On Scientism: The Shortcomings of Science
In this video, I will try to make my case against some of the modern trends that, in the name of science, oppose traditional views on beauty, art, and even religion and human behaviour. We’ll talk about how they have evolved since the Enlightenment and are making some questionable claims in the name of science. We call it scientism.
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Religions have traditionally sided with the objective beauty camp as they have seen beauty as something that exists apart from us, created by God.
By adding a third being to the equation other than us, who is capable of creating beauty, it becomes harder for people of faith to accept subjectivity in beauty. Across different religions connecting God with beauty has always been the case.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.”
“God is beautiful, and He loves beauty.”
Prophet Muhammad in the Sahih
This narrative started changing in the eighteenth century with the Enlightenment.
There are two aspects to that change. The first is what Nietzsche later described as ‘God is dead’ meaning the decline of religious belief. The second aspect is the rise of belief in the potential of humans to perform and explain things themselves through science without direction from a higher being.
Since then humanity tried to quantify anything quantifiable, searching for meanings for our surroundings in laboratories and lecture rooms but not in ancient philosophy or religious texts.
Post-enlightenment thinking in the late 19th and early 20th centuries inherited the Enlightenment ideas and concepts, and in most cases, it magnified them.
We became less interested in seeing the intrinsic value in ideas and objects and measured them only by their quantifiable measurable usability, to that end we became captivated with answering all of our questions exclusively through science.
Our love for our children is explained as a by-product of serotonin, books such as “This Is Your Brain on Music” ties timbre, rhythm, pitch, and harmony to neuroanatomy, neurochemistry, cognitive psychology.
The scientific method has proved its credibility in answering many of our questions in natural science and the thinking went on to replicate this approach in all other fields.
Fields of Humanities started to be seen of lesser value in comparison to natural science because by their nature they’re unscientific.
It was the Germans who started to distinguish between Geisteswissenschaften (philosophy, history, philology, linguistics. Etc.) and Naturwissenschaften (Natural Sciences like biology, chemistry, and physics). This was a result of rapid industrialization and the push for natural sciences to satisfy the demand for new markets.
Today we took things a step further by trying to replicate the scientific method and use it in fields that were historically not Naturwissenschaften, like economics, social studies, political science or even in art, literature, and music. Although we cannot conduct controlled experiments in these areas as we do in physics, a field like behavioural economics tries to resemble hard science by borrowing ideas and studies from psychology.
So, seeing fields through this lens leaves humanities at the bottom, looked down upon for the difficulty of implementing the scientific method in them.
“folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree”
Fortunately, Obama apologized for that statement. It is fine if one can make more money by studying engineering or medicine instead of art and literature, but one should not make the case that it is of a higher value than humanities.
The whole comparison is simply wrong because each one of them deals with a different set of topics and questions.
Science should aim to explain natural phenomena but not the purpose of an individual. Words like ‘Why’ do not have the same meaning in science as in philosophy.
Why in science aims to explain the past sequence of events through cause and effect up to the point of asking the question, but in philosophy why is used to ask about the purpose of something, Why marriage? Why Democracy?
Things that define modern societies like the rule of law, transparency, and elections are not scientific inventions and yet we value them and make them cornerstones of our societies.
And so people get these degrees that are useless, they study these mundane obtuse things that don’t have anything to do with anything and it’s giving college education a bad name
And here lies the core of the problem, SCIENTISM. Unlike science, scientism tries to answer unscientific questions using scientific tools.
But should we let science explore and answer all aspects of our lives?
The late Stephen Hawking thinks so and he once said:
“Philosophy is dead. Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics”
I think many questions should not be dealt with through science alone. One should not seek a scientific way to raise children, appreciate beauty, form social bonds, or even deal with matters of faith.
No matter what studies and statistics would tell you, there is no scientific way to choose your life partner.
“If science cannot answer a question then no one else has the right to answer it.”
The problem with dealing with these questions through scientific tools is that they are not capable of capturing the essence of these matters.
One can scientifically describe a painting like the Mona Lisa by the number of pigments in it, their position, their concentration, the materials that were used and send all this information to a robot which can create an identical replica of the painting, but that is not what the Mona Lisa is about, the essence of it would be missing.
