Scientism has become a fashionable topic recently.

The piece by Steven Pinker in New Republic defending science against charges of scientism, whilst nevertheless implying science had all the answers for non-scientific challenges, prompted lots of reaction.

I happen to agree with Wieseltier here, and relate this blind-spot of science, denying the value of any wisdom beyond GOF scientific empiricism to Nick Maxwell’s “Scientific Neurosis”.

What do you think?
It’s an advance on the tedious science vs religion debate, and maybe a public conversation where we can inject some vital philosophy, bring some values of wisdom to life?

14 thoughts on “Scientism

  1. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Referring to Pinker and Wieseltier, it seems to me that they (and the camps they represent) are spending too much time and energy bickering while things much larger than Rome are tending to go to H in a handbasket.

    The passionate pursuit for either a monopoly on Knowledge or an officialized duopoly on Knowledge is getting in the way of efforts to actually bring wisdom to life — to find and develop and practice wisdom in ways that actually improve the world.

    That said, there is much more to be said about these two essays — Pinker’s and Wieseltier’s — so I will try to comment a bit more in a future comment. Of course, to a degree they are speaking past each other; they are like two ships passing in the night (while Rome burns); some aspects of some of their disagreements are real — that is, they are really in disagreement — but I think they are also misunderstanding each other in important ways. I think there is an argument — indeed, a universe — that connects the concerns of both of these camps, involves them both, respects them both, and also shows how they are interrelated. What stumps me is how these two folks — with such great minds, it seems, and also great writing skills (one better than the other, but both good) — can’t seem to see the immense common ground they (most likely) share and also see how their views and approaches interrelate with and complement each other within a larger whole.

    • “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.”
      Yes, we violently agree the polarized argument doesn’t help.

      That’s not a conclusion, it’s where I/we started. In order to have a conversation however we (3 so far in this thread) do need to actually read and acknowledge what WE are saying, no just what Pinker and Wiseltier (and a million more) are saying. Otherwise WE are talking past each other.

      So do we agree? Science has no monopoly or privileged position on knowledge. (Real knowledge to make real decisions in the real world of humanity in the cosmos). Do not pass go.

      • I believe we all must know how we know.

        Scientists are generally explicit about this, they accept some form of scientific method.
        It would be helpful if others working to advance knowledge would describe how they distinguish justified beliefs from malarkey.

        And of course those working to bring wisdom to life can describe what they mean by wisdom and how it is best applied.


        • You talkin’ to me? Knowing how we know ?!? “What, why and how do we know?” is the by-line of my blog these last 13 years as I hope you know.

          Science has explicit methods, sure, ones that discount non-objective values from their logic and apply tests of falsification, in both logical critique and empirical test etc. (even though aesthetic and creative imagination is a large part of theory and hypothesis.)

          Those who know things non-scientifically surely must justify how they know too … BUT …. scientists MUST NOT hold those arguments up to scientific standards …. that would be SCIENTISM – exactly as accused. Giving privilege to the scientific way of knowing all things., above any other way of knowing anything.

          (Defining wisdom. Sure, but I was talking about knowledge here. Wisdom is to know what and how you know and how to apply it for the best. Science is one part of the knowing. Knowing is more than science, Wisdom is more than knowing. I take these as non-contentious givens in this forum. I’m trying to stick to the “scientism” point of this post. I’m not sure what part of “Pinker’s arrogance is breathtaking and I agree with every word Wieseltier says, with one explicit reservation.” you’re not hearing.)

      • I agree with a great deal of what you (Ian) and also Lee are saying, as well as with a great deal of what Pinker and also Wieseltier are saying. I can reconcile most of what is being said, and as for the few points on which there are crucial disagreements, setting forth my views on them would take too much time (and space) to do it thoughtfully and well. It can be done, but not thoughtfully and well in these little boxes with the time I presently have available.
        Yet it is not a tangential point, to be dismissed, when I (and we here) suggest that wisdom and wise action, including the degrees of mutual understanding and respect and cooperation they should involve, should be seen as higher priorities for right now than resolving or even entering deeply into the debate on the present matter. To be clear, the issue that the two essays, and our present discussion, highlight is a fascinating and important issue, but resolving it can be put off. Indeed, perhaps part of finding and understanding greater wisdom is to actually recognize this, to make that paradigm shift. The fact that seeing this disagreement (very real in part, and in part a misunderstanding of each other) between Pinker and Wieseltier, on such a fascinating and important issue, acts like a magnet to draw us into the debate, suggests that we are still driven mainly by the pursuit of “Truth” and “K” rather than by the aim of developing and applying “W” to Life. I don’t say this to suggest that all K-focused discussions be stopped or paused; after all, some K is a vital subset and ingredient of W; and it is fun; but actually experiencing the “let’s let that issue be for awhile” while we try to find and exercise ways to actually get the world on a better track, would probably be a good thing. Exercising something is a good way to begin developing it.
        Can Pinker and Wieseltier break bread together, find some degree of agreement that a very great deal of wonderful work in both the humanities and in the sciences tells us that you can’t achieve compound material growth ad infinitum on a finite planet, and then start spreading that word clearly and cooperatively in order that we can begin to correct some huge mistakes in our present economic paradigms and practices? Or is that “not my job” in their views?
        I would like to come back to this debate — it is an important one — but in six month’s time. I have a lot to say about it, but it would take too much time and space to say it well, presently; and I think the even-more interesting question is whether two passionate K-seekers — and also, we here — can shift more focus to W-development and W-application to the large and pressing problems we all face.
        (That said, I may offer a couple of additional thoughts if time allows in the next several days.)
        Thanks for raising the issue and linking the essays, Ian. It IS a great subject.


