The Pragmatic Limits of Scientism in New Atheism

I would like to begin this presentation by giving my thanks to David Miller for inviting me to speak here tonight and for the range of philosophical organisations that he convenes; such as the Melbourne Atheist Society, the Existentialist Society, and the Agnostic Society. David, a little like myself, is a person of many hats. However I do wish to clarify a very minor item on the agenda which I did not notice with sufficient timing; I am not speaking tonight as a representative of the Victorian Secular Lobby, an incorporated association that advocates for the separation of church and state, although I am its current convener and I have spoken here in the past in that capacity. Indeed that was a year ago; as the convener of Linux Users of Victoria there is an obligation that I attend those meetings which are held on the first Tuesday of the month - with the exception of the month where Melbourne has a religious holiday that involves horse worship. Tonight, and for the first time after three previous political presentations at this august body, I will be speaking on a philosophical rather than political matter and will do so as the convener of The Philosophy Forum (another hat I wear), which meets here on the first Sunday of the month.

The presentation tonight, "The Pragmatic Limits of Scientism in New Atheism", indicates a certain narrowness of focus. It would be delightful if the opportunity existed to discuss in more detail the difference between the knowledge of epistme and the opinion of doxa, as initiated by Parmenides, or Plato's concepts of justified true belief as genuine knowledge. The finer details of the Socratic interest in the essence of what is true, just, and beautiful, or Kant's similar distinction of pure reason, practical reason, and judgement are likewise mentioned only in passing. Laplace's perfect intellect, and Hume's fork between analytic and synthetic propositions, and the casting to the flames of certain texts as "sophistry and illusion", are equally influential in tonight's presentation, but alas, they too must be hand-waved and treated as but a footnote with the encouragement that others take the opportunity to review these giants of thought. Instead, the presentation can begin at its earliest the work of the logical positivists and their quest for scientific knowledge as the only genuine and verifiable knowledge and, by extension, the Positivismusstreit in German sociology and economics in the early 1960s.

The basic claim is that there is an identifiable grouping of contemporary atheists, "the new atheists" as the publishing world likes to describe them, who are engaging in the similar fallacies of reason that has afflicted past philosophical atheists of a similar attitude towards certainty and its omniscient fantasies. There is a cause of danger in describing anything as "new", because of course after forty years or so it doesn't seem that way any more; the "New Left" comes to mind (although the "new Platonists" might be an exception). From the term "new atheists" what is meant is a range of contemporary atheist thinkers, but in particular those who are especially critical of the more humanist "old atheist" project by the likes of Stephen Jay Gould's 'non-overlapping magisteria' with a view towards "scientism" (which incidentally was from the 1990s). "Scientism" is defined here as an ideological claim that empirical science is the only form of knowledge to the exclusion of all other claims. As an imperfect Bayseian set, in various guises and times the works of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennet, Krauss, and Stenger as part of this group, among others. Whilst recognising some major flaws in the non-overlapping magisteria model of Gould's, especially the distinction between science and religion, there is a partial truth that considers the existence of different types of knowledges relatively independent from the scientific, which is most explicit in the contemporary philosophical method of universal pragmatics.

It is worthwhile spending a little time on the word "scientism" and what it means in this context, especially given that it is often used by some religious advocates as a perjorative to describe scientific statements, results, and especially individuals that they don't particularly like. A better definition is available from Sorrell's description of scientism to mean the universal applicability of science and the scientific method and that science is the most valuable part of our shared culture. It is arguable however that the scientific method - with its process of formulating a question, engaging in hypotheses, predictions, testing, analysis, replication, peer review, data sharing - is not something that is necessarily only applicable to science but can and should be applied, with appropriate modifications, to other rationalisable disciplines as well. A stricter definition is comes from Schumacher or Stenmark, for both of whom the issue is that the pragmatic claims that the only forms of knowledge is factual knowledge and the suggestion that science is unlimited in its scope and can and will resolve all problems. This is what contemporary scientism has in common with philosophical and historical lineage from logical positivism.

It is a common sport among philosophers to beat up on the logical positivists and often with good reason. Included in this group is its immediate precursor, Mach, and more formally Schlick, Carnap, Neurath, Hempel, Ayer, Stevenson and, to an extent, Popper and the early Wittgenstein - another imperfect Bayesian set. Their combination of empiricism and logic sought to establish the firmest principles from which verification (or in the narrower form, confirmation) of meaningful statements could be established, but also to elucidate what were meaningless statements. The criteria of meaningful statements was whether it was possible to assert truth; only statements verifiable either by their analytical consistency or by empirical correspondence were meaningful. Which of course meant that a great deal of traditional philosophy, such as metaphysics, ontology, ethics, and aesthetics were, at best, pseudo-statements. A great deal of the debate can reviewed in articles published in the journal Mind from the early 1930s.

