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Ian Hutchinson
 on January 10, 2012

Monopolizing Knowledge: Science vs. Scientism

The book Monopolizing Knowledge critiques the worldview it calls 'scientism': “the belief that science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge.”


“Science is the most remarkable and powerful cultural artifact humankind has ever created. What is more, most people in our society regard science as providing us with knowledge about the natural world that has an unsurpassed claim to reality and truth. That is one reason why I am proud to be a physicist, a part of the scientific enterprise. But increasingly I am dismayed that science is being twisted into something other than what it truly is. It is portrayed as identical to a philosophical doctrine that I call “scientism”. Scientism says, or at least implicitly assumes, that rational knowledge is scientific, and everything else that claims that status of knowledge is just superstition, irrationality, emotion, or nonsense.” (Monopolizing Knowledge, page 1)

One of the most visible conflicts in current culture is between “scientism” and religion. Because religious knowledge differs from scientific knowledge, scientism claims (or at least assumes) that it must therefore be inferior. However, there are many other important beliefs, secular as well as religious, which are justified and rational, but not scientific, and therefore marginalized by scientism. And if that is so, then scientism is a ghastly intellectual mistake.

But how could it have come about that this mistake is so widespread, if it is a mistake? The underlying reason is that scientism is confused with science. It is natural for readers without inside knowledge of science to assume that science and scientism are one and the same when many leading scientists and science popularizers often speak and act as if they and thus directly promote this confusion. What is more, several major strands within religion also promote this confusion. On the conservative theological wing, science is often rejected because it is confused with scientism, and on the theologically liberal wing scientism is often adopted for the same reason. Whether rejecting or assimilating, religious believers often confuse science and scientism.

Scientism is, first of all, a philosophy of knowledge. It is an opinion about the way that knowledge can be obtained and justified. However, scientism rapidly becomes much more. It becomes an all-encompassing world-view; a perspective from which all of the questions of life are examined: a grounding presupposition or set of presuppositions which provides the framework by which the world is to be understood. In other words, it is essentially a religious position.

The Origins of Scientism

The word science is used with two completely different meanings; confusing the two has a natural tendency to lead to scientism. The historical meaning comes from the word’s Latin root, scientia, which means simply knowledge, and indeed the word science was once used to describe any systematic orderly study of a field of knowledge. In today’s common usage, however, “science” refers to the study of the natural world. The “Encyclopédie” (1751-) of Diderot and D’Alembert,1 a classic embodiment of Enlightenment thought, defines the word science to mean knowledge in general, but then focuses on natural science and technology. This is scientism in its youth. Enlightenment writings helped to insinuate scientism as an unacknowledged presupposition into much of the intellectual climate of the succeeding two centuries. From Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (1755), through historians such as Thomas Babington Macaulay (1848), and in vestiges even into the mid twentieth century, “science” was held to refer generally to formal, intellectual learning, yet when specific examples of science are cited these are almost all natural science.

Edward Cheney used his preface to the 1898 edition of Macaulay’s history2 to criticize him as failing to “treat history as a science”. Cheney’s attitude is rife with scientism – trying to distinguish between `true’ scientific historical knowledge on the one hand, and on the other, literature that fails to qualify as science and hence as true knowledge. As president of the American Historical Society, twenty seven years later, Cheney would champion an explicitly scientistic view of the historian’s task as to discover law in history, “… natural laws, which we must accept whether we want to or not, … laws to be accepted and reckoned with as much as the laws of gravitation, or of chemical affinity.”3 The view is not convincing. The supposed distinction between scientific and unscientific history bears no discernible relationship to the methods of the natural sciences. It is mostly a substitution of “scientific” for “correct” for rhetorical effect.

The continued robustness of scientism is surely partly attributable to this terminological confusion. If science means simply knowledge, then scientism is merely tautologically true. End of story. But if science means a particular type of knowledge, as it does today, then it is essential to recognize that meaning and stick to it. In short what we mean by science today is the inheritance of the Scientific Revolution. In later parts of this series, I shall identify two key defining characteristics of science that encapsulate the two emphases crucial to its development: experimental or natural evidence, and mechanical or mathematical explanation. Before I move on to this task, though, let me pause to address some objections to the whole of my explanatory enterprise.

A Few Possible Objections

One objection that might be raised at this stage is to ask why one should restrict the designation science to the inheritors of the Scientific Revolution. After all, the argument goes, surely we should use whatever strategy is available to discover knowledge. My first answer is immediately to point out that this objection is an example of scientism. It confuses knowledge with science and implies that they are one and the same. I am not at all interested in limiting the ways of obtaining knowledge to those avenues that we call “scientific”. I simply want to be clear that, as a matter of historical fact, science as we commonly conceive it had, and has, a distinctive characteristic approach to methods of discovering and knowing. But why insist on this terminology? Here, my second answer is that science has a well-earned prestige and authority precisely because of its success. This prestige is, of course, one driving force behind the desire of many disciplines to be considered sciences. To use the metaphor of the market today, it is a question of “branding”.

