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.