So, what the heck is Scientism?

Seems to me, it’s simply another empty Public Relations Term enlisted by extreme rightwing propagandists, it’s an extension of their need to transfer their own baggage on to others and thus obscuring what their “opponents” are actually thinking and believing.

But it didn’t take much googling to find that apparently that impression is because I’ve only heard it coming from the disingenuous mouths of faith-shackled who are trying to dismiss science as no different from religion, which is utter self-deception. I’ve just skimmed an interesting AAAS article by Thomas Burnett, that demands a second closer reading, so it’s a good time to take a break and do some learning.

In the meantime what does “Scientism” mean to you?



So, I keep stumbling forward as though there were a real discussion to be had here, hope springs eternal. That is why I’ve included the following exerts of Thomas Burnett splendid observations because they offer a few seeds for a interesting discussion. Of course, cynicism and cheap one-liners can shut it down in a moment, but who knows, maybe there’s something to work with here.



www _ aaas _ org/programs/dialogue-science-ethics-and-religion/what-scientism

By Thomas Burnett (is the assistant director of public engagement at the John Templeton Foundation. As a science writer, Thomas has also worked for The National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has degrees in philosophy and the history of science from Rice University and University of California, Berkeley.)


Scientism is a rather strange word, but for reasons that we shall see, a useful one.


Historian Richard G. Olson defines scientism as “efforts to extend scientific ideas, methods, practices, and attitudes to matters of human social and political concern.” (1)

But this formulation is so broad as to render it virtually useless. Philosopher Tom Sorell offers a more precise definition: “Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.” (2)

MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson offers a closely related version, but more extreme: “Science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge.” (3) The latter two definitions are far more precise and will better help us evaluate scientism’s merit.

Descartes and Bacon used particularly strong rhetoric to carve out space for their new methods. They claimed that by learning how the physical world worked, we could become “masters and possessors of nature.”(4) …

As this new method found great success, the specter of scientism began to emerge. …

The Enlightenment

A century later, many of the Enlightenment intellectuals continued their love-affair with the power of natural science. They claimed that not only could science enhance the quality of human life, it could even promote moral improvement. …



The 19th century witnessed the most powerful and enduring formulation of scientism, a system called positivism. Its founder was August Comte, who built his positive philosophy from a deep commitment to David Hume’s empiricism and skepticism. … He believed that through the continual advancement of human understanding, religion would fade away, philosophy and the humanities would be transformed into a naturalistic basis, and all human knowledge would eventually become a product of science. Any ideas outside that realm would be pure fantasy or superstition.


Logical Positivism
Positivism did not lose its appeal in the 20th century. To the contrary, a group known collectively as The Vienna Circle reinvigorated the fundamental tenets of positivism with enhanced symbolic logic and semantic theory. They called their approach, fittingly, logical positivism. In this system, there are only two kinds of meaningful statements: analytic statements (including logic and mathematics), and empirical statements, subject to experimental verification. Anything outside of this framework is an empty concept. (11) …

Another weakness of the positivist position is its reliance on a complete distinction between theory and observation. … This realization does not deal a death-blow to the practice of science, but it does undermine the positivist claim that science rests entirely on facts, and is thus an indisputable foundation for knowledge.



… Whether one agrees with the sentiments of these scientists or not, the result of these public pronouncements has served to alienate a large segment of American society. And that is a serious problem, since scientific research relies heavily upon public support for its funding, and environmental policy is shaped by lawmakers who listen to their constituents. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, it would be wise to try a different approach.


Physicist Ian Hutchinson offers: “The health of science is in fact jeopardized by scientism, not promoted by it. At the very least, scientism provokes a defensive, immunological, aggressive response from other intellectual communities, in return for its own arrogance and intellectual bullyism. It taints science itself by association.” (13)



So if science is distinct from scientism, what is it? Science is an activity that seeks to explore the natural world using well-established, clearly-delineated methods. …

Scientism, on the other hand, is a speculative worldview about the ultimate reality of the universe and its meaning. Despite the fact that there are millions of species on our planet, scientism focuses an inordinate amount of its attention on human behavior and beliefs.

