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The Difference Between Ivory-Tower and Street-Level Scientism

Would René Descartes care about watching Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos? Would Galileo? Aristotle?

The question struck me when trying to find a cultural reference point to help place my subject in more familiar terms. I do not mean to investigate its answer seriously, only to use it to point out the ground for my topic. Enough, then, of this opening gambit.

What we need to discuss is our reception of the project of science and its practical consequences. Is there a way to properly integrate, with intellectual virtue or skill, science and its claims into our moral lives, and is there a way to do this improperly? The answer to such questions is implicitly presupposed by many discussions in the public square of internet forums as well as the inner forum of our own souls. The answer involves a proper education (a subject also addressed elsewhere, in various articles such as these).

The problem can be categorized under the heading of “scientism.” It is important to realize that this is not a merely academic issue. It occurs at an everyday level. I will refer to it as “street-level scientism.”

Street-level scientism is an intellectual habit: the illiberal submission to science due to its authority. The man suffering from street-level scientism is the one who often, in effect, equates “science” with “magic.” (If you can’t explain how a microprocessor works, then that includes me and you.) Yet its lettered cousin makes the opposite mistake and equates the non-scientific with irrationality or superstition. “Until we take science for what it is” we will fail to fully benefit from it.

The academic problem diagnosed under the name of scientism is related to problems nesting within the broader umbrellas of the justification of knowledge. It is one front of the debate between the scientific mind and the philosophical intellect as paradigms of human inquiry (a debate to which Tyson himself is no stranger).

Of course, the very existence and meaning of the term scientism is debated. The growth of the scientistic way of thinking has deep historical roots. Yet symptoms of scientism crop up daily. For instance, consider the brouhaha over Pope Francis’s recent comments on evolution. Even some scientists, to say nothing of the media, stand in need of a way to evaluate and integrate scientific claims with claims made by other types of knowledge (such as religious and philosophical claims).

How exactly does “street-level scientism” differ from its academic kin?

Academic scientism is a claim about types of warrant or evidence and the classification of methods that obtain such evidence. In this form, scientism is “the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything” (Rosenberg, p. 6). Putting on our Socratic togas, we can quickly sample some of this position’s philosophical difficulties. Readers interested in expanded treatments of this line of argument are urged to consult a treatment such as Edward Feser’s, from which I borrow ideas here.

Feser notes that science cannot appeal to its own practical success as proof of scientism. A false theory can yield true practical results: For instance, geocentrism is a sufficient, practically true theory for the purposes of the celestial navigation of ships at sea.

The scientistic claim is also self-refuting. If we ask “What type of knowledge is it by which we know for certain that the claim made by scientism is true?” If the claim itself is a piece of certain knowledge, then either science proves this claim or some other type of knowledge does. The first option leads us to a problem of circularity, and it is plainly impossible to subject the claim itself to experimental verification. The second option leads us to the existence of another type of certain knowledge. Indeed, our very ability to perceive this self-refutation is itself an act of knowledge belonging to a type broader than science itself. This type of knowledge—the one that examines the consistency of the claim of scientism—must be such as to judge science and its claims.

Such lines of reasoning have not prevented some scientists from making the claim that philosophy is “dead” and that science has replaced it (yet, see the following astute reply). When scientists speak this way, they accomplish nothing more than stepping outside of their work as science; they begin doing philosophy.

If science cannot be the only type of certain knowledge, why is it so commonly taken to be such? This disposition to accept science, without discretion, as the sole or ruling source of knowledge is a common malaise. It is street-level scientism.

Street-level scientism is the philosophy that the everyday person, and persons every day, adopt in an unreflective manner. It is not an explicit theory, but rather a practical attitude. Indeed, it even afflicts scientists themselves insofar as they are similarly situated to laymen with respect to those sciences that are not their specialty.

