Positivist scientism and positive science today

Author: Carlos A. Marmelada
Published in: Conference given at the conference Humanistas
El Degree (Huesca).
Date of publication: 23 August 2002


  1. Introduction

  2. Scientism. Definition

  3. Origins and development of scientism

  4. A practical example of scientism in positive science

  5. Conclusion

  6. Notes


Since the 17th century, the experimental sciences of nature have progressively enjoyed a reputation and popular acceptance that has continued to grow until the present day.

Where does the strength of this popular triumph of experimental science come from? Its enormous success undoubtedly stems from its achievements in mastering and transforming nature through its practical application, a task which is carried out by technology and adapted to man.

This great success, already noticeable in the 17th century, soon gave rise to the myth of the indefinite progress of science, unconditionally advocated by the enlightened rationalism of the 18th century. The 19th century saw some intellectuals elevate science to the point of deification, proposing it as the only valid modality of knowledge goal . The cognitive omnipotence of science leads to the negation of other modes of human knowledge , namely philosophy and theology.

Two world wars in the 20th century and the introduction of mankind into the nuclear age, representing for the first time the possibility for mankind to end its own existence as a species in a fulminating manner, have brought home the need for an ethical use of science. In other words, not everything that can be technically realised is morally good for human beings. On the other hand, an immoderate technological development leads to rates of pollution and environmental degradation that it is difficult to imagine can be sustainable indefinitely. Hence, one of the achievements of the late 20th century has been the rise of an ecological sensibility that advocates a sustained growth of technological progress and the well-being of human societies.

Sir John Eccles, award Nobel in Medicine, said in a book he published in the mid-1980s that the great current ideological currents could be summarised in five groups: a) scientism, b) moral relativism, c) materialism, d) reductionist evolutionism, and e) environmentalism. The sum of these five kinds of ideologies constitutes what Eccles calls: folk philosophy, a form of thought that is characterised by being: popular, popular and uncritical.

Our presentation will focus on the analysis of the above-mentioned ideology in the first place.

Scientism. Definition

Scientism is that intellectual horizon which pretends to pass off as conclusions of experimental science elements of a materialist philosophy. Scientism is thus an ideological manipulation of science by materialism, which is always a philosophical doctrine and not a conclusion that can be drawn from the methods of scientific research.

Speaking of this scientific manipulation, Mariano Artigas has stated that: "If a scientist uses his science arbitrarily according to his ideological preferences, in addition to being dishonest, he is responsible for misleading his public on issues of vital importance" * (1). B .

A distinction must be made between scientism and positive experimental science. The latter is dedicated to the study of empirical reality by means of a methodology consisting of proposing interpretative and explanatory hypotheses, whose truth or validity must be confirmed or refuted by experimentation. Experimentally tested hypotheses are considered true as long as no anomalies or empirical data arise which cannot be satisfactorily explained; or which, in order to maintain their validity, require numerous and complex ad hoc hypotheses, the function of which would be to preserve or save the initial hypotheses which have been compromised by the observation of new phenomena which cannot be explained by the paradigm.

Scientism, on the other hand, usually attempts to pass off as scientific truths (i.e., empirically proven or deducible from empirically established experimental conclusions) philosophical assertions assumed in an uncritical and entirely a priori manner. The dogmatism displayed by scientism, and with which it systematically proceeds, supposes the opposite of what, in theory, scientific rationality represents: prudence in making judgements; epistemological humility, or what is the same: recognition of the limits of scientific knowledge; a critical spirit, which impels us not to accept as firmly established theses what are no more than hypotheses or conjectures, however suggestive they may be; and an analytical and anti-dogmatic mentality that leads to an openness and a fruitful dialogue with other disciplines of human knowledge.

Scientism is the pseudo-science of those who think that science is everything, or at least that it is the main means at our disposal to know everything. Scientism is the dogmatic belief that the way of knowing called science is the only one that deserves the title of knowledge. Juan Luis Arsuaga (Co-director of the Pleistocene sites of Atapuerca, Burgos; and famous science populariser) has expressed it with these words: "whoever wants absolute truths, unquestionable and immovable dogmas, should look elsewhere, which is not science. Science only produces hypotheses, hesitant approximations to the truth, which can always be modified in whole or in part by the force of facts: but it is the best that the human spirit is capable of creating" * (2). In this respect, it is worth recalling the more accurate words of Francisco Ayala, taken up in his first popular science book, by another of the co-directors of these sites, José María Bermúdez de Castro, in which he recognises that "science is a form of knowledge, but it is not the only form. The knowledge derives from other sources, such as common sense, artistic and religious experience and philosophical reflection" * (3). Furthermore, with regard to these hypotheses that Arsuaga speaks of, applied to the field of human palaeontology, it is pertinent to recall the words of the famous palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, recently deceased, and taken up by Mariano Artigas who, speaking of phylogenies, reminds us that: "It would be a good idea to take good note grade of one of Gould's observations, which is undoubtedly serious, as it refers to concrete facts from his specialization program and affects the basic proofs of evolutionism: "the genealogical trees of the lines of evolution that adorn our manuals contain data only at the extremities and at the nodes of their branches; the rest are deductions, certainly plausible, but not confirmed by any fossil". It should therefore be clearly stated that the lines and arrows linking these extremes are hypothetical, and not presented as certainties or as the only possible explanation" * (4).

