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Scientism or skepticism? November 7, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: , , ,

There have been quite a few comments in recent months—in articles, debates, etc—proposing the evils of scientism.  Religion and science, say many thinkers, are compatible and to see otherwise is to see science’s reach as going beyond its fingers.  John Haught, for example, defines scientism this way:

Sicentism may be defined as “the belief that science is the only reliable guide to truth.”  Scientism, it must be emphasized, is by no means the same thing as science.  For while science is a modest, reliable, and fruitful method of learning some important things about the universe, scientism is the assumption that science is the only appropriate way to arrive at the totality of truth.  Scientism is a philosophical belief (strictly speaking an “epistemological” one) that enshrines science as the only completely trustworthy method of putting the human mind in touch with reality.

(Science and Religion: from conflict to conversation, page 16)

John Haught

Now, John Haught is considered, by many, to be one of the world’s foremost experts in the relationship between science and religion.  And while I don’t deny that he has a lot to say about both science and religion, much of it valuable, I agree with Jerry Coyne (as well as Eric MacDonald) that his fundamental views about the intersection of science and religion is problematic if not down-right absurd.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that the critics of the so-called “scientistic” people (one is tempted to juts call them “scientists”) seem to not understand the position as it is commonly used by those, such as myself, who believe that science is the preeminent epistemological methodology in the world (perhaps the universe!).  The other part is, as has been pointed out, that this method conflicts too much with theological methodology which is often non-empirical.  People like Haught have a bias, a conviction that ties them to a set of doctrines which make claims at odds with science, and so they see something beyond the reach of empiricism.

But to say something is beyond empirical reach is to say that there are non-empirical things.  Well, how would they know? How could they know? From where could they get that data? Revelation? By what train does the “revelator” travel in order to get from a non-material world to a material one? What are the connecting tracks made of? Without a justification for how they get their information, we are right to be skeptical.

And that’s precisely it, isn’t it?  It isn’t about science per se, but skepticism.  The critics of us scientistic people think that we are claiming that we can design laboratory experiments in order to find answers for all questions, even their magic ones.  They think that when we say that science can answer questions about morality (for example), that we mean that people in lab coats can sit around with complicated bunson-burner experiments to determine what types of things to value, what meaning is, and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  It is a rather silly caricature, isn’t it?

Truth and the scientific method

If we are concerned with what is true, then we need to find tools which can help us find clues as well as shift through them to determine which of those clues can help.  But further, we need to find the best tool-set to use, how to use them, and how to know when they are not working.  Over the millennia human culture has developed a complicated history to how we determine the truth.  From the early days of philosophy and rationalism through the enlightenment which brought us more powerful tools of empirical research, we have developed what we now refer to as the scientific method.

It is through this method that we have the best information about what is likely to be true.  No other methodology is close to competing in terms of practical success or theoretical power.  This perpetually leaves me asking people who are critical of the scientific method what they could even try to put up against it.  There is no competition.  Cake or death, or something….

But despite this success of the scientific method, many people (especially postmodern philosophers and theologians) try and argue that neither empiricism and/or logic can tell us what is true.  That is, we have to assume some axioms, we must assume some things, to get anywhere with any of these methods.

Well, of course we do.  The question is whether A) other methodologies would have to accept the same axioms (such as non-contradiction, existence, and reliability of sensory perception) and B) whether this actually damages the method itself.  All important questions, but also beyond the scope of this post.  Instead, I want to take another related path here.

Do you value truth? Does it matter to you to have as many true beliefs as possible and as few false beliefs as possible?

As a preliminary, I must address the issue of whether I should have to justify why we should desire truth.  Having to justify the desire for truth when considering what methodology to use in determining truth is akin to justifying hunger when considering nutritional value in deciding what meal to eat.  If you aren’t ever hungry, there is no point in making such a decision.  If you don’t value truth, there is no point in the consideration of methodologies.

