Uncommon Descent Serving The Intelligent Design Community

Fashionable bashing of “scientism” merely disguises its collision course with reality


It is becoming conventional among establishment literati to bash “scientism.” Some do so in good faith; others, it’s probably just a holding pattern because the current absurdities are so obvious, and more convincing schlock is presumably still in the edit suite. Anyway, here’s Philip Kitcher’s “The Trouble with Scientism: Why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge” (The New Republic, May 4, 2012):

The idea of a “theory of everything” is an absurd fantasy. Successful sciences are collections of models of different types of phenomena within their domains. The lucky ones can generate models that meet three desiderata: they are general, they are precise, they are accurate. Lots of sciences, natural sciences, are not so fortunate. As the ecologist Richard Levins pointed out decades ago, in many areas of biology—and, he might have added, in parts of physics, chemistry, and earth and atmospheric science as well—the good news is that you can satisfy any two of these desiderata, but at the cost of sacrificing the third. Contemporary climatology often settles for generality and accuracy without precision; ecologists focusing on particular species provide precise and accurate models that prove hard to generalize; and of course if you abandon accuracy, precision and generality are no problem at all.

It would be news to most Darwinists and other materialist atheists that a theory of everything is an “absurd fantasy,” but never mind.

LET US TURN NOW to the celebration of scientific rigor. Individual sciences develop rules and standards for appraising evidence—as they learn about aspects of nature, they learn more about how to learn. At any particular stage of inquiry, communities of scientists agree on the canons of good inference, so that the work of certification of new results goes relatively smoothly. To the extent that the agreed-on rules are reliable, knowledge accumulates. It is important to understand, however, that at times of major change the standards of good science themselves are subject to question and discussion. And this observation, amply demonstrated in the history of the sciences, has important consequences.

Anyone who has questioned neo-Darwinism lately will know those “important consequences.”

The contrast between the methods of the two realms, which seems so damning to the humanities, is a false one. Not only are the methods deployed within humanistic domains—say, in attributions of musical scores to particular composers or of pictures to particular artists—as sophisticated and rigorous as the techniques deployed by paleontologists or biochemists, but in many instances they are the same. The historical linguists who recognize connections among languages or within a language at different times, and the religious scholars who point out the affiliations among different texts, use methods equivalent to those that have been deployed ever since Darwin in the study of the history of life. Indeed, Darwin’s paleontology borrowed the method from early nineteenth-century studies of the history of languages.

Well, if that ain’t tellin’ …

Of course, the language scholars had the advantage that they were working within or very near to historical time (for which written or other informative evidence exists); they were not speculating, as Darwin was, on what might have happened in a remote, non-human past.

Generally, scientism is on a collision course with reality for reasons not often discussed: Under its rule, everything is supposed to be weighed and measured even though the human mind that evaluates the results is supposed to be an illusion. In the end, increasingly absurdist positions will sink it.

See also: We must pretend there is free will so as to go on using the language of ethics?


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