Science is the most remarkable and powerful cultural artifact humankind has ever created. What is more, most people in our society regard science as providing us with knowledge about the natural world that has an unsurpassed claim to reality and truth. That is one reason why I am proud to be a physicist, a part of the scientific enterprise. But increasingly I am dismayed that science is being twisted into something other than what it truly is. It is portrayed as identical to a philosophical doctrine that I call `scientism’. Scientism is the belief that all valid knowledge is science. Scientism says, or at least implicitly assumes, that rational knowledge is scientific, and everything else that claims the status of knowledge is just superstition, irrationality, emotion, or nonsense.
The purpose of this book is to show the pervasiveness of the doctrine of scientism; to explore its coherence, and consequences; and to show that it must be repudiated, both to make sense of a vast range of non-scientific human endeavor, and also for science itself. One of the conflicts that is most visible in current culture is between scientism and religion. But the overall confrontation is not just with religious faith, prominent though that part of the debate may be. Religious belief is not at all unique in being an unscientific knowledge. On the contrary, I shall argue that there are many important beliefs, secular as well as religious, which are justified and rational, but not scientific. And if that is so, then scientism is a ghastly intellectual mistake.
But how could it have come about that this mistake is so widespread, if it is a mistake? The underlying reason is that scientism is confused with science. This confusion is commonplace in many, many popularizations of science. Scientists of considerable reputation speak with authority and understanding (but rarely modesty) about the knowledge and technology that science has brought; and frequently they introduce into their explanations, without acknowledging it, non-scientific assumptions, unjustified extrapolations, philosophy and metaphysics either based on or promoting scientism. It is natural then, for readers, particularly those without inside knowledge of science, to assume that science and scientism are one and the same. After all, many leading scientists, and science popularizers, speak and act as if they are. A major strand within the community of science thus directly promotes this confusion.
What is more, several major strands within the community of religious faith also promote this confusion. On the conservative theological wing, which feels itself in an intellectual battle with a secular academy, there is a deep suspicion of science because it is seen as a countervailing authority against religious orthodoxy. Most of the theologically liberal wing, in contrast, long ago adopted scientism, because they confused it with science. But both sides, whether rejecting or assimilating, have confused science and scientism; and that confusion is a major factor in the stance they each take.
Broader non-science academic disciplines – and here I am thinking of subjects such as history, literature, social studies, philosophy, and the arts – have related problems. I shall argue that one can understand many of the trends of academic thought in the past century or so as being motivated in part by either embracing or rejecting scientism. Those trends that embrace scientism, do so because they feel compelled by the intellectual stature of science: they confuse the two. Those that (more recently) reject scientism, seeing its sterility, seem often to reject science as well, because they have confused the two.
Scientism is many-faceted. It is, first of all, a philosophy of knowledge. It is an opinion about the way that knowledge can be obtained and justified. My single sentence definition of scientism focuses on this underlying and foundational aspect: ” Scientism is the belief that all valid knowledge is science.” However, the repercussions of this viewpoint are so great that scientism rapidly becomes much more. It becomes an all-encompassing world-view; a perspective from which all of the questions of life are examined; a grounding presupposition or set of presuppositions which provides the framework by which the world is to be understood. Therefore, from scientism spring many other influences on thought and behavior, notably the principles that guide our understanding of meaning and truth; the ethical and social understanding of who we are and how we should live; and ultimately our answers to the `big questions’: our religious beliefs.
In so far as scientism is an overarching world-view, it is fair to regard it as essentially a religious position. Its advocates are unhappy with such an assertion, and argue that because scientism does not entail the belief in the supernatural, and does not entail ceremonials and rituals, it cannot be regarded as religion. But that is hair-splitting. There are religions that don’t involve a belief in God, and religions that don’t require participation in ceremonies. What’s more, as we will see, several of the historic forms that scientism has taken actually do involve ceremonials and rituals of religious intent. In any case, the key aspect of religious conviction that scientism shares with most organized religions is that it offers a comprehensive principle or belief, which itself cannot be proved (certainly not scientifically proved) but which serves to organize our understanding and guide our actions.
