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Scientism and methodological naturalism

Last updated on 10 Sep 2012

So I’ve been busy with work, and finding a flat and preparing to move. Larry’s been busy tearing strips off those who argue that the ENCODE data shows the genome is mostly functional (only if you think that doing anything happens to be functional). But I hadn’t forgotten his latest claim that methodological naturalism is an undue restriction on science, nor his tweets that “scientism” is just an insult. I owe him a reply.

Let’s begin with the term “scientism”. I take it to be a descriptive term, roughly meaning someone who thinks that all conceptual legitimacy must derive from science. It is usually pejorative. So is “conservatism” when used by those who think it is a false political ideology. However, I use that term to denote a number of political attitudes and ideas (with which, as it happens, I mostly disagree); I don’t mean to use it as an insult; nor do I with “scientism” or any other philosophical position.

Yes, you read that rightly – scientism is a philosophical position. It is better given its historical name: positivism. In the early 19th century August Comte wanted to replace traditional theistic religions with a secular religion, because he thought (as many still do) that religions made for better communities. So he called the kind of scientific religion he wanted positivism, because it was a kind of positive knowledge. He claimed to have discovered a “great fundamental law” of human knowledge, that it passes through three stages:

The law is this :—that each of our leading conceptions—each branch of our knowledge-passes successively through three different theoretical condititions: the Theological, or fictitious; the Metaphysical, or abstract; and the Scientific, or positive. In other words, the human mind, by its nature, employs in its progress three methods of philosophizing, the character of which is essentially different, and even radically opposed: viz., the theological method, the metaphysical, and the positive. [Harriet Martineau’s 1868 translation.]

What makes something positive knowledge?

In the final, the positive state, the mind has given over the vain search after Absolute notions, the origin and destination of the universe, and the causes of phenomena, and applies itself to the study of their laws—that is, their invariable relations of succession and resemblance. Reasoning and observation, duly combined, are the means of this knowledge. What is now understood when we speak of an explanation of facts is simply the establishment of a connection between single phenomena and some general facts, the number of which continually diminishes with the progress of science.

In short, science replaces theology and philosophy, and nothing that is not reasoning and observation is knowledge. This is exactly what Larry and those who attack philosophy think. In the early 20th century, a version of this known as logical positivism was the ruling philosophical view among Anglophones; replaced only when it was shown by philosophical argument that it was self-defeating. Positivists thought that metaphysical claims – any claim not based on observation and reasoning – were literally meaningless nonsense. They may as well have been noises. The claim that “metaphysical claims are nonsense” (let’s call that sentence M), however, has not been observed, nor is it a reasoned inference from any observations (you cannot observe metaphysical claims). So the core claim of positivism, M, is nonsense, by their own lights. [In philosophy this is called a tu quoque, or “you too”, argument.]

There are various versions of this but they all have one thing in common: whatever M is in a positivist perspective is not itself positive knowledge. It’s like the famous passage in Hume’s Enquiry:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. [Enquiry Sect XII, Part II, Para 132]

And yet Hume’s own work contains neither mathematics nor experimental reasoning. He must have been aware of the irony. The positivist/scientistic tradition seems oblivious to the irony, however.

Now I am not saying that if somebody thinks that science is the best way to gather knowledge they are a positivist. I think that, for example, and I am no positivist. Nor is it the claim that all knowledge is like science, which I also think. Instead it is this: the view that one can rule out any nonscientific claim out of court. You do not even need to consider it. If it is nonscientific, it is nonsense. Philosophy, as I understand it and define it, is nonscientific (that is, it is not done the way science is done; it is not necessarily in contradiction to science, although much of it can be). It is therefore nonsense, to be replaced by science. This is how recent scientists have treated philosophy –

Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge. [The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking, and Leonard Mlodinow, page 5]

The physicist philosophers who I know would be surprised to find that (i) they had not kept up with modern physics, despite their many publications on it, and (ii) that they ever held the torch of discovery, or any philosophers in the modern era. But let’s leave this silliness to one side and consider what it indicates about this scientism: it is profoundly positivistic. It presumes something like the claim that only science matters when considering issues. Science most certainly matters. But is it all that matters? Asking that very question is not a scientific question. QED.

