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?