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Does Ian Hutchinson Successfully Avoid “Scientism”?


Over on Biologos there is a new column, the first of a series on “science and scientism” by Dr. Ian Hutchinson.  Hutchinson is a nuclear physicist at M.I.T.  As Dr. Hutchinson has some impressive credentials based on a long and productive scientific career, his thoughts on the nature of science might be thought to carry a weight beyond that of the regular Biologos columnists.  Thus, I read the first installment in hopes of insight beyond what one normally finds on that site.

The column, which is based on Hutchinson’s new book, Monopolizing Knowledge, gets off to a good start.  He distinguishes between “science” and “scientism.”  In a quotation from his book, which introduces the column, he tells us:

“Scientism says, or at least implicitly assumes, that rational knowledge is scientific, and everything else that claims that status of knowledge is just superstition, irrationality, emotion, or nonsense.”

And in his first paragraph, he writes:

“One of the most visible conflicts in current culture is between “scientism” and religion. Because religious knowledge differs from scientific knowledge, scientism claims (or at least assumes) that it must therefore be inferior. However, there are many other important beliefs, secular as well as religious, which are justified and rational, but not scientific, and therefore marginalized by scientism. And if that is so, then scientism is a ghastly intellectual mistake.” 

So far, Hutchinson has said nothing which ID proponents would not applaud.  ID proponents have long contended that the methods of modern science do not exhaust the possibilities of rational investigation, and that the relegation of non-scientific knowledge to inferior status by certain loud champions of “science” is entirely unwarranted.

Hutchinson then goes on to say:

“But how could it have come about that this mistake is so widespread, if it is a mistake? The underlying reason is that scientism is confused with science. It is natural for readers without inside knowledge of science to assume that science and scientism are one and the same when many leading scientists and science popularizers often speak and act as if they and thus directly promote this confusion.”

To this, ID proponents can only say, “Amen.”  ID people take second place to no one in challenging the overreaching claims of Dawkins, Coyne, Myers, Dennett, etc.  No one has spent more time, or expended more ink, in showing that much of what passes for “science” in these writers is really covert metaphysics, than ID people.

His introduction concludes with:

“scientism rapidly becomes … an all-encompassing world-view; a perspective from which all of the questions of life are examined … it is essentially a religious position.”

Again, ID people can only say, “Amen.”

Hutchinson then proceeds to make some historical remarks concerning how the word “science” changed in meaning from a general word for “knowledge” to a term of narrower meaning, to refer to the activities of physicists, chemists, etc.  His account is in general terms correct; however, in the way he builds on this narrowing of meaning, he begins a train of thought which seems to end up in an uncritical acceptance of the tacit metaphysical assumptions of the very people — the promoters of scientism — that he is lambasting.  Therefore, his subsequent remarks must be analyzed with critical care.

Hutchinson argues that we ought to accept, and even warmly welcome, the narrowing of the meaning of the word “science” to the usage it has today, i.e., a certain narrow kind of investigation, and explanation, in terms of mechanical causes, i.e., efficient causes.  In addition to the obvious argument that the narrower meaning is now generally accepted, he touts the track record of modern science as impressive evidence that the modern definition is sound.

This is too facile.  Yes, modern science has an impressive track record of explaining certain aspects of nature extremely well.  It does not follow that because it explains certain things very well, that it explains everything well, and it is possible that it fails to explain some things entirely, not because it has not yet progressed far enough, but because it has certain inherent blind spots.  And those blind spots may be due to the very narrowness of method which has produced modern science’s greatest successes.  If this is so, it would follow that the fullest possible explanation of nature would make use not only of the narrow approach typical of modern science, but of other rational approaches as well.  And then the question arises whether those other rational approaches might equally well be called “science.”

For example, Aristotle analyzed events in terms of four causes: material, efficient, formal, and final.  His analysis was “scientific” as he would have understood the notion (though of course the word was not used in his day).  It did not rest on any religious doctrines; nor was it aesthetic or moral in nature.  It was based on a description of the phenomena.  However, in opposition to Aristotelian thinking, modern science ruled out final causes — the notion that natural things have certain tendencies toward certain ends.  This restriction enabled modern science to understand a vast number of things that Aristotelian science could not understand.  But it also made it impossible to give a full and rational account of many things in nature, especially organic nature, which is rife with apparent ends and end-driven behavior.

