I created and regularly teach the upper-division course on “Science Fiction in Literature and Film” at SUNY Oswego, under the aegis of the English Department. My approach to the genre is that, so to speak, everything one thinks he knows about it is wrong, beginning with the supposition that SF functions as the propaganda arm of established science. On the contrary, the most intellectually developed SF of the twentieth century seems to me to be quite critical of the scientific establishment. Thus, far from being generically “propaganda for science,” SF is one of the prime loci of the critique of scientism. I wrote the following paragraphs for the students in my class, in an attempt to explain the term scientism and to suggest why the authors whom we study in the course address scientism with a cocked eye.
The essence of scientism – which, as the “–ism” in its name suggests, is an ideology – lies in a grand narrative. That narrative presents an account of how the present moment of modernity, defined in a certain prejudicial way, came to be. According to that narrative, a conflict has always existed between reason on the one hand and superstition on the other. Reason investigates nature methodically under the canons of logic and through the rigors of experimental procedure; reason subordinates itself to purely positive criteria and defines reality according to a naturalistic hypothesis (that is, there is nothing that is not nature). Superstition, according to the scientistic narrative, acts through fear (of natural phenomena, of the certainty of death) to preserve archaic (that is, pre-scientific) social arrangements and world-explanations. The scientistic narrative would assimilate religion and revelation, and even a highly developed theology, under the single term superstition. Such an assimilation already looks quite suspect merely as a rhetorical gesture, as the distance between, say, a tribal taboo and Aristotelian ethics is too great to permit their conflation under a single category – and never mind that the category is markedly pejorative. According to the scientistic narrative, however, in the Greek awakening, reason began to debate with and to assert itself against superstition. This debate, often fierce, went on, with gaps, for two thousand years. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until a cumulus of factual discovery, sorted out and codified in the Eighteenth Century, provided overwhelming evidence for the validity of the naturalistic theory of existence that superstition found itself at last out-debated. At that point, superstition could no longer effectively contradict the cold, hard hypotheses of the scientists; all that superstition could do was gainsay. Naturalism and science had won out, but a troubling dénouement followed.
In alliance with the ancien régime – so says scientistic narrative – superstition reorganized itself in defeat and tried to suppress science, as in the clerical structures against Galileo or, centuries later, in the legal penalties stemming from the Scopes Trial over the teaching of evolution in the American South in the early 1920s. While in these instances, superstition only made itself look foolish, and positive reason again prevailed, superstition nevertheless demonstrated an alarming regenerative capacity. But Science could draw on reserves of fortitude to match those of superstition. Thus gradually in the Twentieth Century, the scientific view took hold and extended its purview, aided by a “progressive” politics, which, once in power, actively and justifiably validated and propagated the positive or naturalistic – what I am here calling the scientistic – view.
Note that scientism never sees itself as an ism, but as a truth, dissent from which is aprioristically irrational.
Like any ideology, scientism always perceives itself as threatened by its enemy, “superstition.” It can never rest on its laurels but always sees devils popping up in the garden of its utopia. Exponents of the scientistic view in the first decade of the Twenty-First Century are, as they must inevitably be, quite as nervous as ever over the prospect that non-scientistic views will gain an audience and prevail over science itself. Indeed, some exponents of the scientistic view declare that this insurgency has lately actually constituted itself as a threat to science – and the threat, in their view, is gaining ground. The alarmists among the devotees of the scientistic worldview point to any public discussion of “Intelligent Design” or any criticism of standard Darwinian evolutionary theory as representing an intolerable offense by the forces of untruth against truth. Thus according to the scientistic narrative, the present moment, because it includes such developments, would represent an alarming lapse from a state-of-affairs in which naturalism predominates and has decisively suppressed its rival. Dissent from scientistic orthodoxy would be no less than the recrudescence of a formerly nearly suppressed view, that of superstition, which the same narrative reflexively links to a putatively obnoxious and benighted past before the salvific light of science shown into the pit of intellectual darkness. Again, according to the scientistic worldview, certain positions have an automatic and unquestionable status: for example, “religion [qua superstition] is the cause of wars” or “any non-scientific perspective must by definition be intolerant and oppressive.”
Perhaps more importantly, scientistic narrative attributes to its own perspective a uniquely liberating or redeeming power, just as it attributes to (what it calls) superstition an enslaving power; indeed, the scientistic narrative claims for science the Promethean role of a dispeller of woes and a teacher of humanity. In the view of scientistic narrative, the “enlightened man,” conforming his thought to positive criteria exclusively, carries on the work of a saint whereas his fideistic opponent dedicates himself perversely to obscurantism and deviltry.
Scientistic narrative is always implicitly utopian, holding out the prospect of humanity’s complete control over nature and over itself, through the application of reason, narrowly defined, as a soon-to-be-realized goal inevitable if only the naturalistic hypothesis becomes a universal basis of thought.
The critique of scientism, on the other hand, whether implicitly in fiction or explicitly in philosophical discourse, points out the limits of science. It remarks that science has not and probably cannot produce moral order; the critique of scientism points out that the moral order, indeed, has historically had a religious and revelatory, not a logical or empirical, pedigree. Moses, for example, did not deduce the injustice of the Hebrew bondage in Egypt by a series of propositions, nor did he work it out inductively by experiment. He simply saw an Egyptian soldier beating a Hebrew laborer and intuited the absolute intolerability of it; and then later the Being whom Moses claimed to be God (Yahweh) affirmed and guaranteed this same moral intuition.
The moral insight remains valid even should some procedure “prove” that Yahweh does not “really” exist. The non-existence of the deity does not invalidate moral insights attributed to the deity, nor does it explain how one might arrive at them by the “positive” method. Similarly, Jesus was not a logician – he spoke in parables and he claimed to articulate for a divinely ordained morality. Jesus’ declaration that people should love one another has no logical or empirical status and yet, along with Mosaic revelation, it has yielded much of what is decent in the Western world.
The critique of scientism points out that to exclude revelation simply because it cannot be reduced to something rational is to exclude the probable source of decency in the community. The term superstition has a shifty function in scientistic narrative considered as rhetoric. By collapsing terms like intuition and revelation into the term superstition, the subject of scientistic narrative avoids having to deal with either a gross distinction or any associated subtleties. History provides a laboratory for some scientistic assertions – for example, the assertion that the naturalistic hypothesis is liberating. Political regimes that have acted on the scientistic recommendation to banish “superstition” (that is, religion), as the critique of scientism would also point out, have not been conspicuously decent. Far from it: They have been conspicuously homicidal – like the French révolutionnaires of 1789 and the Marxist and National-Socialist regimes of the mid-Twentieth Century.
The critique of scientism has an epistemological as well as a moral component. The critique of scientism would point out that some, at least, of our knowledge of nature derives neither from deduction nor induction but rather from something like intuition or inspired guesswork. See for example, Kepler’s intuition of the ellipse as the true shape of the planetary orbits. It is also the case that in reifying itself and endowing its own current view with the character of orthodoxy, scientism is betraying the one of the most brilliant features of science, which it claims to represent – namely science’s commitment to tentativity. The historical record of science is, after all, a record of constant disproof and re-hypothesis. If therefore much of the “science” of the Seventeenth Century looked today inadequate (for example, the “Phlogiston” theory of combustion), then it would seem likely that positions passionately advanced today might have a similar inadequate appearance three hundred years from now.
Scientism is therefore a type of complacency, although it would be more accurate to say that it is a type of aggressive, rigid complacency. The critique of scientism therefore qualifies also as a careful refutation of complacency.