Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Within the Prospect of Belief

Over at his blog, Russell Blackford has a new post up on the use of the word "scientism," partly spurred by my own usage of this word there and elsewhere. Russell considers the word a slur that has no place in respectful dialogue.

Now, I don't personally find it all that offensive--ideological biases need names, after all, so that we can call attention to them. But perhaps this is one of those words, like Yuppie, or Mugwump, that carries too much emotional baggage to be merely descriptive, so I'm happy to replace it in polite company. "Positivist" is a pretty close fit, but it's so moldy that it carries the connotation of old-fashionedness, which may also be unfair. Perhaps Russell will help me find other alternatives. (I also hope he'll consider that accomodationists don't like being called "faitheists" any more than he likes being called scientistic.)

Aside from being impolite, Russell argues that "scientism" depicts a straw man. Most people so tagged do not actually believe in the omnicompetence of science to answer questions of ontology, ethics, aesthetics, and other branches of traditional philosophy*. In comments, Russell goes on to elaborate that "it's difficult to find working scientists who actually do hold those positions."

Well, not that difficult. Here's Jerry Coyne, agreeing with Russell that the term "scientism" is perjorative, and then planting his feet squarely on turf Russell claims to be unpopulated:
[Russell] uses the example of “how sympathetic one should be to Macbeth?”, but can literature really answer that question for us? Or is it an empirical question based on psychology and sociology, sussing out what effects one’s actions have on others? ... I still maintain that every question about how things really are in the universe is a question that demands a science-based answer.
This is precisely the attitude I intend to depict when I, until now, employed the S-word. I want to observe that (a) Coyne rejects the primacy of metaphysics over empiricism and (b) that he is wrong. With what term shall I so do this?

* Russell seems inclined to define "scientism" more broadly as the belief that the humanities have nothing to offer, rather than the specific belief that science can settle metaphysical questions. I don't see it presented that way by philosophers of science (I posted number of examples pulled form the OED) and Russell doesn't cite anything to support this broader definition, so this would seem like a case of double straw man, but I want to extend my request to him to substantiate this definition, and reiterate that I'm open to finding more emotionally neutral language to try to typify his position.


John S. Wilkins said...

I used to think the term was unnecessary, but I now find it useful. I use it to refer to those views where science, rather than being seen as right where religion os wrong, or as a separate exercise of human cognition, is seen as a replacement for religion. There are those who treat science as if it were a religion. Since I don't much like religion, I don't much like this form of it either.

But you are wrong if you think that believing that all cognitive success is science is a form of scientism. One may be of the view that only science is knowledge gathering (or some less strict form of it, like trial and error) and not think that science is a religion replacement.

jeff said...

The term scientism has little to do with any organized religion. It refers to a specific perspective that exclusively favors current scientific practices as a means of knowledge gathering or truth. An exclusive lens through which you see the world. That is not quite true of religion. Even creationists are scientists when it comes to Newton's laws.

TB said...

As Chris is probably aware, this more likely political maneuvering. Being aware that a word describes a position with negative connotations what should one do? Instead of changing the position, attack the word that describes it.

branemrys said...

Well, I'm sure Blackford would find 'scientism' a bit more favorable than the term I've started using (because I think it's often, although perhaps not always, more accurate), 'scientifictionism'. Although, liking science fiction, I don't use it purely as a pejorative, either.

underverse said...

John, I don't think the term scientism has historically meant something quite so narrow as specifically "religion replacement." That's not how I use the term here, though there is overlap. But then, how you and I define religion is highly variable. In either case I would say that "only science is knowledge gathering" is a religion. It's the metaphysical belief that all facts are scientific. I'm not trying to debate this position here (though I do think it's wrong), just name it. And find a way to do so without being accused of using "fighting words."

underverse said...

Well, yes, but to what extent are we required to accept other people's words for who we are? It's hard for me to embrace "faitheist" for example, since its obvious intent is to highlight some alleged collusion or betrayal between "Us" and "Them," more than a little like "Quisling."

I don't think "scientism" was originally meant in quite a mocking way, but I can see that it has dismissive connotations--"look how simplistic these people's worldview is," etc. So I think Russell et al have the right to take umbrage with it. The alacrity with which they are able to provide an alternate word--and to refrain from using slurs like faitheist, "Chamberlainian atheist," etc, may help elucidate whether this umbrage is in good faith, or just politics, as you infer.

Michael Traynor said...

