Scientific Fundamentalism

To finish (at least for the time being) with this idea of Scientism vs. Science. I want to take it a little further so that I hope I am able to make clear what I percieve as a problem that arises  sometimes (and not always) in the scientifically minded. As I attempted to make clear in my last post, I do not feel – at this point at least – that science itself is problematic. I feel that science is sometimes applied and generallized in ways that are problematic. This isn’t really a problem of science itself; if anything it is a problem of the philosophy of science. Getting back to this idea of Scientism, I believe that Scientism could also be called Scientific Fundamentalism. Science is a method of inquiry utilizing hypothesis and experimentation. Science is also the body of knowledge accumulated through that method. Scientific Fundamentalism is the belief that all knowledge gained through, and all conclusions drawn from, the scientific method are true. When this kind of Scientific fundamentalism is confused for the scientific method it creates a bounded circular reality in which things are true according to scientific fundamentalism (now confused with the scientific method itself) because they were produced by the scientific method. Conversely, knowledge which is not gained through the scientific method is at best suspect and often dismissed as illogical and untrue because it was not obtained through the scientific method.

Adherence to this scientific fundamentalist view over time can lead to the creation of what I see as a very limited worldview. In other words if you only believe in knowledge which is obtained through the scientific method, soon you only see as real things that have been, or conceivable could be, obtained through the scientific method. Your fundamental notion of reality becomes bound by what has been, and what you can imagine could be, confirmed through experiment, observation and measurement. The scientific worldview that results tends to have certain fundamental characteristics. It tends to be materialistic in the sense of seeing the world as made up of only those things that can be observed and measured. It also privileges the third person, objective, external perspective of reality to the first person, internal, subjective perspective of reality. And it sees the world as constructed from the bottom-up, with parts combining to form wholes, as opposed to top-down with wholes exerting influence over the development of the parts that create them. This leads to a view of an unintelligent process of creation proceeding blindly as opposed to a process guided by a larger whole.

The problem with any form of fundamentalism is that it inherently limits inquiry by establishing boundaries around what is possibly real. Christian fundamentalism limits what is real with a literal interpretation of the bible. There can be an argument made for the moral value of adherence to a literal interpretation of the bible, but most of us would agree that it creates a very limited, predetermined worldview. Scientific fundamentalism works the same way. By using the criteria that only knowledge that is obtained through the scientific method defines what is real, and then taking the even bigger step of applying that criteria (consciously or unconsciously) not only to the knowledge at hand, but to all possible knowledge, we draw a circle around not only everything that is real, but also everything that could ever be real. Both of the original Pragmatists, Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, as well as their friend and mentor Chauncey Wright, were opposed to such scientism albeit for different reasons.

Chauncey Wright was too much of an empiricist to fall into scientism. He believed that only things that had been empirically measured were true and he did not believe in generalizing measured results to included as yet unmeasured instances. Peirce followed Wright in this strict empiricism. Both men would go so far as to say that just because the three angles of every triangle ever measured add to 180 degrees doesn’t mean that every triangle that could ever be measured would add up to 180 degrees. Further they would also say that because our ability to measure the angles of a triangle is limited by the instruments that we use to measure with, we can’t even be sure that the angles add to 180 degrees. They were in affect too scientific to believe in the superstition of scientism.

Peirce had an additional reason for avoiding scientism. Peirce’s famous motto and guiding principle was “Do not block the way of inquiry.” Peirce was by far the most accomplished scientist of the early Pragmatists, but he would never adhere to a scientism that would limit the ability of his expansive mind to encompass new and diverse information. William James was a trained doctor, and he was also the most mystically and morally inclined of the three. He avoided scientism because it ruled out the possibility of belief in mystical, religious, and paranormal experiences that he was so drawn to and he felt held moral advantage for humanity.

The Pragmatism that was first conceived by Peirce and James was a magnificent creation. It was in almost equal parts an extension of the scientific method and especially Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection into the world of philosophy. At the same time it stood as a defense of the mystical and religious in the gathering battle with materialism of scientism.