The relativity of scientism

Philosopher Jonny Thompson has an article up on RealClearScience profiling the views of Mary Midgley: The Three Myths of Scientism. (Warning: the RealClearScience site is pretty ad intensive.) Midgley was a famous critic of views she regarded as scientism, and often sparred with atheist and antitheist Richard Dawkins.

As someone who usually takes the scientific view on issues, I’ve occasionally been accused of scientism. And as someone also interested in the philosophy of science, I’m always interested in particular takes about what scientism might be. Midgley’s main beef seemed to be with people who turned science into an ideology. Broadly speaking, I can have some sympathy with that stance, although the devil usually turns out to be in the details.

From the article:

Midgley also noted Scientism often comes with a condescension towards those who don’t see science as they do. Oppositional views are lambasted as the naïve wish-fulfillment of the weak, probably involving unicorns and leprechauns, angels and devils. Scientism, then, is a faith, or at least a value system, in favour of materialistic asceticism. Which means that it wants to say, “Accept the bleakness of reality!” or “Don’t childishly daydream!” We must all accept The Truth, as defined by science, and to do otherwise is ignorant and superstitious.

It seems like there are two issues here. One is the evidence and logic centered view, which many do see as ascetic. The other is that some of the people holding that view can be obnoxious and arrogant about it. But every viewpoint has obnoxious and arrogant adherents. I’ve encountered plenty of obnoxious religious believers, panpsychists, and idealists. Implying the view and the behavior of some who hold that view are the same is simply engaging in ad hominem.

For Midgley, not only does Scientism haughtily demand obedience to its version of the world, but there’s a deeper problem yet. She believed that Scientism comes embedded with three “myths” which are, themselves, unproven. Scientism passes off as unchallengeable “fact” what are, in fact, actually value judgements. But what are these myths?

Firstly, there is the assumption that if we only look at science a certain way, we’re bound to be overcome with awe and wonder at the “glory of the natural world”. Richard Dawkins’ recent book, The Magic of Reality, is a great example of this (in fact Midgley and Dawkins were life-long sparring partners). This myth, for Midgley, insists there’s a poetic or quasi-mystical joy found in quantum mechanics, cell mitosis or astronomy, and that ‘believers’ must not only feel this way too, but that this feeling must be a satisfactory “contribution to human spiritual life, [and is] a serious part of our salvation”. It’s a myth that claims the awe of science stands, quite sufficiently, as a spiritual surrogate.

There are science promoters, like Dawkins, who do tout the awe and wonder many of us have for what science often reveals as a replacement for the wonder many get from religion. But most science communicators like Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Brian Greene simply share their own sense of wonder, and why they have it, without necessarily selling it as a replacement for anything.

It’s worth noting that many of us simply don’t get that sense of wonder from the other sources Midgley and Thomson are talking about. I get the sense from many who rail about this that they resent that we do find wonder in scientific discoveries instead of their preferred sources. How dare those of us who don’t follow their views find joy and wonder somewhere outside of them. My point above about obnoxious people being in every viewpoint seems worth reiterating here.

Secondly, Scientism is happy to claim that science has a monopoly on human knowledge. It presents the idea that science is unmatched in its contribution to our understanding of the world. Yet, Midgely believed this to be an “absurd overestimation”. She is not anti-science, and she quite willingly accepts the remarkable contributions science can, has, and will make to world knowledge. But that does not mean it has a monopoly on it.

A lot depends here on what someone means by “science” and “knowledge”, or what other ways of knowing we’re talking about. Certainly there are logical and mathematical truths that are typically regarded as being outside of science. But when talking about the world, science is the best mechanism we have for obtaining knowledge. Although part of being scientific is acknowledging the limitations of science. For instance, it ultimately can’t tell us what to value, although it can inform those values.

That’s not to say that art and the humanities can’t be used to explore knowledge. But it’s worth noting that improving art often has a scientific dimension. (Early renaissance art benefitted from discoveries about perspective, light, and shadows, and fiction writing benefits from understanding human psychology.) And history could be regarded as a type of social science.

All of which is to say, this criticism has bite if someone is advocating that science, narrowly construed as what professional scientists do, is the only source of knowledge. But that is arguably a strawman version of the view. Actual proponents usually have a much broader conception of science.

Thirdly, Scientism comes with the assumption that it will lead us all to some progressive, Enlightenment utopia. It implicitly suggests that science, alone, is the steam engine of all advancement. Midgley observes, however, that: “There is a blind hope, a groundless hope, not justified by anything in any physical science, of an ever-expanding, ever-improving human future on earth”.

This is the one, writing in 2021, that strikes me as the silliest. We’re just now starting to come out of a pandemic. Philosophy or the humanities didn’t bring us out of this. Nor did artists, although they may have helped to keep our spirits up. Some ideologies actually threw up obstacles. What’s getting us out are the vaccines, vaccines developed by scientists.

But more broadly, any sense of history renders this criticism impotent. To someone living in 1500 CE, the world of today would seem somewhat utopian to them. It doesn’t feel like that to us because we grew up in it and are used to it.

But imagine living in a world where the fear of contracting a disease that could kill you was an ongoing concern, where at any time a family member might get sick and just die. Or where an unusually dry season means starvation for your family. A world without air conditioning, electricity, rapid transportation, or effective sanitation. One where medical knowledge is generally worse than useless. If anyone does try to perform surgery on you, it will be without anesthetics, and even if you survive the surgery itself, you will likely die afterward from infection (although you won’t know that’s what killed you). A world where only a small portion of the population learns how to read. In other words, a world where, for most people, life is poor, nasty, brutish, and short (to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes).

What separates us from that world is 500 years of scientific progress. What separates us from a world that might be better in many ways, that by our current standards we might regard as a utopia, is more scientific progress. Certainly it’s not guaranteed since science also brings in problems like nuclear weapons and climate change, and it’s not all about the science, but science is arguably a crucial factor.

Ultimately the word “scientism” refers to an excessive belief in the power of science. As I noted above, there are places where science can’t really provide the answers. The problem is people tend to use the word anywhere they dislike the implications of science, or where evidence or logic are being demanded for something they’re trying to sell. It ultimately makes the word little more than a pejorative relative to the biases of whoever is using it.

Unless of course I’m missing something?

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69 thoughts on “The relativity of scientism

  1. Nice post. Not much to add, except maybe to point out that, while science may provide continuous progress toward better living, there will be no end-point utopia where we’ll be done. With all progress comes new problems. (See climate.). A good resource for this point of view is David Deutsch’s book: The Beginning of Infinity.


    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks. I need to read Deutsch’s books. I picked them up last year to read his take on the Everett interpretation, but never got around to the rest. Everyone says they have some pretty profound stuff in them.


  2. Many contemporary people “excessively believe” that current smartness, technology level, knowledge body, morality, etc., is grossly the best compared to the past and hardly would be much better in the future – such belief is a feature of human’s view of the world.

    Science is a particular kind of human’s intellectual and practical activity and body of knowledge. It is a very recent phenomenon. We have it for about the last 500 years out of tens of thousands of years of mankind’s history.

    >”Ultimately, the word “scientism” refers to an excessive belief in the power of science.”

    I’m trying to say that it makes sense to investigate and discuss scientism as part of the more common thing, but not in isolation.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I do believe it’s much better than the past, and it has the potential to be much better yet in the future. Although I’ll acknowledge that’s according to a certain definition of “better”. A hunter gatherer from 10,000 years ago might be delighted with easy access to food, but appalled at the necessary lifestyle. And old science fiction demonstrates how difficult it is to make predictions about when and where progress will happen. Of course, progress is far from guaranteed if we make the wrong decisions.

      Modern science is about 500 years old, but, as you know, it was built on several centuries of prior thought. We just see an increase in breakthroughs starting in the 1500s due to the printing press, and acceleration to previously unimaginable heights with the rise of early scientific societies in the 1600s.

      Definitely, scientism should be studied and discussed in a holistic fashion.

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  3. As usual, you are missing very, very little. Scientism is a made up term from a made up attack on science. (The best defense is a good offense.) That there are people who “believe” science is the best way to learn about natural phenomena, yet who do not understand much science is a given. But this is an opinion based upon track record, not some bizarre ideology. People look around them as see the gifts of a scientific outlook and call it “good.”

    As to science being the “only” way to new knowledge, of course that is nonsense, but it is the primary source of new and dependable knowledge.

    I think the use of this term is fueled by the “other ways of knowing” crowd.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I think so too. When I debated theists years ago, I used to see it from the apologist crowd. I rarely engage in those kinds of debates anymore, so now I’m most likely to see it from the philosophers (such as Thompson and Midgley). Almost always, it’s from someone who doesn’t like science intruding on their territory.

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  4. On claim number two, Jerry coyne has an ongoing discussion on science being the only way of knowing. I haven’t read the recent posts but I guess the theme is the same.
    I find the belief in progress to be almost blind faith. While many technological advances are being made, we are doing much poorly in being humane. Wars everywhere. Dictatorships. Starvation and all. And the threat of AI

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    1. Coyne is a good example since he does describe his conception of science, and it is broad. That’s compared to someone like Massimo Pigliucci, who takes a pretty narrow view of science and uses the “scientism” label occasionally. Notably, Coyne is a biologist while Pigliucci is a philosopher (although he’s an ex-biologist).

      The world has a lot of problems. But it seems like wars between countries have vastly diminished over the last several decades. Most wars these days seem to be civil wars. And the number of people living in poverty, as a percentage of the world population, has gone down considerably. I realize that’s cold comfort for anyone still in poverty or living under a dictatorship. Progress is there, but it’s very uneven.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I thought civil wars are wars but I could be wrong. And these days nations get proxies to fight their wars. All you have to do is send the guns. I don’t know, really, maybe poverty has reduced but that remains the number one agenda of the world bank.

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  5. I agree with what you’ve said. To add, Dawkins and most other proponents of science are very clear on some points regarding science:

    – It’s contingent – we can’t know everything, individually, or as a collective, so there’s no sense in which science is an ideology, like religion or some political systems.

    – Evolution is not directed – so there’s no assurance that our science is the best that might have been. Or the worst.

    – Human exceptionalism is observable, to us here on earth, since we just happen to be the dominant species capable of acquiring knowledge. But few scientists rule out the possibility of ‘better’ species elsewhere in the universe – or indeed entities ‘outside’ our universe that might have created it. However, only the religious take our current exceptional status to be absolute and God given, not scientists.

    – Even the Enlightenment is seen only as some fortuitous outcome that happened to coincide with a number of other cultural, scientific, rational advances. It’s a rare theist that that rejects rational thought altogether (the Islamic world tried … but obviously uses reason to explain why we shouldn’t use reason, about gods, at least). The Enlightenment works quite well, has seen progress, and seems worth continuing to improve upon. Are non-theistic criers of ‘Scientism’ really suggesting it was worthless and contributed nothing important?

    – ‘Other ways of knowing’ (and Jerry Coyne, referred to in the comments) – Our only way of knowing is rational thought applied to empirical experience. ‘Science’ is just a refined way of doing that for particular goals. Theology is a particularly bad way of doing that. A surprising number of philosophers are bad at it too – I remember Stephen Law in a debate with Peter Atkins getting terribly confused about what empiricism is. Coyne’s point is the same. So, beyond that, what ‘other ways of knowing’ are claimed to exist but which do not? Anything that claims the mind has access to information that does not require the physical processes of empiricism, reasoning, to acquire it. Astral plaining, out of body experience, ESP, revelation, … no evidence for any of them.

    So, none of that smacks of the straw man of ‘Scientism’, and is as far from an ideology as you can get – I don’t know any ideologies that say, “If someone comes up with a better idea, or counter evidence, we can ditch my ideology.”

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree with almost everything you say here. I do think we have to acknowledge that humans being human, some science enthusiasts do forget some of these important tenants, and do at times let themselves slide into ideological waters. They give ammunition to the people who decry the arrogance of science.

      But as I noted in the post, every outlook has people who take it too far and are too strident about it. That isn’t a reflection on the view itself, just that some people are prone to get carried away. If we restrict the word “scientism” to just those people, it might be a productive word. Unfortunately, it often isn’t used that way.


  6. Hi Mike,

    I do think there is a case to be made that scientism is problematic in some respects, and I primarily define scientism along the lines of Midgley’s second myth, though I would reframe it slightly as follows: when it is suggested the scientific method is the exclusively valid means of deriving knowledge about ourselves and of relating to the world around us, then I think one has taken the notion of what science can offer us too far.

    Joy and wonder are everywhere and somewhat in the eye of the beholder. I think you’ve seen me write before about the joy and wonder in scientific discoveries, but I also see joy and wonder in other arenas. Neither trumps or supersedes the other in my opinion. And we’ll each have unique reactions to information based on our personal vantages. So Myth 1 is not super relevant for me. I think people who fail to see joy and wonder in the discoveries of science are either simply disinterested, or else so biased by other positions or beliefs they are depriving themselves of experiencing all that is available. So be it. Those who fall into the scientism camp, in my mind, are in the same position with respect to what falls outside of the scientific domain–either disinterested, or so entrenched in a particular view they need to deny the validity of other views to maintain their position.

    Myth 3 wasn’t stated very well in the article I don’t believe. What I think is questionable is the notion that science alone is in position to promulgate the best possible future for humanity. To call it a “utopia” focuses on attention on a red herring, and detracts from what I think is a more essential point: scientism is the point at which science is utilized as a vehicle to deny the validity of the way members of entire cultures relate to one another and to the world. The problem in my mind is again the exclusivity, not the notion of some utopia. Like every -ism, scientism seeks to suppress or deny the voices of those who view a situation differently.

    This whole discussion sort of misses the point in my opinion, when the only alternative to scientism presented is a world without science. That sort of thinking is naive. What every dogmatic thought system misses–whether it is scientism or theism–is the possibility that there is more to life and reality than the parameters their dogmatism or ideology allows. To not be a fan of scientism does not mean that one is automatically also not a fan of the covid vaccines, or of electric power and modern telecommunication systems, or of modern sanitary and transportation systems–or that they are hypocritical somehow to enjoy such gains without buying into the notion that the view of reality espouses by scientism is a complete one.


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    1. Hi Michael,
      As I noted in the post, when discussing Midgley’s second myth, I think we have to be careful we’re all using the same definitions. Someone who defines science broadly enough to include a plumber troubleshooting a sink faucet, or any systematic learning through experience, is saying something very different when they talk about the primacy of science from someone who thinks only the natural sciences produce knowledge. I do know people in the latter camp, but most of the people who talk about the importance of science seem to be in the former one.

      I agree with your points about the first myth. In truth, I wonder how representative Thompson’s description of Midgley’s view is here. The inherent tribalism in the way it was described was what triggered my post this morning.

      I noted in my discussion about Midgley’s third myth that it isn’t all science, so it might be that we’re not that far apart. I agree that use of the word “utopia” wasn’t very productive. Thompson’s / Midgley’s use of it is strawmanning the hopes many have for science enabling and informing improvements in society. In truth, I probably shouldn’t have used “utopia” in my response, but I was feeling combative after reading the article.

      I would agree with your final point, if the term “scientism” wasn’t so often misused. Having had it flung at me a few times, sometimes for merely discussing the scientific view of an issue, I feel like any use of it should be accompanied by careful clarification of what the person making the charge is talking about.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Mike,

        In my final point I tried to provide a clear definition of what I view scientism to be. One could include every endeavor in which humankind has learned from experience, or engaged in some system of learning by observation, but then a great many things might be called scientific which the scientific community would not agree with. It seems, however, that you would be inclined towards a broad definition. I wouldn’t be inclined to use the label of scientism where a broad definition reigned. I generally hate labels because I dislike when they are applied to me, so I try not to call people names they don’t call themselves, though I could have failed at one point or another in this regard. If I have done so here, I apologize.

