Science vs. Scientism

I spent my last post explaining how the philosophy of Pragmatism was shaped by hard science and now I am going to explain how one of the ironies of Pragmatism is that although it was heavily influenced by science, it was also battling against the encroaching materialistic worldview of science. This is a debate that continues to this day to define many of the contours of American Philosophy. In this post I want to begin to outline some of my early – and most likely poorly formed – thoughts on this topic and expose myself to the sharp minds of you my readers, for the betterment of my understanding and our investigation.

One crucial distinction that must be understood to be able to perceive what this ongoing debate is about is the distinction between science and scientism. Science is a method of inquiry and the knowledge acquired by that method. The scientific method – inquiry by hypothesis, experimentation, observation and conclusion – was the explosive discovery that ignited the age of Enlightenment in Europe and skyrocketed humanity out of the Dark Ages. Scientism as described by Joseph Margolis in his book The Unraveling of Scientism is “the assured validity of a metaphysics deemed…overwhelmingly favored by the self-appointed champions of science.” In other words, as I understand it, scientism is the belief that the methods of science and the worldview of science are obviously correct over all other methods and worldviews.

The first Pragmatists were scientifically inclined and even scientifically trained, yet they still opposed this type of scientism.  Even Chauncey Wright, a most ardent empiricist, materialist and even nihilist, was disinclined toward scientism. In fact it was the strictness of Wright’s adherence to empiricism that might account for his insistence that his belief in God, and Religion in general, should be held separate from the demand for scientific validation.

Both Chauncey Wright and Charles Sanders Peirce were professionally occupied with scientific measurements and both were very familiar with the limits thereof. For this reason neither of them felt that any of our so-called natural laws could be taken as fact. The measurements that human beings are able to make are always approximate and therefore no law could ever be proven beyond being a useful approximation. For this reason we cannot assume that we are correct about our scientific theories or conclusions, but can only state that those theories and conclusions are the best fit to the evidence that our current ability to measure yields. Wright would therefore never want to generalize in the way that scientism does and to assume that the ideas and methods of science have some special advantage beyond what is verifiable through direct observation and measurement.  

In a later post I will expand on how this position led Charles Sanders Peirce to develop a powerful evolutionary metaphysics, but for now I want to explain more deeply what I see as scientism by illustrating with any example. On this blog the notion of Occam ’s razor has been used in comments to argue in favor of Natural Selection over teleology, and for Behaviorism over freewill. Occam ’s razor as I understand it is a rule of thumb for inquiry. It states that given two explanations for the same phenomenon it is best to assume the one that requires the least number of assumptions is correct. Certainly this is a good guide for reason and inquiry, but it is not a proof.

If we argue that the theory of Natural Selection explains evolution and then use Occam’s razor to assert teleology is not part of the evolution process then I feel that we are slipping into scientism. This, in my mind, is an over-extension of Occam’s razor. Just because the explanation of Natural Selection does not require the assumption of teleology doesn’t mean that there is no teleology. In fact the use of Occam’s razor circumnavigates the real issue at hand which is that Natural Selection cannot explain all of evolution. It explains a great deal of evolution, but to say that it proves that all of evolution takes place without any guidance other than chance variation and survival of the fittest is extending and generalizing the theory beyond what it could possibly be validated through observation and therefore Natural Selection can only be a theory that could never be completely proven. Some would say that it is the best theory we have to explain evolution, but others would claim differently. Neither could prove their point.

My point here however is not about this particular argument; it is to illuminate the idea of scientism as I am coming to understand it. The scientism in this example rests not in the argument, but in the fact that the agreement with the methodology of Occam’s razor is presumed to be a complete assurance of the validity of the claim. In other words it is assumed that agreement with Occam’s razor is proof enough and this kind of scientism often expresses a sense of obviousness designed to make any disagreement seem ridiculous. In Margolis’ book he writes about how over the last century scientism and the philosophies that have latched onto it, have not come any closer to proving their superiority in explain certain critical aspects of reality like human knowledge, human behavior or ethical conduct, in spite of working explicitly to do so.