A middle-aged man dreaming of the day when he can stop begging for scraps and write for a living.

Thursday, July 17, 2014


What is "scientism?" Broadly, scientism is a criticism levied by believers against people who point out that science and skepticism have done more to expand our knowledge and improve our lives than any religion or faith. Thomas Burnett of the creationist organization BioLogos claims:
As this new method [science] found great success, the specter of scientism began to emerge. Both Bacon and Descartes elevated the use of reason and logic by denigrating other human faculties such as creativity, memory, and imagination. Bacon’s classification of learning demoted poetry and history to second-class status. Descartes’ rendering of the entire universe as a giant machine left little room for the arts or other forms of human expression. In one sense, the rhetoric of these visionaries opened great new vistas for intellectual inquiry. But on the other hand, it proposed a vastly narrower range of which human activities were considered worthwhile.
Astonishingly, Burnett quotes Carl Sagan as an example of scientism in the modern age when Sagan said, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” For those of you who may not be familiar with his work, Carl Sagan never once denigrated creativity, memory or imagination. In fact he had a lot to say on the importance of those topics.

It's worth pointing out that creativity, memory and imagination are all important aspects of the human experience. They help us create solutions, express feelings and communicate ideas. Without creativity and imagination it would be impossible for us to form new questions for us to test on our way to finding answers. It would be impossible to challenge the ideas we've already formed to make sure that they accurately reflect reality. In science and all other aspects of life these qualities are what allow us to do more than merely survive but also thrive.

We look to the dark and undiscovered places, imagine what their secrets are, and pour every bit of cunning we have into amazing, complex tools just to see if we were right. We cast a light into the darkness and find ourselves intrigued by the darkness beyond that and start the whole thing over again. Imagination both fuels and is fueled by science. Creativity is what turns theory into knowledge and knowledge enables further creativity in turn.

However, this has its limits. We can't invent an answer and expect it to be correct simply because we like it and want it to be true.

Scientism is a slur against people who dare to acknowledge that we are flawed creatures with senses that are not always reliable. Consequently we must approach our assumptions and conclusions skeptically, no matter how we arrived at them or how long we've held them. What accusations of scientism does is betray a fundamental misunderstanding of what science is and how it works. Ultimately, science is skepticism applied in a rigorous and methodical manner.

Another thing the accusation tries to do is pull science down to the level of religion. I'm often faced with accusations that they're both based on faith. Richard Dawkins shows us what science would be like if that were true.

No comments: