There’s nothing quite like somebody managing to contradict themselves in the space of a few seconds. Here is Richard Dawkins doing just that – see if you can spot the glaring contradiction. I’ll give you a minute or two.
For this one, we need a working definition of scientism. Scientism, particularly in relation to the discussion at hand, usually refers to a belief that science can or will explain all things or that it is the only means of knowing what is really true.
In the video below, Dr Peter Atkins gives a perfect case in point. He specifies that ‘science is omnipotent’ and ‘can explain everything’, even challenging his opponent to give any example of what science cannot explain. This is scientism in extremis.
Now, back to the Dawkins video. Have you spotted the contradiction yet? He begins by writing off the term scientism as a ‘dirty word’ on the ground that it is only used by people who are ‘critical of scientists who they see as going too far and trying to usurp territory which properly belongs to other fields’. Then, however, he rejects the label. He insists scientism is merely ascribed to him and he disowns it. Fair enough, it might be unfair. So, what does he actually believe?
I think that science actually is the only way to understand what is true about the real world.
So… ummm… just to be clear, the only means of knowing what is true – the ONLY way to know what is true about the REAL WORLD – is through science? So, you believe sciences are the only fields of study that can discern what is true in the real world? And other fields of study cannot discern what is TRUE within the REAL WORLD? This is scientism!
He magnanimously concedes that science is not the way to determine what is right or wrong or aesthetically pleasing, but then bearing in mind what he said immediately before then, presumes that such things are either not ‘true’ or part of the ‘real world’. But that merely falls back onto his other presumption of materialism – that the only things that exist and are properly real are material things that can be observed. But, of course, on such a view, scientism reigns. If the only real things are material, the only means of discover what is real and true is through scientific observation.
Except, even on a materialist position, science might show you what happens but it can’t really show you why it happens. For the answer to why, the scientist has to philosophise and theorise about the results they have observed. That is all the scientific method can do. Test, observe, repeat. The drawing of conclusions after the experiments are done belong to the world of philosophy and scientism is so unaware that it doesn’t even realise it is its own philosophy of science.
The very position ‘science is omnipotent’ or ‘the only way to understand what is true about the real world’ are not scientifically defensible statements. You cannot test those things under any scientific conditions. Which minimally makes scientism a huge presumption that cannot be defended by any means it considers valid. More to the point, scientism – and the position put by Dawkins – defeats itself. It’s own presumption that science can prove everything is defeated by the fact that it can’t even prove its own central credo. If it can prove everything, you’d think it would manage to prove the grounds of its own belief. But, of course, it takes knowledge of other fields of study to make that clear.