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Against Scientism—A Rejoinder to Bo and Ben Winegard

Science is not the only form of knowledge. There are valid non-scientific ways of approaching reality.

· 8 min read
Against Scientism—A Rejoinder to Bo and Ben Winegard
Photo by delfi de la Rua on Unsplash

In ancient Athens, shortly after the death of Socrates, word got out that Plato had come up with a definition of man. Man, according to Plato, was “a featherless biped.” Once he heard this, a philosopher by the name of Diogenes plucked the feathers from a fowl, brought it to Plato’s Academy, and declared, “Behold Plato’s man!” Plato’s definition, as Diogenes’s antics proved, had failed. In their essay “In Defence of Scientism,” Bo and Ben Winegard’s definition of scientism suffers from a similar lack of precision. Scientism, they insist, is simply “the view that scientific attitudes and methods can enhance all modes of empirical inquiry.” This definition is misleading because no one is arguing against the use of scientific methods in scientific pursuits. Critics of scientism worry about the application of scientific methods outside of empirical fields. The great Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, for example, wrote that scientism, “involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed.” Simply put, scientism is the application of scientific methods to non-scientific subjects.

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Scientism Confuses Method for Metaphysics  

Although the Winegards present an innocuous definition in their essay, they commonly drift into the less benign form of scientism identified by Hayek. The Winegards’ Hayekian scientism manifests itself early in their piece with the claim that “Truth is always provisional.” As they correctly note, scientific “truths” appear to be true so long as they provide “the best available theory” based on the evidence at hand. However, not all truths bear this hypothetical quality. Ironically, the very statement, “Truth is always provisional” is not itself a provisional truth claim. If it is always true that truth is always provisional, this statement is self-refuting. Not all truth claims are theoretical statements that are vulnerable to empirical falsification. Take the proposition, “there are no square circles.” This is not a hypothesis that is true so long as scientists do not discover a square circle. Logically, a circle can never be a square.

Equating theoretical truths postulated to fit scientific evidence to truth as such is, as philosopher of science E. A. Burt put it, to conflate method with metaphysics. Science is a method used to discover facts about the material world. Metaphysics, however, deals with the whole of reality, or put in philosophical language, being as such. Where science discloses the properties of the physical world, metaphysics ventures beyond the physical and explores the fundamental nature of all that is. Science articulates theoretical truths discovered through quantifiable investigation. Metaphysical statements are concerned with the character of reality. Therefore, suggesting that all truths resemble scientific truths is not a scientific claim. It is a metaphysical claim about the fundamental nature of truth per se.

Most serious scientists can differentiate between method and metaphysics. Evolutionary geneticist H. Allen Orr, for example, makes the distinctionbetween “methodological naturalism,” the scientific approach to the world in which “only naturalistic explanations may be considered,” and “metaphysical naturalism,” where science attempts to describe “the ultimate state or meaning of the world.” “The first approach,” Orr writes, “doesn’t justify the second.” It is one thing to approach the world scientifically. It is another thing entirely to say the world can only be approached scientifically. This marks the subtle move from method to metaphysics.

A notable example of this scientistic shift from method into metaphysics comes from Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins who, like Dawkins, is a prolific author as well as a fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford University. During the question and answer period following a discussion of The God Delusion, Dawkins was asked whether science provides the answers to the great existential ‘why’ questions. In his reply, Dawkins declared that questions like “why does the universe exist” are “silly” questions that do not deserve answers. Peter Atkins makes a similar point in a recent article. He argues that questions like “Why are we here?” are “not real questions because they are not based on evidence.” Real questions, according to Atkins, are questions “open to scientific elucidation.”

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Unfortunately, for Dawkins and Atkins, the belief that all questions must be open to scientific explanation is a metaphysical commitment, not a scientific one. Science does not say that only scientific questions are worth pursuing. Nor does science say that every aspect of reality can be explained by science. Lurking beneath their rejection of the non-scientific lies a fundamentally extra-scientific worldview. In their dismissal of the deepest questions concerning human existence, Dawkins and Atkins speak not as dispassionate scientists, but as partisans to their own philosophical picture of reality.

