Against Scientism

Via 3quarksdaily, this is Austin L. Hughes at The New Atlantis. Wildly informative article about the encroachment of science upon topics once considered properly philosophical in scope. Absolutely worth reading the full article, but expect gems like these throughout:

…the “fitness” of an idea hinges on its ability to gain wide adherence and acceptance. But there is little reason to suppose that natural selection would have favored the ability or desire to perceive the truth in all cases, rather than just some useful approximation of it. Indeed, in some contexts, a certain degree of self-deception may actually be advantageous from the point of view of fitness. There is a substantial sociobiological literature regarding the possible fitness advantages of self-deception in humans…

…there is reason for questioning to what extent the self-reported “happiness” in population surveys relates to real happiness. Recent data indicating that both states and countries with high rates of reported “happiness” also have high rates of suicide suggest that people’s answers to surveys may not always provide a reliable indicator of societal well-being, or even of happiness.

This, too, is a point as old as philosophy: As Aristotle noted in the Nicomachean Ethics, there is much disagreement between people as to what happiness is, “and often even the same man identifies it with different things, with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor.” Again, understanding values requires philosophy, and cannot simply be sidestepped by wrapping them in a numerical package.

And finally:

Of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its varied guises — from fanciful cosmology to evolutionary epistemology and ethics — seems among the more dangerous, both because it pretends to be something very different from what it really is and because it has been accorded widespread and uncritical adherence. Continued insistence on the universal competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole. The ultimate outcome will be an increase of radical skepticism that questions the ability of science to address even the questions legitimately within its sphere of competence. One longs for a new Enlightenment to puncture the pretensions of this latest superstition.


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