Evolutionary biologist on the limitations of scientism

There were so many things that came to my attention during the end of December when I was consumed by telecast work and the Charlotte weekend, that my “what I wish I’d have posted” list is long. However, I will remedy one of those items on the list here.

Can Science really explain it all?  (NASA photo)
Can science really explain it all? (NASA photo)

I enjoy the e-mails I get from the Discovery Institute, and one of them had a link to an article on their Evolution News and Views website titled “Evolutionary Biologist Austin Hughes Praises Fine-tuning Arguments, Critiques Scientism” written by frequent contributor Casey Luskin. It concerned an article written by Dr. Hughes, Carolina Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina, for The New Atlantis titled “The Folly of Scientism.”

Dr. Hughes’ article is a long read, and not for the Internet surfer just looking for a quick post before he moves on to something else, but if you would like a “short take,” the ENV article by Luskin does a great job of summarizing the points most of those who read this blog would be interested in. The topic of the article is scientism, and Luskin includes Hughes’ definition of that term: “the belief that “sciences are the only valid way of seeking knowledge in any field.” Here’s the paragraph from the original article where that idea is found:

Of course, from the very beginning of the modern scientific enterprise, there have been scientists and philosophers who have been so impressed with the ability of the natural sciences to advance knowledge that they have asserted that these sciences are the only valid way of seeking knowledge in any field. A forthright expression of this viewpoint has been made by the chemist Peter Atkins, who in his 1995 essay “Science as Truth” asserts the “universal competence” of science. This position has been called scientism — a term that was originally intended to be pejorative but has been claimed as a badge of honor by some of its most vocal proponents. In their 2007 book Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, for example, philosophers James Ladyman, Don Ross, and David Spurrett go so far as to entitle a chapter “In Defense of Scientism.”

I am sympathetic to this idea of scientism, only because it is easy for me to imagine that of the many paths my life may have wandered down, if God had not intervened in it when He did, a path that included my being beholden to such a scientism-based worldview would have been a very likely one for me. And our culture, today, does seem thoroughly drenched in it. It is essentially the “faith” that led Richard Dawkins to such execrable, irrational conclusions in his overreaching book The God Delusion. Actually, as Dr. Hughes points out, overreach is exactly what scientism leads to consistently.

If you find the concept that science really does have all the answers (or, at least, that all the answers to be had are only reachable through science), then at the very least you ought to read Casey Luskin’s article on the essay. If you have more time or deeper interest, then consider reading the original essay by Dr. Austin Hughes–an evolutionary biologist who isn’t motivated, it seems, to sock ol’ Darwin on the jaw and, thus, carries a credibility and, importantly, a credible sincerity.

Hughes doesn’t seem to pull any punches, making points–similar to points made here–about the very human quality of the practice of science. To wit: “[T]he high confidence in funding and peer-review panels should seem misplaced to anyone who has served on these panels and witnessed the extent to which preconceived notions, personal vendettas, and the like can torpedo even the best proposals.”

Luskin quotes one of the closing paragraphs at the end of his article:

Advocates of scientism today claim the sole mantle of rationality, frequently equating science with reason itself. Yet it seems the very antithesis of reason to insist that science can do what it cannot, or even that it has done what it demonstrably has not. As a scientist, I would never deny that scientific discoveries can have important implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and that everyone interested in these topics needs to be scientifically literate. But the claim that science and science alone can answer longstanding questions in these fields gives rise to countless problems.

I would like to quote Hughes’ final paragraph, as well:

Of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its varied guises — from fanciful cosmology to evolutionary epistemology and ethics — seems among the more dangerous, both because it pretends to be something very different from what it really is and because it has been accorded widespread and uncritical adherence. Continued insistence on the universal competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole. The ultimate outcome will be an increase of radical skepticism that questions the ability of science to address even the questions legitimately within its sphere of competence. One longs for a new Enlightenment to puncture the pretensions of this latest superstition.

Hughes doesn’t seem to be motivated by any negative feelings about science. Rather, he seems to be trying to save science from its abusers. I respect that, and I wish him all the best in that effort.

3 thoughts on “Evolutionary biologist on the limitations of scientism

  1. author

    Science is not really being consistent.

    There are two ways for me to learn something. Someone who already knows something can teach it to me, and if I believe that person, then I know it too. If God teaches me something, and if I have the faith to believe Him, then I have learned it. We call that revelation.

    The other way I can learn is from experience, sometimes including the experience of experimentation, and then my personal interpretation of the results I see. From that I learn new things.

    Science advocates experimentation and interpretation of results as the best (or only) way to learn basic knowledge.

    But that is not how 99% of science is taught. Students do not learn most of science from their own experience, experimenting, and interpreting. They learn most scientific knowledge from textbooks and from their human teachers. They are expected to trust the “revelation” from their teachers and past scientists about scientific “facts” without doing the research and experimenting themselves.

    So science utimately relies on “revelation”, not from God but from human teachers and scientists, for teaching scientific knowledge to students. They expect the students to trust the word of the scientists, without proof that what the scientists teach is true, but not to trust what God says.

  2. Howdy, again, author! I agree, overall, with the analogy that you make, though I don’t know if I would point to learning from teachers as a real inconsistency. I think that no one is claiming that taking knowledge and passing it on without original “re-experimentation” is somehow not valid. I believe they are saying that only knowledge rooted in scientific understanding is “real” knowledge and truth and considered worthy of passing on. That is, I believe that those who believe in scientism are making a statement not about the transmission of knowledge and truth, but its discovery, founding, and establishment as knowledge and truth. The “seeking” in the sort-of-definition obscures that point, methinks, unless one considers it in a broader, global sense to mean seeking things mankind has not known already.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    Hi, Mr. Smith! If you think it improper to have the blog link itself here you may omit it, but I finally found the time to post on a related subject on one of my own blogs, and after I post the direct link, I’d like to quote a section of it in support of what you’re discussing here. Certainly it’s my opinion as stated but to me life is too short to argue with those who are wise in their own eyes…

    LCG Scribe
    (not to be confused with another WordPress blog to which the name originally tipped the hat)

    On the one hand, many candidate planets that might be rather like Earth may simply not have been observed yet, because they orbit farther from their parents stars (just as Earth itself does) and so the Kepler Telescope and other instruments haven’t had time to observe them yet. On the other hand, being similar in size to Earth doesn’t guarantee habitability, as Venus illustrates. For that matter–and here is where most scientists and science writers alike completely drop the ball–life simply isn’t a matter of “just add water”. The creation of the so-called “precursors of life” by natural causes seems relatively easy in our Universe. Actually creating and maintaining life–that’s hard! Information of the degree and kind of order that life possesses comes only from intelligent intervention in all scientific experience, and a rational discussion of life both on Earth and elsewhere has to begin there or there’s no use having the discussion at all. Otherwise, those who deny that premise are simply insisting without proof on the truth of naturalism and scientism combined, and then compounding the error by confusing both with the legitimate discipline of “natural science” and its “scientific method“. And you simply can’t reason with such people, all the more because they insist so dogmatically (and so ironically) on their own rationalism.

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