In his book Mind and the Cosmos, Thomas Nagel writes, “What counts as a good explanation, depends heavily on an understanding of what it is that has to be explained.” Expecting an answer based on scientific evidence to the question of life’s purpose is to assume that such an answer, if it were to exist, has the kind of characteristics that would enable science to explain it. Science cannot say that the world can be explained only by science. A method that generates only scientific explanations cannot possibly conclude that nothing outside of those scientific explanations exists. This is like examining the world with a metal detector and concluding that rubber does not exist. In effect, Dawkins and Atkins have begged the question by already deciding what kind of answer they are willing to accept before the questioning begins.

Science among the Sciences

Science is not the only form of knowledge. There are valid non-scientific ways of approaching reality. In fact, before the empirical science of Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon, science (from the Latin scientia) simply meant “knowledge.” For the ancients, natural philosophy (the rough pre-modern equivalent to modern science) and philosophy were ‘sciences’ because each intellectual discipline contributed towards knowledge of reality. Not only were philosophy and theology considered legitimate ways of knowing, the medievals placed natural philosophy below philosophy and theology. It may be tempting to dismiss the medieval hierarchy as an example of pre-modern ignorance. Before too quickly discounting it, consider first the following explanation behind the ordering provided by Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologian-philosophers of the Middle Ages: “Lower sciences,” Aquinas writes, “presuppose conclusions proved in the higher sciences.”

In the Winegardian hierarchy, philosophy finds itself somewhere above “intuition” and “epiphany” but below modern empirical science. Nevertheless, does not science—and the achievements of empirical science by extension—depend on non-empirical presuppositions? The Winegards do not grant this. For example, they claim that eugenics “wasn’t really a science” because it incorporated “philosophical and moral assumptions.” If the authors are right, and empirical science operates independent of presuppositions derived from other disciplines, then science supersedes philosophy by Aquinas’s own standard. However, as the greatest critics andadvocates of modern science have argued, science is full of extra-scientific assumptions.

Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, saw that far from doing away with faith and metaphysics, the scientific enterprise of the “godless anti-metaphysicians” rested upon its own “metaphysical faith.” In The Gay Science, Nietzsche explains that science depends on dispelling personal convictions and replacing them with provisional hypotheses. However, Nietzsche argues, the scientific attempt to disallow a priori convictions is itself based on “some prior conviction…one that is so commanding and unconditional that it sacrifices all other convictions to itself.” For scientific inquiry to occur, the conviction must “be affirmed in advance” that “‘Nothing is needed more than truth.’” Implicit in the modern “scientific spirit” is the metaphysical belief that “truth is divine.” Therefore, he argues, “there is simply no science ‘without presuppositions.’”

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If Nietzsche provides an example of a moral assumption implicit in the scientific method, David Hume, the great skeptic and pioneer of the modern empirical project, provides a philosophical one. For Hume, “all inferences from experience suppose that the future will resemble the past.” To observe that a cause follows from an effect, and to conclude that the same effect will always follow from the same cause, assumes that nature remains the same. This assumption is impossible to prove. “It is impossible,” writes Hume, “that any arguments from experience can prove this resemblance of the past to the future; since all these arguments are founded on the supposition of that resemblance.” In other words, arguing for uniformity in nature based on experiences assumes that uniformity already exists. To prove the consistency of the causal relationship would require stepping outside of empirical experience.

Believing in the imperative of truth and the uniformity of nature are required for science but are not arrived at from science. Science does not say that truth is to be valued above all else. Science assumes it. Science does prove that the natural world will remain consistent enough to make experimental inferences. Science assumes that too. Science, then, can never be without “philosophical or moral assumptions.”


In an intellectual climate that is becoming increasingly suspicious towards science, making the case for scientism only makes things worse. Scientism is a bad philosophy that misunderstands the role of science and turns scientific inquiry into an extra-scientific philosophy. For science to defend itself against its critics, it will have to recognize its role in the intellectual life. As Martin Heidegger pointedly puts it, “Science does not think.” Science involves thinking. But thinking starts before science. Human reason is broader than scientific reasoning. The same thinking that invented the scientific method to achieve more knowledge of the material world can look at different problems and come up with different ways of approaching them. Science enumerates facts. It does not answer all of man’s deepest questions or unfold the full picture of reality. Reality is more extensive than what science can discover about it. Science is but one paint brush to color the canvas of reality. Science is one tool to aid man in his search for truth and meaning.


Aaron Neil is a researcher at the think tank Cardus. You can follow him on Twitter @AaronDNeil

Photo by delfi de la Rua on Unsplash.

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