In Protest of Scientism

Late last night, I saw this article on (a locus for generally “centrist” thought–which tends to mean “Enlightenment-thinking Liberal”–in the current rhetorical revolutionary war), “In Defence of Scientism“.   My initial reaction–the article being one that is haughty in the extreme, and full of polysyllabic words used incorrectly in painfully contorted syntax–was one of snarky derision… until I realized the author is an undergraduate and I recalled what an arrogant little ass I was in those years (today, I’m a big honkin’ Dr. Arrogant Ass, PhD).  So rather than a polemic against shallowness, I’d like to give Mr. Cortellesi an exhortation to drink deep.Ancient_facepalm

Summarized, Cortellesi argues that science intrinsically possesses illimitable scope and therefore should be unrestricted in its domains of inquiry.  In line with this argument, he attempts redefinition of scientism as: “the extension of scientific methodology into disciplines with which it has traditionally been considered incompatible, and valuing hard science more than (but not necessarily to the exclusion of) other disciplines in the search for what is true”.  What Cortellesi unfortunately seems not to realize is precisely why the scientific methodology has traditionally been considered incompatible with these disciplines–such as philosophy, literature, history, theology, and the study of aesthetically-oriented arts.

That is, he focuses on some of the common (and in some cases, weaker or at least weaker forms of) arguments against scientism, such as those against logical positivism or against reductionism, or against the amorphous cloud of sentimentality in so-called aesthetic critique.  It is true that contemporary scientific practice does not take the verificationism of positivism as its orientation, but falsification (or “fallibilism” for those inclined by Peirce rather than Popper); and it is true that science need not be reductionist–to a point; and it is true that sentimentality is no argument.

But it is also true that a falsification method of inquiry can be misapplied.  No shortage of “scientific certainty” floats in the cultural ether, today, whereby the word of scientific consensus attempts command as dogmatic.  I don’t wish to belabor the point; anyone who has found him- or herself on the opposite of an argument from an adherent of scientism will know what I mean.

And it is also true that the scientific method, when it attempts to deal with certain phenomena, reduces them to elements improper to the phenomena themselves.  That is, the scientific method studies its objects as empirical and measurable.  The extension of scientific method into all fields of inquiry presupposes that all fields of inquiry deal with objects empirical and measurable.  This epistemological monism–the bastard child of modern philosophy’s historically ignorant, presumptious, and myopic practice–is reductionistic.  While it may not be an ontological reductionism, the notion that all knowledge is of a singular (and fundamentally mathematical) kind indisputably constitutes an epistemological reductionism.  Attempting extension of a methodology rightly focused upon diverse objects but in a monolithical process of objectivization (i.e., reducing the observations of the empirical to categorizations of the measurable) to objects which are denatured by that process is insanity.

A rather crucial such object is “meaning”–a concept rather difficult in its own right and deserving of its own post–which cannot be empirically discovered nor measured.  That is, when I ask what anything at all means, the scientific method cannot give me an answer.  It may indicate, it may enumerate parts, or instances, but the discovery and explanation of meaning stands beyond the scope of scientific methodology.

Petulant adherents to scientism lop “meaning” and all such phenomena off from their Procustean bed and consign them to the intellectual scrapheap of “epiphenomena”–that is, illusions that appear as phenomena but are nothing more than the incidental by-products of the really real.  This leaves the scientists adhering themselves, however, to scientifically indemonstrable presuppositions; that is, scientism must itself adhere to what it may call epiphenomenal.  As Ed Feser puts this:

scientism faces a dilemma: It is either self-refuting or trivial.  Take the first horn of this dilemma.  The claim that “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to escure knowledge of anything” (Rosenberg 2011, p.6) is not itself a scientific claim, not something that can be established using scientific methods.  Indeed, that science is even a rational form of inquiry (let alone the only rational form of inquiry) is not something that can be established scientifically.  For scientific inquiry rests on a number of philosophical assumptions: the assumption that there is an objective world external to the minds of scientists; the assumption that this world is governed by the regularities of the sort that might be captured in scientific laws; the assumption that the human intellect and perceptual apparatus can uncover and accurately describe these regularities; and so forth.  Since scientific method presupposes these things, it cannot attempt to justify them without arguing in a circle.  To break out of this circule requires “Getting outside” of science altogether and discovering from that extra-scientific vantage point that science conveys an accurate picture of reality — and, if scientism is to be justified, that only science does so.  But then the very eexistence of that extra-scientific vantage point would falsify the claim that science alone gives us a rational means of investigating objective reality.

