24 January 2013

Another good critique of ‘scientism’

In a happy coincidence, I came across this incisive article in The New Atlantis just after posting about science, philosophy and morality. The writer, biologist Austin L. Hughes, is another critic of science’s overreaching in matters that are outside of its purview, a trend known as scientism. A lot of the arguments that Hughes makes are familiar to critics of scientism: the philosophical ignorance and naivety of its boosters, the complacent assumption that science is uniquely resistant to human foibles and error, the failure to recognise the limitations of science in areas like ethics, and the inappropriate application of scientific ideas to matters that aren’t easily reducible to facts and experiments.

The section on science and morality (‘The Eclipse of Ethics’) is pertinent to the debates going on between Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Massimo Pigliucci and others. Unsurprisingly, Hughes dedicates a fair amount of space to critiquing Harris’s arguments in The Moral Landscape, a book that has become a punching bag for the anti-scientism crowd. In the following passage, Hughes captures the general sentiment of those who oppose the idea that science should be the final arbiter of truth and morality:

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.

And since philosophy can help clarify the nature of these problems, scientists shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss its relevance.

HT: Philosophy Monkey


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