Cultural Identifiers of Scientism

Gordon Carkner Articles 3 Comments

Although scientism has been largely discredited by many philosophers and scientists in the late twentieth century (including A. J. Ayer himself), it still seems to dominate popular thinking, even among many bright science students and scholars within academia at large. In order for a belief or truth claim to be considered valid or credible, scientism requires that it be scientifically testable or verifiable. A valid, while limited, approach to knowing (science) morphs into a dogma: an exclusivist ideology (scientism). In many people’s hearts and minds, it assumes its location within a Closed World System, rooted in the worldview of materialistic naturalism. McGill philosopher Charles Taylor captures the potency of the ideology.

We can come to see the growth of civilization, or modernity, as synonymous with the laying out of a closed immanent frame; within this civilized values develop, and a single-minded focus on the human good, aided by the fuller and fuller use of scientific reason, permits the greatest flourishing possible of human beings…. What emerges from all this is that we can either see the transcendent as a threat, a dangerous temptation, a distraction, or an obstacle to our greatest good. 1Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 548

Thought Probe: Does the broken and inadequate ideology of scientism police our Western minds in ways that we are unaware, and prevent us from seeing things that are really there?

Epistemological Claim  No knowledge is deemed valid or justified unless its claims can be tested and verified empirically through experimentation, observation and repetition. This criterion is part of an intellectual infrastructure which controls the way people think, argue, infer, and make sense of things. Truth claims that do not submit to this kind of scrutiny become irrelevant, invalid, or unacceptable as per a pure fantasy. This approach to knowledge is heavily weighted or biased towards the instrumental and mechanistic.

An admirably severe discipline of interpretive and theoretical restraint [modern empirical science] has been transformed into its perfect and irrepressibly wanton opposite: what began as a principled refusal of metaphysical speculation, for the sake of specific empirical inquiries, has now been mistaken for a comprehensive knowledge of the metaphysical shape of reality; the art of humble questioning has been mistaken for the sure possession of ultimate conclusions. This makes a mockery of real science. 2David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, p. 71

Question of Scientific Integrity: There is no such thing, at least among finite minds, as intelligence at large: no mind not constrained by its own special proficiencies and formation, no privilege vantage that allows any of us a comprehensive insight into the essence of all things, no expertise or wealth of experience that endows any of us with the wisdom or power to judge what we do not have the training or perhaps the temperament to understand. To imagine otherwise is a delusion…. This means that the sciences are, by their very nature, commendably fragmentary and, in regard to many real and important questions about existence, utterly inconsequential. Not only can they not provide knowledge of everything; they cannot provide complete knowledge of anything. They can yield only knowledge of certain aspects of things as seen from one very powerful but inflexibly constricted perspective. If they attempt to go beyond their methodological commissions, they cease to be sciences and immediately become fatuous occultisms.  3David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, pp. 75-76

Utopian Sentiment: Science is seen by the outlook of scientism as the futuristic guide to human progress both intellectually and culturally. The past tradition, especially that influenced by Christian religion (or any religion for that matter), is taken as false opinion and superstition (even dangerous). It is seen as detrimental to or restrictive of human progress. The growth of scientific knowledge guarantees social and political progress—humans are seen to be flourishing and getting better because of science, technology and medicine. The view is blind to the negative impact of science and technology. Scientism inherently assumes a warfare model in science-religion relations. It assumes that as science advances, religion and faith is culturally replaced or displaced, demoted in importance eventually to the point of redundance. This is called the subtraction story of secularism’s Master Narrative by Charles Taylor:

So the buffered identity of the disciplined individual moves in a constructed social space, where instrumental rationality is a key value, and time is pervasively secular. All of this makes up what I want to call “the immanent frame”. There remains to add just one background idea: that this frame constitutes a “natural” order, to be contrasted with a supernatural one, an “immanent” world over against a possible “transcendent” one. 4A Secular Age, p. 542

Intellectual Exclusion or Hegemony: Insights from the humanities, philosophy and theology are treated with the hermeneutic of suspicion. Their cogency is discredited or rendered non-essential. Scientific rationalism dismisses faith as mere fideism (belief without good reasons) or irrationality. Scientism pits truth against beauty and goodness. To be poetic is taken to be trivial or irrelevant. Scientism’s inherent materialism implies that science refuses mystery, the metaphysical or anything transcendent, even the metaphorical or epiphanic. To our human detriment, certain human ways of knowing are thereby categorically shut out of serious contention. 5See MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson, Monopolizing Knowledge.