Scientistic ideas are based on an extrapolation of the method of experimental science. Scientism presents as scientific ideas that go beyond what experimental science can affirm using the method of scientific research. Furthermore, it labels as meaningless cognitive claims all forms of knowledge that do not conform to the methods of experimental analysis of nature used by the empiriometric sciences.

The enormous social success of the practical application of the achievements of scientific research leads to some scientifically unjustified and philosophically debatable assertions. For example: the great social success of the experimental science of Nature leads to the affirmation that the only valid objective form of knowledge is that of the scientific knowledge ; as this only studies entities Materials, it is concluded that the only things that really exist are things Materials.

In other words: "From the assertion that we know nothing beyond our sensible experience, we can easily go on to the following: nothing exists beyond the data of our sensible experience" * (5). Carlos Cardona has also been able to see this clearly and, moreover, he has explained it with great simplicity: "It is very frequent to start by saying "we do not know if...", and then infer that "we know that we do not..."". * (6).

Kant spoke out strongly against this approach subject and denounced the falsity of the unjustified leap it makes. For Kant, experience can never prove that a cause does not exist merely because we can never grasp it; all that experience teaches is that we cannot perceive it: "Who can prove the non-existence of a cause by means of experience," says Kant, "when experience teaches us nothing else but that we do not perceive the cause?" * (7).

Thus, by affirming that experimental science is the only valid mode of knowledge goal , it becomes the criterion of truth. Thus, only that knowledge which conforms to the parameters of the experimental scientific knowledge can be true. But in adopting this position, scientism incurs in an open contradiction, since the scientistic thesis is not the conclusion of any experimental science and, therefore, lacks validity if the criterion of cognitive truth established by it is applied to it. Thus, scientism appears in its true dimension, i.e., as an unjustifiable and arbitrary postulate.

Origins and development of scientism


We do not intend to make an exhaustive study of the origin of scientism, but we do intend to give a brief overview of this topic.

With its roots going back to Ockhamian nominalism, today's scientism emerges from Humean radical empiricism. After passing through Enlightenment optimism and nineteenth-century positivism, it will reach its intellectual peak in twentieth-century Viennese neopositivism, which sees science as the only form of valid knowledge goal and experience as the only criterion of cognitive significance. Between the 19th and 20th centuries, Marxism also ideologically manipulated science, presenting it as the incontestable guarantor of its materialist theses. Let us look very briefly at this intellectual pathway followed by scientism.

Since the sensible knowledge is the most evident in our regard (quoad nos), we can easily be tempted to consider empirical contrastation as the criterion of significance and the criterion of truthfulness, so that a proposition will be true if and only if it is empirically contrastable, and a linguistic term will only make sense if we can assign an empirical referent to it. In the Treatise on Human Nature, Hume affirms that the ideas of the understanding are nothing but more or less weak copies of our sensory impressions, so that everything that our understanding knows in an objective way has been present before in our sensation; in other words, the contents of our intellectual knowledge , if they have objective validity, can only refer to things of empirical reality susceptible of being captured by the senses. In his work: essay on human understanding, Hume also presents the criterion of signification in a distinctly empiricist way, formulating it in the following terms: "If we entertain a suspicion that a philosophical term is used without any meaning or idea (as is too often the case), we have only to ask from what impression the supposed idea is derived, and if it is impossible to assign one to it, this will serve to confirm our suspicion" * (8).

Although Kant is not a radical empiricist, but a transcendental idealist, he states that real "is that which is in interdependence with the conditions Materials of experience" (Krv. B 266), which is equivalent to saying that the criterion of reality, the criterion for something to appear as real, is that it appears to us as given in sensible experience, i.e. that it appears to us before the senses. agreement Thus, for Kant "what is real is that which, in accordance with the empirical rules, is linked to a perception" (Krv. A 376). This means that we cannot know the reality of a thing without some perception on our part. Thus Kant insists that "everything that is connected with a perception according to the laws of empirical progress is real" (Krv. B 521). We explicitly recognise how heterodox our interpretation of these Kantian texts may seem, so far removed from the classical view of transcendental idealism, by placing the great German philosopher between Humean empiricism and logical neopositivism in this topic , but at this point the philosopher from Könisberg presents himself to us as a thinker with a strong empirical accent.

We have already said that enlightened optimism sees science as the panacea that will solve all of humanity's problems thanks to its indefinite progress. It does not matter that science does not manage to fix something now, in the future it will. The Enlightenment maintained what we might call an optimistic scientism.

Comtian positivism was based on the law of three stages, which occur both at the level of the human species (phylogenesis) and at the level of each individual (ontogenesis). The first stage is the religious stage (from the origins of humanity to the birth of philosophy in Greece; at the level of the individual it would correspond to its infancy). The second stage is the metaphysical stage (which would cover the period from Greek philosophy to the 17th-18th century; at the level of an individual it would correspond to adolescence). The third and last stage would be the one corresponding to the positive spirit, which would be the one in which science would have replaced religion and metaphysics; Auguste Comte in the 19th century would have made humanity enter this stage, people would reach it individually in their maturity. Although Comte idolised science, he understood that humanity could not live without religion, and for this reason he invented one: the religion of humanity, in which some of the great figures of history were the saints to be venerated, and Clotilde de Vaux, his lover, the great priestess of this religion and the model to be followed.

Logical neo-positivism is on this point, as on so many others, heir to this tradition, as Carl Gustav Hempel testifies when he defines the criterion of empirical significance as it was conceived by the Vienna circle: "The fundamental principle of modern empiricism is the idea that all non-analytic knowledge is based on experience. We call this thesis the principle of empiricism. Contemporary logical empiricism has added to it the maxim that a sentence constitutes a cognitively meaningful statement and can therefore be said to be true or false only if it is either (1) analytic or contradictory, or (2) capable, at least in principle, of being confirmed by experience" * (9).

In its impotence, the overcoming of neo-positivist radicalism led to the intellectual collapse of scientism. However, it still survives, and in a very widespread form, in the uncritical acquis of the current popular collective imaginary. That is to say, the mentality of Western man is, by default, scientistic, since he is convinced that many of the truths proposed by popular texts or the mass media are truths that science has solidly established through its empirical research methods.

Nowadays, the proper sphere of expansion of scientistic ideology is the field of scientific popularisation. When the scholar delves into the work of the great researchers, he or she may be surprised to discover that the certainties are fewer in number than is often claimed; and the uncertainties, unsurprisingly, are more than initially assumed. Despite the great technological advances and the truly spectacular discoveries that have been made throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, we still do not know how the Universe originated, how life appeared or how man arose, to cite just three of the major questions that are often presented by popular science texts and the mass media average as almost resolved, when, in reality, we still have a lot to know in these fields. It is precisely in the fields of cosmology and human palaeontology that one of the last strongholds of what we might call academic scientism can be found.

A practical example of scientism in positive science

In palaeoanthropology, many authors hold a purely materialistic conception of man, considering it unacceptable to grant any validity to metaphysical elements inscribed in a philosophical and/or religious anthropology, for the simple fact that such elements, the human soul for example, are not susceptible to be analysed with the methods of experimental science, since they do not leave a trace in the fossil record or cannot be the object of study of molecular biology. This is tantamount to claiming that only positive experimental science represents an objectively valid form of knowledge . This assertion is based, as we said above, on the defence of an epistemological and ontological prejudice consisting in believing that only the experimental knowledge of the natural sciences has objective validity because only objects really exist Materials, which are only susceptible of being known in an empirical way. Strictly speaking, this set of assertions transcends the realm of science altogether, constituting, in reality, a series of philosophical theses whose veracity can neither be proved nor disproved by the methods of experimental science.

In reality, human palaeontology has its own limitations. Indeed: "In the field of human evolution, fundamental questions remain open: exactly how many species of early hominids there were, which of them made tools and how they walked" * (10). We still do not know the origin of anatomically modern man (us); nor do we know when modern human consciousness (ours) arose; nor do we know exactly how the genus Homo arose, nor from which genus, nor from which species of hominid it evolved. The same is true of the other hominid genera: Australopithecus, Paranthropus, Ardipithecus, Orrorin and Sahelanthropus; indeed, some authors doubt that Ardipithecus are hominids, others doubt that Orrorin are, and still others doubt Sahelanthropus (an alleged seven-million-year-old hominid). Another source of conflict among palaeoanthropologists stems from the fact that we do not know exactly what the phylogenetic relationships are between the different genera and species of hominids, something that causes a series of continuous clashes among researchers when it comes to establishing the phylogenies of the human evolutionary tree.

In this context, the concept of evolution is often used to deny the concept of creation. In reality, the former presupposes the latter. The notion of evolution is not only not opposed to that of creation, but implies it; so that there is no creative evolution in which modern human behaviour emerges from pure materiality, but creation is evolutionary. That is to say: creation is dynamic, in such a way that it unfolds in an evolutionary process. Antonio Fernández Rañada has rightly observed that: "Christian doctrine does not imply the separate creation of species, but its central idea, the truly important one, is that everything owes its existence to a God transcendent to the natural order, and this is not affected by Darwin's theory. After all, why can evolution not be God's chosen way of creating the world?" * (11). Indeed, why can't creation be an ongoing process that unfolds over time?