A second kind of objection is this: suppose we grant that we will use the word science to mean natural science. Doesn’t that just mean the study of nature? So shouldn’t “the study of nature” be our working definition of science then? And if it is, why should one limit the scope of science by an identification of its methods? Surely one should use whatever methods are available to study nature.

My answer is this: the main problem with “the study of nature” as a definition of science is that it simply begs the question: what is nature? We tend to think that “nature” is self-evident; but it isn’t. Prior to the Scientific Revolution, nature was populated with gods and teleological imperatives, with intention and purpose. Even in 1686, Robert Boyle (of Boyles’ Law) identified eight different senses of the word nature.4 Boyle’s purpose was to deplore the use of, the semi-deity that underwrote Aristotle’s physics, which the Scientific Revolution was in the process of superceding, and to replace it with the established order or settled course of things. Moreover, even after the Enlightenment, the romantics such as the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that what they were about was the study of nature. Yet no one today would for a moment think to call the poetic understanding of the natural world science. It simply is not adequate to assume that what is meant by nature is obvious.

Instead, I believe, we must use a functional definition of science. Once we have a clear view of what science is, we will have a definition of what we here mean by nature. Nature is what we are studying in natural science. The result of this definition, as we’ll see, is entirely consistent with what Boyle was arguing for: the established order or settled course of things.

There are two key characteristics of science that underlie its immense power but limit its scope: reproducibility and Clarity (which we will discuss in the next post). It was said that whenever the great 19th century scientist Michael Faraday heard of some new phenomenon the first thing he would do was attempt to reproduce the effect in his own laboratory. He explained that his imagination had to be anchored in what he called the “facts”, and he understood that science is concerned with reproducible experimental phenomena. For a phenomenon to be a question of science, it has to give reproducible results, independent of who, where, and when of the experiment.

Induction is often touted as the defining philosophical method of natural science, but as a procedure it is hardly more than a formalization of the everyday processes of discovery practiced by humans from their earliest conscious moments. What Francis Bacon did in laying the foundations for the Scientific Revolution was not so much to explain induction as to insist that science had to be practical (“for the relief of man’s estate” as he put it). Practical technique demands reproducibility. The knowledge that gives rise to useful technology has to be knowledge that is reproducible and gives rise to tangible effects. These are precisely the characteristics of modern science.

Establishing confidence in reproducible knowledge, certain enough for practical application and meeting our expectations for natural science, requires a deliberate approach to experimentation which is a formalization of the notion of reproducibility. Isaac Newton’s famous demonstration that white light is in fact composed of a spectrum of light of different colors is often cited as a “crucial experiment”. In his letter to the Royal Society of February 1672 he relates his experiments with the refraction of light through a prism. He talks about various ideas he ruled out as possible explanations of the observations and then says:

newton prisms experiment

Figure 1: Newton’s experiment with prisms.

This done, I took the first Prisme in my hand, and turned it to and fro slowly about its Axis, so much as to make the several parts of the Image, cast on the second board, successively pass through the hole in it, that I might observe to what places on the wall the second Prisme would refract them. And I saw by the variation of those places, that the light, tending to that end of the Image, towards which the refraction of the first Prisme was made, did in the second Prisme suffer a Refraction considerably greater then the light tending to the other end.1

In a remarkably short time, the acceptance of this demonstration became practically universal because the key qualitative features, and even the quantitative aspects, could be reproduced at will by experimenters with only a moderate degree of competence.

Nevertheless, an important objection arises in response to the view that science is utterly dependent on this kind of reproducibility: what about observational sciences, like astronomy? The heavenly bodies are far outside our reach. We cannot do experiments on them. Yet who in their right mind would deny astronomy is science? Or consider the early stages of botany or zoology. For centuries, those disciplines consisted largely of systematic gathering, cataloging and classifying of samples of species. Surely it would be pure physicist’s arrogance to say that botany or zoology were not, even in their classification stages, science. Are the observational sciences exceptions to the principle that science requires reproducibility?

No. Astronomy was from the pre-industrial age the archetype of reproducibility. It wasn’t just because the heavens showed remarkable systematically repeated cycles that it commanded the attention of so many philosophers. It was because the repeatability gave astronomers the ability to predict with amazing precision the phenomena of the heavens that astronomy appeared almost mystical in its status. The independence of place and observer was satisfied by astronomy with superb accuracy.

There are, of course, unique phenomena in astronomy. On 4th July 1054, astronomers in China first observed a new star in the constellation of Taurus. Its brightness grew visibly day by day. During its three brightest weeks it was reported as visible in daylight, four times brighter than the evening star (the planet we now know as Venus). It remained visible to the naked eye for about two years. We now know these astronomers were observing a supernova. If this were the only supernova ever observed, then we would probably be much more reticent to regard the event with credence. But of course it is not. With modern telescopes, supernovae in other galaxies can be regularly observed.

