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E.O. Wilson on Scientism and the Meaning of Life

Darwinist E.O. Wilson, a biology professor at Harvard and the world’s greatest authority on ants, has a Big Think video on science and the meaning of life.

An excerpt:

I like to say that most of philosophy, which is a declining and highly endangered academic species, incidentally, consists of failed models of how the brain works. So students going into philosophy have to learn what Descartes thought and then after a long while why that’s wrong and what Schopenhauer might have thought and what Kant might of thought or did think. But they cannot go on from that position and historical examination of the nature of humanity to what it really is and how we might define it. So by default the explanation of meaning, of humanity, falls to science and we are making progress, if I might speak for science.

When you trim away all of Wilson’s meanderings throughout the video about neuroscience and pre-history and cosmology, Wilson is merely endorsing scientism, which is the view that the scientific method is the best (or only) means of understanding existence. Assertion of scientism is usually accompanied by rather explicit denial of the relevance of philosophy. The usual claim is that philosophical work is arcane and pointless ("talk about talk") and that only the rigorous methods and (unexamined) presuppositions of the physical sciences can provide us with real knowledge.

Scientism is a modern iteration of 19th-century positivism, which is the view (inspired by Hume) that the only real knowledge is logical deduction or empirically testable assertions. The scientistic/positivist view is that what cannot be deduced or experimentally demonstrated should be cast into the flames as worthless knowledge.

Scientism has a unique place in modern philosophy in that it doesn’t really rise to the level of a metaphysical assertion. This is because it’s self-refuting. The assertion that science is the only reliable path to truth is itself not a scientific assertion. It cannot be demonstrated empirically or by deduction.

There are many different ways to address the big issues — ways pioneered by Plato and Aristotle and St. Thomas and Descartes and Schopenhauer and Kant and of course by each religious faith. On pivotal issues like meaning in life, there’s no getting around philosophy and theology. Nearly all people believe that life has transcendent meaning. We believe in God, however we conceive Him, and we see the obvious teleology in the created universe. Materialism is a fringe superstition, and materialists like Wilson are so wedded to their delusion that they feel compelled to deny the relevance of entire disciplines of knowledge, including the discipline — philosophy — on which all knowledge depends.

Scientism isn’t one of the ways of addressing the big issues — it’s just a crude mistake. Scientism is self-contradictory gibberish. It’s an admission of ignorance and irrelevance which, regrettably, Wilson is willing to make in a very public way.

A suggestion to Dr. Wilson: stick to the ants.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.