Rather than working within carefully constructed boundaries and methodologies established by researchers, it broadly generalizes entire fields of academic expertise and dismisses many of them as inferior. With scientism, you will regularly hear explanations that rely on words like “merely”, “only”, “simply”, or “nothing more than”. Scientism restricts human inquiry.

It is one thing to celebrate science for its achievements and remarkable ability to explain a wide variety of phenomena in the natural world. But to claim … Once you accept that science is the only source of human knowledge, you have adopted a philosophical position (scientism) that cannot be verified, or falsified, by science itself. It is, in a word, unscientific.
Although guess I must add that here again, I believe a recognition of the Mindscape v Physical Reality divide would do wonders for clarifying this discussion. No woo, simply recognizing “creation” for what it is and moving forward from there.

Oops, that last paragraph belongs outside of the quote block. But I’m not editing, lest the entire comment be disappeared again.


Although guess I must add that here again,

I believe a recognition of the Mindscape v Physical Reality divide would do wonders for clarifying this discussion.

No woo, simply recognizing “creation” and human limitations for what they are and moving forward from there.

So you like the Peter Meisler essay, but you’re not so sure about what Citizen’s Challenge is saying? Do I have that right?

Lausten you make me think of NPR’s 'Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me" when they give the contestant a second chance: do you reeeaaaaaallly think it’s #2." wink, wink.

(Mie…) :wink:

Good comment though. Gives me something to work with, though not tonight. Thanks Dan.

Why not just state what we mean in plain English (instead of using the term "mindscape")? Doing so would require a few more words, but at least there would be less ambiguity about what we mean.
I could make a similar argument about the use of the term "mind". But people are still going to use the term "mind" because "exactness" tends to be too boring for us humans to typically pay sustained attention to.

I am not sure where CC is ultimately going with his concept of “mindscape” but I imagine that your intelligent criticism/challenge could be useful for him as he tries to refine it.

Why not just state what we mean in plain English?
State what? That thoughts are somehow related to brain activity? Without a couple classes in neuroscience, I can't be much more precise than that. It's only recently that humans even associated thoughts and feelings with the nervous system. If there were some "plain English" for describing the mind, I'd think I would have stumbled across by now.

I don’t mean to pick on you, but the conversation is kind of stuck at this point. You’re saying we should do something, but it’s something I’m not sure you have done or can do.

@drhansenjr Religion is neurological (besides a brainwashing and child abuse). There is external stimuli (the music, candles, preacher (get back to this), ritual, and other stimuli) which triggers chemicals in the brain (in the synapses) to fire, which causes the feelings of awe, numinous feelings, feelings of “Jesus spirit moving”, and other labels. Religious feelings, though real, are all neuro-chemically charged. There are studies concerning external stimuli triggering chemicals in the brain that cause such feelings. In fact, and something Darrell Ray wrote about in his book “The God Virus”, a good preacher/priest/pastor knows about these studies and will use his voice, while preaching, giving an alter call, or just general worship to trigger these feelings in his congregation. You want to experience these neurochemical triggers, go to a full-gospel church, listen to choir and start dancing with the congregation hand raising and all. There is no spirit moving through the congregation. There is a LOT of stimuli that triggers neuro-chemicals in the brain which give such feelings though. Another church neuro-chemical experience is an Episcopal Church. That church has a ton of them in their service- candles, music, ritual…

Saw this on YouTube years ago. It’s probably out there somewhere. At least some clips.

@drhansenjr I listed more than just ritual. I also listed music, candles, preaching, etc. So I did expand.


;tldr (which appears to have been deleted)

If there were some “plain English” for describing the mind, I’d think I would have stumbled across by now.
I would think that you would have stumbled over my plain English description of "mind" somewhere in the history of these threads. Anyway, you can stumble across it now.

