On Scientific Method Without “Reductive Scientism”

Multi-Functional Mind

Today there are many excellent introductions to the nature and methods of science available to read on the Web, and of course in textbooks. For our purposes it is sufficient to reference the beginning of the Wikipedia article on scientific method:

The scientific method is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge.To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the scientific method as: “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

What, then, is “reductive scientism” as distinct from “scientific method?” Allow me once more to reference the Wikipedia article on that topic:

Scientism is a term used to refer to belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints. 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.” An individual who subscribes to scientism is referred to as a scientismist. 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 Hilary Putnam and Tzvetan Todorov to describe the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable. ‘Scientism’ has also been taken over as a name for the view that science is the only reliable source of knowledge by philosophers such as Alexander Rosenberg.

Scientism may refer to science applied “in excess”. The term scientism can apply in either of two senses:

  1. To indicate the improper usage of science or scientific claims. This usage applies equally in contexts where science might not apply,such as when the topic is perceived to be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry, and in contexts where there is insufficient empirical evidence to justify a scientific conclusion. It includes an excessive deference to claims made by scientists or an uncritical eagerness to accept any result described as scientific. In this case, the term is a counter argument to appeals to scientific authority.
  2. To refer to “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,” or that “science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective” with a concomitant “elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience.”

The term is also used by historians, philosophers, and cultural critics to highlight the possible dangers of lapses towards excessive reductionism in all fields of human knowledge.

Obviously one may have great appreciation and respect for “scientific method” without falling prey to the excesses of “scientism,” that is: (1) excessive deference to claims made by scientists and an uncritical eagerness to accept any result described as scientific; and (2) the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in them, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry;” or that “science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective” with a concomitant “elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience.”

My discussion of “tacit and explicit knowledge” in the last two blogs makes evident the tacit if not explicit presence of the philosophical, ethical, psychological and social dimensions of experience, regardless of whether one is engaging the humanities, arts, or sciences.  It has been a myth of modern scientism (not science as such) that empirical truth-claims presented as “scientific” are objectively true, and that measurable and quantifiable “explicit knowledge” eliminates the subjective and inter-subjective personal and cultural influence of the tacit dimension. Philosophers and scientists like Michael Polanyi have come to realize that this assumption is intellectually simplistic and naive. Even scientists are human beings first (with tacit assumptions, perceptions, judgment, beliefs, values and commitments) before they are scientists, during their scientific experiments, and after they are done with their scientific work. There is no way to entirely remove the tacit dimension. All knowledge is embodied human knowledge and human knowledge is not “value neutral.”

Like anyone who has long been interested in various scientific as well as philosophical, religious, historical, literary and artistic accounts of the world, I’ve encountered countless physical, natural, cognitive and social scientists who have set forth different Theories of Everything. Sometimes these “grand theorists” cross over quite unknowingly from scientific method to reductive scientism. Many popular theories within the physical, biological, cognitive and social sciences have have attempted to elevate themselves — through scientistic reductionism — to universal explanatory principles or Theories of Everything. These have included Neo-Darwinian survival of the fittest, Dawkins’s selfish genes, Freud’s projection theory, Jung’s archetype fixation, Marx’s class struggle, Feminist’s oppressive patriarchy, Skinner’s operant conditioning, physicist’s Quantum Everything, Santayana’s animal faith, and Frans de Waal’s animal empathy. There are countless others. As partial accounts of the world they may be useful. As totalizing accounts they become ideology. If reality is more than we know, and if what we know is always more than we can tell, and if what we can tell is what we can effectively communicate to the understanding of others, then we will recognize that there is always “a surplus of meaning” that our language never fully encompasses. We never communicate the “totality of reality,” without remainder.

Of course not all physical, natural, cognitive and social scientists present their questions, hypotheses, predictions, tests, analyses and conclusions as Theories of Everything, but only as partial and probably explanations with limited rather than universal extension. But the hubristic temptation is to assume that one has “finally discovered” the Rosetta Stone, is key to all knowledge and understanding of the fundamental nature of reality.

There are several aspects to reductionism. One involves explaining (or explaining away) all religious, philosophical, ethical, historical, literary, artistic and aesthetic phenomena as “really reducible to” sociological, psychological, biological, neurological, physiological and/or computational, algorithmic and mathematical. Another aspect of reductionism involves fierce competition between the various reductive scientistic explanations within physics, biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology and economics that have all generated multiple and competing Theories of Everything.

Each of these reductive scientistic theories plays the game of King of the Mountain, seeking to be the interpretative key to all fundamental phenomena. As one listens for years to the exaggerated and grandiose claims of these various  and competing grand theories it is not surprising that some people have developed a post-modern allergy and suspicion toward Grand Narratives and Theories of Everything, including those that claim the imprimatur of science, god of the modern age.

The shift from scientific method to reductive scientism coincides with the tacit or explicit adoption of a materialistic, physicalist, mechanistic and deterministic worldview, as if it were the only show in town. Those who adopt dualist, theist, realist-idealist, neutral monist and pan-psychist worldviews may also engage the scientific enterprise with rigor and intelligence but perceive the world differently.

The tacit/explicit (softer/harder, autopoietic/representational, participation/reification) model of Michael Polanyi and others offers a way to temper the polarizing impulses toward post-modern relativistic subjectivism and ironism on the one hand and modern scientistic objectivism and reductionism on the other.

What is needed today is a recovery of the wisdom of the middle way. What is needed is a “third culture” that mediates between the humanities and the arts on one side and the sciences and technologies on the other. We can have reason without hyper-rationalism, science without scientism, psychology without psychologism, economics without economism, ethics without moralism, spirituality without fundamentalism, history without historicism, literature without escapism, and art without effetism. Liberal arts and cultural literacy are not our problem. Our problem is entrenched ideologies and totalizing dogmas, and they are never more pernicious than when they mask their agendas behind one or more of the liberal arts, including the great and liberating human enterprise we call science.



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