It’s easy to judge someone else’s worldview, but it’s much harder to recognise that we even have a worldview. We appreciate how pagan societies might see spirits in nature, or how monotheists see God in things. We observe how Marxists see class struggle, and Freudians see childhood neuroses everywhere. But what about our own attitudes? What about our post-enlightenment scientific worldview? That’s much harder to see.
This is exactly what Mary Midgley hoped to draw attention to in her attack on “Scientism”.
Midgley spent a lot of her philosophical life looking at those thought patterns or “conceptual schema” that underpin how we each see the world. She wrote that there’s “a dark background of which we are hardly aware” that frames everything else. She uses the analogy of plumbing to describe her point. In just the same way that pipes and water flow through buildings, our mental framework is run through with presuppositions, biases, concepts and ideas. Midgley thought it was the job of philosophers to act as plumbers of the mind. We need to see what pipes we have, where they go, and must either check that they’re functioning well or ensure we fix them when they break. One such example of our conceptual “plumbing” comes in how we view and use science.
It’s said we’re living in a “Scientific Age”, but what does that actually mean? It’s not that everyone has a PhD in biochemistry, nor is there more science going on today than, say, art or music. Rather, for Midgley, it means that “science is shaping our thought, shaping our whole attitude and supplying a faith by which to live”.
She points out that there’s a difference between “doing science” and Scientism. Science is a method and discipline, but Scientism is something more – it establishes a set of beliefs by which to view things. It sees science as “realistic” or “just the facts”, like some objective totem. What’s more, Midgley argued that Scientism is invariably aligned with some kind of excessive reductionism, where everything is reduced to neurons or evolutionary psychology, for instance. It simplifies the complexities of life to being “nothing but” this or that. Love is, for example, “nothing but…” social cohesion. Consciousness is “nothing but…” neurons firing in a certain sequence. Scientism reduces the world to a single explanatory factor. Yet, this is a philosophical abstraction that has become untethered from how life is lived. It elevates one aspect of life at the expense of other things, such as culture or society.
Midgley also noted Scientism often comes with a condescension towards those who don’t see science as they do. Oppositional views are lambasted as the naïve wish-fulfillment of the weak, probably involving unicorns and leprechauns, angels and devils. Scientism, then, is a faith, or at least a value system, in favour of materialistic asceticism. Which means that it wants to say, “Accept the bleakness of reality!” or “Don’t childishly daydream!” We must all accept The Truth, as defined by science, and to do otherwise is ignorant and superstitious.
For Midgley, not only does Scientism haughtily demand obedience to its version of the world, but there’s a deeper problem yet. She believed that Scientism comes embedded with three “myths” which are, themselves, unproven. Scientism passes off as unchallengeable “fact” what are, in fact, actually value judgements. But what are these myths?
Firstly, there is the assumption that if we only look at science a certain way, we’re bound to be overcome with awe and wonder at the “glory of the natural world”. Richard Dawkins’ recent book, The Magic of Reality, is a great example of this (in fact Midgley and Dawkins were life-long sparring partners). This myth, for Midgley, insists there’s a poetic or quasi-mystical joy found in quantum mechanics, cell mitosis or astronomy, and that ‘believers’ must not only feel this way too, but that this feeling must be a satisfactory “contribution to human spiritual life, [and is] a serious part of our salvation”. It’s a myth that claims the awe of science stands, quite sufficiently, as a spiritual surrogate.
Secondly, Scientism is happy to claim that science has a monopoly on human knowledge. It presents the idea that science is unmatched in its contribution to our understanding of the world. Yet, Midgely believed this to be an “absurd overestimation”. She is not anti-science, and she quite willingly accepts the remarkable contributions science can, has, and will make to world knowledge. But that does not mean it has a monopoly on it.
Thirdly, Scientism comes with the assumption that it will lead us all to some progressive, Enlightenment utopia. It implicitly suggests that science, alone, is the steam engine of all advancement. Midgley observes, however, that: “There is a blind hope, a groundless hope, not justified by anything in any physical science, of an ever-expanding, ever-improving human future on earth”.
This last quotation reveals an important, concluding point. It might be we believe one or all of these myths, but Midgley’s point is that they’re “not justified by anything in any physical science”. They’re beliefs, and not facts. There’s nothing wrong in Scientism, in fact it’s as necessary as any framework we all have, and it’s part of the “plumbing” needed to approach the world.
But we should not conflate Scientism with science. The virtues of Scientism “are not inseparable from the practice of science and sometimes they have been quite remarkably absent from it”. We can be a physicist, whilst believing other forms of knowledge are important. We can be an evolutionary biologist, without having to view it with mystical awe.
It in no way “discredits science” to point out that Scientism is something distinct. And it’s entirely possible to do one without believing the other.