An individual’s “mind” refers, in various contexts, to the total composite of the many and varied repertoire of perception and cognitive behaviors of that individual.

Each of these various cognitive behaviors has a neurological correlate. (Note that each of other more overt behaviors also have a neurological correlate.)

Anyway, you can stumble across it now.
Dammit. Stubbed my toe.

Got it. I was thinking more like “plain English” as in “a chair is something that supports your butt and allows you to get off your feet”. I could come up with a definition of gravity, and everyone would know what I meant, but I still wouldn’t be describing it because we only know the effects of its force, not actually what it is. The mind is in that category.

If religion is part of the “mindscape,” and “mindscape” is some kind of mishmash of the neurological activity of the brain and an embrace of the supernatural, it makes the term all the more meaningless.
Can you explain where you get that notion of an embrace of the supernatural?
Religion is all about the human mindscape itself, with its wonderful struggles, fears, spiritual undercurrents, needs and stories we create to give our live’s meaning and make it worth living, or at least bearable.
Religion is a creation of the mind concerned with all our personal struggles, and an attempt to make peace with our lot in life. What's so tough about that? No need for supernatural.


Are you trying to tell me that religion is not a creation of the mind? (Concerned with matters of our ego and our inner conflicts, etc?

Are you telling me that science is not a creation of the mind?

If so, please explain.

Lausten said, I could come up with a definition of gravity, and everyone would know what I meant, but I still wouldn’t be describing it because we only know the effects of its force, not actually what it is. The mind is in that category.
I could go into some of the various cognitive behaviors (there are many types) that comprise what we call "mind". e.g., memory behaviors, visualizing, self-talk, focused awareness, self awareness, dreaming, etc., etc., etc.

Would that not begin to describe it? Or is all that just what you are calling “the effects of its force”?

The term “mind” is not a physical law like “gravity”.

“Mind” is just a convenient umbrella term for all of the covert mental activities aka cognitive behaviors that we have, that have been shown to each have a neurological correlate.

Beyond that, the description of each of the individual cognitive behaviors that comprise “the mind” are difficult to observe directly and objectively, but we all can describe, to some degree, (from subjective self-observation of our thoughts), certain cognitive behaviors that we have.

So what is left to describe about what the term “mind” refers to?

Religion does not entail an “embrace of the supernatural”? Huh?
Oh semantics.

Religion does not entail the supernatural.

Religion believes in the supernatural.


Do you get the distinction there?


Why this horror of thinking about that web of thinking we humans do the one thing that makes us different, the immaterial product of the brain, that has stumped scientist for ever, ask David Hoffman. It’s a recognition of a boundary.

Not recognizing that boundary leads to hubris, as we are witnessing across the board :wink:

So what is left to describe about what the term “mind” refers to?
So much. We can't put a thought in a bottle. We can barely identified areas in the brain that light up in response to certain stimuli. We can't take an image in my head and transfer it in whole to yours. We don't know how such things form other than "in the brain" or "by neuron activity".

Concerned with matters of our ego and our inner conflicts, etc? – CC

What do these things have to do with specifically with religion? I am a sometimes almost rabid antitheist, and I contend with “matters of my ego” and inner conflicts. These things are pretty universal and have squat to do with religion, other than the fact that religious people are human and happen to share them with the rest of of us. – DJ

Your experience of your ego is not any kind of data that tells me anything about the experience of religion for others.

This “foundation” is looking more and more like a one man show of a guy with an agenda and I’m not sure what the agenda is. Go for it I guess, but I don’t think it’s getting off the ground.

I’m not sure what this is referring to. What does “;tldr” mean? – DrJr

Always concerns me when someone on a forum doesn’t check google before asking a question. You have admitted your verbosity, so don’t tell me this is news to you.

I used it as a comment on your posts. In this definition it’s used as way to flag your executive summary. Maybe you should try it. write your post, then go back to the top and write TL;DR followed by a one sentence synopsis.