Philosophy, recent, Science

Against Scientism—A Rejoinder to Bo and Ben Winegard

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.

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 distinction between “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.”

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 and advocates 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.’”

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


  1. Joe says

    I can’t find the part where he identifies a downside to scientism.

    I mean, what we’re talking about it grounding one’s opinions in sensory observation. It still seems to be the only reliable method for getting anywhere useful. Otherwise we have nothing to say to the legions of drooling idiots claiming their opinions are valid because they thought them.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Yes, and science is a method for uncovering reality, not a physical tool as he compared it to. Science would use a metal detector to discuss findings of metal, but wouldn’t conclude rubber doesn’t exist. The latter is what most of society does today with scientific understanding, jumping to conclusion unrelated to the science, but likely gives someone power over others.

    • Sarka says

      He doesn’t give examples, that is true. But the downside to scientism is less that it might rule out, or prejudge huge philosophical “meaning of everything” questions, and more that attempts to employ “natural scientific” procedures in the humanities and cultural and social disciplines tend to run into emptiness or distortion and failure. Here I don’t want to get into the problem of “constructivist” excesses in social sciences these days and their clash with often reasonable evolutionary psychologists, neuro-scientists and so on. What I mean is more basic, and at the root of a fundamental divergence between “hard science” and “historical thought” that developed in the later 19c. Our interpretation of ourselves and other people (motivations, desires, conflicts, explicit and implicit, individual and group) is based among other things on cognitive empathy – on the given experience of being a human subject and of others (here, elsewhere, in the past, whatever) as also legible subjects. While our interpretations are of course “subjective”, they are certainly not all equally valid (whether we are wondering why someone is in a bad mood, or writing a book on the causes of the First World War, or the gay rights movement, or medieval architecture…), and we have public ways of assessing which are better than others (in law courts, for example) although rarely in the definitive way of hard science and scientific experiment.

    • WH says

      The ugliness of killing offers a few good thought experiments, I think. Why would you feel at all uneasy about it when it’s overwhelmingly rational and any suffering attendant to the process so minimized it’s negligible? Make your own steelman – abortion, capital punishment, hostage crisis, whatever. If morality is rooted in facts, why is it so normal to have such a hard time with this psychologically even when there’s no factual conflict?

    • Fred says

      In what senses are logic and mathematics grounded? Or are they “unreliable”? But your position has an even deeper problem; it is self-undermining. Show me a non-question-begging way to veriy with your senses that your senses can even verify anything.

    • TarsTarkas says

      It’s not so much scientism as pretending to be using scientism and science to support policies that are insufficiently grounded in knowable facts, or that are so full of BS it’s obvious even to the pushes of such policies (who still continue because it gives them power). A la homosexuality has a genetic basis but binary sexuality is merely a social construct.

    • Farris says

      The downside to Scientism is it presupposes it can answer all questions or that science is the only means to answer questions and as such is limiting.

      “I mean, what we’re talking about it grounding one’s opinions in sensory observation. It still seems to be the only reliable method for getting anywhere useful.”

      What is your opinion regarding Capitalism v. Socialism? Each side can present a plethora of facts and data but ultimately your opinion will rest upon which evidence you tend to give greater deference and which evidence you tend to minimize. Yet even though having discounted some evidence you will remain convinced that your opinion is correct. There is nothing scientific about how your choice was made as it was based solely upon your personal preferences and proclivities. Despite having reached an unscientific conclusion, you will defend this decision at a ballot box and beyond. Decisions such as these can affect millions of lives and yet have no basis scientific basis.

      • Reader says

        “Scientism” is a loose term, because I agree that capitalism vs. socialism (or, maybe more precisely, the best societal combination of the two concepts) is a value judgment at heart. There can be sub-questions of “which methods are best for GDP,” “which ensures the best living standards for the poor,” etc. Which questions are relevant is another value judgment.

        All of those sub-questions are subject to scientific inquiry, of course – and I would place well-considered work for those questions as being more meaningful than any other form of going about answering those questions. But yeah, of course a value judgment is still in play – that doesn’t make it “knowledge.”

        Am I skipping a step here?

        • Farris says


          You are not skipping a step. I think you nailed it pretty well. You are correct that economic models have empirical evidence and data. Some models may be better at addressing wage gaps, others at producing high GDP, others at stimulating innovation. However one will eventually make a value judgment as to which of these is the most important and that choice will be based primarily on subjective concerns. Yes it is also based on knowledge but it also requires discounting other evidence or concerns. The judgment will be based more upon the eye of the beholder than objective data. Would anyone be surprised if science proclaimed the best economic model to be the one that best advanced scientific inquiry? Scientism despite claims to the contrary can not provide satisfactory answers for value judgments, just as science can not decide what is quality art. Dismissing these judgments as unimportant is also a value judgment and some what crude as these judgments must ultimately be made.

          • Reader says

            It still seems to me like the idea is that scientific knowledge is ‘scored higher’ when it comes to the issue is a relevant point.

            Maybe it can’t tell you whether it’s worth an economic system focusing on redressing the gender wage gap as opposed to other concerns. So yes, value questions certainly remain and are relevant. But is putting that all under ‘knowledge’ the right thing to do here?

            Even if science doesn’t answer the prioritization of what an economic system should do, I do think that the best scientific approach can yield you information on (i.e.) whether, say, gender wage gaps are caused by discrimination. That kind of thing might be countered – and I don’t think I’m being unfair, given current situations – that women have personally experienced discrimination and recognize patriarchy at work, so any attempts to redress should, for this reason, work through that method. To call this unempirical, to say that the scientific approach is just a fundamentally “better knowledge” to this than the claims in the last sentence, is that still scientism?

            I feel you can acknowledge you can’t science your way to a proper appraisal of a David Lynch movie and still prioritize scientific knowledge when the values clash.

          • Andrew Roddy says


            The down sides of scientism outlined above seem to me twofold: 1. By fundamentally misunderstanding what science is, its limits and proper application, it can only ever make for bad science. He is certainly not attacking science but rather defending it from a misguided strain of metaphysics that is crippling its efficiency. 2. He is arguing that if many people find themselves alienated from the wonder of the ongoing scientific quest the fault does not lie with science but with the arrogant and over-reaching claims that some people choose to make for it.

            I don’t think he wants to confiscate your mobile phone.

  2. Greg Lorriman says

    This is pure hogwash. Scientism, as well as the Winegards, are the absolute best!

    • Fred says

      “Scientism rules!” That’s an interesting fallacy, the argumentum ad cheerleaderum.

      • fred90024 says

        Let’s leave cheerleaders out of this. The short dresses make it difficult for me to concentrate on the essential metaphysics.

        • Nicolaas Stempels says

          But science might offer an explanation why the short dresses make it difficult for you to concentrate on the ‘essential metaphysics’.

    • Greg Lorriman says

      I’m the real Greg Lorriman, and some twit is impersonating me (I’m highly religious). Probably that lunatic Blue Lobster.

      The Quillette system is, meanwhile, total crap for allowing non-unique email identifiers for naming.

  3. Thanks for reading, Joe.

    Not all opinions are grounded in sensory observation. Did you, or anyone else, observe all circles before you decided that ‘there are no square circles?’

    • David of Kirkland says

      Circles and squares do not exist in reality. They are inventions. Like 1+1=2, this is not science, but a definition we created to aid in other discoveries.

      • Oliver Brossmann says

        The concepts in our minds are not part of reality?

    • WH says

      I was genuinely expecting a punch line like “a cylinder viewed from the side.” But yeah, I’m not sure we even want to reduce something like love or grief to cold quantification and the resulting manageability, nor is it likely we can. Good read, I can’t believe Dawkins and Atkins would even say that. It sounds more like they just don’t have a good answer. It’s a perfectly respectable question, answered or not.

      • Nicolaas Stempels says

        Yes, a circle can be a square and vice versa with just one extra dimension. It is a bad example. There are some lovely three-dimensional optic illusions there, and actually (physically) made.

    • EK says

      I think you need to review your Euclid. Based on Euclid’s assumptions and definitions, a circle is simply not a square. The old problem of squaring a circle with a straight edge and compass has nothing to do with proving there are no square circles or circular squares.

      The problem with metaphysicians these days is that they never reveal their initial assumptions but can’t stop talking about their conclusions.

      • augustine says

        they never reveal their initial assumptions but can’t stop talking about their conclusions

        Yes, like the scientists referenced in this article.

    • David Doyal says

      Substitute “all bachelors are unmarried males” for “there are no squares that are circles”……and you will see that your argument is unsound.

    • S.Cheung says

      “Did you, or anyone else, observe all circles before you decided that ‘there are no square circles?’”
      Science does not require you to observe “all” of anything before being able to draw scientifically valid conclusions. Otherwise, for every question, you would require n of infinity and timeline of eternity to arrive at an answer, and therefore never get there.

      • Allan Donkin says

        Cheung I see you still struggle to accept your own faith

        • S.Cheung says

          your visit to the optometrist is way overdue.

          I’d take the belief in science over the belief in fairy tales any day of the week, but particularly on Sundays.

    • Theodore A Hoppe says

      Since most individuals do not understand science they are placed in the position of putting their faith in science.

      “Many of the world’s biggest problems require asking questions of scientists — but why should we believe what they say? Historian of science Naomi Oreskes thinks deeply about our relationship to belief and draws out three problems with common attitudes toward scientific inquiry — and gives her own reasoning for why we ought to trust science.”

  4. augustine says

    Those who have pledged their undying allegiance to scientism and empiricism will probably not be moved by this essay. Too bad for them.

  5. Craig Willms says

    The whole time I’m reading this I’m thinking of Sam Harris refuting the notion free will though mental gymnastics that take leaps and bounds of meta-logic to follow. When in fact whether free will is technically provable or not the fact is we all act as if it’s true and our laws and societal norms are predicated on the idea of personal free will – therefore it is true for all intents and purposes. To me that sort of thing marks the difference between the application of the scientific method and practical reality .

    • David Doyal says

      Most people used to act as if religions were true. The fact that today most people act as though they have free will, does not mean that they do.

      • Nicolaas Stempels says

        It is all caused by molecular reactions to environmental inputs in (mainly) our brains. There is no such thing as free will, just an (admittedly strong) illusion.
        Well yes, it obviously exists as an idea, again, in our brains, but we do not have it.

    • James Smith says

      Harris goes through mental gymnastics? You mean he makes a philosophical argument? (Which isn’t too complicated for those who can understand philosophical issues).

      • Craig Willms says

        Yeah, I don’t buy his philosophical arguments – I’m free to do that. His boiling everything down to chemicals and the evolutionary inevitability that I had no choice in responding to this comment this morning is bridge to far for me. Harris is a brilliant man, but I do not agree with him on free will. That’s all.

    • jimhaz says

      The whole time I was reading this I was thinking of a religious person trying to justify mystery.

      So I checked:
      “Cardus operates within a philosophical framework. We are rooted in 2,000 years of Christian social thought”

      • Andrew Roddy says

        Albert Einstein seemed to find the concept of free will hilarious. His take seemed to be roughly ‘you might as well tell me that the moon is free to complete another orbit of the earth because it enjoyed the last one so much.’ I can’t see it like that but I feel free to enjoy the fact that it amused him.

  6. JCH says

    A deeply confused essay. The author confuses mathematics with science, lists a number of questions that are unanswerable in principle (“Why are we here?”) and complains that science cannot answer them without proposing what NON-SCIENCE methods COULD answer them, and treats with reverence the confusions of centuries or millennia old philosophers. Finally, his conclusion states that “Science enumerates facts. It does not answer all of man’s deepest questions or unfold the full picture of reality.” What else besides science has answered ANY such question with confidence? Religion? A SINGLE example of worthwhile knowledge gained outside of science would be worthwhile to support his premise, but is not provided.

    • Joana George says

      How about “Slavery is bad.”?

      • derek says

        Good one. I think that one could make a very convincing argument that slavery is the basis of agricultural societies and allowed the specialization that brought forth early scientists who came up with some basic understandings that we still ideas today. You could also argue that science applied in technological advancements made slavery unnecessary as a source of labor.

        I’ll stick with “it’s complicated”.

      • Jackson Howard says

        That is a value and ethics question. The answer to it very much depends on whom, when and where it’s asked.

        A Roman senator would say it’s great and beneficial to society. As would a cotton plantation owner in the south back in the days.

        As for the OP : the author argues that science is useless to answer to the why/meaning questions. That is correct. However he fails to show that other methods can provide falsifiable answers to such questions. Note that one may get unfalsifiable answers that still provide value on a psychological / social level, like religion does.

        Fields like ethics and philosophy can provide consistent answers within a defined frame for value type questions such as “is slavery bad ?”

        The big confusion comes from the fact that the answer for both ethics, value and metaphysical questions (the why / meaning) have been historically provided by religions, while modern times have seen religion lose the ethics answers monopoly (but retain their metaphysical/spiritual mandates). Note that Christian ethics is very much a thing, but I find it useful to avoid lumping it with Christian metaphysics even if they are very much entangled. It makes for clearer discussions.

        Strife occurs when ethics/science/metaphysics start answering each other’s questions.

      • Greg Lorriman says

        We’re all slaves in one way or another. We don’t even question the service of our body when it demands to go to the bathroom.

        And most people give in to sexual desire without much of a struggle, often landing themselves in marriages where they are still slaves to sex desire and unable to truly give themselves to another freely.

        Who is so free of themselves that they have pure, self-giving love?

    • JCH,

      Where did I confuse math and science?

      The burden of my argument was not to show how non-scientific methods answers ‘why’ questions. I argued that just because science can’t answer these questions, it does not follow that these questions are “unanswerable in principal.”

      See ‘there are no square circles’ and ‘truth is to be valued above all else’ for a few examples of knowledge arrived at outside of science. Both are mentioned in my essay.

      (I keep trying to reply to this, but my comments won’t send – apologies if duplicates show).

      • Leif says

        Science isn’t a search for truth, science MODELS truth. For example Issac Newton’s laws of motion accurately model the behavior of objects (on a macro level), but there is no reason to believe some universal calculating engine uses Newton’s formulæ to control motion.

        This observation doesn’t necessarily argue for or against scientism, but it muddies the waters. Are we seeking truth or merely rationalization and predictability?

    • Daniel V says

      JCH Would the ability for mediation to rewire the brain count? The Buddha discovered this outside of science.

    • Vito P Quattrocchi says

      I agree, JCH. This is a deeply, deeply depressing essay. All one has to do is admit that any aspect of reality that has a measurable effect on the physical world is one science can have something to say about and this essay collapses, like the proverbial flan in a cupboard. If the author had been able to offer some persuasive examples of, “valid non-scientific ways of approaching reality,” that would have been nice. Altogether, though, a really dismal essay.

      • Evander says

        Vito, did science help you conclude that this essay was dismal?

        • Vito P Quattrocchi says

          “For the ancients, natural philosophy…and philosophy were ‘sciences’ because each intellectual discipline contributed towards knowledge of reality.” I’m like the ancients. Philosophy = “science”. My philosophy says this essay sucks. Ergo, science helped me conclude this essay sucks.

          • Evander says

            The pre-Socratics et al. partly paved the way for modern science, but they didn’t practise it.

            Scientism advocates advocate modern science as the sole basis for acquiring knowledge about reality.

            Is your claim that this essay is dismal a modern-scientific one or not?

          • Vito P Quattrocchi says

            Evander, they paved the way for modern science because they sought naturalistic explanations for phenomena. I, frankly, call bullshit on the term “scientism” out of hand. I’d ask, what other method do we have for acquiring knowledge about reality other than “science”? It’s almost as if educated people hadn’t come to the conclusion already that pure reason isn’t enough to confirm the sources of phenomena in the natural world. The author claims that “there are no square circles” and “truth must be valued above all else” somehow exist beyond the realm of “science”. This seems to be nothing but a silly semantic argument. I find the essay dismal because it’s failed at the main goal an essay should aim for: to persuade the reader. That is, of course, unless the normative claim that “essays should persuade the reader” is itself a claim “arrived at outside of science.”

          • Vito P Quattrocchi says

            Now if, as I suspect, the real argument here is that science can’t tell you how to live your life, fine. Science can’t tell you what to value, but it can tell you, as a human being, what generally makes human beings happy. It can’t tell you if you’d get more satisfaction out of stamp collecting or learning to play the guitar, but it can tell you humans like having hobbies. It can’t tell you if you should get married and have children or not, but it can tell you what people say, in general, about their life satisfaction having done, or not done, so.

          • Evander says

            Thanks for your response, Vito.

            Neil’s main contention is that scientism fails to live up to its own preachments. I was persuaded by his argument and examples, not least the point that Nietzsche originally raised: that science as an enterprise intrinsically values truth. But, as you say, ‘Science cannot tell you what to value.’ So, scientific inquiry itself rests upon a non-scientific foundation. I’m comfortable with this, because science is a marvellous tool for explaining the material world as well as providing insight into human communities through social science. But it doesn’t have a monopoly on truth about the world.