I am not arguing that we should scrap modern science and go back to Aristotle’s science.  I am arguing that Aristotle had a point.  From Aristotle’s point of view, we could not claim to understand a thing until we understood all its causes, and to methodologically rule out a particular kind of cause was to exclude the possibility of full understanding.  The question arises whether the modern, narrow understanding of “science” should be supplemented by something analogous to the study of final causes.  In modern terms, such an analysis would involve a discussion of “information,” a concept which has aspects of formal and final cause within itself.  That is, a full and rich modern science, while not throwing away the gains made by Cartesian science, would synthesize those gains with an appropriate understanding of why organic matter is “informed” in the way that it is.

This, however, does not seem to be the way that Dr. Hutchinson is going.  He is quite happy to keep to the narrower definition, and narrower practice, of science.  To be sure, he seems to be aware of the possibility of the argument I have made above, for he says:

“… suppose we grant that we will use the word science to mean natural science. Doesn’t that just mean the study of nature? So shouldn’t “the study of nature” be our working definition of science then? And if it is, why should one limit the scope of science by an identification of its methods? Surely one should use whatever methods are available to study nature.”

Yet, having stated this quite reasonable position, Hutchinson rejects it.  And it is interesting what intellectual move he makes in order to reject it.  Aware that starting from the objective reality of “nature” could put the adequacy of the methods of modern natural science into question, he proposes to define nature in terms of modern natural science:

“Instead, I believe, we must use a functional definition of science. Once we have a clear view of what science is, we will have a definition of what we here mean by nature. Nature is what we are studying in natural science.”

So, we need to know what “natural science” is before we can define nature?  This is very odd.  Would Dr. Hutchinson say that we need to know what “social science” is before we can define “society” or “social relationships”?  Would he say that we need to know what “political science” is before we can define “politics”?  That would be very strange.  Charles Dickens certainly knew what was denoted by “society” — he was a very acute observer of it — and I doubt he could have defined “social science”; he may never even have heard the term.  And Thucydides certainly knew what was meant by politics — he had an intimate understanding of ancient Athenian politics — but he had never taken a course in “political science.”  Why then, should anyone need to know what “natural science” is in order to know what “nature” refers to?

Any untutored child knows that “nature” refers to the sun, moon, stars, rivers, seas, rocks, plants, animals, storms, forces, motions, etc. — things that are not produced by man.  “Natural science” then is the science, i.e., systematic knowledge, which explains the ways of these things.  The normal intellectual procedure — first define the object of study, and then define the science that explains the object of study — is no different for nature / natural science than for anything else.

The reason for Dr. Hutchinson’s approach is not clear, but based on what is given in his column so far, we might well infer that he does not want natural science measured by its success in interpreting “nature,” where nature is something that exists independently.  Rather, he wants “nature” to be understood as a construct of natural science itself.  Therefore, outside of natural science, there is no “nature.”  What then, would the sun, rivers and plants be?  What would magnetism and lightning be?  Have they no independent reality, beyond what natural science makes of them?  Or do they have a reality, but one utterly inaccessible to us, until we investigate them through the lens of natural science?  Dr. Hutchinson probably means the latter; if so, he would seem to be steeped in some sort of Kantianism, though exactly what sort is unclear.

The upshot of Hutchinson’s position is that whatever qualities “science” allows nature to have, it will have; and whatever qualities “science” does not allow nature to have, it will not have.  If “science” does not allow nature to have final causes, then nature will not have final causes, and then, of course, the science of nature will never discover final causes.  And guess what?  The modern science that Hutchinson champions refuses to have any truck or trade with final causes.  Surprise, surprise.

Under this view, one cannot even ask the question whether or not there is teleology in living organisms, as if that is an empirical matter for science to investigate.  There cannot be teleology in organisms, if “nature” is what “science” says it is.  And we cannot ask whether such a non-teleological “science” is adequate to nature, because “nature” is so defined that non-teleological science will always be adequate to it.

