Scientism is a philosophical view about the power and scope of the techniques of the natural sciences. It is generally understood to hold that all genuine knowledge about the world around us, including about human behavior, is obtainable only through the particular scientific methods that have proved so successful in physics, chemistry, and the other natural sciences. In other words, knowledge gained through use of the scientific method has a unique claim to truth, and, some would say, constitutes the only path to real knowledge.

No one denies the success of the methods of the natural sciences in dealing with astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth sciences, and physics. There is general agreement also that these methods have been less successful in accounting for human behavior, even when the techniques of statistical analysis are included in the mix. Whether the methods fall short because they need further development and refinement, as well as additional data, or because there is something inherently inaccessible to those methods is a matter of dispute. Scientism leans towards the former, and often invokes another philosophical view, i.e., materialism, to argue that since matter, with its movements and changes, is all that exists, scientific methods will prevail eventually in the study of human behavior as well.

Briefly and crudely, scientism in its plainest form is the view is that scientific methods are the only path to knowledge of the material world, and that the material world is all there is.

Critics say that these views constitute an overreaching of the limits of the scientific method, and are not even supported by science itself.

This collection of essays, edited by Richard Williams and Daniel Robinson, addresses varying aspects of scientism and its position as, supposedly, the new orthodoxy. The introduction is by Williams and the opening essay is by Robinson.

A few very influential philosophers and scientists have a strong commitment to views that have been characterized as scientistic. Williams cites the work of Steven Pinker.1 Pinker, however, denies the charge, which is not surprising as “scientism” for Williams is a pejorative term that necessarily connotes overstepping the boundaries of science. Pinker and Williams evidently disagree about where those boundaries lie.

Although philosopher Daniel Dennett and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins are cited in the book, the strongest support Williams provides for the orthodoxy of scientism is his agreement with Pinker that the cluster of ideas that characterize scientism has become “the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today.”2 With no other evidence in support of widespread adoption of the scientistic point of view, the evidence for scientism as orthodoxy is weak.

Scientists employ observation, experiment, and reasoning to engage in the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world. They do not qua scientists make the claim that what is accessible through their methods is all that exists, or that scientific knowledge is the only form of knowledge. These are matters of metaphysics and epistemology, and on these issues scientists can and do differ. Some adhere to a materialistic metaphysics; others accept the existence of a spiritual realm and the possibility of attaining transcendent knowledge of that realm. Materialists also differ among themselves about how we come to know the world.

The metaphysical and epistemological views held by particular scientists thus need not interfere with their scientific work so long as they follow the standard practices of their chosen scientific field. The contributors to this volume all agree that science itself is neutral with regard to these matters, and also that most scientists are primarily interested in simply getting on with their own work.

In fact, the worries scientists do express publicly through organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the US National Academy of Science tend to be quite modest; they are concerned that strong scientific evidence for climate change and other perils to the environment is in danger of being ignored or denied. They see the risks of underappreciating good science; pushing its limits is hardly a pressing problem.

The real value of the essays in this book, therefore, lies not in pointing out in a general way the defects of scientism or its alleged position as the new orthodoxy, but rather in the detailed discussions of specific issues. In particular, the essays touch on whether scientific methods give us direct or mediated access to the natural world, what current understanding of the human brain can tell us about free will and the new ethical dilemmas that result from such understanding, as well as the resolution of possible conflicts between religion and science.

Bas van Fraassen’s clear and cogent essay, for example, focuses on distinguishing two characteristic approaches to problems of epistemology: naturalism and empiricism. Rather than defining these complex philosophical positions, van Fraassen offers examples of each. A significant contemporary version of naturalism is found in Penelope Maddy’s Second Philosophy: A Naturalistic Method;3 van Fraassen himself, in The Empirical Stance takes the other position.4 The two share some common features. Neither claims to be a thesis or dogma, but rather an approach or stance. Both reject the notion that knowledge requires some a priori foundation. And both regard science as “a paradigm of rational inquiry.”5

Even as he points to these broad similarities, however, van Fraassen notes that Maddy’s attitude is complicated; at some times she identifies with the position of a “naturalist philosopher,” while at others she claims to be taking the stance of “an educated layperson” and “a member of the scientific community.”6 These two approaches are not the same, and, as van Fraassen notes, the tension between them causes problems when Maddy engages with philosophical issues. For example, when she denies that a second-level interpretation is needed to account for what scientists observe to be the case, is she speaking as a scientist or as a philosopher?7

This leads us to the view that claims that no layer of interpretation is needed to understand the results of any given scientific experiment. In response, van Fraassen invokes an analogy with scriptural fundamentalism. No interpretation of the scriptures is needed, the fundamentalist says, because the meaning is right there in the words themselves. The fundamentalist naturalist takes a similar view, only his text is the facts of nature.