Examples of street-level scientism all take on the cast of various types of cognitive dissonance. For instance:

– The human person is treated as a duality: the body is treated as a machine in the light of medical practice, or a unit disposable at the whim of the self, sans ethical consequences, when the going gets too rough to understand the meaning of soul-embodied suffering. There is a disjoint between the bio-technê of modern medicine and the ethical subject that the expertise seeks to “repair,” not meet face-to-face as a person.

– Research into our race’s evolutionary origins are the subject of such heated fray of public dispute and lack of light that careers are ended for the slightest misstep and whole belief-systems mocked for not blindly conforming. Any via media between evolutionary naturalism and transcendent origins is a path rarely heard seriously.

– Advances in the analysis of the human brain likewise advance our misunderstanding of the human person as a locus of responsibility and specifically human achievement—Raymond Tallis has brought this danger to our attention in Aping Mankind.

– Our public policy and lawmaking takes less advantage of reflection on the natural law, the ius gentium, and more cues from studies that reflect the experience of a margin of the world’s heritage of moral traditions.

– The authority of scientific studies is used to cow the non-expert into agreement concerning environmental stewardship or the definition of marriage, when well-reasoned philosophies and legal traditions could carry more relevant and useful insights.

The method by which scientific results are produced cannot be the method of their broader interpretation, as shown above, and hence much less the method of their implementation into the moral life of a nation. Any method that reduces the human experience to teleologically indifferent quantitative analysis cannot then produce results that pass judgment on the good life that its maker desires.

Street-level scientism is the inability to discern the valence of scientific claims when they enter public discourse and the tendency to grant them too much weight. The scientifically-presented argument arrives with an air of unquestionability. Such is the intellectual custom of our age. Like those men described in Aristotle’s Metaphysics II.3, our minds will submit to arguments only when they’re garbed in the proper clothing.

Scientific literacy as such is not a sufficient cure. Why not? This is the corollary from the argument above. The methods of science cannot provide a holistic picture of human knowledge, so more education in those methods cannot provide that for which they were not designed, or remedy their misuse.

Customarily, holistic knowledge of reality is the ambit occupied by religion or philosophy, particularly (for the latter)  in metaphysics. Yet that level of contemplative achievement is within the range of few, as St. Thomas famously argues in Summa contra Gentiles, I.4. How do we scale back the intensity of the cure such that a whole society can benefit from it?

One might think a liberal education would fit the bill. Yet can current variations of the American liberal arts education provide students in our society with the comprehensive sight necessary to understand, or even approach an understanding of, the integrity between distinct domains of knowledge? Arguably not—the disciplines of the humanities and the sciences have been defined in a quasi-opposition to each other, an opposition that continues to increase. We still have those two cultures. The curricula with which to mend the divide are not largely in place, nor are the teachers commonly present to teach it.

This curricular problem would require further reflection than I can provide here. A clue will have to suffice for our present conclusion.

In an endnote to his “On Fairy-Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkein tells us:

Children expect the differences they feel but cannot analyse to be explained by their elders, or at least recognized, not to be ignored or denied. I was keenly alive to the beauty of ‘Real things’, but it seemed to me quibbling to confuse this with the wonder of ‘Other things’. I was eager to study Nature, actually more eager than I was to read most fairy-stories; but I did not want to be quibbled into Science and cheated out of Faërie by people who seemed to assume that by some kind of original sin I should prefer fairy tales, but according to some kind of new religion I ought to be induced to like science. Nature is no doubt a life-study, or a study for eternity (for those so gifted); but there is a part of man which is not ‘Nature’, and which therefore is not obliged to study it, and is, in fact, wholly unsatisfied by it (“The Monsters and the Critics,” p. 159).

To follow Tolkein’s thought, the real vice of street-level scientism would not be its valid and valuable desire to introduce a student to the world of science. The harm comes from that myth—a new religious creed—which pedagogy and culture together weave to counteract the natural yearning for the mythical and the wonderful. Aristotle observes in his Metaphysics, I.2: “Even the lover of myth is in a sense a lover of wisdom, for myth is composed of wonders.” That is, myth is composed of wonders just as is the cosmos, about whose genesis the old Greek physicists were moved to wonder.