The SN1054 supernova gave rise to the beautiful Crab Nebula, seen below:

hubble photo of crab nebula

Figure 2: Photograph by the Hubble Telescope of the Crab Nebula.2

Thus, one can thereby get readily accessible reproducible evidence of its date. The expansion rate of the Crab Nebula can be established by comparing photographs separated in time. One can then trace that expansion backward and discover when the now-expanding rim must have been all together in the local explosion. This process, applied by an undergraduate at Dartmouth College to photographs taken 17 years apart, gives us a date in the middle of the 11th century, which lines up perfectly with the recorded observations of the Chinese astronomers. The Crab Nebula’s supernova, though having its own unique features, was an event of a type represented by numerous other examples. It was observable to, and recorded by, multiple observers. It left long-lived evidence that for years could be seen by anyone who looked. These are the characteristics of reproducibility in the observational sciences.

One can go through the same exercise for botany, zoology, and geology, all of which have had major phases where they were largely observational. Even so they require multiple repeatable examples of the phenomenon or specimen under consideration. Science does not require that these can be produced at will in the way that a laboratory experiment can. Observations of interest may occur only at certain times (for example eclipses) or in certain places (for example in a specific habitat), over which we might have little or no control. But it does require that multiple examples exist reproducibly.

A second important objection to the assertion that science requires reproducibility concerns the occurrence of random phenomena. If science is the study of the world in so far as it is reproducible, why does probability — the mathematical embodiment of randomness, the ultimate in non-reproducibility — play such a prominent role in modern physics? Quantum mechanics can calculate accurately the probability of events but not predict them individually in a reproducible way. Where does that leave the view that science demands reproducibility? Did 20th century physics in fact abandon that principle? No. Instead, science presses up against the limits of reproducibility. The world is not completely predictable even in principle, but science wants to describe it as completely as possible, to the extent that it is. So when up against unpredictability, science invokes deterministic mathematics, but uses the mathematics to govern just the probability of the occurrence of events. Probability is, in a sense, the extent to which random events display reproducibility. Science describes the world in terms of reproducible events to the extent that it can be described that way.

A third challenge to the principle of reproducibility lies in the types of events that are inherently unique. How can reproducibility be a principle applied to the Big Bang origin of the universe? Or how can we apply principles of repeatability to the origin of life on earth, or to the details of how the earth’s many species got here? The answer is, for specific unique events of history, evidence based on scientific analysis is rarely decisive, but much of natural history is instead about the broad sweep of development of the universe, the solar system, the planet, or the earth’s creatures. In other words, questions of natural history are usually about generalities, not particularities. They are about issues giving rise to repeated observational examples, not single instances. The Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe is a generality confirmed by a multitude of observations that show the same result.

atmospheric carbon-dioxide records from vostok antarctica

Figure 3: Temperature, atmospheric carbon-dioxide, and dust record from the ice cores from Vostok, Antarctica.3

The same goes for the history of the earth’s climate, for example. It is discovered in all sorts of ways, from tree rings to paleontology. Perhaps the most convincing and detailed information comes from various types of “cores” sampled from successively deposited strata (layers of rock and soil) in the Earth. Their results are reproducible. If an ice core is drilled in the same place, the results one gets are the same. Deep-sea-bed sediment cores from all over the globe agree with the ice cores.

Science requires reproducibility. But in many fields of human knowledge the degree of reproducibility we require in science is absent. This absence does not in my view undermine their ability to provide real knowledge. On the contrary, the whole point of my analysis is to assert that non-scientific knowledge is real and essential, just not scientific.

Sociologists today acknowledge that sociology does not offer the kind of reproducibility that is characteristic of the natural sciences. Even so, they feel they must insist on the title of science, because of the scientism of the age.

History is a field in which there is thankfully less science envy. Obviously history, more often than not, is concerned with events in the past that cannot be repeated. History is crucial knowledge but cannot be made into a science.

The study of the law (jurisprudence) is a field whose research and practice that cannot be scientific because it is not concerned with the reproducible. The circumstances of particular events cannot be subjected to repeated tests or to multiple observations.

Economics is a field of high intellectual rigor, but the absence of an opportunity for truly reproducible tests or observations and the impossibility of isolating the different components of economic systems means that economics as a discipline is qualitatively different from science.

Politics is a field, if there ever was one, that is the complete contradiction of what scientists seek in nature. It seems a great pity, and perhaps a sign of the scientism we are discussing in this series, that the academic field of study is referred to these days almost universally as Political Science.

These disciplines do not lend themselves to the epistemological techniques that underlie natural science’s reliable models and convincing proofs. They are about more indefinite, intractable, unique, and often more human problems. In short, they are not about nature.

The second major characteristic that natural science requires I refer to as ‘Clarity’. I use capitalization to indicate that the word is being used in a specialized sense. Clarity is a requirement for the expression and communication of reproducibility; so these two scientific traits are partners. The results of any scientific investigation have to be expressed in terms that are unambiguous. Otherwise it is not possible for other investigators, or indeed even the same investigator, to tell whether repeating the experiment or observation gives the same answer as on the prior occasion.
The most direct way to ensure this unambiguous Clarity is for scientific observations to consist of measurements. The consequent reduction of the main parameters of the observations to numbers offers Clarity because numbers are probably the most familiar universal concept of thought. Measurement is more than numbers though. To measure the physical world we need shared scales, references, and common systems of units, which are crucial supporting parts of science.

replica K48 of official kilogram

Figure 1: The replica K48 of the official kilogram, kept by the Danish National Metrology Institute under two bell-jars.1

Clarity is a deliberately vaguer description of the crucial characteristic of science expression than mathematics. That is for a good reason. The description of experiment and of field observations involves a lot more than what most people would recognize as mathematics. And yet those aspects of science also strive for Clarity and precision. The ability to focus on the important aspects of the phenomena, and avoid over-burdening descriptions with endless details that are irrelevant, is something that is learned by scientists through apprenticeship and numerous informal experiences, not formal courses. So, paradoxically perhaps, scientific Clarity is something that can’t be learnt or prescribed with Clarity.

