The point is that if he wanted to he could, because exactly as much is known about fairies as is about God and given enough time and literary raw material, a mature philosophy could be made out of just about any fiction. For that reason, scientism, especially used in the defense of theology, is a bogeyman, a scream in the dark at nothing more than standards of informed debate being elevated from possible speculations to verifiable facts.
Like all bogeymen, scientism cloaks itself in shadows. Where Reville writes, “Scientism comes in stronger and weaker forms. The robust form claims that science is the only valid way of seeking knowledge. The weaker doesn’t go that far, but it inappropriately applies science to a wide range of questions,” he packs an awful lot into the smoggy twilight of reasonable-sounding obscurantism.
There is, of course, a realm into which science cannot actually go. As a mathematician, it is one that is clear to me, and it is understandable that Reville would be calling to philosophers to raise the alarm about it--for it concerns some of them for a similar reason. That unscientific realm (in which we can still claim something like knowledge) is the realm of the abstract.
The catch is, mathematics and much good philosophy do not claim to be making statements about reality but rather about abstractions within axiomatic systems that are hopefully useful for providing depictions of reality. Certainly, some axioms are drawn very closely from reality, rendering the distinction difficult, but the fact stands. Those talking about the abstract are talking about the map, however good a model it makes of the terrain. Bad philosophy blurs the distinction and treats it as a bogeyman to scare away any who seek to clarify.
Reville, though, isn't even really talking about scientism, neither of the strong nor the weak types. He is using it as a shield, thus showing it to be a bogeyman. There is no indication from him that he is interested in potentially fruitful debates about how deeply science can hope to inform fields like history, limited in statistical precision by the fog of that which has been forgotten; literature, being intimately subjective; or the abstract, tethered only to reality to the degree that the underlying axioms are self-evident descriptions thereof. Reville, instead, is worried about the supernatural.
He shows his cards by harping that scientists are too quick to be “fundamentalist materialists” who argue that “the supernatural doesn’t exist and religion is nonsense.” (That religion is nonsense even granting the supernatural seems to have escaped him.) To this accusation he replies with unabashed irony, writing, “materialism [the philosophical belief that nothing exists except the material] is a philosophy that has not – and probably cannot – be proved.”
Upon this irony he heaps another, arguing, “since materialism is unproven, materialists must accept that, no matter how improbable it seems to them, there is a possibility they might be wrong and a supernatural dimension might exist.” No one, though, is under any requirement to entertain any possibility as if it is likely without evidence, something the supernatural lacks in total.
If he takes the open-minded position that accepts that at least the natural world exists, surely Reville has noticed that this street, which we have been driving along for centuries, is one-way. As neuroscientist Sam Harris aptly has pointed out, no religious explanation has ever replaced a scientific one. Wherever that leaves supernatural “explanations,” it certainly is not in the category of knowledge, unless we wish to drop the mystique and identify them as abstractions in their own right.
Astonishingly, Reville is unclear on this point and says so. “Materialists are therefore obliged to respect the position of religious people who believe in the supernatural but accept all that science has and will discover.” Twaddle! Materialists are obliged to do nothing more than remain very skeptically open to the immeasurably remote possibility of the supernatural, and in the circumstances this lands far short of commanding anything like respect. It is simply not respectable to parade unfounded speculations about as if they are knowledge.
It could be deemed madness if it weren't blindness. Reville opened his piece with “The modern world runs on science-based technology, and nobody seriously disputes the importance of science.” Except that they do. Lots of "nobodies" do, in various fashions, some holding high offices in nations like the United States. Worse, the bulk of them do it, like Reville, to patrol the collapsing fence that protects the dwindling respect for religious fancy as a claim to knowledge. They aren't often so brash as to blurt it out openly, but they, like Reville, promote ideas like the bogeyman of scientism that are corrosive to public trust in science at a time when it could hardly be more important.
Why, Reville asks, aren't philosophers causing “a storm of public protest” to oppose this bogeyman? I'd say that maybe they know better, or at least I would have if he didn't have at least one notable bedfellow in wanting to hide something dear from the harsh light of scientific inquiry. Philosopher, mathematician, and scientist Massimo Pigliucci just published his own anti-scientism piece aimed at New Atheism this week. In "New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the New Atheism Movement" published in the journal Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Pigliucci calls upon the bogeyman to condemn, with surprising scorn, New Atheism explicitly for being overtly identifiable with scientism.
Pigliucci, a noted and strident atheist, is most certainly not crying out about scientism under the banner of a theological bogeyman, but bogeyman it is still. His case seeks to protect certain halls of philosophy, if we're plain about it, from the ever-encroaching grasp of scientific understanding. In particular, Pigliucci appears mostly to want to maintain the primacy of moral philosophy with regard to the determination of human values. (If we think about it, this isn't so different from the religious motivation to protect the imagined explanation for their deontological moral values, among a few other things.) Instead of taking an attitude of letting science show for itself where it is useful, Pigliucci stands like a doorward to tell us it where it may not pass, maligning his natural allies in one of the most important debates of our time in order to do it.
