Friday, 6 April 2012

New Atheism and Scientism

A recent phenomenon affects two cultures that I belong to, as an atheist and a physicist, the increasing "Scientism" amongst New Atheists (and others) is disheartening.

For a long time uncertainty has been creeping into our cultural consciousness, and reacting against this is the drive to place science in a unique position. Whereas previously attempts had been made to prioritize the empirical (in historical movements analogous to New Atheism), modern atheists tend to priotize science itself.

This means they hold the opinions and methods of scientists as the key to all knowledge.

This is a problem for a couple of reasons:

  • Science does not encompass all of reality. Science takes the world that we encounter: a world of doors, hammers, drinks and turns it into very thin models: from wood, iron, H20 to electrons and photons.

    By the time we get to "fundamental" physics almost nothing of the world is left in the model.
  • Science is a human activity and therefore subject to cultural dispositions, undue authorities, excluding of dissenters etc.

    All the failures of human beings contribute to systematic problems with the reliability of science. This can be seen acutely in the pharmaceutical industry (where the peer review process, individual papers and meta-reviews are often compromised) - though it affects all of science.

Science has a nearly unique position in determining the structure and character of society, and now even sanctioning what kind of knowledge is legitimate.

When a process  does not produce all knowledge democratically, but produces some which is localized in an elite, you have significant opportunities for systematic abuse and oversight. The often blind investment in  this process, lacking critical reflection of its flaws, is quite dangerous and at least naive.

A Brief History

Before the 19th Century knowledge was pluralistic with religious, scientific, philosophical and reflective sources, however throughout the 1800s there was a Great Epistemological Shift to see everything as being grounded in the material and scientific (from Marx's attempt to cast his ideas as Scientific, to the new spiritualism which evidenced its tenants in seances and ghosts: in physical manifestations).

The early part of the 20th Century inherited this shift via logical positivism, which whilst quite sophisticated in its formulation, was in practice a rhetorical device on campuses to dismiss anything non-empirical. Many of the founders of this movement were looking for a way to be certain about the elimination of god and thus it is from this tradition modern atheists inherit their fervour (via Russell primarily).

In opposition to this continental philosophy began to cohere as something different in kind. It reached back before the lurch to the "far-empirical" to redress the significant oversights of the new analytic philosophy, which disregarded questions of existence, leaving them to science. Thus continental ontologies have variously gone back to Hume through Kant to Heidegger via Husserl in the construction of a new method: phenomenology.

A Scientific Reality

The problem with the inheritance of the New Atheists is the unsophisticated reduction of positivism, which is not to reduce everything to the empirical but to the scientificwith an emphasis on physics. The difference between empirical and scientific is radical: science is a human endeavour not an ontological category. Therefore modern atheists (and many others) have fused the 19th Century inversion of authority with a bizarre "social positivism" to render reality to be whatever science, as a human activity, can determine.

It is this that gives pertinence to post-modern and pragmatist critiques of science (from Kuhn to Foucault). The debate in philosophies of science and in the minds of some atheists is not now ontological, but rather  located in the social epistemology of science: questions over the character of reality are only those which appear in the books and publications of scientists.

Reality itself hangs on whether science, as a human process, is converging on the truth and whether scientists themselves are capable of objectively delivering the truth.

This is all very bizarre to me.

Science is a Reduction

Physics, and science in general, is in the business of reducing reality to a set of highly simplified models which involve merely the motion of substances. In other-words they take a door and reduce it to some movement of particles, atoms, electrons, photons, etc. without reference to it being a door, or what the world is like when I first encounter it, or my relation to it etc.

The world, before we apply the scientific reduction, is incredibly rich. It involves desires, relations, the self, etc. All of this cannot be captured by science because its methodology is to abstract from this basic beginning. You cannot explain The World because explanation is a process of abstraction and external reference: and there is nothing outside the world to refer to in our explanation of it.

Therefore to understand the basic charater of the world, before the scientific reduction, we can only describe it carefully and this is phenomenology. Science is therefore deliberately reductionist and does not exhaust ontology: it is very partial description of the world.

Science is Human

This scientism is bizarre for a second reason, highlighted in "climate gate". If we invest our access to knowledge in a group of human beings, socially knowledge becomes contingent on who those people are and what they do. The "what they do" part is the subject of the various "philosophies of" in the analytic school and people like Foucault in the contiental.

