Questionable Motives

June 15, 2013

What is scientism and why does this matter?

Filed under: faith-based beliefs,Knowledge,New Atheists,scientism — tildeb @ 7:54 pm

debateOne of the more recent internet memes criticizing New Atheists for ‘doing it wrong’ comes in the form of being charged with ‘scientism’. Critics of New Atheists use a couple of versions of this meme to try to discredit those of us who dare to suggest that claims of knowledge about the world should be informed by compelling evidence from the world. But because this suggestion is too easy to defend as it is really practiced in the world by those who use scientific knowledge (and that’s all of us), critics of those intolerant fundamental and philosophically naive New Atheists who supposedly practice this so-called ‘scientism’ take it down one of the two branches of the Straw Man River: the first branch portrays scientism to be another kind of faith (the strong sense), while the second branch confuses the methodology of science with its product (the weak sense), meaning that it confuses what is meant by claims of ‘knowledge’ (about the world produced by it) with ‘understanding’ (knowing something about the world produced by our subjective interpretation of it)… the assumption being that if one respects knowledge produced by ‘science’, then one respects only scientific knowledge of the world but rejects  any subjective understanding of it. Clearly, this accusation is false in terms of respecting understanding (scientists themselves widely appreciate all the arts and humanities for the enjoyment, insight, humour, and wisdom they can produce), but true in terms of respecting what hard-won scientific knowledge means (claims about reality backed up by compelling evidence from it).

So what is this philosophical ‘scientism’ we New Atheists are supposed to follow?

Well, as some of the less sophisticated critics delight to point out, scientism in the strong sense is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Presto: scientism is either false or meaningless.

Well, duh.

In addition, the strong sense of the term is presented by these not-so-clever critics as if it is a starting philosophical position of faith that is equivalent to any other religious belief. This is the way many sophisticated theologians like to use the term, inserting what they consider suitable obfuscating synonyms for it (like ‘explanatory monism’ in Haught’s case) and then trying to pretend that this is the faith-based philosophical starting position of New Atheists who respect the method of science to produce not subjective understanding interpreted by the individual but objective knowledge that is the same for everyone everywhere all the time.

But is this what people who respect the method of inquiry we call science mean when they uphold respect for the knowledge it produces about the world versus either faith-based claims contrary, or subjective understandings relative, to it ?

Of course not.

The broad view (the weak sense of scientism) held by reasonable people is that the methods of the natural sciences and its single epistemology allow the world to arbitrate what’s claimed to be true about it – and can be known in the same way by anyone, anywhere, any time.No need for axioms here. This is ‘knowledge’ in the scientific sense: the same information available to anyone anywhere at any time. This knowledge is independent of any interpretive beliefs we may hold as to its meaning, its purpose, to its moral use, its impact on values, its effect on ethical standards, its aesthetics, its effect on our tastes and preferences, and so on. It just is. This knowledge itself says nothing about any of these human concerns specifically but can help to inform them for comparative and evaluative effects on specified metrics (meaning the comparative scales used for determining what constitutes right or wrong, better or worse, higher or lower,etc.). That doesn’t mean that these concerns don’t matter to New Atheists; they do, and they – like everyone else – will argue for their preferences using the best available reasons. It means that this kind of knowledge in the scientific sense is not of a kind similar to interpretive beliefs buts stands or falls completely on its own merit evaluated by the reality of the world.

The scientific method used to obtain knowledge information for claims about the world stands contrary to and in conflict with the methods used to support faith-based beliefs and there is no bridge between them, no middle ground, no mutually compatible arena in which to discuss why subjective and interpretive understanding (including revelation and ‘divine’ authority) should be taken to be equivalent knowledge in the scientific sense. It’s not because reality is not the same arbitrating factor for any competing and contrary claims made about the world; it is. The problem is that the arbitration by reality is respected only by one side here, namely, those who are charged with ‘scientism’. Reality’s role to arbitrate claims made about it is an impediment to the method relied upon to inform and justify faith-based belief. The response by believers when asked to demonstrate evidence from reality is to wave it aside and claim the need for accepting a substitution of philosophical sophistication first… and this is usually done by the use of confusing and nebulous and charged philosophical words used to render reality’s influence inert in the claim. The method of using interpretive and subjective belief to describe reality is not knowledge in the scientific sense because it doesn’t recognize reality’s role to arbitrate it… and we can evaluate whether or not the methods are honestly equivalent by examining their explanatory accuracy and see for ourselves if indeed the different methods produce equivalent knowledge… that is to say yet again, knowledge that is the same for everyone everywhere all the time. And this is where the rubber meets the road when we’re talking about the same reality all of us share. Hand waving and confusing terminology doesn’t make neither the methods nor products equivalent: in addition , the subjective and interpretive understandings do not produce equivalent products, namely, applications, therapies, and technologies that work independently of those holding various understandings. Therefore, neither beliefs nor understandings are another kind of knowledge produced by a different but equivalent kind of method because they do not produce another kind of product of equivalent practical use! Such interpretive beliefs can be seen now for what they really are: simply a different way of framing reality rather than accurately describing it.

