Scientism is a nineteenth century vision of the world in which experimental science takes precedence over older forms of reference – religious revelation, superstitions, tradition, and customs – to interpret the world. In the words of Ernest Renan (1823-1892) scientism wants to “scientifically organize humanity”. It is therefore a question of confidence (the term of faith does not apply, in principle, in this field) in the application of the principles and methods of modern science in all fields. We can summarize the heart of this belief in: “Science describes (really) the world as it is.” (Quantum mechanics suggests modifying slightly this essentialist vision of the world, and defining it rather as being that it responds to our requests (“Quantum is the science of the surface of things”, interview with Michel Bitbol)
The term scientism is also used to refer to the ideology according to which all the problems which concern humanity and the world could be adjusted at best, if not perfectly, according to the paradigm of the scientific method. Scientism believes that “the spirit and the scientific methods must be extended to all areas of intellectual and moral life without exception”. (André Lalande)
One can distinguish practice or quest of science and scientism as an ideological doctrine. This ideology is linked in various degrees to those of modernity, rationalism, Auguste Comte’s “law of the three states”, but also to many forms of reductionism, to materialism or sometimes to Cartesian dualism. Its extreme forms are the subject of criticism from various horizons: philosophical, moral, political, even scientific.
Scientism does not assume superior philosophical, religious, or moral truths beyond what can be demonstrated and shared, the science used being mathematical, physical, biological, or whatever. In this respect, politics must also fade away from the scientific management of social problems, and the quarrels can therefore only be the result of an error of method, unless the particular interests, or even the will to harm, are at the base of the argument: this position is close to that of Leibniz and before him Raymond Lulle who hoped to be able to solve the differences between men by the calculation for the first city (once found the appropriate model), by its logical wheel systems for the second. This objective has been partially achieved by operational research, the critical examination of voting systems (Condorcet, Arrow …) and particularly since the end of the 20th century by Bayesian methods of decision support, or even artificial intelligence.
Objective and means
With a given objective (increase the literacy rate, reduce infant mortality …), the arsenal of methods is supposed to identify the best way to achieve it, if this means exists. This goal seemed reasonable in the nineteenth century. The discovery in 1971 of the problems of NP-completeness, however, suggests that one can sometimes find good methods by comparing them, but that one has no guarantee when comes the combinatorics to find the best. A trivial example is given by the game of chess: the algorithms play very well, but cannot pretend to do it perfectly.
Scientism assumes that for each problem there will be a solution that will be imposed without the will, desiderata or subjectivity of a decision-maker or the populations concerned influencing the debate. Ernest Renan explains that we have no right to have a desire, when reason speaks; we must listen, nothing more; ready to leave us hanging out bound where the best arguments lead us.
Education, by liberating as many metaphysical and theological illusions as possible, makes possible a supposedly rational management of society, although this research can only be done if we have previously fixed what to look for, that is, to say that to fix politics as goal, like cape to the ship. If it is freedom of enterprise, liberalism may result. If it is a certain social justice, this or that form of socialism may be better suited. The preamble of the Swiss Constitution (“the strength of the community is measured by the well-being of the weakest of its members”) also sets societal priorities in principle.
The wish and its criticism
Just as Plato wanted kings to be philosophers, the most radical scientists believe that political power should be entrusted to scientists rather than to elected or unelected politicians and their bureaucrats. This conception, which can be likened to technocracy, is thus closer to an aristocracy (“government by the best”) than to a democracy: a solution elaborated by competent experts with a given objective would not have to to be discussed, except to report omissions of fact, or by other experts. On the other hand, the setting of the objectives is carried out elsewhere, it can be by a sovereign, a council of the wise ones or a vote. The second of these perspectives enthralled Renan, but the third worried seriously later Bernanos.
Paul Valéry already raised this problem in 1919: “We have seen, with our eyes, the conscientious work, the most solid instruction, the most serious discipline and application adapted to terrible designs. […] Know, Duty, are you suspicious?” Education, even accompanied by moral virtues, did not show a guarantee of happiness. Charles Richet was equally pessimistic: instruction was probably preferable to his absence, but had shown that he did not guarantee happy or rational choices. Position close to that of Ecclesiastes on the limitations of wisdom alone.
Edgar Quinet had already warned that “more [progress] develops, and with them the powers, the more men will have to be vigilant so that these powers are not turned against them by people who are unkind or malicious” , citing under Caligula the splendid network of Roman roads of the empire only served to “carry the orders of a madman to his four corners.” The Second World War will show that such a danger continues.
Science and values
The scientific approach is not intended to identify values, but may well be used to model the consequences of a particular value system, through game theory and simulation techniques.
Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins believe that the approach of neuroscience assessment of the greater or lesser good or bad of an ethical system by measuring the average suffering associated with it may ultimately be a viable idea, but that we are at the moment (in 2013) far away.
Sam Harris, however, devoted a book to the inventory of possible tools for studying the consequences of several value systems: The Moral Landscape.
Morale for a fixed group
It remains possible to study the predictable results, on a simplified model, of a morality adopted by members of a fixed and long-term group. A pragmatic strategy called Tit for Tat gives some good results: it consists in trusting others as long as they behave in the expected way, and in withdrawing them as soon as their behavior deviates from norms. It consists of temporarily departing from the vision of Hobbes and his predecessors seeing in the man a wolf for the man. One of Richard Dawkins’ first documentaries, Nice Guys Finish First, reported that this strategy already existed in some species in the wild. We also observe the reverse in the phenomenon described by Thomas Piketty on the increase of inequalities in economics.
The ostensible display of conformity to a particular social norm, for example cultural, clothing or language, is then a signal that one is ready to enter into the co-operative behavior of the corresponding society. This signal can in turn be sincere or not.
Case of a heterogeneous group
John Rawls also discusses the case where the society is composed of several groups in his Theory of the justice by indicating that the rules are well constituted if it becomes indifferent to belong to one group rather than another.
Difficulty of the general case
A real group is composed in the long term of individuals who are born, reproduce and die. It is more difficult to take into account in the previous model the interest of generations and individuals that have not yet been born (and may not be born), a problem to which ecology is concerned.
The word scientism was used negatively in the nineteenth century, and then positively by the biologist Félix Le Dantec who launched it in an article published in 1911 in the Grande Revue:
“I believe in the future of Science: I believe that Science and Science alone will solve all the questions that make sense; I believe that it will penetrate to the mysteries of our emotional life and that it will even explain to me the origin and the structure of the hereditary anti-scientific mysticism that coexists with me in the most absolute scientism. But I am also convinced that men ask themselves many questions that mean nothing. These questions, Science will show their absurdity by not responding, which will prove that they do not contain an answer.”
Nevertheless, scientism is rooted in earlier philosophies, including:
- in the 17th century, the rationalism of Descartes, who already saw in science a universal source of knowledge,
- in the eighteenth century, Condorcet’s ideas on the positive sciences,
- in the nineteenth century, the Saint-Simonian ideology, which advocated the scientific reorganization of society, and the positivism of Auguste Comte.
Scientism reached its peak at the end of the nineteenth century, then during the twentieth century, especially in the Soviet Union, and remains alive at the beginning of the twenty-first century, despite a certain disenchantment with the possibility of solving by science – or in any case the technique – all the problems currently facing the world (especially environmental). Scientists recognize that science can set the best ways to achieve goals, but remains silent about these goals themselves and that ultimately moral values of the moment will necessarily guide their research: space exploration or cultivating their garden? Equality of all or more latitude left to some, and designated in what way? Maximize average satisfaction or minimize the misfortune of the less fortunate? Science and technology, in order to propose means, need to have their ends fixed to them, and arbitrary (ethical) values are necessary for any rational choice: we have to set ourselves at the beginning what we are going to look for if we want to find a way to reach it. Rabelais had already in his time recalled the uselessness of a science without conscience.
In the Anglo-Saxon countries, and more particularly in the United States, we remain quite convinced that it is possible to solve the problems related to sustainable development through scientific knowledge, and even that it is possible to replace the natural capital with a capital of knowledge (with so-called weak sustainability). Similarly, it is more acceptable in the United States to explicitly associate with scientism, as does Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, who qualifies in the widely circulated journal Scientific American “scientistic” and defines this term as a scientific view of the world that underlies natural explanations for all phenomena, avoids supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the two pillars of an age-appropriate philosophy of life” science.
Scientism refers to three ideas:
- science would encompass philosophy as metaphysics in the search for solutions to major ethical or moral problems,
- science would carry with it the solution of the sufferings of humanity,
- only the methods of the exact sciences would be scientific, and they should be applied as far as possible to the human and social sciences.
Popper considers that scientist is one who, not perceiving the limited conditions of application of the exact sciences, makes a naive use of it in human or social science. We can think of Kurt Lewin describing human relations using equations.
Under less technical meanings, scientism can be associated with the idea that only scientifically proven knowledge can be deemed safe, but also refer to the idea of overconfidence in science that could turn into dogma or in substitution religion. Victor Hugo, quoted by Henri Guillemin, deplores that there also exists “a scientist fetishism that is no better than clerical obscurantism”.
Scientism should not be confused with metaphysical realism, which holds that the world is always modelable at least to a certain degree.