On scientism

by Neil Rickert

I’m never quite sure what “scientism” is supposed to mean.  It often seems to be little more than a strawman, or a punching bag used by some theists and some philosophers.

In any case, a recent blog post by Larry Moran:

drew my attention to an argument against scientism by Massimo Pigliucci.

I suggest you start by reading Larry Moran’s post.

Pigliucci’s questions

In his argument, Pigliucci gives a list of questions that he sees as philosophical questions rather than scientific questions.  I shall quote the questions here, and then give my comments on them.

  • In metaphysics: what is a cause?

Why should any scientist care about this?  Yes, causation is important to science.  But for science, we test causation be seeing what we can cause in our experimentation.  We attempt to narrow down causes.  And we tend to extrapolate that knowledge by way of predictions.  It is not at all clear that this has anything much to do with the metaphysics of cause.

  • In logic: is modus ponens a type of valid inference?

I’m not sure why any scientist would even care about this.

As a mathematician, I have used a lot of logic.  But I never needed technical terminology such as “modus ponens” or “modus tollens”.  For many scientists and mathematicians, using logic is a matter of applied common sense, rather than a matter of following a system of formal rules.

  • In epistemology: is knowledge “justified true belief”?

No, absolutely not.

Perhaps Pigliucci is hinting at a research paper by Edmund Gettier, with a somewhat similar title.  But most scientists would have little or no interest in Gettier’s paper.

I’m not sure why philosophers characterize knowledge as justified true belief.  But, from a scientist’s perspective, I see that as a huge mistake.  It leads philosophers to consider scientific theories to be belief systems.  And that is a serious misunderstanding of science.  Indeed, this misunderstanding may be part of why some scientists are so critical of philosophy of science.

  • In ethics: is abortion permissible once the fetus begins to feel pain?

I’m puzzled that this question is even asked.  To me, a decision on abortion should be up to the woman and her physician.

  • In aesthetics: is there a meaningful difference between Mill’s “low” and “high” pleasures?

I’m not even familiar with the terminology.  I doubt that most scientists would even care about this.

  • In philosophy of science: what role does genetic drift play in the logical structure of evolutionary theory?

Such a strange question.  Scientists look to a theory as a guide to research.  They are far more concerned with its empirical usefulness than with its logical structure.  And yes, genetic drift is an important part of modern evolutionary theory.

  • In philosophy of mathematics: what is the ontological status of mathematical objects, such as numbers?

In philosophy of mathematics, they are an argument.  They are, perhaps, an unresolvable disagreement.

For me, mathematical objects are useful fictions.  I’m a fictionalist about things such as numbers.  Some mathematicians — perhaps most — are platonists.  They see numbers as existing is some sort of platonic reality.  But it is hard to say that it matters.  I have never had a problem discussing mathematics with a platonist.  There are some issues where I might disagree with a platonist, but they are peripheral issues.  They are not central issues to a mathematician.

I have had philosophers advise me that I should become a mathematical platonist.  They suggest this because the see it as important for explaining the role of mathematics in science.  They are basing their advice on the Quine–Putnam indispensability thesis.  Yet my own preference for mathematical fictionalism is because I see that as being better suited to explaining the use of mathematics in science.  As I see it, mathematical platonism would require that the output of a voltmeter or a thermometer consist of platonic entities.  And I cannot see any reason to believe that.

The scientism argument

As best I can tell, Pigliucci is making the point that the questions he poses are philosophical questions rather than scientific questions.  Well sure.  But what’s the point?

Scientists are themselves philosophers.  There is a lot of philosophy in theoretical science.  And it is mostly theoretical scientists that are criticizing philosophy of science.  The kind of philosophy done by scientists is very different from the kind of philosophy that comes from academic departments of philosophy.

If the goal was to demonstrate the importance of academic philosophy to science, then I see it as a failure.  If anything, Pigliucci’s questions illustrate how irrelevant academic philosophy is to scientists.


4 Comments to “On scientism”

  1. You are right in that science and math are philosophies themselves, so it’s problematic to criticize the broader school that generated them for not being productive or useful.
    When you claim math and science to be productive, you are talking mostly about gadgets. And yes we have lots of gadgets and choices among gadgets as a result. We are also confronted with the technology to control and alter the mechanics of genetic processes, or Abiogenesis…the ability of life to control life. So science has come full circle in the physical realm providing at last the choices over our internal composition and destiny.
    It seems that the broader schools of philosophy are by comparison unproductive because they are not directly responsible for manufacturing physical products that we can, smell, feel, and touch. And yet the policies of social organization contribute more than gadgets to human health, happiness and well being. Gadgets and technologies don’t seem to be accomplishing what they are sold on, and it will take organizing philosophies to make any real differences in the quality of life.


    • There are two problems that I see with academic philosophy:
      (1) they are too strongly committed to ancient traditions;
      (2) the are too strongly tied to the use of logic.

      Philosophers are bright people. And I see a lot of interesting things that they could do. But they are in a rut.


      • Of corse you are right! Philosophy as taught in school refers to authorities as much as science and religion do. This commitment results in stagnation and the suppression of new and novel insights!


  2. Whenever I see the word scientism, I predict that behind it is a theist who bemoans the scientists who refuses to take his theism seriously. Yet again I was right.

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