            The conclusion that the sculpture of Laocoön and His Sons depicts an agonising death is not scientific. It’s arrived at through aesthetic judgement. The conclusion that ethnic cleansing is immoral is not scientific. It’s arrived at through moral reasoning. Aesthetics and morality are non-scientific domains of thinking from which science by its very nature is excluded.

            The pushback against scientism was directly aroused through hybristic claims such as ‘Philosophy is dead’ (Hawkins) and that ‘Science can explain everything’ (Atkins). We only want science to play its proper, honourable role, not that of Lucifer, who wanted to be God.

          • Vito P Quattrocchi says

            Evander, now we’re talking. I think science can explain why most human beings, who aren’t psychopaths, can tell Laocoon is suffering an agonizing death. In other words, it’s not purely “aesthetics” that lead to that conclusion or else it wouldn’t be nearly universally accepted that an agonizing death is what Laocoon and his sons depicts.

            Moreover, I’m not sure what tells us that ethnic cleansing is immoral if not, at least, the “scientific” realization that people all over the world, regardless of their ethnicity, experience pain, fear, and suffering like the rest of us. If our moral intuition has no relation to this scientifically provable reality about the human condition then what anchors it? Mere “moral reasoning”? What good is moral reasoning that’s completely unmoored from an accurate factual understanding of the world?

            For me, I don’t think science can explain everything. I think science can, in principle, explain most things worth knowing. I think science explains more than the author would like to admit. However, I’m willing to say that the relationship between science and value/morality is at least more complex/intertwined than you’re letting on.

          • Vito P Quattrocchi says

            I’m stuck on your claim that “So, scientific inquiry itself rests upon a non-scientific foundation.” What can this mean, I wonder? Is the assertion that knowing the truth is superior to not knowing the truth merely article of faith and, therefore, non-scientific? This just seems like playing with words. If you define “science” narrowly as “atheism” or something, sure a hardline denial of the possibility that a god exists could be seen as an article of faith. But this seems to me, if you’ll pardon the expression, a grotesque mangling of language to justify a conclusion.

    • KD says

      How about law and public administration? Finance? Business management? Advertising?

      Not much of a modern civilization without these disciplines, but no one calls them a science with a straight face.

      To split hairs, there is a serious question of whether social science constitutes real science (if you don’t believe me, ask a physicist). If we exclude social science, you can look at the “moral science” of economics for one example.

      I don’t think history or philology are sciences, but important and productive of worthwhile knowledge. Likewise, knowledge of a language and its grammar is not science, but worthwhile knowledge if say you want to do business in a foreign country (or spy on them).

      • Evander says

        When you look at a sculpture, you don’t use the scientific method to interpret it. Yet the sculpture is articulating something discoverable, something knowable – in the case of Laocoön, it is his agony. The scientific method is neither the method nor the subject matter of any number of disciplines that are knowledge-producing: visual art, literature, philosophy. These disciplines rely on knowledge about the world generated through our experience as well as scientific inquiry, but they don’t rely on nor feature the scientific method.

        Science in no way provides a basis for moral judgement. For that humans use religion or a priori rational systems like Kant’s or Mill’s.

        “I’m stuck on your claim that “So, scientific inquiry itself rests upon a non-scientific foundation.” What can this mean, I wonder?”

        The dismal essay provides the answer:

        ‘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.”’

        I could add another layer by saying that science relies on norms of collaboration, honesty, hardwork, setting aside of personal biases, etc. – all of which aren’t scientific but ethical.

        • Vito P Quattrocchi says

          Evander, yes, I agree with you that no one uses the scientific method to determine that Laocoon is suffering. You’re right that we know this from experience. But the fact that the content of art like Laocoon is comprehensible to most of humanity, we interpret it the same way, shows that there are facts to be found in the uniformity of our responses that science can study. The study of these responses – emotional, physiological, etc – are what tell us “truths” about ourselves. My personal reaction to Laocoon tells me no “truth” about humanity, imparts no knowledge, unless I can determine if that reaction is common to others besides me.

          I also take issue with your claim that visual arts, literature, etc are “knowledge-producing”. I think it’s more accurate to say they produce reactions in us, emotional and physical, but not knowledge.

          I agree with you that science, by itself, cannot produce the basis for a moral judgement but, again, a moral judgement that doesn’t take into account the generalized knowledge about human beings that scientific study provides is almost certain to be arbitrary or harmful.

          The quote you provide, I’m afraid, is simply incorrect. Science assumes the uniformity of nature because science shows that nature is largely uniform and subject to natural laws. Most of the modern conveniences we enjoy are only possible because science’s assumption of the uniformity of nature is correct. The author grants as much when he says, “Science does prove that the natural world will remain consistent enough to make experimental inferences.” Then, ludicrously, he goes on to say, “Science assumes that too.” What’s to be assumed? He just admitted science is correct to assume the consistency of the natural world. If the natural world wasn’t consistent, science would have to abandon that “philosophical principle.” And what moral assumption is there in the observable fact that science works because it’s assumptions are correct?

          I certainly don’t mean to impugn your motives, but this is what I’ve come to know as a common rhetorical ploy of religious people to denigrate science as just another system of belief rather than a domain of empirical knowledge. If the bedrock assumptions of science are “philosophical” and “ethical” rather than empirical, then science is just another crap shoot, like religion, and not Man’s best hope of knowing something about the world. I’ll leave with this: even if you’re correct that axioms such as “knowledge is better than ignorance” or “truth is better than falsity” are philosophical or ethical statements that science can’t demand we value, like religious dogmas try to do, it has absolutely no bearing on the truths science reveals. It seems obvious to me that if we base our ethical and moral assumptions on truth, as revealed by rational inquiry, rather than religion or philosophy, we can only improve our ethical and moral assumptions thereby.

          • augustine says

            a moral judgement that doesn’t take into account the generalized knowledge about human beings that scientific study provides is almost certain to be arbitrary or harmful.

            Are you suggesting that those who produce scientific studies, and those who take their results into account (i.e., a secular society) would create a world with fewer or less grave arbitrary, harmful moral judgments than a society that is substantially religious? I think you would somehow have to subvert human nature to do it, via technology perhaps?

          • Vito P Quattrocchi says

            Augustine, I think we already do that insofar as we have good reasons for our moral judgments. When our moral judgments are arbitrary, I think they tend to be useless or harmful (here, I’m thinking religious strictures on sexuality and food). Philosophy comes up short in this endeavor because a syllogism has to be based on premises assumed to be true. Science (here I mean deductive reasoning) can, at least in principle, tell us if our premises are true. You can build a fallacious, but logically coherent, argument on false premises and miss the mark entirely.

          • augustine says

            Your last sentence here is the danger that I think many theists see in the prospect of a “scientistic” society, fears not at all dissimilar to what many atheists must feel regarding a theocracy. Church and state separation seems to be an OK compromise at this time.

            Religious dictates may be essentially rigid and unchanging, but the people living with them and in them certainly do change, on every time scale. That relationship is what allows religion to exist and to flourish at times– but note that the moral foundation must be firm, while the subjects are moving to and fro around it. (I’m sure this could be or has been scientifically studied). Since science cannot be divorced from human nature, though this seems to be implied sometimes by her defenders, I can picture a science-informed morality as likely even more rigid and authoritarian than any state religion, and more ruthless, based on empirical studies that indicate the most rational way forward. How could we avoid enshrining certain scientific findings (we have already)? Why doesn’t that possibility scare some people the way religious hegemony does?

          • Vito P Quattrocchi says

            Augustine, I see your point entirely. I wouldn’t like to live under a ruthless, science-based moral tyranny either. Neither do I have faith that science will give us answers to moral questions any more than science can answer every question, no matter how preposterous, the human mind can concoct. I simply see no other basis for making moral judgments other than through a rationally-formulated view of life. For instance, let’s say tradition tells us, “an eye for an eye.” Are we to base our judicial system purely on that? Let’s say a man commits a heinous crime, such as killing a child. We find that the man is insane. Should we accuse him of irredeemable evil and execute him, or does the study of the human mind tell us the man is delusional, ergo not responsible for his actions, and we should, therefore, confine him so he doesn’t hurt anyone else, but not kill him? I could think of many more examples right off the top of my head where our progressive understanding of human behavior has tempered, and improved, our moral reasoning. It’s also expanded our moral concern to beings, like animals, by revealing their capacity for feeling previous generations couldn’t have guessed at. If we base our morality simply upon tradition, we’re freezing in time our conversation on how we’re obligated to treat other sentient beings by pretending we know less than we really do. Why should we do this? Fear of “scientistic” oppression?

            Also, I think we’ve had centuries of religious hegemony already and we know the general arc. We call those “the Dark Ages” for a reason. I mean mean to be glib, but the horrors of social media addiction seem tame in comparison with the various inquisitions, religious wars, and the rest.

          • Vito P Quattrocchi says

            I’d like to add something to the example I gave about the insane man. Let’s say we ignored all science-based discoveries about mental illness and looked to religious texts for our answers. We conclude that the man is possessed by devils and that we ought to perform an exorcism on him. What do you think would have a better chance of improving his mental health – the exorcism or an antipsychotic medication developed by science? According to the author of this article, the fact that science makes “philosophical” presuppositions, mainly that mankind is capable of knowing how the world works, who knows?! It’s 50/50, right? But we already know the answer to that question because the assumption that we can know something about the world has been proved, regardless if the question itself was once speculative.

            Anyway, allow me to stop this. I just recognize what’s happening here. Every decade or so, progressives become so annoying and nihilistic that people turn away from them looking for something to give their lives meaning outside of increasingly ridiculous social justice political cults. When that happens, people like the author see their opening and come out of the woodwork again with the old, “hey, did you know science is just a religion?” and the fumigation has to take place again. There are people far abler than me to do that work.

    • Andrew Scott says

      Much of what we believe, even important beliefs, are based on logic, interpretations of circumstantial evidence, or both. Even when scienctific evidence is presented in a criminal trial we usually don’t employ the scientific method to establish guilt.

      Instead we might show that a suspect’s DNA the scene. Science has established with reasonable certainty that a person’s DNA only comes from that person, and we conclude that the suspect was in the place where his DNA was found.

      We add to that means and motive. We might use science to determine that the means are plausible, or we might not. We cannot use the scientific method to determine motive.

      We convict people of crimes based on such combinations of circumstantial evidence, empirical evidence, and logic. This might bear loose resemblance to the scientific method because it yields a provisional conclusion that may fit the evidence, but it’s not rigorous. A jury choosing between two opposing hypotheses and picking that sounds most plausible isn’t science.

      Criminal justice is flawed, but are its conclusions useless because they are not arrived at by the scientific method?

      Can any person establish that they love their mother by means of the scientific method?

      Science is great at what it does. To argue that only knowledge obtained by that method is useful or accurate is nonsense. No one should take that premise seriously.

    • Caitlin McDonald says

      JCH, the author did not complain that science can’t answer those questions; he said that some scientists (ex Richard Dawkins) dismiss those questions as silly, and that the dismissal begs the question because it presupposes good questions are only those answerable by science. And you’re doing exactly the same thing. As tempting as it is, you just can’t justify something by its internal value; there has to be an external value measurement. That’s what he means by assuming rubber doesn’t exist when you can’t find it with a metal detector; it’s the wrong method.

  7. m.k.a. says

    More of the old, tired argument between the dualists and the materialists (or style vs. substance…).

  8. Kencathedrus says

    What I got out of this essay was that science is a valuable tool for figuring out the world and we ignore it at our peril. Despite all that, it fails to offer us a code to live by. Therefore, science makes a good servant but a poor master.

    • Steve Taylor says

      @Kencathedrus I think “science makes a good servant but a poor master” is probably the most cogent answer to scientism. Scientism is the servant to use but for god’s sake don’t put it in charge. The weakness of Scientism is believing today’s provisional answer is good enough to use.

    • Nicolaas Stempels says

      However, the ‘master’ is clueless, blind and useless without the ‘servant’.

  9. Steve Taylor says

    The primary fault with this article is that the author is actually making more assumptions about the universe that the scientists. I believe the principal falling out over the past century between science and philosophy is the fact that the scientists have discovered a wide range of assumptions made by philosophers are not in fact true. That is, actually false, not that they can’t be relied on but actually untrue. The modern understanding of time in the face of relativity and quantum theory as been utterly shattered and still not remade.

    We could start with the “there are no square circles” example of something that isn’t a provisional truth. Current scientific understanding is such that it is entirely possible that space-time consists of a discrete geometry with a finite number of points in it. If this turns out to be correct then square circles (using the standard mathematical definition of square and circle) are an entirely plausible thing to exist within that geometry if only at the very smallest of scales. Hence, even the statement “there are no square circles” is provisional.

    However, that is just a side issue. The real fundamental point of contention is the very simple disagreement not about questions but about answers. The scientism approach takes the view that questions without answers are of no interest except to look for answers with the supplementary point that answers only count if you can demonstrate to another person, in some sort of valid way, that the answer is at least a provisional truth. This is usually taken as the idea that you need to present empirical evidence. The author is on the philosophers side of the argument which contends that there are truths that can be meaningfully discussed without the use of empirical evidence.

    Personally I have significant sympathy for the idea that there are valid discussions that can be had about the nature of truth and other similar basic questions but whenever I see philosophical arguments for it those arguments seem to be seriously flawed because the philosophers haven’t understood just how much modern physics has broken our understanding of the assumptions that they depend on.

    Philosophy goes around saying that scientists are making the assumption that just because something happened one way in the past that that is what will happen in the future. The scientific response is along the lines of what do you mean past and future, these are now deeply provisional ideas in themselves. The proper complaint should be that science looks for patterns in reality and claims they have deeper meaning and tell us some sort of truth and that is an assumption. But, that falls to the simple argument that we must assume that these patterns have some meaning otherwise why bother at all. And, as you can see, I am making a non-scientific argument because I agree there is a layer which is properly called philosophy and not science that is absolutely critical to everything. You can’t get started without some philosophy and assumptions but you can make those provisional.

    • I was not arguing that scientists make assumptions and philosophers don’t. I made the argument that scientism advocates fail to see their own assumptions – including the assumption you identified about ‘meaning.’

      Are you arguing that because of advancements in modern physics all truth claims are now provisional?

  10. Theodore A Hoppe says

    I yawned while reading both Neil’s and the Winegards’ essays.
    Anyone needing to know what “scientism” is and isn’t can check Wikipedia.
    Definitions for it can be found there as well (there is no shortage of them in seems).
    “More generally, scientism is often interpreted as science applied “in excess”.
    “Tom Sorell provides this definition: “Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.”
    “Philosophers such as Alexander Rosenberg have also adopted “scientism” as a name for the view that science is the only reliable source of knowledge.”
    So, is this really examination of “scientism” or science itself?

    That said, Neil’s conclusion raised my eyebrows. To write, “Science enumerates facts,” is no more valid than the Winegards’ statement, “Truth is provisional.”
    Science does more than enumerate facts, it provides theories about the unknown aspects of reality, it is a tool intended to help us “unfold the full picture of reality,” one slow step at a time.
    Which is why science, not “truth,” considers itself to be “provisional.”

    • Science provides theories about unknown reality? Tisk tisk. By that definition, religions count as “science” because they provide theories about unknown reality.

      Nice try, Mr. Definitions Guy.

      When I said that science enumerates facts, I was mentioning one thing science does not what science is. Elsewhere I write, “Science articulates theoretical truths discovered through quantifiable investigation.”

      Sorry to bore you. I’ll leave you to your Wiki browsing.

      • Theodore A Hoppe says

        Re: “By that definition, religions count as “science” because they provide theories about unknown reality.”

        Ignoring the snarkiness, this is a misrepresentation of my point. Obviously, the use of the word “theory” is intended to mean scientific theory (Theory: a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena). By advancing a claim that religion “provides theories about unknown reality” Neil must mean an unproved assumption or belief.

        Re: ““Science articulates theoretical truths discovered through quantifiable investigation.”

        This too is a misrepresentation. Science ” is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.”

  11. There is a ragged boundary between the known and the unknown. The scientific enterprise is engaged in moving this boundary outward. Much progress has been made. However, there is a fundamental problem in that we cannot determine the size of the unknown. When will we be done?

    At the end of the 19th century the positivists thought that humankind would soon pretty much know everything. They obviously failed to anticipate the cell phone, among other things.

    In my view, scientism is an attempt to prohibit discussion of the unknown. The mechanism, by which we deal with the unknown is belief. It is a mistake to apply belief to practical situations; i.e. scientific study. Conversely, it is also a mistake to apply the scientific method to beliefs about the unknown. Beliefs can be wrong, but cannot be proven to be so.

    Richard Dawkins is the poster child for misapplication of scientism. Belief (god) is not dead, because there still is much beyond that boundary of what we know. His popular biology books read like religious texts: one life form from the geological record begot another, etc. without any explanation about how.

