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Philip Kitcher on the Trouble with Scientism

Editor's note: After too long an absence, we are delighted to welcome back contributor Michael Egnor.

Philip Kitcher recently published a magnificent essay in The New Republic on "The Trouble with Scientism."

Kitcher:

There are two cathedrals in Coventry. The newer one, consecrated on May 25, 1962, stands beside the remains of the older one, which dates from the fourteenth century, a ruin testifying to the bombardment of the Blitz. Three years before the consecration, in one of the earliest ventures in the twinning of towns, Coventry had paired itself with Dresden. That gesture of reconciliation was recapitulated in 1962, when Benjamin Britten's War Requiem received its first performance at the ceremony. The three soloists were an English tenor (Peter Pears), a German baritone (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), and a Russian soprano (Galina Vishnevskaya).

Since the 1960s, historians have worked -- and debated -- to bring into focus the events of the night of February 13, 1945, in which an Allied bombing attack devastated the strategically irrelevant city of Dresden. An increased understanding of the decisions that led to the fire-bombing, and of the composition of the Dresden population that suffered the consequences, have altered subsequent judgments about the conduct of war. The critical light of history has been reflected in the contributions of novelists and critics, and of theorists of human rights. Social and political changes, in other words, followed the results of humanistic inquiry, and were intertwined with the reconciliatory efforts of the citizens of Coventry and Dresden. Even music and poetry played roles in this process: what history has taught us is reinforced by the lines from Wilfred Owen that Britten chose as the epigraph for his score -- "My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do today is warn." It is so easy to underrate the impact of the humanities and of the arts. Too many people, some of whom should know better, do it all the time. But understanding why the natural sciences are regarded as the gold standard for human knowledge is not hard. When molecular biologists are able to insert fragments of DNA into bacteria and turn the organisms into factories for churning out medically valuable substances, and when fundamental physics can predict the results of experiments with a precision comparable to measuring the distance across North America to within the thickness of a human hair, their achievements compel respect, and even awe. To derive one's notion of human knowledge from the most striking accomplishments of the natural sciences easily generates a conviction that other forms of inquiry simply do not measure up. Their accomplishments can come to seem inferior, even worthless, at least until the day when these domains are absorbed within the scope of "real science."

The conflict between the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften goes back at least two centuries, and became intensified as ambitious, sometimes impatient researchers proposed to introduce natural scientific concepts and methods into the study of human psychology and human social behavior. Their efforts, and the attitudes of unconcealed disdain that often inspired them, prompted a reaction, from Vico to Dilthey and into our own time: the insistence that some questions are beyond the scope of natural scientific inquiry, too large, too complex, too imprecise, and too important to be addressed by blundering over-simplifications. From the nineteenth-century ventures in mechanistic psychology to contemporary attempts to introduce evolutionary concepts into the social sciences, "scientism" has been criticized for its "mutilation" (Verst├╝mmelung, in Dilthey's memorable term) of the phenomena to be explained.

Scientism is emerging as one of the greatest threats to humanity in the 21st century. It is a crass mistake -- a logical mistake -- but it has an appeal to a broad spectrum of disingenuous power-seekers, ideologues, and commonplace crooks. Scientism is the antithesis of democracy -- it rationalizes rule by unaccountable elites -- and it denies all reality but mere material reality, thereby eroding respect for natural law, which is the basis for human rights.

The scientistic hoaxes of the past century -- eugenics, pesticide hysteria, population-explosion junk science, global cooling, global warming, the looming... acidification of the oceans!, along with the sputtering New Atheist ignorance that has infested our public discourse -- are but a taste of the boot-print of scientism that we are yet to bear.

I'll post in several installments on Kitcher's brilliant essay.

Cross-posted at Egnorance.