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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?

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    Maybe scientism is too broad a category... "Faith" is science is debatable and debated: we see everyday critical discussions involving astrology, new age, no vax, etc. So, it seems, there is a big anti-science skeptical feeling. But, at the same time, most of people following those approach uses cell phones and go to the drugstore to buy medicines. So they are "practically" pro-science. Aug 23, 2023 at 7:57
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    Since I am the fellow poster who questioned the decline of scientism let me just say — I was joking! The serious content referring to philosophers like Sam Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, Ayn Rand... IMHO faux philosophers. But with a wide public following
    – Rushi
    Aug 23, 2023 at 9:20
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    Considering that "scientism" has become a pejorative term for misplaced application of scientific procedures to inappropriate subjects, it is trivially "on the decline" in words, due to negative connotation. In deeds, it may well be on the rise. And the vague "science is our best bet/guide/tool..." is routinely treated as a platitude.
    – Conifold
    Aug 23, 2023 at 10:52
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    And the backlash against vulgar postmodernism with its post-truth and alternative facts, may well bring even the words back. For a recent defense of "weak scientism" (defined to remove the negative connotation), see e.g. Mizrahi, Why not scientism?
    – Conifold
    Aug 23, 2023 at 10:56
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    @Starckman -- I consider Popper's falsifiability definition to be a good first approximation, and Lakatos' Progressive Research Program definition to be the masters class refinement of falsifiability. Note that both Popper and Lakatos are pragmatic empiricists, and treat definitions as descriptive approximations, as do I.
    – Dcleve
    Aug 23, 2023 at 17:19

2 Answers 2

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Your question is about the prevalence of an attitude in a population (presumably, the population of philosophers). There is no better way to know the answer to this than through statistics. Asking the opinions of a small handful of non-randomly-selected people in the population (as you would do by quoting what various philosophers you've read think about it) is drastically inferior to systematically asking the opinions of hundreds of randomly selected people in the population.

Fortunately, we do have some statistics. See the philpapers survey. Key results:

External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?

  • Accept or lean toward: non-skeptical realism 760 / 931 (81.6%)

Most surveyed philosophers non-skeptically believe the world is real.

Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?

  • Accept or lean toward: compatibilism 550 / 931 (59.1%)

...

  • Accept or lean toward: no free will 114 / 931 (12.2%)

71.2% of surveyed philosophers are compatibilists or believe there is no free will.

God: theism or atheism?

  • Accept or lean toward: atheism 678 / 931 (72.8%)
  • Accept or lean toward: theism 136 / 931 (14.6%)
  • Other 117 / 931 (12.6%)

72.8% of surveyed philosophers lean towards atheism.

Mind: physicalism or non-physicalism?

  • Accept or lean toward: physicalism 526 / 931 (56.5%)
  • Accept or lean toward: non-physicalism 252 / 931 (27.1%)
  • Other 153 / 931 (16.4%)

56.5% of surveyed philosophers lean towards physicalist interpretations of the mind.

Science: scientific realism or scientific anti-realism?

  • Accept or lean toward: scientific realism 699 / 931 (75.1%)
  • Other 124 / 931 (13.3%)
  • Accept or lean toward: scientific anti-realism 108 / 931 (11.6%)

75.1% of surveyed philosophers lean towards scientific realism.

Based on these responses it seems that most surveyed philosophers have a fairly "science-based" outlook on the world. I don't think they would use the word "scientism" for this, because, as you mention, it has acquired negative connotations. Most people using the word "scientism" these days are opponents of it. But the philosophers in the survey do mostly tend to believe in a real, physical world that science can reveal, and don't tend to believe in non-physical explanations such as gods or noncompatibilist free will.

