Scientism in the atheist movement

Larry Hamelin pointed me to a recent Existential Comic which criticizes Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for scientism. The explanatory text below the comic goes on to criticize the New Atheist movement as a whole. It argues:

The real goal [of scientism] is often just to draw a border around what we should or shouldn’t question, because they don’t want any of the fundamental aspects of society to change.

Larry Hamelin has a couple good posts responding to the comic commentary, and looking back on the New Atheist movement as a whole. Partially following Larry, these are my critiques:

  • Harris and Dawkins don’t represent the atheist movement. Harris and Dawkins are widely criticized within the movement, and many (myself included) are positively disposed to philosophy.
  • To the extent that scientism is or was present in New Atheism, it was not motivated by an attempt to maintain status quo. I believe that scientism was primarily a reaction to the way people would hide behind the authority of philosophy, insisting that there exists a complex and subtle defense of religion or belief in God. Of course, the complex and subtle defense did not materialize, and failed to address religion or belief in God as they are popularly practiced.
  • Of all the strengths of philosophy, I do not think effecting social change is one. Certainly academic philosophy is not a force for change. And though my writing is often infused with philosophy, that just makes me a more effective thinker, not a more effective activist.

This might be a bad idea, but let’s read the comments on this comic to see what other people are saying.

They make some good points, but philosophy (and art) aren’t intrinsically anti-dictatorship. Unless you want to argue that Hobbes was not a ‘real’ philosopher.

This is a good point. I thought for a brief moment, “Maybe reading the comments isn’t so bad!” Well…

If you want to show that thinking without experimentation (which in many cases can describe the difference between some ways of doing philosophy and doing science) is superior, you’re going to have to do better than this.
Sorry for being negative, but that’s the scientific method.

I do not think this person has any real-world experience with the scientific method. In other words, he’s only thought about the scientific method, without experimentation.

But as Massimo Pigliucci points out, doing Philosophy in ignorance of science is just as bad as the reverse. Many philosophers feel free to make all sorts of empirical claims, like Judith Butler’s claims about gender, without actually looking at any of the science (which in this case absolutely contradicts everything she claims).

While I agree that philosophers are too often ignorant of science, and this hurts their ideas, I don’t think the given example is very good, particularly without explanation. I’m imagining the dude thinks science proves gender is purely biological.

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris is one of my favourite books. We humans are not blank slates but many of our values, the things that produce meaning and peace in our lives that is, are encoded in our genes.

I’ve taken to ignoring Sam Harris, since realizing he had nothing worthwhile to say. Is that one of the things he’s claiming these days, that our values are encoded into our genes? What study is that based on?

Something I legitimately do not understand: why there is so much energy spent on critiquing scientism, but not its inverse?

This commenter specifically refers to global warming denialism as an example. It’s a a loaded question, because obviously lots of energy is spent talking about global warming. But I think this comment illustrates the real motivation for scientism–it’s usually a way of pushing back against perceived anti-scientism.

Okay, had enough of comments. So, scientism, it’s a thing.


  1. polishsalami says

    I would say that ‘gene fundamentalism’ is more of a Steven Pinker thing than a Sam Harris thing, though Harris playing footsies with Charles Murray may be the reason for this belief (I have no intention of listening to the Harris podcast to find out).

    Scientism has traditionally been more of a problem on the Left than on the Right I’d say (“scientific” socialism, for example), so I’m not convinced that it’s an innately conservative idea.

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