New Atheism

A Little Essay on Scientism (“Existentialism Fun Time”)

Cover art for Eric Frank Russel's Sentinels from Space, by Vincent Di Fate.

Cover art for Eric Frank Russel’s Sentinels from Space, by Vincent Di Fate. (1954.) (From 70s Sci-Fi Art.)

Note: Some of my ideas, as they’ve been framed here, have changed recently. (Typically, they’re in some kind of transition, anyway!) Otherwise, I think that they are perhaps better presented through the dialogue (between myself and Los, a fellow blogger) in the comments section of this post. I invite readers to view that dialogue and add their own input, should they like.

(November 29, 2015.)

This was written circa 2013, as an essay presented during a weekly discussion in one of my previous philosophy classes.

If you take issue with any of the views presented herein, feel free to bitch, debate, or spam the comment section below.

As it is:


Scientism, thus defined: “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities).” Effectively, this is the idea that all knowledge and truth is subject to, and only confirmed by, the scientific method, to the exclusion of all other methods. It is a position that was born from the scientific philosophy of positivism (the notion that all useful knowledge comes from logical, mathematical, and directly observable means) as well as materialism (the idea that all that exists are matter and energy and the forces within their domain, i.e. material), and the iron grasp of the analytic philosophies that pervaded 20th-century thought, and pontificates that science is and forever will be the ultimate arbiter of truth in the world. Science, it is claimed, is falsifiable, because it progresses through rigorous self-criticism, and yet this distinction among the various disciplines actually makes it unfalsifiable, basically speaking.

In 2010, physicist Stephen Hawking wrote the following in his book The Grand Design: “Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead… Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.”

Similarly, the physicist Lawrence Krauss more recently criticized philosophical investigations into the nature of being and non-being, or metaphysics, more broadly, in the wake of the publication of his book A Universe From Nothing, which provides theories and evidence that matter spontaneously creates itself from quantum fluctuations and gravitational forces. In review of his book, philosophers like David Albert note that the laws of nature and quantum strings still constitute “somethingness,” in reply to which Krauss claims that there is a difference between the “nothingness of philosophy” and the “nothingness of reality.”

Krauss’s scathing dismissal of metaphysics drew some scorn from contemporary philosophers, and in reply Krauss half-apologized, snidely stating, “So, to those philosophers I may have unjustly offended by seemingly blanket statements about the field, I apologize. I value your intelligent conversation and the insights of anyone who thinks carefully about our universe and who is willing to guide their thinking based on the evidence of reality. To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this: Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.”

Of course, Krauss’s ideas rely on a materialist worldview, as well as an evidentialist one, materialism and evidentialism both being philosophies, grounded in historical dialogue. In the realm of modern scientism, peddled by the so-called New Atheists (most famously Richard Dawkins), there is no room for a reality outside of the objective.

Now, on that note, I want nothing more than to hark back to Kierkegaard’s views on the two “insanities,” one of which is objective madness: being so utterly enamored with and taken over by the objective world that subjectivity no longer matters. Subjectivity dies under the purview of scientism, as do mentalism, idealism, existentialism, and various other philosophies which assert the existence of subjective realities that can exist alongside objectivity. The death of subjectivity is a terrifying concept. It is not the business of science to become so imperialistic as to deny all other forms of knowledge and understanding as “pseudo-science” or flat-out wrong. Science is a beautiful tool that, alongside philosophical domains such as ethics, aesthetics and, yes, even metaphysics, helps to build upon humanity’s heritage of coming to terms with and understanding the world. If we are to leave it to science to determine what is ethically right or wrong (as Dawkins suggests, at least to a degree) via biology, neuroscience, etc., are we really doing morality a favor? How can science so finely tune our ideas as to tell us what is right and wrong in every sense or context? Or, more broadly, how can science truly distinguish being from non-being, or categorical ontologies? Take those presented by Sartre, who made a distinction between different types of “being,” describing the nature of being for objects and subjects as fundamentally different. For scientism, since there is no empirical evidence for these states in a purely objective world, Sartre is simply wrong. He doesn’t “keep up with science,” as Hawking would proudly assert.

How much of that notion is true? Is it a lack of scientific rigor that puts philosophy under the heels of scientism? Or, rather, is it a difference in description? A language game, that is. Scientism’s puerile dismissal of anything remotely “abstract” does an injustice to science itself!

Science is wonderful, but scientism is arrogant and perhaps even dangerous. (Read: technocracy.) Both science and philosophy have long engaged in dialectic and debate, and to simply sweep one or all disciplines from the playing field in order to usher in the dominance of one denies the real multitude of knowledge and truths that we have as a species.