Now let’s consider methodological naturalism.

The term has been around for a long while; if you have the notion of naturalism, it’s no great stretch to add adjectives like “methodological”, but in the sense used here it is fairly recent. The project of naturalising epistemology, which is to say to make the gathering of knowledge a purely natural (biological?) process rather than a Cartesian special outcome of logic and observation, hit its stride in the latter half of the century, especially as Quine baptised it in a chapter so entitled.

But the current use– that science is restricted to observing, explaining and describing only natural things and events – is fairly recent. It took off largely from 1990, when Philip E. Johnson, the lawyer who promoted intelligent design, published his book Darwin on Trial. Johnson wanted to contrast methodological naturalism to metaphysical naturalism, and argued that science is committed to neither. Now there was a perfectly good series of terms for the latter: materialism until the 20th century, and physicalism during it (not everything in physics is material, as most educated school kids could tell you these days. Most stuff is energy or fields). And “methodological naturalism” as Johnson and those who took it up meant it also had a name: scientific method.

I’ve often noted that there is no such single thing as “scientific method”, a view that has been a consensus in philosophy of science since at least the mid 70s when Feyerabend forcefully put that case (but which had been put before him, of course; all good ideas have been put before). But there are several things that science does that are worthy of the name: the use of observational evidence, the use of abductive and inductive reasoning to generalise and explain, and the use of deductive reasoning to winkle out the implications of the foregoing. Terms like “theory construction”, “disciplinary matrix” and “research program” are fancier ways to say just this, and what Larry rightly notes as many do, this is what we do when we do something else that is much wider than science and which also has a pre-existing name: learning. Scientists learn just like the rest of us do, from experience, only they are much more careful about doing it, and try not to mix in their own expectations, and they report in often excruciating detail to others so that the rest of us don’t have to learn the way they did. It works, bitches. But what scientists do is what anyone does when they learn by experience, in spades.

Calling it “methodological naturalism” is like calling driving “vehicular autonomic control”; it adds nothing but the illusion there is something strange going on. Science is not constrained by methodological naturalism. Science just is methodological naturalism. Anything scientists can observe reliably and intersubjectively, and which behaves in a regular enough fashion, is investigable. Anything that can’t be or doesn’t, isn’t. So if God or art or poetry can be investigated that way – if we can learn about it by experience – then science can investigate it.

The problem is not that science is somehow forbidden to do this. The problem is that moral and theological questions often (not always) are not investigable by their nature. Either there’s nothing to observe (like moral prescriptions or obligations), or they fail to behave in a regular fashion (a reason why I doubt there will ever be a true science of economics). Those parts of theology and ethics that can be investigated scientifically, should be (but again, there’s a principle that cannot be!). We can disprove many claims of non-natural beliefs. Religions that think the world is 6000 years old or extends only to the sphere of Saturn, or moral systems (like libertarianism) that predict empirical outcomes that are contrary-to-fact are falsified when investigated (by science or just by someone who is learning less formally). But there remains a residual and indefinitely large number of beliefs that are, as I have previously called them, “empirically inoculated”. The facts do not fix all the solutions.

So when a philosopher considers a case like Sober’s target, whether a god could intervene in evolution without leaving an empirical trace, this is not to support theism but to, as I said, stress test ideas. If it turns out that the concept is neither logically nor empirically contradictory, then you may not like the idea, but you cannot say with justification that science disproves it.

The argument is not all about disproof, though. Larry and others (like Victor Stenger) argue that science gives us no reason to think these ideas are true. This is right. Science gives no reason to think that there is a God, contrary to the asseverations of many theologically inclined science writers and popular philosophers. However, neither does science give us any reason to think that only what science gives us reason to think should be thought. These are outside methodological naturalism and enter into the vast, crafty and occasionally surreal halls and dungeons of philosophy. You don’t need to enter those places of the mind. But I don’t see how you are justified in attacking those who do, so long as they don’t deny fact or logic.

