So scientism = non-theism?

I have concluded that anyone making accusations of “scientism” is just being dishonest. The term is usually used inappropriately, as a straw man, and in an attempt to claim “other ways of knowing” which are preferable to science. (But in a cowardly way, by attempting to discredit the science and not providing support for this “other way”).

But this is really stretching the strawmannery of “scientism.” It’s part of a BioLogos infographic portraying “America’s View on Evolution and Creationism.” It blatantly presents “scientism” as the only alternative to creationist ideas (theistic evolution, intelligent design and creationism)  (See the original inforgraphic at Infographic: America’s View on Evolution and Creationism in Christianity Today or click here for full graphic).) You get the message – if your beliefs don’t rely on the magical thinking of “other ways of knowing” you are guilty of “scientism” – which is a bad thing.

Modern science relies on evidence and reason. It tests and validates its ideas and theories against reality. There is plenty of room for speculation but it’s very much reality driven. So far no scientific theories incorporate gods, angels, leprechauns or fairies. But that is not to say they are excluded – just that so far there is no evidence or need for such entities. If, and when, the evidence arrives we will happily include such ideas. (Just don’t go holding your breath).

But according to this infographic modern science is guilty of “scientism.”

Well, if that’s how you want to define “scientism” I am happy to be declared guilty. But you can’t use that as a term of derision.

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15 responses to “So scientism = non-theism?

  1. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I consider it progress. The old way of saying the same way was to mention “methodological naturalism” (acceptable, eg science) vs “philosophical naturalism” (unacceptable, eg atheism).

    But when a) people dig into the root of those terms, they were unsupported theological inventions (of course) and b) science makes creationism unnecessary and even unlikely in many cases where were used to be a gap-for-gods (eg universes out of physical laws, species out of evolution). So religionistas had to retreat further, to “other ways of knowing”.

    As a more or less obvious sign of retreat, and its concomitant stretching of a strawman, it really puts the stress on the religionistas.

    The physicalism of physicist Sean Carroll et al _do_ exclude magic (eg gods, angels, leprechauns or fairies) without using theory on it. Empirically you don’t need that for exclusion anymore than you need to know antigravity to exclude it by general relativity (gravity is curvature) or to know cloning to exclude it by quantum mechanics (no cloning theorem).

    Personally I think the 70s was the time it became possible to test physicalism with its absence of magic, doing local work without local energy input, sufficiently wide to make it statistically valid – it is easy, if arguable, to make the estimate. And testability makes it explicit that it isn’t philosophy and especially theology. In fact, I believe it is a measure of science effectiveness similar to how well assumptions of uniformity works, the absence of perpetual motion machines (which you could do out of magic) is not necessary but extends thermodynamics universally.

    But if any of that is a fact, it is so controversial that it hasn’t dawned on people yet. Religion can always retreat to “unreasonable belief”, but it will be kicking and scheming all the way.


  2. A more apt word would be “Realism”.


  3. Alex, I think “realism” is the last word users of “scientism” would choose as a replacement. It doesn’t have the same stigma attached.


  4. I think “materialism” is a neutral word which no-one would take offense at.


  5. Max, you know that many of your mates use “materialism” derisively, and with their own meanings.

    Why not just be honest and call it science. After all, that surely differentiates it from “other ways of knowing” which don’t rely on evidence, reason and validation against reality.


  6. Ken. You have no idea who “my mates” are. And it has quite a specific meaning in philosophical dictionaries. Look it up. It is not an offensive term.


  7. Max, we have had this discussion before and it was obvious then how different people’s definition of “materialism” is. My experience is that those who use the word the most bother the least about the meaning – and usually use it derisively. Creationists and the Wedge people for example.

    As I remember, you had trouble then producing a definition of “matter” and didn’t like my one. And I disagree – philosophers are often quite vague about the meaning of “materialism.”

    But we could test this – give me the definition you think most satisfactory.


  8. I have no idea how other people use the word. But it has a pretty well understood definition. Any word you choose will have people who try to redefine it to suit their own purpose. Even “science.”

    If I were you Ken, I would not let people bully you out of using a word because they put a spin on it.

    From my memory I did not get into a debate over the word “matter” and made no comment on your definition of it.


  9. OK Max, I will continue to use “science” in it’s normal meaning. I was going to anyway – I don’t allow such peopel to “bully” me.

    As for “materialism” the definition may be “pretty well understood” for your purposes but it certainly isn’t for mine. That’s why I usually avoid the word – and I can assure you that the way the Wedge people, and a lot of religious philosophers and the similarly inclined use it is derisively and undefined. They are effectively taking the scientific process (a reality connected process) and equating it with “materialism” which they somehow imply is not connected to reality.


  10. Max, here’s an example of the way the word often gets used maliciously – a review of a book by one of these Wedge people (he is one of only three New Zealanders to sign their “petition” opposing evolutionary science).

    Nicholas is part of my extended family so I guess I am going to have to take him on about this.


  11. I am sure it does get misused. Like all words. No one is denying this. And I think our purposes are the same.


  12. Max, I think the misuse is mainly by theologically inclined philosophers and other woo artists. Basically they resort to a well outdated mechanical definition. Anyone at all familiar with modern understanding of matter and energy is aware that this is inadequate, if not outright misrepresentative.

    The counterintuitive understanding of matter/energy today is I think the reason why few scientists, or philosophers of science, will use the word. It is just so prone to misunderstanding and malicious misrepresentation.

    Strangely, one of the best presentations of a modern understanding of philosophical materialism I have seen is the book “Materialism and Eperico-criticism by Lenin. Really a defense of Engel’s scientific philosophy. This really bought home to me the importance of understanding philosophical concepts in a very abstract way so as to avoid bring undermined by the advance of knowledge. This was written at the beginning of the last century when our understanding of matter/energy was being radically transformed. Unfortunately, most philosophers and philosophers of science seem to steer clear of the German materialist philosophers and consequently seem to be stuck with an almost medieval mechanical understanding of matter.


  13. Interesting.


  14. Good book review btw.


  15. Pingback: Perceptions/Gesichtspunkte – The Bee Writes…

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