According to Wikipedia, “Scientism is the promotion of science as the best or only objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values. While the term was originally defined to mean “methods and attitudes typical of or attributed to the natural scientist”, some religious scholars (and subsequently many others) adopted it as a pejorative with the meaning “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities)”.
The term scientism is often used critically, implying an unwarranted application of science in situations considered not amenable to application of the scientific method or similar scientific standards.”
Why Science is Good
Science is a tremendous gift, and has led to incredible human flourishing. The advancements we’ve seen due to science allow us to live radically more comfortable lives than our ancestors. Because of scientific inquiry, very few people experience the tremendous hardships our ancestors did. Furthermore, that number is decreasing more and more each year.
Additionally, science is a reliable method for learning the truth about the natural world. Through the scientific method, we can come to know more about the world around us, and we can do that with a common framework. One thing to remember, however, is that science is always tentative and prone to change due to new evidence.
Errors of Scientism
The problem with scientism is that it lifts science up, and in the process, ignores other fields of inquiry. The word “science” originates in the word for knowledge, but now only applies to a narrow field of knowledge. I would argue that a philosopher who completely disregards science, and only accepts ontological proofs, is misguided. But in our culture, ontological proofs are discounted, and we act as though anything that can’t be proven by the natural sciences is unfounded.
Scientism is wrong because it tries to use a tool for the wrong purposes. Instead of using science to inquire about the natural world, we try to apply it to other fields of study. Additionally, scientism poses a criteria for knowledge that is impossible to meet. We can never learn new things if we need hard, repeatable evidence for every claim we accept as true.
Lastly, scientism forces us to have an ever-shifting understanding of truths. In logic and mathematics, we know the truths are true in all times and places. But, in science, truth is gradually uncovered, and theories are regularly revised. In science, that is ok, but we should not apply that to all fields of study. Scientism applies that understanding of truth to all forms of inquiry, which is wrong.
What we can do to fix this is to keep in mind that science is a tool. Science is a method for learning about the world, and it isn’t the supreme arbiter of truth. People who fall into this way of thinking over-emphasize the objective world. Often, they are materialists or naturalists, and they fail to take into account the spiritual part of the human condition. Instead, they act like we are merely chemistry sets or lab rats.
Next, we must not think that an epistemology that works for science will work elsewhere. Philosophy and math come to find truth in very different ways than science. So, we shouldn’t make the mistake of needing experiments to come to mathematical truths. In other words, you cannot find all truth in a lab.