There are many important questions that inherently lack the kind of Clarity that science requires. Consider the beauty of a sunset, the justice of a verdict, the compassion of a nurse, the drama of a play, the depth of a poem, the terror of a war, the excitement of a symphony, the significance of a history, the love of a woman. Which of these can be reduced to the Clarity of a scientific description? Yes, a sunset can be described in terms of the spectral analysis of the light, the causes of the coloration arising from light scattering by particles and molecules, and their arrangement and gradient in the sky. But when all the scientific details of such a description are done, has that explained, or even conveyed, its beauty? Hardly. In fact it has missed the point. Many-layered connections and implications are intrinsically part of the significance of these subjects. We appreciate and understand them, we know them, through sharing conceptually in the interwoven fabric of their often only evocative allusions. Removal of ambiguity destroys that significance, because ambiguity is at the very heart of their meaning. One cannot appreciate ambiguity unambiguously. Consequently, matters such as these cannot be encompassed scientifically.

This is not a problem for science. But under scientism’s presumptions there’s a major problem for subjects like these. They either have to be dismissed from the set of topics offering any real knowledge or they have to be reduced to something like science. The first strategy is often at work, for example, when people talk about the distinction between fact and value. If scientism places the discussion of value into a category of non-knowledge, of unsupported doctrine, of mere opinion, it fundamentally undermines its significance. The second strategy: reducing the topic to something like science by imposing on it the structures of scientific analysis, is commonplace in many social disciplines, and spills over, for example, into popular journalism through an excessive reliance on opinion polls.

Reduction or reductionism is sometimes regarded as a principle of science. A complex system is explained in terms of the interaction of a number of simpler subsystems from which it is composed. Those subsystems may themselves be further explained by a lower hierarchy of sub-subsystems, and so on. Actually, though, this general strategy has a much simpler name than reductionism. It is precisely what is meant by analysis: the separating of something into its constituent parts in order to understand it. A scientistic viewpoint very often adopts reductionism not just as a useful method, but as an inviolable principle. It is presumed that when a satisfactory scientific explanation at a reduced level exists the higher level descriptions lose their force or relevance. Donald MacKay2 coined the disparaging but descriptive phrase “nothing-buttery” to refer to this ontological reductionism. “Nothing-buttery is characterized by the notion that by reducing any phenomenon to its components you not only explain it, but explain it away“. It is definitely helpful to analyze animal bodies in terms of their cells, but it is unhelpful, and fundamentally untrue, to conclude that if one completes such an analysis, then animals are demonstrated to be nothing but assemblies of cells.

It is more helpful, instead of focusing on reductionist explanation in science, to think in terms of the integration of new phenomena, specimens, or models into the overall network of scientific description. An analogy that seeks to express the cross-connectedness of science is to speak of its knowledge as being like the warp and woof of the weaver’s cloth. The threads of fact and understanding have only little strength in isolation, but when woven into the fabric of our overall knowledge they gain mutual support from the other threads with which they interact, and thus make up a robust whole.

The concepts by which it is considered appropriate to explain novel phenomena are not so much those that are reduced, simpler or more familiar, but rather those that are integrated into the shared fabric of science or of personal knowledge. A major part of scientific explanation is the recognition of specific new or unexplained phenomena as examples of more general classes of phenomena, for which we already have developed techniques of analysis and prediction. The identification of a rock pattern as a fossil is not actually the explanation of something in terms of its components. Instead it is a process of abstraction; of recognizing a phenomenon as being an example of a general type of thing; of thereby attributing to it a possibly highly complex set of attributes; but attributes which we have already systematized and made part of the matrix of knowledge that we call science. A measurement may be considered the expression of some physical quantity in abstract terms: namely numbers. This is the important sense in which measurement possesses Clarity. But comprehending the semantic content of that abstraction requires prior experience and understanding that is personal and, when pursued to its ultimate roots, eventually non-scientific.

There is another sense of reductionism that is probably more appropriate to apply to science. It is the principle of seeking to describe events in terms of Efficient Causes. Aristotle’s science depended upon Final Causes, even for inanimate objects. In modern science the effects follow the causes in accordance with the impersonal, reproducible dictates of natural laws, not because there is any aim in view but because of a specific microscopic causal chain. Seeking Efficient Causes is the modus operandi of science.

