A Critique of Scientism

Science, from my observation, has become highly exalted in modern times. In my opinion, it is exalted much more than it should be. Now, I want to make it clear that I am not anti-science and that I, in fact, appreciate many of the findings of scientists. After all, I am typing this on a laptop, a wonderful application of scientific discoveries. However, an appreciation and pursuit of scientific knowledge should not turn into scientism. I argue that scientism is a faulty and also a rather limited view of the world.

DEFINING SCIENTISM

First, it is necessary to define scientism. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, at least online, the word scientism is defined in one of two ways. The first definition it gives is this: “methods and attitudes typical to the natural scientist.”1 The second is: “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities).”2 It is this second definition that we will be dealing with.

APPROXIMATE TRUTH

Natural science, as great as it is at helping explore the natural world, is incapable of producing absolute truth. The problem is found in that science is an empirical field. In other words, it relies on empirical data, that is, data which can be observed through the senses. Of course, we generally trust our senses, and I am not advocating that we distrust the whole of reality. However, new empirical data can overturn conclusions drawn from older empirical data. A good example of this is what appears to be the sun revolving around the earth. Thanks to advances in science, we know now that the sun, in fact, does not revolve around the earth but only appears to from the vantage point of those on earth. This we can know with a good amount of certainty.

However, this does show that scientific conclusions result from increasing scientific data. Because of this, we can never through natural science reach a point of absolute certainty or absolute truth. However, we can reach approximate truth, and for many applications, approximations are good enough.

THE LIMITS OF SCIENCE

When it comes to such deep and philosophical matters, such as the meaning of life and the ultimate reality, natural science is simply not the only thing to consider. Now, scientific discoveries can certainly help us in these matters, but they should not be the ultimate deciding factors. For example, the matter of the existence of God is not a natural field of study. God, according to most definitions, is supernatural. In other words, looking to natural science to find definitive evidence for something that is both absolute and supernatural is mere folly. Natural science is unable to arrive at absolute truth and does not deal with the supernatural.

With that said, there may be things in science which can aid us in arriving to the conclusion that there is a realm of the supernatural, and perhaps there will be more convincing scientific discoveries in the future. However, if there is a lack of scientific data showing the existence of the supernatural, this does not mean that there is no supernatural. Again, science can only arrive at approximate truth. Furthermore, natural science deals with the natural world, so an attempt to prove or disprove the supernatural is to confuse the method and the field of study. I have repeated this point to emphasize it.

THE PURPOSE OF SCIENCE

Science should be kept within its proper limits. It is not fitting to use a hammer to saw a piece of wood. Similarly, it is not fitting to use natural science to discover the meaning of life. Science has a purpose, just as a hammer has a purpose. However, it is very important to not use a tool for a purpose for which it is not suited. Although the scientific method has allowed humankind to make numerous positive advances in society, it is important to also recognize the limits of science so that we may know its purpose. Not recognizing this can lead one to a rather limited worldview. Using science for the wrong purpose then making a conclusion from this is like using a hammer to saw a piece of wood then declaring that the piece of wood cannot be sawn because the hammer could not get the job done.

NOTES

1. “Scientism.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scientism. Accessed 3 Apr. 2021.

2. Ibid.

2 thoughts on “A Critique of Scientism

  1. Due to privatized for-profit research, ‘science’, to a concerning degree, is for sale. Research results, however flawed, can be and sometimes are publicly amplified if they favor the corporate product; and, likewise, accurate research results suppressed if they’re unfavorable to business interests, even when involving human health.

    For example, Health Canada (our version of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) had sat quietly on a research report indicating that seatbelts would save lives and reduce injury, because it wanted even more proof of this before ordering big bus manufacturers to risk their profit margin by having to install seatbelts in every bus. Yet, Health Canada allowed novelty-flavoured vaping products to be fully marketed — even on corner stores’ candy counters! — without conclusive independent scientific proof that the product, as claimed by Big Tobacco, would not seriously harm consumers but rather help nicotine addicts wean themselves off of the carcinogenic means of nicotine deliverance.

    Liked by 1 person

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