To those with philosophical training, such an argumentative move is transparent.  The reasoning is utterly circular.  One cannot impute to the object of study just the qualities it ought to have in order to make one’s particular investigative tools relevant.  That is like insisting that the world is made entirely of nails, because the only tool one owns is a hammer.  Dr. Hutchinson’s view of the relationship between “science” and “nature” puts the cart before the horse.  Nature is bigger, vastly bigger, than “science” as Dr. Hutchinson conceives it, and science ought to dance to its tune, not the other way around.

Epistemologically speaking, Dr. Hutchinson’s move is extremely dangerous.  His “science” is forced to work on the assumption that there is no teleology in nature, not even in the places where teleology seems the most obvious, i.e., in organic nature.  It therefore must “explain away” anything that looks like teleology, with ever more contrived mechanistic explanations.  Thus, even if, based on overwhelming empirical evidence, mathematical figuring, and common sense, it looks as if the first cell could not have come into existence without design, “science” nonetheless has the duty to try to convince everyone that it did in fact come into existence without design.  Design is not disproved as a factor in the production of the first cell; it is simply not allowed to be considered as a factor.  Thus, if it turns out that the first cell was designed, “science” will lead the human race to believe an untruth about its own origin.  And this possibility does not seem to bother Dr. Hutchinson in the slightest.

Nor does he see that the risk of such false trails is precisely what is demanded by “scientism.”  For scientism’s claim is that everything can be explained by science, narrowly understood, and Dr. Hutchinson, by putting all of nature under the thumb of the same narrow model of understanding, has in fact made an implicit metaphysical ruling — that there is no teleology in nature — which will make all the disciples of scientism clap in thunderous applause.  Ironically, Dr. Hutchinson gives comfort and support to scientism.  He thus joins the legion of Biologos columnists who have railed against scientism while unwittingly endorsing the metaphysical and epistemological principles on which scientism is based.