Higher education in the West, in its beginnings, was almost exclusively a Christian undertaking. Its rationale and content were dominated by the propagation of Christian truths and the education of people to undertake that mission. As it grew, of course, much broader perspectives were encompassed, but even well into the nineteenth century, religious observance and education were dominant aspects of most colleges and universities. In the second half of that century, though, a transformation occurred, away from religious to more secular motivations and content.1 To a great extent, that transformation can be viewed as a conversion to scientism. Not that all twentieth century academics subscribed overtly to scientism. But just as Christian presuppositions were a kind of academic mental habitat in earlier centuries, so, scientism became the de facto world-view of the academy. Scientistic viewpoints had been advocated by a vocal minority of intellectuals since the beginning of the Enlightenment, and had gained increasing dominance prior to this transformation. But after it, scientism became practically the orthodoxy of the academy.
In the later parts of this study, I will explore briefly some of the more practical consequences of scientism in modern attitudes to political and social decision making. One can consider the emphasis on technological solutions for the challenges we face as a facet of scientism. The modern reliance on technology to solve all manner of social challenges was increasingly subject to critiques from human and religious perspectives as the twentieth century wore on. The belief in human `progress’, based on technique, failed in the face of the stark realities of world wars and gulags. But because the underlying scientism was not displaced from its intellectual dominance, the technological imperative and the reliance on the technological fix seem as strong as ever.
Repudiation of scientism is the only way that we can break free from some of the more debilitating habits of thought that have dominated modern intellectual life. But this repudiation is unsustainable, even by the most heroic effort, without a distinction between science and scientism. If denying scientism’s sway requires us to deny the truthfulness, value, or reality of scientific knowledge – as seems to be implied by some of today’s critiques – then in my opinion the move will fail. And it should fail, because in fact science does give real, reliable, knowledge. It is just that science and scientism are not the same thing. Science is not all the knowledge there is.
Perhaps, gentle reader, you are yourself already highly dubious about the distinction that I am trying to draw. Quite possibly, you take the view that science really is the only reliable route to knowledge: that science is simply the systematic critical study of any field of activity: that the word science simply describes knowledge, which after all is its Latin etymology. If so, then I need to convince you, first, that there is something distinctive about the disciplines that we traditionally call science, something that is different from other disciplines; and second, that that distinctiveness calls for definite characteristics of the things we study using the methods of science, which not all questions possess. In other words, I must show both that there are in fact functional definitions of science, and that not all interesting knowledge falls within the scope of the definitions.
A major cause of confusion is that the word science is used with at least two meanings. Those meanings are completely different; confusing the two has a natural tendency to lead to scientism. One meaning, which I just alluded to, looks to the derivation of the word. It comes from the Latin scientia which means simply knowledge. Based on this foundation, the word science is sometimes used to describe any systematic orderly study of a field of knowledge; or by extension the knowledge that such study produces. The other meaning of the word science is today a far more common usage. It is that “science” refers to the study of the natural world.
The Encyclopédie and Samuel Johnson
Prior to the nineteenth century, the word science was used, especially in continental Europe, to mean simply knowledge. The Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers3 was edited by Denis Diderot and published in 21 volumes of text and 11 of illustrative plates during the years 1751 to 1777. It was in many ways the embodiment of Enlightenment thinking. Its definition of the word science is this:
SCIENCE, as a philosophical concept, means the clear and certain knowledge of something, whether founded on self-evident principles, or via systematic demonstration. The word science is, in this sense, the opposite of doubt; opinion stands midway between science and doubt.
(The original was in French.) Clearly, by this definition, science is no different from what we commonly simply call knowledge. If this were all that the word science connoted, there would be no problem. We would use “science” interchangeably with “knowledge” and little else would be implied. But, of course, this is not the only connotation in modern usage. Most of the time, today, when people refer to science they are referring to natural science, our knowledge of nature, discovered by experiment and (most convincingly mathematical) theory. This is the meaning I use.