Is it not a value of yours to know true things? If so, then just stop reading.  Just go somewhere else, play some video games, and have a few drinks because nothing you say, do, or think is relevant any more concerning anything I have said here.  If you don’t care about what is true, or if what you prefer to be true is more important than verification, then there is simply no talking with you about epistemology, methodology, etc because you don’t care enough so it does not matter.

If you do care, then it should be your value, as a direct logical descendant of that prior value of truth-having, to utilize the best methodology for determining if things are true.  To accept any other method would be absurd, because it is not as good at determining if something is reasonable to accept as true.

And the best methodology for determining truth is, well, science right?  Well, partially.  The best methodology is actually…


That is, after all, the central theme of this blog.  “The Atheist, Polyamorous, Skeptic,” right?  The first two terms in that title are qualifiers of the last; they tell you what kind of skeptic I am.  But further, I believe that skepticism, properly applied, necessarily leads to atheism (and possibly polyamory; a topic for another day), but that is beside the point that I am a skeptic first, which should imply that if the evidence were to point elsewhere I would be otherwise.  Because evidence is what matters.

One of the primary ideas in skepticism is the idea of the null hypothesis.  Now, I realize that in every day practical science this ideal is not a reality, but a s a rule of scientific inquiry in general it is essential as a part of the philosophy of science.  It basically says that you should wait for sufficient evidence before accepting a hypothesis as true.  That is, you withhold belief until enough evidence, or at least rational justification, is given to accept something as having a basis in reality.

Obviously the amount of evidence necessary to accept a claim is proportional to the claim; I don’t expect you to withhold belief in the claim that I ate pizza for dinner tonight; it’s not an extraordinary a claim that is worthy of serious skepticism, and accepting it even if false has little to no consequences generally.  A supernatural being who created and controls aspects of the universe is a different matter, one worthy of skepticism and requiring good support to accept.  As far as I have seen, no good support exists for such a claim.

Skepticism involves many tools and ideals beyond crude empiricism.  Empirical testing, verification through demonstration of material effect, logic, reproducibility, etc.  It is a large tool set which together give us a very powerful detection apparatus for what is true, what exists, and what is not sufficiently verified to rationally accept.

It is this method, that of skeptical inquiry, which the scientistic people are on about.  It is not science per se but the whole set of empirical  and logical tools which I call skepticism.  It is thus my proposition that rather than call us “scientistic,” we should just call ourselves skeptics and have done with it.  Rather than argue against scientism in the science/religion debates, we should be framing the debate as one about skepticism versus non-skepticism.

It is my contention that many fans of NOMA or other angles on the science/religion compatibility side are being non-skeptical, or at least not properly applying skepticism to all aspects of their beliefs, worldviews, or reality.  I think this has been the crux of the issue all-along.


Against skepticsm, religion has a hell of a time competing.  This is not to say that religion does not use logic, empiricism, or skepticism at all.  It just often subverts them under the wing of revelation, authority, tradition, etc.  Many theologians (including William Lane Craig) have said that if it came down to what science says and what their scripture says, they stick with scripture.

But of course many other religious thinkers, such as John Haught and Francis Collins, believe that the methods of science (and perhaps of skepticism) are compatible with their religion.  But the problem with this is immediate, at least to me; religion is often essentially reliant on certain unquestioned propositions (sometimes referred to as “facts”) such as the crucifixion, the miracles of this or that deity or holy person, or the existence of a deity in the first place.  These questions, when pressed against the methods of skepticism (and not merely science), do not stand.  It has been one of the themes of this and many other “new atheist” blogs to demonstrate this week after week.

But when we open our skeptical tool boxes in the presence of ideas accepted due to tradition, faith, or unsupported personal experience we are told that those tools cannot reach there.  We are told that the substance of those things, the nature of their meaning, or even there very ontological status is beyond material manipulation.

But we, as animals with material nervous systems which make up all that we are, are not exceptions to the universe.  We ar enot privy to some magical bridge to some supernatural world.  This has to be supported first.  Haught and his cohorts on sciency-religious love-fests have to demonstrate that there is anything to their revelatory experiences in the first place.  They have to demonstrate that there is any reason to accept that there really is a separation of nature from supernature before they start making claims that the questions about them need different tools.

