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What is Scientism?

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June 11, 2012 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Thomas Burnett. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: This post first appeared in the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion.



A scientist, my dear friends, is a man who foresees; it is because science provides the means to predict that it is useful, and the scientists are superior to all other men. --Henri de Saint-Simon1




Scientism is a rather strange word, but for reasons that we shall see, a useful one. Though this term has been coined rather recently, it is associated with many other “isms” with long and turbulent histories: materialism, naturalism, reductionism, empiricism, and positivism. Rather than tangle with each of these concepts separately, we’ll begin with a working definition of scientism and proceed from there.

Historian Richard G. Olson defines scientism as “efforts to extend scientific ideas, methods, practices, and attitudes to matters of human social and political concern.” 2 But this formulation is so broad as to render it virtually useless. Philosopher Tom Sorell offers a more precise definition: “Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.” 3 MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson offers a closely related version, but more extreme: “Science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge.” 4 The latter two definitions are far more precise and will better help us evaluate scientism’s merit.

A History of Scientism

The roots of scientism extend as far back as early 17th century Europe, an era that came to be known as the Scientific Revolution. Up to that point, most scholars had been highly deferential to intellectual tradition, largely a combination of Judeo-Christian scripture and ancient Greek philosophy. But a torrent of new learning during the late Renaissance began to challenge the authority of the ancients, and long-established intellectual foundations began to crack. The Englishman Francis Bacon, the Frenchman Rene Descartes, and the Italian Galileo Galilei spearheaded an international movement proclaiming a new foundation for learning, one that involved careful scrutiny of nature instead of analysis of ancient texts.

Descartes and Bacon used particularly strong rhetoric to carve out space for their new methods. They claimed that by learning how the physical world worked, we could become “masters and possessors of nature.” 5 In doing so, humans could overcome hunger through innovations in agriculture, eliminate disease through medical research, and dramatically improve overall quality of life through technology and industry. Ultimately, science would save humans from unnecessary suffering and their self-destructive tendencies. And it promised to achieve these goals in this world, not the afterlife. It was a bold, prophetic vision.

As this new method found great success, the specter of scientism began to emerge. Both Bacon and Descartes elevated the use of reason and logic by denigrating other human faculties such as creativity, memory, and imagination. Bacon’s classification of learning demoted poetry and history to second-class status.6 Descartes’ rendering of the entire universe as a giant machine left little room for the arts or other forms of human expression. In one sense, the rhetoric of these visionaries opened great new vistas for intellectual inquiry. But on the other hand, it proposed a vastly narrower range of which human activities were considered worthwhile.

The Enlightenment

A century later, many of the Enlightenment intellectuals continued their love-affair with the power of natural science. They claimed that not only could science enhance the quality of human life, it could even promote moral improvement. The Encyclopedist Denis Diderot aimed to collect, organize, and preserve all human knowledge so that “our children, becoming better instructed, may become at the same time more virtuous and happy.” 7 Many of the French philosophes even claimed that science could be a substitute for religion. In fact, during the French Revolution, numerous Catholic churches were converted into “Temples of Reason” and held quasi-religious services for the worship of science.8


The 19th century witnessed the most powerful and enduring formulation of scientism, a system called positivism. Its founder was August Comte, who built his positive philosophy from a deep commitment to David Hume’s empiricism and skepticism. Comte claimed that the only valid data is acquired through the senses. Nothing was transcendent, and nothing metaphysical could have any claim to validity.9 The task of scientists was twofold—first, to demonstrate how all phenomena, including human behavior, are subject to invariable natural laws.10 Second, they would reduce these natural laws to the smallest possible number, and ultimately unify them under the laws of physics.11

Comte also subsumed all of human intellectual history into a single process which he called the Law of Three Stages. In his view, each branch of knowledge passes through three stages: the theological or fictitious, the metaphysical or abstract, and lastly the scientific or positive state. He believed that through the continual advancement of human understanding, religion would fade away, philosophy and the humanities would be transformed into a naturalistic basis, and all human knowledge would eventually become a product of science. Any ideas outside that realm would be pure fantasy or superstition.

Logical Positivism

Positivism did not lose its appeal in the 20th century. To the contrary, a group known collectively as The Vienna Circle reinvigorated the fundamental tenets of positivism with enhanced symbolic logic and semantic theory. They called their approach, fittingly, logical positivism. In this system, there are only two kinds of meaningful statements: analytic statements (including logic and mathematics), and empirical statements, subject to experimental verification. Anything outside of this framework is an empty concept.12

Given its sweeping claims, logical positivism came under heavy scrutiny. Karl Popper pointed out that few statements in science can actually be completely verified. However, a single observation has the potential to invalidate a hypothesis, and even an entire theory. Therefore, he proposed that instead of experimental verification, the principle of falsifiability should demarcate what qualified as science, and by extension, what can qualify as knowledge.13

Another weakness of the positivist position is its reliance on a complete distinction between theory and observation. Observations, essential to the empirical approach of science, were claimed by positivists to be brute facts which one could use to establish, evaluate, and compare the theories. However, W.O. Quine pointed out in his “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” that observations themselves are partly shaped by theory (“theory-laden”).14 What counts as an observation, how to construct an experiment, and what data you think your instruments are collecting—all require an interpretive theoretical framework. This realization does not deal a death-blow to the practice of science (as some post-modernists like to claim), but it does undermine the positivist claim that science rests entirely on facts, and is thus an indisputable foundation for knowledge.

