The word ‘scientism’ frequently crops up in discussions of atheism and religion. It is often used pejoratively as an epithet against new atheists, to suggest that they are somehow extremists who think that anything that is not science-based is somehow worthless.
I have never used the word myself. If you search through this blog’s archives over the more than eight years it has been in existence, you will find that although I have written an estimated 3 million words, the word scientism occurs only once, not used by me but as the title of a book review by Marilynne Robinson where, unsurprisingly, she uses it pejoratively against Richard Dawkins about his book The God Delusion. She even goes further and calls it ‘hysterical scientism’.
Recently Stephen Pinker has stepped into the debate, arguing that although the use of the word is not consistent and is often used as an epithet, it deserves to be defended because there is a positive meaning that can be salvaged.
I will have more to say about Pinker’s long essay in another post but for the moment I just want to say that I have stayed out of these debates because I have never quite understood how the word was being used. It seemed to me to be a slippery word that defied clear understanding. A recent post by Sean Carroll suggests that he shares my sense that the word lacks clarity because it is being used with at least nine different meanings.
- Science is the source of all interesting, reliable facts about the world.
- Philosophy and morality and aesthetics should be subsumed under the rubric of science.
- Science can provide an objective grounding for judgments previously thought to be subjective.
- Humanities and the arts would be improved by taking a more scientific approach.
- The progress of science is an unalloyed good for the world.
- All forms of rational thinking are essentially science.
- Eventually we will understand all the important questions of human life on a scientific basis.
- Reductionism is the best basis for complete understanding of complicated systems.
- There is no supernatural realm, only the natural world that science can investigate.
There are things in that list that I agree with (e.g., #3, #9) and some that I don’t (e.g., #2, #4, #5, #6) mainly because they are too sweeping, and others that are more ambiguous, all with the caveat that what one means by ‘science’, another notoriously slippery word, can complicate things. Also, adding some qualifiers (such as ‘some’) and removing others (such as ‘all’) could shift my position. When words have multiple meanings, debates over them tend to have speakers talking through each other, using whichever meaning is convenient for their purposes.
Carroll suggests that this lack of agreement on what the word scientism means signals that the word has little value and may need to be retired. Of course, that cannot be achieved by decree because language is strongly resistant to prescriptive demands and evolves organically. The best we can do is avoid using those that we think have little utility.
It seems likely that I will continue to stay out of the scientism debates until the word settles on a fairly coherent meaning.