A good deal of nonsense about scientism has been written lately by philosophers and scientists who, apparently unwilling to own up to their embrace of scientism, want to co-opt the term and use it in an idiosyncratic and self-serving way. Fodor is a recent example among the philosophers and Pinker among the scientists. (See articles below.) So it is refreshing to encounter Alexander Rosenberg's accurate definition and his forthright acceptance of the view. (It is the forthrightness that wins my approbation, not the acceptance.) I quote from James Anderson's review of An Atheist's Guide to Reality:
Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understanding is all about. … Being scientistic just means treating science as our exclusive guide to reality, to nature—both our own nature and everything else’s. (pp. 7-8)
This comports well with the 'quickie' definition I have stated many times in these pages:
1. Scientism is the view that the only genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge.
But note that both Rosenberg's definition and mine need qualification given that 'science' is just the Latin-based word (L. scientia) for the English 'knowledge.' Surely the following is perfectly vacuous: "Scientism is the view that the only genuine knowledge is knowledge knowledge, epistemic knowledge." So I say, nontrivially,
2. Scientism is the view that the only genuine knowledge is natural-scientific knowledge.
Among the natural sciences we have, in first place, physics. And so a really hard-assed scientisticist (to coin a word as barbarous as what it names) might that hold that
3. Scientism is the view that the only genuine knowledge is physics and whatever can be reduced to physics.
But it would be more plausible for the scientisticist to wax latitudinarian and include among the natural sciences physics, chemistry, biology, etc. and their specializations and offshoots such as quantum mechanics, electrochemistry, neurobiology, and what all else. He ought also, for the sake of plausibility, to drop the idea that all natural sciences reduce to physics. (It might be difficult to write a textbook on plant physiology that employed only concepts from physics.) So definition (2) is to be preferred to (3). But (2) is still a rather strong claim, so it is advisable to distinguish between strong and weak scientism:
4. Strong scientism is the view that the only genuine knowledge is natural-scientific knowledge.
5. Weak scientism is the view that, while the 'hard' sciences are the epistemic gold standard, other fields of inquiry are not without some value, though they are vastly inferior to the hard sciences and not worthy of full credence.
(For the strong v. weak distinction, cf. J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism, SCM 2009, p. 6. My review of Moreland here.)
Rosenberg, judging by the above quotation, plumps for strong scientism. It is this strain that I have under my logical microscope.
To illustrate the strong v. weak distinction, consider political 'science.' Does it give us knowledge? On strong scientism no; on weak scientism yes.
At this point we should ask what exactly makes the so-called 'hard' sciences of physics, etc. hard. 'Hard' does not mean (or does not primarily mean) that they are difficult to master and even more difficult to make a contribution to; it means that the criteria they must satisfy to count as science are extremely stringent.This useful article lists the following five characteristics of science in the strict and eminent sense:
1. Clearly defined terminology.
3. Highly controlled conditions. "A scientifically rigorous study maintains direct control over as many of the factors that influence the outcome as possible. The experiment is then performed with such precision that any other person in the world, using identical materials and methods, should achieve the exact same result."
4. Reproducibility. "A rigorous science is able to reproduce the same result over and over again. Multiple researchers on different continents, cities, or even planets should find the exact same results if they precisely duplicated the experimental conditions."
5. Predictability and Testability. "A rigorous science is able to make testable predictions."
These characteristics set the bar for strict science very high. For example, is climate science science according to these criteria? Or is it more of a mishmash of science and leftist ideology? I'll leave you to ponder that question. Hint: take a close look at #s 3 and 4. There are branches of physics that cannot satisfy all five criteria. But most of physics and chemistry meets the standard. How about evolutionary biology? Does it satisfy #s 3 and 4?
Is political science science according to these criteria? Obviously not. Political Scientists are Lousy Forecasters.
Am I suggesting that the only real knowledge is rigorously scientific knowledge? Of course not. Consider the knowledge we find in the useful article to which I linked. There is no doubt in my mind that each of the five criteria the author mentions is a criterion of science in the strictest sense. (I leave open the question whether there are other criteria). Now how do we know that? By performing repeatable experiments in highly controlled conditions? No. By making testable predictions? No. The knowledge embodied in (1)-(5) is clearly not natural-scientific knowledge. It does not satisfy the above criteria.
We know that (1)-(5) are criteria of genuine science by reflecting on scientific practice and isolating its characteristics. When we do that we engage in the philosophy of science. Since some of the philosophy of science gives us genuine knowledge about natural science, knowledge that it not itself natural-scientific knowledge, it cannot be the case that all genuine knowledge is natural-scientific knowledge.
