Scientism today

Author: Mariano Artigas
Published in: Texto inédito. congress Mundial de Philosophy Cristiana, Quito.
Date of publication: 1989


1. Scientism in Epistemology
2. Scientistic naturalism
3. Physicist scientism
4. Biological scientism
5. Technicist scientism
6. Scientism and public opinion

Gerard Radnitzky has written that scientism is "the dogmatic belief that the way of knowing called 'science' is the only one that deserves the degree scroll of knowledge, and its vulgarised form: the belief that science will eventually solve all our problems, or at least all our 'meaningful' problems. This belief is based on a false image of science. Many important philosophers, from Nietzsche to Husserl, Apel, Gadamer, Habermas, Heelan, Kisiel, Kockelmans and others, have regarded scientism as the fundamental false consciousness of our age" * (1). These words are a good characterisation of scientism and its importance today.

Today, scientism does not present itself with the aggressive tone of the past. Scientists are often aware of the limitations of their science. Philosophers regard positivism and neo-positivism as obsolete ideologies. The relations between science and Philosophy are the subject of detailed programs of study , and there is widespread awareness of their complementary nature. The relations between science and religious faith are characterised by mutual respect. It is easy to see, and it is often acknowledged, that scientific, philosophical and religious perspectives are not opposed, but complementary.

However, scientism is not dead. Its basic idea constitutes one of the main conditionings of life today, in theory and in praxis. This idea consists in considering experimental science as a paradigm of objectivity, rationality and efficiency.

The examination of scientism, naturally, is situated at the epistemological level, and for this reason I will devote the first section of my reflections to it. In the second, I will refer to naturalistic ideas that are sometimes presented as if they were endorsed by science. In the remaining sections, I will allude to various current manifestations of scientism in some specific areas.

 Scientism in epistemology

Explicit criticisms of scientism are easy to find in current epistemology. However, they often fail to provide adequate solutions. For example, it is claimed on the one hand that the scientific knowledge is conjectural and conditioned by conventional factors, but then it is concluded that this is even more so outside science. The reasoning goes as follows: if even in experimental science, which is the ultimate exponent of rationality, truth cannot be achieved with certainty, much less can it be achieved in other fields that lack the rigour characteristic of the sciences. In short: we have moved from an optimistic scientism to a pessimistic one. And this pessimistic scientism is at the root of the ideologies of subject conventionalism and pragmatism, so characteristic of our times.

This status is evident in the debates about rationality. In contrast to the verificationism of the Vienna Circle, which represented the last manifestation of classical optimistic scientism, Popperianism has insisted that it is not possible to prove the truth of any scientific construct. Science is conceived, in this perspective, as a search for truth, but truth would only be a regulative idea that guide the research: all that could be done is to submit theories to criticism in order to eliminate errors and to come up with better theories. It is obvious that this perspective is not scientistic in the classical sense. However, given that science is considered as a particularly rigorous subject of knowledge in comparison with metaphysics, the conclusion is that metaphysics, although legitimate, has a conjectural character. In this context, the claim to assert a truth final is qualified as dogmatic * (2).

In other cases, it is claimed that experimental science has a purely instrumental value. Even the concept of truth is systematically disregarded. In some extreme cases, openly irrationalist positions are taken. These are reactions which, on the one hand, denounce scientistic approaches, but on the other hand, do not go beyond the rationalist and empiricist approaches which are at the basis of the scientism they criticise. It seems that the possibility of attaining truth is identified with the procedures proposed by the scientistic positions, in such a way that criticism of scientism would be tantamount to renouncing the possibility of attaining truth. The result is that, instead of formulating valid alternatives, new confusions are added to those that already exist.

Scientistic ideas are based on an extrapolation of the method of experimental science: ideas that go beyond the nature of the scientific method are presented as scientific. A fundamental critique of scientistic ideas must therefore be based on a study of the nature of experimental science. I have already discussed my ideas on this subject at length elsewhere * (3); here I will limit myself to pointing out a few aspects that are of particular relevance to scientism * (4).

Scientism relies on the peculiar reliability of experimental science. The scientific knowledge seems to have an intersubjective validity, allows for testable predictions, has a progressive character, and serves as a basis for useful applications. These characteristics seem to be absent in other fields. Therefore, if scientism is to be overcome, a proper evaluation of science, including a rigorous analysis of these aspects of its reliability, will be required.

This reliability is real. But it is based on a deliberate restriction of the scientific field. Each science delimits its object by defining basic concepts that relate to repeatable experiments. It is not surprising that philosophical problems, which refer to reality without restrictions, exceed the possibilities of the experimental method. The peculiar reliability of the experimental sciences is achieved at a price that Philosophy and theology cannot pay. It can be seen, therefore, that the way to overcome scientism has nothing to do with the denial of the value of science.

The history of scientism has unfolded as follows: first it was claimed that modern science had come to replace the old natural Philosophy ; then it was thought that the new science was capable of solving all problems on its own, and all other cognitive claims were denounced as meaningless; finally, with the realisation that science encounters many limits and progresses by using conventional constructs, a relativism has become generalised which applies first to science, but then extends to the whole of the human knowledge .

Although it may seem paradoxical, a critique of scientism nowadays generally involves a revaluation of the scientific knowledge . Scientific activity is based on philosophical assumptions which, although they are not studied thematically in the sciences, are essential for scientific work and results to make sense. The analysis of these assumptions sample shows that experimental science is based on a philosophical realism which, rigorously developed, contains a gnoseology and a metaphysics that make it possible to show the coherence between experimental science and realist philosophy.

Scientistic naturalism

Naturalism, understood as the denial of any reality beyond what can be achieved by experimental science, has a long history. It can be said that, since the systematic birth of experimental science, this idea has been defended in every age. The defence used to consist in formulating a picture of the world and of man in which there was no place for spiritual and supernatural realities. Nowadays, naturalism is presented preferably as if it were a consequence of the scientific method.

This idea is implicit in some of the epistemological approaches to which I alluded in the previous section . Indeed, if it is denied that we can reach a true knowledge or if it is not even acknowledged that it makes sense to talk about truth, a logical consequence will be that nothing could be asserted about ultimate realities.

Another current manifestation of scientistic naturalism coincides with materialist ideas, and consists in affirming that the realm of the real coincides with the object of study of experimental science. This idea is often related to an evolutionary perspective in which, while emergent realities are often admitted, emergence is conceived as the exclusive result of forces operating at the most basic levels; this is an emergentist, materialistic evolutionism that is often presented as if it were the result of scientific knowledge, and even as the only ontology compatible with the progress of science.

The critique of these ideas is not difficult. Indeed, to the extent that science demands that theories be subjected to experimental control, its field of study is reduced to the material; therefore, if it is claimed that experimental science is the paradigm to which all cognitive claims must imitate, materialism will appear as the ontology united to science. But by adopting such a position, it is an open contradiction, since the scientistic thesis is not a conclusion of any science, and is therefore invalid if the criterion it sets forth is applied to it. In this way, scientism appears in its true dimension, i.e. as an unjustifiable and arbitrary postulate.

Moreover, materialism has to face serious difficulties when trying to explain the reality of human phenomena, among which scientific activity is included. Indeed, the very existence of science presupposes, as a condition of its possibility, admitting that the human person has a capacity for self-reflection that allows him to pose problems related to truth, and this capacity is situated in the context of a subjectivity that overcomes conditioning Materials. It can be said that scientific progress is a fact whose explanation requires overcoming materialistic ideas.

Physicist scientism

The collapse of the mechanicism of classical physics was interpreted by many as a test that scientific materialism was unworkable. In general, physicists are nowadays very cautious about philosophical extrapolations of their science, perhaps because they already have the experience of centuries of failed scientistic attempts.

However, scientistic ideas are also, in some cases, defended with arguments taken from physics. The most striking case is proposal that it would be possible to formulate a physical explanation of creation. It is found in the writings of P.W. Atkins, P. Davies and Q. Smith; for example, Atkins states his thesis : "I intend to make it appear that the universe can begin to exist without any extraneous intervention and that there is no need to invoke the idea of a Supreme Being in any of its many manifestations". Recently, S. Hawking has published ideas that are partly along these lines, and has stated that it may be possible to prove that the existing universe is the only logically possible universe* (5).

The arguments on which these ideas are claimed to be based refer to quantum gravity, a theory that is for the moment in a very hypothetical state; to the very problematic assertion that there are causeless events in the quantum world; and to the theory of topological transitions, which is also very speculative. In short, it is claimed that quantum fluctuations of the gravitational field would produce Structures space-time from nothing; then, from empty space-time, particles would be produced Materials by the fluctuations of the quantum vacuum; finally, the rest of the universe would be produced from those particles, from agreement with the laws of physics.

These reasonings rely on manifest extrapolations; for example, the physical vacuum cannot be identified with nothingness, and it makes no sense to assert the existence of real spatio-temporal Structures independent of subject. However, the main point is that the method of experimental science cannot be used to study the creation of nothingness, since it is not a process between two physical states* (6).

Biological scientism

One of the most characteristic manifestations of contemporary scientism is that which claims to be based on biology. Materialistic evolutionism claims to fully explain all living things, including man as a whole, by means of biological mechanisms which, in turn, are reduced to physico-chemical processes. A typical exponent of this position is J. Monod. Sociobiology, on the other hand, presents itself as a programme capable of extending biological explanations to the field of human behaviour, with a certain reductionist tinge* (7).

There is no reason for evolutionary theories to conflict with metaphysics or theology, as long as extrapolations beyond what the scientific method allows to be asserted are avoided. Materialism finds no more support in biology than in physics. In both cases, the experimental method only allows the study of transformations between realities Materials. The denial of the spiritual, in this context, appears as an unjustified extrapolation.

Evolutionary theories are often presented with a certain amount of ideology that is properly pseudo-scientific. Sometimes, in reaction, some fundamentalist Protestant groups have sought to defend Christianity by elaborating explanations in which Christian doctrine is supposed to provide scientific indications, and this has created even greater confusion; such is the case with scientific creationists in the United States.

Most scientists, also from the evolutionary perspective, now recognise that there are no objective grounds for such confrontations. Materialistic reductionism is not justified by biological theories. Nevertheless, reductionist ideas continue to spread, especially at the popular level * (8).

Technicist scientism

Science is becoming increasingly intertwined with technology. This fact, together with the growing success of technology, explains why in some cases scientism is directly related to technical achievements.

One of the main areas where this is happening is artificial intelligence and robotics. The development of the possibilities of computers sometimes leads to claims that there are no limits to human intelligence that cannot be reached by computers. The parallel development of robotics leads to the idea of an authentic simulation of human behaviour, and some claim that man will be surpassed by the robot within deadline a generation* (9). In this case, it would not be a question of building a robot similar to man; the characteristics of these robots would be very different, to the extent that they would be conceived as beings which, once they have reached the level of self-awareness, would surpass man and submit to his dominion, representing a qualitative change in evolution.

Although these ideas are surrounded by an unmistakable air of science fiction, they are presented, with a profusion of arguments, in many publications, and seem to respond to the ideology of a certain issue of researchers. At the heart of these ideas is a conception of man in which the person is reduced to result of a set of physical-chemical forces. Physicist and biologist reductionism leads naturally to technologist reductionism. These reductionisms postulate arbitrary definitions of intelligence and the person and deny everything that cannot be subjected to technical control; but, in so doing, they propose a conception of the person which, if carried to its logical consequences, is incompatible with the very existence of science and technology* (10).

Scientism and public opinion

The role of science in society is now greater than ever, and its influence is particularly noticeable in the field of public opinion. This influence is sometimes negative, due to the scientistic orientation of some popular science publications * (11).