        That said, I also agree there is such thing as theism, as a for instance. Just as there is such a thing as scientism. Or libertarianism. Or fascism. Or whatever it is. I suppose it’s the act of flinging them around pejoratively that is not helpful.

        My definition of what is not scientism goes like this. Albert Einstein and Frank Fool’s Crow meet for lunch once a month for a year, and share experiences, thoughts on life, their hopes for the world, and of course stories from the tools and modalities that they have found most beneficial in their lives. Einstein may share stories about his relationships, his early life, and of course his scientific discoveries, and how he wrestled them around in his mind, sought out guidance from colleagues, how he sifted ideas and arrived upon genuine insights, etc. Fool’s Crow might tell of his family and community as well, of a vision he received but didn’t understand, of how he sought out various mentors to help him understand it, how he applied what he learned to bring healing to people who came to him, and of how different helpers or guides came into his life to bring information and knowledge that helped him.

        At the end of this if the two can realize there may be things each will never understand about the other without having lived a very different life, or without devoting more time to learning the other’s world, but each can acknowledge there is room enough in this world for both of them to be who they are, and to merit the respect and appreciation not only of the other as a human being, but of one another’s tools and modalities as well–then I would say there are no ideological barriers in the way of their sharing. If Einstein were to come back and say instead, Fool’s Crow was an interesting person, but he is misled–my way is real and his is a fiction that one day he will understand–then that may tend towards scientism. If Fool’s Crow were to come back and say, this white man who lives in his head all day and aims spyglasses at the stars is a nut, and his way is deluded and without benefit to our world, then that may be some other -ism. Who knows what each would believe about the other after a year in one another’s company? I think they both would be profoundly impressed with the other, but that is just me.

        On the other hand, if Einstein were to speak so dismissively without ever having met Fool’s Crow, simply because he is “one of those”, and if he were to describe all of Fool’s Crow’s experiences as fabrications and delusions, that would be scientism. The latter happens quite often between people of different “tribal” orientations–(no pun intended)–as Lee pointed out. Generally by people who’ve never met, or just like a good argument.

        When people suggest to me that there is no power, reality or value to the tools that Fool’s Crow (just as one example) was given and developed because they are not scientific, or because we know scientifically that what is said about Fool’s Crow simply could not have happened or was really something else, that is scientism. Under the broad definition of science, Fool’s Crow was a scientist building upon many generations of work with a very different context and set of instrumentation than we generally see, but a scientist nonetheless. To deny that because he didn’t conform to the notion reality that a scientist would consider valid would be scientism. When people acknowledge Fool’s Crow’s way is not for them, and they have no interest, but having never really explored it they cannot say anything about it or comment on its merits, efficacy or validity, that is scientific.


        Liked by 2 people

        1. Hi Michael,
          I appreciate the clarifications and examples.

          I think dismissing the views of other people, just because they’re different, is inherently tribal and closed minded. It might be a version of scientism if directed at non-scientific people, but it’s worth noting that type of dynamic happens everywhere, even between hard nosed scientists in different fields, or even between those in different specialties within the same field. But it also happens between members of different religions, and even between those in different denominations or sects. (And let’s not even get into political parties.) It never seems like a good thing.

          On the other hand, we all build up a model of what’s reliable knowledge and what’s less. I can’t see having that kind of model, provided it’s rationally built on a person’s experiences, is a bad thing. To paraphrase what you said, if I were in Einstein’s shoes, I’d probably find Fool’s Crow an interesting person, but I’d be unlikely to accept that his vision was received from anywhere other than, perhaps, his unconscious, although extraordinary evidence could change my mind. Not that I’d force my opinion about it on him. He would probably only hear it if he asked, in which case I would respectfully provide it.

          I’d acknowledge the power, reality, and value of Fool’s Crow’s beliefs in cultural, psychological, philosophical, and maybe even in some cases practical terms, but it would be well short of adopting his overall vision of reality. If that’s scientism, and I know some would consider it so, then so be it. But it seems impossible to accept everyone’s worldview in all regards.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Mike, I get your frustration. In my first post, I dissented from what I interpreted as your view on science in relation to other matters. In our detailed back and forth over the idea of progress, whether any truth is discovered in disciplines other than science, etc., etc., we never got precisely to my point of dissent. I tried to swing back in a follow up post when I submitted that if truth is restricted to scientific truth then I disagree. And to be more precise, I mean generally the truth about value and specifically ethical value. I respectfully submit that all our struggling here over the concept of scientism, and why folks like Midgley use it as a useful shortcut criticism, really boils down to just that.

            Starting with the Enlightenment, science was increasingly identified with rationality generally. That is, rationality is science and science is rationality. That idea grew. In the Twentieth Century it grew to the view that the best—and even the only—reliable source of knowledge was science. Thus, a continuum set of views developed. At the extreme end, a view that science was not only the best but the only source of knowledge and, moreover, the only competent approach to solve problems in all other domains. A quite expansive view! Science was not only the best source to discover truth, it was the only source and, moreover, it was omnicompetent.

            At one end of the continuum we have the view that science is our most reliable source for truthful information about the world but not necessarily the only source. And, as stated, at the other end we have those who argue that science can solve any problem, even, if solvable, problems in ethics. For such thinkers, if it can’t be solved by science then the problem is nonsense. Remember rationality is identified with science.

            However, at any point on that continuum, other forms of inquiry; history, philosophy, ethics, the arts, literature, the social sciences, are relegated to a secondary position; a position which, for those at the extreme end, requires a separate validation from science before that discipline’s conclusions are considered “true.” What animates Midgley’s stridency is that that puts values (including ethical values) in such a position. Either a value (including ethical values) amounts to something relative, a cultural tradition for example, or the concept is simply nonsense.

            To swing back to my original post; values, as you say, can’t come from science. I very much agreed. I sense you are on that continuum somewhere however. I don’t think your an extremist. But, nevertheless I respectfully dissent to such a restrictive view of truth. Sorry for my lengthiness.

            Liked by 3 people

          2. Matti,
            I agree I’m on the continuum you describe. But I’m thinking a more dimensional approach might be more clarifying.

            I agree that science can’t determine values. Strangely enough, and this gets into the other factors you noted, so does a self described scientistic philosopher, Alex Rosenberg. However, Rosenberg would say it’s because values don’t have an ultimate fact of the matter. I would agree with that, which might raise the specter of another label: nihilism (another label which Rosenberg accepts). People who more fully embody this type of value-scientism might be Sam Harris or Michael Shermer, both of whom have advocated for a science of morality.

            Rosenberg also fits another position you described, in that he only sees the natural sciences as reliable sources of knowledge. He sees the social sciences as fatally hobbled, because whatever they learn, once disseminated, change the behavior of what was studied. As I recall, in his view this renders history and the social science as basically entertainment. This is not a view I agree with. History and the social sciences do have epistemic challenges that the natural sciences don’t face, but in my mind, that doesn’t mean they can’t provide more reliable knowledge than other sources of answers (tradition, cultural mores, etc), and they certainly are going to be more reliable in their own domains than the natural science would be.

            Then there are people who might agree about values and the social sciences, but see philosophy as adding nothing to the conversation. Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson come to mind as examples of people with this view. I also disagree with this stance. I see philosophy as adding value by clarifying concepts and definitions, as well as working out logical truths, and providing hypotheses for science. But philosophy does lack the reality check of science, which causes many debates to be never ending, so I do see it as less reliable than science.

            Finally, among the cases you discussed, we get to truths that might be revealed in art or literature. I accept that these might be sources of such truth, but I perceive that they’re main purpose is to evoke an emotional reaction in the audience. Providing knowledge is often a secondary goal, and there is no provision to separate what might be the author’s personal or cultural biases, not to mention the audience’s, from objective truth. So I tend to see these as less reliable sources of knowledge.

