Monday, April 1, 2019


At The Electric Agora I recently discussed the views of Alex Rosenberg and some other thinkers on science, knowledge and consciousness. Rosenberg embraces the term 'scientism' (which, of course, was coined as a derogatory term) as being descriptive of his point of view. I highlighted serious problems with Rosenberg's approach, but there are some aspects of it with which I agree.

The term 'scientism' is used in different ways. In a dialogue between Dan Kaufman and Massimo Pigliucci which was linked to in the comment thread, reference was made to a Scientia Salon article which specified 26 different meanings of the term.

As I understand it, 'scientism' referred originally to the clearly inappropriate use of scientific (or science-like) methods; to the application of such methods to areas where they cannot be made to work effectively (such as normative ethics, for example). I strongly reject scientism in this sense.

In the past I have emphasized the pitfalls of polysemy. Philosophical debate in particular routinely involves -- and in fact is often driven by -- confusions about meaning, with interlocutors imperceptibly sliding from one meaning of a term to another in the course of the discussion. The essential vagueness not only of the terms of ordinary language but also of most philosophical terms needs to be recognized. The tendency of philosophers to imagine that philosophical terms can be made precise in the way scientific or mathematical terms can be made precise, which leads more often than not to a process of semantic hair-splitting and an unproductive proliferation of points of view, can in fact be seen as a form of scientism in the original sense of the term.

But the term has come to be applied to the views of those whose only sin is to have a high regard for science and who question the worth and validity of certain kinds of discourse (like theology, for example). In the dialogue mentioned above, Massimo Pigliucci talks about the way religious thinkers insist on “other ways of knowing” and use the term ‘scientistic’ to label those who reject these purported ways of knowing.

How you see intuitions is crucial here. Obviously they are important in practical life and for theoretical conjectures. But they need to be tested using rigorous scientific or scholarly methods if they are to be incorporated into our body of scientific and scholarly-historical knowledge.

If such a view constitutes scientism, I happily embrace the label. But, given the confusion surrounding the term, we would probably be better off dispensing with it altogether.