One should not look at Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” as accurate historical documentation of a particular historical event that has been fact-checked and verified. That is simply not what this painting is about. It is a beautiful allegorical painting that captures the essence of people’s feelings at the time.
In natural sciences, models and theories can be tested using measurement tools and be repeated and debunked if they turned out to be wrong but that is not possible when we apply the same tools in unscientific fields, there is no known tool to measure love, beauty or justice.
Scientism followers today are trying to examine religion through the scientific method. Richard Dawkins is trying to find a God that does not exist in the mind of the believer. He is always asking about some physical properties of that God: Where is he? Who made him? Why can’t we hear his voice? etc. For the vast majority of believers, his physical properties are never the main focus of their beliefs; they care about the teachings and lessons of the God they choose to believe in.
When religious texts describe God, they do not pay a lot of attention to his physical properties; they describe him as a set of ideas. Merciful, wise, loving but no one will find a religious text describing him as tall, weighs billions of kilograms or anything like that.
The pattern repeats itself in different fields by various scientists in unscientific fields.
Last year I was reading a book called “Sapiens: a brief history of humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari. In general, it was an entertaining book except for some problematic chapters. In one chapter it contained an unhealthy dose of scientism.
The chapter was about happiness, and what it means. The author explored many of the philosophical, scientific answers to that question, but at the end of the chapter he concluded that happiness is as follows:
“Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin.”
Describing the hormones that are associated with happiness is not the same thing as describing happiness.
Some scientists take some Neuro-scans of someone listening to Mozart and show the results claiming that they have cracked it, and now they know what Mozart is all about, one does not even know where to start with this line of argument. And now for any field of art, a neuro-books is available.
Traces of scientism can also be found in fields like behavioural economics. Behavioural economists took some raw and real scientific works by great scientists like the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and transformed them into a pseudo explanation of our financial behaviours with mathematical equations under what they call “Rationality” and I’m yet to find a behavioural economist who could explain what they mean by rationality.
and they have a bias category for any reasonable human behaviour in what the critics of the field call the “bias bias”.
It was Gerd Gigerenzer, an expert in psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development who opened my eyes to Scientism in the field.
“There is a n entire industry that choose how people are rational and in what ways”
Non-specialists appropriating the language of behavioural economics is “a little like a poor man’s way of saying, ‘Hey, I’m smart,’” said Emanuel Derman, a professor of financial engineering at Columbia University. “The public loves it, but I don’t think it’s worth very much.” he said this in an interview with Bloomberg.
Two years ago, in a brunch with some friends, I noticed first-hand the effect of these pseudo studies have on people’s thinking when one of them said that a new study found that people of faith have a lower IQ than nonbelievers.
So, the claimed statistic says that there is a correlation between faith and IQ but what people hear and understand is that the link is a causal one.
Statistics like these are thrown at us every day by behavioural economists; sometimes they even mistake the cause from the effect. A statistic that claims that people of faith have lower IQ is like saying that the direction of the wind follows the wind pointer or that the campus follows the ship.
A simple example to demonstrate the misleading use of statistics is a 2012 survey by insurance companies in the US that found out that an estimated 52 percent of car accidents occur within 5 miles of a person’s home.
Analysts and behaviour writers jumped to the conclusion that one is more likely to have a car accident close to where he or she lives. Actually, with all factors equal the likelihood of having a car accident near where you live is equal to anywhere else, people have more accidents near where they live simply because they drive on the roads close to their home more frequently, unlike a street that is say 10 miles away from a person’s home that they visit only once a year.
I think the only place where correlations should be taken seriously is in hard science where experiments are controlled, and factors can be isolated. Not in social studies and economics, where the involved factors are too many to count and cannot be controlled.
As someone who passionately loves art and philosophy, it scares me when scientists try to use their tools in these two fields.
humanity since its birth has been dancing and developing different types of dances in different cultures and it was a natural process throughout the years until very recently when a new science appeared in the 70s called dance science with the aim of enhancing the dancers performance the problem with that is it mixes the explaining the science behind an idea with practicing the idea itself
We can spend all the time in the world reading and studying flying, but birds do it naturally outside of lecture halls.