When nobel prize-winner Jacques Monod says that “The cornerstone of the scientific method is … the systematic denial that `true’ knowledge can be got at by interpreting phenomena in terms of final causes – that is to say, of `purpose,'”3 he’s expressing this principle that science operates by Efficient, not Final, causes. [He’s also confusing “true knowledge” with science in a classic example of scientism, but let that pass.] Science rules out explanation in terms of personality, and hence rules out purpose, from the beginning, as an operational postulate. If a cause and its effect are to be truly reproducible, then the cause cannot be a free agent. Free agents’ actions are precisely not reproducible. That non-reproducibility we take to be one of the evidences of agency. Purpose in the sense of intentionality of an agent is ruled out of science’s descriptions by presumption.

There are aspects of Clarity, also, that exclude agents and purpose. Natural science generally regards introspective observation as lacking sufficient Clarity to be admissible as science. This is one of the most important distinctions between natural philosophy (science) and just plain philosophy. Incidentally, common sense tells us that introspective observation can never be fully excluded from knowledge that involves humans, and this is one of the reasons why the status of psychology as natural science is debatable. Persons are not describable impersonally.

There are, then, strong reasons founded in science’s reliance on reproducibility and Clarity why science effectively rules out explanations in terms of purpose. Purpose presupposes an agent, a personality. Persons can’t be adequately described within the rubrics of reproducibility and Clarity. They are methodologically excluded. And so is purpose.

Is there a clear enough definition or understanding of what natural science is to justify distinguishing it from non-science?

In 1952, Nobel-prize-winning economist F. A. Hayek wrote about sociology’s development as follows:

During the first half of the nineteenth century … the physical and biological disciplines … came to exercise an extraordinary fascination on those working in other fields, who rapidly began to imitate their teaching and vocabulary … to vindicate their equal status by showing that their methods were the same as those of their brilliantly successful sisters rather than by adapting their methods more and more to their own particular problems. … in the hundred and twenty years or so, during which this ambition to imitate Science … has now dominated social studies, it has contributed scarcely anything to our understanding of social phenomena…1

Please note that this assessment of scientism in sociology is not by me or any other scientist but by a world-leading practitioner of one of the most distinguished social disciplines. Hayek attributes the start of this fruitless trend in sociology to the “Positivists” Henri Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte. Their ambition was to show that “there were laws governing the development of the human race as definite as those determining the fall of a stone”. Their aim was to turn social history into a new science modeled on the natural sciences.

Secularist advocates object to calling scientism a religion because they say scientism lacks the clerical hierarchic authority and public rituals that characterize most theistic religions. A remarkable feature of early nineteenth century scientisms, however, was the attempt to embody them in explicit new religions, complete with all the trappings of traditional faiths. The last of Henri Saint-Simon’s works published in his lifetime was entitled New Christianity. His followers set out to found the organized religion of this new belief. Their efforts began with a short-lived journal, progressed to public lectures on the Doctrine de Saint-Simon, and thence to services, public confession of sins, itinerant preachers, and the founding of local centers throughout the country. It ended in a move to a monastic community complete with menial labor and vows of celibacy.

Auguste Comte quickly disassociated himself in the 1820s with the Saint-Simonian religion. But in his later teaching (1851-) he founded his own new Religion of Humanity complete with hierarchic priesthood, and a high-priest (Comte himself). Comte’s obsessive detail prescribes nine personal sacraments, eighty-one annual festivals, the saints, the icons to be used in Positive churches, and that they should all face towards the source of their enlightenment: Paris. The Religion of Humanity attracted some influential figures, for example philosopher John Stuart Mill and novelist George Eliot.

For much of the twentieth century philosophers of science sought mightily for methodological descriptions or definitions of science: either to identify and explain the methods that science uses to obtain its knowledge, or more modestly to supply criteria that distinguish science from non-science. The current opinion in philosophical circles is that both of these programs have failed, and in particular that demarcation between science and non-science has no clear solution. This failure gives rise to a paradox. Despite having concluded that there is no satisfactory working definition of what science is, the History and Philosophy of Science has not collapsed and vanished as an academic field. I conclude that, despite what HPS says, there actually are some intuitive ways by which science is identified, as evidenced by the pretty clear boundaries of the topics that HPS does actually study.

These matters of demarcation have been brought very much into the American public eye in recent years by the role they play in battles about high-school biology. Although the guilty Scopes verdict in 1925 was overturned on the absurd technicality that the $100 fine exceeded the judge’s authority, anti-evolution law remained on the statutes of Tennessee and several other US states. Text-books worked cautiously around these laws until in 1968 the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down its anti-evolution statute, and was followed in this action by Mississippi two years later. Thereafter, repeated attempts to introduce creationism into the curriculum have repeatedly been overturned by the courts. The strategy adopted by `Creation Science’ activists increasingly, in the face of these reverses, was to portray creationism as science and to argue that, as such, it should be taught alongside evolution. A statute worded along these lines in Arkansas was struck down in 1982, after testimony from a host of expert witnesses. Louisiana’s similar statute arrived by a tortuous legal route at the US Supreme Court on 10 December 1987. Its defenders argued that it was not religious but scientific. Seven of the nine justices were unconvinced. Thereafter, the Intelligent Design (ID) movement went to even further efforts to ensure that their ideas were free from religious taint. Eventually, in the celebrated case in Dover, Pennsylvania, 2005, Judge Jones’ ruling identified ID as “a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory” and castigated the school board for precipitating a pointless trial.