Category Mistake: The most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God–especially, but not exclusively, on the atheist side–is the habit of conceiving of God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude, power, and duration, but not ontologically, and who is related to the world more or less as a craftsman is related to an artifact…. Beliefs regarding God concern the source and ground and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all. 6David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, pp. 32-33

As it happens, the god with whom most popular atheism usually concerns itself is one we might call a “demiurge” (demiurgos): a Greek term that originally meant a kind of public technician or artisan but came to mean a particular kind of divine “world-maker” or cosmic craftsman. 7Hart Ibid., p. 35

There simply cannot be a natural explanation of existence as such; it is an absolute logical impossibility. The most a materialist account of existence can do is pretend that there is no real problem to be solved (though only a tragically inert mind could really dismiss the question of existence as uninteresting, unanswerable, or intelligible). 8Hart Ibid., pp. 44-45

Anthropological Implications People are viewed as sophisticated cogs in the cosmic machinery, or simplified as the most intelligent animals. All human characteristics, including mind or soul, are believed to be explicable in terms of body (neuronal networks, DNA makeup, biochemistry or physiology). There is a philosophical reductionism at work—i.e. the higher is explained in terms of the lower, mind in terms of brain, human social behaviour in terms of physics and chemistry. Humans are appreciated mainly for their instrumental value: earning capacity, socio-political usefulness and their excellencies of giftedness. 9Craig Gay, The Way of the Modern World. or E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed There are implications in the ideology of scientism that present us as less than human, with much less dignity. This has serious implication for human flourishing.

Grounding for Ethics Science is seen to normatively provide a more reliable and superior decision-making guide; it becomes the new alternative to religion and morals in discerning the good and the shaping of the moral self. In a moral sense, science moves into dominance as a culture sphere (trumping ethics, the arts and religion), absorbs and redefines morality in scientific categories, according to a scientific agenda. Scientific principle and rationality is seen to be applicable to all, and thus is seen as much less divisive than religion. Religious or personal moral values are to be kept to the private sphere of one’s life, but not to be part of public discourse. 10Lesslie Newbigin, Foolisness to the Greeks It is also important to note here that scientism’s ethical outlook objectifies the world in a particular way, giving one a sense of dominance or coercive control over it.

Watch the Language Within a scientistic outlook, knowledge depends on a designative (versus an expressivist-poetic) tradition of language.  Designative language (Hobbes to Locke to Condillac) traps the pursuit of wisdom within language and confines it to immanence where language and its relationship to truth are reduced to pointing or representation. Language primarily designates objects in the world; the object is held and studied at a distance, observed but not participated in.  One assumes a use of language based on quantitative judgments that are non-subject-dependent (objective). This view of language contributes to scientism’s mechanistic understanding of the universe, rendering it disenchanted. 11Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge

There is a pure fragility and necessary incompleteness to any finite thing; nothing has its actuality entirely in itself, fully enjoyed in some impregnable present instant, but must always receive itself from beyond itself, and then only by losing itself at the same time. Nothing in the cosmos contains the ground of its own being…. One is contingent through and through, partaking of being rather than generating it out of some source within oneself; and the same it true of the whole intricate web of interdependencies that constitutes nature. 12David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, pp. 92-93

Scientism is the notion that natural science constitutes the most authoritative (often the only legitimate) form of human knowing, and that it is superior to all other interpretations of life. It is hegemonic at its core. It assumes an immanent, Closed World System, which rejects the validity of any transcendent elements or grounding to reality. There is a strong attraction to the idea that we are in an order of nature and do not and cannot transcend it. In scientism, the study and methods of natural science have been contorted into an ideology, a form of methodological imperialism.

Tautology of Scientism: Physics explains everything, which we know because anything physics cannot explain does not exist, which we know because whatever exists must be explicable by physics, which we know because physics explains everything. 13David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, p. 77

Scientism also implicates the improper usage of science or scientific claims in contexts where science does not properly apply, such as when the topic is perceived to be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry (e.g. determine a worldview or final purpose). The stance of scientism thus may indicate in an overconfident fashion a “scientific certainty” in realms where this is actually impossible, overreaching its proper self-limits. We propose that good science is not compatible with scientism, and that scientific advancement in no way spells the end or irrelevance of religion. Noted philosophers Charles Taylor (Catholic), David Bentley Hart (Orthodox) and Alvin Plantinga (Protestant Reformed), representing the three major Christian traditions, agree that scientism is a bankrupt ideology that gives legitimate science a bad reputation.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 548
2. David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, p. 71
3. David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, pp. 75-76
4. A Secular Age, p. 542
5. See MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson, Monopolizing Knowledge.
6. David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, pp. 32-33
7. Hart Ibid., p. 35
8. Hart Ibid., pp. 44-45
9. Craig Gay, The Way of the Modern World. or E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed
10. Lesslie Newbigin, Foolisness to the Greeks
11. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge
12. David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, pp. 92-93
13. David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, p. 77

Comments 3

      1. Ok, I’m officially a fan:>)) I just glanced at your book on Amazon, and came back here to re-read your essay and am more impressed than before.

        I’ve heard positive assessments of Taylor’s work before, but I have a question. I just found an online PDF of an article you wrote on Taylor (sorry, I don’t have the URL at the moment). You summarized his case for universal morality.

        I agree with all the points he made but I don’t see the basis for it. You probably know of Sam Harris’ attempt to use neuroscience as a basis for morality. Harris’ attempt is so ludicrous – to the point of being incoherent – it’s easy to critique. But I have trouble with Taylor – not because I disagree with the main points, but because, in his effort to avoid dealing with the core ontological issue, it seems that ultimately, his effort has to fail (I may be missing most of it because I’m saying this only on the basis of a 1-2 minute skimming of your article).

        To put it bluntly, without God (or Brahman, or Allah, or the Tao or Dharmadatu, etc) I don’t see how one can claim an “objective” morality (“objective” with its potentially scientistic overtones is not quite the right word, but I hope you know what I”m pointing to).

        On the net, most folks react by saying, “What you think atheists are immoral?” No, in fact I don’t, which one could mischievously say proves my point. If the Absolute is a living, unbounded, intelligent reality, then of course anybody – atheist, agnostic, fundamentalist, whatever – is going to have moral intuitions related to a universal reality. The “designative” beliefs a person holds (similar to Iain McGilchrist’s “left mode thinking; or what John Yates in “The Mind Illuminated” calls “selective attention,” or Aurobindo’s “exclusive concentration”) has little if anything to do with their actions.

        on the contrary, one’s expressive poetic (implicit) beliefs, the ones that truly shape one’s thoughts, feelings and behavior (one’s “shraddha” as the Gita puts it, McGilchrist’s “right mode” thought, which appreciates the mysterious, the immeasurable, the unknown, the “whole” rather than the separative part”, Yates’ “peripheral awareness) would most naturally express as universal moral intuitions.

        Perhaps I’ve missed the core of Taylor’s thinking – you certainly seem to express that core ontological intuition of the pervading reality of Being (or Sat-Chit-Ananda, Being-Intelligence-Bliss, as even Hart acknowledges).

        In any case, once again, wonderful article. If you would be interested in exchanging books (ours is “Yoga Psychology and the Transformation of Consciousness” please let me know by email – [email protected]. Also, if you feel like it, drop over to our site at

        Now i’m heading back to amazon to have another look at your book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.