Over at Metamagician, Brother Blackford discusses the diverse meanings of that term so readily and perjoratively applied to the Gnu Atheists: scientism.
The idea that science (defined narrowly in contradistinction to humanistic forms of inquiry) could answer every question would, in my view at least, be untenable. I don’t see how science, narrowly defined, can tell you how sympathetic you should be to Macbeth when he learns of his wife’s death and replies, “She should have died hereafter.” The distinctive techniques of narrowly-defined science are not going to tell a literary scholar, an actor, or a director how that line should be spoken.
. . . The thing is, if you’re going to denounce someone for “scientism” or complain that her ideas lead to “scientism”, or are somehow reliant on “scientism” – and if this is meant to be a serious criticism – you must be using the word “scientism” in a sense that denotes something horrible or foolish or otherwise worthy of denunciation. It’s no use denouncing someone for “scientism” and then, when called on it, explain that you were using the word in some other, more technical, non-pejorative sense (perhaps that the person takes a logical empiricist approach to philosophy). That’s equivocation. It’s cheating to apply the word in some non-pejorative sense that you secretly have in mind while at the very same time trying to get the pejorative connotations of other senses of the word.
A word like “scientism” lends itself too readily to this kind of argumentative cheating. So much so that I think that intellectually honest people should stop using the word; and, frankly, when I see people using it in current debates I am automatically suspicious of their intellectual honesty. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.
I’m not sure whether I agree with Russell that there are disciplines outside of science (and I use the term “science” broadly here as “rational and empirical investigation”) that can answer meaningful questions. He uses the example of “how sympathetic one should be to Macbeth?”, but can literature really answer that question for us? Or is it an empirical question based on psychology and sociology, sussing out what effects one’s actions have on others? Even deciding how a line should be spoken presupposes knowledge about how an audience might psychologically react to a line of dialogue. But of course Russell adds that his brand of science is “narrowly defined.”
It’s late and I’m full of churrasco, so I want to just raise the issue of a serious lacuna in all of our discussions of scientism. Where, exactly, is a list of questions that can be answered by methods not falling under my broad definition of science? I’m not resistant to the idea, though I still maintain that every question about how things really are in the universe is a question that demands a science-based answer.
This is the place where readers should weigh in with the questions that science can’t answer, but other disciplines, or ways of thought, can.