            I’ll add another category: rating science, philosophy, and mathematics as more reliable sources of knowledge than religion or other traditional sources. In its more extreme cases, it might involve ignoring those other sources altogether.

            So, different dimensions of scientism:
            1) science can determine values
            2) the social sciences are inferior to the natural sciences
            3) philosophy is a less reliable source of knowledge
            4) art and literature are less reliable sources of knowledge
            5) religion and tradition are less reliable sources of knowledge

            I’ll own up to mild versions of 3-5, although the people whose views I reject because of it might not see it as mild. I suspect I’d get disapproval from someone like Midgley for my views on 1.

            Sorry also for my own lengthiness.

            Liked by 2 people

          3. Thanks, Mike. I appreciate the reply. I wouldn’t expect you or Einstein to simply adopt Fool’s Crow’s vision of reality, and I’m not sure such would even be feasible without being Fool’s Crow in a sense. Or without at least investing considerable time above and beyond a simple sharing of perspectives.

            I wonder if we could set the concept of scientism aside for a moment and instead look at two general classes of worldviews. I submit that both types obtain in every form of -ism we can ostensibly imagine: theism, nationalism, tribalism, scientism, ethnocentrism, etc., etc. The easiest way I can imagine to define the two most general classes of worldview I have in mind is open or closed, or to say it another way, inclusive or exclusive.

            The open or inclusive view concedes that the amount of time, space and history any one individual can summon is limited, and as such considers that the view with which he or she is most resonant may not touch upon all possible spaces. One who holds such a view would perhaps have preferences and/or allegiances to the perspective in which he or she is immersed, but wouldn’t have the need to suggest other views are inherently flawed, or to explain them completely on their own terms. They might simply acknowledge there is more to be understood than any individual one can understand, in a sense. The territory just might be broad enough to encompass multiple, even quite diverse, perspectives.

            The closed or exclusive view would, in contrast, be marked by the need to evaluate other views against their own, on their own terms, and to judge them accordingly. This engenders more of an either-or position–a type of rigidity perhaps. Those who hold their views in such a way find themselves threatened to a certain extent by markedly different perspectives, and generally aspire to claim the entire territory of possibility, rather than cede that it is a large enough space for diverse–even radically diverse–positions.

            We’re all perhaps a mix of both, depending on the setting, and it probably varies from time to time in each of us. In general, I am a proponent of the open or inclusive view, which I tend to project into my thought experiment as the idea that Fool’s Crow is self-aware enough to admit he could probably never be who he is if he were to invest the time required to become a theoretical physicist, but can comprehend that something real and valuable to humanity comes from those who do occupy that world. If Einstein were to explain the mathematics of GR to Fool’s Crow, well… Fool’s Crow might just have to shake his head and laugh. But it wouldn’t mean he discounted that such relationships as Einstein has mapped may obtain in our world. And I imagine that Einstein could scratch his head at some of Fool’s Crow’s accounts of life, and similarly, comprehend that in order to understand what Fool’s Crow is talking about, he would have to invest far more time than he has available, and that if he had done so, he probably wouldn’t have been a great physicist.

            What bothers me is not that people have preferences, but when people, regardless of tribe, take the closed-exclusive stance. There are various reasons why, but one of them is that it represents a de facto decision to de-value other people. It doesn’t matter, for instance, who someone is, what they care about or desire, or what their engagement with life has yielded—in the closed or exclusive view, this is all superfluous to what is called knowledge. It is impossible, I think, to occupy a closed or exclusive perspective and not inherently establish a hierarchy of value upon different people.

            Those who are open-inclusive tend to hope for meaningful dialogue between diverse tribes, because they sense there are untapped possibilities in those points of connection. Those who are closed-exclusive do not see value in meaningful dialogue between diverse tribes, because they do not see any value in it. This is because what is valued is a particular efficacy—defined differently by each sort of closed/exclusive -ism that exists—and not the mutual exchange and respect that obtains in genuine relationship.

            Most debates between scientists and theists that I’ve seen include at least one, but generally two debaters who are closed-exclusive in their orientations. It can make for some good entertainment, but I think it’s a fairly fruitless endeavor.


            Liked by 2 people

          4. Hi Michael,
            I find a lot to agree with in your open vs closed mindset. An open person is actually more willing to entertain propositions that are radically different than their own views, more willing to at least try them on and see what the world looks like through their lens. A closed mindset, as you note, is often reflexively repulsed and threatened by it, more likely to get outraged by the proposition, often without stopping to think why they feel that way.

            Even when an open mindset person is inclined to disagree, I think they’re more likely to attempt to at least find and identify a version of the proposition they could agree with. And when that’s not possible, they’re more likely to share why, to “show their work”, express the reasons why they can’t agree, and giving an advocate for the proposition a chance to address (possibly attack) those reasons.

            Unfortunately, most people reading this will identify themselves with the open stance and those who disagree with them with the closed stance. But as you note, none of us is either consistently. It’s easy to see when someone we disagree with is being closed, but much harder to recognize it in ourselves, or with those who share our biases. But it does help to at least aspire to the open stance.

            In the end though, the only way I’ve found to gain some assurance I’m not fooling myself is conversations like this, with people who don’t share my blind spots and can put logical pressure (as opposed to emotional pressure) on them.


          5. I would like to add an addition anecdote to Michael Mark’s post:

            It is easy to dismiss religion along with all of its rich traditions as the least reliable source of knowledge for all of the obvious reasons. However, as a discipline of inquiry, theology has the most to contribute to the endeavor of science and that contribution is the notion of teleology. Like it or not, agree or disagree, the notion of teleology offers the greatest value for the human experience and that value should not be dismissed without regard.

            Liked by 1 person

          6. Lee,
            What would you say a theistic teleology offers that a non-theistic teleology or teleonomy doesn’t? What would be some examples? I can see it offering emotional value for believers in the religion’s narratives, but what might it provide epistemically?


          7. I really am surprised that you would ask such a question Mike. Non-theistic teleology or teleonomy offers a quality of “apparent” purposefulness. That is the very thing that both religion and science provide, it’s the one thing they share in common. Whereas, theistic teleology is grounded in the assumption that there is a “literal” purpose and design in the material world.

            Can you see the epistemic value in that assumption and what that discovery might mean to our species? Furthermore, what makes science a bankrupt institution is its refusal to incorporate a theistic teleology as a mandate in its grounding tenets as an institution. Scientism attempts to claim the moral high ground but at the end of the day, science and religion are guilty of the same sin. It is because of this sin of omission that science itself qualifies as another religious institution.

            Liked by 1 person

          8. The question, Lee, is what can we do to objectively establish natural purposes, theistic or otherwise? My understanding is that, historically, science adopted engineering’s attitude and drifted away from teleology because of this difficulty. What is the purpose of a planet, earthquake, hurricane, solar flare, or glacier? It seems hard to establish any fact of the matter answer, or that worrying about it is productive.

            Granted, it’s hard to avoid teleological language in biology, which is why I think the concept of teleonomy developed. But it’s always possible to describe phenomena in non-teleological terms, although it can get very tedious. That seems to put it in the category of something emergent from evolutionary forces.


          9. “The question, Lee, is what can we do to objectively establish natural purposes, theistic or otherwise?”

            The simplest thing that we as an individual can do to objectively establish natural purposes is to reject subject/object metaphysics (SOM) and to view the world as a “united whole”. SOM carved the world into parts. For theism it’s a creator (subject) and the creation (object), for science it’s the observer (subject) and the observed (object), for the mystic it’s the knower (subject) and the known (object) and for idealism it’s the experiencer (subject) and the experience (object). Notice any similarities in the examples I listed??????


          10. So, if we reject SOM, what would be the steps in objectively establishing the purpose of something like the Grand Canyon (or any other example you’d like to work with)?


          11. “So, if we reject SOM, what would be the steps in objectively establishing the purpose of something like the Grand Canyon….”

