While the term was defined originally to mean "methods and attitudes typical of or attributed to natural scientists", some scholars (and subsequently many others) also adopted it as a pejorative term with the meaning "an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities)".
With respect to the philosophy of science, the term scientism frequently implies a critique of the more extreme expressions of logical positivism and has been used by social scientists such as Friedrich Hayek, philosophers of science such as Karl Popper, and philosophers such as Mary Midgley, the later Hilary Putnam, and Tzvetan Todorov to describe (for example) the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methods and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measured or confirmatory.
More generally, scientism is often interpreted as science applied "in excess". This use of the term scientism has two senses:
It is also sometimes used to describe the universal applicability of the scientific method, and the opinion that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or the most valuable part of human learning, sometimes to the complete exclusion of other opinions, such as historical, philosophical, economic or cultural opinions. It has been defined as "the view that the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society". The term scientism is also used by historians, philosophers, and cultural critics to highlight the possible dangers of lapses towards excessive reductionism with respect to all topics of human knowledge.
For social theorists practising the tradition of Max Weber, such as Jürgen Habermas and Max Horkheimer, the concept of scientism relates significantly to the philosophy of positivism, but also to the cultural rationalization for modern Western civilization.
Reviewing the references to scientism in the works of contemporary scholars, Gregory R. Peterson detected two main general themes:
The term scientism was popularized by F.A. Hayek, who defined it as the "slavish imitation of the method and language of Science". Karl Popper defines scientism as "the aping of what is widely mistaken for the method of science".
Mikael Stenmark proposed the expression scientific expansionism as a synonym of scientism. In the Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, he wrote that, while the doctrines that are described as scientism have many possible forms and varying degrees of ambition, they share the idea that the boundaries of science (that is, typically the natural sciences) could and should be expanded so that something that has not been previously considered as a subject pertinent to science can now be understood as part of science (usually with science becoming the sole or the main arbiter regarding this area or dimension).
According to Stenmark, the strongest form of scientism states that science does not have any boundaries and that all human problems and all aspects of human endeavor, with due time, will be dealt with and solved by science alone. This idea has also been termed the Myth of Progress.
E. F. Schumacher, in his A Guide for the Perplexed, criticized scientism as an impoverished world view confined solely to what can be counted, measured and weighed. "The architects of the modern worldview, notably Galileo and Descartes, assumed that those things that could be weighed, measured, and counted were more true than those that could not be quantified. If it couldn't be counted, in other words, it didn't count."
Intellectual historian T.J. Jackson Lears argued there has been a recent reemergence of "nineteenth-century positivist faith that a reified 'science' has discovered (or is about to discover) all the important truths about human life. Precise measurement and rigorous calculation, in this view, are the basis for finally settling enduring metaphysical and moral controversies." Lears specifically identifies Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker's work as falling in this category. Philosophers John N. Gray and Thomas Nagel have made similar criticisms against popular works by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, atheist author Sam Harris, and writer Malcolm Gladwell.
Both religious and non-religious scholars have applied the term scientism to individuals associated with New Atheism. Theologian John Haught argued that philosopher Daniel Dennett and other New Atheists subscribe to a belief system of scientific naturalism, which includes the dogma that "only nature, including humans and our creations, is real: that God does not exist; and that science alone can give us complete and reliable knowledge of reality". Haught argued that this belief system is self-refuting since it requires its adherents to assent to beliefs that violate its own stated requirements for knowledge. Christian philosopher Peter Williams argued in 2013 that it is only by conflating science with scientism that New Atheists feel qualified to "pontificate on metaphysical issues". Daniel Dennett responded to religious criticism of his 2006 book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by saying that accusations of scientism "[are] an all-purpose, wild-card smear ... When someone puts forward a scientific theory that [religious critics] really don't like, they just try to discredit it as 'scientism'. But when it comes to facts, and explanations of facts, science is the only game in town".
Non-religious scholars have also associated New Atheist thought with scientism and/or with positivism. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel argued that philosopher Sam Harris conflated all empirical knowledge with scientific knowledge. Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton argued that Christopher Hitchens possessed an "old-fashioned scientistic notion of what counts as evidence" that reduces knowledge to what can and cannot be proven by scientific procedure. Agnostic philosopher Anthony Kenny has also criticized New Atheist philosopher Alexander Rosenberg's The Atheist's Guide to Reality for resurrecting a self-refuting epistemology of logical positivism and reducing all knowledge of the universe to the discipline of physics.
Michael Shermer, founder of The Skeptics Society, discussed resemblances between scientism and traditional religions, indicating the cult of personality that develops for some scientists. He defined scientism as a worldview that encompasses natural explanations, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason.
The Iranian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr has stated that in the Western world, many will accept the ideology of modern science, not as "simple ordinary science", but as a replacement for religion.[page needed]
Gregory R. Peterson wrote that "for many theologians and philosophers, scientism is among the greatest of intellectual sins". Genetic biologist Austin L. Hughes wrote in the conservative journal The New Atlantis that scientism has much in common with superstition: "the stubborn insistence that something ... has powers which no evidence supports."
