Sunday, December 04, 2011


Philosophy (Lite)!

Jerry Coyne has an interesting post about "scientism." A guest blogger, Dr. William Widdowson, an emeritus professor of architecture and interior design at the University of Cincinnati, contends that:

Scientism (sensu stricto) began as a label for the doctrine that truth is fixed, a priori and universal; that inductive science is the only means to its discovery and certainty is a realistic outcome. This doctrine was rejected by a particular group of philosophers of science belonging to a tradition pioneered by Charles Sanders Peirce in the late 19th c., carried forward by William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead in the early 20th c. and later by Fredrick Hayek, Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, Paul Feyerabend, and Thomas Kuhn during the mid-20th c.
Even a quick Google search reveals that Peirce, Feyerabend, Hayek, Popper and others (including Wittgenstein) have addressed the issue. It would take more effort than I'm willing at this point to expend to determine if Widdowson's characterization of the original sense of the term is correct and it's not what interests me in the first place.

The Oxford Guide to Philosophy defines "scientism" as:

'Scientism' is a term of abuse. Therefore, perhaps inevitably, there is no one simple characterization of the views of those who are thought to be identified as prone to it. In philosophy, a commitment to one or more of the following lays one open to the charge of scientism.

(a) The sciences are more important than the arts for an understanding of the world in which we live, or, even, all we need to understand it.

(b) Only a scientific methodology is intellectually acceptable. Therefore, if the arts are to be a genuine part of human knowledge they must adopt it.

(c) Philosophical problems are scientific problems and should only be dealt with as such.

A successful accusation of scientism usually relies upon a restrictive conception of the sciences and an optimistic conception of the arts as hitherto practised. Nobody espouses scientism; it is just detected in the writings of others.
But Widdowson compares the "original" sense with:

"Scientism (lite)" has become a label for the doctrine that science is the only way to the truth, a doctrine rejected by theist apologists, accommodationists, and NOMAtics of all stripes because they are committed to the proposition that there are:

1. many other ways of knowing, or

2. many other kinds of truths, or

3. some combination of 1. and 2.

Briefly then, my point is that challenging science's claim to exclusivity by labeling it Scientism (lite) is very different from using the same label to challenge science's claim to certainty (Scientism-sensu strictu). If the apologists, accommodationists and NOMAtics presume to claim some of the legitimacy of the philosophy of science by borrowing its terminology, they could at least get it right.
But if "scientism" (not sensu stricto) is a term of abuse where there is no one simple characterization of the views of those who are thought to be identified as prone to it, it follows that there are no one simple definition of "Scientism (lite)" either, leaving it a term of counter-abuse.

The irony doesn't end there, however. Coyne was just counter-decrying the purported abuse by Massimo Pigliucci of not only Coyne, himself, but also of Alex Rosenberg. Coyne has praised Rosenberg in ways that make it clear that Coyne fits under the Oxford Companion's definition (b) and/or (c) above. Worse, Rosenberg just suggested that atheists should happily adopt "scientism" as "a positive term to describe a worldview that does not contain a supernatural being."


Simple soul that I am, I figure that anyone who hates Bryan Appleyard is probably a proponent of scientism.

-- pew sitter, lover of cognitive shortcuts
For the past few months I've been wrestling with a paper on "naturalism without scientism." I eventually concluded that scientism cannot be couched in a sufficiently valuation-neutral language. It's a term of abuse (mostly), and those who use it almost never indicate the real target of their opprobrium. I've since abandoned that particular approach to the problem entirely.

For what it's worth: I posted a review of Rosenberg's new book on Amazon, under the same user name I use here.
It's a term of abuse (mostly), and those who use it almost never indicate the real target of their opprobrium.

I'm inclined think it's a term of abuse only to the extent that "racism" and "sexism" are. But having noticed that a number of people object to the term, I want to be broadminded. Given that there is a doctrine advocating the omnicompetence of science, or claiming that science is a worldview. Given the doctrine, what name shall we call it?
I've tried taking the approach that Rosenberg does ... that "scientism" (meaning the worldview that science is the only source of "knowledge") is a valid philosophical view even if I don't agree with it. Perhaps predictably, it never seemed to assuage the "accused."

Maybe we could call it "evidenceism."
Maybe we could call it "evidenceism."

Too close to empiricism. A valid philosophy, as long as you don't intend it to bound all things.
"Evidentialism" is a word already in circulation. The classical presentation of it is in W. K. Clifford's "The Ethics of Belief." Peirce's "The Fixation of Belief" and James' "The Will to Believe" were both written in response to Clifford.
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