            First and foremost, the Grand Canyon is just a small part of a “United Whole”, a concept that you have already demonstrated that you do not understand. And second, you do not comprehend what it “means” to reject SOM; because if you did, you would have at least made an attempt to answer my only question in that last post. 🤨


          12. Lee, I definitely don’t understand what it means to reject SOM. The only answer I have to the question you asked was the obvious one: subject and object. My question was just an attempt to get you to elaborate, to maybe connect the dots, since I’m not able to do it myself.


          13. Referring back to Michael Mark’s archetypal character: I can guarantee that Fool’s Crow did not see the world through the prism of SOM, a metaphysics that divides the world into parts. He saw the world as a united whole; and I am sure that he was more that perplexed by Einstein’s take on reality. The native culture was equally perplexed by Christianity’s dualistic stance on “Good and Evil” as well. This duality expressed by the SOM paradigm was very confusing for the native American culture.

            It’s relatively easy to focus in on the individual parts that make up the united whole and then rigorously debate those parts. But it takes a completely different mind set to recognize that those individual parts are just that, individual parts that contribute to the united whole, a united whole that is driven by teleology. The position that science takes by rejecting teleology and not incorporating it as a mandate in its grounding tenets is irresponsible and only exacerbates the problem intrinsic in the SOM paradigm.

            This type of change will only occur on the individual level and to say that this type of change is transformational would be an understatement. Just imagine where the institution of science could take humanity if science could adopt teleology as a mandate, a mandate that perceives the world around us consisting of individual systems all of which contribute to overall teleology of the united whole.


    2. Well said, Michael, I quite agree. Science is the Yin, but life also has a Yang (which may be art, literature, religion, or mysticism). Both are important. The Navajo have a word for it: hozho … balance in life.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I am generally impressed with Mary Midgley, as well as her amazing women colleagues who were allowed to attend Oxford during WWII. I think she had keen insights into scientism, which I view as an ideology on continuum from benign to abhorrent.

    I need to restrain myself as I would say way to much. So let me comment on just one of your thoughts. Although early on you give a nod to the concept that science “can’t tell us what to value.” You then you seem to undermine that concept and, for me, create confusion—specifically in response to the proposition that “Scientism comes with the assumption that it will lead us all to some progressive, Enlightenment utopia.” This you say is Midgley’s “silliest” proposition. You go on to cite our indisputable medical and scientific progress of the past 500 years and conclude that “What separates us from a world that might be better in many ways, that by our current standards we might regard as a utopia, is more scientific progress.”

    I must disagree with what I think you are saying. Just as more and more money is no guarantee a good life, more and more technological advancement is likewise no guarantee a good life. The idea of human progress is an Enlightenment invention which was disputed from the very start of the Enlightenment by thinkers like J. J. Rousseau. In short, science can’t make us good people let alone perfect. Nor can science create a perfect world, a utopia. Karl Popper, as Midgley points out, called this idea “promissory materialism.” That might be a better term than scientism. That is Midgley’s point. And that is the point of the huge glut of contemporary dystopian literature based on science themes. Literature, as well as history and philosophy, can in its own ways provide valuable insights into the human condition.

    My position is that such insights do more than, as you say, “explore knowledge.” I understand you to mean by that an exploration of scientific knowledge. So, I think you also mean to say that literature, history and philosophy et al produce no knowledge—which would include knowledge of values apparently. And values, as you say, can’t come from science. If that is your meaning then it’s troubling to me. To that, if that is your meaning, I respectfully dissent.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Matti,
      I have to admit that I don’t know much about Midgley. Her name is familiar, but this might be my first exposure to her ideas. If Thompson accurately reflected the tone in which she presented her views, I can’t say I’m impressed.

      Dissent is totally fine. The most interesting discussions come from it.

      It sounds like we agree that science can’t determine values. I don’t know if you recall though that we disagree about whether there is an ultimate fact of the matter on values. There are facts about values that each of us will accept, and facts about what we’ll collectively accept as a society, either legally or culturally. Those can be discovered through psychology, sociology, anthropology, and history. But as far as I can tell, that’s where it ends. (I realize I might be digging myself in a deeper hole here from your perspective.)

      As I agreed with in my response to Michael, I think using the word “utopia” in this discussion is unproductive. It’s a strawman description of the hopes many have for a better world. I disagree that there isn’t progress. I’ll grant that comes down to what we decide to measure as progress. I’m thinking in terms that include lifespan, health, education, and comfort.

      Of course, it could be argued that this hasn’t resulted in better happiness, since happiness is always relative. An illiterate tenant farmer who only lived 30 years in the 1500s might on average have been happier than a professional today who lives 75 years, because relative to their respective peers and expectations, the farmer might be better off. Still, I’d bet that the average person in the 1500s had far more uncertainty about meeting their basic needs and safety than the average person today, at least in the developed world.

      I find your point about dystopian literature interesting. It’s worth noting that most of it turns out to be wrong. Consider 1984 and Blade Runner. Both are set in years that have already passed, and neither’s dark vision turned out to be reality. (I’m sure someone is tempted to weigh in and say they did happen, we’re just not aware of it. Is a dystopia where no one’s aware that they’re in a dystopia really a dystopia?)

      In truth, I think both completely utopian and dystopian visions are unrealistic. The world today has problems, but it isn’t a dystopian nightmare. The world tomorrow will still have problems. The best we can hope for is that the baseline is better. If it is, science will have a role to play in that, not the only role, but a large one.


      1. Mike,

        I would not expect you to have much familiarity with Midgley considering your other interests. Her views on scientism, however, are quite consistent with those of Massimo Pigliucci. I assume you are familiar with him. The difference is that Pigliucci, as a philosopher of science, is concerned with drawing the distinction between genuine scientific inquiry and the ideology of scientism and Midgley is concerned with the effects of scientism on other philosophical inquiries, especially ethics.

        And, yes, it seems we do agree that science cannot determine values. Although I should add that I agree with Hilary Putnam and others that values are essential to the practice of science. In fact, values permeate all our reasoning about human experience, whether in the area of science or otherwise. But perhaps expanding on that is for another time.

        I’m not sure what you mean by happiness being relative. I may agree or disagree. Both “happiness” and “relative” are very broad and slippery concepts. But I assume you agree that the products of science may be helpful but insufficient for happiness. And helpful but insufficient for a just society. Science certainly can improve the material conditions of human existence. But that is about as far as it goes. I think in general the scientism critique is mostly seeing those limits.

        Finally, I think we approach dystopian literature in very different ways. I don’t think most such authors intend their work to be prophetic so much as creatively illuminating the effect on the human condition of disordered values. No one really believes that Huck Finn in fact rode a raft down the Mississippi. But there are profound truths about us in that story

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Matti,
          I am familiar with Pigliucci and his views on scientism. But I can’t recall ever seeing anything from him like Midgley’s first or third myth. His take seems focused on her second myth. His biggest beef seems to be with scientists who are dismissive of philosophy.

          I agree that value has a major influence on science, particularly in what scientists choose to work on and the lens through which they interpret their results. On the other hand, E=mc^2 or the Schrodinger equation seem to express truths that are the case regardless of which values we hold.

          I agree that happiness is a very slippery term, which is why I’m not inclined to try to judge progress by it. I just mentioned it because that’s a common criticism of measuring progress by the other variables. I agree that science by itself, just like material conditions, can’t provide happiness. But they can remove many obstacles to achieving it.

          There are profound truths in Huck Finn. But they aren’t truths that story discovered. Stories like that are more a device for calling attention to those truths in a manner that people are likely to listen to. I agree in that sense that stories like 1984 are conveying a cautionary message about the direction of society.


          1. Mike,

            Regarding literature (permit me to include other inquires like, e.g., history and philosophy) you claim that truths are not discovered through story.