One might respond by insisting that the knowledge embodied in (1)-(5) is natural-scientific depite its failure to satisfy the above five criteria. But then one would be arbitrarily broadening the scope of natural-scientific knowledge which in turn would render (4) less definite and less interesting. Broaden it enough and you approach vacuity. You approach the tautology, "The only genuine knowledge is knowledge."
Mathematics poses another problem for (4). Mathematics is not a natural science. Empirical observation is no part of it. Nor is experiment. Mathematicians qua mathematicians do not make testable predictions about future events in the physical world. If a mathematician were to predict that a certain theorem will be proven within ten year's time, he would not be making a prediction in mathematics about a mathematical object, but a prediction about psychological and physical events: he would be predicting that some mathematician would undergo a series of mental states that he would then commit to paper by physical acts of writing. And yet mathematical knowledge is genuine knowledge.
So what can a strong scientisticist do? He can water down his definition:
5. Strong scientism is the view that the only genuine knowledge is natural-scientific knowledge plus mathematics.
But why stop there? Mathematicians construct proofs. Proofs are valid arguments. Not all arguments are valid. The disinction between validity and invalidity falls within the purview of logic. Now logic is a body of knowledge, but it is not natural-scientific knowledge. So logic is another counterexample to (4). Will our scientisticist advance to
6. Strong scientism is the view that the only genuine knowledge is natural-scientific knowledge plus mathematics plus logic.
At this point someone might object that mathematics and logic are not knowledge but merely systems of notation that we use to help us make sense of physical phenomena. And so, while natural science studies natural reality, there is no reality that mathematicians and logicians study. Well, do those who make such claims claim to know that they are true? If yes, then they lay claim to knowledge which is neither natural-scientific nor mathematical nor logical. They lay claim to philosophical knowledge, specifically, metaphysical knowledge. They lay claim to knowledge as to what counts as real. Will they then move to the following definition?
7. Strong scientism is the view that the only genuine knowledge is natural-scientific knowledge plus the philosophical knowledge that there is no logical or mathematical reality.
If they do advance to (7) then they are hoist by their own petard, or, to change the metaphor , they have completely eviscerated their own thesis. (What's worse, to be hanged or disemboweled?) After all, the whole point of scientism is to place a restriction on what counts as genuine knowledge. 'Genuine' is strictly redundant; I use it for emphasis. Pleonasm is at most a peccadillo.)
Introspective knowedge is yet another counterexample to strong scientism as codified in definition (4). The certain knowledge of my own mental states that introspection affords me is knowledge if anything is. Which is better known: that I feel head-ache pain or that I have a brain? The first, obviously. But introspective knowledge is not natural-scientific knowledge. The latter type of knowledge is knowledge via the outer senses, suitably extended by such instruments as microscopes and telescopes. But introspective knowledge is not knowledge via the outer senses taken singly or in combination. Suppose I see myself in a mirror wearing a sad expression and thereby come to the knowledge that I am sad. That is is not introspective knowledge. Introspective knowledge is first-person knowledge of one's own mental states via inner sense.
Since introspective knowledge is genuine knowledge, strong scientism is plainly false.
Memory is another source of genuine knowledge that refutes strong scientism. How do I know that I had lunch at 12:30 and then read Gustav Bergmann's "Some Remarks on the Ontology of Ockham" while smoking a fine cigar? Because I remember those events. Memorial knowledge is not natural-scientific knowledge. If you think it is, describe the repeatable experiments you had to perform to come to the knowledge that you had lunch. And yet memory is a source of genuine knowledge. It is of course not infallible, but then neither is sense-perception on which natural science is ultimately based.
And what of history? Do we not have a vast amount of knowledge of the past? We do, but it is not natural-scientific knowledge.
There is aso the obvious point that strong scientism is self-vitiating. Is the proposition All knowledge is natural-scientific knowledge scientifically knowable? No, it isnt. Therefore, strong scientism, by its own criterion, is not knowable. Is it true, but not knowable? If you say that it is, then you must countenance other propositions that are true but not knowable. If strong scientism is put forth as a linguistic recommendation as to how we ought to use 'knowledge,' then I decline the suggestion on the ground of its arbitrarity.
Finally, there is our knowledge of value and of right and wrong. If strong scientism is true, then we cannot claim to know that natural-scientific knowledge is a value, or that knowledge is better than ignorance, or that kindness is to be preferred over cruelty, or that vivisection is morally wrong, or that the Nuremberg laws in Nazi Germany were unjust.
But aren't these things better known than that strong scientism is true?
Scientism is not science. It is a philosophical claim about science that finds no support in any science. What's more, it is plainly false, as I have just shown.