Saturday, May 6, 2017

What Is the Real Scientism?

I find myself once again defending a reasonable approach to epistemology in the face of religionism.  Epistemology is defined as:
The theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion. - Oxford Dictionaries 
There are two major schools of thought in epistemology: rationalism and empiricism.  The division between them concerns the sources of our knowledge.  The empiricist position is that knowledge ultimately derives from our experience of the world through the senses, while the rationalist thinks that there are other valid ways of knowing things.  These schools of thought correspond roughly to the distinction between skeptical and theistic belief systems.  The skeptic limits his beliefs about what is justified knowledge to that which is supported by empirical evidence, and the theists allows for other forms of knowledge that are less tangible, such as intuition or innate knowledge, or even divine revelation.

Of course, both schools insist that their own position is the more reasonable one.  One of the key battlegrounds is over intuition.  We all agree that we have intuitive understanding of various things, but we disagree on the source of that intuitive knowledge.  Empiricists believe that intuitive knowledge is based on experience, and without a background of life experience, we'd have no intuitive understanding at all.  Rationalists often attribute this kind of knowledge to God, who creates our souls with built-in rational capabilities that are derived from his own mind, and without God's mind as the ultimate source, we'd have no intuitive knowledge at all.  At the same time, the rationalists tend to extend the concept of intuition-based knowledge to include things that fall more into the category of opinion, such as ideas of what is good and bad, what constitutes beauty, and so on.

Skeptics contend that without an empirical approach to learning about our world, namely science, we would be stuck in the dark ages, mired in ignorance and unable to master our environment and improve our lives to the degree that we have achieved thanks to science.  Theists argue, on the other hand, that a strictly scientific approach, which they call scientism, leaves a vast empty space in our lives - a space in which resides not only the knowledge of God, but everything about us that is human, including morality, aesthetic appreciation, and love.

In this battle of opposing views, there may be a tendency to overstate the unreasonableness of the opponent's position.  Charges of scientism are often a perfect example of this.  Joe Hinman says about scientism:
Scientism is the understanding that science is the only valid form of knowledge . It's an ideology and permeates  real scientific circles. When thinkers whose understanding is colored by this ideology their defense of science against valid ordinary critique is ideological and programmed, We can always spot this kind of thinking immediately because they invulnerably see any valid criticism as an attack upon the very notion of science, This tendency to think of science as some fragile sacred truth that dare not be questioned is emblematic of ideological reverence - Hinman 
This statement is striking because it makes scientism sound exactly like religion - an ideology that embodies a "sacred truth" that can't be questioned and clouds the thinking of its adherents.  This is obviously projection.  But more importantly, it is practically the exact opposite of what skeptics actually believe.  Skepticism is all about questioning everything and verifying what we think we know.  There are no "fragile sacred truths".  And the idea that science is the "only" valid way to know things is a gross overstatement, as I will explain. 

But Joe certainly isn't alone in this view.  It seems to be ubiquitous among religionists.  Like many others, Richard Shumack sees scientism as a grossly deficient epistemological position held by "New Atheists" such as Peter Boghossian:
Now I agree that reasoning from objective evidence is a very good way of knowing lots of things. Especially scientific things like door sizes. But just a little reflection reveals that it is not the only way we know things. In everyday life we know things through a whole range of different methods. We know some things, like the fact that child abuse is wrong, intuitively. We know some things, like I have a headache, from personal experience. We can know some things, like riding a bike, through just doing it. And we know some things – and probably most things – through other people telling us. So, aside from a few monuments, everything we know about the past is based on eyewitness testimony. Similarly, most of what we know of our friends is from their personal testimonies. In fact, a few experts aside, pretty much all we know about science comes from what our teachers tell us. - Shumack 
I understand and agree that the view of scientism purveyed by these religionists is grossly deficient.  But it isn't what what real people like Boghossian actually believe.  Who denies that we learn things from personal experience?  Certainly not skeptics or empiricists.  That is the very basis of empiricism.  Who ever claimed that they learn nothing by listening to other people, or by reading historical accounts?  And who thinks that the only objective knowledge comes from a science lab?  Nobody.  This is nothing but a straw man.  It's a way for religionists to try to make their own position seem reasonable by comparison.