These high-profile legal decisions hinge on the question of whether certain opinions and teachings are or are not science. That this has become the deciding question is a remarkable sign of the dominance of scientism in our culture. Scientism leads to acrimonious arguments about whether opinions are or are not science because the scientistic ethos gives special status to science that it does not give to non-scientific disciplines. The result is that the demarcation of what is or is not science becomes not merely an academic philosophical discussion, but a vital legal matter that decides practical questions of deep importance and emotional significance in the minds of most of the American public.

Since the attempt to define science by uncovering its logical methods or even to establish what is or is not science is judged to have failed, and since this question has become a high-profile legal matter I am in dangerous waters. I am asserting that there are two identifiable characteristics of science, reproducibility and Clarity. Am I therefore claiming to have solved the demarcation problem? No, what I am observing is that, despite the difficulties that undoubtedly exist in specific demarcation, there are in fact identifiable characteristics of science. These characteristics don’t provide algorithms either for the practice or the identification of science, but they are nevertheless truly part of science. I am not setting out to provide a comprehensive solution of demarcation, but I am claiming to be able to identify some characteristics of what any solution must look like. Modest answers to parts of problems are sometimes what one must settle for.

Another plea in mitigation of my apparent hubris is that the difficulty of demarcation is substantially amplified by scientism. First, philosophically, demarcation between science and non-science in the context of scientism is equivalent to the demarcation between sense and nonsense, rationality and irrationality, knowledge and superstition. One should not discount the identifiable characteristics of natural science just because of failures of this wider program. Second, politically, since scientism has embroiled the problem of demarcation in high-profile legal questions that raise emotions on both sides, the difficulty of demarcation is made significantly greater. But my whole aim here is to repudiate the scientism that leads to the enhancement of these difficulties. If, as I am saying, science is not all the knowledge there is, then the weight that demarcation has to bear is reduced to a scope that is both more manageable and less sensitive.

Finally, I am content to see the characteristics of repeatability and Clarity as partial definitions of what I mean by science. Any perception of chauvinism in this position arises from the self-same scientistic viewpoint I am at pains to deny. I have no intention to discount or disparage academic disciplines that I regard as not being science. That political science, for example, is not a science in the way I mean it does not change its scholarly or practical value. I do not subscribe to scientism. I believe there is deep meaning, truth, relevance, and insight in non-scientific studies pursued with intelligence and rigor. But their merits have to be really their own, not the reflected glow of a terminological anachronism.

The discipline of History and Philosophy of Science does not have simple answers to the questions, what is or is not science? Or what methods does science use? But HPS, like science itself, nevertheless appears to have intuition about what science is. Natural science is what HPS studies. Although strict demarcation is fraught with a peril greatly enhanced in recent debates by a scientism that artificially inflates the stakes, there are identifiable characteristics of science. Attempts to turn other disciplines, especially social disciplines, into explicit positive science, after the manner of the natural sciences, have a long history – of failure.

Some Christians reject evolution by natural selection because of metaphysics. But it is not, I believe, Christian metaphysics that is the most important cause of suspicion of evolution. It is evolutionary metaphysics.

A 2004 paper in the journal Physical Review Letters offers a physics analysis of the optimal size of the inner ear of mammals, for the purpose of detecting sounds.Fair enough. The paper implies, though, that mammals all having inner ears close to this optimum supports Darwin’s theory of the origin of species. Huh? Contrast the lack of any direct connection to evolution with the importance of the paper’s physical theories (mechanics of motion, angular momentum, viscous fluid dynamics, structural mechanics). To imply that this analysis provides evidence for the validity of those physical theories would not even cross the mind of a competent reader. Why then, do references to evolution appear in five separate places in this physics paper? It is because of scientistic metaphysics.

The Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins exhibit at the Museum of Natural History has a very attractive website attached to it. “Human Evolution Evidence”, is the largest menu. Over half of its links are called “Behavior”, under which are “Primate Behavior, Footprints, Stone Tools, Getting Food, Carrying & Storing, Hearths & Shelters, Burial, Recording Information, Making Clothing, Art & Music”. In what possible sense is this “Human Evolution Evidence”? It provides a glimpse of the anthropologists’ undisputed findings that human culture has changed over time. Perhaps the exhibit’s designers think (unlike many evolutionary biologists) that insights drawn from Darwin’s theory have important things to say about human prehistorical cultural development. But it is hard not to see it also as a branding move, to promote a scientistic (mis)understanding of a topic that is a good deal more history than it is natural. The spurious implication of the title that its topics offer evidence for human evolution in the sense meant by the natural sciences, is in the same category as “scientifically-proven Wizzo washing powder”.

