On Materialism and Scientism

Class in science – studying water vapor, 2nd Division elementary school, Washington, D.C.

In a recent post on Catholic apologist website Strange Notions, priest and amateur movie critic Fr Robert Baron discusses a number of concerns he has with the kind of arguments he encounters on YouTube. One of his complaints is the heresy of “scientism” which Barron defines both as:

Matter, or the universe as a totality, or the big bang, or “energy” is an adequate explanation of all that is.

and,

… the philosophical position that reality is restricted to what the empirical sciences can measure.

These two quotes represent very different ideas. The first awkwardly describes “materialism” which is a real philosophical position that simply defines the cosmos (all that there “is”) as being all that can be empirically detected, matter/energy. (However, it does not say that the cosmos itself is an explanation.) Materialism is a view that I share, but it is a complicated and challenging subject into which I will not digress here.

“Scientism” is a controversial subject that can have a variety of meanings. What is being described as “scientism” in Barron’s second quote is, I think, a straw man. It is an approach to knowledge that no one really holds to, and is used to suggest that scientific criticisms of religious apologetics are somehow anemic.

Science-Based Knowledge

First we need to define science and science-based knowledge as opposed to evidence-based knowledge. “Science”, in this context, refers to a body of knowledge that is accumulated as a result of the most rigorous process of scrutiny ever developed by humanity. It means coming up with a hypothesis to test, testing it with observation, subjecting it to peer-review, and (this is key) waiting for it to be replicated and it fitting within the rest of scientific findings. Only then do we say it has become established scientifically. YouTuber and science journalist Potholer54 is a great resource for understanding this process, I highly recommend his videos, particularly this one.

Evidence-Based Knowledge

Evidence-based knowledge is does not require peer review or replication. It only requires there to be empirical data that makes logical sense to support a claim. This is how judges reach legal decisions. It is also how most people get along in daily life. We see a bus in the distance with the number 86 on it. We accept that this is the very same bus that will take us to a certain location, and based on our observations of past events, bus route maps etc., we get on the bus. We do not wait for our observation of the number on the bus, or the existence of the bus itself to be subjected to peer-review and to be replicated by independent study. We are not certain as we could be if these things had been done, but we can risk it in this context.

Our confidence in science-based and evidence-based knowledge is only as strong as the evidence supporting the claim. What science gives us is a process by which to say something is as well-supported as possible. A single study passing peer-review is not considered to be scientifically established. A theory that has multiple studies replicating and it consistent with other scientifically well-established theories is said to be scientifically established.

In other words, we can be most confident in science-based knowledge and we require this level of knowledge to say that drugs are safe or that a bridge not collapse. We don’t require it to reach decisions in court or in many academic disciplines. These however do require a basis in evidence and reason as opposed to positions we take on a whim, speculation, wishful thinking,  suspicion, or, I daresay, faith. These latter positions can be fun to take when the stakes are low or to brainstorm ideas to test and see if they are accurate. But we must accept that there is no reason to say they will be reliable absent some other means of supporting them.

Scientism is a Straw Man

To the extent that Fr Barron’s first quote points to materialism, he is wrong to suggest that its challenge to theism is fallacious. But this is not the “scientism” that is reflected in his second quote. What I think he is reacting to there, are is rhetorical statements that may suggest that only science-based knowledge should be considered as a basis to support any argument. Barron does not provide us with examples, but I too have noticed this in discussions and debates between theism apologists and their adversaries. I think these exchanges go something like this:

Apologist: God must exist because the Big Bang proves the Universe had a beginning, and a timeless, space-less, all-good intelligent designer must have started it all.

Counter Apologist: This is an argument from ignorance. We do not know what caused the Big Bang. You are just speculating. We accept the Big Bang theory because of science, we have no science establishing anything pre-Big Bang.

Apologist: You seem to think only science can establish such knowledge?

Counter Apologist: Of course!

Apologist: That’s “scientism” you are being fallacious for ignoring the knowledge that isn’t scientifically established.

Counter Apologist: Well I trust science not faith.

The Apologist in this case walks away thinking the other is requiring a standard of proof that is too high. Silly, he thinks, only applying this standard would be paralyzing, no one could ever use the bus routes!

The Counter Apologist walks away thinking the other accepts things with no evidence at all, based on wishful thinking and speculation. Silly, he thinks, if this were the case we would just ignore the evidence and get on random buses with the faith that they would go where we want to get!

What is missing is the option of evidence-based knowledge. If the Counter Apologist had responded something like the following, I think dialogue could have continued more productively:

Apologist: You seem to think only science can establish such knowledge?

Counter Apologist: Of course not, but I thought you were setting a scientific standard of proof by alluding to the Big Bang theory. I think we can agree that science has not established anything pre-Big Bang, but I don’t think there is any evidence or reason to make any claims about “before” the Big Bang. We just don’t know, you are still making an argument from ignorance.

And so on.

Yes, I think I have heard Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss say things along the lines of the “scientism” alluded to by Barron in the second quote above. But I think they really mean a materialist approach, one that relies on evidence, reason and critical thinking but does not necessarily require the peer-review and replication of science-based knowledge.

On the other hand, the complaint of scientism is generally a straw man. Unless someone can point me to a serious attempt by someone to defend it, as defined here, I think we can easily deal with it by a brief discussion on the distinction between science-based and evidence-based knowledge as opposed to faith-based, or inspired knowledge.

PS:  In drafting this on WordPress, the blog post below has popped up as “related content”. As you can see if you read it, it defends science, not scientism, as defined here.

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About Brian Green Adams

I am an atheist in Canada. I know something about law. "Brian Green Adams" is a pseudonym, taken from Brian Eno, Robert Green Ingersol, and Douglas Adams. Three of my favourite atheists. Not to mention The Life of Brian, Brian Green (physicist), Eno's "Another Green World", and Adam from Genesis in the Bible. The connection to Brian Adams is an unfortunate coincidence, though I was very fond of him when I was 12.
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2 Responses to On Materialism and Scientism

  1. Priscilla says:

    Heady stuff….

  2. The very word “scientism” is antithetical to the scientific method. It suggests the predetermined premises of rationalism, inductive reasoning, and faith-based belief systems. The processes of science are empirical, deductive, and fact-based.

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