The term scientism
can be used as a neutral term to describe the view that natural science
has authority over all other interpretations of life, such as philosophical
, or humanistic
explanations, and over other fields of inquiry, such as the social sciences
. It also can imply a criticism of an actual or perceived misapplication or misuse of the authority of science in either of two directions:
- The term is often used as a pejorative to indicate the improper usage of science or scientific claims. In this sense, the charge of scientism often is used as a counter-argument to appeals to scientific authority in contexts where science might not apply, such as when the topic is perceived to be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry.
- The term is also used to pejoratively refer to "the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry," with a concomitant "elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience". It thus expresses a position critical of (at least the more extreme expressions of) positivism. (Compare: scientific imperialism.)
Reviewing the references to scientism in the works of contemporary scholars, Gregory R. Peterson detects two main broad themes:
- it is used to criticize a totalizing view of science as if it were capable of describing all reality and knowledge, or as if it were the only true way to acquire knowledge about reality and the nature of things;
- it is used to denote a border-crossing violation in which the theories and methods of one (scientific) discipline are inappropriately applied to another (scientific or non-scientific) discipline and its domain. Examples of this second usage is to label as scientism the attempts to claim science as the only or primary source of human values (a traditional domain of ethics), or as the source of meaning and purpose (a traditional domain of religion and related worldviews).
According to Mikael Stenmark in the Encyclopedia of science and religion, while the doctrines that are described as scientism have many possible forms and varying degrees of ambition, they share the idea that the boundaries of science (that is, typically the natural sciences) could and should be expanded so that something that has not been previously considered as a subject pertinent to science can now be understood as part of science, (usually with science becoming the sole or the main arbiter regarding this area or dimension). In its most extreme form, scientism is the faith that science has no boundaries, that in due time all human problems and all aspects of human endeavor will be dealt and solved by science alone. This idea is also called the Myth of Progress. Stenmark proposes the expression scientific expansionism as a synonym of scientism. E. F. Schumacher critiqued this form of scientism as an impoverished world view that not only leaves unanswered, but denies the validity of all questions of fundamental importance to human existence.
Relevance to the science and religion debate
Gregory R. Peterson remarks that "for many theologians and philosophers, scientism is among the greatest of intellectual sins". In fact, today the term is often used against vocal critics of religion-as-such. For instance, the philosopher of science Daniel Dennett responded to criticism of his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by saying that "when someone puts forward a scientific theory that [religious critics] really don't like, they just try to discredit it as 'scientism'". Meanwhile, in an essay that emphasizes parallels between scientism and traditional religious movements, The Skeptics Society founder Michael Shermer self-identifies as "scientistic" and defines the term as "a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science.
Range of meanings
Standard dictionary definitions include the following applications of the term "scientism":
- The use of the style, assumptions, techniques, and other attributes typically displayed by scientists.
- Methods and attitudes typical of or attributed to the natural scientist.
- An exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation, as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities.
- The use of scientific or pseudoscientific language.
- The contention that the social sciences should be held to the somewhat stricter interpretation of scientific method used by the natural sciences.
- The belief that some or all of the social sciences, such as economics and sociology, are not sciences (or not solely engaged in science) because they commonly do not hold to the somewhat stricter interpretation of scientific method used by the natural sciences.
- The belief that scientific knowledge is the foundation of all knowledge and that, consequently, scientific argument should always be weighted more heavily than other forms of knowledge, particularly those which are not yet well described or justified from within the rational framework, or whose description fails to present itself in the course of a debate against a scientific argument. It can be contrasted by doctrines like historicism, which hold that there are certain "unknowable" truths. (this reference is no longer states this).
- As a form of dogma: "In essence, scientism sees science as the absolute and only justifiable access to the truth.