The close identification of evolutionary explanation with the metaphysics of scientism is without doubt the dominant reason for the rejection of evolution by a large fraction of the public. Biologist Kenneth Miller says, “public acceptance of evolution doesn’t turn on the logical weight of carefully considered scientific issues.”2 People see and resent the fact that “the concept of evolution is used routinely … to justify and advance a philosophical worldview that they regard as hostile and even alien to their lives and values”

The National Academy of Science sought to defuse this confrontation in 1998, noting:

At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. Religions and science answer different questions about the world.3

This concession, principled though it may be, does not do the trick. The only other “way of knowing” being identified is religion, which makes it sound as if religion is being given a special pass to excuse it from the rigors of scientific knowledge. This does not satisfy either side. It is not convincing to argue that there are certain (few) ultimate questions that are the province of religion while the rest of our knowledge is scientific. The faith-science culture war is not an argument between science and religion; it is between scientism and everything else. The prime movers on both sides of the battle are often equally mired in scientism. “Modern science directly implies that there are no inherent moral or ethical laws, no absolute guiding principles for human society … We must conclude that when we die, we die, and that is the end of us.4

This is the scientistic view of atheist biologist William Provine. Philip Johnson, father figure of the ID movement, has referred to Provine (and others) as “associate members of the movement. While they differ from us on the answers, they recognize that we raise the right questions…”5 Johnson fundamentally agrees with Provine that an acceptance of evolution as the mechanism for the origin and adaptation of species implies Provine’s consequences. The reason, it seems to me, is that Johnson and the ID movement in effect concede to scientism. Their focus, which is to demonstrate scientifically that there must be an intelligent designer of the universe, makes complete sense if science is all the real knowledge there is. ID advocates thereby turn what is really a metaphysical debate into an argument (to be brutally frank) between good science and bad science. They’ve chosen a battle they are going to lose. But it’s the wrong battle. The real disagreement is not between Christianity and an evolutionary account of the origin of species, or Christianity and science, but between Christianity and scientism. The irony is that by choosing to fight on a battlefield they call science, the ID advocates have in effect already conceded the relevant debate; they have spoken and acted as if science really is the decider of knowledge; they have, perhaps unintentionally, endorsed the epistemology of scientism and strengthened its hold on both their supporters and their opponents.

All too often evolution has also been a prolific source of political, social, ethical, and metaphysical opinion. This proclivity lies at the root of the visceral reaction of many Christians to evolution. Criticism of Social Darwinism, though, comes deservedly from many different quarters not just religion. It is a world-view without a clear ideology: “the success of Social Darwinism lies in this very flexibility, in the possibilities it contained for transference to a whole spectrum of ideological positions.” The results are less than salutary.

Herbert Spencer’s political advocacy, backed up by evolutionary arguments (from 1852 on) was for limiting the power and interference of the state, and for economic laissez-faire. It was perhaps his books’ promotion of what seemed like rugged individualism, as well as their being received as representative of the “scientific spirit of the age”, that brought his writing such astonishing popularity in America. It certainly appealed to those Americans, like Andrew Carnegie, who could thereby justify their own business success – and the failure of others – as the working out of an ineluctable law of nature.

In contrast to the meteoric rise – and fall – of Herbert Spencer’s popularity, the ideas of eugenics, associated most notably with Francis Galton, gained acceptance much more gradually. From his earliest commentary, Galton was concerned with what he saw as dysgenic practices: “Many forms of civilization have been peculiarly unfavorable to the hereditary transmission of rare talent.”6 Eugenics, therefore, was the opposite of laissez-faire. It was consciously to select, and encourage through state support, the marriage and subsequent fecundity of youths whose children “would grow into eminent servants of the State” and to discourage breeding by the less worthy. The initial idea that “the weak could find a welcome and refuge in celibate monasteries or sisterhoods” became a more practical (and chilling) sterilization. Galton spent the last decade of his life in the promotion of eugenics, “It must be introduced into the national conscience, like a new religion” he said. In America, state sterilization laws were enacted starting in 1907. Virginia’s law was upheld by the US Supreme Court in 1927. Justice Oliver Wendel Holmes wrote for the court “It is better for the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” The number of sterilizations in the U.S. rose to 3000 per year in the 1930s.7 In Germany, eugenics got its big chance when the Nazis came to power in 1933, leading to the sterilization of an estimated 400,000 individuals. Eventually the “final solution” of the eugenic Jewish problem was approved by Hitler in 1942. About 6 million Jews, and perhaps as many again of other races, died in Nazi concentration camps. Metaphysics has consequences.

None of this is to argue against the scientific theory of the common descent of species. It is to indict its unwarranted transformation into scientistic metaphysics.