            Well, in science we engage in a process of observation and interpretation of data or information about the physical world. From that process certain truths are discovered. Truths that most agree are most likely partial or fallible. Let me suggest that in the observation and interpretation of data or information regarding the human condition, one can make a plausible argument that certain truths are likewise discovered. But, if truth is restricted to scientific truth, then I guess you’d disagree.

            Indeed science expresses truths that are the case regardless of which values we hold. No disagreement there. But, as you say, values are the lens through which we interpret results. That is precisely my point! In fact, you are essentially quoting Hilary Putnam from his work, The Collapse Of The Fact/Value Dichotomy. To make my point in greater detail (and I think your point too) scientific hypotheses presupposes values. They include (but are not limited to) concepts like coherence, plausibility, reasonableness, naturalness, simplicity, accuracy, consistency, explanatory power, unifying power, past predictive success, even the ‘beauty’ of a hypothesis. These are, quite simply, values. That, in a small nutshell is what I meant. And it seems we agree. But maybe I’m missing something.


          2. Matti,
            I’d say we shouldn’t conflate fictional literature with philosophy and history. Philosophy can often uncover logical truths, and sometimes even do empirical investigations (at which point it seems scientific). And history can uncover what happened in the past, again by finding evidence (documents, archaeology, etc).

            Is it conceivable that a fiction author can discover some aspect of the human condition or reality which they reveal in literature? Sure, particularly if they have grounding in science, philosophy, history, etc. But most of it, I’d say, is simply conveying existing ideas the author has been exposed to. (I say this as an aspiring author myself.)

            On the values you’re describing and their effect on science, I wonder if you’ve gotten to Strevens’ book yet. His point is that individual scientists can take inspiration from all kinds of sources and values, like coherence, beauty, naturalness, even, in principle, theology or social ideologies. But in actual scientific discourse, they’re limited to empirical and mathematical reasoning. He presents it like an accidental dogma we stumbled on. I think it’s what was settled on because it works, and if something else were ever found to work, it would eventually be included as well.

            In the end, science is relentlessly pragmatic, focusing on what works. (Which of course, is itself a value.) That might not be true for individual scientists. It might not even be true for most of a generation of scientists in a particular field, But eventually someone makes a name for themselves by exploring an avenue being ignored, and progress happens. Sometimes, as Max Planck observed, progress happens by the old guard dying off.


      2. ” Is a dystopia where no one’s aware that they’re in a dystopia ”

        I think you just summarized the plot of about half the episodes of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror.

        “really a dystopia?”

        Liked by 2 people

  8. I think there is a common form of scientism (not a straw man) that is problematic. It could be seen as part of Myth #2. It’s an unrealistic, pat, tidy definition, usually implicit definition, of science.

    Not every advocate of “scientism” has this problem. Jerry Coyne probably doesn’t. Sean Carroll definitely doesn’t (I forget whether he has embraced the “scientism” label, but I imagine it’s been applied to him). Lots of thinkers recognize that we don’t very well understand how science works. How-to-do-science-effectively is itself a scientific question and therefore subject to all the usual uncertainties of science. And unlike chemistry (for example), it’s not a terribly well-developed science. Those who get that point are refreshing. Those who don’t are annoying.

    I think this dovetails with the complaint that “[scientism] wants to say, “Accept the bleakness of reality!” ” The bleakness comes, in reality, not simply from science, but from a philosophical interpretation of science, one that is too simplistic. Another symptom of the same underlying problem.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The only thinker I know who actually embraces the scientism label is Alex Rosenberg, the author of The Atheist Guide to Reality. He also embraces the nihilism label, in addition to “mad dog naturalism”. In his case, I have to agree that the label is accurate. He views the social sciences as hopeless endeavors, and history and the humanities as mere entertainment. Only the natural sciences count in his view. He’s the most eliminative reductionist I’ve come across.

      To my knowledge, neither Coyne nor Carroll approach anything like that. Carroll has recently described himself as a “mad dog Everettian”, but that’s very different from Rosenberg’s much starker view.

      Good point about the bleakness actually coming more from the philosophical interpretation of science rather than the science itself. And I’d say the bleakest language more often comes from people upset about the science than those who are enthusiastic about it.


  9. This is an interesting post. I gotta say that I have never had a conversation about scientism with anyone before, nor have I read about the topic in the past, at least not enough to have a deep understanding of what scientism is.
    If you define scientism as an excessive belief in the power of science, then I wouldn’t count myself as part of this ideology. Although science has many things to offer to us to improve our welfare and to provide us with inspiration and new tools in the arts (as you said when talking about fiction writers and rennaissance artists), science is unable to provide answers to all our questions (such as in ethics, logic, and mathematics).
    I have also read that Midgley is a supporter of the Gaia hypothesis. What do you think of that?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Fred. I agree with you across the board.

      The issue is that “excessive belief” is an inherently relative term. If you believe in science more than me, I might regard you as scientistic. But if another person has less confidence in science then I do, they might regard me as scientistic. Unless we’re clear which sense of the word we’re using, all it says is someone puts more credence in science than someone else thinks they should.

      My knowledge of the Gaia hypothesis is limited. There seem to be stronger and weaker versions of it, with the weaker versions blending into well accepted understandings of how the biosphere and environment interact. The stronger versions get a lot of criticism from scientists. It probably doesn’t help that Lovelock named it after an ancient goddess of the earth, giving it a new age feel (although we probably wouldn’t even be talking about it without that move).

      Scanning her wiki page, it seems like Midgley was all in on the stronger versions, which to me seems to clarify where her views on scientism are coming from.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Science is a human endeavor not a thing in itself. And like all human undertakings, we hack them out of ourselves, establish them as something separate and distinct from the whole; then we debate them. We never discuss ourselves amongst ourselves as a unified whole, we always dissect versions of ourselves, establish those version as separate objects in a deliberate attempt to achieve the moral high ground of some kind. Here are the facts surrounding this debate: when one discusses the relativity of scientism one is discussing the psychology of the species and that psychology is tribalism; which tribe is right, which tribe is wrong, which tribe has the most to contribute, which tribe contributes the least, and which tribe is a hinderance to the overall objective of the dominant tribe. Right now in the post-modern world scientism is the most dominant tribe.

    The tribe of scientism devalues the human being, and this subtle but not so subtle attempt at devaluing the human being and placing the process that this “lowly human being” invented at the top of a hierarchy is the ideology of that dominant tribe. I recall a recent “science” program where “scientists” were investigating a story told by family members of WWII prisoners held in a camp in Eastern Europe and there valiant escape from that prison camp by digging underground tunnels. At the end of the day, this team was able to corroborate this story by finding evidence of these tunnels, their physical location and where they lead in the landscape. It was an interesting documentary but at the end of the story a subtle but deliberate and not so subtle message was forcefully asserted, one that devalues the human being. It went something like this: “Before, all we had were first hand accounts told by prisoners who escaped, but now “science” has found the “proof” that these stories are true.” The conclusion forcefully asserted by this particular program is the accepted standard mode of operation for the dominant tribe and it will do whatever it has to do to remain the dominant tribe.

    Welcome to the Church of Science boys and girls…….

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I guess the question is who is in the tribe of the version of scientism you describe. I don’t know many people who would own up to being in such a group.

      I don’t see a problem with us putting greater credence in accounts when there’s evidence for them. Although I’d have accepted numerous independent eyewitness accounts as evidence in and of itself.


  11. “Scientism is something more – it establishes a set of beliefs by which to view things. It sees science as “realistic” or “just the facts”, like some objective totem. What’s more, Midgley argued that Scientism is invariably aligned with some kind of excessive reductionism, where everything is reduced to neurons or evolutionary psychology, for instance. It simplifies the complexities of life to being “nothing but” this or that.”

    The viewpoint described here is not simply reductionist, but eliminativist. It implies a viable description of the world free of phenomenal references. Though such a description seems possible superficially, when you undertake to construct the language necessary to support that description, it proves impossible.

