Scientism and other monsters under your bed

There seem to be certain ideas that most polite intellectuals are quick to shy away from. Fundamentalist religion is one – many believe in God among their college-educated peers they are often quick to point out that they don’t believe it THAT God, the one with beard who does all the smiting. Likewise, atheism is out of the question. Sure, some might say, God is unlikely, but we can’t know, can we? They will call themselves something else – agnostics or skeptics perhaps, but certainly not the Christopher Hitchens sort of raving atheist.

Scientism seems to rank among this catalog of extremes which most thoughtful people hope to avoid. Scientism can broadly be characterized as the belief that science can explain everything, that faith, love and beauty are explainable scientific phenomena and, perhaps more importantly, that anything that cannot in principle be explained by science does not exist.If it is beyond the bounds of examination, it is beyond the bounds of reality. Such a stance, it may not be surprising to hear, is extremely unpopular with those involved particularly in the humanities. Science is well and good, but it’s not likely to tell me why Jane Austen is a brilliant writer, or how I can become the next Picasso.

In a recent article in the New Republic, Stephen Pinker attempts to reclaim scientism as a stance worth holding. Science can and should shed light on everything, Pinker argues, and even the poets and painters of the world should embrace it.

Shelley famously complained that science was trying to “unweave the rainbow” and destroy man’s sense of beauty and wonder. Can science and art be reconciled. Can we look to science for answers about love and beauty without abandoning our romantic conceptions of those vital aspects of human experience?


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