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    I don't see how any of those categories, or all of them together can stand in as a proxy for scientism. The closest is those who lean towards physicalism of the mind because it would be reasonable to think they are physicalist in general, but that's less than 60%--not exactly overwhelming, and if just 15% of those are physicalists with respect to mind but not with respect to some other area, that puts even that proxy less than 50%. Aug 23, 2023 at 7:20
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    Seconding @DavidGudeman that some items don't seem to be related to scientism, even on the physcalist side of the mind debate there seems to be a sense of insecurity among many of its proponents who are struggling to defend their position against the hard problem question that has come under widespread focus only under the last 2-3 decades.
    – infatuated
    Aug 23, 2023 at 8:18
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    And thirding @DavidGudeman. Most assuredly, science ≠ scientism. For a science oriented philosopher (or scientist) to be a scientism-ist he'd have to agree to science replacing all traditional philosophy as being a good thing
    – Rushi
    Aug 23, 2023 at 10:30
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    Saying that the best answer will come from a survey and statistics sounds like scientism to me :-) The best answer is one that works in practice. Unfortunately, that means that for many questions there is no best answer because they are questions about words and thoughts.
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 23, 2023 at 10:57
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    @DavidGudeman There are ways to view the mind that don't label it as "physical" but are still accessible by science-like methods. For example, David Chalmers thought (at one point in his career) that experiential consciousness should be explained by a separate non-physical substance, with reductionist laws like those of Maxwell, relating that substance to physical substances. Then there are the panpsychists, including myself and Chalmers at other times in his career, who think everything physical is really mind, but can still be studied by the methods of science.
    – causative
    Aug 23, 2023 at 11:42
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One of the things that made me so keen on logical pluralism was when I read that Carnap was a vanguard of that "standpoint." I was also piqued by finding that Quine, of all people, advocated to some extent for a fairly "realist" view about set theory (though he did speak of the higher infinite as "recreational mathematics"), including a very weird version of set theory where there's a universal set whose powerset is possibly smaller than the universe and where the singleton axiom eventually fails. But if weirdness as such is very much subjective and/or relative, it will not quite do, to define the word "scientism" as "not believing in weird things."

Now, physicalism's main criticism, so far as I know, is its seemingly inescapable vacuousness: when invisibly many higher dimensions of spacetime, along with particles (or unparticles!) that can accelerate cosmic expansion while flickering in and out of existence and coordinating changes-of-state via entanglement, and so on and on, are "physical," then why wouldn't free will or divine powers possibly be physical? If it's more than "we just don't like that word," what is there to it?

So likewise, if there seem to be major intellectual communities where scientism remains a strong motivator or ideology, it's possible that this is on account of the ambiguity of the word "science."

Of dungeons and dragons

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that scientism is well-framed as the conjunction of the following two plans-of-action (since the word "science" has no satisfactory abstract definition, a concrete, programmatic definition will have to do):

  1. To try to formulate theoretical problems (problems of matters-of-fact) in a way that is resolvable in principle, rather than leave all things perpetually and utterly open-ended.
  2. To avoid dogmatism: to avoid privileging some book, plus educated commentaries thereupon, over all other writings.

I saw a meme recently, three-paneled, where the two upper panels were photos of raving Christians and Muslims, each mob captioned by something like, "THIS is the Word of God!" and, "No, THIS is the Word of God!" The third panel showed scientists looking at those photos, with a caption that went something like, "That's not enough words..." Or then Neil deGrasse Tyson, some years back (and I don't know if he backtracked on this), complained about philosophy in terms like, "It's just quibbling over interpretations of writings," which I have to say, as someone who has long engaged with the neo-Kantian corpus, is not an entirely unfair accusation. The apparent issue in such cases is that we will have people who become so fixated on some small circle of sayings, who esteem the author(s) of those sayings so exorbitantly highly, that they will, as scholarly communities, become absorbed in debates that have less to do with proper facts (intended referents of the texts) and more to do with versions and translations of texts, along with juggling the supposed "burden of proof" in a game of "who can waste the most ink and printer paper" that no one ever wins (nor can they, really). (Re: the neo-Kantians again, I have seen the minutiae of their analysis compared to the Christian literary fanaticism that gave us the phrase "makes not one iota of difference," and again, it's not that unfair of a comparison.)

"But then something happened that the One Book did not intend..." But in fact, Christianity and Islam (and Kantianism or Aristotelianism or whatever) are not necessarily incompatible with a pro-science attitude. To drastically break the spell cast by the "One Book" on much of history, so to speak, it did take religiously-minded fantasy authors (among others), however. I'll list some of them in rough chronological order (of publication, that is) and outline how they helped "break the spell":