Scientism does not find a favourable echo in the specialised field of science, since one of the main aspects of the scientific mentality consists of intellectual rigour, alien to unjustified extrapolations. It is not surprising, therefore, that the main area in which scientism manifests itself today is that of knowledge dissemination. In today's society there is a clear awareness of the importance of science and, on the other hand, it is difficult to have a deep understanding of authentic scientific reasoning, as this task requires specialised dedication. It is not uncommon that topics that are treated in the sciences in a rigorous way and goal, are accompanied by fanciful speculations when reaching the level of knowledge dissemination.

These facts require no further comment. Indeed, there are no speculative problems that have not been considered in the previous sections. On the one hand, they manifest a status which can only be counterbalanced by a knowledge dissemination faithful to scientific rigour. On the other hand, they highlight the central role that science plays in our civilisation, as well as the importance of providing a true picture of the actual methods and results of science.


  1. Radnitzky, G., "Towards a theory of research that is neither logical reconstruction nor psychology or sociology of science", Theorem, 3 (1973), p. 254-255.
  2. A critical analysis of Popperian epistemology can be found in: M. Artigas, Karl Popper: Búsqueda sin término, Magisterio Español, Madrid 1979.
  3. M. Artigas, Philosophy de la ciencia experimental, Ediciones Universidad de Navarra, Pamplona 1989. In the final discussions of each chapter there are references to scientism.
  4. On these topics see also: A. Pérez de Laborda, ¿Salvar lo real? Materials para una Philosophy de la ciencia, Ediciones meeting, Madrid 1983; E. Agazzi, Scienza e fede, Massimo, Milano 1983, p. 104-140; M. Artigas, Ciencia, razón y fe, Palabra, Madrid 1985; N. López Moratalla, "knowledge científico", in: N. López Moratalla et al, Deontología biológica, School de Ciencias, Universidad de Navarra, Pamplona 1987, p. 135-151.
  5. P.W. Atkins, La creación, Labor, Barcelona 1983; P. Davies, God and the New Physics, Dent, London 1983; Q. Smith, "The Uncaused Beginning of the Universe", Philosophy of Science, 55 (1988), p. 39-57; S. Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, Bantam Books, New York 1988.
  6. Critical analyses of ideas about the self-creation of the universe can be found in: W.L. Craig, "God, Creation and Mr Davies",The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 37 (1986), p. 163-175; M. Artigas, "Physics and Creation: the Origin of the Universe", Scripta Theologica, 19 (1987), p. 347-373; W.L. Carroll, "Big Bang Cosmology, Quantum Tunneling from Nothing, and Creation", Laval théologique et philosophique, 44 (1988), p. 59-75.
  7. J. Monod, El azar y la necesidad, Barral, Barcelona 1971; E.O. Wilson, "What is Sociobiology?", Teorema, 12 (1982), p. 237-250.
  8. Interesting reflections on this subject can be found in: S.L. Jaki, Angels, Apes and Men, Sherwood Sugden, La Salle-Illinois 1983; M. Artigas, Las fronteras del evolucionismo, Palabra, Madrid 1985; A. Llano, "Interacciones de la biología y la antropología", in: N. López Moratalla et al, Deontología biológica, School de Ciencias, Universidad de Navarra, Pamplona 1987, p. 153-210.
  9. The ideas mentioned can be found, for example, in: E.A. Feigenbaum - P. McCorduck, The Fifth Generation, Planeta, Barcelona 1983; H. Moravec, Mind Children. The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence, Harvard University Press, Cambridge-Massachusetts 1988.
  10. Critiques of these ideas can be found in: E. Agazzi, "Intentionality and Artificial Intelligence", in: AA.VV., Le mental et le corporel, Office International de Librairie, Bruxelles, p. 195-227; M. Artigas, "Máquinas pensantes y knowledge humano", in: conference proceedings del III Simposio de Teología Histórica, School de Teología, Valencia 1984, p. 391-397; M. Artigas, Ciencia, razón y fe, Palabra, Madrid 1985; S.L. Jaki, Brain, Mind and Computers, Gateway, South Bend-Indiana 1978.
  11. A typical example is found in: C. Sagan, Cosmos, Planeta, Barcelona 1982.