Scientism of Today

Scientism today is alive and well, as evidenced by the statements of our celebrity scientists:

The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. –Carl Sagan, Cosmos

The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. –Stephen Weinburg, The First Three Minutes

We can be proud as a species because, having discovered that we are alone, we owe the gods very little. –E.O. Wilson, Consilience

While these men are certainly entitled to their personal opinions and the freedom to express them, the fact that they make such bold claims in their popular science literature blurs the line between solid, evidence-based science, and rampant philosophical speculation. Whether one agrees with the sentiments of these scientists or not, the result of these public pronouncements has served to alienate a large segment of American society. And that is a serious problem, since scientific research relies heavily upon public support for its funding, and environmental policy is shaped by lawmakers who listen to their constituents. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, it would be wise to try a different approach.

Physicist Ian Hutchinson offers an insightful metaphor for the current controversies over science:

The health of science is in fact jeopardized by scientism, not promoted by it. At the very least, scientism provokes a defensive, immunological, aggressive response from other intellectual communities, in return for its own arrogance and intellectual bullyism. It taints science itself by association.15

Noting that most Americans enthusiastically welcome scientific advancements, particularly those in health care, transportation, and communications, Hutchinson suggests that perhaps what the public is rejecting is not actually science itself, but a worldview that closely aligns itself with science—scientism.16 By disentangling these two concepts, we have a much better chance for enlisting public support for scientific research than we would by trying to convince millions of people to embrace a materialistic, godless universe in which science is our only remaining hope.

Distinguishing science from scientism

So if science is distinct from scientism, what is it? Science is an activity that seeks to explore the natural world using well-established, clearly-delineated methods. Given the complexity of the universe, from the very big to very small, from inorganic to organic, there is a vast array of scientific disciplines, each with its own specific techniques. The number of different specializations is constantly increasing, leading to more questions and areas of exploration than ever before. Science expands our understanding, rather than limiting it.

Scientism, on the other hand, is a speculative worldview about the ultimate reality of the universe and its meaning. Despite the fact that there are millions of species on our planet, scientism focuses an inordinate amount of its attention on human behavior and beliefs. Rather than working within carefully constructed boundaries and methodologies established by researchers, it broadly generalizes entire fields of academic expertise and dismisses many of them as inferior. With scientism, you will regularly hear explanations that rely on words like “merely”, “only”, “simply”, or “nothing more than”. Scientism restricts human inquiry.

It is one thing to celebrate science for its achievements and remarkable ability to explain a wide variety of phenomena in the natural world. But to claim there is nothing knowable outside the scope of science would be similar to a successful fisherman saying that whatever he can't catch in his nets does not exist.17 Once you accept that science is the only source of human knowledge, you have adopted a philosophical position (scientism) that cannot be verified, or falsified, by science itself. It is, in a word, unscientific.


1. "Un savant, mes amis, est un homme qui prévoit; c’est par la raison que la science donne le moyen de prédire qu’elle est utile, et que les savants sont supérieurs à tous les autres hommes." Translated into English by Valence Ionescu in The Political Thought of Saint-Simon. Oxford University Press, 1976. Page 76
2. Olson, Richard G. Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2008.
3. Sorell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. New York: Routledge, 1991.
4. Hutchinson, Ian. Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism. Belmont, MA: Fias Publishing, 2011.
5. Descartes, Rene. Discourse on Method
6. Sorell, p176
7. Sorell, p35
8. Ozouf, Mona. Festivals and the French Revolution. Harvard University Press, 1988.
9. Zammito, John H. A Nice Derangement of Epistemes : Post-Positivism in the Study of Science from Quine to Latour. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
10. This view is a form of strict determinism, and current popularizers of continue to enthusiastically endorse it. Perhaps they are “determined” to do so?
11. This view is a form of extreme reductionism, also widely endorsed by current popularizers of science.
12. Zammito, p8
13. Popper, Karl. Logic of Scientific Discovery. 1959
14. For an extended discussion, read Zammito’s chapter “The Perils of Semantic Ascent: Quine and Post-positivism in the Philosophy of Science” in A Nice Derangement of Epistemes. University of Chicago Press, 2004.
15. Hutchinson, p143
16. Hutchinson, p109
17. Giberson, Karl, and Mariano Artigas. Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists Versus God and Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Thomas is a former BioLogos Associate Editor. He currently works in science communications at the National Academy of Sciences, and he has also worked with the American Scientific Affiliation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has degrees in philosophy and the history of science from Rice University and University of California, Berkeley.

