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Criticism of scientism

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Philosophical criticism

The philosopher Louis Jugnet (1913-1973) summarized the philosophical criticism of scientism in three paragraphs:

“Scientism is […] the imperialism of Laboratory Science over all areas of human thought and consciousness. It is an attitude that reigned over almost the entire nineteenth century, and which is still alive today among the general public, if not among the great intellectuals who are much more reserved in general.

Science, in fact, in its most developed and most spectacular part, that is to say mathematized physics, only retains from concrete things the measurable quantitative aspect. It establishes laws, that is to say relations or relations between observable phenomena, then coordinates them according to some very abstract principles into a vast overall theory, which continually undergoes the most radical questioning if it must. This is what made the famous physicist Eddington say that the mathematical symbols used by present-day physics bear as little resemblance to the real facts as the telephone number in the face of the subscriber he allows to call. It would therefore be foolish to expect pure experimental science to provide an answer to fundamental philosophical problems […]. This is easily recognized by a learned logician and mathematician, also well known, Wittgenstein, when he declares: “Even if all scientific questions were solved, our life problems would not even be affected.”

Jean Fourastié, himself a great admirer of science and technology, writes: “Science teaches us more or less how we are there; it does not teach us why we are, where we are going, or what goals we should give to our lives and our societies ”. Philosophy can therefore be constructed, in terms of its fundamental framework, starting from the absolutely fundamental data of experience and reason, which the critique of knowledge reflexively justifies. Science provides it with materials, illustrations and new problems, but is not its essential starting point. Which already leads us to a salutary reflection: it will be necessary to examine with fairness and openness the great philosophical doctrines, whether or not they predate the rise of modern science, because they have something to tell us even if they haven’t experienced the atomic bomb, heart transplant, or space vehicles… ”

Epistemological criticism

In his seminal communication Formes nouvelles du hasard dans les sciences, then in his later work Les objets fractals : forme, hasard et dimension, Benoît Mandelbrot strongly criticizes an interpretation according to which “mathematics explains the world”, specifying that this is only the case because mathematical models exclude from the world what they are powerless to explain: floods of the Nile, statistical aspect of coasts and mountains, structure of the lungs, shape of clouds, chaotic aspect of stock prices , etc. However, he formalizes at the same time, by paying homage to pioneer predecessors like Hausdorff, Von Koch, Serpienski, the bases of fractal geometry which will allow in the decades that follow to finally take them into account quantitatively.

Liberal criticism

Friedrich Hayek, in The Counter-Revolution of Science (written between 1940 and 1951, published in book form in 1952), Karl Popper with The Poverty of Historicism or The Open Society and Its Enemies, or Michaël Polanyi and The Logic of freedom (1951), opposed three congruent critiques of scientism, which social engineers in the USSR or elsewhere then put into action, by showing the political excesses (notably, for the first, in The Road to Serfdom, 1944 ). For Hayek, if science is one and truth is accessible to men (or to an elite who are responsible for representing it) then the path which the one and indivisible society must follow must not suffer any dispute: scientism would thus necessarily lead to collectivism. Propaganda / education, torture / re-education, purification of protesters / punishment of obscurantist and sold plotters, will then be the armed arms of benevolent science, the regime being led to an ultimate politicization of each sphere of existence, the deleterious effects of which on all rational activity is not long in making itself felt: presenting the theory of relativity as ‘a Semitic attack on the foundations of Christian and Nordic physics’ or challenging it because it finds itself ‘in conflict with dialectical materialism and Marxist dogma’ is the same.

The decision theory developed by Robert Duncan Luce and Howard Raiffa is false: the foreseeable future is made up of human decisions in cascades with consequences that are sometimes certain (drilling an oil well will have a cost), sometimes random (according to geologists, this well will only have an 80% chance of not being a dry borehole) and of arbitrary human decisions (let’s drill this well here, or elsewhere, or not at all); the analysis of the corresponding tree structure is limited as is that of the consequences that a movement in chess; just like in chess, you have to make your decision as harmlessly as possible within a time frame compatible with the game, and the One best way remains wishful thinking in the real world.

Reject certain theorems of statistical mathematics by claiming that they participate in the class struggle on the ideological frontier and that they are the product of the historical role of mathematics in the service of the bourgeoisie (doctrines of scientific Marxism) or condemn this discipline as a whole because it is not sufficiently guaranteed that it serves the interests of the people, constitutes for the first a fallacy by association, for the second an Argumentum ad consequentiam. Pure mathematics is not treated any better and it seems that we can attribute certain conceptions of continuity to bourgeois prejudices.

Historical criticism based on the decline of civilizations

In The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival, Sir John Glubb, analyzing the decline of 17 civilizations, warns against the subconscious idea that rationalization alone can ensure the stability of societies without some form of value-driven moral loyalty, not the immediate individual interest, and whose loss we can observe precisely at the end of the phases of prosperity and then of intellectualization of all known periods of decadence.

Political and technological criticism

Writer Daniel Suarez warns against a growing extension of automation in operations research, data mining and weak artificial intelligence increasingly reducing the time left to humans, and therefore their decision-making role, in the war, being able to go so far as to exclude it in fact from decisions to kill populations for reasons of reactivity. In 2017, Elon Musk himself warns against IA-style automatisms of which humans can overlook consequences.

This is indeed an implementation of scientism in technology itself, diluting human responsibility. Bill Joy called for a moratorium on nanotechnology in 2000 for similar reasons.

The documentary Koyaanisqatsi and the inspirers cited therein (Ivan Illich, Guy Debord, Jacques Ellul, etc.) also warned against the risks of mechanical progress escaping man and harming his environment independently of him.

Ecological criticism

The awareness of the finiteness of natural resources following the work of the Club of Rome (Meadows The Limits To Growth report, 1972) led to the development of political ecology since the 1970s, then to the emergence of concepts of sustainable development (first definition of sustainable development in 1987 with the Brundtland report, then the Rio Earth Summit in 1992). The Meadows Group itself used a dynamic modeling tool developed by Jay Wright Forrester of MIT (DYNAMO system).

The first philosopher to have expressed criticism of the inordinate power of technoscience was Hans Jonas (The Responsibility Principle, 1979). According to him, “Whether it is the destruction of the environment, the hole in the ozone layer, climatic catastrophes, the dangers of nuclear technology and weaponry (…) euthanasia or of genetic technology ”, the consequences of the lifestyles of advanced societies risk leading to serious disruption. According to Kokou Sename Amagatsevi, the foundations of the ecological crisis are to be found in the Cartesian mechanism and dualism. The words “scientism” and “scientist” are lexicalized in the Technical and Critical Vocabulary of Philosophy, by Lalande with a pejorative meaning.

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