Home Re/formation Institute MORE ABOUT THE IDOL OF SCIENTISM
Written by Calvin Fox   
Saturday, 24 January 2015 19:26

"Writing after World War II, Oppenheimer warned against thinking of scientists as having the answers to all questions or the power to solve them. If scientists were indeed the stewards of a unique, coherent, and powerful method, that stewardship showed, at most, in a certain modesty of manner and judgment, notably including humility about the scope of their knowledge. “Science is not all of the life of reason; it is a part of it,” he wrote. Scientism—the tendency to think one could extend scientific method everywhere and thereby solve problems of morality, value, aesthetics, and social order—was just sloppy thinking.

The scientism Oppenheimer warned against had a history. It traces back to nineteenth-century social Darwinism and the advertised reduction of morality to biology. This was exactly the sort of reasoning the naturalistic fallacy targeted—the notion that what was moral could be rendered in terms of what biological evolution had formed us to do or to feel. So if it was natural for us to war with each other in order to pass on characteristics to our offspring, then a moral problem was solved—that was what we should do. And if it was natural for us to cooperate or to behave altruistically to related or non-related others, then that too was what we should do. Moral instincts or inclinations were unveiled as natural phenomena, amenable to the methods and concepts of natural science. So-called evolutionary ethics bid to give a scientific solution to such questions as “What ought we to do?” and “What is moral?”

This Victorian scientism had a future, and it now has a substantial present. In the modern American academy and in intellectual publishing, scientism, and specifically the redefinition of moral problems as scientific problems, is resurgent. Moral problems are not so much solved as dissolved. One speaks of moral problems as une façon de parler, a regrettable modern survival of a discredited dualism. Science assumes, or reassumes, its moral role by showing that traditional moral authorities are naked, and that what counted as moral problems are best—even only—addressed by the resources of the scientist. Science, it is now claimed, will show us what is good and how to live the good life—and if it does not now have the ability to do so fully and effectively, then we should rest assured that it soon will. Science will cure problems of moral relativism, and it will reveal the objective truth of some set of moral positions as opposed to fraudulent others. Morality, neuroscientist Sam Harris writes, “should be considered an undeveloped branch of science,” and science, he says, “can determine human values.” The cognitive scientist Steven Pinker moves from a bet about the future to a confident, if qualified, statement of current realities:

The worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality.
According to this newly confident scientism, science is the only bit of culture that can make you good because it trumps all the others—religion, traditional ethical codes, common sense. Or it shows them to be nonsense. Or—with or without awareness of the irony—it brands them immoral: religion is a “God delusion,” licensing prejudice, servility, and slaughter, all of which are morally wrong."

Steven Shapin, Franklin L. Ford Research Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University



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