    I may say that, “cold” just means differential between energy contents of an object and sensory nerves in my skin, and that we can simply reference that relationship in terms of its reduction. But, we don’t seem to be able to shake phenomenal references in the definitions. This isn’t just a technical problem, but arises because the phenomena are necessarily prior to the terms in the reductions.

    Reduction generally does not require the same commitments that elimativism entails. Reduction simply requires monism.

    I think the distinction between the two viewpoints above (reductionism and eliminativism) is important because reduction often gets tossed out with the eliminativist bathwater (as may be the case in this article).

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree completely. I could be described as a relentless reductionist. But I’m not an eliminativist. I think emergent entities exist, and doing away with them just isn’t productive. Just because we understand that a table is composed of material, such as wood, metal, or plastic, that has no inherent tableness, doesn’t make the table a concept it’s productive for us to dismiss.

      But many people who level the charge of scientism do make the exact conflation you describe. I even had one of them insist that reductionism and eliminativism were inseparable. But without reductionism, there is no understanding. The word “understanding” in reference to us standing under something, seeing its underbelly, presumably its parts and workings, already has that connotation.

      The biggest issue I see with eliminativism is it eventually leaves us with nothing but quantum fields, and maybe not even that. In truth, I don’t know too many people who hold that view consistently, although there are people who argue that particular concepts should be dismissed.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Well, I kind of do believe those three myths. I do find a sense of awe and wonder when I learn about science. I do think science if the best tool we have for obtaining knowledge. And I do think that scientific discoveries will allow us to make a better world for ourselves.

    But I also know those are opinions, not facts. Science has not given us all the facts about the universe yet (and perhaps it never will). That’s basically what opinions are for: to help fill in the gaps between facts.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good point. Having the same opinions, I agree.

      Midgley or Thompson might argue that it’s whether we’re exclusive about it. In my case, I’m not exclusive about it, but, thanks to Fred’s info above, I know there are at least some things Midgley accepted (a strong version of the Gaia hypothesis) that I’d start out pretty skeptical of, which would likely put me in the scientism camp as far as she was concerned.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, there are versions of the Gaia hypothesis that seem plausible enough to me. I’m guessing they’re not particularly “strong” versions of it, though.

        I guess I’m not sure if I’m being exclusive, according to Midgley. In situations where science has made a pretty strong case that reality is a certain way (evolution, for example), I don’t have much patience for arguments to the contrary.

        But there are plenty of issues and questions that science has not yet addressed, or that science may never be able to address (i.e. untestable hypotheses). And I think those are worthwhile things to think about and learn about, even if the science isn’t there to back those ideas up.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. If scientism is relative then I suspect many would characterize me this way. What I haven’t noticed however are effective ways to counter my perspective. If anyone has any thoughts on this, I’d appreciate hearing them!

    The first point to note here is that I do not belittle philosophy. In fact I consider metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology needed to found the institution of science itself. I’d like it formally recognized in academia that science at least implicitly rests upon metaphysical, epistemological, and axiological principles. In any case this puts me very far from the “Philosophy is a waste of time” camp.

    A main issue however is that I thus believe that science suffers horribly today specifically given that we do not yet have a respected community of professionals which provide various accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and/or axiology for scientists to use. So even though I have extreme respect for philosophy, I seem to commit a worse sin by noting that if two and a half millennia of study has provided us with no communally accepted positions from which to better found science, then we’ll need a more focused community of respected professionals that has “agreement” as a founding objective. So here there’d be a practical form of philosophy which essentially relegates the traditional kind to more of an art to potentially appreciate by those who are so inclined.

    The other issue which tends to increase the ire of traditional philosophers is that while I agree that “good values” are not determinable, I do believe that the value topic itself must enter the domain of science (informed by appropriate axiology of course). Here’s my current suggestion for such a principle:

    It’s possible for a machine which harbors no subjective value (like a brain) to produce a punishment/reward valence from which to drive the function of a subjective mode of function (like you and I).

    Here a physics based value accrues for something subjective, whether individual or social, based upon how good to bad it feels each moment. Because value can only exist beyond any specific values, I think science will need to go this way in order for its mental and behavioral varieties to begin hardening up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suspect you would get caught in at least some scientism nets Eric. Although your perspective is rather quirky. Your emphasis of the “hardness” of natural sciences, as compared to the “softness” of the social sciences would probably evoke some scientism reflexes. But your emphasis on philosophy might evade others, although it might depend on how they felt about your philosophical views. It would all depend on what was motivating the charge.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Right Mike, the devil is in the details. But I do suspect that I’d be hated in proportion to the extent that my positions gain prominence. Traditional philosophers seem to revel in the softness of fields such as psychology. It’s as if they perversely consider this softness to be something that helps them in the fight against the oppressive master clan of hard scientists. Then I come along and say that philosophy is too important for disagreement, as well as that effective philosophical principles would help soft scientists harden up. Thus theoretically there’d be both an acclaimed community of metascientists doing what traditional philosophers have failed to, and their ideas would help separate traditional philosophers from the fields that they earlier identified with most, or the kind with the most problems.

        For further evidence of my supposed scientism I was banned from Daniel Kaufman’s site and often at least seemed despised over at Massimo Pigliucci’s. Apparently the tribes that we belong to are important for self interest, and we’re all self interested products of our circumstance. It’s cool however that you’re able to attract as diverse a crowd as you do. I guess the best of us enjoy a quality game of contradictory Chess!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Eric,
          I really enjoy the diverse viewpoints our friends bring to these discussions. It makes the conversations much more interesting than all of us sitting around agreeing with each other, at least when we’re sharing the reasons for our different conclusions.

          Kaufman banned you? Did he tell you why? You do have a tendency to quickly jump to your favorite talking points, often with only a brief mention of the topic at hand. You might get more acceptance if you participated more fully in the topic of the thread. You once mentioned that your comments get tagged as spam, which might be related to that. Just a thought.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Mike/Eric,

            Permit me to chime in. I appreciate the spirit of tolerance at this blog as well. Especially since, as you know, I began to follow this blog because it was a challenge to my own views. I’ve enjoyed the challenge. The lack of polarizing rhetoric is refreshing!

            One can certainly disagree with Midgley and it’s clear that you both do. I have paid little attention to her views on Gaia which, as one who has read several of her works, appears to be a minor interest of hers anyway. It was a not a concern for me so I paid little attention to it. But if it’s not too contentious, let me ask. Would being mistaken for one who sympathizes with scientism be such an insult? In an early post I expressed the view that I saw scientism as a perspective continuum from benign to abhorrent. That is, there are okey donkey versions of it. I think I could make a plausible argument (I won’t) that you’re both on the benign side. And I think the brilliant Willard Quine had little problem with his “desert landscape” ontology being considered such. He made a statement once that if his epistemological reliance on science made him subject to the criticism of circular reasoning, he just didn’t care. I admire that. But then he was by then a philosophical dragon-slayer and had the standing to get away with it.

            Liked by 2 people

          2. Thanks Matti!

            Actually, the first time I recall seeing the scientism label, and the manner in which it was used (criticizing those who insisted on evidence for religious miracles), I was like, “Ok, that’s me; guilty as charged.” Although when I later saw it used to criticize the idea of a science of morality, I didn’t see myself in that view anymore. (This is one of the reasons I’m usually reluctant to own up to labels. They always seem to eventually come with commitments I don’t share.)

            The problem is that Thompson, channeling Midgley, is displaying so much invective and tribalism about it. The implication is that it isn’t just a viewpoint they disagree with, but one that is essentially inhumane and immoral.

            Personally, I’m someone who sees science (broadly construed) as the best source we have for knowledge of the world. It doesn’t mean I don’t value philosophy, or enjoy art and literature as much as anyone. It is fair to say I don’t put much credence in religion as a source of knowledge (even if I find it interesting as a cultural phenomenon). If that’s scientism, then so be it.


