What is scientism?
Scientism is the view that all real knowledge is scientific knowledge—that there is no rational, objective form of inquiry that is not a branch of science. There is at least a whiff of scientism in the thinking of those who dismiss ethical objections to cloning or embryonic stem cell research as inherently “anti-science.” There is considerably more than a whiff of it in the work of New Atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who allege that because religion has no scientific foundation (or so they claim) it “therefore” has no rational foundation at all.
What’s wrong with scientism?
Despite its adherents’ pose of rationality, scientism has a serious problem: it is either self-refuting or trivial. Take the first horn of this dilemma. The claim that scientism is true is not itself a scientific claim, not something that can be established using scientific methods. Indeed, that science is even a rational form of inquiry (let alone the only rational form of inquiry) is not something that can be established scientifically. For scientific inquiry itself rests on a number of philosophical assumptions: that there is an objective world external to the minds of scientists; that this world is governed by causal regularities; that the human intellect can uncover and accurately describe these regularities; and so forth. Since science presupposes these things, it cannot attempt to justify them without arguing in a circle. And if it cannot even establish that it is a reliable form of inquiry, it can hardly establish that it is the only reliable form. Both tasks would require “getting outside” science altogether and discovering from that extra-scientific vantage point that science conveys an accurate picture of reality—and in the case of scientism, that only science does so.
What else is wrong with scientism?
The irony is that the very practice of science itself, which involves the formulation of hypotheses, the weighing of evidence, the invention of technical concepts and vocabularies, the construction of chains of reasoning, and so forth—all mental activities saturated with meaning and purpose—falls on the “subjective,” “manifest image” side of scientism’s divide rather than the “objective,” “scientific image” side. Human thought and action, including the thoughts and actions of scientists, is of its nature irreducible to the meaningless, purposeless motions of particles and the like. Some thinkers committed to scientism realize this, but conclude that the lesson to draw is not that scientism is mistaken, but that human thought and action are themselves fictions. According to this radical position—known as “eliminative materialism” since it entails eliminating the very concept of the mind altogether instead of trying to reduce mind to matter—what is true of human beings is only what can be put in the technical jargon of physics, chemistry, neuroscience and the like. There is no such thing as “thinking,” “believing,” “desiring,” “meaning,” etc.; there is only the firing of neurons, the secretion of hormones, the twitching of muscles, and other such physiological events.
Scientism can’t even ground our own experience of 1st-person consciousness.