Ted notes: MIT nuclear physicist Ian Hutchinson, who became a Christian as an undergraduate at Cambridge, published this trenchant, book-length critique of scientism in 2011. Designer and former director of the Alcator C-Mod tokamak plasma physics device, Hutchinson is just one of several leading scientists who reject scientism as an unwarranted extrapolation of science into metaphysics. Scientific methods, in his opinion (p. 236), “are not applicable to much of the knowledge we know.” Scientism’s attempt over the centuries “to extend the boundaries of natural science to encompass all of knowledge … is doomed to failure” and “is unhealthy for science itself.” Instead of “monopolizing knowledge, as scientism tries to do, true rationality should insist upon integrating knowledge.” Photograph by Edward B. Davis.
Introduction by Ted Davis
We resume our series about the New Atheists by historian of science Stephen Snobelen. The previous installment challenged the assumption that science amounts to atheism. Today Dr. Snobelen explores another crucial component of the New Atheism, namely, scientism, the attitude that science is the only real source of genuine knowledge. His critique begins after the next heading.
Scientism and the New Atheists (by Stephen Snobelen)
Scientism is not science. It is an interpretation of science resulting from a simple, misplaced optimism in the scientific method, which the New Atheists couple with an imperialistic ambition. The term “scientism” most commonly refers to aggressive, imperialistic, hubristic, narrow-minded, reductionist, essentialist, and totalising views of science. That is what I am writing about here.
Oxford chemist Peter Atkins, apparently unintentionally, provides an authoritative insider’s definition: “Science is the only path to understanding. It would be contaminated rather than enriched by any alliance with religion. Such should be (in my view) the attitude of a scientifically alert atheist (a ‘scientific atheist’).” (Quoting his essay “Atheism and Science,” in The Oxford Handbook of Science and Religion, p. 124.) This form of scientism is expressly anti-religious and actively promotes the historically bankrupt Conflict Thesis as a core component of atheism.
Steven Hawking is another exponent of a totalising and imperialistic form of scientism. As he said in an interview from 2010, “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.” In a book he wrote with Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking quickly dismissed the relevance of philosophy and theology, stating unequivocally that “scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge” (The Grand Design, p. 5). In context, this means not merely “bearers of the torch of discovery” or “bearers of a torch of discovery,” but “the bearers of the torch of discovery.” This is scientism.
As Stenmark demonstrates, the first two theses go beyond science and are self-refuting. Science simply cannot determine of itself whether scientific knowledge is the only possible form of knowledge. Nor is it able to demonstrate that the only reality is what science alone has the tools to perceive. My own sense is that New Atheists lean in the direction of both T1 and T2, but most are probably reluctant to state their case in such absolute terms—although Peter Atkins is apparently not so coy. On the other hand, Hawking and Mlodinow (and some others) do specifically advocate for T3 and T4.
How do New Atheists respond to the accusation that they are guilty of jingoistic scientism? Steven Pinker supplies one answer. Responding to a series of criticisms of scientism in the New Republic and elsewhere, he basically embraces scientism as a badge of honour. Jerry Coyne tackles the accusation of scientism in Faith vs. Fact (pp. 196-201), where he disparages it as a “canard” and proposes that the term be “dropped.” In a sleight of hand, he insinuates that the scientism critique is an attack on methodological naturalism, the scientific method and science itself. Although there is some nuance in Coyne’s response, a careful reader will be forgiven for concluding that he manages to embrace scientism even while dismissing it.
A Genealogy of Scientism
Although some New Atheists actively promote scientism, it isn’t new. We can trace its roots back to the emergence of modern science in the seventeenth century. Political philosopher Tom Sorell finds early glimmerings in Francis Bacon, who “subordinate[d] non-scientific to scientific subjects,” and René Descartes, who went even further than Bacon, “apparently absorbing both the doctrine of God’s nature and morals almost completely into the body of science” (Scientism, p. 37). But, Bacon and Descartes are generally understood to be pious Christians, with Descartes receiving some of his inspiration from Augustinian thought. Less ambiguous milestones come in the “Preliminary Discourse” to Jean le Rond D’Alembert’s famous Encyclopédie” (1751), with its hagiography of scientists (replacing the saints of old), not to mention the Encyclopédie itself, with its secular celebration of the sciences and the mechanical arts. Coming near the end of the French Enlightenment, the Sketch of an Historical Tableau of the Progress of the Human Spirit (1795) by Marquis de Condorcet also pointed the way with a secular narrative of progress.
His “law of the three stages” not only provides a logic of history, but also embraces the philosophy of positivism, which he founded. In the third stage, Comte argued, humanity abandons absolute truth and the search for causes, instead focusing on knowledge that comes through positive confirmation and by studying only the laws that govern causes. This stage is also characterised by relativism. While science moves incrementally towards truth, it never quite arrives at this destination. What is more, there is nothing above science to establish truth—not theology, metaphysics, or anything else. The absolute truths of theology and metaphysics are unattainable (see “Auguste Comte” by French philosopher Michel Bourdreau).
Some might want to point out an inherent contradiction: making this claim is itself to espouse a certain kind of metaphysics. Nevertheless, Comte’s positivism is more nuanced than the absolutist thinking behind what is often called “naive positivism,” the belief that science is simply about discovering objective facts in nature, that “fact” equates with truth in an unproblematic way, and that truth and opinion are easily separated. Insofar as it is combined with the view that what is beyond science is not real, naive positivism is (ironically) part of the metaphysics of some atheists.
The notion of laws of history fell out of favor among historians and scholars after its heyday in the nineteenth century, and few contemporary historians or philosophers of science would want to associate themselves with naive positivism. Nevertheless, New Atheists commonly provide a secular plot for history that is similar to that presented by Comte (but without Comte’s intellectual analysis) as well as a naive positivistic view of science. Both elements helped to shape Andrew Dickson White’s infamous History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) and remain pervasive in popular culture.
Although many scientists have stressed the need for intellectual humility in the face of the great oceans of knowledge still beyond our reach, some New Atheists display a very different attitude. In a discussion at Arizona State University, biologist Richard Dawkins said to physicist Lawrence Krauss, “I’m now learning that in your field [physics] we’re coming stunningly close to understanding everything.” We should be wary about such claims. The last time physicists said that their discipline was almost complete, Einstein came along and revolutionised the field.
Scientism also involves the belief that because science has been so successful, it can and should be applied to other human endeavours. This is the claim of Sam Harris, who has recently attempted to apply science to morality, traditionally the domain of religion and philosophy. According to a promotional statement inside the front cover of his book The Moral Landscape (2010), “Harris foresees a time when science will no longer limit itself to merely describing what people do in the name of ‘morality’; in principle, science should be able to tell us what we ought to do to live the best lives possible.” This adds a potentially coercive element to an expansionist agenda.
If not kept in check, a misplaced zeal that extrapolates from the success of science to the belief that science can be universally successful in all disciplines can lead to a form of aggressive imperialism. The philosophy of science, on the other hand, has raised serious questions about the success of science even within science. As Del Ratzsch argues, ever since Thomas Kuhn’s arguments about paradigm shifts in the 1960s, philosophers of science have noted “that empirical data and logic alone can never tell us that any one specific theory is the right one.” Thus, theory selections “have to be made on partially nonempirical grounds.” These include “the presupposition that nature is uniform, that natural laws operate everywhere in the cosmos, that theory should be consistent with empirical observation, that human minds, human reason, and human senses are the right sort for understanding nature, and so on.” However, as Ratzsch emphasises,
“[s]uch presuppositions are not direct results of science—they are among the conceptual materials which science itself depends upon and without which there simply would be no science.” Thus, “their rational justification cannot rest upon science,” but must be found “somewhere beyond the borders of science.” Despite popular conceptions and the gesturing of those who advocate scientism, science “is not just a simple matter of data and theory with logic connecting the two.” (Ratzsch, “The Nature of Science,” cited below, pp. 47 and 53)
Ted notes: South African cosmologist George Ellis co-wrote The Large Scale Structure of Space-time (1973) with Stephen Hawking. A devout Quaker, Ellis received the Order of the Star of South Africa for his outspoken opposition to apartheid. He has also warned scientists not to dismiss the importance of philosophical questions: “The belief that all of reality can be fully comprehended in terms of physics and the equations of physics is a fantasy.” The tendency of some scientists to imperialize in this way is a hallmark of scientism. Photograph by David Monniaux (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
The achievements of science have unquestionably been great, but as cosmologist George Ellis has emphasized (cited below), the limits of science must be recognised. Do we really want to see all aspects of life and society subsumed within science?
To conclude, I offer four take-home points. First, to be anti-scientistic is not to be anti-science. Some of the best scientists in the world are openly anti-scientistic. Second, scientism is not methodological naturalism; nor is it the scientific method. Third, scientism is not science. It is an imperialistic interpretation of science and a form of scientific fundamentalism. Finally, as such, the scientism of the New Atheists is not only hostile to religion, it is hostile to good science.
Next time, Dr. Snobelen examines scientific pantheism and other quasi-religious elements of New Atheist thought.