As I noted above, there is no doubt that there are limits to the degrees of confidence with which we are able to claim knowledge of certain kinds--historical, artistic and literary, and philosophical--and there are realms in which science can merely hope to inform us how reflective of reality our underlying axioms are--philosophical and mathematical. There is plenty of important work left to do for philosophy in these cases, and Pigliucci tries to construe his paper as a defense of philosophy's ability to do it. He points directly at the bogeyman in the end, though, when he concludes that,
What the atheist movement needs, therefore, is not a brute force turn toward science at the expense of everything else, but rather a more nuanced, comprehensive embracing of all the varied ways--intellectual as well as experiential--in which human beings acquire knowledge and develop understanding of their world.Like with Reville, Pigliucci is engaging in the banal endeavor of protecting something subjective from a purely objective treatment and then using the resulting agreement with the obvious to place a barrier around a cherished domain of thought. This is the creation of a bogeyman: scientism, the destroyer of nuance and undue respect given to bad ideas for bad reasons.
What is truly curious, though, is the matter of why Pigliucci is desperate enough to make his point that he turns to a theological point, seemingly for no better reason than to impugn specific New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Victor Stenger, who have dared to treat the existence of God like a hypothesis. This stretch is interesting enough to merit a lengthy aside.
The real issue is that Dawkins (and most if not all of the New Atheists) does not seem to appreciate the fact that there is no coherent or sensible way in which the idea of god can possibly be considered a “hypothesis” in any sense remotely resembling the scientific sense of the term. The problem is that the supernatural, by its own (human) nature, is simply too swishy to be pinpointed precisely enough.I would strongly disagree. Indeed, I think the bulk of this claim, if we are taking "supernatural" to mean that which is beyond scientific testing, to be a standard problem of confusing the abstract with a non-material real, whatever that means.
If we see abstract articles, including God, as they are, then indeed, as noted previously, science cannot really touch them. At those times, "hypothesis" is the wrong word and wrong idea. If we allow for the theological axiom, "(something people call) God exists," to pass merely as an axiom, all science can hope to do is examine the natural world for any signs of a basis for it and restrict their commentary thusly. (This isn't so strange: we already do it with the abstraction implied by the Axiom of Infinity when we wonder if any physical structures can or do exist that are infinite in scope.)
Treating God as an abstraction that proceeds from an axiom has certain consequences, of course, and one of those is to undermine at a single stroke the whole notion of God's existence in a real sense. Pigliucci seems too caught up in this line of thought to notice that God's apologists only use this axiom card as a defensive ruse and do not actually accept it. They just say they do at need.
To take theology more seriously than it deserves is to allow that God is not to be considered an abstraction but instead some actual part of reality. In this case "hypothesis" is the right word to use. Further, this "God hypothesis" can be investigated at every single intersection point where the alleged immaterial, supernatural God is said to meet the real world in which it interacts.
Since he rejects the notion that the God hypothesis is a coherent idea, surely Pigliucci thinks of God at best in the abstract. Still no devout believer does, and so when New Atheist "scientismists" are willing to treat God as a hypothesis, it is a tremendous concession by scientists to the faithful, not an attempt to usurp their "field of study." To this point Pigliucci seems surprisingly blind unless he too, as I suggest, is using it to point at a bogeyman.
And we have to wonder at this misuse of the abstract since Pigliucci remarks that we can have knowledge of facts about triangles to go on to argue that Sam Harris "needs to be much more careful" on how he handles the term "facts," as it makes for "too heterogeneous a category." Pigliucci seems unlikely to be truly confused about the distinction between what we call knowledge concerning abstract objects and knowledge of real ones, though, and so this objection seems disingenuous. It's easier to draw the conclusion that he points at a bogeyman here, at least, than that is he is making a substantive point.
For whatever validity there may be to science attempting to overassert its value as a discipline, there is a serious objection to the characterization of the phenomena called scientism. In both forms, strong and weak, these cries are raised over science—or really scientists—having the temerity (or is it curiosity?) to use science to inform us in fields that have long and proudly set themselves apart as above the reach of scientific inquiry. Many of these hallows rattle like dead leaves upon their branches, particularly those most invested in metaphysics, or meta-anything for that matter, and their clattering voice sings an anemic battle hymn for the cause of keeping blurred the line between what depends upon belief and what can be considered to be known. Leading the march is the bogeyman, scientism, meant to scare us away from the clarity of demanding good reasons before having the cheek to say that we know something about the world, and with the rest of us, philosophers must oppose it.