Van Fraassen presents such concise, well-argued accounts of how naturalism and empiricism differ with respect to anti-foundationalism, attempts to solve the “problem of induction,” and realism that his essay could be considered a brief account of the state of contemporary epistemology. He defends throughout the empiricist position regarding the crucial role of interpretation in “achieving an understanding of the sciences as providing us with empirical knowledge.”8

Van Fraassen’s analogy between the scriptural fundamentalist and the naturalist who claims not to need interpretation to understand natural phenomena has special meaning for the defender of traditional religious views against the scientist’s claim to a superior path to truth. James K. A. Smith, for example, believes that when we recognize that both science and religion are cultural products and each involves interpretive activity, the scientist and the theologian are placed on a level playing field; the scientist loses his unfair advantage. Simply recognizing that both science and theology are cultural institutions, however, does not solve the problem of what to believe when the two collide. The historic cases of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin remind us that science has the superior record when it comes to producing evidence for claims that have been challenged by theologians.

Another author who invokes the fundamentalist analogy is Lawrence Principe, a historian of science. After documenting a long period of peaceful coexistence between religion and science, he draws an interesting parallel between the increasing popularity of scientism and the growth of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim fundamentalism. He views both scientistic and religious fundamentalism as reactions to a perceived threat to the status and power of their adherents and their consequent need for certainty to counteract the threat. Despite his careful historical analysis, on the issue of lost prestige he is not entirely convincing. While it may be true that scientists enjoy less prestige and obtain fewer grants than in past years, it is unclear to me that this has driven them to scientism. After all, most proponents of scientism are philosophers, rather than scientists, and the claim that contemporary philosophers have noticeably less prestige than their predecessors is highly questionable.

Several other essays deal with culture and the relations between science and the humanities. Roger Scruton notes that as various academic fields compete for funding, many have attempted to assimilate their subject matters to natural science. Evolutionary psychology, which regards mental states as adaptations that confer reproductive advantage, and neuroscience, which treats mental states as aspects of the nervous system that can be explained in terms of their cognitive functions, have both accomplished this with some degree of success.9 For Scruton, however, their reductionist explanations of cultural achievements, such as great works of art, are pointless and unsatisfactory.

Similar points about the inadequacy of purely physical explanations to account for human intentional actions and responses are noted in the essays by Richard Swinburne, Robinson, and Peter Hacker. All argue that what is needed to resolve the issue is linguistic and conceptual clarity, not advances in the scientific understanding of the brain and nervous system.

Arguably, as a group, neuroscientists raise the most red flags for those worried about scientism. This is because of the optimism, or, some would say, hubris, of many of them regarding the power of their discipline to explain human behavior in purely physical terms. Given recent developments in brain imaging, Hacker, for example, admits that neuroscience has the capacity to explain how the brain and nervous system support and coordinate with our cognitive powers. It also can locate defects and malfunctions in the system responsible for horrible mental diseases. But, he insists, neuroscience cannot resolve conceptual questions about the nature of the mind or whether humans have free will.

Kenneth Schaffner, with degrees in both medicine and philosophy, is uniquely qualified among these authors to write about the scope and limits of neuroscience. This discipline raises not only metaphysical and epistemological issues, but ethical ones as well, and Schaffner is a pioneer in the relatively new field of neuroethics. Our system of criminal justice as well as our informal views of praise and blame are closely bound up with the notion of whether and when people choose to act “of their own free will,” and whether and when they might lack the capacity to act freely as a result of mental deficiency or coercion. Schaffner’s essay presents a brief history of neuroethics and takes up three issues of crucial importance in the context of neuroscience research: free will, the role of brain damage or defect in cases of criminal convictions and sentencing, and early intervention in developing mental disorders.

