O cientificismo como filistinismo

sexta-feira, dezembro 16, 2011

15 December 2011

Scientism as Philistinism


An article published last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a recent debate at MIT between a couple of physicists from opposite ends of Massachusetts Avenue.(1)

The participants were Harvard astrophysicist Lisa Randall and MIT nuclear engineering professor Ian Hutchinson, and they addressed a very interesting topic: “Can Science Explain Everything?

Well, can science explain everything? That depends on what we mean by “science,” what we mean by “explain,” and what we mean by “everything.”

By “science,” do we mean the ensemble of methods and theories we have today, or what these might someday become in the future? By “explain,” do we mean quantify, reduce, and explain away, or discover how equally real entities of different qualitative kinds depend upon one another and connect up? By “everything,” do we mean only the material world as it is in itself, or also our experience of it? Much depends on how we answer these questions.

The article is notable for drawing renewed attention to the term, “scientism.” I had not heard it used much lately, and I am delighted to see the word getting more attention. It is a valuable addition to anyone’s vocabulary.

So, what is scientism? American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars summed up the idea as well as anyone.

First, scientism begins with the idea that we are presented with two competing accounts of the world, our everyday understanding and scientific understanding. Here is how Sellars put it:

For the philosopher is confronted not by one complex many-dimensional picture, the unity of which, such as it is, he must come to appreciate; but by two pictures of essentially the same order of complexity, each of which purports to be a complete picture of man-in-the-world, and which, after separate scrutiny, he must fuse into one vision. Let me refer to these two perspectives, respectively, as the manifest and the scientific images of man-in-the-world.(2) (original emphasis)

Second, scientism takes this notion of a conflict between the manifest and the scientific images of the world, and accords absolute priority to the scientific image. Later in his life, Sellars came to believe that a “synoptic vision” was possible, but his name is forever linked with his earlier robust faith in what he often called the “primacy” of the scientific vision, and most famously expressed in these words:

. . . science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.(3)

That may sound rather abstract, and even fanciful, so let me bring the discussion down to earth by quoting a living scientist, rather than a dead philosopher.

The famous entomologist and evolutionary theorist, E.O. Wilson, has defined scientism in our day as palinly as anyone may require:

The transition from purely phenomenological to fundamental theory in sociology must await a full, neuronal explanation of the human brain. Only when the machinery can be torn down on paper at the level of the cell and put together again will the properties of emotion and ethical judgment become clear. . . Cognition will be translated into circuitry. Learning and creativeness will be defined as the alteration of specific portions of the cognitive machinery regulated by input from the emotive centers. Having cannibalized psychology, the new neurobiology will yield an enduring set of first principles for sociology.(4)

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