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On Science sans Context


By D.Q. McInerny | December 2013
D.Q. McInerny is a professor of philosophy at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Nebraska. He holds B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees, all in philosophy, from the National University of Ireland, University College Cork. Among his latest published books are Natural Theology (2005), Epistemology (2007), and An Introduction to Foundational Logic (2012).

The first thing that has to be said about scientism is that it is not science; it is, in fact, the very antithesis of science. What we might call the classical understanding of science (the word comes from the Latin scientia, which means “knowledge”), adopted by Scholastic philosophy, holds that a science is an organized body of knowledge, based on first principles, whose chief task is to seek the causes of things. Besides nicely covering what we commonly think of as science today, such as physics and chemistry, this classical understanding also includes disciplines such as philosophy and theology. What, then, is scientism, which we have identified as the antithesis of science?

The phenomenon of scientism had its inception in the nineteenth century, a century in which modern science came fully into its own. This was especially the case with physics — so much so that, toward the end of the century, there were some physicists who declared, rather prematurely, that all the major discoveries in their field had been made. Given the remarkable progress the sciences had achieved since the seventeenth century, made dramatically evident to the general public by the plethora of technological wonders which were the practical outcome of that progress, science came to be held in the highest esteem. This led some people to get a bit carried away by it all, to the point where they began to attribute to science a status and a wide-ranging prowess that were beyond its capacities to justify. The scientific method was hailed as the method, and science itself was seen to provide the only certain and reliable path to truth, not simply within the realm of science but beyond. Thus was born the phenomenon we call scientism, whose essential character can be summed up by describing it as an attitude that fosters and promotes a seriously exaggerated — and hence distorted — estimation of the nature and the scope of science.

Disciplines such as physics, chemistry, and biology are, of course, legitimate sciences according to our classical definition of the term. But scientism contributed to a narrowing of the application of the term so that people were gradually trained to understand it as properly referring only to the empirical sciences. Accompanying this move was a marked tendency to exclude disciplines such as philosophy and theology from the sacrosanct realm of science. These disciplines, which had traditionally been considered sciences, were relegated to the outer darkness, and their claim to genuine scientific status regarded as illegitimate.

In its most extreme form, scientism came to look upon science as something very much like a religion; it was the new religion of clear-eyed rationality, which would eventually supplant the outworn traditional religions, especially Christianity. And if science was the new religion, scientists represented the new priesthood. Science was to be seen as a fitting substitute for traditional religion because it reflected the heartening fact that the human race had at long last reached full maturity and was poised to put away completely the irrationality and the superstition that were the marks of the “juvenile” stages of its development. It was science, and science alone, that would lead the human race into a golden future — a future rich with promises, all of which, in due season, would find happy fulfillment.

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