The Encyclopédie itself reflects an ambiguity about the usage of the word science, which may have been deliberate. The formal definition it gives, is equivalent to “knowledge”. But the Encyclopédie’s usage strongly implies the natural and technological knowledge that is captured by the modern meaning, natural science.
Consider the title of the work itself, which might be translated, “Encyclopedia or Reasoned Dictionary of Sciences, Arts, and Trades”. Lest the modern reader be misled by this literalistic translation, we should recognize that the word Arts here means predominantly what we would call technology. Here is part of the Encyclopédie’s own article on ART, which was evidently Diderot’s manifesto for the work.
Origin of the arts and sciences. In pursuit of his needs, luxury, amusement, satisfaction of curiosity, or other objectives, man applied his industriousness to the products of nature and thus created the arts and sciences. The focal points of our different reflections have been called “science” or “art” according to the nature of their “formal” objects, to use the language of logic. If the object leads to action, we give the name of “art” to the compendium of the rules governing its use and to their technical order. If the object is merely contemplated under different aspects, the compendium and technical order of the observations concerning this object are called “science.”
Thus, for example, according to Diderot, metaphysics is a science and ethics is an art. Theology is a science and pyrotechnics an art! So arts are the products of applying industriousness to nature, and differ from “science” in that arts are practical, whereas science is contemplative. Moreover, for Diderot, there are subdivisions of arts:
Division of the arts into liberal and mechanical arts. When men examined the products of the arts, they realized that some were primarily created by the mind, others by the hands. This is part of the cause for the pre-eminence that some arts have been accorded over others, and of the distinction between liberal and mechanical arts.
Then after promoting the value of the mechanical arts and criticizing those who disdain them, who by their prejudice “fill the cities with useless spectators and with proud men engaged in idle speculation”, Diderot extols Bacon and Colbert as champions of the mechanical arts and says, “I shall devote most of my attention to the mechanical arts, particularly because other authors have written little about them.”
The modern reader may be forgiven for feeling that Diderot has multiplied distinctions in ways that are more confusing than enlightening. Nevertheless, the main point is clear. The Encyclopédie is a work predominantly about natural science and technology. It defines the word science to mean knowledge in general; but then it focuses on natural science and technology. Here we see scientism in its youth. And even in its youth, it seems to be based on deliberate confusion of language. The French philosophes (whose champion Diderot was) and those who followed them were quite deliberate in their attempt to undermine confessional religious faith and any authority based on it. Their avowed aim was to undermine the authority of the clergy and the church; and hence the political system, the Ancien Régime of which clerical power was one foundation stone. Those opposed to the monarchy and aristocracy used every technique at their disposal from the satire of Voltaire to the social activism of the revolutionaries. But one of the most powerful of their techniques, and arguably the most lasting legacy, was to insinuate scientism as an unacknowledged presupposition into much of the intellectual climate of the succeeding two centuries.
Samuel Johnson’s dictionary4, or to give it its full title, A DICTIONARY of the English Language: in which The WORDS are deduced from their ORIGINALS, and ILLUSTRATED in their DIFFERENT SIGNIFICATIONS by EXAMPLES from the best WRITERS5 was perhaps the most definitive work of English usage up to 1755, when it was first published. It had far less of a deliberate agenda than the Encyclopédie, and was a remarkable, nine-year, practically solo effort, unlike the French dictionary of the day which took forty scholars forty years. Johnson’s boast, based on his initial optimistic estimate of only a three-year schedule, was that this showed “As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman”6.
The 11th edition, abstracted like some earlier editions by Johnson to produce additional profit through a more accessible, less bulky work, retains only the authors, not the texts by which the meanings are illustrated and its definition of science reads
Science. 1. Knowledge. Hammond. 2. Certainty grounded on demonstration. Berkley. 3. Art attained by precepts, or built upon principles. Dryden. 4. Any art or species of knowledge. Hooker, Glanville. 5. One of the seven liberal arts, grammar, rhetorick, logick, arithmetick, musick, geometry, astronomy. Pope.
