The HPedia: Scientism

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One simple definition of scientism may be extending the authority of science beyond what the facts logically justify in a given case.

Another way of defining it is provided by Julian Baggini:

Scientism is the belief that science provides the only means of gaining true knowledge of the world, and that everything has to be understood through the lens of science or not at all.

A further dimension of scientism may be overestimating the reliability of scientific claims, taking as absolute truth what is actually only a high probability.  As Dan Kahan puts it, “Science is a scale that never stops weighing.”  Scientific claims, by their very nature, are always open to being disproved by future evidence, and so there is always some degree of uncertainty.  This is what Willem B. Drees calls the “wildness of experience” – facts are ultimately not knowable with absolute certainty.  Yet while reality always remains to some degree “wild”, Drees notes, nevertheless science can understand the wildness of reality.  In other words, it can take into account the margin for error, and approach reality from that more humble perspective.  This is not a weakness of science, but rather a strength.

A similar perspective is put forward by DT Strain in his “Top Ten Signs of Good Spirituality” under the heading “A humble approach to knowledge.”

Given HP’s general endorsement of and trust in scientific method as the best means we have so far developed for knowing our world, it seems justified to be on alert for scientism.  At the same time, elements of the Fourfold Path may build in counteracting tendencies.  The embrace of subjective enrichment of experience through myth balances the objective and subjective, so that neither may dominate.  In addition, responsible action calls for an effective means of rooting out scientism, which in this case might take the form of peer critique: it ought always be deemed permissible in HP for a person who makes claims to be asked for evidence, and then to have that evidence subjected to critique.

Equally vulnerable to the charge of scientism may be those who play loose and fast with science to justify favored theories.  An example might be those who would invoke quantum physics to justify magic, since the facts of quantum physics as we know them at present are not nearly enough to justify feats of human mental telepathy, telekinesis, weather control, influencing of probabilities, or other such extreme magical effects (note this may not necessarily apply to definitions of magic more modest in scope of possible effects).

Drees acknowledges that scientism is always a potential danger, and must be investigated on a case by case basis.  At the same time, he notes that the charge can be used irresponsibly as an “easy excuse” to dismiss a given scientific claim, without making a well-focused argument.  It can also be invoked “at the expense of limiting science to the instrumental or empirical domain, robbing it of its theoretical dimension, which is where science reaches beyond what has been measured and observed so far.”

See also “Hubris”, “Fourfold Path”, “Myth”, and “Responsibility.”

Check out other entries in our HPedia.

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