Most philosophers recognize the possibility of the existence of free will even in a deterministic universe. This position, called compatibilism, was elaborated in Harry Frankfurt’s 1968 article, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” in which he invoked various levels of desire.10 For example, a heroin addict might want the drug but at the same not want to want it—i.e., not want to be addicted—and thus lack free will. But, Frankfurt wrote, “if a person is free to want what he wants to want …, then it might be causally determined that a person enjoys a freewill.”11

After presenting Frankfurt’s conceptual analysis of freedom of the will, Schaffner reports on various critiques of the Libet experiments as well as similar experiments that use more advanced forms of brain imaging. The Libet experiments purport to measure millisecond delays between brain activity as observed with fMRI and a subject’s conscious desire to act, for example, to press a button. These experiments have been used to support the view that a subject’s decision to act occurs after the brain activity that drives the act and thus is an illusion. In light of the conflicting or unclear evidence, Shaffner concludes that despite great advances in neuroscience research, the “relation between brain phenomena, consciousness, and the experiencing self that makes choices is only beginning to be clarified.”12

Before the advent of modern brain imaging, almost all knowledge of brain function derived from studies of how behavior was affected after known injury to or loss of parts of brain tissue. In a number of cases, researchers have claimed that damage to brain tissue compromised the subject’s free will. Since at least theoretically our legal system requires some sort of freedom of choice to justify punishment for criminal behavior, the question arises of a neurological legal defense, based either on known injury or on genetic defects revealed through new techniques of neuroimaging. Schaffner reviews recent work on the different approaches to the validity of the “neurological defense,” which sometimes appeals to genetic defects as well as brain trauma, and he cites the single case in which an appeal based on neurological and genetic evidence resulted in a reduced sentence. His conclusion is cautious: the one decision is “thus far idiosyncratic, but bears watching as a (weak) precedent for other cases in neuroethics/neurogenetics.”13

The ethics of research on human subjects is very serious issue and especially problematic when research requires “messing with the minds” of subjects. The problem arises in acute form when doctors try to diagnose and treat mental illness. Psychiatric diagnoses are complicated and depend more on behavioral clues than on any physical symptoms that might be detected by neural imaging. Psychiatrists are guided by diagnostic manuals published by the American Psychiatric Association; the contents of these manuals are often in dispute and always open to revision. Informed consent is usually required for treatment, but often the patient is in no condition to give informed consent. Psychotropic drugs, commonly used to treat mental illness, are notorious for affecting people differently, and can be too dangerous to test in double-blind experiments. Schaffner presents a careful analysis of these problems and others that arise in diagnosing and treating a condition that sometimes precedes schizophrenia. He, like Hacker, believes advances in neuroscience may help us better understand and treat the scourge of mental illness, but recognizes that we must proceed with great caution to avoid harm to patients. In closing his essay, he raises a number of points that should be considered in order to protect patients while promoting collection of helpful data.

In sum, the essays in this volume, well-written and jargon-free, all have important things to say about the limits of science, but even more perhaps about its scope and power.

  1. Steven Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy: An Impassioned Plea to Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors, and Tenure-Less Historians,” New Republic, August 7, 2013. 
  2. Richard Williams and Daniel Robinson, eds., Scientism: The New Orthodoxy (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 16. 
  3. Penelope Maddy, Second Philosophy: A Naturalistic Method (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). 
  4. Bas van Fraassen, The Empirical Stance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002). 
  5. Richard Williams and Daniel Robinson, eds., Scientism: The New Orthodoxy (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 64. 
  6. Richard Williams and Daniel Robinson, eds., Scientism: The New Orthodoxy (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 66. 
  7. Richard Williams and Daniel Robinson, eds., Scientism: The New Orthodoxy (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 83. 
  8. Richard Williams and Daniel Robinson, eds., Scientism: The New Orthodoxy (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 92. 
  9. Richard Williams and Daniel Robinson, eds., Scientism: The New Orthodoxy (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 135. 
  10. Harry Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person.” The Journal of Philosophy 68, no. 1 (1971): 5–20. 
  11. Harry Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person.” The Journal of Philosophy 68, no. 1 (1971): 20. Quoted in Kenneth Shaffner, “Neuroethics,” in Scientism: The New Orthdoxy, eds. Richard Williams and and Daniel Robinson (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 152. 
  12. Richard Williams and Daniel Robinson, eds., Scientism: The New Orthodoxy (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 154. 
  13. Richard Williams and Daniel Robinson, eds., Scientism: The New Orthodoxy (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 160.