Evidently this definition conforms to the more general concept as addressing any systematic body of knowledge. Several of the original quotations from which these definitions are derived do show signs of preference towards natural science. Nevertheless, the last definition, as liberal art, emphatically retains the breadth of meaning that a classical derivation might imply.
Two Nineteenth Century Historians
Insight into the usage of the word science in the nineteenth century can be gleaned from the writing of Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), a lawyer, politician, colonial administrator, poet, essayist and historian 7
Macaulay’s The History of England from the accession of James the second was an immediate bestseller when it was published in mid century (volumes 1 and 2 in 1848), and remains a classic of English literary style and popular history, still in print. Macaulay’s writing is considered also a characteristic example of `Whig History’, which means an interpretation of history in terms of the progressive growth of liberty and enlightenment, accompanying the increase of democratic and parliamentary power, as opposed to monarchy and aristocracy. Macaulay, while unromantic in his perspicacious analysis of the motivations of individuals and the sentiments of the populace, is fond of sweeping assessments such as “From the time when the barbarians overran the Western Empire to the time of the revival of letters, the influence of the Church of Rome had been generally favorable to science, to civilization, and to good government. But during the last three centuries, to stunt the growth of the human mind has been her chief object.”8 We see in this quotation that Macaulay refers to science as the intellectual component of the growth of the human mind, which, along with civilization and government, constitutes the progress that he is interested to document. Macaulay’s usage of `science’ here is very broad, encompassing all of liberal studies, not just natural science. Yet later in his overview of England in 1685, speaking about historical assessments of the size of the English population (about five million), he writes “Lastly, in our own days Mr. Finlaison, an actuary of eminent skill, subjected the ancient parochial registers of baptisms, marriages, and burials to all the tests which the modern improvements in statistical science enabled him to apply.”9 So `science’ is a natural description of mathematical analysis. But in discussing the low relative degree of militarization of England he says “… the defence of nations had become a science and a calling” meaning that the army was becoming professionalized, and associated with systematic learning, though not necessarily that of natural philosophy.10
Macaulay speaks of the far more effective naval officers of that day who had risen through the ranks rather than acquiring their appointment, as did the `gentlemen captains’, by political preferment. “But to a landsman these tarpaulins, as they were called, seemed a strange and half-savage race. All their knowledge was professional; and their professional knowledge was practical rather than scientific.”11 So here he is reflecting the Encyclopédie‘s distinction between art: the practical; and science: the contemplative, or perhaps in modern terminology theoretical. Macaulay sees science as preeminently the result of formal education, but later refers to the distinguishing of right from wrong as part of “ethical science” (i.e. the science of ethics).
Thus the usage of Macaulay reflects an understanding of science as knowledge that is contemplative and formally-learnt, encompassing the broad scope of human endeavor, yet only somewhat ambiguously focused on situations and methods that are predominantly the province of natural and mathematical studies. That ambiguity, though, is in practice dispelled by his summary under the heading “State of science in England” in 1685. Noting the foundation, just twenty five years before, of the Royal Society (whose concerns surely serve as an indisputable definition of science as natural philosophy), he lists the subjects of his state of science as including agricultural reform, medicine, sanitation, ” … the chemical discoveries of Boyle, and the earliest botanical researches of Sloane. It was then that Ray made a new classification of birds and fishes, and that the attention of Woodward was first drawn toward fossils and shells. … John Wallis placed the whole system of statics on a new foundation. Edmund Halley investigated the properties of the atmosphere, the ebb and flow of the sea, the laws of magnetism, and the course of the comets; … mapped the constellations of the southern hemisphere” 12. With the sole possible exception of Petty’s “Political Arithmetic”, an early treatise in economic statistics, what Macaulay refers to are topics in natural science.
