The Thinking 

The Conceits of Scientism

May 30, 2012


THOMAS BERTONNEAU, in an excellent essay at The Orthosphere, defines scientism for his university students. Scientism, he explains, is a captivating narrative, viewed as absolute, unquestionable truth by its adherents. Though it sees itself as an enemy of superstition, scientism is beset with superstitions of its own. Bertonneau writes:

Like any ideology, scientism always perceives itself as threatened by its enemy, “superstition.” It can never rest on its laurels but always sees devils popping up in the garden of its utopia. Exponents of the scientistic view in the first decade of the Twenty-First Century are, as they must inevitably be, quite as nervous as ever over the prospect that non-scientistic views will gain an audience and prevail over science itself. Indeed, some exponents of the scientistic view declare that this insurgency has lately actually constituted itself as a threat to science – and the threat, in their view, is gaining ground. The alarmists among the devotees of the scientistic worldview point to any public discussion of “Intelligent Design” or any criticism of standard Darwinian evolutionary theory as representing an intolerable offense by the forces of untruth against truth. Thus according to the scientistic narrative, the present moment, because it includes such developments, would represent an alarming lapse from a state-of-affairs in which naturalism predominates and has decisively suppressed its rival. Dissent from scientistic orthodoxy would be no less than the recrudescence of a formerly nearly suppressed view, that of superstition, which the same narrative reflexively links to a putatively obnoxious and benighted past before the salvific light of science shown into the pit of intellectual darkness. Again, according to the scientistic worldview, certain positions have an automatic and unquestionable status: for example, “religion [qua superstition] is the cause of wars” or “any non-scientific perspective must by definition be intolerant and oppressive.”

Perhaps more importantly, scientistic narrative attributes to its own perspective a uniquely liberating or redeeming power, just as it attributes to (what it calls) superstition an enslaving power; indeed, the scientistic narrative claims for science the Promethean role of a dispeller of woes and a teacher of humanity. In the view of scientistic narrative, the “enlightened man,” conforming his thought to positive criteria exclusively, carries on the work of a saint whereas his fideistic opponent dedicates himself perversely to obscurantism and deviltry.

Scientistic narrative is always implicitly utopian, holding out the prospect of humanity’s complete control over nature and over itself, through the application of reason, narrowly defined, as a soon-to-be-realized goal inevitable if only the naturalistic hypothesis becomes a universal basis of thought.

The critique of scientism, on the other hand, whether implicitly in fiction or explicitly in philosophical discourse, points out the limits of science. It remarks that science has not and probably cannot produce moral order; the critique of scientism points out that the moral order, indeed, has historically had a religious and revelatory, not a logical or empirical, pedigree. Moses, for example, did not deduce the injustice of the Hebrew bondage in Egypt by a series of propositions, nor did he work it out inductively by experiment. He simply saw an Egyptian soldier beating a Hebrew laborer and intuited the absolute intolerability of it; and then later the Being whom Moses claimed to be God (Yahweh) affirmed and guaranteed this same moral intuition.

The moral insight remains valid even should some procedure “prove” that Yahweh does not “really” exist. The non-existence of the deity does not invalidate moral insights attributed to the deity, nor does it explain away their validity. Similarly, Jesus was not a logician – he spoke in parables and he claimed to articulate for a divinely ordained morality. Jesus’ declaration that people should love one another has no logical or empirical status and yet, along with Mosaic revelation, it has yielded much of what is decent in the Western world.

The critique of scientism points out that to exclude revelation simply because it cannot be reduced to something rational is to exclude the probable source of decency in the community. The term superstition has a shifty function in scientistic narrative considered as rhetoric. By collapsing terms like intuition and revelation into the term superstition, the subject of scientistic narrative avoids having to deal with either a gross distinction or any associated subtleties. History provides a laboratory for some scientistic assertions – for example, the assertion that the naturalistic hypothesis is liberating. Political regimes that have acted on the scientistic recommendation to banish “superstition” (that is, religion), as the critique of scientism would also point out, have not been conspicuously decent. Far from it: They have been conspicuously homicidal – like the French révolutionnaires of 1789 and the Marxist and National-Socialist regimes of the mid-Twentieth Century.

The critique of scientism has an epistemological as well as a moral component. The critique of scientism would point out that some, at least, of our knowledge of nature derives neither from deduction nor induction but rather from something like intuition or inspired guesswork. [cont.]

— Comments —

Fred Owens writes:

In defense of the scientific method, which is not being attacked in this essay, I will say that the true enemy of scientific rigor is lazy thinking — Why bother to try to figure out how the universe came into existence? Why not just say God did it? When religious belief becomes an excuse for lazy thinking it can rightly be called a superstition.

What Mr. Bertonneau points out in his essay is that some scientists take their work too seriously.

Buck writes:

I’m confused by Fred Owens’ comment. Is it sarcasm?

How can “lazy thinking” be cited in defense of a scientific method which practices it? Is it the scientist who are lazy and who are deferring to superstition because they can not prove their various theories? Or, is he calling the “superstitious” lazy?

Laura writes:

Fred’s statement did not make sense to me.

Mr. Bertonneau writes:

I say, “thank you” to Fred Owens for recognizing that my Orthosphere essay “On Scientism” is not an attack on or a dismisal of science.

Mr. Owens writes:

Mr. Bertonneau was not attacking the scientific method per se. He was describing and criticizing an extreme view that elevates rational inquiry into a unrivaled supremacy.

True religion is a close ally of scientific understanding. One supports the other as far as I can understand it.

But there is such a thing as superstition or what I called “lazy thinking,” which may involve religious beliefs or unexamined observations that abandon thought and reason. It takes no thought or effort to believe that the sun revolves around the earth, but it took some rigorous and sustained effort to establish the contrary fact, that the earth revolves around the sun.


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