Repeating common criticisms of logical positivism and verificationism, philosopher of religion Keith Ward has said that scientism is philosophically inconsistent or even self-refuting, as the truth of the two statements "no statements are true unless they can be proven scientifically (or logically)" and "no statements are true unless they can be shown empirically to be true" cannot themselves be proven scientifically, logically, or empirically.
Philosopher Paul Feyerabend, who was an enthusiastic proponent of scientism during his youth, later came to characterize science as "an essentially anarchic enterprise" and argued emphatically that science merits no exclusive monopoly of "dealing in knowledge" and that scientists have never operated within a distinct and narrowly self-defined tradition. In his essay Against Method he depicted the process of contemporary scientific education as a mild form of indoctrination, intended for "making the history of science duller, simpler, more uniform, more 'objective' and more easily accessible to treatment by strict and unchanging rules".
[S]cience can stand on its own feet and does not need any help from rationalists, secular humanists, Marxists and similar religious movements; and ... non-scientific cultures, procedures and assumptions can also stand on their own feet and should be allowed to do so ... Science must be protected from ideologies; and societies, especially democratic societies, must be protected from science ... In a democracy scientific institutions, research programmes, and suggestions must therefore be subjected to public control, there must be a separation of state and science just as there is a separation between state and religious institutions, and science should be taught as one view among many and not as the one and only road to truth and reality.
Physicist and philosopher Mario Bunge used the term scientism with a favorable rather than pejorative sense in numerous books published during several decades, and in articles with titles such as "In defense of realism and scientism" and "In defense of scientism". Bunge said that scientism should not be equated with inappropriate reductionism, and he dismissed critics of science such as Hayek and Habermas as dogmatists and obscurantists:
To innovate in the young sciences it is necessary to adopt scientism. This is the methodological thesis that the best way of exploring reality is to adopt the scientific method, which may be boiled down to the rule "Check your guesses." Scientism has been explicitly opposed by dogmatists and obscurantists of all stripes, such as the neoliberal ideologist Friedrich von Hayek and the "critical theorist" Jürgen Habermas, a ponderous writer who managed to amalgamate Hegel, Marx, and Freud, and decreed that "science is the ideology of late capitalism."
In 2018, philosophers Maarten Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci co-edited a book titled Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism in which a number of chapters by philosophers and scientists defended scientism. In his chapter "Two Cheers for Scientism", Taner Edis wrote:
It is defensible to claim that scientific, philosophical, and humanistic forms of knowledge are continuous, and that a broadly naturalistic description of our world centered on natural science is correct ... At the very least, such views are legitimate—they may be mistaken, but not because of an elementary error, a confusion of science with ideology, or an offhand dismissal of the humanities. Those of us who argue for such a view are entitled to have two cheers for an ambitious conception of science; and if that is scientism, so be it.
Thomas M. Lessl argued that religious themes persist in what he terms scientism, the public rhetoric of science. There are two methods of describing this idea of scientism: the epistemological method (the assumption that the scientific method trumps other ways of knowing) and the ontological method (that the rational mind represents the world and both operate in knowable ways). According to Lessl, the ontological method is an attempt to "resolve the conflict between rationalism and skepticism". Lessl also argued that without scientism, there would not be a scientific culture.
In the introduction to his collected works on the sociology of religion, Max Weber asked why "the scientific, the artistic, the political, or the economic development [elsewhere] ... did not enter upon that path of rationalization which is peculiar to the Occident?" According to the German social theorist Jürgen Habermas, "For Weber, the intrinsic (that is, not merely contingent) relationship between modernity and what he called 'Occidental rationalism' was still self-evident." Weber described a process of rationalisation, disenchantment and the "disintegration of religious world views" that resulted in modern secular societies and capitalism.
"Modernization" was introduced as a technical term only in the 1950s. It is the mark of a theoretical approach that takes up Weber's problem but elaborates it with the tools of social-scientific functionalism ... The theory of modernization performs two abstractions on Weber's concept of "modernity". It dissociates "modernity" from its modern European origins and stylizes it into a spatio-temporally neutral model for processes of social development in general. Furthermore, it breaks the internal connections between modernity and the historical context of Western rationalism, so that processes of modernization ... [are] no longer burdened with the idea of a completion of modernity, that is to say, of a goal state after which "postmodern" developments would have to set in. ... Indeed it is precisely modernization research that has contributed to the currency of the expression "postmodern" even among social scientists.
Habermas is critical of pure instrumental rationality, arguing that the "Social Life–World" of subjective experiencing is better suited to literary expression, whereas the sciences deal with "intersubjectively accessible experiences" that can be generalized in a formal language, while the literary arts "must generate an intersubjectivity of mutual understanding in each concrete case". Habermas quoted writer Aldous Huxley in support of this duality of literature and science:
The world with which literature deals is the world in which human beings are born and live and finally die; the world in which they love and hate, in which they experience triumph and humiliation, hope and despair; the world of sufferings and enjoyments, of madness and common sense, of silliness, cunning and wisdom; the world of social pressures and individual impulses, of reason against passion, of instincts and conventions, of shared language and unsharable feelings and sensations...