Here we come to the second horn of the dilemma facing scientism.  Its advocate may now insist: If philosophy has this status [of being the paradigm of rationality], it must really be a part of science, since (he continues to maintain, digging in his heels) all rational inquiry is scientific inquiry.  The trouble now is that scientism becomes completely trivial, arbitrarily redefining “science” so that it includes anything that could be put forward as evidence against scientism.  Worse, this move makes scientism consistent with views that are supposed to be incompatible with it.

-Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, p.10-11.

Cortellesi’s article, like the dreadful and ubiquitous “Two Cultures” article of C.P. Snow, marginalizes the value of the non-scientific.  Both do so on the backs of enormous and scientifically-indemonstrable presuppositions–presuppositions outside the ken of any falsifiability paradigm, presuppositions about reality which are irreducible to the empircal or the measurable.

And thus it is also true that, although the sentimental reaction to the aesthetically-perceived brooks no argument against the value of science in understanding the physical world, the aesthetic itself can neither be explained by nor explained away through the perspective of scientism.  That is: species-specifically human experience in the world is neither reducible to the empirical and quantifiable operations of the body and brain nor is mortared together by epiphenomena.  The experience of beauty consists fundamentally in the constitutive function of a relation–not in the terms of the relation, but in the actuality of their being related to one another–and a relation is a reality which cannot be empirically (viz., grasped by the external senses) experienced.  The senses are necessary to all human experience, it is true–but water being necessary to a fish does not make a fish water, or reduce all fish-action to aquatic-action.

In other words, epistemological monism makes our knowledge of human experience not only narrow, but dull; it excludes from our conceptual constitution all relational significance–which is not only a great deal of existence, but the possiblity of discovering the intelligibility of all that which relation does not constitute.

The methods of science are invaluable–but they cannot discover “value”; science greatly contributes to our grasp of meaning–but it cannot discern what meaning is; science can help us discover means to live longer–but it can never tell us why we ought to live in the first place, or at all; science can categorize all the empirical facts; but all its observations will never amount to a single truth.

As Charles Peirce put it:

I hear you say: “All that is not fact; it is poetry.”  Nonsense!  Bad poetry is false, I grant; but nothing is truer than true poetry.  And let me tell the scientific men that the artists are much finer and more accurate observers than they are, except of the special minutiae that the scientific man is looking for.
“The Seven Systems of Metaphysics” in The Essential Peirce, vol.2, p.193.


4 thoughts on “In Protest of Scientism

  1. Yes I agree with your points as I also feel that the people that argue typically for scientism build their own traps. Perhaps I might offer you an argument of a science philosophy that you have not heard yet. Step over to my blog and read my recent post “toward a science of philosophy”. If you’re interested.


  2. What do you think about pragmatic forms of scientism? They do not make sweeping statements like “all knowledge is scientific” or “scientific knowledge is the only true knowledge,” and so on. Instead, they admit the validity of various forms of knowledge, but maintain that science is our most reliable/trustworthy source on what things exist. If some ontological conclusion is not given in science, then at best we can be uncertain about whether it exists.


    1. I think such “pragmatic scientism” gives a false preeminence to the scientific method. Science gives *no* ontological conclusions. At best, it gives indications which may be interpreted as to ontological significance. But that is no guarantee of certainty, either, especially given the fallibilistic nature of earnestly-conducted scientific inquiry.

      Moreover, seeing as there are existences we manifestly experience which are not empirical or measurable (relations), why would we make the empirical and the measurable the “standard” of existence?

      In other words: science is the best method for discerning which things exist that can be discovered scientifically. These are important things, and I don’t mean to deny their importance—not by any means. But they are parts for the sake of a whole which is necessarily beyond the grasp of science.


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