump science. This is the pluralistic society imagined by Paul Feyerabend wherein science is one among many traditions and religions who inform the truths and values we will endorse and defend as a community. Whether we, as a society, obey or even listen to well-established science will depend upon what these other traditions have to say. While it is certainly nice if science agrees with any or all of these competing traditions, any irreconcilable differences are not all that troublesome. Since science and religion are equals, sometimes the former will trump the latter and sometimes the reverse will be the case. This is basically what I think is a decent model for public discourse for our “secular” society as a whole.
- You are king and science is your subject – hearken to it only if you want to. Within this view, science has no moral claim upon us whatsoever in that we can listen to or dismiss it as we see fit with no more need to justify this decision than when I do not buy a particular make of car. It is difficult to see why any of these people would ever bother defending any belief “scientifically” (a la apologetics) since science does not have any authority whereby it could offer support for or against anything else. This is how I think Mormons should think of science within their private lives – as an optional tool that might be useful for various jobs or a fun little hobby of sorts, but nothing that could ever have any kind of claim over us.
While none of this amounts to an argument for or against any of these positions, I hope it does articulate and clarify the reasons why, when I accuse a person of being (3), their attempts at setting themselves apart from (2) do not really further the discussion.
Perhaps people could sound-off in the comments with a) which role they think science should play, b) which role they think science actually does play and c) which of these roles they dismiss as “scientism”.