    Sometimes, it is just bad science, at other times reprehensible because the intent seems to be an attack on Christian beliefs. (I am not religious myself). Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene” book is fatally flawed in this way because it disallows altruism. The assumption is that such a trait cannot be selected for because group selection cannot work as it is subject to infection by mixing. However, his contemporary, Maynard-Smith had already developed his “Haystack” model and the equations that describe group selection in the presence of mixing.

    The above bolsters Mr. Neil’s argument “Unfortunately, for Dawkins and Atkins, the belief that all questions must be open to scientific explanation is a metaphysical commitment, not a scientific one.” Dawkins and those who admire him get around this by cloaking their metaphysics as science where it is not.

  12. A C Harper says

    Are all of man’s deepest questions valid questions? Scientists may be limited to observing regularities but there is a method to review those findings against later observations.

    How do ‘other ways of knowing’ work? How can we agree that a particular ‘deepest question’ is valid, let alone answer it?

  13. Mark Hay says

    Science is an investigative method supported by a body of knowledge. It has nothing to say about ethics, morality or justice.

  14. Taylor Arbour says

    I agreed in large majority with the author’s points and a, thankful for the time and effort taken to articulate them as carefully as was done in this essay. To speak of science as a method, a tool, an approach, or an ideal and then from there go on to say science has the final claim on truth is simply to say that truth does not exist outside the human mind, for the mind is the only place that methods or tools or approaches or ideals exist. Thus the paradox of the scientistic statement that science is ultimate is so obviously paradoxical as to be, to most people (especially lay people), hiding in plain sight. Scientists who speak of science revealing truth are being merely sentimental and not scientific at all.

  15. hans says

    This is one of the best articles I have read on Quillette. Its seems most of the commenters that disagree with the article do not understand what moral values are or how they use them, and seem to think that their morals can come from scientific facts and observations. I can’t blame them for wanting to hold onto the idea that their actions are based on some truth instead of subjective moral values. Out of curiosity would the author consider themselves religious?

      • Fred Smoulette says

        I can think of at least two answers to a question that science can’t answer. The question:
        Why support a church that protects priests who rape children?
        It appears religion and/or “other ways of knowing” is no better than science at answering such questions.
        Some Catholics quit, some (many) continue to support a criminal organization that has been raping children for centuries.
        Perhaps there are some other questions that can be answered? At least, questions that aren’t answered in completely different ways than some other religion/priest/believer or “other way of knowing”.

  16. Reader says

    I have to be honest, I remain pretty unmoved here. In my very layman opinion, all the alternatives strike me as not being able to course-correct for new information – what’s the practical alternative if “science provides the best understanding of reality we have” is insufficient? Article could’ve used some practical examples. I don’t want to be steel-headed in this either, but doesn’t the fact science has an actual track-record of enabling better society count for something in terms of elevating it above other forms of knowing? To be a little snarky, mysticism certainly doesn’t.

    I’m also an atheist (I notice this writer is from a religious think-tank, which is of course fine) and Dawkins points about what happens after you die strike me as thoughts I came to when I was a kid and never really felt a compelling reason otherwise, and I went for a social science discipline which was more quant in application, and I loathe modern social justice mysticism, AND I tend to disagree with the more religious commentators on this site, so I guess I’m the target for scientism. I don’t even think it precludes the transcendent – non-overlapping and all that.

    • Taylor Arbour says

      Science is beautiful, to those who can see beauty, but science cannot determine what beauty itself is because science is objective and beauty is subjective. Can science ever hope to prove that it is an objective fact that subjectivity is an objective phenomenon? I am doubtful that it could. Human experience, including the betterment of society, requires both the objective and the subjective to be expounded fully. Science alone doesn’t explain it all, nor can it, nor do it’s authentic practitioners claim it does or that it can or ever will.

      Science is valued precisely because of it’s power to produce explanations and knowledge and technology that improve our lives, we need as much as we can possibly get of science for just that reason. We’re nowhere near the end of what we can learn from scientific practice and what that knowledge applied can give us regarding the further betterment of society. But the capacity science has for bettering our lives is not infinite, the set of important questions it can answer does not include the set of all important questions that there are to be asked because not every important question has an objective answer This is a metaphysical assertion on my part; to assert that my assertion is incorrect and that every important question does have an objective answer is scientism, as the author explains and, as pointed out by the essay, it is itself a metaphysical (and not scientific) assertion as it is not a falsifiable hypothesis.

      The practical value other disciplines bring regarding the betterment of society, eg enrichment through [insert your favorite art or hobby or social routine here], is self-evidently valuable precisely because it helps to shore up the gaps that science leaves behind.

      • Reader says

        Okay, that’s fair enough – but I think the reason people are being drawn to scientism is that, if we start holding the subjective at equal footing as the objective, it’s an incredibly quick jump back to putting some intrinsic value on classically religious concepts like the “word of God” or modern-day social justice concepts like “lived experiences.” And – while it happens to be the latter and not the former these days – these kinds of enterprises are never content to stay within their scope of the unknown and perhaps unknowable, but tend to instantly try and start determining what people can explore, or what they can make art about, based on these (by definition) irrational principles that exist out of the realm of the knowable. Quillette reports on exactly this kind of thing happening all the time in academia and the arts and media, and religion’s history on this front is well-documented.

        Scientism seemed define a bit looser in Bo’s essay – something closer to the idea that, when the subjective interpretation runs into an applicable scientific explanation, give science the final call. Between what I was talking about above, and given the absolute abundance of “personal truths” that are out there these days, scientism strikes me as appealing because it’s grounding yourself in the best rigor we have in a day and age where personal truths are a dime-a-dozen and can be organized by subreddit. Especially if you reject the divine and the intersectional mysticism that, incidentally, doesn’t tend to fare well when put to empirical testing.

        (Also, I’m somewhat skeptical on the point about beauty. I’ve seen arguments that the human mind might recognize “beauty” as defined to the individual in a way that doesn’t fit with the “culturally defined” cliches. Maybe that’s not the ‘proper’ way, to use people’s own perceptions of the term as a meaningful marker, but…maybe it is. It certainly COULD be.)

        I’m far from a philosophical expert, so forgive me if I’m not hitting the right concepts (or better yet, tell me what I’m wrong about 🙂 ).

        • Reader says

          Put in even simpler fashion, and maybe this could apply to the point people are making about practical examples: what larger truth, in particular not just as a philosophical exercise, would a belief in scientism blind us to?

          If we allow the subjective to be on par with the scientific – which, for the record, has basically been the standard throughout history – what ground do we have to stand on that there’s no reason to think Mohammad is really god’s prophet, or that Robin DiAngelo and her colleagues have figured out the various lived experiences of oppressed groups?

  17. Daniel V says

    Here’s an example of the problem. A scientist, like Krauss for example, makes a statement like the universe has no intrinsic purpose to give and this means we are free to forge our own purpose they are talking about existentialism. They might not be aware but they’ve picked up the idea from philosophers that came before them and most likely came to it via their culture. It has little to do with their scientific mind.

    The problem starts when these scientists start wading into philosophical matters but absolutely refuse to engage with them philosophically and instead say they’re right because science. It’s the same as some Christian loon using the argument because Bible.

    Another example is with new atheists claiming they only provisionally don’t believe in God but then going on to show they obviously hold a certain belief there is no God. They try weasel out of the burden of proof by claiming they don’t have a certain belief but then make lots of truth statements about religion and God that show they most certainly do hold a belief with certainty. Like by rejecting anything remotely religious out of hand or refusing to explore more nuanced ideas about God or creator.

    Fact is no thinking human being can avoid having and ideology or engaging with meta physical ideas. Just saying they don’t isn’t enough to make that a reality. If they’d take more than a passing interest in the ideas of the people that built the foundation of the science they cherish they might appreciate how important it is to know yourself. Otherwise you can’t be aware of your own biases or motivations.

    • KD says

      Bacon, Hobbes and the rest of the 16th century crowd derived the scientific method from rejecting basically two of four of Aristotle’s causes, formal causes and final causes. That is to say, the question of what something is and what its purpose is. They retained the material cause (composition) and efficient causes (how something came to be). The result is reductionism, what something is is determined by its components (you are just a collection of atoms) and the only relevant question is how you came to be (your father coupled with your mother).

      Dawkins is a good reductionist, reducing the human organism to genes, its smallest component, and rejecting any discussion of teleology, its all just genes making more genes. To say the Universe has no purpose is simply to recite reductionism.

      On one hand, reductionism is responsible for our modern scientific understanding, which consists of breaking things down into their parts, and then understanding how those parts come to be, and interact with other parts. It is possible we would still be having debates about the essence of water and its purpose if the scientific method had not come along, and still using Aristotle as a dogmatic tome on natural philosophy.

      Methodological reductionism is absolutely right if for no other reason than the pragmatic value of its fruits (although this would be a nonscientific judgment). Metaphysical reductionism, especially when combined with 20th Century logical positivism, is hard sell to justify philosophically. It breaks down over boundary questions (what is empirical/what is science, etc.) and it is impossible to resolve boundary questions with science, you can’t prove scientifically where the Atlantic Ocean ends and where the Mediterranean begins. You can only make a measurement and presuppose an arbitrary frame of reference (standardization).

  18. Leif says

    Consider the moment in Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The king’s new clothes’ when the boy says ‘The king has no clothes!’

    First, a man in the crowd turns to him and says, ‘The clothes are magical and therefore immeasurable, and at any rate you cannot lay hands on the king. Therefore, the question is not one that can be answered by any system of thought!’

    Another stares at the boy and says, ‘You’re out of order because the you’ve failed to clothe the king!’

    The wisest says, ‘We will never know be able to answer the question, so why do you waste our time by asking?’

    Moral of story: It’s a tough time for little boys.

  19. neoteny says


    blockquote>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.



    I think the proof of the thesis that “nature remains the same” (more like: the patterns in which natural entities are arranged change according to unchanging rules, i.e. natural laws) is in the fact that there are entities which are able to make assumptions. Such entities couldn’t exist if natural entities’ patterns of arrangement changed randomly, i.e. there were no patterns at all.

    To put it somewhat facetiously: we’re able to make assumptions only because hydrogen atoms form helium atoms according to unchanging rules.

  20. Liam says

    what do you think of Carnap’s distinction between internal vs external questions? I know he was applying it to universals but it still seems to place itself in a metaphysics? I think the strongest argument he makes for the meaninglessness of external questions is the fact people who ask these kinds of question-begging questions don’t actually want answers.

  21. I think the key to this is in the ‘ism’. To me, Scientism is the attempt to use science as a replacement for religion, which leads to the need to see scientific answers as immutable facts or dogma. Someone who just has faith in the scientific process is a scientist. The current climate cult is a good example.

  22. Peter J Kenny says

    I thought the “featherless biped” definition came from Aristotle, who was Plato’s pupil. And I never heard of Diogenes being involved.

  23. Surface Reflection says

    Bravo! Bravo!

    You nailed it mr Neil. Nailed it just right.

    I would add that science is a method of discovery through reductionism and as such it is constrained to sort of backwards looking, backwards down the causation chain – which limits it.
    And the subjects it cannot explore with that method move in opposite direction – forward. All the emergent parts of reality.

    To be sure, it can provide a part of answer to such subjects, but cannot completely explain them as the truth of those subjects is in growth, emergence and emergent combinations of complexity.
    And that cannot be reduced back in entirety.

    Ian McGilchrist has several excellent videos, presentations and books about two main parts of our consciousness, which are so fundamental our brains are divided into the left and right hemispheres which each see and understand reality in their own way. One side is an expert in reductionism and disassembling, while the other understand the whole as a whole in its entirety or as much of it as our senses can provide and experience.

    One side alone cannot provide the full answer.
    So obviously, scientism is the so called “rational” reductionism side “thinking” its own method is all it takes and that it can be applied to everything. Worse, hat it MUST be applied to everything.
    And that anything that cannot be forced into it – doesnt exist.

    • neoteny says

      science is a method of discovery through reductionism and as such it is constrained to sort of backwards looking, backwards down the causation chain – which limits it.
      And the subjects it cannot explore with that method move in opposite direction – forward. All the emergent parts of reality.

      The exact point of looking backwards down the causation chain is to find out what combination of rules govern the emergence of various states of the world, i.e. reality.

      All ‘subjects’ move in the forward direction: if you pick any point in the past, things move in the forward direction from it (due to the unidirectional arrow of time). Science always explores ‘subjects’ which move in the forward direction.

      [science] can provide a part of answer to such subjects, but cannot completely explain them

      It is possible to give a complete explanation for a stochastic process without being able to explain why a particular entity participating in that process ‘behaves’ the way it does, i.e. where it winds up in the state-space which emerges as reality unfolds. See radioactive isotopes of various chemical elements: for a particular such isotope, we can predict with great precision the time it takes for a bunch of atoms of that isotope to halve due to radioactive decay, but we can’t predict at all for how long will it take for a single such atom to decay.

      the truth of those subjects is in growth, emergence and emergent combinations of complexity

      Indeed; and science is taking a fair stab at those ‘subjects’, too. See weather prediction: the ancient Egyptians were able to predict the weather’s effect on the Nile, i.e. they were able to calculate the time when the Nile floods yearly. Nowadays we have fairly good weather prediction to 3-4 days and better than chance predictions out to 14 days. When we develop quantum computing technology to the point of commercialization, maybe we can increase the predictive power of weather models even more.

      the other understand the whole as a whole in its entirety

      One can have that experience by dropping acid; but such ‘understanding’ is of very limited use if it doesn’t provide good enough predictions about how reality emerges. Don’t get me wrong: people can write outstanding prose about such holistic ‘understanding’ and if other people are entertained by such ‘explanations’, good for them</> — but definitely not more power to them.

      • neoteny says

        Don’t get me wrong: people can write outstanding prose about such holistic ‘understanding’ and if other people are entertained by such ‘explanations’, good for them — but definitely not more power to them.

        • Surface Reflection says

          I wasnt talking about any such specific type of “holistic” tripping, neoteny. Although that can provide insights into things that are very unique and inaccessible to other methods of acquiring knowledge.

          And if you pay attention i specifically say that we need both of these main tools or abilities we have, instead of just focusing on one exclusively.

          Neither i have talked about radiocative isotopes of single specific particle. Or a “bunch” of atoms. Mkay?

          Thats a gross absurd simplification.
          And another example of left hemisphere sliding into extremes.
          Might want to consider that living beings survived and thrived through billions of years without any rational scientific thinking at all.

          • neoteny says

            other methods of acquiring knowledge

            What are those methods? How do they work? Can the use of them taught to others? If not, then that’s not knowledge: that’s magic.

            we need both of these main tools or abilities we have

            Have you ever heard of Ramanujan? He was a mathematical visionary: as a poor Indian youth, he alone worked out very — I mean very — sophisticated equations, series and other results, some 3,900 of them: a century after his death, mathematicians working on his 800+ pages of notes left behind still find astonishing results in his work.

            And he had no proof of them.

            He was a deeply religious Hindu and said that the mathematical knowledge he displayed was revealed to him by his family goddess: the source of his knowledge was divine.

            I have no problem with the concept of revelatory insights, arrived at through an untraceable mental process. But the results of such a process, i.e. the knowledge gained still has to be verified with scientific methods. So I’m all for holistic thinking as long as the output of such thinking can be reliably utilized by people of lesser abilities.

            Neither i have talked about radiocative isotopes of single specific particle. Or a “bunch” of atoms. Mkay?

            But you’ve talked about complete explanations. I’ve shown you a case where we have a complete explanation which gives excellent predictions for an ensemble of entities yet is unable to say anything about a single element of such an ensemble.

            Thats a gross absurd simplification.


            Might want to consider that living beings survived and thrived through billions of years without any rational scientific thinking at all.

            All living beings (viruses excluded) have to acquire sense data from their environment and have to process it in some manner to be able to react to it in order to maintain their internal states within homeostatic range. That sense data forms their knowledge of their environment — even when they have no nervous systems. And they have to be able to process such knowledge in a correct — one could say rational — manner to reach the (vicinity of the) desired state.

            Which means that in order to survive, at least some of the thinking has to be rational, and not too much thinking can be the irrational kind which causes damage or death to the critter.

            Homo sapiens sapiens is a mammal of no particular strengths: she isn’t particularly big or strong; has no sharp teeth; produces no poisons to acquire her prey. Yet she became an apex predator: she eats other plants & animals and very few animals eat very few of her. This is because of her large brain which has the neurological equipment to do sophisticated pattern recognition and the ability to express the recognized patterns in a symbolic way (language) and as such transfer the knowledge thus gained between individuals. Systematically mining one’s environment for knowledge (i.e. recognizing patterns and expressing them in symbolic manner) is science.

      • Surface Reflection says

        Also, just to quickly comment on these few points:

        “The exact point of looking backwards down the causation chain is to find out what combination of rules govern the emergence of various states of the world, i.e. reality.”

        Yes, of course. And it works very well for some emergent phenomena. But not – all.