Suppose that, say, the philosophy of physics can come up with some coherent picture of what scientific methodology is and why it, when iteratively applied, produces truth or "knowledge of increasing resolution". They havent, and for many reasons, cannot. But suppose they have.

Then we have to face genaological criquites, which seek to place scientists and their activities within a social and historical context. Do we have any way of, or are we indeed motivated to, question the medical doctor when he labels someone insane and send them to a clinic. Could the activity of doctors in this area be born of a prejudice towards a class or kind of people which are socially isolated by cultural convention rather than by "empirical certaintiy" - to waht extent have medical doctors rationalized their belief with appeals to science?

Apply these questions now in the area of climate change. To what extent does the cultural belief of our guilt in the halls of academia affect the process of rationalization that climate scientitst undergo? Is there a competing discourse within climate science that challenges cultural beliefs? I am not a denialist, but nor do I naively believe that every scientist researching the climate behaves like a computer when collecting evidence and writing research proposals.

The current areas of interest in science are not "natural", there are human desires to explore one area rather than another. So, what is being left out? In what areas of science are all the swans white?

Who is subjugated in scientific discourse and why? Who is periferalized? Is it just the pseudo-quacks like homoeopaths, or is rather people who do not buy into the prevaling "consensus" of which homepaths are a part - but so too are many others (Einstein was an Other at one point, as many greats have been).

How is scientific consensus reached? When it has been wrong (and it has many times, if we call what we believe now, "right"), why was it wrong? Are the problems only philsophical, or are they born of some sociological or historical trend?

Liberated by a Tyranny 

The naiveity of new atheism is to believe we're in an age liberated from metaphysics and epistemology. The Epistemology is that which we can discern from the activity of science, and that is also our Ontology.

It is ironically quite post-modern, to place knowledge at the level of human activity. But whereas postmodernism's drive is often one of liberating and democratizing knowledge (for good or ill), the new scientistim is an authoriatiran power-grab. A safe-heaven base camp in a world of New Agers, Homeopaths and Evangelicals. The cost however is a very narrow view of the world, amounting to a radical scepticism towards anything that cannot be modelled in whatever substances and forces physicists have drawn up and a mirrored optimism: the infallibility of scientists.

(My Position)

I am not a materialist, realist or metaphysical naturalist; but I am an atheist and a methodological naturalist.
My ontological position is somewhere between idealism and heideggerian ontology, a kind of realism and I believe there is a general incompatibility between realism and the scientific method which is the production of models that correspond to the world as experienced.


  1. Thank you for the post.

    First, a specific note:
    You wrote, "Physics, and science in general, is in the business of reducing reality to a set of highly simplified models which involve merely the motion of substances. In other-words they take a door and reduce it to some movement of particles, atoms, electrons, photons, etc. without reference to it being a door, or what the world is like when I first encounter it, or my relation to it etc."
    True enough, but as the physics gets more advanced, the model takes into account more variables, such as friction, gravity, air composition, etc. As our knowledge increases, we can put more of these variables into the equation. While we’re certainly not there yet, there is no reason to assume that we cannot account for all relevant variables eventually—including quantum randomness. Thus, the ‘reductionism’ to which you refer is not a product of science, but our still-limited understanding of our world. I also reject the rest of the section on Reductionism.

    Second, I agree with you that the process of science is very human. It involves human judgment, both individual and collective, imperfect and influential (in a Heisenberg way) observation, institutions (in a Foucault sense), and human-created processes, biases, and values. Science will advance and likely some of what is considered the Standard Model will be changed in some way over the next few decades. That doesn’t mean science isn’t the best system for gaining knowledge our species has produced thus far, but assuming our current knowledge is perfect or complete would indeed be foolish.

    However I must note that I am a physicalist (generally as described:

  2. "True enough, but as the physics gets more advanced, the model takes into account more variables"

    My problem isnt that science is "scientifically incomplete" it is the kind of variables it uses. It will never take in my "desire to open a door". There are vast categories of existences which are disregarded in scientific modelling.

    "Tt doesn’t mean science isn’t the best system for gaining knowledge our species has produced thus far"

    It is the best system for a certain kind of knowledge, but that doesnt exhaust all knowwledge: this is my point.

    I am not arguing against the importance or *Utility* of science (which I agree with very strongly).