Framing reality in particular ways may seem explain some portion of it, but this kind of explanation produces only personal understandings, viewpoints, perspectives, opinions, and the like that may – or may not! – accurately describe reality. And we don’t know if a particular framing of reality is accurate for everyone everywhere all the time until we turn back to the only method that utilizes reality to arbitrate it in just this way… and so we’re right back to using science as the only way of knowing about reality even if we think we have a different way, a different kind of method, of trying to understand it.

New Atheists take a firm stand against those who try their best to present incompatible faith-based claims about the world from the conflicting knowledge we have about it. This is the central reason for New Atheists to explain why religion deserves no preference or privilege in the public domain. Many go one step farther and advocate for a public domain empty of any religious influence. But as a group, New Atheists face off repeatedly against those who assume their contrary understandings of reality are a different but equivalent method of producing a different kind of knowledge (what is not true for everyone, anywhere, any time but subject to the vagaries of personal interpretation, personal framing of reality) worthy of equivalent respect in the name of tolerance and accommodation. But neither faith-based beliefs nor mere understandings comport with knowledge, and become so only when these kinds of claims are separated from these subjective methods and adjudicated by reality to see if, in fact, the understandings and beliefs are the same for everyone everywhere all the time. And the only method we use that works to great effect for this adjudication, this arbitration, is the method of science. That’s why there is an attempt to negate the power of New Atheists – those who respect knowledge – by misrepresenting what it is, and using a pejorative term to describe it: scientism.

This matters because it creates a blurring to our being able to differentiate ignorance from knowledge.

In addition, critics of New Atheists who charge us with scientism for promoting the vital role this method of science must play in gaining knowledge about the reality it attempts to describe utterly fail to deal appropriately with the methodological incompatibility they themselves now actively facilitate between these conflicting epistemological approaches in their rush to vilify New Atheists. In other words, it’s the ‘I’m and atheist, but…’ crowd, the ‘I’m an honest agnostic, but…’ group, who are the ones enabling and furthering epistemological confusion over whether or not faith claims of any kind or understandings subjectively interpreted are equivalent in truth value to knowledge about the world and how it operates. And this confusion comes about by inserting ‘understanding’ to be the synonym of ‘knowledge’. This duplicity carries with it a cost of injecting relativism from personal understanding into knowledge claims that are true for everyone everywhere all the time where it simply doesn’t belong, where it plays only a disruptive role to respect what’s true for some people, some of the time, in selected places to be ‘knowledge of a different kind’. This is bunk. These critics who should know better, so to speak, must recognize the brutal fact that they are doing exactly what is required advocated by the most extreme religious fundamentalist to undermine the only method we have to determine whether or not personal understanding is, in fact, true for everyone everywhere all the time. By calling subjective understanding a different kind of knowledge these critics are dismantling the means by which we can differentiate claims about reality from reality’s arbitration of them. When it comes to respecting what’s demonstrably true by reality about reality, you cannot undermine it and then assume a sense of humble and tolerant superiority for doing so… not if you if you care about what’s actually true independent of our beliefs about it. For anyone willing to substitute personal understanding to be an equivalent method of describing reality as science is not promoting knowledge; he or she is promoting ignorance to be its facsimile.

The ‘explanatory monism’, this so-called ‘scientism’ of New Atheists, is not a similar epistemology of the kind that informs ANY of the faith-based beliefs (religious or any other kind of pseudo-scientific claim that rejects arbitration by reality) – nor is it based on imposing a similar kind of faith-based beliefs on reality as some of the more dishonest critics would have us believe. To these critics, I remind them that this kind of scientism New Atheists respect is the weak kind all of us use in our daily lives – one that is founded on a method of inquiry that extracts evidence from the world to inform truth claims made about it. This is why the epistemological differences between science and faith are insurmountable because they are in direct epistemological competition, and why substituting relative understanding for knowledge is no improvement but an ‘illegal’ substitution (an apple substituted for an orange). It matters when the charge of ‘scientism’ is used as a bully tactic to derail necessary criticism of claims of knowledge that are no such thing. In practice its use as a pejorative is not just an impediment but a distraction from recognizing what’s knowable.