        • Hi Jeff,

          You know the distinction between priority / urgency and importance / value when it comes to planning our time and resources 😉

          This was meant to be a 5 minute conversation on one very small point. (You and Lee have simply added “the whole elephant” of applied living wisdom back into the thread …. that continues of course.)

          My point – “It is scientistic of a scientist to expect a wise humanist to bow to scientific standards for all their knowledge as applied to all aspects of human endeavour.” – End of.

          (Whilst Pinker and Wiesletier both acknowledge the value of the other, the difference is that despite that, it is Pinker that says ultimately science will solve any problems the humanities have, but not the other way around. That is Wieseltier’s point – which I agree with – and restate as my simple point.)


          • Hi Ian. Thanks.

            I agree with your point in “quotes” above, taken literally.

            But, or and, I think there is at least one crucial point that Pinker is making, or at least trying to make (but not putting it very well), that is correct and that Wiesletier probably does not recognize and perhaps (most likely) would not agree with, even though I believe it’s correct. However, that said, there are also crucial points that Wiesletier raises that are correct (but don’t contradict a crucial point of Pinker’s) and that Pinker does not acknowledge; although I can’t imagine that Pinker would not agree with them; and Pinker has not had a chance to clarify what he was (and wasn’t) trying to say in response to Wiesletier’s points, at least not that I’ve seen.

            Of course, experience (an experience; experiencing something) is not the same as an explanation of it or a full understanding of it. Experiencing sexual intercourse is not the same as explaining it, having an explanation of it, understanding an explanation of it, and so forth. The experience of consciousness and sensation is not identical to, and cannot adequately be replaced with, explanations of how consciousness and sensation originated and evolved, how they work in the human body and brain, the proximate causes of particular sensations, and so forth, even if those explanations (someday, maybe) become entirely or near-entirely correct. An experience is not the same as an explanation of the enablers of, mechanisms of, reasons for, nature of, and etc. of that experience, even if the explanations are correct. This is NOT to say, of course, that “mind” is separate/separable from the body, or that there is something non-natural or supernatural going on. It is simply to say that experiences and explanations are not the same things. For this reason alone, it seems to me, that life (as we experience it; that is, the experiential aspect of it) is not identical to the scientific explanations of it, even if and when they may be largely accurate, for what they aim to explain. So, (at least) two different perspectives and sets of language arise from and reflect this difference. Both have the potential to be correct and, also, incorrect. But they live and exist in one universe. However, there is much more to say about the subject, and even what I’ve said here is subject to misinterpretation, so in the interest of time and getting back to (in my case) the garden this morning, I will leave it at that.

            Cheers for now, and thanks,

          • OK so …

            “But, or and, I think there is at least one crucial point that Pinker is making, or at least trying to make (but not putting it very well), that is correct and that Wiesletier probably does not recognize and perhaps (most likely) would not agree with, even though I believe it’s correct. ”

            That point would be interesting to know 😉

            (You go on to talk about experience – I’m a “radical empiricist” – we agree already, but that’s beyond this thread.)

          • Hi Ian. Thanks for reading so well; you ask an understandable question. Alas, I haven’t found a way to put the point, briefly, that conveys it well to all audiences and that doesn’t pull me into a stream of explanations, clarifications, and supporting arguments that are too much for present purposes. The essence of the point is simple enough; but (in the midst of present paradigms and terminologies) it always ends up taking time to explain and so forth. So, I’ll leave it until another time.

            That said, the fact that you, Lee, Nick, and I are “here” suggests strongly that we all agree on one of the point’s crucial implications — in other words, our pursuits and words and expressed aims and actions HERE are very much in concert with what the “point” I’m talking about would have us do or at least try to do. We may “get there” — and we may have “arrived here” — via different pathways and reasoning, but we are here and seem to share a vital aim. That’s good enough for now. The point itself I’ll explain some other time.

            (Although I don’t agree with parts of his book, and I don’t agree with a couple parts of his argument [and find one or two of the others on the right track, but inadequate], one of the central and crucial points of Sam Harris’s book, ‘The Moral Landscape’, is correct or, rather, because his argument isn’t entirely adequate and complete, is at least very much on the right track of the point that I would make. Both Harris’s book and some of Pinker’s statements make or imply a point — a vital one — with which my own work over the past eight years agrees. And one of the key implications of that point explains why I’m here.)

            Cheers for now,


  2. Pinker and Wieseltier seem to be in violent agreement. Both dismiss the extremists and both acknowledge that we share a common reality that reveals itself through ongoing inquiry and investigation.

    Science is the careful investigation of evidence. It grounds us in reality. It reveals our common ground, yet it makes no claim to exclusivity or superiority. The humanities bring us beautiful works that we enjoy even as we contemplate their mysteries. Answering one question inevitably leads us to ask many more in each discipline. Creativity, curiosity, and clear thinking are essential. The universe holds enough mysteries for us all to explore, wonder, and enjoy. Dismiss the false dichotomy.

    What matters most? What outcome do we want? What kind of world do we want to live in? How can we best get there? Answer these question using any tools that work. What do you bring to the table? End the name calling. Appreciate what works. Let the sticklers and the squabblers bicker over the labels.

    • OK, I wondered if you were responding to what I’d written, if the “you” in the last couple of paras referred to me. I think we must see scientism differently.

      You say science makes no claims for priority, but you also say science “grounds us in reality” and that it examines evidence carefully. Does this suggests you believe “humanities” doesn’t ground us in reality?

      If so, you would seem actually to be giving science some privileged view of reality, whereas humanities concern (only) enjoyment and contemplation. That would be “scientism”. I doubt you do mean this, but could you clarify?

      I say both give us different valid views of reality – views that evaluate that reality by different means – that need to be integrated using wisdom before we can decide what we know and how to apply it to how we (should) act.

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