[Scientism can be divided] into four categories in terms of how strong (science is the only source of knowledge) or weak (science is the best source of knowledge) and how narrow (only natural sciences) or broad (all sciences or at least not only the natural sciences) they are.
There are criticisms of orthodox, 19th Century scientism and I intend to continue with this enterprise
There are also several philosophers, in addition to Wittgenstein, for whom anti-scientism is a leitmotif in their work, such as Mary Midgley and the later Hilary Putnam.
Scientism: Pejorative term for the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry.
His essay, a defense of "scientism," is a long exercise in assimilating humanistic inquiries into scientific ones. By the time Pinker is finished, the humanities are the handmaiden of the sciences, and dependent upon the sciences for their advance and even their survival.
...scientism is a revival of the nineteenth-century positivist faith that a reified "science" has discovered (or is about to discover) all the important truths about human life. Precise measurement and rigorous calculation, in this view, are the basis for finally settling enduring metaphysical and moral controversies—explaining consciousness and choice, replacing ambiguity with certainty.
The term scientism is ordinarily used with pejorative intent.
The term 'scientism' is sometimes used in a pejorative sense
Scientism... a term of abuse since Friedrich Hayek first popularized it in the 1940s.
These theories show the continuing appeal of scientism—the modern belief that scientific inquiry can enable us to resolve conflicts and dilemmas in contexts where traditional sources of wisdom and practical knowledge seem to have failed.
... the mix of moralism and scientism is an ever-winning formula, as Gladwell's career demonstrates.
Harris urges that we use scientific knowledge about humans to discover what will maximize their well-being, and thereby to discover the right way to live. This is an instrumental use of science, starting out from his basic moral premise.
He says that the discovery of moral truth depends on science, but this turns out to be misleading, because he includes under "science" all empirical knowledge of what the world is like ... Harris urges that we use scientific knowledge about humans to discover what will maximize their well-being, and thereby to discover the right way to live.
The main tenets of this philosophy are bracingly summed up in a series of questions and answers: Is there a God? No. What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.
Finally, we should add a version of scientism ... This is the thesis that anything knowable and worth knowing can be known scientifically, and that science provides the best possible factual knowledge, even though it may, and does, in fact, contain errors. This form of scientism should not be mistaken for the neopositivist unification program, according to which every discipline should ultimately be reduced to one basic science, such as physics or psychology.
As for scientism, it is the thesis that the scientific method is the best strategy for attaining the more objective, more accurate, and deepest truths about facts of any kind, natural or social. ... True, Hayek (1955) famously claimed that scientism is something quite different, namely, the attempt on the part of some social scientists to ape their colleagues in the natural sciences, in ignoring the inner life of their referents. But this arbitrary redefinition involves confusing naturalism, or reductionist materialism (as practised, e.g., by the sociobiologists), with scientism.
Scientism is the thesis that all cognitive problems are best tackled by adopting the scientific approach, also called 'the scientific attitude' and 'the scientific method.' While most contemporary philosophers reject scientism, arguably scientists practice it even if they have never encountered the word.
As for scientism, I take it to be quite different from Tennessen's 'belief in some sort of scientific world view miraculously emanating from the main bulk of the testimony of the senses or so-called scientific results.' The brand of scientism I defend boils down to the thesis that scientific research (rather than the navel contemplation or the reading of sacred texts) can yield the best (truest and deepest) possible knowledge of real (concrete, material) things, be they fields or particles, brains, or societies, or what have you. ... I take the scientific method, rather than any special results of scientific research, to be the very kernel of scientism. Consequently, I cannot accept Tennessen's implicit approval of Feyerabend's antimethodology or 'epistemological anarchism'—the latest version of radical skepticism.
Scientism is the thesis that all cognitive problems concerning the world are best tackled adopting the scientific approach, also called 'the spirit of science' and 'the scientific attitude'. While most contemporary philosophers reject scientism, arguably scientists practice it even if they have never encountered the word. However, the correct meaning of 'scientism' has proved to be even more elusive than that of 'science'...
We need to avoid both under-estimating the value of science, and over-estimating it. ... One side too hastily dismisses science; the other too hastily defers to it. My present concern, of course, is with the latter failing. It is worth noting that the English word 'scientism' wasn't always, as it is now, pejorative.
I have argued that scientism should be understood as the thesis that scientific knowledge is the best knowledge we have, i.e., weak scientism. I have shown that scientific knowledge can be said to be better than non-scientific knowledge both quantitatively and qualitatively.
the best way to understand the charge of scientism is as a kind of logical fallacy involving improper usage of science or scientific claims.
This collection is one of the first to develop and assess scientism as a serious philosophical position.