  1. Loving the sermon, Father.

    Comment by Brother Wells — June 18, 2013 @ 5:48 am | Reply

  2. There seems to be some commentary that has their own unquestionable biased towards how faith based systems work in the first place. I haven’t seen anyone really attempt to break down what they mean by faith based.In my observations, I have seen that faith is simply a belief in the unseen with evidences to “assure” their existence. And a belief system being based on a series of faith based experiences having been left to the interpretation of ecclesiastical leaders. The key word being system.In general, I do not think science can possibly qualify as a faith based belief system, as science is a tool of methods used to test and study events. A person may incorporate scientific principle into a belief system, but science cannot be construed as being a complete belief system.Although the principle of “faith” may be incorporated to establish initial hypothesis, that should be the end role of the principle in science.Example: Nikola Tesla first developed the idea of the core principle of the alternating motor by viewing the sun’s reflection in a body of water and imagining the reversal of its magnetic fields. This imagining lead him to do serious research in this field, thus his faith in the principle became dormant/ subservient to the principle of knowledge he gained through scientific inquiry. Prior to leaving his studies in Europe, Telsa once had an argument with a professor regarding electric motors. He was taught that is would be impossible to produce an electric motors without the use of direct current electricity and a metal brush. Telsa having not developed his ideas in the subject argued that it would be possible, even though at the time he had no direct evidence to the contrary.Just some thoughts.

    Comment by Wendi S. Mccray — June 22, 2013 @ 2:29 am | Reply

    • Sorry this was directed to my spam folder; no idea why! Thanks for the comment.

      Comment by tildeb — June 26, 2013 @ 2:21 pm | Reply

  3. The scientific method is an immutable way of deducing knowledge. It has very strict requirements. Simply put, faith-based beliefs do not have any method to them. They are based on emotions, one what “feels” right, rather than science which examines what is observably right. Science demands we observe events to prove them, faith does not. Science would make no claims on the afterlife since we cannot possibly observe it (that does not necessarily mean scientists would insist that it does not exist at all, just that they cannot observe any potential evidence for it). Take note that many faith-based beliefs can be derived from logic, another great way of deducing knowledge. For example, a christian might reason that because energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only transformed, than it would be impossible for the universe to have been created by the big bang. If the planets and stars exploded from a dense mass of energy combining, then how where did that mass of energy come from to begin with? It had to have somehow been placed there yet it could not be created on its own since that violates a law of physics. They would reason that its creation had to be more magical since it could not have been scientifically possible for its own creation- God did it.

    Comment by Quincy L. Baldwin — June 24, 2013 @ 11:01 pm | Reply

    • This, too was directed to my spam folder for reasons unknown.

      You reveal a typical misunderstanding that abounds in theology, namely, that logic alone can deduce knowledge. Not so (this is the mistake metaphysicians made and still make all the time); for that you need empiricism that incorporates logic.The trick here is to recognize the axioms and then see if the premises themselves are justified. For example, understanding how something can come from nothing is not furthered if you assume as an axiom that that it cannot!

      Comment by tildeb — June 26, 2013 @ 2:37 pm | Reply

      • excellent. you’ve done a great job in succinctly explaining why “logic” is not the panacea that theists think it is. Now, we just need to get them to listen.

        Comment by clubschadenfreude — July 8, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

      • Yeah, that’s the hard part.

        Comment by tildeb — July 8, 2013 @ 5:31 pm

    • “Science would make no claims on the Force since we cannot possibly observe it (that does not necessarily mean scientists would insist that it does not exist at all, just that they cannot observe any potential evidence for it). Take note that manyJedi-based beliefs can be derived from logic, another great way of deducing knowledge. For example, a Jedi might reason that because energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only transformed, than it would be impossible for the universe to have been created by the big bang. If the planets and stars exploded from a dense mass of energy combining, then how where did that mass of energy come from to begin with? It had to have somehow been forced there yet it could not be forced there on its own since that violates a law of physics. They would reason that its creation had to be more magical since it could not have been scientifically possible for its own creation- the Force did it.”

      Comment by Cedric Katesby — June 28, 2013 @ 3:53 pm | Reply

  4. Reblogged this on paarsurrey and commented:
    Paarsurrey says:
    If you don’t like the word “scientism” then it should not be used to describe about you.

    Comment by paarsurrey — August 1, 2013 @ 9:49 am | Reply

  5. Steve Pinker offers some keen insight why theists are so motivated to attacking the necessary role science plays in undermining their claims to authority and attracted to vilifying it with this Straw Man argument:

    “(T)he worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality. The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics. The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet. For the same reason, they undercut any moral or political system based on mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, struggles, or messianic ages. And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.

    You can read the whole article here.

    Comment by tildeb — August 7, 2013 @ 9:44 am | Reply

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