Science and religion are incompatible because while they both deal with the real world, the extra stuff that religion is supposed to have exclusive access to are not credible in the first place.  There is no reason to think they are real at all.  Only the best set of truth-testing tools that we have can reliably determine what is likely to be true, and those tools don’t expose the presence of the magic world which religion claims propriety over.

If the science/religion discussion is about who can say what about what is beyond the scope of skeptical analysis, then I vote that we let religion have it.   The result is that theologians get to play in imaginationland and skeptics and scientistics can go on having (as Haught says) “the only completely trustworthy method of putting the human mind in touch with reality.”  What Haught and others don’t seem to get is that the rest simply is not rationally acceptable as real.



1. Mike D - November 10, 2011

This is a ninja kick to accomodationism. Nicely done. I quote it all the time, but I like TheraminTrees’ comment from his third “There are no gods” video: “My loyalty is not to naturalism or materialism, as some folks suggest; my loyalty is to systems that demonstrate their claims.”

What theologians attempt to do is take our intuitions about the world and/or our provisional scientific knowledge, and cantilever them into assumptions about domains that are by definition beyond the purview of rational inquiry. Any gap in scientific knowledge, like the origin of life or the cause of the Big Bang, is seen as an opportunity to insert God as the explanatory mechanism – as though scientific ignorance renders a supernatural explanation valid by default.

When we protest this obvious fallacy, they accuse of of having ‘faith’ in science – the belief that science will ultimately answer all those big questions – or we’re accused of being “materialists” who refuse to even consider divine explanations. I find it terribly frustrating trying to communicate with believers on this matter, because the the truth is so much more simple: it’s not that we “believe” science will answer such questions; it’s that science is the only method of inquiry we that actually demonstrates its claims. It’s the best tool we have.

As Sam Harris said: it’s easy to think of things for which the best explanation used to be religious, but is now scientific; it’s hard to think of any examples of the opposite. Accordingly, divine explanations don’t make for valid placeholders in the gaps of scientific ignorance – at least until theologians can figure out a methodology by which to discern true divine claims from false ones.

Again, great post.

2. David Gerard - November 11, 2011

To put it in a nutshell:

The usage-based definition of “scientism” – based on who uses the term and how – is:

1. Believes science works.
2. Stepped on my personal toe.

3. Morality as an applied science « The atheist, polyamorous, skeptic - November 21, 2011

[…] is meant as a more general application of reason and the scientific method, then yes.  As I have written recently, I think that the term ‘science’ in terms of these philosophical questions (such as the […]

4. Clay James - December 28, 2011

I think you completely missed the point of what Haught is saying and the main criticism of scientism. Haught does not mean that science is one of several valid epistemic frameworks by which we form ideas and that we should also use the other frameworks available. What he means is that scientism is self refuting, in other words, the very belief in scientism refutes its own application.

You take a more bland form of scientism when you say, ¨is that the critics of the so-called “scientistic” people (one is tempted to juts call them “scientists”) seem to not understand the position as it is commonly used by those, such as myself, who believe that science is the preeminent epistemological methodology in the world (perhaps the universe!).¨ ¨Science¨ is not an epistemological methodology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Scientism, or the belief that one should only believe things that can be proven by science and reason, is an epistemological framework. This is a crucial difference that most people miss.

But even if we overlook this category error, your claim that ¨science is the preeminent epistemological methodology¨ is also self refuting. You obviously hold that statement to be true, the problem is that you cannot arrive at the truth of that statement through science because you would be presuposing what you are trying to prove. If you arrive at the truth of that statement through another method, then how can science be the ¨preeminent epistemological methodology¨ if it relies on another epistemological methodology for its truth.

And this has nothing to do with god or religion. This is as true for an atheist as for a theist.

5. shaunphilly - December 31, 2011

Clay, I’ve been busy, so sorry for the delayed response.

“I think you completely missed the point of what Haught is saying and the main criticism of scientism.”