After its demise in reaction to the Nazi horrors, the rebirth of new forms of Social Darwinism was not long delayed. Sociobiology is the extension of population biology and evolutionary theory to social organization. Though coined in 1945, the term sociobiology exploded into public consciousness through the Pulitzer prize-winning writings of Edward O Wilson in his Sociobiology: the Modern Synthesis (1975), and On Human Nature (1978). Wilson’s stature as the foremost biologist of social insects ( bees, ants and so on), was already established. It seemed only natural that the evolutionary arguments that helped to explain the organization of insects whose different roles within the colony gave the appearance and effect of altruistic self-sacrifice, should be applied to humans.
For E O Wilson, to understand the operation of the human mind, and society, “The only way forward is to study human nature as part of the natural sciences.”1 Wilson is unabashed in his recognition that this is a scientistic view. “It is all too easy to be seduced by the opposing view: that science is competent to generate only a few classes of information…”, which he says is “obscurantism”. So the basis must be: “human social behavior rests on a genetic foundation”. It is “derived in a straight line from neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory that the traits of human nature were adaptive during the time that the human species evolved”.Stern criticism met Wilson’s opinions, and much of it came from his own biological colleagues. They said the biological evidence adduced had “little relevance to human behavior, and the supposedly objective, scientific approach in reality conceals political assumptions.” They also took exception to his rhetorical maneuvers, citing arbitrary “explanation” of traits as adaptive or maladaptive with no basis for the distinction, unjustified leaps from what might be to what is, metaphors for animal behavior that spuriously imply human behavior has the same basis, and reliance on purely speculative human prehistory.2Wilson portrays sociobiology as the first step to scientize all knowledge. “By a judicious extension of the methods and ideas of neurobiology, ethology, and sociobiology a proper foundation can be laid for the social sciences, and the discontinuity still separating the natural sciences on the one side and the social sciences and humanities on the other might be erased.” His prescription for deriving ethics is to appeal to an unexplained “nobility”. The religious impulse is to be harnessed through “the evolutionary epic … probably the best myth we will ever have.” And who knows “the forms that ritual will take as scientific materialism appropriates the mythopoeic energies to its own ends.” This scientific materialism is an all-encompassing world-view that serves explicitly, for those who follow the scientistic path, the purpose of religion.As an illustration of the mythopoeic application of the evolutionary epic, one might consider the almost mystical adherence in modern academic morality to a presumed-self-justifying `diversity’. It is as if diversity of all types were justified because the evolutionary value of human biological diversity calls for humans to cherish and promote both the diverse genes and their metaphorical and cultural reflection. This purported implication is far more humane and appealing than the practically opposite implication drawn by the eugenicists; but its logic is no more convincing. It seems significant that evolutionary metaphysicians of adjacent generations have drawn practically opposite conclusions about ethics and social policy, from essentially the same scientific theory.

Evolutionary psychology has similar objectives and rhetoric to Sociobiology. Its grand claim is “to keep beliefs and desires in our explanations of behavior while planting them squarely in the physical universe.”But its program also appears aimed to give a naturalistic account of ethics to the exclusion of theology. In this, it encounters a major difficulty. The physical world is said to work without “backward causation”, teleology, purpose, or intentionality, and its absence is the main-stay of the atheist position. Yet if human intentionality (beliefs and desires) is part of nature, then purpose appears not to be excluded. This difficulty is brought on by scientism. I agree that intentional teleological explanations are not part of science’s methods. My position is that intentionality is nevertheless a perfectly acceptable (indeed obvious) way to understand many phenomena, but that it is part of non-scientific knowledge and explanation. Failing to distinguish different types of explanation because of scientism is the cause of the inescapable naturalist’s dilemma.

The main weakness of evolutionary psychology is that it is generally content with composing stories to explain some fact of psychology in terms of a hypothesized evolutionary history. In most cases such stories are independent of other phenomena. They have no independent supporting evidence. They are not integrated into a scientific explanatory web that would make them a robust part of theory; they are subject-specific, and regularly sound like special pleading or mere speculation. In this respect they contrast with evolutionary explanations of biology and physiology, some of which do gain strong plausibility from serving as consistent integrated explanations of multiple phenomena. Psychological explanations that would escape this just-so-story criticism might be correct predictions from evolutionary arguments. In an attempt at such a predictive confirmation Steven Pinker, for example, offers an explanation of parents’ reported attitudes to “Sophie’s choice” [Whether to sacrifice a child when circumstances demand it.] based on hypothesized hunter-gatherer life expectancies. The prediction and its confirmation are unconvincing. Passing over more obvious down-to-earth intentional explanations in favor of scientific-sounding evolutionary speculations is a scientistic folly. Such birth-order arguments (say Pinker’s own sources) are considered by the majority in the field as a “mirage.”4

Evolutionary psychology seems to draw much of its momentum from a fundamentalist scientism, which regards naturalist explanation as the only explanation worth having – even of the human mind and society. It has appeal as a way to incorporate consciousness and culture into a scientistic world-view, especially for those who want a stick with which to beat religion. But it falls far short of the convincing explanations science offers of the physical world, of nature. And it must do so, because much of psychology does not possess the characteristics that are required for scientific analysis.

For all their intellectual weakness, evolutionary psychology and sociobiology constitute the main foundation of the claim by today’s militant atheists that religion as a human phenomenon is explained away by science. Biological evolution rests on an enormous range of reproducible physical, paleontological, biological, and now genomic evidence. There’s a huge difference between that and the speculations of evolutionary psychology. It is understandable that theist non-scientists have difficulty distinguishing between them and react with suspicion toward all evolutionary theory. The challenge scientism presents, though, is precisely that task; to understand which aspects of the world can reliably be described by natural science, and which cannot.

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