Revisiting the Concept of Scientism: An Interview with MIT Professor Dr. Ian Hutchinson

Dr. Ian Hutchinson is a Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He obtained his undergraduate degree from Cambridge University before getting his Ph.D. from Australian National University.

During February of 2016 Dr. Hutchinson joined Cal Poly Professor and Director of Jazz Studies, Dr. Paul Rinzler in a dialogue about scientism, the belief that science is the only real knowledge there is, at Cal Poly’s annual Veritas Forum.

What is knowledge outside of science?

It usually does not possess the degree of clarity we expect from the natural sciences. It might be something like music. Music can be described and reproduced in a sort of scientific form, or the action of instruments can be described scientifically. So we can have a scientific description of what two instruments lashing together is. The electrons in the surface of the metal interact with one another and transfer an impulse to the ion lattice and it propagates out and couples to the air and produces compressional waves that travel through the air to the audience and that then excites their ears and so forth. That’s a scientific description. But if you’ve given that kind of description you haven’t been able to describe the music because music is about the symphony orchestra and the kinds of ideas, sounds, and expressions, that the composer and the orchestra is trying to get across. Music only becomes music, in many ways, in the ear of the listener because there is an interaction with that person’s human experience. Music is something we cannot readily analyze in a meaningful way by simply making measurements and producing a mathematical description. This is an example of the way in which not all the things we know are susceptible to the approach the natural sciences have.

Do you view scientism as strictly a radical position of few scientists or as having a more far-reaching effect? Does scientism affect other disciplines?

It’s both. There are scientists who advocate scientism and there are other scientists who don’t and don’t believe in scientism. But, there are also some very outspoken scientists. Science popularizes those who adopt the position that, basically, science is by far and away the best, and probably, the only real knowledge there is. It actually isn’t the case that most people declare scientism explicitly. There really aren’t too many people that say, “I believe in scientism”. Instead it’s usually implicit and so, particularly in some of the critics of religion, there is an implicit kind of scientism. If you read, for example, Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, on half a dozen different occasions in the book he basically assumes, and speaks as if, science is all the real knowledge there is. But he doesn’t say that’s what he believes he just takes it as an unspoken presumption.

In other disciplines, there has been a really strong influence of scientism. As far back as the beginning of the 19th century there were moves to try to bring all of knowledge to, what was considered to be, a state of positive knowledge. The positivists of the early 19th century essentially adopted a scientistic presupposition and, particularly in the area of sociology, they set out to try to turn that into positive knowledge. So Auguste Comte, who is the main founder of positivism in the early 19th century, basically set out to make sociology into a discipline like the natural sciences. This had a very strong influence on a number of humanities disciplines like sociology and so forth, and has even up until today.

Over the decades there have been people who have strongly criticized that attempt and that intention. One of them, for example, was Friedrich Hayek, who around the time of the second world war, wrote a whole book about scientism. He was one of the first people to use the word, “scientism”, as what I take to be its current meaning. He emphasized how barren and fruitless the attempt to turn the nonscientific disciplines into sciences was. [The growth of scientism] was largely, I think, a kind of reaction to the enormous prestige the natural sciences had gained. People thought that it would be better to be seen as being [scientific], so there was a great deal of effort in that direction.

It wasn’t just science envy; people genuinely thought they could turn these disciplines into sciences. For example, the president of the American Historical Society in 1925 gave a very famous lecture in which he talked about history having laws, the laws of history being as definite as the laws of gravity. He had in mind that there were certain laws you could apply to history and that history could be turned into a scientific discipline if we could just discover these laws. I think since then there has probably been a move away from the rather more explicit scientism but I think it’s still part of the academic environment.

Why is scientism worth talking about?

What I’m interested in is the relationship between Christianity and science. I think scientism is one of the most confounding factors in making sense of the relationship between Christianity and science. Historically, Christianity was in many respects a fertile philosophical and theological environment in which science, as we know it, got going. The early natural scientists of the 17th century were almost all Christians. Even throughout the following centuries Christians were extremely active and some of them were the greatest scientists of history. So on the one hand, historically Christianity and science were once closely allied with each other. But in the past century or so there’s been a strong impression of the opposite; there’s been a myth that science and Christianity have always been at war and are inevitably at war. The role scientism plays in this, to make the long story short, is that Christianity and science are not inevitably at war but in fact they are or can be very closely supportive of one another. Christianity and scientism are inevitably at loggerheads with one another.

Scientism as it has been practiced over the last couple centuries has many of the traits and characteristics of a religion. In fact, Auguste Comte’s movement that he founded, the Positivists, did in fact become a literal religion. They had services of commemoration, they had various sacraments, and it was secular but to the world they seemed all the things a religion has and they serve the same purpose. So there is a good reason why Christianity and scientism are at loggerheads because essentially Scientism is, or in large measure is, a rival religion. The other thing to say is that, yes, scientism has an argument with Christianity and religion in general, but it also has a big argument with all the other non-science disciplines. If scientism is true, than that runs down and denigrates all kinds of other academic knowledge and disciplines like history, or literature, or philosophy, or ethics, or a whole list of things that you could think of in the humanities that are not scientific disciplines.

Did you used to have the impression that science and faith were at odds?

I grew-up in a non-Christian family and wasn’t a believer until I went to college but, I wasn’t ignorant of Christianity and its claims. The school I was in, from time to time, had services that students were obliged to attend. I know that doesn’t happen much these days but it did in those days. I actually don’t think I had the strong belief that the reason Christianity was implausible was because of science. I think it was more that I thought Christianity was defunked; it didn’t seem to have a very lively message, or to me as a high school student, anything that was particularly attractive. I don’t think I thought that science was necessarily all the knowledge there is and actually, I had what these days would be considered the dubious benefits of a classical education. I studied Greek and Latin in school and so forth, so I don’t think I was scientistic in that way. But I certainly, at college, came to a completely new understanding of Christianity, in part because of the influence of some friends, and in part because of hearing lectures by a man, Michael Green.

When you became a Christian, in college, was there a need to reconcile your academic knowledge with Christianity?

One of the things I benefited from when I became a Christian at Cambridge was a very active Intervarsity Christian Fellowship chapter in my college so I had friends with whom I could do Bible study. But I have to admit; I never really thought there was a conflict between science and religion. I already knew a lot about science, I already knew a bit about the Bible and Christianity, and it didn’t seem to me that I was committing intellectual suicide to take Christianity seriously. There were things I thought about because they were topical questions: “how do you make sense of the first few chapters of Genesis in the context of the scientific understanding of the cosmos?” and so forth. But I suppose I was never strongly tempted to require Genesis to be interpreted literally, and it didn’t seem a very vital part of Christian doctrine to do so.

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While Scientism and Christianity may be at war, Dr. Hutchinson articulates the position that this not be the case. Furthermore, a Christian perspective does not necessarily negate all scientific reason while pursuing topical questions such as those of our origins, for example. It is in the spirit of the Veritas Forum that we hope to continue asking life’s hardest questions, such as these.

 

Anelise Powers is a 4th year at Cal Poly as a political science major, originally from Scotts Valley, CA. She has been involved with The Cal Poly Veritas Forum and in her free time she enjoys coffee, going to the beach, browsing pictures of French bulldogs and reading Sherlock Holmes stories.

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