Acton Institute Powerblog

How scientism hinders the pursuit of truth and meaning

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Empirical inquiry can provide evidence of existence, but it is greatly limited in its ability to explore meaning and purpose. […]

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Scientism, or the belief that all truth must be empirically verifiable, is growing in society. Given the philosophical and practical flaws inherent to this ideology, it is important to understand how it manifests in modern life.

Adherents to scientism in the modern world can be classified into two categories: zealots and agnostics. The zealots are the apostles of scientism, loudly proclaiming the gospel truth of its tenets. The agnostics are the members of the flock, occasionally allowing their beliefs to trickle into but not centering their lives around their faith in science.

The zealots are those who believe fully in and structure their worldview around the assertion that all knowledge is empirically verifiable. These zealots have operated as the vanguard for promoting scientism, spreading the ideology throughout Western society over the past few centuries. They present themselves as rebels, “free thinkers” fighting the long, pernicious traditions of religious faith that they feel are embedded within most societal institutions and human minds.

Richard Dawkins is a primary example. Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, is an outspoken atheist and frequently criticizes religious faith as irrational. He has two main problems with religion: it leads to conflict, and it is a justification for belief without evidence. In a speech to the American Humanist Association, Dawkins argued that “faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.” This attitude, that religion is unjustified because it is not empirically supported, is the textbook definition of scientism. What Dawkins misses is that there are sound and important, non-empirical arguments for religious faith and against scientism.

Scientism’s agnostic adherents are, by definition, less outspoken, and overt than the zealots. Rather than presenting such thinking as a direct alternative to religious faith, they primarily exhibit their scientism in the “slavish imitation of the method and Language of Science,” as F.A. Hayek once described it. Agnostic scientism does not necessarily proclaim scientific observation as the only method of obtaining truth. But it does believe it to be the best.

To the agnostic, some beliefs may be justifiable by other means for the moment, but eventually and ultimately all things should be explainable to human cognition through scientific means. Many of the most prominent scientists and leaders of the present today can be classified under this category, including Anthony Fauci, who considers himself a spiritual humanist.

An even more emblematic example is offered in one of the fathers of modern positive economics, Milton Friedman, who wrote:

I do not believe God has anything to do with economics. But values do…I do not know where my values come from, but that does not mean (a) I don’t have them, (b) I don’t hold them as strongly as you hold your belief in God. (c) They turn out — not accidentally, I believe — to be very much like these held by most other people whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, agnostic, or abstract. (d) Which leads me to believe that they are a product of the same evolutionary process that accounts for the rest of our customs as well as physical characterizations.

Friedman’s scientism, while plainly stated, is much more subtle than Dawkins’. He understands the influence of human development on human knowledge, yet he still grounds the meaning afforded by social and ethical values in their survival against those of competing societies. He derives their value from a type of deterministic evolutionary process that he believes can be understood and specified, if given enough scientific study. But an outside observer can’t know the motivations of the individual human minds that make up these societies. Since social scientists cannot fully unify the patterns and trends of society with the movement of individual minds, it would be a mistake to conflate these theories with universally applicable scientific theorems. Indeed, both forms of scientism are incorrect due to basic philosophical flaws.

Scientism contains a self-refuting premise. If scientism is the belief that all knowledge is empirically verifiable, then scientism is self-refuting on its face. There are no studies, tests, or experiments that can prove the logical claim that all knowledge must be grounded in empirical observation. The zealous scientism, that definitively denies the existence of religion or of knowledge outside of the natural sciences, is false because of this self-refuting premise. Thus, it is easy to pinpoint the error that the advocates of this ideology make.

The agnostic version makes a more subtle philosophical mistake. Agnostics argue that it is currently impossible to know if religion is true, because of a lack of empirical evidence. Yet it is possible to know philosophical and moral truth even without empirical evidence. For example, society proscribes murder and theft not because of any empirical evidence or study, but because it recognizes that these actions are morally wrong. Society correctly sees that humans, just by their nature, possess a right to life and property, and therefore it has made laws to protect these rights. The fact that these are moral and not empirical claims does not matter; they are still true.

Therefore, both the zealous and agnostic varieties of scientism are flawed in their belief in the primacy of scientific knowledge.

Scientific study is only one method of supporting claims of truth. Empirical inquiry can provide evidence of existence, but it is limited in its ability to explore meaning and purpose. Good scientists know that the science is never settled and the search for truth never ends. To dismiss the tools of human reason outside of scientific study, through either agnostic or zealous scientism, hinders the pursuit of knowledge and meaning and therefore prevents the realization of a free and virtuous society.

Thomas Richter

Thomas Richter is a member of the Acton Institute’s 2021 Emerging Leaders class. He is junior at the University of Notre Dame pursuing a double major in political science and philosophy. Thomas is originally from Columbus, Ohio, and is interested in working in business consulting before eventually attending law school. He enjoys reading, running, and playing golf in his free time.

Michael Libanati

Michael Libanati is a member of the Acton Institute’s 2021 Emerging Leaders class. He is a 2021 graduate of the University of Chicago with a major in Economics and Latin American Studies. He grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and in Belgium, and loves reading and playing sports in his free time.