There is a difference between “science” and “scientism.” Science is a very powerful method of gaining and applying knowledge. In this sense, science per se is amoral, and while it has a large domain, it is not the end all and be all. It can tell us truth (small t). But it can’t determine Truth (capital T). For example, it can tell us what is but it can’t tell us what is right and what is wrong.

Scientism is a world view, an ideology that (in my view) corrupts science, properly understood. Biology professor, Austin L. Hughes, has a good piece in the New Atlantis well worth reading about the issue. It’s too long to be fully discussed in a blog, but here are a few highlights.

First, he defines his term. From, “The Folly of Scientism:”

Central to scientism is the grabbing of nearly the entire territory of what were once considered questions that properly belong to philosophy. Scientism takes science to be not only better than philosophy at answering such questions, but the only means of answering them. For most of those who dabble in scientism, this shift is unacknowledged, and may not even be recognized. But for others, it is explicit. Atkins, for example, is scathing in his dismissal of the entire field: “I consider it to be a defensible proposition that no philosopher has helped to elucidate nature; philosophy is but the refinement of hindrance.”

Then he points out how scientism seeks to supplant metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. As one example, Hughes discusses the argument by Stephen Hawking and other physicists that multiple universes explain why this one has just the right elements for life:

Writers like Hawking, Mlodinow, and Smolin, however, use the contingent nature of our universe and its laws to argue for a very different conclusion from that of Aquinas — namely, that some contingent universe (whether or not it turned out to be our own) must have come into being, without the existence of any necessary being. Here again probability is essential to the argument . . . The problem with this argument is that certainty in the sense of probability is not the same thing as necessary being: If I toss a coin, it is certain that I will get heads or tails, but that outcome depends on my tossing the coin, which I may not necessarily do. Likewise, any particular universe may follow from the existence of a multiverse, but the existence of the multiverse remains to be explained.

Exactly. I have always thought of the multiple universe theory as a rather desperate way to avoid God or the possibility of incorporeal existences. In the end, its primary purpose is to advocate for a world view as much as it is to try and figure out the actual way (and why) things are. Besides, the idea of multiple universes just pushes the ultimate question backwards in the same way as the theory that life exists on earth because it was planted by aliens.

Hughes criticizes advocates like Dawkins who pretend that natural selection has the answer to every question about why humans are exceptional (my term):

There seems to be a thirst for this kind of explanation, but the pop evolutionary psychologists generally pay little attention to the philosophical issues raised by their evolutionary scenarios. Most obviously, if “we now know” that the selfish behavior attributed to our ancestors is morally reprehensible, how have “we” come to know this? What basis do we have for saying that anything is wrong at all if our behaviors are no more than the consequence of past natural selection? And if we desire to be morally better than our ancestors were, are we even free to do so? Or are we programmed to behave in a certain way that we now, for some reason, have come to deplore?

Right. Science can’t tell us it is better to be selfless than selfish. That understanding derives from the subjective realms of ethics, morality, philosophy, and religion, areas of human intellectual engagement in which the purveyors of scientism are actually engaged.

Hughes deconstructs atheism proselytizer Sam Harris’s idea that science requires a utilitarian view (which, after all, is philosophy), but I’ll let you read that for yourselves.

Hughes concludes:

Advocates of scientism today claim the sole mantle of rationality, frequently equating science with reason itself. Yet it seems the very antithesis of reason to insist that science can do what it cannot, or even that it has done what it demonstrably has not. As a scientist, I would never deny that scientific discoveries can have important implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and that everyone interested in these topics needs to be scientifically literate. But the claim that science and science alone can answer longstanding questions in these fields gives rise to countless problems.

In contrast to reason, a defining characteristic of superstition is the stubborn insistence that something — a fetish, an amulet, a pack of Tarot cards — has powers which no evidence supports. From this perspective, scientism appears to have as much in common with superstition as it does with properly conducted scientific research. Scientism claims that science has already resolved questions that are inherently beyond its ability to answer

Bingo. Two people look at the incomprehensible complexity and order in the universe that science has discovered. They explore the uniqueness in the known universe of the human mind. They contemplate our moral agency. One only sees materialistic phenomena, perhaps not wanting there to not be a God because, say, of the existence of suffering. The other sees the mind of God in the same data, and may want to believe that because materialism means his eventual non existence. Neither can prove the other wrong.

In this sense, Hughes is saying, ultimate issues can be illuminated by science, but not finally decided.

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Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBC
Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBC