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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Scientism: Science, Ethics and Religion by Mikael Stenmark (Ashgate Science and Religion Series: Ashgate) Can science tell us everything there is to know about reality?

The intellectual and practical successes of science have led some scientists to think that there are no real limits to the competence of science, and no limits to what can be achieved in the name of science. Accordingly, science has no boundaries; it will eventually answer all our problems. This view (and similar views) have been called `Scientism'.

In this important book scientists' views about science and its relationship to knowledge, ethics and religion are subjected to critical scrutiny. A number of distinguished natural scientists have advocated Scientism in one form or another ‑ Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, and Edward O. Wilson ‑ and their impressive impact both inside and outside the sciences is considered. Clarifying what Scientism is, this book proceeds to evaluate its key claims, expounded in questions such as: Is it the case that science can tell us everything there is to know about reality? Can science tell us how we morally ought to live and what the meaning of life is? Can science in fact be our new religion? Ought we to become `science believers'? Stenmark addresses these and similar issues, concluding that Scientism is not really science but disguised materialism or naturalism; its advocates fail to see this, not being sufficiently aware that their arguments presuppose the previous acceptance of certain extra‑scientific or philosophical beliefs.

Author summary: Some advocates of Scientism make less spectacular claims, maintaining merely that science sets the limit for what we can know. All genuine knowledge about reality in general or about human life in particular is to be found through science and science alone. Science is seen by these scientists to be the only begetter of truth. Science is, therefore, taken to be the candle in the dark in a demon‑haunted world. It is our only hope to avoid superstition and safeguard our cultural achievements and our planet. Consequently, if there is no truth to be found outside science, scientists must become missionaries and bring the gospel to the pagans and unenlightened people. The broad agenda must be to strive to incorporate many other areas of human life within the sciences, so that rational consideration and acquisition of knowledge can be made possible in these areas as well.

These are exciting claims and if true they would have profound implications for our self‑understanding and for the importance we give to the scientific enterprise. So these are some of the issues we face. Can science provide us with ethical guidelines and even replace traditional ethics? Can science tell us what we are here for or what the meaning of life is? How are Scientism, on the one hand, and naturalism or atheism, on the other, related? Can science be one's religion? What is the relationship between Scientism and traditional religions such as Christianity and Judaism? Can science explain traditional religion as a wholly material phenomenon? Or is it still possible to be an intellectually fulfilled religious believer? Is science setting the limits for what can exist and what we can know about what exists? Or are there truths to be found outside of science which are not detectable by scientific methods and experiments? Does science in fact presuppose such truths to function properly? What are the limits of science? What legitimate roles can science play in the development or reconstruction of a world view or religion? I will attempt to give answers or at least partial answers to these questions as we proceed.

I shall suggest that there are good reasons to deny that Scientism is proper science. I shall maintain that many of the claims advocates of Scientism think are scientific statements are in fact not, and these claims cannot, therefore, be made in the name of science. The analysis will show that Scientism typically is a combination of certain scientific theories and a particular ideology or world view, namely, naturalism or materialism; and further, it will be argued that naturalism and materialism are not scientific but philosophical theories. Nevertheless, we ought to take these 'scientistic' claims seriously because science has in the past been able to deal with issues we previously thought it could not deal with. Therefore, the issue about the limits of science cannot be settled once and for all. Instead we need to look again and again at the particular claims of expansion of the scientific domain made by scientists. I am firmly convinced that anyone who wants to be a responsible traditional religious believer or spokesperson for a particular ethical or ideological outlook has to take science seriously and pay attention to the theories developed within contemporary science. For instance, the scientific knowledge that we share common ancestry with all other living things undermines the traditional Western belief that we humans are utterly unique beings. We should, therefore, expect that we can learn some important things about ourselves from studies of the behaviour and genetic make‑up of other organisms by evolutionary biologists. That is to say, scientific theories can in conjunction with other, non­scientific claims either undermine or confirm ethical, ideological or religious beliefs. But the upshot of this discussion is that scientific theories can seldom do this in a direct or straightforward way. What I shall argue is that we have to find 'a path between an exaggerated view of science's importance ... and an impoverished view of science's importance' (Polkinghorne 1996: xi). I share this view with John Polkinghorne and hope that after reading this book you will do the same. The danger we face at the present time is being forced to choose between two extremes, either radical postmodernism (which makes science into nothing but a social construction) or Scientism. Neither is, I believe, in the end intellectually convincing.

Before explaining how the book is structured, let me say a few words about one limitation of the study. I have chosen to focus my attention not on philosophers (with a few exceptions) but on scientists, especially evolutionary biologists, who either explicitly defend Scientism in one form or another, or presuppose it in their writing. Although philosophers (like myself) think that their arguments typically are more sophisticated and better supported than those of others and that therefore their views should be given the most attention, this is not how the general academic establishment or the public audience sees the matter. It is the scientists' and not the philosophers' views that count. Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but I have in this study chosen to focus almost exclusively on scientists who defend Scientism because of the impact of science on the general public and the authority the opinions of scientists are given even outside their own field of expertise? In doing this I have also tried to write in such a way that no knowledge of philosophy is needed to understand the views and arguments discussed. Nevertheless, I hope to be saying some things that would also interest philosophers and theologians.

The book is arranged as follows. In Chapter I I distinguish between a number of different forms of Scientism because a careful inquiry of the way the term 'Scientism' has been used reveals that it is actually given a number of different meanings by its adherents and opponents. Noticing this is important because one can hold on to some scientistic claims but, nevertheless, reject some others. I, therefore, distinguish between academic­internal and academic‑external Scientism, and among the external ones, between axiological, epistemic, rationalistic, ontological and existential Scientism.

A careful critical evaluation of all scientistic claims would be too comprehensive for this study, so in the critical examination the focus is narrowed down to four key claims: (1) the only kind of knowledge we can have is scientific knowledge; (2) the only things that exist are the ones science has access to; (3) science alone can answer our moral questions and explain as well as replace traditional ethics; and (4) science alone can answer our existential questions and explain as well as replace traditional religion.

The scientistic claims that the only kind of knowledge we can have is scientific knowledge and that the only things that exist are the ones science has access to are clarified and evaluated in Chapter 2. The focus in Chapters 3 and 4 is on Scientism and morality. The attempt to explain morality by using evolutionary theory is investigated and an alternative non‑Darwinian explanation is also proposed in Chapter 3. In Chapter 4 two other ways in which it is possible for evolutionary theory to be of significance to ethics are considered. These are that evolutionary biology can provide us with new information about human life and its environment that can undermine (or support) existing ethical theories, norms or beliefs and that it can justify ethical norms or beliefs and provide us with a new scientific ethic. In Chapters 5 and 6 we move from ethics to religion, and to questions about the meaning of life. I suggest that in the same way that we characterized three claims about the significance of evolutionary theory for ethics, we can distinguish three claims which hold that evolutionary theory can be of significance for religion. The first is that evolutionary theory can explain the development and maintenance of religion in human life. It can give the best account of why people behave religiously or why they believe in God or a sacred, transcendent reality. This idea is examined and critically assessed in Chapter 5. In Chapter 6, the second and third claims are the principal object of study. We start by examining examples of cases where evolutionary theory is supposed to provide us with new information about human life and its environment that undermines existing religious beliefs such as those found among traditional Christians, Jews or Muslims. We then move on to the astonishing claim that evolutionary theory can replace traditional religions and provide us with a new religion or mythology. In the last chapter some general claims are made about possible motives behind Scientism and a summary is given of the main conclusions reached and of the arguments developed to support these conclusions.

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