I’ll end this with a quote from Cicero that I saw on Twitter, from Tim Dean:

“If the man lives who would belittle the study of philosophy, I quite fail to see what in the world he would see fit to praise.”

I don’t know if it is truly his saying, but I have to say I think it right.


  1. If the conservatives were harking back to the heydays of positivism, well, I’d be a more relaxed citizen.

  2. Well it is not a restriction on science if you *define* methodological naturalism as a synonym for science (and in turn define science broadly as “anything that works”). But for those who define MN as involving a specific mythical “scientific method” then it does become a restriction to say that science *is* MN.

    Similarly, if science is appropriately defined, and if “scientism” is defined as the claim that science is the only way of making testable predictions, then that version of scientism is a tautology. But that version of scientism does not preclude considering propositions (such as moral and aesthetic value judgements) whose truth cannot be unambiguously tested.

    The reason I despise the word “scientism” is because I see it as having been introduced precisely to confound this last issue and to create the idea that anyone who identifies as a scientist is to be suspected (by virtue of the way the word is constructed) of believing in a scientism which denies the importance of anything which cannot be empirically tested.

    • Hi, John!

      I don’t think that Hume would have accepted the criticism that his “Hume’s own work contains neither mathematics nor experimental reasoning.” He describes his Treatise on Human Nature as an “attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects.” Hume regarded his theory of human nature — a piece of psychology and anthropology — as an empirical theory. Inspired by Newton, he explains that he is looking for “the secret springs and principles, by which the human mind is actuated in its operations.” He tries to specify the mechanisms which allow us to learn, have moral attitudes, and so on by how structures of the mind, given “by the original hand of Nature” interact with experience.

      It is true that the Enquiry and the Treatise don’t have experiments detailed in them. But, this is because Hume’s speculations were at the boundaries or even beyond what could be treated at the time. Today, much more is known about learning and cognition, and it turns out, as a matter of fact, that the mechanisms that Hume described do not exist. But, that doesn’t mean that Hume would have recommended burning the Enquiry or Treatise!

  3. “Scientists learn just like the rest of us do, from experience, only they are much more careful about doing it, and try not to mix in their own expectations, and they report in often excruciating detail to others so that the rest of us don’t have to learn the way they did.”

    That’s the way it’s supposed to work, it frequently doesn’t. Scientists frequently fudge in order to impose certain outcomes, financial interest is responsible for a large percentage of the “science” that reassures us that the activities of the extraction industries are innocuous, that drugs are beneficial and that “side effects” are far less dangerous than they are. I am becoming ever more convinced that ideological atheism has quite a bit more of an effect within what gets published by scientists (is that Hawking Mlodinow book NOT supposed to be science?). I’m becoming convinced that the ideological desire to use Darwin against religion accounts for a large part of what scientists see, using natural selection to create a simulation of evidence where there is no evidence, and using the artificial evidence as, among other things, artificial confirmation of natural selection. Not to mention that natural selection means quite different things within the literature of science over the period the term has been used.
    And professional interest, class, racial and gender bias and many other things color science, in total, as much as they do the law, history, literature and any other human thinking. The filters keeping that out aren’t nearly as reliable as they’re purported to be. Except for religion. Religion is the least dangerous to science of the possible sources of extraneous pollution.

    “But what scientists do is what anyone does when they learn by experience, in spades.”

    Presenting the simple idea that science is an intentional invention of human beings, using a combination of intellectual acts to isolate observations and analyses in order to be able to say more reliable things about the physical universe seems to be an entirely novel and disturbing concept to the emotionally scientistic part of the population. They don’t want science to be “just another human construct” they want it to have some kind of ideal, disembodied existence. Which is rather sadly hilarious among atheists. In his great book, Computer Power and Human Reason Joseph Weizenbaum talks about how, at bottom, mathematical and scientific knowledge is a matter of persuasion and not automatically absorbed proof. In other words, science is constructed out of entirely human thinking and is intrinsically tied up with that reality. It can’t escape that fact to have some kind of independent existence, it resides in human minds, individually and collectively.