If the reader suddenly worries that I end by unreflectively placing the myths of Faërie and the theory of general relativity on a par, that is a symptom of the malaise. Our street-level scientism needs a cure: a liberally educated approach that sees the harmony in the whole of truth toward which we run both by the love of myth and by love of wisdom itself.


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • These problems are dire. Originating in human genome study, we have a new eugenics and the idea of becoming our own creators through transhumanism. Fukuyama recently called this nexus of troubles, the gravest threat to our world. (So much for his “end of history” with triumph of capitalism!)

    Mr. Brungardt would call it scientism, Jacques Ellul called it technique. There is only one answer… If we all evangelize the Gospel, if each person simply ignores the strictures placed on him and marches with the Lord, there is no set of artificial, profit-driven associations that will have the remaining power to destroy the world.

    • John Brungardt

      May I be the last to deny that the charity of Christ is stronger than death, Mr. Mullally. Yet I was attempting to point out a different problem: that the legitimate created goods that the various sciences offer require a certain education to be appreciated and a philosophical context to be understood. Perhaps we can call it a mean between fideism and rationalism.

  • Thank you, yes context and priorities are the key, because you know I believe, that God wants at minimum for us to live our lives as intended and not seek to surmount Him. Products of science are good and mostly God-given, but unfortunately they have become an end to themselves.

    P.S. I do not find fault with your article or concept, just am urging you to to read The Technological Society if you have not….

    • John Brungardt

      Thanks for the recommendation! It is on my list.

  • lyle

    First Denial of Gods call is not going to destroy the world, the reality is it destroy us and our children, and those around US..the greatest fiction and superstition of the world today is the People in the US are the world, a superstition we are all it.
    and a large superstition in the US is a unsustainable economy based on a superstition of unbridled capitalism of 17 trillion dollars, that makes (slave wage workers of the US slaves of the debt..
    borrowing of money is morally wrong in religion (prior reformation), as is insurance which is calculated gambling, slaver is morally wrong, and so is denial of the moral obligations of feeding the hungry. all point a science if you want harmony, intergrity and clarity in a society, you look to Jesus and follow not the laws but the call of beatitudes of charity towards others, you will find a peace in being charitable to wards your neighbor, by the justice of Gods mercy and justice…a proven science that brings peace…
    If you want peace, look to Jesus and the mercy and justice he calls for in a charity towards others.
    even if you don’t believe in God, you will find peace in Jesus if you follow him, and in a science as well if you follow budah, or even Abraham, the science of the Islamic. ( if you follow Islam you have a greater moral obligation to stand against corruption and evil, but we in the US assume in a superstition that our government is a false god we look to save us. and our assumed leadership of religion as well set in DC and set and example and false assumption that the government is going to save us. making all of the US a civilization wallering in an ignorance of superstition the government, NOT God is going to save us from the boggie man..

  • lyle

    why does the council of Catholic bishops set in the DofC, is that a holy place? Do the Catholic leadership in the US look to God themselves to guide them, and ultimately US, or are they actually looking to the government as their source, and set an example to others of the same.
    Now that is a question of science to ask of a religious nature that would be interesting to answer..

  • lyle

    Einstein was educated, and that canbe recognized by his quote of ” the World is a dangerous place, not by those that do evil, but of those that look on and do nothing. today the US government runs a military of “revenge”, in wars (war is business, is fact) defiant in all sense to the morals of the people to stand against war on a people that have never attacked the US, reality of fact, yet an acceptance to war of revenge based on, hate and revenge to a people who have never did a thing to US..
    defiant to religion of to always forgive others, that we might be forgiven for our sins.. religion without charity, is mere superstition todays war is war of revenge based on a superstition.