Scientism: the New Anti-Reason
I recently wrote about the topic of the relationship of faith and reason, and the damage our society has done to itself by rejecting them – first the former, then to some extent, the latter.
The battle for (and against) reason in western society is still raging on many fronts. But nowhere, I believe, has this encroachment of absolute relativism been more pronounced, and more harmful, than in our attitudes toward philosophy, especially moral philosophy.
Back in 2010, in his book The Grand Design, the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking wrote that, “philosophy is dead.” Why? Because, he said, it “has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.”
The hubris of that statement is, to me, almost breathtaking. This strange pronouncement is perhaps one of the most widely known, and most clear-cut examples of the phenomenon of scientism.
What is scientism? Googling it will give you a number of definitions for scientism, but it really all boils down to the same idea. It’s the assertion that natural science and its methods are the only trustworthy way that people can gain knowledge about reality. This mentality manifests itself in society in a couple of big ways, and once you look, you won’t be able to stop seeing them.
Firstly, people treat any claim or argument from a field outside the natural sciences as questionable, and if it isn’t to their liking, they quickly disregard it, regardless of its objective merit.
Similarly, people treat any claim that comes from scientists (especially celebrity scientists) as divine revelation. I want to focus on this second point, because I’m noticing it being used more and more to advance certain agendas of societal change.
Back to Stephen Hawking.
Let’s look a little closer at his claim. Philosophy is dead, because it hasn’t kept up with science. Immediately, one has to ask some questions. Does philosophy really have a mandate to “keep up” with physics? Does physics inform the hard questions philosophy asks of us, and gives us the tools to answer?
The statement only gets stranger with context. Many of the claims Hawking goes on to make in The Grand Design, particularly regarding the origins of the universe, are undeniably philosophical. In particular, his attempted disproof of the existence of God, and explanation of the origin of the universe cannot by any means be considered scientific. It is as far from testable as you can get.
And while it may not be testable, this theory is certainly falsifiable – by the application of elementary logic. As has been pointed out again and again and again, Hawking’s argument relies on a deeply flawed definition of ‘nothing’ that doesn’t even begin to address the need (or lack thereof) for God.
In practice, the attempt to replace philosophy with science just leads to bad philosophy from scientists.
The news is full of further examples. Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s revisionist history on Cosmos is another conspicuous case. And I won’t even get started on the “new atheists” forays into philosophy, history, politics and every other field imaginable, lest this blog become a textbook.
The point is, these tactics are effective in convincing people. The scientists in question may or may not be aware of it, they may be manipulated by others, but in the end their message gets through, and deceives massive amounts of people.
The first step in combating the misinformation is the be aware of it, then to spread awareness. And let’s not neglect to pray for our neighbors who may be tricked by these tactics of scientism, as well as the rest of our society.