  1. Tolkien, for normalizing the more immersive subgenre.
  2. Terry Brooks, for temporally inverting Tolkien's theme of sub-creation, catapulting the fantasy world from the arcane past (recall that the legendarium of Númenor was a facsimile of the Atlantis mythos right down to one of the fallen land's conlang names) into a post-apocalyptic future (the Shannara stories are set ages after a nuclear war that occurred in the late 21st Century, and the last Shannara book published has to do with magical technology that causes climate change, of all things!).
  3. Madeleine L'Engle, who put tesseracts, mitochondria, and spiritual inclusivism in the middle of a genuinely neo-Christian saga (the "Time Quartet").
  4. George Lucas with Star Wars, where magic and technology work side-by-side. His eventual talk of "midi-chlorians" has been betimes besmirched (forgive that phrasing) as "not mystical enough," but if I remember correctly, it has found wider acceptance as the prequel trilogy's reputation has improved among Millennials and Zoomers. And midi-chlorians are, essentially (per Lucas' own definition), mitochondria.
  5. Stephen R. Donaldson, whose Thomas Covenant novels, especially those after the original trilogy, were possibly the main forerunner of the "solving mysteries in the story by applying Magic-A-is-Magic-A" thematique that became mainstream with the television show LOST (inspired by Donaldson's own core inspiration, even: the Narnia books) and which has been perfected by yet another relevantly impactful author (see (9) below).
  6. J. K. Rowling: I don't know this for a fact, but I think her phrase/theme "wandlore," and of course her romantically dashing characterization of Hermione Granger, inspired a great number of at-the-time-young readers to balance a love of magic with a love of science. C.f. Dumbledore's remark in King's Crossing during the mystical interlude in the final battle: "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"
  7. Philip Pullman, whose His Dark Materials again balance the poetry of science with that of magic (and even religion: it is "by grace," one of the angels says in the end, that Lyra Belacqua, the Second Eve, used the "golden compass," the alethiometer, so effortlessly—even though elsewise we are given a vivid explanation of the compass in terms of dark matter). Bonus points for taking covert (or sometimes overt) shots at the dogmatism of "One Book" ideologues.
  8. Robert Jordan. Again with the Magic-A-is-Magic-A trope, not as lyrically as Donaldson did it, and ultimately with far more structural details built into the trope's expression, there (in The Wheel of Time). Which leads us to the man who completed Jordan's magnum opus after Jordan's passing...
  9. ... Brandon Sanderson, who characterizes his main work as science fantasy, and whose knowledge of aesthetics, religion, science, and philosophy is so vast (not just for a popular author, mind you) and pluralistic in both practice and spirit, that following his books instead of some "One True Book" is bound not to lead one astray. I find it quite amusing when I read people complaining about how "woke" Marvel and Disney and the like are; they have no idea: Sanderson is on a "bonkers" level of "woke," is very influential (including on an academic level, no less), and is, nevertheless, a member of the LDS church.

Which brings us back "full circle," then, to Tolkien's religiosity too: for incidentally enough or not, the RCC and the LDS are some of the Christian denominations who've had a peculiar enemies-to-lovers relationship with science, it seems (LDS cosmology apparently involves a sort of multiverse, among other things). Or at least, they have been, as literary communities after all, amenable enough to creative writers so as to have had members, like Tolkien or Sanderson (or the creators of the original Battlestar: Galactica, or the authors of the Ender and Twilight sagas), who have been pathbreakers in the speculative-fiction supergenre. In breaking that path, again, they helped to break the spell of literary dogmatism in many quarters, while directly or indirectly encouraging a love of objective knowledge also.

I should add, to round off this survey (and per this section's title), that Dungeons and Dragons has meant countless hours of statistical analysis for its players, a practice that must have disposed myriads from Gen X onwards to a mathematical style of Magic-A-is-Magic-A, and then with this some more widespread appreciation (subconscious or not) for mathematics, and appreciation more often lacking in those who detain themselves merely with the impoverished theoria of those "One True Books" of old.

Epistemological Malthusianism

Another factor to consider, when trying to evaluate the reach of scientism nowadays, is the size of the human population. If 1,000,000 people, say, believed in some ideology X "long ago," but we didn't hear so much about it (because communications technology/social media were so much less advanced), we wouldn't quite know, by comparison, that X was proportionately more or less or equally popular now, than it was "back then." Or, if 10,000,000 people today believe in X, this will be both more in absolute numbers than before, but less proportionate to the whole population, but also with greater media access on the part of both the X-ideologue and general populations. So how, precisely, can we tell what the level-of-belief in X is, today or yesterday, all things considered? Again, considering how amorphous the word "science" is in the abstract and how surprisingly pluralistic "scientism" can be, it is difficult to conclude that scientism is really somehow just another dogmatic ideology alongside various more well-specified philosophical or religious schools. Ironically, though eschewing much of the historical open-endedness of metaphysical discourse, scientism seems capable of keeping open the possibility of new questions, and new approaches to answers, in a way that obeisance to "One True Books" seems less capable of aspiring to.

Caveats: economic blowback

This isn't to say that the increasingly prohibitive cost of higher education, and the deficiencies of health bureaucracies, have not preemptively dampened the enthusiasm of many for "science." If we were promised that advances in technology would make life profoundly better—less stressful, less confusing, less parasitic or predatory, etc.—and yet we're now worried about losing our jobs (at already morally bankrupt places of employment, no less) or our homes (which we might lose not just to our prospective unemployment and displacement from the labor market, but also due to climate change and other environmental devastation), and this on top of being in arbitrary amounts of debt to the institutions that were meant to enlighten us on the way to a better life—if scientism did not prevent any of that, if we don't know that it prevented much of anything as such, if we don't know whether putting our trust in science enabled cognitive and economic predation upon us, then distrust of science/scientism would not be unexpected, neither would it necessarily be unjustifiable. Of course, for pedantry's sake, the intelligentsia can whine about increasing superstition among the laity; sometimes, of course, large swathes of the laity might do much better if they found the courage to think scientifically through the crisis that has been forced upon them; but are they to "blame" for being so exhausted that so many would rather cast their lot in with the sheer insanity of conspiracy theories, religious revivals, quack medicine, etc., than humiliate themselves in what they might think of as mindless submission to the intelligentsia?

It is not always very helpful, either, when psychology is used by government systems to try to cajole unstable people into generic, baseline compliance. Antidepressants, anxiolytics, and antipsychotics can be only so effective when physical health, housing, and the like are endangered. There are going to be many loudly upset people in all these kinds of circumstances, and depending on how loud they are (including on social media), we might end up with a skewed sense of how prevalent anti-science and pseudoscience have become if we try to extrapolate from them to the rest of the overall population. And there are also going to be people who are quieter on average regardless, who are not against science, who are not pushing pseudoscience, but who still might wonder, sincerely, if all their own beliefs and questions are counted, by these-or-those among the intelligentsia, as science. They might be sympathetic to scientism generously construed but not to what they might think the label "scientism" covers when it is meant to refer to militant dialecticians like the "New Atheists" some years back.


Postscript: and lest we forget, even Star Trek, for all its sterling technobabble, has the Q Continuum and the angels/demons from the wormhole saga (for the examples I remember, from my time watching those shows, of deities in that world). Or consider the influence of Studio Ghibli, and Miyazaki's messianic princess in particular (whose adventures zigzagged between paranormal mysticism and nuclear-biological warfare), on subcultures that engage passionately with manga and anime. We might even wonder about the dark theism of Lovecraftian mythoi, and the ever-growing dreams spawned thereby. The point being: as the "One True Books" are drained of their insidious power, by the existence and proliferation of other truer books, then because the redemptive might of those evolving truths points us to the marriage of science and magic as concepts, we should neither expect nor hope that scientism dies anymore than we should pray for the demise of all possible faith. For all we know, the "final" battle between epistemic good and evil will not even necessarily be a battle almost at all.

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    Great coverage of issues. I think the primary issue is that humans have this urge to "put their trust in" something, someone, some... whatever. This could also be called faith or belief. None of these do more than get you out of bed in the morning, and they certainly don't hold up long term, at all, anywhere, from anyone. Stop trusting things you can't kick! I don't 'trust' my car, I watch it every second lest it bring me to a horrible death scene: mine. Science is no better in that way. Nothing should be trusted farther than you know inertia will carry it.
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 23, 2023 at 10:54
  • My own engagement with fantasy and science fiction starting in my youth was very helpful in my developing an open approach to philosophy These influences are real for at least some of us. AND -- yes the primary motive behind assertion of scientism seems to be the assumption it is the only alternative to dogmatic theocracy. And the decrease in this belief in either/or dogmatism, which you trace thru fantasy literature, may be an explanation for the decline of scientism. So do you endorse the decline is real? And if so, by how much?
    – Dcleve
    Apr 11 at 17:23
  • @Dcleve I would probably want to say something like, "Strict scientism is on the decline, but a weaker version which merely gives priority to scientific methods without excluding secondary considerations is hardier and may win the day yet." Apr 11 at 19:42
  • @KristianBerry -- Calling being pro-science "weak scientism" is to remove the features of the view I described. All (or at least most of) critics of scientism I listed -- Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, Hilary Putnam, Thomas Nagel Jürgen Habermas and Max Horkheimer -- were pro-science. The objection is to the claim to exclusive knowledge for science, and the extension of science claims to inappropriate fields. Pro-science, while recognizing the arts, and philosophy, and our intuitions, are sometimes better for some issues, is pluralism, and is what is opposed to scientism.
    – Dcleve
    Apr 11 at 19:57
  • @Dcleve maybe I should say something like, "When scientism (as e.g. logical positivism) was called to clearly differentiate itself from alternative standpoints/frameworks, it apparently failed a basic retorsion test (the infamous self-devouring rejection of metaphysical propositions) and went on to blur its boundaries with naturalism, etc." Here's the rub: Carnap the logical positivist was a devout logical pluralist, and Quine the naturalist came up with possibly the weirdest ante rem set theory yet imagined. And by now, we know anew that even the concept of God is not anti-scientistic. Apr 11 at 20:53

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