Scientism and life’s big questions

by Ryan Streeter on January 5, 2013. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

If you have an interest in the big questions of life, I recommend this excellent essay by Austin Hughes in The New Atlantis. As a former philosophy major, I’m biased in my reading of the piece, since Hughes (who is a scientist) claims that “scientism” has ventured into the realms of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics in a way that violates science’s own premises.

Toward the end, Hughes writes:

Advocates of scientism today claim the sole mantle of rationality, frequently equating science with reason itself. Yet it seems the very antithesis of reason to insist that science can do what it cannot, or even that it has done what it demonstrably has not. As a scientist, I would never deny that scientific discoveries can have important implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and that everyone interested in these topics needs to be scientifically literate. But the claim that science and science alone can answer longstanding questions in these fields gives rise to countless problems.

In contrast to reason, a defining characteristic of superstition is the stubborn insistence that something — a fetish, an amulet, a pack of Tarot cards — has powers which no evidence supports. From this perspective, scientism appears to have as much in common with superstition as it does with properly conducted scientific research. Scientism claims that science has already resolved questions that are inherently beyond its ability to answer.

Hughes’ essay may seem a bit beyond the bounds of this blog, but I find it highly relevant. Whenever they write about the underlying factors of upward mobility and growth, today’s journalists often rely upon the claims of “scientific” researchers whose claims are often a mixture of evidence and personal belief….with that latter part always neatly excised in the final copy. We are left with a skewed picture of what is true about human nature and why we do what we do. There is just as much faith in scientists’ claims about the big questions of life and the human condition as in priests’ claims. Scientists just don’t want to admit it.