But Shumack's transparent tactic is revealed in his opinion piece.  If we can learn things from personal experience then it must be acceptable to assume a knowledge of God based on (unverifiable subjective) personal experiences.  And if we can know things from the testimony of others, then we can know that Jesus rose from the dead, because there is (poorly substantiated) testimony in the bible.  So rather than drawing a distinction between unreliable sources and that which is objective and verifiable, he just tosses these questionable sources of knowledge in the same basket with much more reasonable sources, and claims that scientism rejects them all.  Which is a lie.

Science does not exclude sources of knowledge.  It does not embody any sacred inviolable truth.  Nor does it remove humanity from our lives.  Science is a methodology for obtaining knowledge about our world, to the extent that it is practicable, by minimizing the impediments of bias and ideology, and emphasizing verification.  As Stephen Pinker explains:
On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science. It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them. - Pinker 
In this view, the spirit of scientific inquiry can be applied in all walks of life - not just in the science lab.  Reliable knowledge is based on observable, verifiable evidence, and stands up to scrutiny.  Personal experience tells us much about our world, but if it isn't objective, we can't know that it is an accurate reflection the world outside our own mind.  The testimony of other people has value as a source of knowledge, and its value is proportional to the extent that it is credible and verifiable.  Our trust of historical accounts is based on their following established historical method.  These things constitute the "science broadly construed" that Jerry Coyne talks about.

Laboratory science is certainly not the only way of knowing things.  But science just happens to be the best way we have of knowing and understanding our world.  And how do we know that?  Because it works.  As a methodology for obtaining reliable knowledge, it works far better than any other methodology that has ever been devised.  The evidence for this is undeniable.  And if understood outside the context of religionists' attempts to denigrate science and its adherents, scientism is simply a recognition of that reality.  It does not imply any limitation on one's sources of knowledge, nor does it imply any lack of humanity.  Rather it enhances our ability to know and understand our world.  It is the religionist who lacks or denies the epistemological power of scientific inquiry, particularly when it comes into conflict with his religious beliefs.  And that's sad.


  1. My intuition tells me that if I had a dollar for everytime my intuition was in error, I could retire today.

    1. Practically any unconscious decision, instinct, or learned response can be regarded as intuition. There is no particular reason to think that these things are more correct than conscious thoughts.

    2. As far as I can tell, "real scientism" is overwhelmingly practiced by religionists who wantonly and egregiously misuse and abuse the sciences to shore up their increasingly rank assertions and desperate efforts at fooling themselves that a worldview founded on primitive superstition, ignorance of the natural world and magic should not be now tossed into the bin of irrelevance.

      Where religionists go completely wrong is they think science is something you 'do' and that whatever its proofs and evidence are telling you you can blithely disregard if they clash with your superstitious beliefs despite the overwhelming case to the contrary. Belief in religious hokum is akin to belief in anti-vaxer pablum and just as dangerous.

    3. If science led to verifiable knowledge of God, even at the cost of a loss of all humanity, then religionists would embrace scientism and ridicule anyone who doesn't.

    4. Your latest comment reveals a true sickness in your soul. You really need to re-read (several times, preferably) what you wrote, and see just how much hatred and prejudice is packed into that sentence (plus one hell of a lot of projection).

    5. "Your latest comment reveals a true sickness in your soul."

      Naaah. Just the clear-sighted observation of one who has been so fortunate to recognise, and diligent enough, to properly cleave the tribalistic superstitions and religious nonsense of our primitive past; a primitiveness that continues to blight and stultify genuine social progress, development of, and improvement to the human condition, and remains ever the greatest moral struggle and existential threat for all of humanity going forward.

      No, just a sober look at how religions have always separated and defined human groups as either 'them' or 'us' according to the particular fictitious fable one subscribes to, either the Muhammad fable, the jesus fable, or the Shiva fable.

      No, just one who now knows that religions are simply a product of geographical and social happenstance, and the religion you most overwhelmingly will adopt is completely and wholly a function of the social group into which you were born.

