McGinn takes the moniker of science as broad enough to include philosophy since the dictionary defines it as “any systematically organized body of knowledge on any subject.” But this definition is so vague that it betrays a widespread confusion as to what science actually is. And McGinn’s reminder that its etymology comes from “scienta,” the ancient Latin word for “knowledge,” only adds to the muddle. For by this definition we might well brand every academic discipline as science. “Literary studies” then become “literary sciences” — sounds much more respectable. “Fine arts” become “aesthetic sciences” — that would surely get more parents to let their kids major in art. While we’re at it, let’s replace the Bachelor of Arts degree with the Bachelor of Science. (I hesitate to even mention such options lest enterprising deans get any ideas.) Authors and artists aren’t engaged primarily in any kind of science, as their disciplines have more to do with subjective and qualitative standards than objective and quantitative ones. And that’s of course not to say that only science can bring objective and quantitative knowledge. Philosophy can too.
The intellectual culture of scientism clouds our understanding of science itself. What’s more, it eclipses alternative ways of knowing — chiefly the philosophical — that can actually yield greater certainty than the scientific. While science and philosophy do at times overlap, they are fundamentally different approaches to understanding. So philosophers should not add to the conceptual confusion that subsumes all knowledge into science. Rather, we should underscore the fact that various disciplines we ordinarily treat as science are at least as — if not more —philosophical than scientific. Take for example mathematics, theoretical physics, psychology and economics. These are predominately rational conceptual disciplines. That is, they are not chiefly reliant on empirical observation. For unlike science, they may be conducted while sitting in an armchair with eyes closed.