        “All ‘subjects’ move in the forward direction: if you pick any point in the past, things move in the forward direction from it (due to the unidirectional arrow of time). Science always explores ‘subjects’ which move in the forward direction.”

        Of course, yet Scientific method primary tool is reductionism “backward” and due to reactions to the past problems and issues, it slipped into extremes of “materialism” as answer for everything – despite the fact it doesnt answer everything.

        Further, when complexity increases sufficiently it starts to create its own effects that cannot be traced back to constituting parts. Gestalt effects.
        Such as our consciousness is.

        And many other things.

        • neoteny says

          But not – all.

          But for more today than last year.

          yet Scientific method primary tool is reductionism “backward”

          No it isn’t: scientists employ inductive thinking, not just deductive thinking. Thought experiments are a prime example of projecting “forward”: imagining how some parts of the world develop and what kind of conclusions can be drawn from such a “productionist” exercise.

          and due to reactions to the past problems and issues

          There’s no way on God’s green earth that one can react to a problem or issue which never arose in the past. There’s no way to recognize a pattern which never manifested itself up to now.

          it slipped into extremes of “materialism” as answer for everything – despite the fact it doesnt answer everything.

          No one ever seriously claimed that materialism is an answer for everything. But the questions science aims to answer have to have a materialistic explanation. Vitalists used to explain the existence of living beings by positing that they possessed vis vitalis, the “life-force”. The only problem with this was that this ‘explanation’ explained nothing about the origin or nature of this “life-force”. But scientist/thinkers did more work — lots of work — and came up with a materialistic explanation by studying living things and acquiring knowledge about the bio-physico-chemical processes undergirding the emergent phenomena of life.

          when complexity increases sufficiently it starts to create its own effects that cannot be traced back to constituting parts

          Sure they can be traced back to constituent parts and their interactions involving feedback loops.

          Such as our consciousness is.

          Get a copy of Valentino Braitenberg’s Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology. A prime example of an extended thought experiment & of “forward” thinking. It provides a way to see how complex behaviours emerge from materialistic substrates; how entities are able to generate something indistinguishable from free will with neural equipment containing only elements which obey deterministic rules.

          • Surface Reflection says

            “What are those methods?”

            The ones you promote and praise. You didnt understand that sentence of mine.
            I said that you can get insights during a an “acid trip” that you cannot get through other types of acquiring knowledge. That isnt any kind of fantastic mystery.

            You also seem to misunderstand what “we need both of these main tools or abilities we have” means, and your example of that indian prodigy doesnt mean anything different.

            You seem to be answering to your own misunderstandings of what i am saying, locked in your extreme binary thinking pathology and applying a single method to what i am saying.
            That is i suppose … “rational”.

            “But you’ve talked about complete explanations. I’ve shown you a case where we have a complete explanation which gives excellent predictions for an ensemble of entities yet is unable to say anything about a single element of such an ensemble.”

            I did and you apparently cannot understand how calculating radioactive half life of a bunch of atoms is not – everything, or an example of high complexity i am talking about.

            “That sense data forms their knowledge of their environment — even when they have no nervous systems. And they have to be able to process such knowledge in a correct — one could say rational — manner to reach the (vicinity of the) desired state.
            Which means that in order to survive, at least some of the thinking has to be rational, and not too much thinking can be the irrational kind which causes damage or death to the critter.”

            Mhhmm, so… living being without a nervous system can still “think rationally”. Can you even fathom how absurd that is? I mean, obviously not.

            And ALL understanding of reality is “thinking” only, which differentiates only into two forms Rational OR Irrational. Nothing else. Right.

            “Homo sapiens sapiens is a mammal of no particular strengths: she isn’t particularly big or strong; has no sharp teeth; produces no poisons to acquire her prey. Yet she became an apex predator: she eats other plants & animals and very few animals eat very few of her. ”

            Lol wut? Very few animals eat hommo sapiens? SInce when?

            Since last huge climate change and extinction events that wiped out large megafauna predators maybe? Since we started to cooperate and so survive as a group, not as lone individuals and then got very, very lucky through no fault of our own?
            Which happened way before we got our current large brains and in fact fueled the evolution of that increase along other things.

            All land based animals and most of all other life forms have a form of proto language, btw.
            Mostly sounds that carry a specific meaning. Thats how language appears.

            “No one ever seriously claimed that materialism is an answer for everything.”

            No? Well, maybe not in your alternate reality timeline.
            Here its Ubiquitous.

            “But the questions science aims to answer have to have a materialistic explanation.”

            Oh really? So… science can answer everything – and nobody is claiming materialism is an answer to everything – but those explanations have to be material.

            Gotcha. You certainly didnt just claim two mutually exclusive things.

            Another great example of “rational thinking”. Applause.

            “how entities are able to generate something indistinguishable from free will with neural equipment containing only elements which obey deterministic rules.”

            Yet what they create is not deterministic and cannot be pre-determined.
            Just like weather cannot be. Because the best we can do is calculate probabilities.

            You have a looooong way to go.

          • neoteny says

            You seem to be answering to your own misunderstandings of what i am saying

            No, I don’t misunderstand anything; you’ll have to be clear & forthright about what you’re saying.

            locked in your extreme binary thinking pathology

            You mean I can’t be paid off with some handwaving. If you wish to criticise my thinking methods, then I can return the favour: it seems that you’re obfuscating and hiding behind vacuous references to “other methods of acquiring knowledge”. Name them; describe them in enough details that they can be evaluated by their fruits, i.e. the kind of knowledge they provide. Put up or shut up.

            calculating radioactive half life of a bunch of atoms is not – everything

            Strawman: no one claimed that it is everything. It was an example of a complete explanation of for a stochastic process.

            so… living being without a nervous system can still “think rationally”. Can you even fathom how absurd that is? I mean, obviously not.

            Yet they do. There’s a particular kind of slime (I don’t remember its name) which has no nervous system. The thing was trained to cross a bridge in order to reach some resource useful for it. Then they prepared the surface of the bridge with quinine, which is a mild irritant to this type of slime, but causes no damage to it. When the slime reached the prepared surface, it slowed down considerably; and as it progressed over the quinine-prepared patch, it started to speed up: it had learned (acquired knowledge) that the stuff under it is yucky, but it doesn’t hurt.

            And ALL understanding of reality is “thinking” only, which differentiates only into two forms Rational OR Irrational. Nothing else. Right.

            Indeed. The slime would have been thinking irrationally if it weren’t slowing down at the quinine-prepared patch: it would have risked injury were the stuff indeed hurting it significantly. But once it learned that the stuff is weak sauce, then it would have been irrational thinking for it to proceed at the same slow space it used to explore the newly encountered matter.

            If you have other ways of thinking than rational OR irrational, name them (and describe them in sufficient detail). Until then these two remain.

            SInce when?

            Since our real-time learning capabilities and symbolic communications evolved.

            Here its Ubiquitous.

            A pure assertion without any supporting data (i.e. quotes from here).

            So… science can answer everything

            Strawman: I’ve never said that science can answer everything.

            Yet what they create is not deterministic and cannot be pre-determined.

            Precisely. Animals with a fixed repertoire of behaviours can be exploited by other animals which have enough cognitive processing capability to recognize such a repetitive (patterned) behaviour. Evolution made us unpredictable to some extent in order to shield us against perceptive exploiters — including our fellow humans.

            You have a looooong way to go.

            Aren’t we all? Of course I have a long way to go — and so do you. Get on with it.

          • Surface Reflection says

            “Strawman: no one claimed that it is everything. It was an example of a complete explanation of for a stochastic process.”

            Complete? really? Yet it is limited to explanation of specific process.
            And doesnt explain why that stochastic process happens in the first place, and why that happens – and why that happens.

            You dont really have complete explanation for anything in this Universe.

            And of course, i never claimed that some processes cannot be explained to some extent – which is your hallucination.

            The rest of your replies arent any better.

            Plus – The slimes do not – think. They do squire knowledge but not with “thinking”.
            That claim is opposing all scientific and empirical facts we have about slimes.

            “Strawman: I’ve never said that science can answer everything.”

            Excellent. Then your whole argument is pointless.

  24. CA says

    The author does a good job of presenting logical arguments against scientism. I believe there are also strong empirical arguments to be made.

    Modern science is defined by its methodologies which presume to remove the individuality of the observer from all observations. Science, as Albert Einstein said, presumes the existence of an “objective reality” (“freestanding” according to E.O. Wilson) about which science discovers “facts”. (Einstein also observed that what we call facts actually are relationships)

    These facts in themselves are meaningless- they have to be interpreted, valued, ranked etc. Nobody, not even scientists simply live by facts. Awareness of certain facts may inform and guide human behavior but, strictly speaking, facts never “speak for themselves”.

    All day everyday we human beings take in sense stimulation and enfold it into some kind of order. This is how consciousness works. Neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist points out that our divided brain performs two functions simultaneously – it deals with the parts and the whole at the same time. As we participate in reality our consciousness provides meaning to experience. Most of us are largely unaware of the formative powers of consciousness – it is the artists and poets who are most sensitive to our elementally poetic nature.

    Science deals with the parts, it breaks reality into pieces and observes relationships. But since we humans are always participants in reality, the very act of doing science involves a kind of falsification of reality. There are, after all, no observations without observers. In this regard, science is not even empirical.

    I also find it odd that arguments are continually made for scientism, since, in the modern world, scientism has triumphed – at least as much as it ever will triumph. Champions of scientism complain they are misunderstood and science has been continually abused. It certainly has been abused and it will continue to be abused since the facts of science in themselves are meaningless.

    For the past couple of centuries, from eugenicists to commies to climate activists to free marketeers, everybody feels free to appropriate the facts and methodologies of science for their own ideological agenda. Apparently everybody except scientists seem to understand this game – it’s called life.

    Scientists, who are actually human beings like the rest of us, somehow imagine themselves above the fray. Coquettishly, they cling to their imagined virginity while.they consult the oracle of their methodologies to tell them who they are and what they are to do.

  25. jimhaz says

    I’ve never been convinced that “a priori” thoughts are not just condensed empirical knowledge.
    I do have a broad definition of science eg an infant touching something hot and recognising “hot may result in hurt” is science to me. Maths and logic are also science as the basics must be learnt first as repeated consistent observations. We can only from “a priori” thoughts once a base level of knowledge has been experienced and stored in memory.

    Scientism to me is just where the knowledge gained has been extended beyond what was actually demonstrated. A “You can’t see the forest for the trees” problem. It is science (specific finite detail in a closed or defiend context) without philosophy (aggregation of detail and pattern matching – generalised and more holistic abstracted knowledge).

    A religious person who thinks the Bible, Torah or Koran provides comprehensive knowledge to live by for instance is in effect applying scientism.

    • KD says

      Exactly, if you take one rain drop and add another rain drop, you get one rain drop.

      One + One = One.

      Mathematics is all just based on experience, and as such, we don’t know that 2 + 2 = 4 on the surface of Jupiter.

  26. I am arguing against it says

    “no one is arguing against the use of scientific methods in scientific pursuits”

    This kind of argument or defence against argument is very common and I was sad to see it in this article. First off, the author does not know this, and secondly, with so many people on the planet, I am quite sure that someone is “arguing against the use of scientific methods in scientific pursuits”.

    This kind of statement is about the equivalent of “you are stupid” or maybe “your point is stupid”. We should all stop using it.

    • Surface Reflection says

      No, of course not, Thats a false equivalence.
      And thats something people should definitely stop using.

      Besides, to argue against the use of scientific methods in scientific pursuits – is illogical nonsense anyway. So even if there are some special individuals who would maybe, possibly try to argue that… it doesnt matter since thats irrelevant to anything.

  27. Philosophy guesses, science certifies. Yet, sometimes it’s the other way around. In any case, two entangled methods for figuring it out, on the opposite sides of the same spectrum, one founded on the exception to previously believed rules, the other on the rule of no-exceptions.

  28. S.Cheung says

    This might be another example where a Quillette copy writer affixed a title to an article that unfortunately does not accurately reflect its contents…but is catchy enough to grab some clicks. I think one of the other writers on this topic recently (Staddon, perhaps) pointed this out.

    This article does not diminish “scientism” in any way. It merely points to its basic assumption. I suppose it is important for people to realize this basic assumption…but in so doing, i feel this actually bolsters its appeal.

    This main criticism here harkens back to the name…for if you are a practitioner of scientism, you must believe in the power of the scientific method. And yet, that belief itself is not testable, or falsifiable. You have, hopefully after some education and life experience, been granted a smorgasbord of systems you could hang your hat on, and you have had to choose in an undefinable way as to how you want to move forward. Others would have gravitated to some other -ism, in similarly undefinable and non-falsifiable ways. So yes, indeed, the belief in the power of science is truly itself not a scientific belief per se.

    However, like the Big Bang, everything has to start somewhere, but it diverges immediately thereafter. So once you choose to believe in science, you are on your way to an understanding of reality that involves reality, as opposed to an understanding that exists only between your ears. Things become classified based on what’s testable, and claims are measured by the level and quality of its supporting evidence. Any alternative would involve some level of navel-gazing, or perhaps even the abject inculcation of fairy tales. Some may find those alternatives appealing, but they are definitely not my cup of tea.

    On the other hand, I do acknowledge that science cannot answer all questions…at least not today, and likely not tomorrow either. I can’t speak for the Winegards or Dawkins of the world who have apparently made absolute statements in this realm, although they appear more than willing and capable of defending their own positions. For me, our current expanse of knowledge merely reinforces and highlights what we still do not know…the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns (my favorite riff of a W. Bush-ism of all time). Some of the other -isms would claim to know all things, including things they don’t…and that’s just sad and rather pathetic to me. The strength of scientism is not that it has all the answers, but that it can acknowledge when it doesn’t, and can ask the questions that might lead to more of them.

    • Science is a tool. It is not a belief system. Until you understand that, you don’t understand what science is. Kind of like the author.

  29. D.B. Cooper says

    I’m somewhat surprised to see so many negative comments, being that almost no thinker of the first rank disputes the author’s general premise; which as I understand it is that science makes philosophical and moral assumptions, i.e., belief in the uniformity of nature and the imperative of truth.

    The problems associated with the former (philosophical) assumptions are best described by the problem of induction, while the latter (moral) by the is/ought distinction. As I said, no serious scientist/philosopher disputes either of these.

    For reasons of brevity, let’s put aside the question of whether science can derive an is from an ought (it can’t), and instead focus on just philosophical assumptions that underpin scientific truth; namely, the unfounded belief (supposition) in the uniformity of nature.

    As the author (and a great many before him) explained, the problem with this premise is that just because something happened in the past, we can’t assume that it will happen again, no matter how many times it’s happened (observation/data). The assumption that the past predicts the future is an unjustified belief. So, yes, at bottom, science/scientific knowledge – acquired by drawing inferences from past observations/data – is based on an article of faith; which helps explain why scientific truth is said to be provisional. In fact, science doesn’t prove truth (absolute certainty), it falsifies – attempts to prove something isn’t true.

    For those who disagree, simply ask yourself, what reason(s) (read justification) do you have to believe that all future events will occur in the same manner as past events? Spoiler alert: there aren’t any, b/c they don’t exist. It’s not self-evident in the least, it’s just faith all the way down. Science is simply ‘bootstrapping’ itself; which is perfectly understandable, since there’s actually no way of proving anything as true, at least not with absolute certainty; and therefore, ultimately every claim is necessarily based on a priori assumptions or faith. (see Munchhausen trilemma).

    • Wow, you really went down that rabbit-hole. You started with a fallacious generalization and then took off into complete and utter rubbish. You really don’t understand science.

      • D.B. Cooper says


        Thanks for the cogent response. I’ll certainly take it under consideration. As far as my understanding of science, I would say something is scientific (as opposed to metaphysic) if it can be tested, measured, has a consilience on how its measured, and is repeatable. That might not be a perfect description, but I think its close enough for a comment section. Do you have a different understanding of science?

    • CA says

      D.B. Cooper

      Thanks for the Baron von Munchhausen reference – a greatly underutilized example.

      Apparently logical arguments, like yours, fall on the deaf ears of many of the Scientism Cultists. They’ve been making the same argument for over 200 years and people have been making the same critiques for 200 years.

      If science can derive ought from and is, then it’s about time it did. If science can determine how we should live then why don’t they just tell us. What form of government does science tell us we should have? What kind of morality? And how granular is this authority? Can science tell me what time I should get up in the morning? What I should eat? How often should I brush my teeth, when, what kind of toothpaste, how many strokes . . .?

      Clearly the answers to these real questions involve some kind of interpretation, some kind of preexisting value judgments. Which is to say, we live and exist all day everyday by preexisting value judgments – even scientists . . . Oops, now I’m making a logical argument . . .

    • S.Cheung says

      I agree it’s best to leave the moral stuff to Harris et al.

      I also agree with the philosophical assumptions that science makes ie uniformity. However, I don’t find that to be a slight or demerit of science/scientism in any way. For while assumptions of uniformity are made, those assumptions are testable. So you have framed your argument in a way that obscures the fundamental difference between science and “non-science”. That science makes “assumptions” is not what sets it apart from all the rest, and in fact does not do so; but it is the ability to test those assumptions that truly distinguishes science. I would love to see somebody test and prove some of the assumptions in the other, more traditional, “faiths” (and surely, their inability to do so would be a surprise to absolutely nobody).

      One could reach for literally who knows how many constants we have, but let’s take gravity…I can measure its acceleration to be 9.8m/s2 on Monday, and take on “faith” that it is the same on Tuesday. But I can then test that assumption on Tuesday, and find it to be correct. I can literally repeat this prediction/confirmation for as many days as you like. I can also make a prediction to any future point in time you prefer, and again show at that time that the prediction was correct. That sets it apart from non-science pursuits in spades.

      That said, I also agree that it is not the absolute truth…since that is impossible without infinite measurements over infinite time…so any scientific truth is a point estimate that carries with it confidence intervals, p values, or similar statistical representations of the remaining uncertainty. But once again, you seem to cast that in a somewhat negative light, whereas I find that representation of truth (with its inherent limitations) to be far preferable to the supposed absolute truth based on nothing more than “because so-and-so said so”.

      It does appear, however, that many are simply uncomfortable with uncertainty, or saying “I don’t know”, which might explain the appeal of having someone or something instructing them on how they should “be”.

      • D.B. Cooper says


        First, let me say, I appreciate you taking the time to put together a thought-provoking response. If memory serves, I believe you took umbrage with my post in Bo & Ben Winegard’s original article on the subject. My apologies for not responding to your rejoinder. I certainly had all intentions to, but I think my in-laws came in from Germany that day or the next and more or less monopolized my time for the next week or so and not b/c I wanted to, but b/c I didn’t want to take that beating from my wife…

        In any case, I believe, I made many of the same claims in this post as I did in that one, so maybe I can kill two birds with one comment.

        Before I address your concerns, I should probably mention that after reading your post, I came away with the sense that we are in far more agreement than what a first (or second) read would suggest. In fact, I think the majority of our differences come down to either: (1) sloppy/ambiguous language; (2) incorrect inferences drawn from undefined terms; (3) A less than charitable interpretation of some (but not all) of my argument; which I suspect is the derivation of unwarranted concerns that I’m trying to smuggle Jesus/God into (or out of) the gaps in order to make him/them do what science should. This concern, unwarranted though it may be, has caused you (I believe) to, in a sense, overcorrect and push back farther than what is necessary to address my claims and possibly what rational argument allows.

        Lastly, with respect to (3), I’m not in the business of smuggling Jesus, God, Muhammad, Zoroaster, Zeus, or any other deity into this argument or the previous one in Winegards’ article. The presence, absence, or existence of a deity has absolutely no bearing on the question scientism or science more generally – it’s extraneous; irrelevant. If you suspect that I’m trying to tear down science in order to reduce its utility to that of traditional/non-traditional faiths; then I would implore you to disabuse yourself of this conspiracy theory. I’m not arguing that we should toss science in the waste bin and make faith do where empirical truth once stood. I’m merely arguing that at bottom empirical truth was never there, and if it is, there’s no way to “know/prove” that it is. That’s more or less all I’m claiming. Trust me, I have no interest in – or faith in – being a Southern Baptist snake handler in the hills of West Virginia, any more than I do opening a tasseography store front in some Middle Eastern shithole town; although I’ve been told they got the best leaves…

        In any case, I think it’s important stress that I’m a big fan of science. I respect it immensely. I think it’s the best thing going when it comes to the acquisition of knowledge. I’m under no illusions to the contrary. But what I’m not going to do is lie about the limitations of science to the extent they exist; nor am I going to pretend that we (society) can “science” our way to a normative statement that expresses value judgments about the desirability of a given event/situation (read pull a Harris & Winegards), simply because I want to believe in the existence of an objective morality that can be known, even in the absence of deity. Of course, I’m not suggesting you did either of those, but judging from the comment section it seems apparent, or at least likely, that some people lie/lied as a means of not ceding ground to the apologists lurking in the shadows.

        (A) “I also agree with the philosophical assumptions that science makes ie uniformity. However, I don’t find that to be a slight or demerit of science/scientism in any way.

        Great! We’re in agreement, b/c I don’t find it to be a slight or demerit of science in any way, either. Moreover, I never said it was a slight or demerit. Remember, I’ve only attempted to provide a description of science as it is, or as I understand it to be.

        The question here is, why would you infer a value judgement from my description? Furthermore, why would you impute that inference on to me? I’m not going to go so far as to claim you’re strawmanning me here, but you damn sure didn’t steelman me. It’s like there’s no charity left in the world.

        (B) “So, you have framed your argument in a way that obscures the fundamental difference between science and “non-science”. That science makes “assumptions” is not what sets it apart from all the rest, and in fact does not do so; but it is the ability to test those assumptions that truly distinguishes science.

        Before I get into why you’re wrong, I want to be clear about what you’re claiming.

        Are you suggesting that I purposely framed my argue with the express purpose of obscuring the fundamental difference btw science and non-science?

        Or, are you simply saying that the obscurantism occurred by happenstance (not intentional) due to the way I framed my argument?

        Questions of my integrity aside, have you considered the possibility:

        (1) That I framed my argument the way I did, b/c I was defending the author’s argument, and therefore, wouldn’t it only make sense to frame an argument that you’re defending in the exact manner in which the author originally framed it?

        (2) That my argument as stated was concerned only with the philosophical assumptions that underpin scientific TRUTH.

        (3) That I give one shit about testability being the fundamental difference btw science and mathematics, for example.

        So what, if science has the ability to test hypothesis, while math, logic, and your local Southern Baptist church doesn’t? It makes not one bit of difference. The ability to test has no bearing on science’s uniformity assumption. Simply because you can test this assumption, doesn’t in any way relieve science from its reliance on it. Observing (testing) does not establish the validity of inductive reasoning… wait for it… except inductively. It’s a vicious cycle, to be sure, but I’m not picking on science. I’m just pointing to the fact that science is facing the same intractable problem that mathematics, logic, and theology and so on must face; namely, the inability to prove what is true.

        (C) “I would love to see somebody test and prove some of the assumptions in the other, more traditional, “faiths” (and surely, their inability to do so would be a surprise to absolutely nobody).

        Uh… yeah, I would too. Hell, while we’re at it, I would love to see science test and prove something, anything. It also seems like you’re suggesting that testing – or possibly the scientific method more specifically – is a prerequisite of truth; which I find strange, but if it is, that’s not at all obvious. What is obvious, however, is that you’re strawmanning me to death. This type of criticism is so far removed from anything I was arguing that honestly I hesitated to respond to it.

        Lastly, I think it’s important to mention that it looks an awful lot like you’re trying to protect ‘science’, i.e., making value judgements. There’s no reason to treat it like your first born. @S.Cheung trust me, science is capable of undertaking its own reformation and critique. The proof is in the observation as they say.

        (D) “One could reach for literally who knows how many constants we have, but let’s take gravity…I can measure its acceleration to be 9.8m/s2 on Monday, and take on “faith” that it is the same on Tuesday. But I can then test that assumption on Tuesday, and find it to be correct. I can literally repeat this prediction/confirmation for as many days as you like. I can also make a prediction to any future point in time you prefer, and again show at that time that the prediction was correct. That sets it apart from non-science pursuits in spades.

        You maybe should have reached for a different constant, because the acceleration of gravity is conditional or relative to the center of mass. So, you take that measurement on Monday and you get 9.8m/s2 and take it on “faith” that you’ll get the same rate of acceleration on Tuesday. But then your boss calls and tells you he’s booked you on the red-eye to Macapa, Brazil to deal with a few pressing issues at one of the company’s manufacturing plants in downtown Macapa. The next day on your lunch break you test that assumption and find that you need to be living a better life b/c your “faith” ain’t worth a shit, instead of 9.8m/s2 the rate of acceleration is now more like 9.780m/s2. You then realize you cannot literally repeat this prediction/confirmation for as many days as you like. Later that night, while reading an Earth Science magazine you learn the moon was formed 4.51 billion years ago, in part, from debris from the Earth following a giant impact. After a little deductive logic, you realize this not only changed the mass of the Earth and therefore the gravitational acceleration, but it also changed the certainty you had that all future measurements would necessarily reflect those of the past, b/c shit happens and that’s the only prediction you can make with certainty.

        (E) “But once again, you seem to cast that in a somewhat negative light, whereas I find that representation of truth (with its inherent limitations) to be far preferable to the supposed absolute truth based on nothing more than “because so-and-so said so”.

        I’m not familiar with those supposed absolute truths based on nothing more than “because so-and-so said so.” I’m also not familiar with So-and-so. As a rule, I find it’s better to just assume the So-and-so’s of the world are liars until proven otherwise. And so, given the choice, I too prefer “truth with inherent limitations” over the assertions of a charlatan.

        @S.Cheung, we’re simpatico, you and I.

        (F) “It does appear, however, that many are simply uncomfortable with uncertainty, or saying “I don’t know”, which might explain the appeal of having someone or something instructing them on how they should “be”.

        Yes, I agree.

        *please excuse any typos, I was rushed

        • S.Cheung says

          thanks for your response.

          It is unclear to me if you were purely defending the author, purely representing your own POV, or doing something in between by aligning with the author to some degree. There being never a “never” nor an “always”, I presumed it was some degree of the third option.

          Having no prior knowledge of your positions beyond what was written (and I do recall responding to your prior post several weeks ago but can no longer recall any pertinent details), going by some personal first principles, but taking into consideration the general proclivities of many commentators here, yet making some corrections based on advice from Ray Andrews on this board, I still remain very aware of the tendency to sneak theism and deism into discussions such as these. I will make note moving forward that you would not do this, and refrain from such future presumptions. I apologize for having made them earlier.

          As I noted previously, the “morals” bit is quite separate from this. I personally don’t go as far as Harris, but his Moral Landscape appeals to me more than other “books” that would like to claim authority in that sphere. Furthermore, I am not so concerned about the derivation of morals, and whether science can do so as compared to or opposed to other means. I’m comfortable with the pragmatic approach of examining a narrative as wisdom passed down from elders over the ages, and using reason to adjudicate the application thereof.

          From your initial post, I took this statement to be at its core: “As the author (and a great many before him) explained, the problem with this premise is that just because something happened in the past, we can’t assume that it will happen again, no matter how many times it’s happened (observation/data).”

          Your focus was on the assumptions made by science. And I agree with that (as I did with my second sentence). I suppose I could have stopped there, but I did want to expand on the story by moving beyond that point. By stopping there, I inferred that you wanted to highlight the similarities between science and all the rest; by moving beyond there, i wanted to highlight the differences. And so by stopping at simply noting that science makes assumptions, you have obscured the difference between science and all the rest, because the difference lies in how those assumptions are then handled. I intimated that in the very next sentence. I did not use “obscured” in any pejorative sense, and still do not detect any hint of it on several re-readings. It may simply be a difference in writing style, but I would also suggest you were quick to take offense there.

          “The ability to test has no bearing on science’s uniformity assumption. Simply because you can test this assumption, doesn’t in any way relieve science from its reliance on it.”

          Given your stated position that you are a believer in science at least in the realms where you would respect its capabilities, I am truly flummoxed by your statement here. That science CAN test its fundamental assumption IS what differentiates it from other “beliefs” and their fundamental assumptions.

          And so it is my turn to question your definition, when you say “inability to prove what is true”. Are you referring to a scientific truth, which we both agree has an inherent statistical and finite degree of uncertainty; or are you referring to “true” in an at-once nebulous yet absolute sense? Because if the former, your statement is incorrect; and if the latter, you statement is correct but you won’t catch me worrying about it, like ever.

          “It also seems like you’re suggesting that testing – or possibly the scientific method more specifically – is a prerequisite of truth”

          This gets a bit circular here. The scientific method is the way to arrive at scientific truth, with its limitations. But it is a prerequisite to concrete knowledge that you don’t get with all the rest.

          I’m not here to defend science per se. Those who understand it know its worth, and its limitations. Those who don’t cannot be helped…or at least certainly not by me in this venue. I think pointing out those limitations is fair policy, but for some here it is not a long journey to become adjacent to equating science to all the un-sciences. I think what you did earlier was the former, and I don’t believe I implied or suggested you did the latter, but I found it to be a disservice to “compare” without the “contrast”, which is what I attempted to provide in my initial response to you.

          Your point D is correct of course, but you already know scientific constants have conditional statements as well, and so your example merely shows that “constants” can change as those conditions change….and yet if you replicate those new conditions, then the constants remain….well…constant. For the purposes of this forum, I felt the concept would suffice without all the moribund details. And yes, if you change the earth’s mass, earth’s G changes…because conditions have changed…but only to a new constant that reflects contemporaneous conditions. So your paragraph D appears to do the opposite of what I believe you intended.

          For E, I was intentionally vague because i don’t know how far down the rabbit-hole of theism you go, and if you did at all, which version you preferred. But I certainly make the same assumption of “so-and-so’s” as you do.

          In sum, I agree that our positions are more similar than they are dissimilar. Perhaps I would characterize our difference as one where you view the limitations of science in a more academic or dispassionate sense, whereas I view the applications thereof in a more pragmatic and positive sense.

    • Outraged says

      This is like saying “But science can’t prove the law of non-contradiction but must assume it to even get itself off the ground. Therefore, science must make philosophical assumptions. Take that, scientists!!!” Yeah, but so what? That has nothing whatsoever to do with the ability or inability of science to arrive at truth. And neither do the other philosophical/moral assumptions it needs to make.

      Yes, it is true no one disputes (or should dispute) the existence of the problem of induction and the is/ought distinction. Lots of serious thinkers, on the other hand, without an a priori axe to grind against science would (or should) dispute that these are problems for science in arriving at truth.

      First of all, the “moral imperative of truth” is like the law of non-contradiction; every argument assumes it, because it must, even those which appear to deny it on the surface. Arguments like “we should be more concerned with how knowledge of X would affect society (or something) than with whether X is actually true” implicitly assume the truth that knowledge of X will have undesired consequences, or is bad in some way, and that we are morally obliged to act according to that truth.

      Now on to the problem of induction. The statement that “philosophical assumptions underpin scientific truth; namely, the unfounded belief (supposition) in the uniformity of nature” is always bandied about as a “gotcha” argument by the anti-science crowd. It usually goes something iike this: you don’t know Newton’s Laws won’t change, or physical constants won’t change, from one moment to the next. Therefore, the next time you drop something, it might actually “fall” to the ceiling!! You don’t KNOW it will not; you just assume it will not. Therefore, your grandiose “scientistic” proclamations are in reality just as much based on “faith” as anything else!!! (Typically, if the speaker is right-wing, a plea for creationism follows; if left-wing, a plea for “other ways of knowing” such as feminine intuition.)

      But the argument itself is philosophically fallacious. The belief is quite founded, and its denial leads to absurdity. Let’s say Newton’s Laws, or physical constants, were changing. Are these changing according to some other higher-up law, or not? If so, and if that law is unchanging, then nature is, in fact, uniform, albeit at a higher level than Newton’s Laws. But if that law is changing, is this according to an unchanging law higher than it? So either you at some level have uniformity of nature, or else the universe is in itself absolutely random. But if that is the case, you have no grounds for believing that a human actually wrote what you are reading and that you are understanding what he is meaning to convey, rather than just random things you are sensing, random pixels and thoughts just correlating randomly with them.

      It’s true that we do not know the laws of nature completely and to absolute certainty, and no scientist ever claims that we do. But it is also true that models which are more parsimonious and correspond better with observed data are much more likely to be closer to the true laws of nature that those which don’t.

      • D.B. Cooper says


        You could’ve saved us both some time with a simple appeal to pragmatism. To your credit, though, you made a number of good points that are worth discussing. Some of your null-hypothesis hostage taking was little sophomoric, but on balance, more light than heat.

        I’ll try to circle back, if time permits.

  30. Jochen Schmidt says

    The main line of reasoning of this article seems to be this:

    1) It is legitimate to use scientific methods in (purely) scientific pursuits
    2) But the Winegards propose to use scientific methods outside scientific persuits (for instance, in social justice issues)
    3) This is not adequate because scientific methods presuppose “truths” that cannot be established by scientific methods alone
    4) There are other tools and methods to approach reality that are appropriate outside scientific persuits
    5) It is not legitmate to use scientific methods in order to outvote or overrun the outcomes of these other tools and methods outside scientific persuits (for instance, in social justice issues)

  31. E Taph says

    “Science cannot say that the world can be explained only by science.”

    Science is a method of sifting through explanations for the most parsimonious one. It can’t give guarantees about its validity but it can make other explanations appear less likely. It so happens that the most parsimonious explanation for our existence is contained entirely within the theory of evolution.