In the 1898 edition of Macaulay’s History, however, a particularly telling passage appears in the introduction written by Edward P. Cheyney, then Professor of European History at the University of Pennsylvania, and himself the author of an important Short History of England (1904). Cheyney writes
There are two quite different views of historical writing. The one looks upon it as a form of literature, an artistic product, the materials for which are to be found in the events of the past; the other considers it as a science, the solution of the problems involved in the same events of the past. Macaulay represents the former rather than the latter. If strict canons of criticism were applied to his methods of investigation and writing, much of his work would fail to stand the test. … Abundance of illustration and analogy frequently takes the place of a really exhaustive study of the sources.13
It is remarkable that a historian would refer to history, or at least history written in the way he approves, as a science. The differences between the subjects and methods of history and those of natural sciences are, as we shall later explore, about as stark as they can be. But for our present purposes the key question is, what Cheyney is getting at when he refers to historians that “treat history as a science” and use “more rigorous methods” while, in contrast to Macaulay they show “almost entire lack of literary ability”? In the first place, it seems Cheyney’s complaint is that Macaulay is not rigorous, or critical enough. When he says “There are few things in history quite so certain as he [Macaulay] seems to make them” his advocacy appears to be for greater tentativeness. And when he says “… a spirit of candor and a habit of judicial fairness, was not by any means a characteristic of Macaulay’s mind” his criticism appears to be aimed at historical writing that contains specific perspectives and judgements of the merits of actions or events. But when Cheyney portrays Macaulay’s writings as if they were some sort of historical artistic literature or almost historical fiction, he goes far beyond what is justified. Whatever may be the shortcomings of Macaulay’s work, there can be no doubt that his was a mind of great erudition, not just imagination. His historical facts concerning the era he addresses are carefully documented from original sources. Perhaps he allowed himself greater latitude in speculative interpretation than the academic historian of 1900 (or for that matter 2000) would endorse. But it is remarkable and revealing that in the mind of Cheyney, this makes Macaulay not so much unprofessional, or a populist, or merely biased, but rather: unscientific. This attitude is a consequence of scientism – an effort to distinguish between `true’ scientific historical knowledge on the one hand, and on the other, literature that fails to qualify as science and hence as true knowledge. In effect Cheyney is claiming the credentials of science in support of his view that some of Macaulay’s interpretations are erroneous.14
Perhaps we can understand Cheyney’s position better in the light of his Presidential address to the American Historical Society, some 26 years later15. In this oration entitled Law in History, although he no longer uses the word scientific to describe it, he still sees history as on a path to discovery of practically deterministic cause and effect.
So arises the conception of law in history. History, the great course of human affairs, has been the result not of voluntary action on the part of individuals or groups of individuals, much less of chance; but has been subject to law. …
Such are the six general laws I have ventured to state as discoverable by a search among historical phenomena: first, a law of continuity; second, a law of impermanence of nations; third, a law of unity of the race, of interdependence among all its members; fourth, a law of democracy; fifth, a law of freedom; sixth, a law of moral progress.
May I repeat that I do not conceive of these generalizations as principles which it would be well for us to accept, or as ideals which we may hope to attain; but as natural laws, which we must accept whether we want to or not, whose workings we cannot obviate, however much we may thwart them to our own failure and disadvantage; laws to be accepted and reckoned with as much as the laws of gravitation, or of chemical affinity, or of organic evolution, or of human psychology.
Cheyney’s claims and terminology seem aimed to promote professionalism in history: implying that there are certain scientific norms of historiography practiced by the academic historian, but not by writers of much broader experience such as Macaulay.
The effort is not convincing. The distinction between academic and popular history might be significant, but to portray this as a distinction between scientific and unscientific is mostly a power play. The distinction bears no discernible relationship to methods of the natural sciences. It is mostly a substitution of the judgement `correct’ by `scientific’ for rhetorical effect. Given the present common usage of `science’, any merit that might once have resided in references to scientific history is today replaced by confusion. And the hope that some historical law of (say) “moral progress” would be accepted “as much as the laws of gravitation”, seems to a scientist just silly.
