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.
Of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its varied guises — from fanciful cosmology to evolutionary epistemology and ethics — seems among the more dangerous, both because it pretends to be something very different from what it really is and because it has been accorded widespread and uncritical adherence. Continued insistence on the universal competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole. The ultimate outcome will be an increase of radical skepticism that questions the ability of science to address even the questions legitimately within its sphere of competence. One longs for a new Enlightenment to puncture the pretensions of this latest superstition
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.