          3. Mike,
            It’s pretty clear that where I comment these days, the host is generally quite pleased to have me. I at least try to hold back where I suspect that my positions will be considered odious, not that I always succeed. And I think Massimo was generally pleased with me at Sciencia Salon and Plato’s Footnotes, not to mention his Patreon site where for a while I paid him $5/month for the privilege. He always enjoyed things rough at his sites however, though would tend to choose softer targets to rip on than me. So I’d say what I wanted over there, and I presume that many would hope for someone to come along and take me down. Daniel Kaufman often considered himself as such a hero. It was pretty clear to me however that I’d generally get the best of him and so leave onlookers disappointed. It was retribution for this I think that led Dan to concoct an excuse to ban my commentary at his site. That actually served my own purposes however. It fit with my narrative of him being somewhat like England and me being somewhat like Gandhi.

            …And speaking of Gandhi, then there’s Matti Meikäläinen. I certainly appreciate your skills with the pen! Your assessment of Mike and I as the okey dokey type of scientismists is much appreciated!

            Liked by 2 people

    2. Eric,

      If you pay close attention to the comment that Anthony Garner so poignantly made you will see that Scientism does not accept metaphysics, philosophy, psychology, axiology or epistemology as science. Those disciplines and anything that belongs to the realm of mind including the arts are classified as humanities.

      When the tribe of scientism conspired against the Church, the humanities were allied with scientism in that historic rebellion. But when scientism’s coup was successfully executed, they purged the regime by turning upon their allies who were quickly excommunicated from the new Church of Science. Although I am in agreement with you that metaphysics, epistemology and axiology actually unwrite the endeavor of science itself, they will never be recognized as science nor will they be allowed to have a seat at the table.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Actually Lee, as I understand it people in the humanities developed the term “scientism” to ridicule scientists for trying to invade their territory. Sam Harris would be a prime offender. It’s akin to “Don’t attempt to steal our stuff because science doesn’t belong here!” And I agree with them that science doesn’t belong in the arts. So wherever philosophers would like to ponder timeless questions without reaching any consensus understandings, I believe that science must not go there. But I also believe that a new community of professional must emerge whose only goal is to provide humanity with various accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology. And if traditional philosophers would rather this domain not reside under some variety of “philosophy”, then this new group could be referred to as “metascientists”. I think it’s safe to say that Mary Midgley would be utterly aghast.

        I’m reasonably familiar with Anthony’s worries about humanity, and share them. My potential solution, contra Sam Harris, is to remove the concept of “rightness” and “wrongness” from science entirely. I consider morality essentially as an evolved social tool of persuasion. As I conceive of it, the metascientifically informed psychologist would amorally acknowledge the welfare of sentient forms of life. With new founding principles from which to work I suspect that this troubled field would finally begin hardening up.


        1. Eric,

          I prefer the term metaphysics over metascience but either phrase is acceptable. Matthew Segal’s blog site Footnotes2Plato is titled after the quote: “THE SAFEST GENERAL CHARACTERIZATION OF THE EUROPEAN PHILOSOPHICAL TRADITION IS THAT IT CONSISTS OF A SERIES OF FOOTNOTES TO PLATO.” —ALFRED NORTH WHITEHEAD

          I’ve been tempted to ask Matthew if he understands at the most fundamental level what that assessment actually means to the physical sciences and the humanities and why that assessment is accurate. I mean, why would any and all contributions to the philosophical tradition be merely a footnote and not some thing that is actually new or novel? Any thoughts on that Eric?

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Lee,
            I suppose that quote from Whitehead sought to emphasize that philosophy should not be considered anything like science — that it can only continue pondering the same sorts of questions in different ways without consensus understandings ever being reached. This is to say that philosophy may be considered an art to potentially appreciate by those who are so inclined rather than a field which moves by means of new discovery. Thus one might say that modern philosophers are still considering the same sorts of things that Plato did, or essentially footnotes to the original.

            One competing event to this perspective is the rise of the modern “philosopher of…” distinction, such as “science,” “physics”, “psychology”, and so on. Wouldn’t people who seek to help scientists do their work better, need some agreed upon principles from which to do that? But different philosophers seems to lack common beliefs from which to build. So my solution would be to create an initially small community whose founding principle would be agreement, as in “If you can’t accept these initial positions of our club, then you can’t join”. And maybe there’d be lots of these clubs. If scientists in general were to find that one such club had answers that helped them do science more effectively however, then I’d expect this club to grow and progressively found the institution of science far better than it’s founded today. Furthermore I propose one principle of metaphysics, two principles of epistemology, and one principle of axiology from which to potentially found such a community and so harden up science in its softest areas.


  14. “To someone living in 1500 CE, the world of today would seem somewhat utopian to them. ”

    You have to be right. Equally, the year 3000 CE may make our own world look barbaric and backward. Despite my poetical and often whimsical nature, I am rational enough to be aware that only science can bring us the sort of utopia I long for.

    However, scientific progress needs to be accompanied by profound social and economic change. And in those areas it is probably the humanities which need to guide us.

    There may be no “right” and no “wrong” in the physical universe. But we need to make our own morality to prevent a continuation of the often bestial behaviour of our species.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Totally agreed. Well said! Science is a powerful force, but it isn’t inherently a moral one. It can give us medicine, comfort, and longer lives, but it can also give us ever more powerful weapons, not to mention ways to poison our environment. Our societies have to grow and develop new conventions to adapt to the additional power it provides. Science by itself doesn’t guarantee we won’t destroy ourselves.

      And I agree completely that morality is something we simply have to take responsibility for creating and tuning. Because the universe won’t do it for us.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I think Midgely is thinking, consciously or not, about communism and fascism. Both were, in their time, explicitly attempts to replace superstitious and nonscientific things like human rights, democracy and egalitarianism with hereditary morality (scientific racism) and scientific history (Marxism). The superiority of the superstitions is a point you can at least argue for.

    I also wonder if you really think utopia is what a 16th century person would call us.

    Interesting post as always. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Ben!

      It is definitely a massive counterfactual to talk about what someone from the 1500s would think of the world today. I’m sure many of them would be appalled by some things, like finding out how much science has been divorced from theology, and the idea that we’re evolved electrochemical systems on the surface of a bit of leftover stardust in a vast emptiness.

      But we also live in a world where most people have as much to eat as they desire, often of foods that only the richest of the rich could have had access to in their day, where death from communicable disease (aside from the last year) is a rare event, where we live in air conditioned homes that warm us in the winter and cool us in the summer, where we can quickly travel distances that to them would have been vast, and a host of other benefits that would have been unimaginable to them.

      Of course, they might initially be impressed and overwhelmed by those benefits, but after living here for a few months, would likely gravitate to being as dissatisfied as the rest of us. Evolution only provides happiness as a brief reward, not a permanent state.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I actually just finished a book called “Modernism and Japanese Culture” by Roy Starrs. The introduction is horrible (and written by somebody else), but the body of the book is very enjoyable and informative.

        Anyway, I mention it because the Japanese, during the Meiji Reformation, technologically went from the 1400’s to the 1880s in 20 years.

        You might find it interesting to see how they handled it.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks for the recommendation.

          I took Japanese history in college, so I’m somewhat familiar with the Medji Reformation, although it’s been awhile. I recall that Japan initially adopted western practices on a wide scale, because they weren’t sure what about those practices gave the west its power. (Someone apparently wondered if ballroom dancing might provide some kind of fitness benefits.) As time went on, and it became clear what was causal to that power and what wasn’t, they gradually pared back to a Japanese version of the modern world.

          It was a remarkable transformation. Of course, Japan had a remarkable culture to begin with.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. That’s definitely part of it. Culturally, Starrs said there was a powerful feeling that modernity was foreign, vulgar and, sadly, necessary.

            Nostalgia and dissatisfaction with modern vulgarity are, he said, major causes of Japanese facism. Made me think of “utopia,” both on the ironic sense, but also in the sense that Starrs says facism actually can be interpreted as reactionary utopianism.

            Liked by 1 person

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