    Oddly, the greatest champions of science, in their own minds, seem to be the least objective about what science is and what it can and can’t do. And, given the time taken up with the exigencies of mastering and working in their tiny little part of science, they are often profoundly ignorant of any other part of human thought. Yet they believe their narrow focus on one thing gives them universal perceptive powers and a right to have their pronouncements outside of their competence accepted by their narrow authority.

    Science works when it works, frequently, it doesn’t work like it’s supposed to. It never works the way that the true believers of scientism say it does.

    • I could add that among the most fanatical of those seeing the entire universe through Darwinist lenses is Daniel Dennett, one philosopher who has been rescued from the general extinction of philosophy by the scientistic triumphalists. And what he says on that count is really bad thinking. Which might be evidence to support what I said.

  4. Sam Waterburry Sam Waterburry

    This is ONLY offensive to Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Satanists, the hearing impaired, the hearing unimpaired and Hindon’ts BUT it’s 100% natural

  5. Ian H Spedding Ian H Spedding

    Anything scientists can observe reliably and intersubjectively, and which behaves in a regular enough fashion, is investigable. Anything that can’t be or doesn’t, isn’t. So if God or art or poetry can be investigated that way – if we can learn about it by experience – then science can investigate it.

    Exactly! Well said that man!

    As for the philosophy-bashing, wasn’t it the scientists own favorite philosopher, the one who is usually exempted from criticism because they rely on him for philosophical justification, who wrote:

    Bold ideas, unjustified anticipations, and speculative thought, are our only means for interpreting nature: our only organon, our only instrument, for grasping her.

  6. Thanks, John.

    This (your post) is the kind of analysis that keeps me coming back to your blog.

    Until recently, I had mainly seen “scientism” used as a pejorative term. But, increasingly, I see it used as a positive. And you are right, that when used in a positive sense it does appear to be about the same as positivism. Somehow, I never found positivism satisfying. It always seemed to me that positivism could not even account for all of science.

    Anything scientists can observe reliably and intersubjectively, and which behaves in a regular enough fashion, is investigable. Anything that can’t be or doesn’t, isn’t.

    Yes, quite right. So the creationist criticism, that science is biased because it is committed to MN, is just wrong.

    Science is not constrained by methodological naturalism. Science just is methodological naturalism.

    That’s an excellent way of putting it.

  7. I don’t use “scientism” as a synonym of “positivism.” I use scientism to refer to a cultural stance or attitude that is more asserted than argued for, an ideology or a badge of membership in a group rather than a philosophy properly speaking. People used to talk about “vulgar Marxism,” which was the pissed off guy on the barstool’s version of Marx. I guess I think of scientism as, at best, the barstool version of positivism.

  8. Jeb Jeb

    ” ‘Cheshire Puss,’ she [Alice] began. . . ‘would you please tell me which way I ought to go from here?’

    ” ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.’ “

  9. Jeb Jeb

    p.s. a thanks from me as well. Helps resolve a few questions I chanced across by accident recently and makes the subject understandable.

  10. David Duffy David Duffy

    “…whether a god could intervene in evolution without leaving an empirical trace, this is not to support theism but to, as I said, stress test ideas”

    Except that, as you have pithily summarized it here, it is as much a stress test as Last Tuesday-ism. So I can sympathize with people being a bit grumpy at Sober.

    • Last Tuesdayism does stress test ideas: In philosophy it has many incarnations, my favorite being Swampman. And even simple argument test claims one way or another.

  11. “And if the man lives who would belittle the study of philosophy, I quite fail to see what in the world he would see fit to praise.”
    Cicero, De Officiius, pg. 173 in Walter Miller’s 1913 Loeb edition.

  12. Jeb Jeb

    I read through a lot of what has been written on this issue it was depressing. Fortunately read Massimo Pigliucci’s article last.

