This site uses cookies and other tracking technology to assist with navigation and your ability to provide feedback, analyse your use of our products and services, assist with our promotional efforts, and provide content from third parties. Find out more

Science and scientism


Will science eventually have all the answers?

Alex Rosenberg

What is scientism?

‘There are no deeper explanations than those that science provides. A whole list of questions that constitutes the lion’s share of philosophy have answers that are given by science.’


What is Scientism?

David: Alex, can you tell us what you mean by scientism?

AR: Right. So scientism, as the word is normally used, is a term of abuse, and what it means is the unreasonable and unwarranted crediting of science with powers to explain – that it is, by many people, not so credited – and the exaggerated respect for science’s methods and science’s findings.

Now take that definition and remove the word ‘exaggerated’ and you’ve got my definition of scientism. Scientism is the view that science is our best guide to the nature of reality. Its methods and its findings are our best account of the nature of reality.

I’ve taken the word ‘scientism’ and tried to turn it into a non-pejorative expression, in the way that we’re familiar with from the way the LGBT community and others have taken words like ‘queer’ and made them into badges of honour instead of terms of abuse.

Ard: And do you think that scientism, the way you view it, is that a common view in the university, for example?

AR: I think that it’s not a common view in the university. And even among those who embrace it, there’s a certain amount of trepidation about going public, because when you do so, you tend to step on the feet of those who think there are ‘many ways of knowing’, and that science already has such imperialist pretensions as to threaten other disciplines. And for that reason those who embrace it, even in the comfort and privacy of their own minds, are reluctant to be publicly associated with it.

Ard: But you’re not afraid to be.

AR: No.

Ard: Why is that?

AR: Well, I was a physics student as an undergraduate and I made a conceptual mistake which drew me into philosophy. And by the time I’d figured out the mistake, it was too late to go back into physics.

But the kinds of questions that have held my attention throughout my entire academic life are these questions that are raised by the sciences, and which I think the sciences can ultimately answer, and are now, especially as a result of what’s happened in the last 30 or 40 years, in a position to take away from philosophy and give answers to them.

Ard: So you think it was a… You said you made a mistake moving into philosophy?

AR: A conceptual mistake that led me away from physics and into philosophy.

Ard: What was that mistake?

AR: I don't know that I should say in public.

Ard: Okay!

AR: No. The mistake, I think, is one that is not uncommon. It’s twofold. One: demanding of science – especially physics – that it show not only the nature of reality, but that reality somehow, the way it is, necessarily, that it couldn’t have been otherwise; that the inverse square law of gravitation couldn’t have been the inverse cube law.

The demand that physics say why things are the way they are to a level of determination and necessity that no science is capable of is a mistake, but it leads you to be dissatisfied with scientific explanations and try to seek deeper ones; or at least acknowledge the existence of deeper ones. And that was my mistake: to suppose that there were deeper explanations than those that the sciences provide.

Ard: So you basically realised that there are no deeper explanations?

AR: Correct. That’s what scientism says: there are no deeper explanations than those that science provides, and science provides explanations for a broad range of questions that many people might look to philosophy or to religion for answers to.

AR: As science pushes back its frontiers, of course, the bigger the frontier, the more unknowns there are. But in some respect we begin to be able to answer questions that had long been held as the privileged domain of philosophy.

David: So what are some of these questions that you think people say, ‘Ah, we must look to other things for…’ which now you think science can…?

AR: Oh, well, consider the list. After, you know, does God exist? The questions about does the universe have a meaning? What’s the purpose of life? What’s the nature of right and wrong? How does the brain relate to the mind? Do we have free will? What does moral responsibility consist in? That’s a whole list of questions that constitutes the lion’s share of philosophy, and I think all of them have answers that are given by science.

AR: So, is there a God? Of course not. What is the meaning of the universe? It doesn’t have any. What is the purpose of life? Ditto. Is there a difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There’s not a moral difference between them. What is the nature of the relationship between the mind and the brain? They’re identical. The mind is the brain. Is there free will? Not a chance. Do the lessons of the past have any particular bearing that would help us cope with the future? Less and less, if it ever had any at all. So, that’s a nice list.

Peter Atkins

Does science invalidate all other knowledge?

‘Scientific knowledge is the only way of acquiring reliable knowledge because it’s evidence based and it’s consensus based. Religious knowledge is probably the paradigm of unreliability.’


Does science invalidate all other knowledge?

David: We’re talking about what kinds of things count as knowledge. Now, we’ve talked before and I know you have strong feelings about this. What do you think the status of scientific knowledge is as regards to other kinds of knowledge?

PA: Scientific knowledge is the only way of acquiring reliable knowledge, because it’s evidence based and it’s consensus based. It’s universal, it’s trans-cultural and it’s a way where you can be confident that the knowledge that you’re gaining is reliable. I think another feature is that the evidence comes from all the points of the compass. It comes from biology. It comes from physics. It comes, in a funny sort of way, from mathematics. It comes from chemistry, and so on. And these different rivers of knowledge, where they mingle, don’t annihilate: they support. And so, when there is so much information coming from so many disparate sources, you get the sense that, maybe, we’ve got the right way for eliciting understanding of the world.

David: You use the word ‘reliable’. Are there, therefore, in your view, unreliable kinds of knowledge?

PA: Religious knowledge is probably the paradigm of unreliability because it’s based on sentiment, on authority and on wish-fulfilment. I think those three aspects of religious knowledge undermine its reliability totally.

David: What about the arts then?

PA: Yes, I was going to say. Art, literature, music, I think, are revelations of kinds of knowledge. They don’t give you insight, but they provide you with objects of study. So why does, say, the Goldberg Variations have such a profound emotional pull on one’s heart? It doesn’t reveal anything about the nature of the world until you ask the question: why does this pluck the heartstrings? So it’s evidence about the world that a scientist would use as material to study. For a poet to say that they’re providing knowledge about the world is tolerable, up to a point. They’re providing something to study, but they don’t actually: it’s meta-knowledge, it’s not deep understanding knowledge.

Ard: And you spend quite a bit of time popularising your ideas. Why do you do that? Why do you think it’s important?

PA: Because I want people to share in the joy of science.

Ard: Okay.

PA: That is for people to realise that they can understand, and that the world is not just a random collection of entities: that the world is a coherent place; that entities emerge, have their properties. I think it’s the joy of understanding, really.

Ard: You’re trying to share the joy of understanding?

PA: I’m not sure that…

Ard: Don’t you worry that by telling people that religion is nonsense that you’re taking away some of their joys?

PA: I don’t mind. I can see that I’m taking the blanket away from them to expose them to the cold blast of truth. But the cold blast of truth can be enthralling and enjoyable, more enjoyable than being cloaked in the warm blanket of misconception.

Ard: So you’re trying to… You think you’re helping them in this way?

PA: Not always, because sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Ard: Exactly.

PA: That’s the problem. So someone on their deathbed, I wouldn’t say, ‘Come on, snap out of it. This is the truth.’ But someone who is young, who has yet their life before them, I think to imbue them with a sense that the world is understandable is what I, as a teacher, should teach.

Ard: So how about people like me who are religious and scientists? What do you make of that?

PA: Well you’ve got two hemispheres. I would try to build in a kind of corpus callosum to connect your hemispheres!

Ard: Okay. You think I’ve got a split mind? You think I’m like a vegetarian butcher or something?

PA: Exactly!

Ard: Okay.

PA: So you go through life mixing the sentimental and the analytical.

Ard: So do you think my religious sense is the sentimental part of me?

PA: Oh, yes.

Ard: Should I switch that off?

PA: I think you would have a much richer life if you were to switch it off. Then you must ask yourself why you have this sentimental streak in you. I mean, obviously, you’re a much nicer person than I am. I don’t want you to become just a butcher, of course. I want to help sustain the sentimentality, sensitivity rather, of your non-butcher side, but see that the world is simply a wonderful, mechanical place.

Ard: Nothing more?

PA: Nothing more.

Ard: Is that the whole story then?

PA: Yes. Absolutely.

Ard: There’s nothing more than that?

PA: No. Well, what more could there be?

Ard: Would that make us like computers, almost?

PA: Yes.

Ard: Yes?

PA: I see nothing wrong with that. I mean we’re very elaborate computers. We are machines, in a sense, that take in information and transform it. And some of the consequences of that transformation might be the release of a hormone which makes us feel good.

Ard: Okay. So I agree, I think we are chemical computers. But you’re saying that’s the totality? That’s it?

PA: Well, I don’t see what else there could be.

Ard: On scientific grounds?

PA: Well, just on common-sense grounds.

John Cottingham

The limits of science

‘For all its wonderful achievements, and to which we all owe so much, science has led, in some people’s minds, to a sort of downward spiral: that something’s only valid if we can produce experimental data or graphs.’


The Limits of Science

David: You were just talking about these, sort of, objective truths. Are you on the side of those who say, ‘Well, the objective is always going to be superior to the subjective’? Because I always saw that as one of those things which the reductionists and the materialists would say: ‘The only truths are those which can be objectively proved.’ And here I am thinking, well, I can’t prove that my children love me, but I’m pretty sure they do.

JC: Yes, it’s a very interesting question, this whole objective/subjective distinction, because it’s often thought that science deals with hard objective fact and this other stuff we’re talking about is ultimately pretty fuzzy: sort of matter of opinion or subjective conviction. But I don’t think that is the right way of putting it. I think, in a way, that this hinges on what sort of theory of knowledge you have. In many ways I think we privilege, wrongly, an epistemology of detachment.

David: What does that mean? Sorry.

JC: A theory of knowledge which says that knowledge can only be gained by a kind of distancing from the data. Where, as it were, we put it on the table, we examine it, and any rational observer, if they use the right methods and procedures, is compelled to draw a certain conclusion. It’s, if you like, ‘spectator evidence’, to use the term of the American philosopher, Paul Moser.

Now, I think there are many perfectly objective and genuine parts of reality which aren’t accessible via spectator evidence.

David: Yes, they’re private: they’re mine.

JC: No, no, that’s what I’m denying. I’m saying they’re genuine, real: they’re not just personal. For example, the properties of a great piece of music. These aren’t just my reactions.

David: Ah.

JC: Anyone, I think, has to recognise that there are genuine properties in, say, the Bach Matthew Passion, which are not just the applause or otherwise of the audience, but are the properties of the music. But they are not, as it were, just accessible in pure spectator terms. Many spectators could sit through and say, ‘It doesn’t do anything for me’. But it doesn’t mean it’s subjective. It may take many years of training, or of careful listening to start to discern these properties. So there are some genuine realities which can only be accessed if you have the right kind of receptivity.

So instead of an epistemology, a theory of knowledge based on detachment and distance, I think we have to acknowledge there are truths that are only accessible if we adopt an epistemology of receptivity. If we are, to use a word that Martha Nussbaum uses, if we’re prepared to be porous, open, receptive.

Ard: So what kind of truths have that nature, that we’ll only really understand them if we’re open to them, in some sense?

JC: Well another analogy, apart from the musical one, is truths about personal relationships. I take it personal relationships aren’t just a matter of subjective feelings. There are genuine facts about whether a relationship is flourishing, about certain goals that people undertake together. But if you always remain hard, detached – the spectator – that very insistence of adopting the scientific, detached attitude will cut you off from being receptive to the properties of the other person.

David: You mean you won’t even see them?

JC: You might not see them, or see them in the right way.

Ard: Let me try a layman’s analogy on you and see if I’m getting this about right. So, I love my wife and I believe my wife loves me. I do have evidence from that, but there’s a sense in which, if I stay on the side as a spectator and just wait for that evidence to come, then there’s lots of evidence that I will in fact never see.

JC: Yes.

Ard: I have to take a step of commitment to her, and from that step of commitment actually will come evidence.

JC: Yes, yes.

Ard: You’re saying some evidence is not visible to you, or you can’t see it until you take, almost, like a step of faith? That’s my layman’s…

JC: Yes, I think that’s very nicely put. I’d agree with that. I mean, it’s rather like a spiral of change, where you give ground a little bit and then something becomes visible which was before occluded. Then, as it becomes visible, it has a further effect on you. You undergo further change. And so, if things go well, this is what happens in relationships, there’s a kind of upward spiral of change where people are prepared to put down their guard, increasingly, and, as a result, there appear properties of the other person which they might not have seen before.

David: When you mentioned this spiral, where you see something and then you’re open to it, so you see it more, has the opposite happened in Western society? Where we’ve been tempted, largely, I think, through science, to say, ‘Look, certain things aren’t important or they don’t exist’, so we’ve seen them less. Is that part of the feeling that there is an alienation in the West?

JC: Yes, I think for all its wonderful achievements, and to which we all owe so much, science has, in some people’s minds, led to a sort of downward spiral: that something’s only valid if we can produce experimental data or graphs. I mean, I have been to philosophy conferences where people have put up slides of the brain lighting up and say, ‘Look, there you are. You see. That bit of the brain’s lighting up.’

Now, that’s very interesting. Of course, we are physical creatures, and it’s very interesting that parts of our brain work at different times, in different ways. But if you’re trying to understand someone listening to a Beethoven symphony, or someone discussing a problem with their wife, or whatever, both those things have meaning, and the data going on in the brain doesn’t capture that. And it’s absurd, when we start to think that some computer printout or diagram of what’s going on in the brain could capture the meaning of what’s happening in a relationship or in a musical enterprise.

Nonetheless it exerts a seductive pull on people. They think, ‘If only we can get the data, we’ve got to the essence of the phenomenon.’ And so that’s, in a way, what scientism, as opposed to science, is saying: trying to reduce things down to whatever can be quantified, measured or put up on an overhead projector.

Ben Okri

Proof, Truth & Science

‘I wouldn't say that truth is only that which can be proven. I think that which can be proven is that which can be proven; truth is something else.’


Proof, Truth and Science

David: Do you think literature gets at truth? Because this resonates through the series. Science is very happy with proof – things that are proven – and then this word ‘truth’ comes in, and it starts to get murky and people get worried faces.

BO: Yes, that's because we're talking about different kinds of truths and different layers and levels of truths. Absolute truth is – let's just put this on the table straight away – absolute truth is beyond all of us – scientists, metaphysicians – absolute truth is beyond all of us.

Truth is a problem, I think, in almost all spheres of endeavour from science to philosophy. I think truth is a problem.

David: Oh, you see, the scientists think they've got truth and that nobody else does.

BO: Well, I will say the scientists, if they are honest with themselves, they know that they're wrong, because they've had this perception of truth for the last two, three hundred years and it keeps changing. It keeps evolving in relation to how much they know, in relation to what new principles, new ways of reading the world, new measurements, come about. So science itself, and its perception of the world, it evolves.

There are very few absolute truths that we have now that were there at the beginning of the scientific endeavour. Our sense of absolutes just keeps changing. I think what science can claim to have is the pursuit of all objective truth, as much as possible: measurable objective truth. But even that, I would contend, is constantly behind absolute truth, because the tools of our measurement are primitive compared to the infinite subtleties of the manifestations of the great laws of nature.

David: Alex Rosenberg, particularly, said, well several of them said, ‘Look, science has truth. We can prove things, and the only things you can prove are truth. Art and literature that's make-believe.’

BO: I wouldn't say that truth is only that which can be proven. I think that which can be proven is that which can be proven, truth is something else. That which can be proven is more in the order of fact. It is more in the order of… We need another word for that truth. Again, this is why I come with the order of truths. There are some things that will, unless our science undergoes astronomical, phenomenal developments, there are some things that will be beyond proof.

But about ‘make-believe’; we need another phrase for it. I would use the word ‘imagination’. I always say that a story is not just make-believe: a good story, or a good poem, is not just a fantasy. The thing about a good story, especially one that has fascinated us for hundreds of years, for thousands of years, and the reason why they go on fascinating us, is because they carry within them, for want of a better word, these archetypes, these patterns, these shapes of human lives.

And I think really great stories have the, kind of, accumulated wisdom of the human race passed on. So it's not make-believe. These are things that are drawn from the great well, the great river of experience of living and being here on this planet. So it's not make-believe at all. These are great inward truths of human life.

Ard: John Cottingham talked about being porous to things: so opening yourself up and allowing yourself to receive knowledge. And there are things that we know, but if we insist that's not real knowledge, we actually lose something.

BO: Maybe one of the worst things that we can do is to diminish the possibility of the universe in our insistence on our description of it. I think there should always be a tentative space left open in how we tell the story of truth and of the universe. There should always be this tentative space that says we don't know just yet. And that space, I think, is the most dynamic space in in the human story, in human civilisation. It's that space that we really pass on from one generation to another, not just facts.

Why this is important is two ways of dealing with knowledge, of dealing with truth, of proof, of our different endeavours. I think it's important because of the structures of belief that make it possible for us to be receptive.

If you believe that the world is completely explicable and is completely as it is, you are less likely to be receptive to the intuitive. I think your belief, therefore, has a great impact on whether you're an insistent, an obsessive, thinker, grabber, shaker, shaper, grasper – and you believe that's the only way in which something can be known – or whether you're someone who can also be receptive to the possibility of dreams, of intuitions, of hints from all manner of things. So I think one’s belief has a great impact on the ability to know.

Simon Conway Morris

Unfinished business

'It’s all very well saying the world is beautifully organised in a very sophisticated way and we can think about it. But everything else I know about the world, including many areas of science, is always unfinished business.'



David: One of the guiding things that runs through the series is saying, well, what does it mean? And it’s this question, whether things mean things, whether there’s meaning at all in the universe. Because there are people who we’re talking to in the series who say, ‘Well, look, there are facts, but they don’t have any meaning. There are facts and rules, that’s it.’

SCM: If I may adopt a very Don-ish hue, my dear boy, facts are not neutral.

David: Do you feel that the insistence that science says there is no meaning to anything… Do you agree with that view of science, or those who say that is the only view you can have if you’re a scientist?

SCM: Some scientists say that. I don’t think science says that for a moment at all. In a way, it’s a sort of version of Pascal’s wager. If one is saying, right, everything is meaningless, then that’s still a metaphysical statement. It may not be one which is designed to give comfort to the great majority of people. It may also be true, of course, we don’t know.

But, on the other hand, the more I understand about the way we understand things, and the way in which we explore, and the sense of delight, and the sense of beauty, and I’m no expert on art, but there are some areas of art that I’m quite interested in, including 20th century art as well as 19th century: Samuel Palmer might be one example. I just sort of look at these things and think, how on earth did he do that? Turner’s another obvious example. It’s easy to get carried away with these classic examples of painter or musicians like Mozart, or Wagner, or Bach and so forth. But every one of those people hints at a transcendence, and you can just say, ‘Right, that’s a misfiring neuron… a little too much dopamine. Up the serotonin a bit more, old boy.’ Or you can say, ‘Right, this means something.’

Ard: And so, do you think that science will one day explain all of these things as it progresses? Will it also explain things like all sorts of values? Or do you think that science is somehow limited in what it can answer?

SCM: Well, many people claim that it will, but, with respect, I don’t like the formulation that science will explain everything. I’m not first of all sure there is a total explanation available. I think we are actually dealing with unlimited knowledge, as it happens. I don’t really understand why, but that seems to be my intuition.

But to put it slightly differently, if and when we begin to understand consciousness, which in my view is the problem of problems at the moment, there will be a science of consciousness, absolutely, but it will be completely unrecognisable from our perspective. So the trick is, of course, to be one step ahead of the curve and think, right, how are we going to define that new science?

