The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes

Scientism and the Temptations of Orthodoxy

“These champions would do well to heed the lessons of history and remember that for science to truly flourish there must always exist the intellectual freedom to question received wisdom.”

Ed Gantt | August 7, 2015
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A nebula is depicted floating in space, showing the convergence of science and religion as one contemplates the scope of the universe.

The philosopher of science Wilfrid Sellars, seemingly channeling the spirit of Protagoras, once famously quipped that “in the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not” (1997, p. 83). Echoing this sentiment a decade later, Oxford chemistry professor Peter Atkins (2006) asserted that “Science is the only path to understanding” (p. 124). It is difficult to conceive of a more succinct description of the essential conceit of contemporary scientism. The only thing perhaps more difficult to conceive is precisely what scientific finding, or collection of such findings, Atkins was relying on to establish the validity of his fundamentally philosophical assertion, or, for that matter, to secure the truth of the metaphysical worldview upon which his claim rests. After all, if science itself isn’t the source of the claim, then how could we ever know it to be true – science being, as it is claimed, the only path to such understanding?

For the champions of scientism, “only science is true and rational"

Despite the persistence of such vexing philosophical questions, a great many scientists, psychologists, and philosophers these days are content to make exactly these sorts of sweeping metaphysical pronouncements about empirical science, seemingly untroubled by their fundamentally and inescapably non-empirical nature. For the champions of scientism, “only science is true and rational; everything else is mere belief or opinion, and it is science which tells us how the world really is” (Stratton, 2000, p. 2). Thus, thinkers like Alexander Rosenberg (2011) are able to confidently assure us that “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; that science’s description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when ‘complete,’ what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today” (pp. 6-7; see also, Atkins, 2011; Harris, 2010; Hawking & Mlodinow, 2010).[1] And what is it exactly that science is telling us today and will continue to tell us tomorrow? Simply that “reality consists of nothing but a single all-embracing spatio-temporal system” (Armstrong, 1978, p. 261) in which there is no intentionality, no purpose or meaning or value. Everything that exists is physical or material in nature, relentlessly and mechanically governed by immutable and impersonal natural law.

It is important to note here, however, that when folks like Sellars, Atkins, Rosenberg, and others employ the term “science” they have a fairly narrow and rigidly specific meaning in mind. For such thinkers, science means – and can only legitimately mean – a particular method of empirical investigation which relies entirely on the quantification and sensory observation of physical entities and processes in order to provide naturalistic explanations of the world, explanations framed solely in terms of the material constituents and mechanical-deterministic relationships that necessarily give rise to such phenomena. Indeed, advocates of scientism reject, in principle, any view of science that would suggest that there might exist or could exist any phenomena beyond the scope of such naturalistic explanation. In other words, that which cannot be measured by empirical means or fully explained in naturalistic terms does not in reality exist at all.[2] Such a view is, advocates of scientism like Fodor (2002) assure us, “not just true but obviously and certainly true; it’s something that nobody in the late twentieth century who has a claim to an adequate education and a minimum of common sense should doubt” (p. 30). How exactly the validity of these sorts of claims has been established scientifically, however, is never really made clear. Nonetheless, once such conceits are granted, the real promise of science can begin to be realized. Therefore, it is to science alone that we must look for salvation, for the solution of all our problems and the answers to all our (answerable) questions. “The future belongs to science and to those who makes friends with science” (Nehru, 1976, p. 806).

It should come as no surprise that the assured, forward-looking, and hope-filled affirmations of these advocates for scientific naturalism have struck some observers as (ironically) reflecting more of an overzealous religious faith than genuinely scientific, or empirical humility (see, e.g., Bolger, 2012; Haught, 1995; Hutchinson, 2011; Principe, 2015). For example, philosopher John Searle (2004) has noted:

There is a sense in which [scientism] is the religion of our time, at least among most of the professional experts in the fields of philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, and other disciplines that study the mind. Like more traditional religions, it is accepted without question and it provides the framework within which other questions can be posed, addressed, and answered. (p. 48).

More recently, Hutchinson (2011) has argued that “in so far as scientism is an overarching world-view, it is fair to regard it as essentially a religious position” (p. 3). Noting that advocates of scientism would likely bristle at such a depiction – likely countering that scientism ought not be considered religious because it entails no belief in the supernatural and does not require any rituals or ceremonies – Hutchinson nonetheless points out there are in fact recognized religions that “don’t involve a belief in God, and religions that don’t require participation in ceremonies” (p. 3).

Strangely, it seems to increasingly be the case that the healthy attitude of critical self-reflection and skepticism, long noted hallmarks of the scientific mind, have been largely abandoned by the zealous advocates of scientism, at least insofar as taking a careful look at their own philosophical and methodological presuppositions is concerned. No longer recognizing any real need for penetrating or critical self-reflection about the possible limits of empiricist methodology, or the probable blindspots of reductive naturalism, those who endorse the scientistic worldview have become profoundly self-assured proselytizers of a truth (reductive naturalism) they believe to simply be no longer open to serious question or doubt. The painful (and obvious) irony in all of this is that those anointing themselves the champions of science and its ideals have, in their unyielding and unreflective commitment to the orthodoxies of reductive naturalism, clearly forgotten that science was born in opposition to just such unthinking commitment to orthodoxies. These champions would do well to heed the lessons of history and remember that for science to truly flourish there must always exist the intellectual freedom to question received wisdom, even when that received wisdom tells us that science – or, at least, one increasingly popular version of science – is beyond question.


Armstrong, D. (1978). Naturalism, materialism, and first philosophy. Philosophia, 8, 261-276.

Atkins, P. (2006). Atheism and science. In P. Clayton and Z. Simpson (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of religion and science (pp. 124-136). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Bolger, R. K. (2012). Kneeling at the altar of science: The mistaken path of contemporary religious scientism. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Fodor, J. (2002). Is science biologically possible? In J. Beilby (Ed.), Naturalism defeated? Essays on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism (pp. ??).

Harris, S. (2010). The moral landscape: How science can determine human values. New York, NY: Free Press.

Haught, J. F. (1995). Science and religion: From conflict to conversation. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Hawking, S., & Mlodinow, L. (2010). The grand design. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Hutchinson, I. H. (2011). Monopolizing knowledge: A scientist refutes religion-denying, reason-destroying scientisim. Belmont, MA: Fias Publishing.

Nehru, J. (1976). Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru (Vol. 8). New Delhi, India: Orient Longman.

Principe, L. M. (2011). Scientism and the religion of science. In R. N. Williams and D. N. Robinson (Eds.), Scientism: The new orthodoxy (pp. 41-62). New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

Rosenberg, A. (2011). The atheist’s guide to reality: Enjoying life without Illusions. New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company.

Searle, J. (2004). Mind: A brief introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Sellars, W. (1997). Empiricism and the philosophy of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stratton, S. B. (2000). Coherence, consonance, and conversation: The quest of theology, philosophy, and natural science for a unified world-view. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Thorndike, E. L. (1926). The measurement of intelligence. New York, NY: Teacher’s College, Columbia University Press.

[1] It is, perhaps, fortunate that Rosenberg did not pen those words in 1904, just prior to Einstein’s paradigm-shattering publications on relativity so thoroughly overturning the Newtonian worldview that constituted the scientific description of the world that held dominant sway during the previous two centuries.
[2] One is reminded of Thorndike’s (1926) famous assertion: “If anything exists, it exists in some amount” (p. 38).