For example, in physics, one would develop many rules to estimate how a ball in baseball would move and use equations to calculate its acceleration and trajectory and the right angle and precise movements a player should use in order to catch the ball, in reality the players use simple heuristics like keeping their eyes focused on the ball and adjusting their speeds naturally to catch the ball before it hits the ground.
Explaining the science behind dancing is not the same as learning and practicing dancing.
I do not want my message to be perceived as an anti-scientific one, to the contrary I ask for orthodoxy in science which can in part be achieved by keeping it away from Geisteswissenschaften fields. It does not have to be one against the other.
When an economist says a certain policy is wrong, people treat his take as an opinion but if he throughs some numbers and says according to our models this policy would lead to this and that, people treat his take as scientific fact.
And I’ll repeat the point until I die that models and theories in these fields cannot be replicated and tested multiple times as we do in physics or chemistry.
We believe in democracy, free speech, and human rights not because there is hard scientific truth proving that this is the best or most efficient or effective way to conduct society but because we believe in other forms of truths that are different than the scientific truth.
Using the scientific method to explain philosophical questions does not advance us intellectually at all, it simply opens the door to Voodoo explanations to profound questions.
If we look at how the scientism movement is explaining beauty, they trace it back to natural selection and survival.
First, Dawkins and co. trace beauty back to the sexual desire that allows us to reproduce, and for that, both sexes needed to evolve a sense of appreciation for each other. So, all forms of beauty can be traced back to that original cause.
When we see a beautiful curvy car and appreciates its design, the argument would go that we appreciate it because at an evolutionary subconscious level it resembles the female body.
When one points out that our love for children and their beauty cannot be traced back to the sexual desire, they agree, but then they add another explanation that is similar to the first idea: seeing beauty in children is equally important for the survival of our species.
One tries again by arguing that we appreciate the beauty in nice landscapes, where it is green and natural, but they reply that we appreciate it because the green landscape is associated with food and fertile soil, so that kind of appreciation is also good for our survival.
They will show you how the levels of oxytocin in mothers increase when they look at their babies, how a child that is loved by his parents has a higher chance of survival, and all these arguments that are missing the point of beauty and love.
One can try to debunk these arguments by pointing out the fact that we love music, poetry, theatres, operas, and literature although they have no survival benefit for our species.
From an evolutionary point of view, there is no benefit in appreciating poetry, and yet we appreciate great poems and see the beauty in them.
One cannot trace them back to the sexual desire or love for children. The same can also be said about the music of Gustav Mahler or any other great composer.
The issue is that scientism does not accept appreciating beauty and art for their own sake, they need to attach usability to it.
Sadly, this point of view is widespread these days.
Everything is measured by how we can use it.
Beauty is useless, but who cares? Kant said it elegantly that the message of the flower is the flower itself.
People around the world own cats and according to new surveys cats have become the most popular pet around the world, and yet no one is complaining that they are useless.
A fact that William Burroughs understood clearly when he said:
“A cat does not guard or protect you; it does not clean the house or make any sense from a financial point of view. People love these animals for what they are and not because they expect any benefit in return.
The cat does not offer services. The cat offers itself.”
I know the evolutionary argument would be that cats are appreciated because they resemble babies with their big eyes, chubby cheeks, and playful habits.
What about tigers then? or lions? Don’t we all agree that they are beautiful? Do they resemble children? and most importantly, from an evolutionary point of view, shouldn’t we find them horrible because they are dangerous and lethal? And yet we are mesmerized by their beauty.
Before anybody accuses us of denying evolution, I want to say that on the contrary, we have nothing but the at most respect for science and the scientific method which has produced an elegant explanation like the evolution, but this new movement led by Dawkins is transforming Evolution from an elegant and magnificent explanation for the diversity of life around us into a theory to explain everything and anything.
I hope that I was able to make my case for Beauty, art, and human behaviour that is appreciated for its own sake and no other reason, away from scientism that relies on questionable ideas to explain big subjects at the core of what makes us who we are.