In that sense the Germans have an advantage on us in referring to wissenschaften. You know, it’s knowledge and science as human experience, rather than science will explain morality. And, of course, you can point to many such examples whereby morals are employed for local advantage. Undoubtedly, it would be mad if they weren’t. But are you persuaded that the absurd examples of moral values are just a Darwinian expression? Most of us would be suspicious of that. They seem to be resonating with something much deeper.

Ard: So you’ve written that you’re suspicious whether a naturalistic program would be sufficient to encompass all of human reality. By naturalistic, I think you mean one assumes that there’s only atoms and molecules and nothing else. Do you want to elaborate on that? What does that mean? Are you saying basically we need God to explain this?

SCM: We don’t need God to explain this. It might be useful to have God, I don’t doubt, but I think the program runs into the buffer – the naturalistic program – in my opinion, with the question of consciousness.

Ard: Okay.

SCM: It seems to be that once again the mind goes full circle. It goes what is the nature of mind? What are our brains actually doing? As we’ve discussed in other contexts, you can either say, all mind is a product of the brain, but everything I know about the discovery, even in scientific contexts, persuades me that there is an intuition of adventure. There is an intuition that one is moving always into new territory.

There’s a very famous essay, of course, by Eugene Wigner, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics. And as I recall, but please don’t quote me, he even uses words like ‘miracle’. Not in a theistic sense, but the uncanny effectiveness of mathematics. How is it that completely abstract concepts, which so far as we know should only exist in our brains, and by implication our minds, have such extraordinary traction? So they are not just formula on a page: you apply them, and things happen in the real world.

Ard: Yeah.

SCM: Other people say, no, no, mathematics is merely a human invention, and there’s no decision here, but it’s more or less what program do you want to start to subscribe to? What do you think is going to be the most fruitful? It’s not that that view is right and this view is wrong – certainly not. It’s more, where are we going to get the most exciting advances? And my suspicion is that the naturalist program takes you a very long way, but it doesn’t take you far enough.

In terms of science, one could hardly blame people for being so enthusiastic about it, because it opens completely new doors into the way the universe is organised. And my only complaint with some of my colleagues is to say, ‘Oh well, is that sufficient?’ It’s all very well saying the world is beautifully organised in a very sophisticated way and we can think about it. But everything else I know about the world, including many areas of science, is it’s always unfinished business. And I’m just always nervous to apply, and this would apply with equal force to any religious faith, as it would to science, to say, ‘Everything’s been sorted out. I don’t have to worry about things.’ I think, in fact, in that way, the mystics, perhaps, in certain aspects of religious experience, and the greater scientists – and Einstein I think is a sort of example of this – always have the sort of feeling of sort of, ‘Oh my goodness me. I never knew that.’

David: So is it less a division between the religious and the scientists and more a division between those who proclaim that they already have all the certainties they need, and those who say, ‘Hmm, maybe not, maybe there are still things we don’t know.’?

SCM: I’m a little nervous about the word division. And I’m also very nervous to deny people security. It’s not a thing where one simply storms in and says, ‘You, feeble, feeble-minded individuals. Surely you realise it’s nothing like that at all.’ But I think really all the time one has to keep asking one’s self, how is the world organised as it is? Why is it like this?

The cliché is, why is there something rather than nothing?

But what strikes me so forcibly, especially in the last 50 years, is that in many ways the rate of progress in biology has been unbelievably staggering. But I get the impression these days that many of my colleagues are almost drowning in data.

SCM: They have so much data, they hardly know what to do with it.

Ard: They hardly know how to think about it.

SCM: Exactly. And so the problem is, again, one just needs to step back and say, ‘Right, you know, can we remember what we’re trying to ask?’ Is it actually sufficient merely to get some fantastically clever machine, which will provide gigabytes of data, if in the end we don’t actually know the question is we wish to ask?

Related Content

Join the discussion