Questionable Motives

August 7, 2013

What is ‘scientism’ really all about?

Filed under: Religion,scientism,Steven Pinker — tildeb @ 9:49 am

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.


  1. I have bookmarked the piece for later reading, I just hope I get to do so especially after reading a lot of religious trope!

    Comment by makagutu — August 7, 2013 @ 11:24 am | Reply

    • It’s a good article and offers some practical advice to professionals in the humanities that probably won’t go over to well!

      Comment by tildeb — August 7, 2013 @ 12:17 pm | Reply

  2. Oh, i like this!

    Comment by john zande — August 7, 2013 @ 11:52 am | Reply

    • Me too.

      The question of morality is always a fairly sizable chunk of any discourse with theists who cling on to the notion that religious belief in some divine agency is an essential component to determining what constitutes good moral actions. And I find this interesting that theology – unlike, say, law – tends to weigh moral consideration much more heavily in favour of actions alone (abortion is wrong, to take a single example) rather than lend a greater weight of support to intentions, rights, and other mitigating factors. And this goes to the point Pinker makes that learning and exercising and implementing good science, perceptive critical thinking, reasoned public policy, is hard; I suspect the easy path, the follower role, is the religious one: tell me what is right, tell me what is wrong, I will trust, I will obey, I will run ethical considerations through this predigested religious filter first. It is much more difficult to lead well, to be responsible for one’s self and allow others that same right, to set a path – step by measurable step – to reaching a self-appointed goal, and to do this within the context of right reasons and good morality. Too often we see clear evidence that the religious enable the excuse for some horrible action that causes real suffering to real people in real life to be permissible under the guise of it being ‘the right thing to do because it is/was the pious thing to do’ (like letting a pregnant woman die in the name of ‘protecting’ a fetus’ heartbeat to keep to the same example) rather than judging individual actions for reasons supported by good science, perceptive critical thinking, and reasoned public policy.

      Comment by tildeb — August 7, 2013 @ 12:39 pm | Reply

      • Nicely put. I’ve always liked Sam Harris’s appeal to well-being, as opposed to morality. Well-being better focuses our efforts and appeals to common sense. Common sense, though, is not easy. As my great blog buddy, Fourat, put it in his book: “Science isn’t easy, it is not intuitive; it is hard and our brains just don’t get it… If common-sense reasoning applied to science, it wouldn’t have taken the human race 249,600 years to begin doing science.”

        Comment by john zande — August 7, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

  3. It is worth noting Pinker isn’t a scientist since he acknowledges he doesn’t see how the subjective experience of any animal can be identical to brain processes. Richard Dawkins seems also open to this idea, and he clearly recognize it is quite possible there exist certain things human reason cannot understand.

    I agree with most of the ethical things Pinker had to say here tough I want to draw certain distinctions.

    “quests, destinies, dialectics, struggles” cannot be equated with “messianic ages” and “mythical forces” and can indeed be quite secular.

    “the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings”

    I believe David Hume was right as he said one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”, and this is a problem atheists as well as theists have to face.
    Why does the fact that evolution hard-wired (most of) us to care for the well-being of other creatures means that we “ought” to do it?
    Why does a psychopath or some space alien lacking these feelings ought to behave in such a way?

    And for those of us believing in an objective morality, why should we always maximize the flourishing of sentient beings if this leads to terrible injustices against a minority of them?

    P:S: I’m going to answer your comments on my blog as soon as I find the time, I wish you a nice day in the meantime.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    Comment by lotharson — August 9, 2013 @ 10:35 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: