I have recently had fellow posters here question my understating that scientism is on the decline. I also have recently seen several members here assert themselves to be advocates of scientism, so I am questioning the assumption I had, of the decline of this viewpoint.
I take scientism as defined by Wikipedia for this enquiry: "Scientism is the opinion that science and the scientific method are the best or only way to render truth about the world and reality."
For this exploration, I tried to find relevant sources on the historical and current status of scientism, and try to figure out if it was in decline, or not.
Words and concepts are sometimes fuzzy things, so there are a range of alternative definitions of scientism. The New World Encyclopedia uses dual definitions:
- (1) it is used to criticize a totalizing view of science that presumes science is capable of describing all reality and knowledge, or as if it were the only true way to acquire knowledge about reality and the nature of things;
- (2) it is used to denote a border-crossing violation in which the theories and methods of one (scientific) discipline are inappropriately applied to another (usually non-scientific) discipline and its domain. Examples of this second usage are labeling as scientism the attempts to claim science as the only or primary source of human values (a traditional domain of ethics), or as the source of meaning and purpose (a traditional domain of religion and related worldviews).
So only one usage is a claim to exclusive knowledge for science, another usage is to inappropriately apply sciencey language and claims to a non-science subject.
The New World Encyclopedia also notes that while current usages are generally critical, in the first half of the 20th century the usage was generally neutral, and was "as a neutral descriptive and roughly synonymous with logical positivism." https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Scientism
My understanding of the first half of the 20th century though, was that the dominant philosophic movement WAS Logical positivism, and that logical positivism sought to eliminate all study of philosophy other than LP, and treated the arts, etc. as NOT knowledge, as no fields other than math logic, and science could satisfy the meaning criteria of the verification principle. So citing LP as a usage of "scientism" that was neutral was NOT to reject the other two definitions. Instead, the meaning appears to be the same, the primary difference from then to now appears to be the opprobrium under which the LP agenda is viewed.
The "basic of Philosophy" entry on scientism https://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_scientism.html also defines positivism as the philosophy that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method." Note this also is identifying logical positivism as asserting the first definition of scientism as its core premise.
Similarly, in the early 20th century, Marxist thinking was a dominant sociological movement, and Marxism, through its claims to Historicism and Scientific Socialism appears to have embraced the second definition of over-extending sciencyism to inappropriate subjects.
Logical Positivism was widely critiqued by other philosophers, and fell out of popularity. And a rejection of LP, seems like it was also in most cases likely a rejection of scientism. Wikipedia lists many of the leading lights of mid to late 20th century philosophy and sociology as among scientism's vocal critics, including Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, Hilary Putnam, Thomas Nagel Jürgen Habermas and Max Horkheimer.
The Wikipedia article suggests there was a minor revival of scientism around the turn of the century (20th to 21st), primarily led by the "New Atheist" movement, and also including Michael Shermer and organized skepticism. Philosophy Now adds Stephen Hawking to the list of scientism advocates. https://philosophynow.org/issues/102/Doing_Away_With_Scientism However, despite the appeal of the four horsemen of New Atheism, they were not widely known as great philosophers (with the exception of Dennett), likewise with Shermer and Hawking. As the Philosophy Basics and Philosophy Now articles note, scientism is self refuted by its need to justify an epistemology with philosophy.
I also note that while the Wikipedia article quotes two current defenders of scientism, one quote from Mario Bunge is hardly an effective endorsement:
To innovate in the young sciences it is necessary to adopt scientism. This is the methodological thesis that the best way of exploring reality is to adopt the scientific method, which may be boiled down to the rule "Check your guesses." Scientism has been explicitly opposed by dogmatists and obscurantists of all stripes, such as the neoliberal ideologist Friedrich von Hayek and the "critical theorist" Jürgen Habermas, a ponderous writer who managed to amalgamate Hegel, Marx, and Freud, and decreed that "science is the ideology of late capitalism."
This quote has two parts - the first is a claim that to do science, one most adopt scientism, which Bunge then defines as just falsifiability testing. Well, this is not NEWS -- Popper basically defined science as "check your guesses" quite a while ago, and had no difficulty defining and endorsing science while NOT accepting that science was the limit of all knowledge. Mislabeling scientism, as if it were actually science, is not an effective defense of scientism. Neither is the second part of the quote, which is just an ad hominem against anyone who critiques scientism.
The second quote, from Taner Edis, is no more effective than the first:
It is defensible to claim that scientific, philosophical, and humanistic forms of knowledge are continuous, and that a broadly naturalistic description of our world centered on natural science is correct ... At the very least, such views are legitimate—they may be mistaken, but not because of an elementary error, a confusion of science with ideology, or an offhand dismissal of the humanities. Those of us who argue for such a view are entitled to have two cheers for an ambitious conception of science; and if that is scientism, so be it.
Edis is DEFENDNG the validity of philosophy and the humanities as complementary sources of knowledge to science. This is to reject the first definition, that science is the sole source of knowledge about our world. it is also to reject the LP program of trying to banish all non-sciences from intellectual respectability. It is basically an adoption of Popper's position that science has great utility, but has limits to its applicability. If the best cheerleading for scientism today has actually adopted the alternate the worldview of one of scientism's fiercest critics, then -- has scientism been defeated?
And today, despite the mini revival, even RationalWiki, an arm of the new-Atheist/Skeptic movement, considers that scientism is widely held in ill repute: https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Scientism
I also found two other useful references, a Big Think article, and an encyclopedia.com article https://bigthink.com/13-8/science-vs-scientism/ Big Think supported this narrative of current hostility, but not my implied history of decline from a dominant view to now a little held and poorly defended rump position whose current advocates do not even defend its core premise. And the encyclopedia.com article not only did not support this narrative, but by elaborating in a wide variety of different scientistic perspectives, implies that scientism today is still a vibrant and diverse collection of evolving views: https://www.encyclopedia.com/philosophy-and-religion/philosophy/philosophy-terms-and-concepts/scientism
So, is scientism a declining POV, once dominant in the early 20th century, but now so widely disparaged that its few advocates temporize and equivocate non-scientistic views under that label? Or is it still a vibrant and vigorous movement, still held in many intellectual communities, although perhaps less so today than in the prior century?