Jon, I think you are using the word "faith" a little differently from the way I was. Your usage I believe is more like one's faith as a synonym for one's religion. Mine was narrower--faith as something believed without direct evidence (i.e., on the basis of someone else's written or spoken word on the matter.) That distinction aside, I basically agree with you. My faith (in your sense of the word) works the same way. My only recommendation with regard to faith (of either variety and my own included) is to be open to the possibility of revision. To always be willing, on the basis of new evidence, experience, or insights based on natural knowing, to modify or even abandon parts of it. Bruce David
OK Bruce. Turning to your description (rather than definition) of faith as believing what you've been taught, that too is more complicated. Despite my lack of direct evidence for, say, the exact mechanism of DNA transcription, my "faith" in the literature is supported by my having personally looked down microscopes, done experiments etc when I was a medical student. I also met biologists and saw how they worked. What I take on trust is consistent with what I know from experience. In my faith there is similar seamless combination of personal observational experience, intuitions, rational inquiry and trust of various witnesses (ancient and modern). In other words much the same combination I use respecting science. It may not be knowledge, but by your definition not much else is either. Jon Garvey
A POEM We all believe - This is true If you believe you don't - You do We all have a faith - Our own worldview Secured to a wobbly belief - or two. Mytheos
Correction: I should have said, "by definitions 1, 2, 3, and 4 alone" in the first sentence of the second paragraph above. Bruce David
Jon, Good question. When a scientist (or anyone) accepts the results of experiments done by others, he or she believes them based on trust (which, as has recently come to light , is not always well placed). So technically, it still counts as belief, and by my definitional scheme is not knowledge. Perhaps there needs to be some categorization of second hand knowledge on the basis of some method that attempts to measure its trustworthiness, but I haven't the time to work it out. Note, though, that I state in my discussion of faith and belief that I hold that it is necessary to accept a lot of what I define as belief simply because it is impossible to operate in the world on the basis of what we as individuals know by definitions 1, 2, and 3 alone. My contention with respect to that kind of "knowledge" is that because one is taking another's word for it, it should always be provisional. Be ready to modify or even discard any article of faith or belief on the basis of knowledge gained in the process of living and thinking for one's self. Of course, a great example of this is scientists like Michael Behe who accepted the validity of neo-Darwinism until he read Darwinism, a Theory in Crisis and began to question whether the biochemical structures that he was studying could reasonably have arisen by Darwinian means. And as we all know, the answer he got for himself was, "No." Bruce David
Bruce, does that mean that for any individual nearly all science does not constitute knowledge? Most pieces of research won't be repeated, and even a scientist couldn't repeat them outside his own field. So instead, one reads the literature, or the review of the literature, or the press release of the review, or the blog post about the release... any of which is merely acceptance of what another has asserted is true. I've never even seen the curvature of the earth for myself - I just trust that the astronomers and astronauts aren't frauds. Jon Garvey
In my view, there are four kinds of knowledge: 1. Empirical knowledge, or what we learn from experience. This kind of knowledge can be very reliable but of course is provisional--there is always the possibility that it may be modified or overturned by further experience. 2. Rational knowledge, or what we can deduce by pure reason alone. The greatest example of this is mathematics. 3. What one could call "natural knowing". This is a kind of "seeing into" the true nature of reality. The experience of this kind of knowledge is an often sudden awareness or epiphany, a realization. An example is the awareness that there is only the Eternal Now. The past is all memory or records that exist only now, and the future is projection or expectation that also exists only now. Now is all there is. Another example: the awareness that consciousness is the ground of Being. Everything that occurs occurs within the field of consciousness. The existence of the material world, if it exists, is a conclusion we draw from events that happen within consciousness (sights, sounds, sensations of touch or resistance, etc.). 4. Mixtures of these, where rational deduction is coupled with experience, for example, as in scientific investigation and theory production. Or where natural knowing is coupled with rationality and experience to produce wisdom and spiritual awareness. Faith or belief to me is not knowledge. It is the acceptance of what another has asserted is true, such as what we are taught as children by our parents, teachers, and religious authorities, or scripture, or other sources that we regard as authorities. I do not denigrate this. Most of the time, we need more than we can generate ourselves through the four types of knowledge in order just to operate in the world. But we would be wise always to hold what we believe as provisional, subject to continual questioning and review. Most people in all cultures and all religious contexts, from atheism to all varieties of religious belief, accept what they are taught as children and never question it for their entire lives. In so doing, to a greater or lesser extent they cut themselves off from their ability to explore the full range of possibility of discovering real knowledge for themselves. Bruce David