"<span>The alacrity with which they are able to provide an alternate word--and to refrain from using slurs like faitheist, ...</span>"

Time ran out on that latter at the latest months ago unless he's already criticized the use of terms like "faitheist" which never had any meaning and intent than the pejorative.  As your example of Jerry Coyne showed, the desire is to be able to have the cake of embracing scientism but not be forced to eat the opprobrium that comes with it.  PZ Myers attempts (abandoned now I believe) to claim that he used scientific methods to determine whether he loved his wife demonstrated the absurdity.  Scientism has its rhetorical uses but once it is actually stated, or referred to in clear terms (by use of term), it's absurdity comes home and it loses its value.

The attempts to prevent someone using a term to represent a concept is positively, and literally, Orwellian.

It's like the Humpty-Dumptyism of Larry Moran's serial use of 'religion is incompatible with science' without qualification until challenged then claiming he never actually meant it but mean 'most religion' or 'nearly all religion' or something else that takes little time and effort to spell out but dispells the clarity of the black and white vision he wishes to promote to force people into believing the price of either religion or science _must_ be the rejection of the other.

TB said...

Sure, that's reasonable. I'm just cynical about it.

underverse said...

This reminds me that my preferred term is Ionian Enchantment. But I haven't found this term so favorable for dialog. 

Chris said...

Since the view that "only science is knowledge gathering" is scientism, and is a view that some people (including some new atheists) hold, I see no reason to redefine the term. And I see no reason not to use it as a criticism, in that sense.

Also, Blackford has further responded to the (potential) charge of scientism by saying that he gets knowledge of the fictional world of Macbeth from something other than science, which is my favorite reply yet (no word yet on whether he thinks Macbeth can express truth about the world outside of Macbeth).

E said...


If the term means what it appears to, and I think it does, I don't have any problem with it sticking.  I applaud your desire to not let potential slurs / emotional baggage cloud the debate. 

But you're not using it like a racial slur, you're using it as an accurate description of thinking, which you just gave a really clear example of.  You're not out of bounds at all on this one.

They can replace the term if they want to, but I'm skeptical as to any real impact for the good.

I do think there is a fair point here in terms of having any chance at a real conversation.  Both sides need to agree on basic terms, and the right to self-define seems pretty basic to me. 

The examples of "pro-abortion", or "anti-choice" come to mind.  A position against abortion isn't a position against free will, or a female's ability to choose any number of things.  In the same way, people who believe in the right to choose in this regard aren't normally gung ho baby killers.  In both cases, the self-given monikers of "pro-life" and "pro-choice" are informative and more conducive to a real conversation.

If Russell doesn't like "scientism", ok, but I think it becomes his move for a different / better word at that point.

jeff said...

"Positivist is a pretty close fit, but it's so moldy that it carries the connotation of old-fashionedness, which may also be unfair."

I'm not sure that the terms positivism and scientism are all that equivalent. A strict positivist would say that only things he can observe are real. A strict positivist could also be a solipsist, since he can not observe any subjectivity associated with another body. But I think positivism and fideism are close to being opposites. Scientism, on the other hand, seems to be a frozen perspective or attitude where you observe something and automatically reduce it in your mind to some known or postulated scientific explanation, or if it cannot be explained thus, you are certain that a scientific explanation will become available eventually. I don't what other term could express that concept. Maybe I'm strawmanning, I don't know.

underverse said...

Every term in play would seem to be a new onion to peel. I don't think that Comte would endorse your defintion of postivism here. He clearly was interested in verifiable, objective statements. But I certainly haven't surveyed the term to see how it is used today.

underverse said...

Your mention of the abortion debate introduces a distinction I hadn't thought of, that of identity. One reason we don't insist on racial labels for other people comes from a political right to self-identify. But ideology is not identity. So am I being unduly offensive if I call someone anti-choice instead of pro-life? At a certain point the rhetorical value of fighting over labels ends, and all we have are barriers to communication.

The fact that Russell won't admit that all langauge is political doesn't help, since it allows him to conflate normative with objective--exactly the kind of category error I'm trying to expose.

underverse said...

Michael, it's not Orwellian in every case. See above my comments to Jeff and E. But I agree that langauge is in all cases political.

underverse said...

Good point. Appreciation of literature is fine, as long as it doesn't provide a "way of knowing" anything outside itself. This is not what CP Snow had in mind.

Why aren't you blogging anymore, btw?

Chris said...

Time. Every time I think about blogging again, I remember how much time it took to blog the way I did, and I think better of it.