No, I didn’t miss the point. I simply don’t see this criticism you are repeating as meaningful. My post was about how I think that when people think of scientism and talk about it, I think it boils down to skepticism as the only methodology that is useful for determining what is likely to be true.

“What he means is that scientism is self refuting, in other words, the very belief in scientism refutes its own application.”

Right, and I reject this criticism as being quite awful.

You continue:

“¨Science¨ is not an epistemological methodology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Scientism, or the belief that one should only believe things that can be proven by science and reason, is an epistemological framework. This is a crucial difference that most people miss.”

The scientific method, or empiricism used with logic, is what I mean when I use “science” this way. If that is not an epistemological methodology, I don’t know what is. Your use of scientism (“the belief that one should only believe things that can be proven by science and reason”) is sloppy, but it does indicate a methodology. I’m not sure of your use of framework here, perhaps it means worldview or something like that?

In any case, let me clarify by improving upon your definition;
I believe that the best way to find what is true is to use the scientific method and reason/rational analysis/logic, hence if one wishes to believe true things they should only accept things as true if they are supported by the scientific method and reason. This, if it is scientism, is indistinguishable from skepticism.

“¨science is the preeminent epistemological methodology¨ is also self refuting. ”

I have heard this claimed, but I reject it. I don’t think you understand the claim being made by us skeptics. By saying that the scientific method is the preeminent methodology to find out what is true, we are saying that the success of this method demonstrates its value not by some other method but by its own. It is self-supporting by its fruits (I’m tempted to quote the New Testament here…)

“If you arrive at the truth of that statement through another method, then how can science be the ¨preeminent epistemological methodology¨ if it relies on another epistemological methodology for its truth. ”

But I don’t arrive at it from another method. I arrive at this statement via the success of the method. There simply is no method to use in order to make the claim or to make it credible, because there is no other method that works. Revelation? Authority? What could you use? The fact that it took us centuries to discover the best way to find what is likely to be true simply means that the ways we tried before failed.

Scientism, or what I call simply skepticism, simply is the acceptance that the combination of the empirical methods of science in concert with rationality through logic is the only method we have that works in terms of finding what is likely to be true. This is a charged issue because this method does not support older ideas that were derived using less developed forms of this method. Religion, in many cases, is based upon scriptural authority supposedly derived from the authority of its source (some supernatural being or force)

Skepticism simply makes it irrational to accept ideas that are not supported by skeptical methods, and so those older attempts to come up with epistemic methods are cast aside as useless to us now. Thus, those who reject scientism are rejecting the best ways we have to determine truth, often in the name of preserving ideas that cannot be supported.

6. Provisionality, Offense, and Conviction « atheist, polyamorous, skeptics - September 27, 2012

[…] who try to criticize what is sometimes called scientism, but which I think is better thought of as consistency in application of skepticism.  That is, there must be some ground upon which we found other ideas and conclusions.  For […]

7. Saul T. Bohuslav - September 10, 2013

Nicely put. An accusation of scientism is generally nothing more than a euphemistic expression of the believer’s frustration at not being left with any space to play in the sandpit.

The majority of scientific non-believers, due to a mixture of politesse and fear of appearing arrogant, have affected a kind of craven false-humility. They’ve been very careful not to disturb the delicately constructed rationalisations of the religious and as a result they always imply that religion has a safe corner of the epistemelogical play-area to itself, with a set of meaningless but profound-sounding questions for which only the mysterious truth-divining abilities of the religious mind have an answer. So when someone comes along and shines a light on this little corner of theirs, and points out that what they’re doing there is pretty much entirely pointless and insignificant, and once the believer realises that if this carries on they’ll have no room in the sandpit at all, they cry ‘scientism’ and ‘fundamentalist atheist’.

It’s an effective way of cutting off criticism – the sceptic then feels a need to pull their punches so as not to appear aggressive, and the conversation is turned on its head, with the sceptic now having to defend herself against the accusation of scientism. In fact anyone who denies the religious thinker their illusion of relevance, no matter how polite or well-reasoned their critique, can expect to be so branded.

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