Problems with HTML tags there. Say again... "Epistemologically speaking, Dr. Hutchinson’s move is extremely dangerous. His “science” is forced to work on the assumption that there is no teleology in nature, not even in the places where teleology seems the most obvious, i.e., in organic nature. It therefore must “explain away” anything that looks like teleology, with ever more contrived mechanistic explanations." Quite. Or, to rephrase the famous story, “You’re a very clever young man to invoke design, but it’s epicycles all the way down.” Jon Garvey
Quite. Or, to rephrase the famous story, "You're a very clever young man to invoke design, but it's epicycles all the way down."
Jon Garvey
dmullenix asks, "Besides religion, what are some examples of non-scientific knowledge?" Before we can answer this question we must first define the term "knowledge."  The most commonly accepted definition is "warranted true belief."  Having defined the term in this way we find that knowledge obtained through the scientific method, while certainly useful in many ways, is only a small subset of "knowledge" generally.  Let's take a few examples. The principles of logic.  Take the law of non-contradiction:  Nothing can be and not be at the same time and in the same relation.  This is knowledge.  It is not science; instead it is an axiomatic first principle that must be accepted as self-evidently true.  Mathematics.  Mathematics is not science; yet mathematical axioms are knowledge.  Ethics.  Murder is wrong.  Love is good.  These are both statements of knowledge.  Both are beyond the reach of scientific investigation.    I could go on.  The larger point is this:  That you would even ask such a question reveals you are wearing the blinkers of scientism.  Take them off and you will see the world of truth is a much bigger place than you currently imagine.  Barry Arrington
Nice non-sequitur DrREC. Detectives are not scientists and employ methodologies that scientists do not. Detectives are not forensic scientists. That is a separate department. Detectives are not archaeologists. Detectives are not SETI researchers. IOW DrREC once again you need to buy a vowel as it is obvious that you don't have a clue. Joe
Funny, I think ID's constant use of the detective analogy would have made you think twice about saying that" "A detective uses similar criteria to determine whether a criminal act was intentional; but if the detective expects to convince a jury,the determination had better be based on evidence-i.e., it must be scientific." Signs of intelligence: understanding intelligent design; William A. Dembski, James M. Kushiner p. 125. Actually, seems like you disagree with even yourself: "For years I have been saying that Intelligent Design is as scientific an enterprise as archaeology, forensic science and SETI. " "The design inference is based on our knowledge of cause and effect relationships, just as archaeology and forensic science is." "Archaeologists, forensic scientists and SETI researchers agree with what Dembski said. Their jobs depend on it." [URL=http://intelligentreasoning.blogspot.com/search?q=forensic]Link[/URL] DrREC
"Ironically, Dr. Hutchinson gives comfort and support to scientism." - T. Cudworth Yes, I agree. Unfortunately, that's what happens when you send a physicist to do a philosopher's job (or a chemist to do a sociologist's re: recent sociology of science thread at BioLogos). The IDM far exceeds BioLogos' capacities to assess 'scientism.' Bravo, but... Nevertheless, T. Cudworth gives comfort and support to the ideology of 'naturalism,' with his choice of language = 'in nature'. Why make 'natural' what is not natural? "his thoughts on the nature of science might be thought to carry a weight" - T. Cudworth Of course, Cudworth just means 'what science is' and not anything about how 'natural' the practice/field/realm of 'science' itself is. Do you notice the linguistic privileging? Since science is a human-made thing, the question of how 'artificial' it is shows the difference. "Thus, if it turns out that the first cell was designed, “science” will lead the human race to believe an untruth about its own origin." - T. Cudworth Well, those who actually study humans (not 'ethologists') don't speak of 'race' all that often anymore. E.g. former President of the ISA, Michel Wieviorka said 'race' is not a 'scientific' category. In so far as sociology is 'scientific,' it has refused to study the 'race' of humans. Is Cudworth saying biology should rightfully dictate to anthropology, psychology and sociology about human origins? If so, that would qualify as '(natural) scientism' too. If not, please render your 'hierarchy' clearer! Likewise, "If it turns out" is utopian futurism - worth little in practise to those who actually study cells and quarks. "there is no teleology in nature" - T. Cudworth Yes, from a natural scientific perspective, there is no 'sovereign mind' in Nature. From a social scientific perspective, teleology abounds. Thus, continued analogies to mousetraps, Easter Island, 'Welcome to Victoria' flower arrangement, etc. by 'intelligent + design' advocates. Your 'natural scientist' colleagues are displaying 'social science-envy' because of how widespread final cause or 'means-end' rationality already fares in those fields. T. Cudworth (and anyone reading this) has a mind and thus he was (we are) 'designed' = 'designism'. I. Hutchinson is a scientist, therefore he demonstrates 'scientism,' in so far as he cannot 'stop being a scientist,' outside of his working hours. Ideology is as rife at BioLogos as in the IDM. Do you accept, Thomas, that 'intelligent design theory' is not 'pure science,' but is rather also ideologically-derived and positioned? p.s. dmullenix - art, music, culture, personal, all = non-natural scientific knowledge Gregory
Besides religion, what are some examples of non-scientific knowledge?
Detective work- detectives aren't scientists. Joe
lies, incorrect knowledge, subjective knowledge, fiction, assumptions. I could go on...... Mytheos
Besides religion, what are some examples of non-scientific knowledge? dmullenix
That't rhetoric is more twisty than Pittsburgh roads. But I would expect no less from Biologos. They strain all credibility, and then some, to argue their impossible conclusions, claiming to champion both science and religion while simultaneously always favoring the former over the latter. It's a quagmire. APM

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