    I find the ghetto of thought that is militant secularism, seriously threatening both for secularism and with regard to the empirical study of belief systems.

    I also don’t think it is doing sciences credibility much good.

    The no surrender philosophical stance of militant secularism has a tendency to ignore anything that does not support its own argument, that means the rejection of vast amounts of work the wider academic community has done on belief systems.

    Saying that I don’t think militant secularist have much interest in these issues or do much reading here other than what in-group members write.

    The only move it can make is to seal itself off and internally self- reference.
    Which is perhaps the most worrying thing as the only vector it will be able to take with the out-groups (that it must maintain as outside) is to attack.

    I think its a standard academic move among rigid conservative thinkers and it does a huge disservice to thought and its movement.

    Supernatural belief is pretty widely studied on an empirical basis just not by militant secularist unfortunately.

    It’s a pity as I think open dialogue, education, understanding and knowledge is our best bet to move things forward.

    The rigid conservative nativisim of the extreme end of the secular spectrum is seriously damaging.

    I think one of the key reasons Christianity managed to establish itself so successfully in its early med. monastic phase is that unlike secular rulers and kingdoms it did not die its land holdings did not fragment. it held land through generations and the militant warriors of Christ expanded.

    Now faced with a new group of militant warriors who it also seems will not go away or evolve. Difficult to ignore, difficult to engage with an eternal repetition that can’t move.

  13. David Duffy David Duffy

    I’ll raise your swamp thing with

    The advantage that Boltzmann Brains and related concepts have is that they make testable predictions, unlike Tuesdayism/directed mutagenesis (;)).

    Oh, and an RA Fisher quote:

    The specialised research worker is always ready to sneer at the man who prefers the labours of mental abstraction. …

  14. “The specialised research worker is always ready to sneer at the man who prefers the labours of mental abstraction.”

    Such mental abstractions led R. A. Fisher and others into rejecting the UNESCO statement on racial equality because it asserted racial equality.
    Here is what Fisher asserted on the “firm basis” of “scientific knowledge”

    “Available scientific knowledge provides a firm basis for believing that the groups of mankind differ in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development, seeing that such groups do differ undoubtedly in a very large number of their genes.”

    The extent to which that “knowledge” was “knowledge” was not supported by actual experimental evidence, it was entirely based in abstract theoretical assertions.

    You can read their jaw dropping statements IN THE POST-WAR PERIOD! here.

    And you can read other scientists, some still living, saying quite similar things, Watson and Crick were and are full blown scientific racists based entirely on such “mental abstraction”.

    • David Duffy David Duffy

      I believe the comment in question was not made referring to himself.

      Fisher was involved in eugenics from very early on (a member of the Eugenics Society from 1912 onward), and I don’t think his views on the origins of class and racial difference were ever modified by his or any other later work. It is quite easy to generate a long list of wrong-headed beliefs of his, culminating in the smoking and lung cancer controversy. But we digress…

      • Digression and blog commenting are close to synonyms.

        I think Fisher meant what he said. And it wasn’t and isn’t just Fisher, it’s astonishing how many of the big names in biology before WWII and up till today are either explicit eugenicists or the equivalent. Crick was a huge supporter of Arthur Jensen’s version of it. Every once in a while a sort of feeler goes out to see if they can come out of hiding.

        If you look at how much of what they asserted had and still has absolutely no data to support it or how much of the data they asserted is either obviously flawed or badly analyzed it is incredible that they didn’t see it, themselves. Their faith in the predictive strength of natural selection is generally behind that. Even in the period before there was an actual mechanism if inheritance available.

  15. I’m confused by Jeb’s use of “militant secularism.” Is that supposed to be a superset of militant atheism?

  16. Iain Martel Iain Martel

    Pet peeve: the claim that logical positivism was undone by someone pointing out that verificationism isn’t verifiable is a sloppy piece of pseudo-history. The logical empiricists (their preferred name) were well aware of this point, but did not see it as a problem. Carnap, e.g., came to a pragmatic understanding of it as a metalinguistic proposal (see for more).

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