concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011


Scientism is, broadly, the abuse of science to turn an investigative method into an ideology. In Middle Way philosophy, scientism is particularly criticised for its negative metaphysical assumptions, which support relativism, and the widespread assumption that relativism is the only alternative to absolutism. In the analysis in the thesis, scientism is seen as one of two types of nihilism (the other type being existentialism). Scientism is nihilistic because it denies moral objectivity by using the fact-value distinction to contrast the objectivity of values unfavourably with that of facts. Existentialist nihilism, on the other hand, produces nihilism by treating both facts and values as irredeemably subjective. This approach is also often called naturalism.

Scientism appeals to science as the basis of our information about facts, treating it as the source of information about 'laws of nature', rather than merely justified theories. By treating the subject matter of science ontologically rather than epistemologically, it encourages a focus on its results rather than its method, and distracts attention from the provisionality of all scientific results whatsoever - a provisionality which can be easily established by basic sceptical arguments. It is only this type of focus on the results of science that allows the fact-value distinction to be made, for if we look in an epistemological way at both facts and values, with sceptical arguments in mind, we find no absolute distinction, but just different kinds of claims which are justifiable to some degree through experience.

Scientism results in relativism because if its assumed that values are subjective in a way that facts are not, there can be no justification for values, even though there is assumed to be one for facts. If our values have no justification, they depend on our preferences as individuals or our conventional training in society, and are thus inevitably inconsistent, and deluded if they claim universal justifiability. In this way scientism leads to the dismissal of the idea of moral justification and to increasing rational incomprehension about the meaning and implications of moral demands. Without an understanding of objectivity in ethics, it is hardly surprising if our moral choices are confused and our moral homilies hypocritical and counter-productive.

Other metaphysical beliefs, such as materialism and determinism, may also result from scientism. These metaphysical positions are often used to support nihilism (or sometimes eternalism). Again, no scientific investigation either requires or justifies these positions. Science only needs us to develop provisional theories about the way the universe seems to us so far, not to make assertions about the way the whole universe operates in principle or what it is ultimately made from.

Scientists are not immune from scientism, but many in my experience are aware of the limitations of their findings. The chief culprits behind scientism are not scientists (confusing as the terminology may seem here) but philosophers, and especially analytic philosophers. 'Naturalism' and the conventionality of ethics are basic assumptions in the vast majority of philosophical theory produced by analytic philosophers. In this respect, in my view, they have failed in their foremost duty as philosophers - to examine their basic assumptions critically.

Links to further discussion

Features of nihilism (from thesis)

Hume (from thesis)

Analytic philosophy (from thesis)


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