Metaphysics a Science?
The confusion of usages of the word science throughout the twentieth century may be illustrated by reference to the insightful An Essay on Metaphysics by R.G.Collingwood (1940)16. I think it is fair to say that today metaphysics would be regarded as a subject that stands in contrast to science. Common sense usage would say something along the lines that science is about the experimentally verifiable facts of nature, whereas metaphysics is about the speculative, unverifiable, logical, and philosophical questions that include religion and the big questions of human life17. For Collingwood, though, classical usages of the words are primary. He explains that literally metaphysics is simply the expression used by the editors of Aristotle to describe the writings that are placed after physics. Collingwood defines science (in contrast to common usage even of 1940) as any “body of systematic or orderly thinking”. And he calls metaphysics “an historical science” which attempts to find out, for the thinkers and arguments it analyzes, their absolute presuppositions.
Ironically Collingwood is himself aware of and concerned to critique scientism. He addresses a nineteenth century philosophy whose prime tenet is that the “only valid method of attaining knowledge is the method used in the natural sciences” as Positivism. Undoubtedly the use of `Positivism’ is historically correct and precise terminology to describe the school of philosophy to which it refers. One reason I avoid it in talking about the larger issue is that scientism is far broader and more influential than the explicit formulation by Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and his followers, which Collingwood analyses. No, scientism is not just philosophical and sociological positivism; it is much more pervasive than that. Nor is it just postivism’s twentieth century extension Logical Positivism, which holds, in brief, that propositions other than scientific ones are meaningless, and which Collingwood colorfully criticizes under the title of the “Suicide of Positivistic Metaphysics”!
I’ll have more to say later about these philosophical formulations. But my present point is that calling metaphysics a science, despite the practice adopted by Diderot in the mid 18th century, is by modern standards just plain confusing, since metaphysics is in large measure defined by the fact that it is not natural science.
Nothing leads more quickly to sloppy thinking and misunderstandings than terminological confusion of this type. Indeed, the continued robustness of scientism is surely partly attributable to this terminological confusion. If science means simply knowledge, then scientism is just tautologically true. End of story. But if science means a particular type of knowledge, as it does today, then it is essential to recognize that meaning and stick to it. For this reason and others, as a matter of the use of language, when I refer to science, I will mean natural science, not simply systematic knowledge. Moreover I mean modern natural science, the inheritor of the revolution in natural philosophy that started in the sixteenth century. I implore the reader to bear this meaning firmly in mind.
It was not a scientist but a philosopher (John Searle) who remarked that most of the disciplines that have the word science in their name are actually not science. He was overstating the idea, even for the 1970s. But he was making the point that most subjects that are unequivocally sciences have descriptive names that don’t require the qualification “science”. One can think of physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, geology, zoology, botany, genetics, physiology, and so on. No one would hesitate to classify these as part of science.
In contrast, think about Social Science, Management Sciences, Pharmaceutical Sciences, Archaeological Sciences, Animal Science, Food Science, Behavioral Sciences, Decision Sciences, Family and Consumer Sciences (I am not making these up!) even Computer Science. Practically none of these are science in the sense of the word that I am using, either because they are not natural (about nature) or because they are really technologies or professional studies.
In recent years, it must be conceded, some of the more traditional sciences have taken to using the word science in the titles of academic departments (e.g. Earth Sciences, Biological Sciences, Atmospheric Sciences, Materials Science, Marine Sciences, Life Sciences) but in most cases this seems to be either because they represent a merging of several historically distinct subjects, or because they want to shed a narrow interpretation.
Whatever may be the individual justification, the outbreak of “sciences” in academic descriptions is in part a reflection of scientism at work. If science is all the real knowledge there is, as scientism says, then a self-respecting academic department better be sure that its discipline is understood to be science. But of course, a discipline does not become a science by simply calling itself one. So not all the new “sciences” are science in any useful sense. But what does make a discipline a science?
Please consider buying the book to read on.