I have seen scientism, and it’s usually not us. The most blatant example recently was Pinker’s appalling essay in which he suggested that Hume could have used some instruction in molecular biology; I’ve seen people like Hawking and Krauss claim that philosophy is dead, killed by science. But usually the prominent atheists manage to step back from the brink and acknowledge that there is virtue to the humanities that is not dependent on science (but make no mistake, poetry is not a tool for generating new knowledge, but for communicating insights into human nature, which is fine and valuable — science is the tool we have for testing and verifying, and for acquiring new information about the universe).
Massimo Pigliucci has written a paper chastising the New Atheists for taking a turn towards scientism. But take note of my first paragraph: I’ve already given more specific examples of scientism than Pigliucci does in his entire paper. I’d also consider them illuminating: Krauss has retracted his sentiments, both Krauss and Hawking took a lot of flak for their weird ideas about philosophy (science is a branch of philosophy, so I found both rather discombobulating), and Pinker…well, I’d consider that the most damning evidence for a plague of scientism within atheism, that so many praised that blatant example of ahistorical and aphilosophical BS. Pinker isn’t even mentioned anywhere in the paper.
Pigliucci has picked his scientistic enemies: Dawkins, of course, and Harris and Stenger, adding just for the sake of completeness a couple of other scientists, me and Jerry Coyne, who also strongly criticizes the paper. Hitchens is dismissed as a mere polemicist, while Dennett, as a philosopher, causes some discomfort to his thesis, Pigliucci simply acknowledges that he can’t accuse him of scientism and moves on to his other targets.
But he can’t really defend his accusation against any of the others, either, and he doesn’t seem to care that there is a range of perspectives on philosophy even within his hand-picked sample. I consider myself to have a strong appreciation of philosophy and the humanities, and have even proposed to colleagues that a real liberal arts education ought to require learning some philosophy. Stenger’s work is full of history and philosophy; read God and the Atom, for instance, to see what I mean. I think Harris’s The Moral Landscape was all kinds of awful, but that he exercised some bad philosophy does not support his claim that the New Atheists reject it.
And look who he leaves off: Susan Jacoby, David Silverman, Hemant Mehta, Greta Christina, Ibn Warriq, Ophelia Benson. And worse, he has to explicitly deny that AC Grayling is a New Atheist! The impression I get is that what he has done is not find prominent New Atheists who endorse scientism, but prominent New Atheists who also happen to be trained as scientists, and then clumsily elided “is a scientist” into “is practicing scientism,” while also glossing over the existence of philosophers in our clan. We have a word for this: cherry-picking. It’s not a compliment.
Then he tries to define New Atheism, mentioning that nothing in it is actually “new” (a point that I think all of the New Atheists have made repeatedly! It’s a stupid name we got stuck with by a journalist writing in Wired). Here’s his definition.
Rather, it seems to me that two characteristics stand out as defining New Atheism apart from what I refer to as classical Atheism, one extrinsic, the other intrinsic. The extrinsic character of the New Atheism is to be found in the indisputably popular character of the movement. All books produced by the chief New Atheists mentioned above have been worldwide best sellers, in the case of Dawkins’s God Delusion, for instance, remaining for a whopping 51 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. While previous volumes criticizing religion had received wide popular reception (especially the classic critique of Christianity by Bertrand Russell), nothing like that had happened before in the annals of Western literature. The search for the reasons explaining such an unprecedented level of popularity is best left to sociologists, and at any rate is not really relevant to my aims here. It is likely, though, that the New Atheism qua popular movement is a direct result of the complex effects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We have seen that the first book in the series, by Sam Harris, was written explicitly in reaction to those events, and I suspect that careful sociological analysis will reveal that that is also what accounts for Harris et al.’s success.
The second reason is intrinsic, and close to the core of my argument in this paper: the New Atheism approach to criticizing religion relies much more forcefully on science than on philosophy. Indeed, a good number of New Atheists (the notable exception being, of course, Daniel Dennett) is on record explicitly belittling philosophy as a source of knowledge or insight. Dawkins says that the “God hypothesis” should be treated as a falsifiable scientific hypothesis; Stenger explicitly—in the very subtitle of his book—states that “Science shows that God does not exist” (my emphasis); and Harris later on writes a whole book in which he pointedly ignores two and a half millennia of moral philosophy in an attempt to convince his readers that moral questions are best answered by science (more on this below). All of these are, to my way of seeing things, standard examples of scientism. Scientism here is defined as a totalizing attitude that regards science as the ultimate standard and arbiter of all interesting questions; or alternatively that seeks to expand the very definition and scope of science to encompass all aspects of human knowledge and understanding.
So he’s got two criteria: 1) We’re popular. That’s an accusation that has me stumped; would we be more respectable if nobody liked us at all? 2) We’re scientists and take a scientific approach. Well, we’re not all scientists, and what’s wrong with looking at an issue using evidence and reason? Why shouldn’t we reject ideas that might be pretty to some people, but contradict reality? It’s not as if we can’t appreciate beauty or justice, entirely non-scientific ideas, unless they’re also counter-factual. Beauty and justice are best when they aren’t wrapped around lies and nonsense!
I’m going to start replying to these broad-brush accusations of scientism with my own accusations of philosophism. It seems to me we’ve got a plague of people who resent the success of atheism and respond by belittling it with trite claims of it being “bad theology” or “naive philosophy”. I’m about to be served with a big plumbing bill for a frozen pipe — I wonder if I can get a discount if I argue that those two guys with the big toolboxes were insufficiently appreciative of the philosophy of flowing water, and are unwarrantedly popular with homeowners this time of year. Damn plumbists.