Scientism, the belief that only science can provide knowledge worth having, is emphatically not the same thing as science. In fact there there’s every good reason for someone who cares about science to reject scientism. The idea is puerile, arrogant, and blind to most of the chief qualities that make human life of profound, precious value. It’s a mark of philistinism, vulgarity, and ignorance. But is it evil?
Scientism pits faith against reason, religion against science, as if a person has to choose one or the other. It’s a “dark, hideous, and I dare say, evil” notion, says Moreland, defining it as “roughly, the idea that the hard sciences alone have the intellectual authority to give us knowledge of reality.” That leaves everything else, including moral and spiritual truth, “based on private emotions, blind faith or cultural upbringing.”
This view of knowledge pervades everything around us. We live in an expert-driven culture, and “expert” always means scientific expert. Although Moreland correctly emphasizes the hard sciences in his definition of scientism, it spills over into the social sciences as well. [Emphasis added.]
The Illogic, and More, of Scientism
There is a fundamental illogic in scientism, since the ideology itself can’t be derived scientifically.
But it’s worse than that. Moreland goes so far as to call it evil. Note carefully that the problem isn’t science. Moreland started out as a scientist himself, and retains his love for it. But there’s all kinds of harm in the scientistic attitude that science is our only source of knowledge.
For one thing, it rules out knowing much of the most important truths of the world: that morality is real, for example. Moral knowledge isn’t just opinion, it’s real knowledge. We know that it’s wrong to torture babies for fun. Granted, I’ve run into people who’ve tried to say it’s merely cultural opinion. I don’t mind stepping up and telling them they’re wrong. Or asking the question a different way: Is it okay to torture sexual minorities for fun? Usually at that point they’ll agree, it’s really wrong.
By seeking to explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry, scientism reduces human beings to something a lot less than the morally significant persons we are. People ask, “How do we know when an unborn baby becomes a human person?” — as if personhood were something you could weigh and measure in a laboratory. How have we forgotten that people are intrinsically valuable, just for being human? A lot of the reason for this has to do with a scientistic view of knowledge.
Granted, scientism can aid and abet evil. Its tendency to do so is predictable. In its blindness it harms and humiliates. That’s a takeaway of the new documentary Human Zoos: America’s Forgotten History of Scientific Racism, directed by John West. When held by a great number of people in positions of authority, it no doubt reflects civilizational decline. Perhaps having said all of the foregoing justifies call it evil. I am curious to hear what you think.
Image credit: ToNic-Pics, via Pixabay.