Are the concepts of evolution and creation really opposed to each other? Carlos Javier Alonso, quite rightly, thinks not. If we consider that: "The reality is that evolution as a scientific fact and divine creation are on two different planes: there is no evolution-creation alternative, as if there were two positions to choose between. It is possible to admit the existence of evolution and, at the same time, of divine creation. If the fact of evolution is a problem to be dealt with by means of experimental scientific knowledge, the necessity of divine creation responds to metaphysical reasoning (...) The fact of creation, thus understood, does not clash with the possibility that some beings arose from others (...) There could be evolution within the created reality, in such a way that, whoever supports evolutionism, has no reason to deny creation. Such creation is necessary, whether there is evolution or not, because it is required to give a reason for what exists, whereas evolution refers only to transformations between already existing beings. In this sense, evolution presupposes creation (...) Paradoxical though it may seem, it is the radical evolutionist who violates the demands of the rigour of the scientific method, for he is forced to admit hypotheses which do not belong to the scientific sphere, and he must admit them even if they cannot be proved" * (12).

At final, in the field of human evolution: "Although some publications present human evolution as a well-known issue, the judgements of specialists are very different and much more cautious (...) The impression that everything is clear in this field is false, however often it is asserted" * (13).


Overcoming scientism is achieved through an adequate knowledge of the scope and limits of the methodological procedure of positive science. And, above all, through the recognition of the existence of diverse forms of human knowledge ; all of them with an objective validity appropriate to their own methods of investigation; and to their corresponding objects of study. Subjective ideological prejudices, so characteristic of our human nature, but so alien to scientific knowledge itself, must also be set aside. The interference of such prejudices in the good progress of the task of science only hinders the knowledge of truth, something to which each of the forms of human knowledge (the positive sciences, philosophy and theology), in their own way, contribute in a decisive way. This fact is acknowledged by scientists themselves, as Jean Chaline acknowledges when he states that: "today, the relations between philosophy, religion and science have been partially clarified. It is now accepted that there are two levels of knowledge: the knowledge of the how, which is exclusive to science, and the knowledge of the why, which concerns philosophy and religion. These fields are so different in their objectives and methods that the two approaches are independent and should under no pretext interfere with each other.... Approaches which in reality are complementary and should converge towards a single truth" * (14).

After these words of wisdom, we have nothing more to add.


  1. Artigas, Mariano: Las fronteras del evolucionismo; Ed. Palabra, Madrid, 1992, pp. 152.
  2. Arsuaga, Juan Luis: El collar del neandertal. En busca de los primeros pensadores; Ed. Temas de Hoy, Madrid, 1999, p. 40.
  3. Ayala, Francisco: El azar y la selección natural; quoted by Bermúdez de Castro, J. M.: El chico de la Gran Dolina. En los orígenes de lo humano; Ed. Crítica, Madrid, 2002, p. 67.
  4.  Artigas, Mariano op. cit., pp. 95-96.
  5. Secretariat for non-believers: Faith and atheism in the world; Ed. BAC; Madrid, 1990, p. 31.
  6. Cardona, Carlos: Metafísica del Bien y del Mal; Ed. EUNSA, Pamplona, 1987, p. 195.
  7. Kant, Immanuel: Fundamentación de la metafísica de las costumbres; Ed. Aguilar, Buenos Aires, 1973, p. 98.
  8. Hume, David: essay sobre el entendimiento humano; Alianza publishing house, Madrid, p. 37.
  9. Hempel, Carl Gustav: Problemas y cambios en el criterio empirista de significado ; in Alfred Jules Ayer: El positivismo lógico; Ed. FCE, Mexico, 1981, p. 115.
  10. Tattersall, Ian: From Africa once... and again?; Research and Science, June 1997, p. 20.
  11. Fernández Rañada, Antonio: Los científicos y Dios; Ediciones Nobel, Oviedo, 1994, p. 131.
  12. Alonso, Carlos Javier: Tras la evolución. Panorama histórico de las Teorías Evolucionistas; Eunsa, Pamplona, 2001, pp. 240-241. For this topic cf. also: Ferrer Arellano, Joaquín & Barrio Maestre, José María: Evolution or Creation? Respuesta a un falso dilema. Metafísica de la creación y ciencias de la evolución; Ediciones Eunate, pp. 298.
  13. Artigas, Mariano: Las fronteras del evolucionismo; Ed. Palabra, Madrid, 1992, pp. 57-63.
  14. Chaline, Jean: A million generations. Towards the origins of humanity; Ediciones Península, Barcelona, 2002, p. 211-212.