    The real question is: if evolution shaped our minds with various kinds of self-delusion that we follow for mainly instrumental, how likely is it that any explanation of anything whatsoever that doesn’t account for that phenomenon will have nothing to do with our reality?

    The idea of labeling attempts to compensate for our self-deception by bluntly looking at the natural world though as few prisms of personal experience as possible as “scientism” disregards that our minds appear to be a product of the same process that every other living creature experienced. It might not be the most emotionally satisfying answer possible – we’re here for the same reason as cats or rocks or trees are, and our question of “why are we here” is about as relevant as asking the same of the former. The real answer to that question will always be “because we wouldn’t be able to ask this question otherwise”.

    And as for why the world might be here in its entirety is still best approached through science and mathematics because it just might emerge out of the tiniest details in how probability works, just a random example of thoughts in that direction:

    • The real question is: if evolution shaped our minds with various kinds of self-delusion that we follow for mainly instrumental, how likely is it that any explanation of anything… will have nothing [anything?] to do with our reality?

      This is a very serious challenge naturalism. Possibly a topic for a future essay…

      • E Taph says

        I’m specifically talking about the pointlessness of presupposing meaning in anything as the search for meaning had been formed by other evolutionary drives in a way. The world might have a different sort of meaning to the one we’re evolutionarily molded to comprehend, a non-anthropocentric meaning of sorts and even if you don’t run with existentialism you need to be aware of that inborn bias – there is some chance the search may lead nowhere.

        Until it’s possible to figure that out, the only way forward is through structural explanations that rely on observed properties are enough, physical properties of particles, our genetic codebase – that which can be universally observed as discrete existences with little to no narrative we can attach to at least partly bypass that problem, and that’s good enough.

        So in my opinion, naturalism steers us away from narrative, evolutionary-influenced thinking and towards cogent structural explanations of phenomena and the ability to model them and that, in turn, may lead us to the real meaning(or the lack of thereof) of our reality. It just might not look like what we’re wired to search for.

      • Surface Reflection says

        No, thats a wrong starting assumption leading into further absurdity. The nature shaped our Primary interface with reality – that evolved into our emotions, and our emotions and nature shaped our mind – which is virtual emergent phenomena – which largely corresponds to real and true features and facts of reality – else we couldn’t survive in it.

        Now, because our minds and emotions have a degree of partial separation from reality in their “virtual” form and performance, and because they have their own emergent abilities that dont directly correspond to the biological hardware out of which they arise – they necessarily can stray from 1 to 1 absolutely correct representation of reality (our senses are also limited so cannot fully absolutely comprehend all of reality), which sometimes causes delusions and various other mistakes.

        BUT – that in no way can or should mean that ALL of our understanding of reality is a delusion. Thats just thinking in binary extremes – which is one of our Fundamental faults.
        Obviously, as i say above, if we were completely delusional we couldn’t survive.

        • E Taph says

          The point is that emotional understanding can only lead to absurdity because emotions are our motivating factors. We feel one thing so that we’re inclined to physically do another. Essentially the more ‘natural’ a way of understanding is – especially when it involves emotion, the more likely we’re using it to read a way to motivate ourselves towards some action. That which is emotionally appealing is also coincidentally broken by evolution’s methods.

          After bootstrapping ourselves with a model like that, it becomes possible to motivate ourselves to reason in a structural, unnatural way, that’s also way more useful for better models of reality – math anxiety in children for example correlates to the level of pain network activation – because to our brain, it initially partly appears to be an attempt to hammer some useless craziness into one’s head. It literally resists learning. The thing is – similar principle underlies all knowledge seemingly. I don’t see why readings on the meaning of the world, the lack of thereof, the use of naturalism, anything that appeals to our instincts might be ignored like a child’s brain might try to interfere with learning how numbers work.

          It’s also why I’m positing that creating the most detailed structural models through mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology are a prerequisite for even attempting to make some sort of sense out of our world. It might not be that naturalistic approaches are flawed, but rather, we’re inherently against taking them because they undermine our method of self-motivation and self-direction, by making our natural thought processes appear, in a way, shallow and fake.

    • jimhaz says

      Life has only a single primary meaning – self expansion.

      My TOE is that the cause and content of everything is self expansionary energy (possessing only this attribute), so to me life is a “hologram effect” of this fundamental activity.

      Without self expansion nothing could exist as there would be nothing to power it or to change it, thus no causality. Self-Expansion means that everything that already exists will be PUSHED ASIDE by the expansion… and lo behold we have contraction – the necessary “other side of the coin” for the dualistic nature of everything we observe.

      Even if one (falsely) assumes the universe is just some form of fundamental quantum soup, such a theory is reliant on the self-causation of change – ie it just happens, because of some supposedly self-caused law of equal and opposite reaction. It requires a starting point where no such starting point is in any way possible.

      • E Taph says

        I can’t agree about self-expansion being the defining characteristic of life.
        To me, life is about producing higher orders of information than what exists in the void that’s most of our cosmos, that it expands to do so is largely instrumental. Sorta like we could say that humans exist just to breathe but it wouldn’t be true. It expands for the sake of engraving information from the environment onto individual carriers.
        Early life had to adapt to certain conditions, then it had to adapt to its own internal competition, and all of that history is written in badly compressed form onto its genetic code.

        And reproduction after selection(all of which generally takes resources) is just an easy path towards manufacturing said reams of code. If anything, life is the memory of the universe. Reproduction is just printing out more medium on which to remember.

  32. This is nothing but a special pleading fallacy. This could have done in just a few, short paragraphs.

  33. defmn says

    Philosophy has a terrible reputation these days and not all of that can be blamed on the post modernists who are really only guilty of not being up to the task Nietzsche left them. Philosophy’s poor reputation goes deeper than that in my opinion and has to do with the old charge that philosophy is at best useless and at worst dangerous.

    Most moderns would readily agree with the part about it being useless but probably express bemusement at the idea that it can be dangerous for the very good reason that they really have no idea what philosophers do and have undoubtedly never met one. The only familiarity most people have is with the stereotypical fuddy duddy in the bow tie in the philosophy department at the local college and he certainly doesn’t look dangerous to anybody. More recently they may have run across a feminist claiming to be a philosopher and while she may look dangerous it is probably mostly only to her own self.

    These academics who call themselves philosophers are really only dangerous in the sense that they denigrate the idea. They are more correctly thought of as historians of great ideas or simply social scientists who think they are too smart to be called social scientists.

    But they are most definitely not philosophers.

    Philosophers are made up of a rare constellation of attributes. So rare that most people deny their possibility. It is the intention of this essay to, perhaps, cause a few to pause in that judgement and consider whether or not they may have rushed to judgement too quickly on this question because the true philosophers have left bread crumbs to follow for those for whom curiosity is truly “a lust of the mind”. And this is not an idle or academic question to consider because when properly understood the philosophic tradition of the west explains more about why the west is different than any other culture to ever occupy this planet than any other explanation you are likely to encounter.

    And, yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as western thought.

    Nietzsche claimed that “the greatest thoughts are the greatest events” in his book Beyond Good and Evil (BGE 285) and if that is true, as I believe it to be, the greatest events of western civilization are those to be found in the writings of two separate clusters. Plato and Aristotle, who basically defined the classical era and Bacon and Hobbes who created the architecture of the cave we call the modern liberal democracy.

    Of course such a pronouncement immediately ignites cries of disagreement. It would seem unreasonable to assume that the thoughts of only four writers could explain 2,500 years of western civilization. And I would tend to agree with that assessment because it is actually just Plato and Bacon who are the seminal thinkers whose thoughts have created the metaphysical structures we mere mortals have occupied these many centuries.

    But in many ways it is difficult to exclude the contributions and finishing touches provided by Aristotle and Hobbes to their mentors and so I have added them. Scholars will dismiss this broad brush as simplistic and ask where are the pre-Socratics, Machiavelli, Locke and Mills, Spinoza and Rousseau? Where are the Germans? Kant, Hegel, Heidegger? And that loudest voice of all in our age, Nietzsche? The religious will lament the slighting of Aquinas and Augustine, the sociologists will puff up at the absence of Comte, Marx or Weber among others. But this is an essay directed by the Nietzsche quote mentioned above. The greatest thoughts. And if you will bear with me I will try and explain why Plato and then Bacon stand above the rest even as Nietzsche hovers over their shoulders laying claim to his place beside them.

    The death of Socrates is generally regarded as the starting point for the western tradition. That is not really correct in the technical sense because Democritus (atomism), Empedocles (evolution), Pythagoras & Euclid (mathematics), Protagoras (sophist), to mention only a few, make up a fairly impressive body of knowledge if only we still had direct access to it. But the death of Socrates did change the direction of philosophy. The study of the heavens that Aristophanes so effectively ridiculed in his play ‘The Clouds’ quite correctly caused those for whom reason was preferable to revelation to reconsider their public stance towards knowledge and set in motion the oldest war known to man. That is the war between philosophy and poetry – or as we think of it today – philosophy and religion. And, yes, I know we moderns like to think the war is between science and religion but that is just a misunderstanding that we will get to with Bacon.

    Plato turned away from natural philosophy – the study of the non human things which included the heavens. The well known accusation that philosophy was useless at best and dangerous at worst for meddling with the cosmology that dictated the piety of Athens resulted in the charge against Socrates of corrupting the youth and with that conviction was born a second wave of philosophy. The philosophy of human things that has come to be known as political philosophy.

    It is most dramatically introduced in the book Politea which is known more generally by its English translation as The Republic. The first sentence of that book marks the move from the study of nature to the study of man.

    “Down I went to Piraeus yesterday with Glaukon, of Ariston, to pray to the goddess; and at the same time, I wanted to observe how they would put on the festival, since they are now holding it for the first time.”

    This sentence has been dissected to death over the centuries and I quote it here just to give an idea of what is involved in understanding a Platonic dialogue so I ask for a little patience in order that I can offer a very brief example of how Plato is to be read.

    “Down I went” – the philosopher descends from his contemplation of the heavens to turn his attention to the city.

    “to Piraeus yesterday with Glaukon, of Ariston” – the Piraeus was the port some miles from Athens. It is where the diversity and disorder that comes from foreign lands entered into Athens. It is outside a strict adherence to Athenian piety. Glaukon and his brother Adeimatus will be the main interlocutors with Socrates for the duration of the dialogue and were Plato’s brothers. They are historical figures as was their father, Ariston, and the others that are present.

    “to pray to the goddess” – a new goddess to Athens has been imported from Thrace. Remember that Socrates was put to death for ‘introducing new gods’ into Athens so this is a nice reminder that he was not the only one to do so if, in fact, he did so at all. Not being part of Athenian tradition it is appropriate that she be introduced to Athens through the port which served as the primary entry to Athens for all things non-Athenian.This was the introduction of that innovation. An innovation that Socrates declares to be at least as intriguing as the performance offered by the Athenian presentation in the same festival.

    So, curiosity – the primary motivator of philosophy – about that which is unique intrigues the philosopher and his companion to make the trek down to Piraeus.

    In the next few paragraphs we see the philosopher and his young companion accosted by a larger party as they begin their trek back up out of the port having seen what they came to see. They are confronted with the essential political problem. Those who stop them from leaving inform them that they will not listen to any reasoning about why they should be let go and since there are more of them – and therefore stronger – they can ensure that they will not be allowed to do. A compromise is reached by offering an inducement to Glaukon who accepts on behalf of himself and the philosopher.

    The promise of dinner and more entertainment into the night entices Glaukon to agree with the larger party and they return back into Pireus where they spend the night in conversation about what is just rather than venturing back out to watch the continuation of the newly introduced festival celebration that originally enticed their descent. When the conversation is over everything has changed for those who stayed to hear what was said to a far greater degree than for those who watched the innovative introduction of a new god as it was welcomed into the Athenian pantheon.

    And this is the very much abridged version of the opening few paragraphs of the most famous book of political philosophy in our tradition.

    I skimmed through this in order to be able to at least suggest that there are some things about Plato’s writing that are important to notice in even a cursory examination of his thought. The first is that the people involved are important. Where they are historical they come with the baggage of their actual lives. Secondly these dialogues come with settings and timing and are often presented in different formats. You could be reading a dialogue remembered by the person who witnessed it just the day before or it could be told by somebody who heard it from somebody who heard it from somebody who was there years before. Where the dialogue takes place, when it took place, who is telling the tale and who is there to listen to it are all part of how to understand what is being said.

    And with that introduction I finally get to a second point made by Nietzsche – “The difference between exoteric and esoteric [was] formerly known to philosophers.” (BGE 30)

    This distinction in knowing how to write so that those who can understand understand something totally different than those who cannot or should not understand while reading the same words is, of course, foreign, if not distasteful, to most moderns raised in the tradition where science is the highest authority. But, of course, most citizens of the modern liberal democracy have never been faced with the prospect of death for saying what they really think.

    On the other hand the idea of circumspect writing doesn’t seem so foreign to those familiar with the books and essays of those raised under autocratic rule. The great authors of the Soviet Union produced an incredible legacy of literature where meaning was obscured in order to avoid censorship or incarceration. Or to be a little more to the point. The virtue of thought (which belongs to none other than the thinker) is clarity. The virtue of speech – of which writing is a form – is precision. Or to quote an old historian writing about Galileo; speech by those who question authority often has the “intellectual virtue of honest dissimulation”.

    And so we arrive some way through this essay knowing next to nothing about Plato’s thought other than that he hid it from all but those most driven to understand him. Somehow this seems to make it appropriate to quote Alexandre Kojeve from his ‘Introduction to the Reading of Hegel’.

    “I believe that Plato actually succeeds in convincing those who read and understand his dialogue. But here is the difficulty: The number of people who read Plato is limited; and the number who understand him is still more limited.”

    I would not be one of those with the presumption to include myself on that list of those who fully understand Plato but I have a pretty good idea of who can make that claim and it is the list of those whose “greatest thoughts” span the centuries from then until now and constitute that which we call the western tradition. Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Rousseau, Spinoza, and finally the clearest – or at least the loudest – voice of all; Nietzsche.

    This is the list of greatest thinkers that constitutes what we call the western tradition. A tradition based upon reason rather than revelation. A concept we take so for granted that it barely raises an eyebrow when it is stated so explicitly. And yet a tradition that does not find a counterpart anywhere else in any other civilization’s tradition.

    The death of Socrates not only caused Plato to go down into the city; it could be argued that he took philosophy underground. He kept it alive by aligning it with the poetry and piety that defined the ancient pagan world. He hid it through the practice of esoteric writing which taught different lessons to different people through the art of saying different things to different people using the same words to do so.

    For those interested in the methods involved in that process there are many guide books. Leo Strauss is probably the best known of those who have written explicitly about the subject. The image of the cave for which Plato is justly famous offers a fairly graphic depiction of the levels of understanding that characterize humanity’s diverse abilities. After all, philosophers are not exactly egalitarian in their nature. We can all think the way we can all pole vault. But not that many of us are invited to demonstrate our ability at the Olympics. To be a philosopher requires the congruence of a constellation of qualities rarely found in an individual. Montaigne suggested they appear about once every 300 years and that might be optimistic.

    Christianity is sometimes referred to as “Plato for the people” for good reason though. There is a lot of contemplation that can be directed into determining the veracity of that speculation but the fact that the New Testament was written primarily in Greek may not be coincidence. Many scholars will tell you that there are two roots in the western tradition. One planted firmly in Athens and the other in Jerusalem. There is a sense in which this is correct and a more profound sense in which it is terribly wrong. Philosophy has never accepted the easy answer of revelation. But revelation was willing to accept Aristotle.

    There are great images in Plato’s writings. The Cave, mentioned above, which offers a picture of the human condition as it relates to knowledge and culture. The ship of state with its thoughts on claims to rule. The chariot driven by two steeds as an entry into an understanding of the human psyche or soul, and the divided line would be four of the more famous. But if you were to ask most people the ideas they associate with Plato they would name the Philosopher King and the noble lie which is actually the noble and necessary lies.

    As Plato has Socrates navigate Glaukon and Adiemantus through the questions requiring answers in order to come to grip with what justice might be – let alone whether or not it is worth even knowing the answer to that question – we come to appreciate the complexity of the human experience and the diversity of attributes that define us as a species in our quest to live a good life. What a good life might look like turns out to be both a simple and a complicated matter depending upon what kind of soul nature has bequeathed to you.

    And I suppose that this is where we meet Aristotle and Bacon.

    You can spend your lifetime reading about how Aristotle disagreed with Plato about this and that. Academic careers have been forged on less important questions. But for me the significant difference is more general. Plato wrote for the philosophically inclined. Aristotle wrote for the educated class. That distinction is huge and well worth the effort to understand.

    Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, and Descartes have all been proposed as the ‘father of modernity’ by various historians of philosophy. Given that Descartes acknowledges his debt to Bacon in his ‘Discourse on Method’ and his ‘Passions of the Soul’ even while claiming to have improved and surpassed him tends to exclude him from that title in my opinion. Hobbes was employed by Bacon to write down his thoughts – amongst other duties – so a simple matter of chronology would seem to dispense with that disagreement. Machiavelli’s contribution requires a longer detour so for the purposes of this essay I will simply note that Bacon’s most obvious contribution to western thought is found in ‘The Great Instauration’ that serves as a lead into the book we call ‘The New Organon’.

    The title is not an accident. Aristotle’s ‘Organon’ had served for centuries as the authoritative works on science and reasoning in what then constituted the Christian world. You cannot really understand Aquinas or Augustine without a grounding in Aristotle.

    Bacon, however, determined for reasons that are still argued over that the old alliance with religion that Plato had formed in order to safeguard philosophy from the excesses of revelation’s followers was no longer tenable and he turned to science as Plato’s predecessors had. After all, science, philosophy and religion do have one thing in common – curiosity about first causes – even if they have very different thoughts about approaches to satisfy that curiosity.

    Contrary to modern conceptions, however, there existed a coherent and reasonable account of both non-human and human nature. Bacon’s writing are considered seminal to the modern world not because he filled a vacuum but because he initiated a coup.

    To properly understand this, though, it has to be understood that while Bacon’s writings make clear that his proposed revolution concerning the ends of his science were purely political the work that constitutes the overtly political portion of the project was left to be written by his student Hobbes.

    In order to make both of these assertions clear let me start with Aristotle’s understanding of causes. Something every first year philosophy student is familiar with.

    Aristotle maintained that in order to claim a full understanding of any thing you need to understand four different types of causes – material, formal, efficient and final. In simple, if not simplistic, terms these meant:

    The material cause or “that from which”. The steel of a sword. The flesh of a human. Wood of a tree. The matter of a thing.

    Second is the Formal cause – the shape, design or arrangement. The formula that determines how the matter forms the distinct whole thing that it is. A sword and a plough may be made from the same material but the form differentiates them.

    The Efficient cause is the immediate precipitating event that effects change. You struck the match and it started the fire.

    The Final cause is the purpose. “That for the sake of which”. The ‘why’ or purpose of the action.

    This quick synopsis is embarrassingly unfair to Aristotle in that it reduces his much more profound understanding to almost cartoonish characterizations but they do not distort the purpose for which I list them and anybody interested in a truer understanding of these principles can find them readily enough.

    What Bacon did was to reject the Efficient and Final Cause as irrelevant to understanding nature as nature – although he does much later in his treatise almost silently slip in the admission that purpose is intrinsic to understanding human things. But that does not serve his purpose of making an understanding of non-human nature useful and it is almost invisible in his writings.

    Bacon accepts that the formal and material causes of things are what are important but he alters what that meant to Aristotle. Bacon’s conception of understanding causes emphasizes deconstruction so he takes the formal and material causes and breaks them down according to measurement of properties “such as dense or rare, hot and cold, solid and fluid, heavy and light, and several others”. Rather than trying to understand something’s nature as it is found in nature he takes it into the laboratory and deconstructs it into smaller pieces in order to understand the mechanism of action through controlled experimentation.

    Whereas the classical approach emphasized the purpose of ‘that which is’ in terms of the highest expression of its potential as a means to intellectual understanding Bacon wanted to know how things worked in order to make things useful to men and thus create a more “commodious living” for people as Hobbes will phrase it when we get to him.

    Science for Aristotle was an activity that befitted a gentleman. It improved the mind to be able to speculate in reasonable terms how the world was constructed. And it was based upon a very Platonic precept – “that all things by nature seek their good”.

    “This is the single most important conclusion to be drawn from the study of Nature, the First Principle of both Knowing and Being. And as this purposeful disposition is innate in the natures of all living things, Nature is the ultimate final cause of all that is and happens in life. “

    And that, in a nutshell, is the doctrine of Natural Right that steered philosophy for close to two millennia.

    If you are still with me this is why Aristotle’s science is referred to as teleological – it is based upon an assumption that there is purpose directing causes. Or to speak more clearly Bacon reversed the order of primacy between the two interrogatives useful for establishing cause. Whereas Aristotle promoted ‘why’ as the noblest question Bacon dismissed it as irrelevant and firmly established ‘how’ as the most useful path to knowledge. And he did this as a conscious decision to reverse Plato’s strategy of protecting philosophy from religion by aligning it in a manner that could be co-opted by religion as an intellectual adjunct. Instead, Bacon returned to an earlier version of philosophy intent on understanding the nature of non human things that would undermine the authority of religion’s version of first causes.

    Again, I must apologize for simplifying what is really a much more profound thought process. But it gives enough information in order to highlight the difference between Bacon’s revolutionary new science and Aristotle’s older version.

    Because of Bacon’s new direction to make science useful he introduces his ‘scientific method’ – which is still the basic model used to this day. Rational intuition for the formulation of a hypothesis followed by inductive reasoning to determine if there are obvious negatives that would invalidate the premise and, of course, rigorous empirical validation through replicable experiments. And now I must apologize to Bacon for simplifying his thought.

    Aristotle saw nature as something to be understood in terms of how it expressed itself in its highest form of potential. For him you could not explain the acorn without reference to the oak tree; the child to the adult. It was not about making nature useful to men. It was about making men’s place in nature understood.

    Bacon’s re-opening of how to determine the nature of things and the cosmology that naturally comes with it brought philosophy back into open conflict with religion. Why he did so is a longer story than this essay can encompass. Christianity had found a way to co-opt the Aristotelian categorization and explications sufficiently that they had actually been found useful by the church but the monolith that was Christianity was breaking down and Bacon lit a fire that threw that alliance into jeopardy. Descartes refined Bacon’s focus with methodology that gave it greater precision and successes.

    But it was Hobbes who brought the manpower necessary to pluck and poke at everything under the sun.

    Hobbes ‘Leviathan’ is a lifetime’s study in and of itself. A monster of deception and elucidation. A contradiction that resolves itself. Perhaps the pinnacle of political rhetoric masking a profound philosophical perspective. Or so I believe. Many others would disagree. Probably most.

    It is best understood as a political supplement to Bacon’s ‘empiricist first’ model in contrast to Plato’s ‘idealist first’ philosophy although both stereotypical interpretations are largely incorrect.

    The rhetorical tale told buttresses its authority on an odd metaphysical mix.

    Hobbes proposes to found a new political science based upon scientific principles such as his mentor Bacon would approve of. These consist of the “seven deadly sins” – my coinage – materialism, nominalism, determinism, hedonism, egoism, legal positivism and reason as calculation.

    It is upon this foundation that Hobbes raises his political science advocating for his view that a scientific politics should be built upon the following prescription.

    “The Passions that encline men to Peace, are Feare of Death; Desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a Hope by their Industry to obtain them.” CH. 13 (L).

    The fact that all of the above motivations for the establishment of civil society seem reasonable to the modern democrat is the first clue as to how successful Hobbes was in erecting the architecture for the modern liberal democracy because there is nothing in that prescription that would have accorded with the classical view that it replaced.

    It is bewildering to know where to begin in unravelling the exoteric from the esoteric message of this book but I will make a few assertions to start.

    The modern reader educated to believe that ‘honesty is the best policy’ might be inclined by the numerous reference to God to think that Hobbes was a devout Christian. He was not. He was, as are all philosophers, an atheist.

    The modern reader might further come to the conclusion that Hobbes was an egalitarian who believed in the equality of all men in their passions, intellect and drives. He was not. He was, as are all philosophers, one who ranks humanity by the constellation of attributes that make up their psyche or soul.

    The modern reader might come to the conclusion that Hobbes was a monarchist. He was not.

    With these three precepts in mind we begin.

    The thought for which Hobbes is most famous is his characterization of humanity in the state of nature.

    “During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man.

    “To this war of every man against every man, this also in consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the cardinal virtues.

    “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” (My bold.) CH. 13

    A more chilling description of life would be difficult to imagine.

    The standard academic interpretation of Leviathan is that it is a rejection of Plato’s thought. The interpretation I will offer is that it is the acceptance of Plato’s challenge to create a society ruled by a Philosopher King. The ‘Leviathan’ is his solution. Or, to go to Nietzsche yet again “Genuine philosophers are commanders and legislators.” BGE 211

    To substantiate such an outrageous claim let us return to Plato’s image of the soul alluded to above. In that image of the charioteer Plato divides the soul into three parts. Eros, thymos and nomos which are generally translated into English as desire, spirit, and reason. The image is of a charioteer (nomos) directing the two horses, eros and thymos. In this image the desires and the passions exert all of the strength to power and move the chariot. Reason is relegated to directing the speed and direction but cannot move the chariot in and of itself. Again this is a very simplified version of the image but sufficient to introduce the next level of analysis that impinges on our narrative.

    The desiring part of the soul is further divided with Plato asserting that the forms of the objects of desire in individuals account for the forms of the state. In other words it is the ruling object of desire within human nature that accounts for the various forms of governance in the world. And he ranks those objects of desire.

    At the lowest level are those desires primarily driven by the bodily desires (tyranny). The next level up is occupied by lovers of gain (oligarchy). Lovers of honour (timocracy) occupy a higher level (incidentally represented by Adeimantus in the dialogue) with lovers of victory (nikocracy) (Glaukon) one step lower than lovers of wisdom (aristocracy which literally means rule of the best) (Socrates). So at one level the Republic is a discussion that takes place primarily between the three highest forms of human nature having dealt with other types early on.

    In the Republic Plato makes the claim that “Unless the philosophers rule as kings . . . . there is no rest from ills for the city, my dear Glaukon, nor I think for humankind nor will the regime we have now described in speech ever come forth from nature”.

    It is doubtful that this assertion is made at the exact arithmetic centre of the dialogue by accident but that, again, is a question that takes us off of our path. Just in passing I note that at the exact centre of Hobbes ‘Leviathan’ we find this.

    “I am at the point of believing this my labour, as useless, as the Common-wealth of Plato. For he also is of opinion that it is impossible for the disorders of the State, and change of Governments by Civill Warre, ever to be taken away, till Sovereigns be Philosophers.” CH 31.

    In addition to Plato’s claim that philosophic rule cannot “come forth from nature” he also asserts that no philosopher would be willing to give up his love for knowledge for the lower love of political power or fame. If you consider this in relationship to his image of the cave and the fate that awaits the prisoner who has escaped from the cave and returns with ideas that are totally foreign to those who have remained chained in the cave the problem of philosophy as a ruling principle becomes clearer. Or to lean on Nietzsche’s clarity once again “honesty is our youngest virtue”. Zarathustra (1.3,5).

    But what if “the greatest thoughts are the greatest events”? If that is true then there is a way that a great philosopher could “command and legislate”. Can the midwifery of rhetorical language take the clarity of philosophic thought and translate it into the action of ruling? After all, is that not what the Bible attempts through the invocation of revelation?

    And this is the challenge that Hobbes took up as the necessary accompaniment of Bacon’s radical reformulation of science with his writing of Leviathan; the monster of the deep described in Job who “ None [is so] fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me?” and “He beholdeth all high [things]: he [is] a king over all the children of pride.”

    The “children of pride”, of course, have always been the central problem for peace as they contend for honour. For those who are driven by a love of victory, fame, or glory the peaceful path of democratic egalitarianism has never seemed all that attractive. The idea of improving one’s “commodious living” through “their industry” certainly didn’t seem all that interesting to Machiavelli. But industry is essential to the modern scientific method. So how did Hobbes proceed to make it an attractive path?

    One of the most impressive examples demonstrating rhetorical style has to be the second paragraph of Chapter 13 of Hobbes’ masterpiece. That he stole parts of it from Descarte’s first paragraph of his Discourse on Method who stole it from Montaigne is just a juicy bit of philologic gossip but it is where Hobbes produces his argument that all men are equal in quality of mind.

    “For there is not ordinarily a greater signe of the equall distribution of anything, than that every man is contented with his share” ends his argument with a flair worthy of any great con man. For a careful reading of a paragraph filled with auxiliary clauses and metaphors clearly shows that he argues exactly the opposite position.

    As Hobbes weaves his story of equality amongst all men he denies the rank ordering of humans based upon the nobility of their desires that Plato laid out and Aristotle built his politics upon. Gone is the idea that man’s true nature was to be found in the highest manifestation of its potential as Aristotle and Plato both insisted and that reason was that attribute for homo sapiens – the species best understood in light of its ability to reason.

    As Hobbes meanders through his less than convincing nominalistic version of human passions he belittles pride and vanity eliminating Glaukon and Adeimantus as models for a society for whom industry directed towards commodious living will go hand in hand for those good citizens of the modern liberal democracy who fear a violent death. Glory, and the pride that drives it, are censored to be replaced with a new understanding of happiness grounded in an egalitarian view that flatters and pleases the largest part of humanity’s great diversity of soul. To the extent that pride remains in view at all it is assigned to those who pursue beneficial knowledge using Baconian & Descartian methodology rather than the martial or political arts. No longer is happiness the state acquired through the perfection of man’s highest purpose of reason ruling the passions and lower desires. The pursuit of happiness is now open to all as a personally contrived goal. None any better than another.

    With all this in mind it is easier to understand the “seven deadly sins” that Hobbes proposed as foundational for his metaphysics. My little joke aside they are more aptly thought of as seven dummied down positions likely to seem plausible to those minds naturally attracted to the regime Hobbes is proposing which is based upon the desire for comfort through gain and fear of violent death.

    None of materialism, nominalism, determinism, hedonism, egoism, legal positivism or reason as calculation can actually be defended as philosophically legitimate positions as Leon Craig so meticulously details in his brilliant book ‘The Platonian Leviathan’. But every one of those positions has an emotional appeal to the type of soul for whom love of gain is the ruling desire. It is a brilliant tour de force of misdirection.

    Of course the question arises as to why Bacon and Hobbes, both philosophers of the highest order, would descend down into the city in order to undertake such a mission. The answer is the same answer that Plato would give when he re-directed philosophy away from the non-human things 2,000 years earlier and hid it within religion. The new order was necessary in order to make philosophy safe since the older order was changing and the cloak or mask designed by Plato & implemented by Aristotle was no longer effectively protecting it from those who, knowing it for what it is, found it dangerous. And philosophy is dangerous because truth is always dangerous to the noble and necessary lies that form the basis of all political regimes.

    Democracy, or the rule of the majority – which is the rule of those most interested in commodious living through their own industry without fear of violent death – offers excellent cover for philosophers since it is a regime unlike other regimes in that it is not based upon any personal virtue or attribute. Its twin virtues of equality and liberty are descriptions of relationships between individuals based upon the useful lie of egalitarianism. Democracy leaves philosophy alone because it regards it as useless rather than understanding it as dangerous.

    Democracy is the regime that tolerates philosophy because tolerance is a necessary precept in an egalitarian society that rewards any particular human attribute. Egalitarian societies, by definition, reject the concept of standards as it applies to the diversity of human life.

    The Bacon/Hobbes project has produced a world unlike any before it and undoubtedly exceeds any dreams its progenitors envisioned in terms of technological wonders. Science is no longer the ‘small power’ of Aristotle’s time seen as a worthy or noble pastime for the few. It has become the ‘great power’ or final authority on subjects from astronomy to nutrition. If it has not defeated religious revelation concerning the creation of the universe and the evolution of life it has confined it to a very small corner and neutered its authority for the majority of those born into the western liberal democratic countries. Religion is no longer dangerous to philosophy in the modern western democracies. Of course that is not the case in other forms of regimes as the nightly news is happy to remind us.

    In fact the scientific method Bacon proposed became so successful that by the 19th century it started to spill over from explaining non human nature to tackling religion on its own turf – human nature. After all the Bible spends very little time talking about creation. It claims creation because it extends authority for its prescriptions on how humans are to live.

    And even though Bacon specifically notes that human things cannot be explained without the context of purpose the social scientists of that century set out to do exactly that by maintaining ‘how’ as the preeminent interrogative over the ‘why’ that dominated the same discourse during Aristotle’s tenure as the seminal thinker of the previous 2,000 years.

    If you look closely you can see the social scientists swallow the exoteric Hobbesian prescription to the letter. Reality is understood as ‘matter in motion’ just like Hobbes said it was when he created the underpinnings for his materialism upon the model we have come to know as Physics.

    Pleasure and pain have become synonymous with good and bad as befits regimes governed by the majority who are in all times and places those governed primarily by a desire for “commodious living”.

    Words (nominalism) are no longer a representation of thought or nature but what the regime defines them to mean. No more wasted time and effort attempting to unravel the subtleties of what justice might mean. It means what the regime and the laws (legal postivism) say it means.

    The egoist pursues his own good with religious fervour even though such an idea cannot begin to explain the father who shelters his child or wife from danger let alone the soldier’s willingness to advance on enemy fire.

    Determinism is a totally illogical concept based upon the false dichotomy of it being the opposite of free will – another illogical concept confused with free thought.

