The Hard Truths of Scientism

—Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.



The Grand Design  Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow.


—Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.  

Carl Sagan


—Physical facts fix all the facts.  

Alex Rosenberg


One making the claim that a certain ideology, discipline, theology, practice or philosophy is the only way to understanding reality—and that all other fields of thought are subordinated to its methods of inquiry and findings—invites the criticism that such a conclusion is one that can’t or won’t address contradictory reasoning or evidence, or something that is ultimately unprovable. After all, the critic points out, there could be more than one such way to the truth of reality, another way of knowing the nature of reality, assuming in the first place there is even such a thing or, if so,  it is discoverable and knowable at all. These are the primary criticisms of scientism and its proponents because it makes just that claim, and in criticisms that have come from diverse sources the words “scientism” and “scientistic” are, more often than not, used in a pejorative sense. Its detractors range from theologians to postmodern relativists,  academics in the humanities, from politicians on the left and right, and even to philosophers of science.

Rik Peels, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam makes the distinction between “restricted” and “unrestricted” scientism, wherein the restricted version limits its inquiry to “a specific realm, or particular topic,” but the unrestricted variety makes the broadest assertions about metaphysical truths and the nature of reality and its accessibility only through the discipline of science.


Philosopher Alex Rosenberg has perhaps presented the definitive explanation of the “unrestricted” version of scientism in his recent book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (W.W. Norton and Co., New York. 2012), and offers as thorough of an A-Z outline of the modern naturalist’s view of the human condition as could be expected in a book of less than 400 pages. The book, he says, is not meant to de-convert the religious, but as a supplement to those already of the naturalist, scientifically-leaning mindset. Atheists, agnostics, sceptics, and freethinkers will find some novel ideas supplementing their worldview, paralleling theories familiar to them from works of evolutionary biologists such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould; cosmologists Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan, and neuro/cognitive scientists Sam Harris and and Steven Pinker—and classical Newtonian physics. This is the stuff that debunks theism and eviscerates supernaturalism. The simpler explanation is usually the best, and if we are gaining new understanding without the need for interpreting an other-worldly cause on top of it all, the better off we all are, partly because, as Rosenberg quips, “”Reality is rough. But it could have been worse. We could have been faced with reality in all its roughness plus a god who made it that way.”


Rosenberg weaves standard fare elementary particle  physics from its building blocks of matter and fields—fermions and bosons—from which all of the physical world can be reduced, and builds the case that all there is in the universe, from the barren rocks in deep space to the warm, breathing, replicating biological life forms found on our little rock Earth,are these two elementary particles working in harmony to the tune of the hard score of a set deterministic laws. No purpose, no design: all beginning from a quite random, improbable beginning; but all too possible and documentable to have required the introduction of an interminably inexplicable supernatural creator. Before the emergence of life on earth 3 billion years ago , amino acids, essential to protein formation, and the other chemical building blocks of life were likely created from existing chemical elements and compounds known to exist in earth’s atmosphere, and, in combination with an electrical charge as demonstrated in the Miller-Urey experiment, falsified the earlier belief that such compounds could be created only from previous lifeforms. Once the emergence of the simplest prokaryotes appeared, the race of replicating life in all its diversity was on. Charles Darwin showed how accumulated random mutations, combined with a natural selection (Rosenberg uses this term interchangeably with “environmental filtration”) made possible the kaleidoscopic array of species over the eons.


So far, so good, right? All-natural causes of origins and subsequent development of the universe. Purpose and design are both unnecessary and improbable in the equation—the explanatory power of chance and randomness is again the winner over superimposing an infinitely complex intelligence at the root of it all. In a deterministic universe, where physical facts fix all the facts, the human brain is the most complex of physical structure of all, but still subject to the processes that preceded it, with no free will, no soul, no “self” independent of the living brain with its 100 billion neurons wired together by 100 trillion synaptic connections.The biggest hindrance to “accepting science’s answers to life’s persistent questions is the human love affair with stories and storytelling.” Because of the way we like our information packaged, perhaps hardwired into our genes, we are “suckers for a good story,” Rosenberg says, “events  in the form of a plot with characters driven by motives,” and “if information doesn’t come in story form, we have trouble understanding it, remembering it, and believing it.” And the problem with that? All physical laws of the universe, save one, are time-reversible, i.e., they work either way, and could create a reverse chronological sequence of results. A typical story starts at a beginning, with a middle and a tidy end resulting in a satisfying exposition from the everyday  to the complicated descriptions of “what happened,” from your trip to the grocery this morning to God’s creation of the Earth in 6 days. And the temptation to embellish stories on the fly is one that most fail to resist. “Narrative” is a word extremely overused these days, and heard usually in a sceptical sense if not totally pejoratively. Though it’s just a coincidence, it expresses scientism’s critique of stories as a source of truth: they are unreliable at best, or just dead wrong, devoid of any corresponding physical facts, past or present. And history? Merely a form of entertainment.


And about that one law of physics that is not reversible, the one that doesn’t “run” with equal ease forward or backward? The Second Law of Thermodynamics holds true for almost all cases, though an extremely minute possibility exists that it may not. The law states that, in a closed system, entropy (or disorder, or the loss of ability to do work) increases. “The most probable distribution of matter and energy in the universe is the completely even distribution of everything,” says Rosenberg, and that is the apparent fate of the universe. Stars burn out, heat, energy, and mass dissipate into a homogenized mixture of neutered fermions and bosons, bound for the  the inevitable “heat death” of the universe.


Is this the cheerless reality that science leads us to—our universe as a random and spontaneous, an undesigned and purposeless set of particles of matter and energy, destined to eventually turn out the lights on itself and any possibility of permanence, with the prognosis of the inevitable extinction of present and future lifeforms? Is humanity left directionless on a  vast ocean of moral choices, with no North Star for bearing, and no sacred scripts for guidance? That is the foundation of nihilism, of course, but Rosenberg sees a glimmer of hope and reason to live, at least for the time being. His “nice nihilism” proposes that even without a sacrosanct verification of what is a good or evil ethic, or checklist for acceptable behavior, we have inherited through natural selection in Darwin’s law—a “core morality”—that can be seen to have developed early in the stages of the evolution of humanity. It centers on two premises and their multitude of documentable derivations:

—”All cultures…endorse most of the same core moral principles as binding on everyone.

—”The core moral principles have significant consequences for humans’ biological fitness—for our survival and reproduction.”

The evolutionary origins of “principles,” and “survival” as rudimentary forms of morality taking form in altruism and cooperation has no shortage of support in the past several years, and expressed quite effectively by Richard Dawkins as an extrapolation from his “selfish gene” theory. But in the end, neither science or scientism can give a good argument for the “supreme or intrinsic value of science…scientific explanation of what we value cannot justify those values or serve as a basis to enforce them on others….[and] since science is the only possible source of justification, if it doesn’t work to justify values, nothing does.”


…… be continued.  More from Rosenberg’s book, “Secular Humanist: Who Needs It?”  and trying to put it all in perspective.