      No. No hate or prejudice. Just the cool realisation of the irrelevant nature of the meme: religion

  2. Here's a good link to read to (begin to) understand why your comment is so far off base.

    1. I have never denied that religious people have been involved in scientific inquiry. And I do not hate religious people.

      There is a class of religious people who are full of hate, and they go around making false accusations about empiricists and their beliefs. That's what I'm talking about.

    2. Sorry, Mortal, your religion requires you to believe in magic no matter how uncomfortable that makes you or the modern catholic establishment.

      <".....Brother Consolmagno said it was important for scientists who are believers to make their science known to their fellow parishioners and remind them that “science was an invention of the medieval universities that the church founded.”"}

      As to "sickness":

    3. Sorry, Mortal, your religion requires you to believe in magic no matter how uncomfortable that makes you

      But I do believe in "magic", and I'm quite open about that. It gives me not the least bit of discomfort. None at all.

      It is not only possible, it is rational to believe in both science and (what you call) magic.

    4. "It is not only possible, it is rational to believe in both science and (what you call) magic."

      Sorry, belief in magic is not rational and it's nothing about which to boast. If it doesn't make you uncomfortable to admit it you have simply walled off your unfounded beliefs in a little compartment in your mind.

      The claim certainly makes the vatican nervous enough to hold symposiums and publish silly articles like the one to which you linked.

      Your desire to believe has damaged your ability to perceive reality and think logically.

    5. It is not only possible, it is rational to believe in both science and (what you call) magic.

      You are in Owen Gingerich's camp, I see. But that article he wrote is apologetic mush. Real science leads inevitably to the conclusion of natural evolution - not ID, and not Gingetich's "theistic evolution" (whatever that is). Real science reveals that what we call mind is a process of the physical brain - not some ghost with a sky-hook. Gingerich's science stops wherever theism makes claims that contradict it. You can't say you believe in science, while you pick and choose which parts you want to believe, the same way you pick and choose which parts of Deuteronomy you want to believe. Science is coherent. If you reject the parts that disagree with your religion, then you reject science.

    6. What's interesting is how religionists pick and choose what science they want to believe in exactly the same way they pick and choose what parts of the bible to believe in, at any one time. The fate of Galileo and Bruno are historical testaments to the vagaries and wavering of religious beliefs when it clashed with the science. What's also interesting is how, of all the multiplicities of sciences on offer, you do not see the hint of a Catholic Institute for Evolutionary Psychology, or a catholic department of neuro-sciences investigating how God might have implanted that 'sensus divintatus' into the brain of a person, or biologically, a soul into the embryo at conception, or whether at twinning [which we now know as fact occurs up to two weeks after conception] both zygotes share half a soul each or by some magic a second soul is inserted by a process yet unaccounted for.

      How is it that astronomy is the only and selected field the Vatican considers of any value meriting a dedicated program to pour money into? Because it is the only science they can conduct while continuing to hold nonsensical beliefs in religious pablum simultaneously. In any other science field they would be laughed out of the room. BEHE and MEYER come to mind.

      No, the Catholic Observatory is a bit player at the margins of cosmological research; it's value is not in its star-gazing but in its obscurantist and diverting role in disseminating misinformation about the 'apparently' comfortable fit between faith and science which is more than ever exposed as nothing more that an ecumenical sham.

    7. HERE is another interesting jigsaw piece of the neurological puzzle that is now emerging of how increased religious fundamentalism is brought on by impairment in the frontal lobe of the brain. That's not to say fundamentalist christians are brained impaired but rather that fundamentalism is not much more than a product of the physical condition of the brain. The 'goddidit' element seems to play no role in our thinking and is indeed an unnecessary let alone irrelevant factor, the assertion of which is largely a the well known function of 'projection of invisible agency' by religionists.

    8. In fact Hemant Mehta has provided more detail on this research. Mortal can continue to dither and prevaricate along religious lines but the science is becoming clearer and its position increasingly compelling as the more reasonable and epistemologically robust worldview to that espoused by religionists.

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