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Mohammad Nur Syamsu - #70572

June 21st 2012

Before this whole Biologos thing goes any further, I suggest Biologos to accept a non-negotiable tenet of civilized conduct.

Tenet: Subjectivity is valid and relevant to a spiritual domain. Participants acknowledge their own human spirit, and that of the people they are debating with.

Subjectivity is a way of chosing, and what is ispiritual domain is who choses. 

I don’t argue this tenet for God to be acknowledged, I just demand for myself to be acknowledged as the owner of my choices, my human spirit, in a properly subjective way. The feeling to want to be acknowledged is very strong, which is why I demand it. I think everybody has such a feeling, it is very fundamental. My emotions are not safe in an environment where emotions are not acknowledged in a properly subjective way.

It’s fine to have complicated discussions about scientism, but no good will come from discussing with these evolutionist type of people who say to accept emotions, but actually don’t address others with due subjective consideration as being the owner of their choices. War with evolutionists is a better alternative then to be insulted this way, so the insulting attitude must be excluded.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #70581

June 21st 2012


While war may be a necessary evil, war is not a civilized manner of resolving differences and needs to be avoided wherever and whenever possible. 

Therefore it is better to endure insults and insulting attitudes, while endeavoring to engage in constructive conversation, rather than rejecting others out of hand.

Mohammad Nur Syamsu - #70587

June 22nd 2012

But what do you feel then when confronted with a person who systematically denies feelings, including yours? 

It is always the same, the evolutionist demands evidence to accep the existence of anything, thereby ruling out subjectivity. So neither God is acknowledged nor the human spirit. I have considered it, and the proper response, within reasonable subjective judgement, to not being acknowledged is fury.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #70605

June 23rd 2012


The proper response according to our faith is forgiveness and patience.

All people need to have faith in God Who is in charge of all that is.  It is not us to us to correct all wrongs and all mistakes.  For one thing we are human and fallible too, just like those who disagree with us. 

If people get angry with us whenever we make mistakes and we get angry when other make mistakes, the world would be a very angry, hostile, uncomfortable place in which to live. 

God says, Vengence is mine, so let God or Allah take care of it, not you or me.  People of faith should not base our actions on the sins of others.  That is just a trick to distract us from what God would have us do, which is to help people. 

We do not have to defend Allah or God.  Allah can defend Himself.  We really do not have to respond to the taunts of unbelievers because God will take care of them so that is their problem, not ours.       

Mohammad Nur Syamsu - #70653

June 26th 2012

I would not be able to manage such forgiveness in the moment adequately when my spirit is directly attacked. And my thinking is that people generally can’t, except somebody very special.  

With creationism subjectivity and objectivity go hand in hand, subjectivity about the spirit which choses, the creator, and objectivity about what is chosen, the creation. Making this distinction between opinion and fact, while validating both,  is I think the foundation of Western science. Where before opinion and fact was more in a muddle in the minds of people, which hindered progress of science, and democracy.

Are evolutionary creationists letting go of this principle, make this principle something that is up for debate? Is fundamental decency towards each other, acknowledging each other’s human spirit, up for debate on biologos forum?

The original sin was when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The knowledge about good and evil, replaced their feelings about good and evil. They made good and evil into a pseudoscience and they became calculating in their actions, like with social-darwinism. This is the sin that is always threatening with evolutionists. They do not really accept subjectivity, they make everything into a matter of fact, including emotions and feelings, the human spirit. 

Roger A. Sawtelle - #70690

June 27th 2012


I understand your feelings when under attack and that it takes someone special to resist hitting back.

The fact is we believe that the people of God, saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and born of the Holy Spirit are very special, although God’s power is available to all who accept Jesus as the Messiah, the Savior of humankind. 

I think that you are right.  Many evolutionists think that all that exists is matter or matter/energy.  This does leave out human thinking and the human spirit and raises a grave danger to the modern world.  Human beings are not machines.

Evolutionary creationists do not believe that universe is composed of solely matter/energy, but we are trying to understand how God worked through divine laws to create God’s universe.  As you said this is based on both belief found in the Bible and in the laws of nature that humans are discovering on a daily basis.

I hope that you have not felt that you have been insulted on this blog, however we are discussing serious and sensitive topics and people’s feelings can get hurt.  Please report an incident of abuse if you see one.

I do not understand the story of the original sin the way you do.  God told Adam and Eve not to eat of fruit of the tree of KoG&E.  Tempted by the snake they decided that God was trying to deceive them and so they ate. 

What before they knew as head knowledge, now they knew as existential knowledge and experience.  They did not take responsibility for their rebellion against God and did not seek forgiveness. 

Ever since people have been trying to have their cake and eat it too.  They have sought the benefits of serving God without the total commitment to God.  We want to serve God our way and not God’s way. 

Thank you for sharing and I hope this answers at least some of your questions.    

God bless you and yours.



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