    And reason has been reduced to the lowest common denominator of calculation which reduces all ideas to a lowest common denominator while excluding the very idea of synoptics which is on full display in Hobbes own book.

    That all these ideas of determinism, materialism, hedonism, egoism, legal positivism, reason as calculation and nominalism seem to be plausible to the modern mind says more about how successfully Hobbes introduced them in order to produce a regime that would promote Bacon’s vision than it does about their profoundness. They seem reasonable to egalitarians for the simple reason that they were used to create an egalitarian state.

    As the social sciences created themselves based upon Hobbes exoteric teaching they took on a life of their own. The fact value distinction based upon Hobbes materialistic explanation that only ‘matter in motion’ constituted reality became entrenched. You can spend a lifetime trying to convince a good democrat that while pleasure is a good thing it is not “the good” in the Platonic sense. And so through the rest of the list. Hobbes domestication project for humanity has been incredibly successful viewed from the perspective of the democratic regime.

    At least it was until Nietzsche mounted the stage and said ‘enough is enough’.

    I will leave it to the sociologists as to who is most to blame. Was it Webber’s fact value distinction? Perhaps Marx’s homogenization of human nature to its sociologically viable lowest common nature? Whatever it was that accounts for Nietzsche’s decision to remove philosophy’s mask he took no prisoners when he did.

    The image of humanity as a herd of cows might not be quite as well known as Hobbes barbarian or Rousseau’s noble savage but it deserves to be. Trumpeting his “honesty is the youngest virtue” he rejects the view of both Plato and Bacon that philosophy must hide behind masks in order to be allowed to survive. He justifies this departure by pointing squarely at Bacon for establishing science as a great power through his creation of a system of knowledge that reveals truth to the many and the necessary erosion of faith in revelation that came with it.

    Scientific knowledge offered explanations of natural phenomena that rendered divine intervention superfluous. No longer was revelation considered the principle authority for creation or human existence. Without that validation the ideas concerning the human things that Christianity had used to define good and evil for two millennium was undermined. Doubt was sown and Nietzsche felt it was safe to pronounce the death of the noble and necessary lies that had safeguarded philosophy ever since Socrates was put to death for impiety.

    “Honesty is the youngest virtue” indeed.

    But can a society be built on the idea of honesty as a virtue? It’s never been tried in the history of humanity and a little over a hundred years since Nietzsche set that project in motion the early returns are not all that encouraging considering the disruption that activists fed on post modern nonsense have created. To be fair though Nietzsche himself said it would take 200 years before the destruction was complete and the rebuild could begin.

    What that will look like is still conjecture. Can we humans thrive without certainty or purpose? The ancients clearly felt that the answer was “no” for the vast majority. Even today when Christianity has been largely neutered as an authority by science there are those who prefer revelation to reason for those two very reasons.

    Science, after all, is an open ended project. Its strength lies in its claim that new knowledge is always possible which makes us the first civilization ever to live without the certainty that all religions claim to offer. The success of the social sciences lags far behind the success of the non human sciences precisely because purpose is rejected as a standard for principles or virtues. As far as we have come from a technological perspective it would be difficult to maintain that we have progressed to the same degree in understanding ourselves.

    And because the physical sciences have had so much tangible success while the human sciences have struggled the brightest and the best tend to be drawn in that direction – which further exacerbates the gulf. And this even though it is not at all difficult to make the case that life is more complicated than non-life and should attract the strongest minds driven by curiosity.

    Perhaps this was once just an interesting aberration of our time but in an age when we have the technological expertise to destroy all life available to a number of different regimes it has to be more than a little dangerous to lack the knowledge to know whether that would be a good or bad thing to do so. Or to live in a time when the very question of whether or not something can be good or bad is not even acknowledged to be amenable to cognitive analysis as our post modernists and sociologists insist.

    And so here we are with the question exposed but the answer not clear.

    Philosophers are commanders and legislators and they are dangerous. But they are also philanthropists. They share their wisdom with all those capable and willing to look for it no matter where it leads.

    Where Nietzsche’s wisdom will lead is still unknown.

    • Theodore A Hoppe says

      The comment is a more interesting read than Neil’s essay.

    • CA says


      Thank you for the tour de force of clear thinking.

      “And so here we are with the question exposed but the answer not clear.”

      I think it true Nietzsche did expose the most elemental of questions. But, as Nietzsche himself says and you appear to affirm, very few will even grasp the problem. No doubt, this is as it should be – human society can only handle so many philosophers.

      Nonetheless, the “answer” does seem to be unfolding before us. We secular humans will continue, as we have, to simply reproduce all the superstitions and dogmas of traditional religions only in a peculiar inverted form: In our random meaningless universe, skepticism, not faith, is the new orthodoxy; irony is the new piety; and our priesthood of scientists, as Nietzsche himself said, kneel down before their methodologies like little gods.

      And where Christianity became “Platonism for the people”, what is postmodernism other than “Nietzsche for the people”?

      In short, we craw out of one Cave, only to crawl into another – apparently it’s Caves all the way down.

  34. Andre says

    Claims of scientism are just a strawman sliding down a slippery slope argument to solipsism.

    If there isn’t enough (scientific) evidence for something, there isn’t. A claim that there is doesn’t impugn science, it impugns the person making the claim. And if there isn’t evidence, that doesn’t mean that any other epistemology gets to just squat its ass in the knowledge gap.

  35. Joe Tundra says

    That was a lot of words to say experience and perspective is as important as science. The thing is, we don’t know the limits of what science can tell us. Beauty, for example, while subjective, can be quantified.

    Proportions and symmetry can predict forms that people will consider beautiful. Analysis has shown that colors affect people in predictable ways. McDonalds burger joints aren’t orange and yellow by accident. Those colors were tested and chosen for the emotions they evoke in customers.

    Artists choose pleasing forms, colors, sounds, etc, which appeal to audiences, first by guessing/intuition, then, if they choose to please people, by offering what has proven to be successful.

    Creators, (in fact all people), are taught what others learned from experience and confirm it by their own experiments. ‘Hot’ can be explained forever, but you never really know what it is, until you conduct an experiment, and touch a match.

    Our lives are the product of an infinite number of scientific experiments we conduct ever hour of every day. Living is science.

    • The science/metaphysics distinction is still helpful here.

      For example, is beauty something beautiful per se, regardless of people’s subjective responses to it? Or do people have to find a thing beautiful for it to be beautiful? These are metaphysical questions about being.

      Using science to show that people respond positively to particular arrangements of color and forms does not answer the metaphysical questions about beauty posed above.

      • Joe Tundra says

        The scientific method existed long before it was defined. Things exist…even intangible things like beauty, and it is all interpreted by our brains. Science, (once developed enough), explains what we see and feel…defines what is.

        I venture that beauty doesn’t exist outside of our interpretation of it. On the surface it is subjective, but much of what we consider beauty can be analyzed and predicted. Every day, more of what we considered intangible, can be defined.

        Sound doesn’t exist until we hear it. Otherwise, it’s just energy moving through mass. Our brains analyze the electric signals our ears generate from those waves and we get sounds that we associate with things we learned of, from experimentation.

        Every person will interpret the sounds differently, but even with our coarse understanding of the human brain, much is predictable about human emotions and reactions.

        Much of what theologians and philosophers once considered divine or otherwise mysterious, has been explained by science.

        Substitute metaphysics for magic, and Arthur C Clarke’s quote is still valid; “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

        I see nothing that indicates there are any limits to what science, sufficiently advanced, can discover…even about what is currently considered metaphysics.

        • Surface Reflection says

          Only… there is a trick there.
          I mean besides the one where you assume some magical future technology will figure these things out – by magic.

          When science sufficiently advances to those areas, it will have to change and adapt itself.
          Just like it did many times already as reality asserted itself over previous dogmas and calcified scientific opinions of past generations. And that science wont look like the current one or work under exact same rules and methodologies.

          It wont be something completely different, but it wont be the same either.

          Else it wont be able to discover or understand these higher and deeper issues.

        • S.Cheung says

          well said. As the author states, philosophy and theology were the preferred methods of obtaining knowledge and for understanding reality only a few short centuries ago…and look where they stand now. Indeed, they were the only games in town in a time of “pre-modern ignorance”. But like you, I’m confident that science will continue to chip away at that residual ignorance we have today, one brain fMRI at a time.

  36. Jean Levant says

    A great article, Aaron : thanks. What a change after the Winegards’s confused and confusing pieces!

  37. Andrew Roddy says

    Scientism seems to be symptomatic of a failure of skepticism. As such it is incompatible with open-minded scientific investigation. It’s just a glitch though. Rationalisations for scientism are transparently unsustainable. We’re on the cusp.

  38. Question: how can something be defined or demonstrated to be a “truth” without using empiricism?


    • Uptight British Empiricist pinching his D. says

      Mathematics or self-evident truth.

  39. Outraged says

    This article is a motte-and-bailey caricature of what the Winegards were actually saying, as are in fact most attacks on “scientism”.

    The bailey is that science and scientific methodology should not be the ultimate authority on knowledge and truth claims about external reality, even if they contradict our a priori view of how the world should work.

    That’s what scientists successfully challenge, so they retreat to…

    the motte, that science should not be the absolute authority on absolutely everything, a position the Winegards explicitly repudiate.

    For instance, regarding Hayek, whether tax cuts in fact spur economic growth (and if they do, in what specific circumstances) is a statement about the world that is in the end to be determined by empirical fact and not by theoretical economic dogma.

  40. Mike Walsh says

    Scientism, in the end, is about promoting form over substance; science as ritual. Much dubious medical advice, for example, is predicated on data which may be demonstrably irrelevant to a patient’s condition, but which is measurable, and thus meets a “scientific” standard of evidence. Modern psychology -among other fields- is riddled with methodological errors, often depending upon statistics that say much but mean little. Many scientific journals have been shown to depend upon a cursory “peer review” that appears to validate a study, but doesn’t. The essential scientific virtues of humility and skepticism are rare. And repeatability of experiment? Forget it. Crudest scientism makes claims for what is essentially self-delusion or even fraud. Worst abuse of all is the one who will argue as “scientific” truth claims because shut up.

  41. Pingback: Tonterías selectas | intelib

  42. Critics of scientism worry about the application of scientific methods outside of empirical fields.

    It’s quite droll, really, that to emphasize this caution, the author quotes a purveyor of cargo-cult pseudoscience, Economics.


    Metaphysics… deals with the whole of reality, or put in philosophical language, being as such.

    Define “being”.


    … the deepest questions concerning human existence ….

    … and the answers are?

    For millennia, Philosophy has been going around in circles, unable to come up with a definitive answer for any of the deep questions it’s mulled. Then, 400 years ago, the modern scientific method showed up and actually started providing answers to many of those questions. Advances in cosmology, ethology, evolutionary psychology and, most recently & rapidly, in brain science, have answered even more, while rendering the rest moot.

    Philosophers got the axe cuz they failed at their job, and are now desperately trying to fashion a new, ‘advisory’ role to avoid permanent unemployment. Go work at Starbucks like everyone else with a useless degree.

  43. Geoffrey Scoutius says

    Until 70 years ago, telling people that science could not answer all questions and that it indeed had philosophical assumptions was a given and known by all.

    The fact this article is shocking at all, shows that very few people know philosophy.

    Great article.

    • Except, Geoffrey, the article gets it all wrong.

      The asserted “assumptions” are themselves provisionally accepted.

      Science provisionally answers all the questions about our outside environment that can be answered in the positive.

      If you think you have arrived at an absolute truth about the nature of existence or the meaning of life or the purpose of existence or some such thing, by closing your eyes and thinking very carefully, you are kidding yourself.

      • S.Cheung says

        well said. Science gets you provisional truths, and its practitioners understand and accept that provisional status.

        Various “philosophies” and the practitioners thereof like to think they know truths, or delude themselves into that state of mind, without actually really knowing anything.

  44. “Science is one tool to aid man in his search for truth”
    Science is the only known tool for arriving at what seems most likely to be truth of our naturally surrounding environment. Armchair ruminations have a long history of arriving at bunk.

    “and meaning.”
    How would science yield meaning except in the negative? It is because of science we conclude that existence has no ultimate meaning.

    “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.””
    Clearly the author has failed to understand the provisional nature of science, thus providing another example of failed armchair ruminations.

    Science does not “assume” any such philosophy or morality, how absurd. The answers are right there in the author’s own cited text, but clearly not understood.

    Science provisionally accepts axioms of apparent fact and working methodology, absent any certainty they are absolutely true or best.

    I have no need of certainty, the lack of which simply does not bother me.

    Seeking truth seems to my personal sensibilities to be a “good” thing, but I make no pretense of being able to prove it and that is ok with me.

    Nature might not be uniform, but it seems to be, so I will stipulate provisionally that material progresses in the same way under the same conditions until that can be shown to be untrue.

    Science does not say all truths are provisional, it says scientific truths are provisional including the provisionality of truth.

  45. Seems like a classic straw man argument. The position that science should inform all our social policy does not imply that only scientific evidence should be considered. Instead, it merely says that we should attempt to apply evidence when possible. This article is yet one more misguided attempt to keep science in its lane.

  46. Mike says

    “One ought to be persuaded by reasonable arguments” is an “ought” statement that is assumed a priori by both scientists and philosophers, even Hume or Carnap. When anyone attempts to deploy reasonable arguments against this claim, they are presupposing what they are trying to disprove.

  47. Hal Noyes says

    It would have been nice for the author to give some examples of non-scientific modes of knowledge other than just the square vs. the circle trivial one, so we can really know what he is talking about.

  48. Pingback: The straw man named “scientism” – Explicitly Atheist

  49. Vampyricon says

    Quite unfortunate that people think this is a good essay. To pick just one argument to refute:

    “Science assumes uniformitarianism.”

    I fully admit that it does, but the problem with that argument is that it ignores the fact that it is provisional.

    If the universe is uniformitarian, technology derived from science would work. If it does not, then the universe is not uniformitarian.

    But it does work, thus we have no reason to discard the assumption.

    • S.Cheung says

      precisely. Science makes assumptions…and you can test them and find those assumptions to be provisionally true. What better way to gauge your perception of reality than by demonstrating that you are working with truthful assumptions. You can literally prove reality…which stands in distinction from any other “mode of thinking”.

  50. Respek Wahmen says

    The “intellectual climate” is becoming increasingly suspicious of science due to sophistry.

    My first impression was that this could only be written by someone who takes revelation and the supernatural for granted and, sure enough, author belongs to a christian nonthink tank. Just look at this gem: “The political left and right both advocate for free choice as society’s ultimate good. Doing so, argues Cardus Researcher Aaron Neil, neglects the imperative of choosing the highest good that is God.”

    Either there is some higher way of knowing, by which we can discover truths hidden to science, or what we know should be based as much as possible upon impersonal observations and inferences. A christian cannot be divested of local and temperamental bias when it comes to the question of what constitutes knowledge, fundamentally.

  51. All sense of reality is a modeling device with a limited range of focus..

    A model can never be ‘reality’ in any sort of complete sense, because it wouldn’t be a model anymore. All models have to be selective, by their nature

    A newborn baby immediately receives massive data inputs, but without any software modeling, at least initially, until it has established enough feedback loops to start establishing relationships of form and function, it observes only a chaotic two dimensional tactility, where nothing is knowable.

    At a very counter-intuitive level, to perceive everything without limit is to perceive nothing.

    The other limitation of reality modeling is that its model parameters are built around assumptions that can only be externally validated by other models with their own built in assumptions, in a potentially infinite regression.

    We live inside our software models of reality and the only way out is to get into another one.

    Every software model is governed by its own need for self consistency and is susceptible to articulation, rationalization, rules of engagement and criticism, and intra model arguments over its own nature, limits and validatability.

    Not all models are equal in terms of what they do. Science is a specialized form of reality modeling with some very powerful tools to manipulate anything that can be quantified. But like anything else, it cannot do everything and trying to force it into doing that will weaken it.

    Models of reality have historicity, suffer wear and tear, go through a life cycle, have a use-by date and can be recycled.

    We are very likely approaching the back end of the modern period, that started with the rise of cities, capitalism, secular thought and of course, its eventual apotheosis, science and the technology it has made possible. And now, it is starting to fray…..

    At some point all that is going to substantially unbundle. What is presently going on in Universities is not dissimilar to what was going on at the end of the classical period, as received wisdom and faith based knowledge took over from ancient science and intellectually ‘open’ enquiry, very much as it did in Alexandria in the early fifth century, when a female mathematician, astronomer and pagan philosopher was murdered by a Christian mob….

    Hypatia’s Ghost speaks to us across the centuries.

  52. Metaphysics literally means beyond the physical. Anything that is truly beyond the physical is beyond the senses and unobservable in principle. How is that different from imaginations? Do we really want to debate about our imaginations? Why is metaphysics glorified as equal to or greater than science? Wittgenstein said metaphysics is nonsense. It is not nonsensical in itself but anything you say about it must be. I guess it’s fun to debate nonsense. It keeps philosophers busy.

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