Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Scientism and other Straw Men

Ian Hutchinson is participating at a Veritas Forum event here at University of Pennsylvania tomorrow and I've been doing a fair amount of research in preparation for the discussion afterwards.

Hutchinson typically has only one issue that he talks about: "Scientism."

Scientism as Hutchinson defines it is "the belief that the only meaningful knowledge is science." Even though he readily admits that almost no one says that's their position, he still believes it is pervasive in our culture.

But Hutchinson, as an applied physicist, clearly defines science to be only the "hard" natural sciences like Physics and Chemistry. Defined this way, clearly there is knowledge beyond science and believing science can explain everything is absolutely ridiculous.

But whenever Hutchinson gives an example of "scientism" they invariably means something entirely different by "science." Usually when a freethinker or skeptic refers to science, we mean science in a much broader sense: a systematic method of discerning knowledge while accounting for cognitive biases. Psychology, history, and sociology for example (fields at which science is incompetent according to Hutchinson) are systematic academic disciplines that produce experimental results that can be externally verified just like any hard science.

Even then, most skeptics wouldn't say science is the only way of knowing (though we'll often say justifiably that it's the best we've come up with so far).

It seems to me that Hutchinson is setting up a strawman in all sincerity. I accept that he believes scientism is a big problem in our society, but I also think he is completely wrong and attacking a boogieman.

So why is he doing it? What's his motivation? Why continue to push this one issue to the exclusion of all others?

To understand, I think we have to look more broadly at attempts to reconcile faith with science. In general, I've observed five different approaches to this problem that fall roughly on a spectrum.

1. Faith should be discarded outright (Harris, Dawkins, etc)
First is the common view among the New Atheists that in the conflict between science and faith, science should always win. Moreover, since this is always the case and science is getting better and better, why preserve faith at all?

2. Science's presumption of naturalism is too restrictive. We should allow supernatural explanations into science (Behe/Intelligent Design)
Proponents of this reconciliation argue that science restricts itself unnecessarily to naturalism and should begin to include supernatural elements. "If the actual answer is beyond the natural world," they reason "why should science be forever forbidden from accepting that?" This is a ploy to capitalize on the popularity and success of science. While they still privately hold to faith as the primary source of their knowledge in these realms, they believe that science would justify their faith if only it where not constrained to what we can observe, test, and falsify. 

3. Science and Faith are Non-Overlapping MagisteriA (NOMA/Gould).
Steven J Gould is the most well known popularizer of NOMA, arguing that faith deals in realms science can't touch (the supernatural) and at the same time faith doesn't touch the natural realm where science is king. On this view, questions of faith can't be formulated scientifically so they cannot be in conflict.

4. Shrink science with accusations of scientism and restrict it to the hard sciences (Hutchinson)
People taking this track will hold up science as a paragon of human ingenuity and progress, but only in very narrow specific fields. Meanwhile, they will paint every other field as inaccessible to science. They claim that science has exploded the boundaries of its validity when it tries to address historical claims (like can a dead man come back to life), sociological claims (like is religion purely a product of culture), psychological claims (like is glossolalia meaningless babble).

See the pattern here? Hutchinson is an extreme example of this because he narrows science so much, but many religious scientists make valiant attempts to keep some gap in scientific knowledge available for God to act in the world. Ken Miller for example leaves the randomness of quantum mechanics up to God's will, by which he can control all of reality through subtle undetectable methods.

5. Discard science altogether (Answers in Genesis) 
This is the young earth creationist approach of decrying science as a flawed human endeavor and holding up faith and revelation as the only valid path to knowledge.

Except for the first and last approaches that completely reject one or the other, each of these tries to rectify the apparent conflict between faith and empiricism without destroying either. Why has Hutchinson gone with option 4? Because he recognizes that including supernaturalism into science (a la Behe) would destroy it utterly, and as a scientist he doesn't want that. Instead, he wants to leave room for Purpose in a world that could potentially be described in a completely deterministic and purposeless way. 

By barring science from touching on any human characteristics such as imagination, judgement, morality, free will, or meaning of life, he intends to leave the door open for God to enter in with those answers.

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