Despite making some enormous contributions in the philosophy of science, the school came under significant challenges by Quine's criticism of the anlaytic-synthetic distinction with contingent and networked meaning and Hanson's breaking down of the fact-theory division with recognition that all observations are theory-laden. As critical elaborations, Putnam notes that the logical positivists accounted poorly for non-observable science even accusing it of metaphysical idealism on that point, and Popper, the "official opposition" as he was called, replaced confirmation with falsification. However the most well-known contradiction in logical positivism was, however, that the verification assertion was not subject to verification istelf, and that the non-cognitivist emotivism that constituted logical positivism's ethical theory had already been exposed as a naturalistic fallacy by G. E. Moore decades prior. By the late 1960s even key advocates like Ayer would famously say that the chief defect of logical positivism is that its assertions were false.

The end of the logical positivist project also implied, at least for some, the end of the use of verification except perhaps in its weak form as confirmation, or its complement, as falsification, and certainly not as a universal application. There is a tendency for some in philosophy to return to a Kantian or Hegelian worldview and even towards more metaphysical speculations. However it is argued that it was the pragmatic limitations in logical positivism that prevented further development, not the demand for validity criteria as such. Indeed, it is arguable that the entire point of philosophy is to identify those questions in which assertions can be raised and that by which those involved in the discourse can in principle eventually sensibly answer 'yes' or 'no' to propositions, and not just propositions related to facts or coherence alone. Indeed, if this is the case in many ways what is being suggested is reviving the useful body of investigation carried out by the logical positivists and Popper and finding a new way to overcome its limitations in a manner that retains its core insights.

For the contemporary pragmatist, there are two sources for extending these concepts of reason, rationality, and falsification. The first is represented by the move from the philosophy of consciousness to linguistic philosophy, where the later Wittgenstein, Austin, and Searle are particular contributors. From this perspective the question of consciousness is shifted from the subjective and objective debate to the recognition that consciousness (con scientia, shared knowledge), is more better understood as the result of intersubjectivity. The second is the rationalisation of worlds, from an unlikely combination of Weber and especially Popper is particularly fruitful which recognises that different types of rationality seek to answer different questions. The combination of these two trajectories reaches a particular synthesis in Habermas' theory of communicative action, where worlds and orientations are expressed as a multidimensional array or matrix of rational knowledge. By cross-referencing the orientations of particular statements with the world relations the validity of claims can be assessed and unverifiable statements determined.

Two obvious questions come to mind; what type of worlds exist and what type of statements can be made? In answer to the first it is possible to ontologically - or at least phenomenologically - describe the objective world, my (or your) subjective world, and our intersubjective world or, if one likes, an external, internal, and social world. In terms of orientations, there is a continuation of the old Socratic demarcation between truth, justice, and beauty, or, to use the linguistic terms, constative, normative, and expressive validity claims. From the matrix of orientations and worlds, statements can be interpreted and validity claims raised. For example, a constative claim regarding the physical world (i.e., a question of truth) raises a different validity claim than a normative claim in the social world (i.e., a question of justness), or an expressive claim in the subjective world (e.g., a question of beauty), which are respectively in principle verifiable by their correspondence to external reality, their intersubjective consensus, and the sincerity of the subject. Attention is drawn to three martix elements that cannot, in principle, be verified - that is, normative claims to the objective world, expressive claims to the intersubjective, constative claims to subjective world. It is, for example, absurd that we could ever have a rational answer to the claim that the blueness of the sky has a any degree of moral rightness.

The following diagram is hopefully illustrative. The inner section of worlds and orientations are derived from Habermas (The Theory of Communicative Action Vol I)

Unverifiable Metaphysics

Physicalist, Symbolist, Idealist "Theology"

Physicalist, Symbolist, Idealist "Theology"

Verifiable Reality

Logical and Empirical "Philosophy"

Logical and Empirical "Philosophy"


Worlds (verification)

1. Objective or External World

2.Intersubective or Social World

3. Subjective or Internal World

1. Statements of Truth - "Sciences" (correspondence)

Scientific facts

Social facts


2. Statements of Justice - "Laws" (consensus)


Legal Norms

Moral Norms

3. Statements of Beauty – "Arts" (sincerity)

Aesthetic Expressions


Sensual Expressions

All of this, it must be mentioned, exist in a universal reality that is both empirical and logical existence regardless of the metaphysical foundation (physicalist, idealist, and symbolist) presupposed and supervenes to this matrix, or to use the repopularised term, is an irreducible emergent property thereof. Whilst as Russell warned - and even Dennett has acknowledged - we all tend to presuppose such foundations to some degree and yet to use Darwin's pithy remark, we may as well be a dog pondering on the mind of Newton when trying to validate propositions on that level. Recognition in particular is given to a propensity for many new atheists to be influenced by the unprovable metaphysic of physicalism, for example. But this is the point where the differentiation between philosophy and theological metaphysics can be made; both seek attempt to make universal statements, but only one appeals with falsifiable validity claims. Furthermore, elements in the matrix have both points of connection and conflict. For example, the core principle of legal theory is a normative orientation towards the social world. It is influenced by both institutional and procedural requirements, that is, social facts and the normative desires of a multiplicity of subjects. Finally, the elements and especially the orientations are often conflated in ordinary language; people will often describe something as being 'good' when they mean 'healthy', for example. The conflation is a issue for many points of modal confusion which would include a varieties of the naturalistic (what is natural is good) or moralistic (what is good is found in nature) fallacies.

It is on this level that much of the legitimate criticism of both the new atheists, with their metaphysical presuppositions, and the popular science media can be accused of. Barely a day goes past without some new announcement that the discovery that the "science of morality" has been discovered, or soon supercomputers will be powerful enough to accurately simulate the human mind with the hint of strong artificial intelligence, a proposition that seems to claim that if you pump /dev/random as an input stream often enough on a machine powerful enough often enough we'll end up with a thinking person at the other end. A particular debt is given to White's very recent publication which includes a cranky attack on those scientists who simultaneously profess to be only interested in facts but give clumsily expressions of the aesthetic. Combining both atheism and Romanticism, White mercilessly criticises many of those afflicted by scientism who claim the processes of evolution has provided life and a universe of dazzling beauty. How easily it has been forgotten that Gould's magesteria also included a third group of "the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty". If there's going to be a claim that the universe and life is a thing that's wonderful, amazing, marvelous, bedazzling, and a range of other adjectives as Dawkings, Hawking, Feynman, and others have used as a prefix to the noun "beauty", perhaps consideration should also be given to the remote possibility that there is more to life than just matters of factual values (yes, facts are values too). Perhaps there is no external, objective, factual account of what constitutes beauty; perhaps it is, as always, in the eye of the internal, subjective, expressive beholder.

Modal confusion can also be found be in found in moral claims. Deriving from the an evolutionary reconstruction of emotivism, literature is abound in claims that because neuropsychology is providing a science of morality. Daleidan, Harris, Dawkins, and the Churchlands, for example, are proponents of this point of view. Apparently, for example, because evolution has provided oxytocin which assists in impulse control, and impulse control aids socialbility therefore morality is objective, quod erat demonstrandum, thank you very much Churchland. If this sounds like an unfair representation, consider Harris' definition of what should constitute the axiom of morality; something is morally good if it promotes the flourishing of conscious creatures. For starters it should be fairly obvious that is not even a scientific statement. It's ambiguous, it doesn't make assertions of facts, it's naive to the point of being cute, and those who are familiar such things they will quickly recognise that's it's actually not even a moral statement at all, but rather an ethical one (specifically, a variant of utilitarianism). Even supportive reviewers like Blackford quickly recognised that such axioms as being both implausible and indicated a certain incomptence of the English language, and Piliucci saw the claims as being "properly labelled as 'scientism", which is fair enough especially given how often the term is used as misunderstood pejorative.

The particular incompetence, it must be emphasised, is a modal and pragmatic confusion. Nobody is denying the facticity that impulse control improves socialbility, or (to use Harris' own research) that fMRI analysis determines that brain responses differ between propositions that subjects judged as true, false, or undecidable. Whilst such statements of facts do providing supporting material for the ethical implementation of moral principles, they are not moral principles themselves. To assert that they do ends up with a naturalistic "just so" fallacy, what Pigilucci and Ladyman could, in another context, accurately describe as pseudoscience (or, to more accurate, a pseudomorality). Objective morality in this sense has many similarities to the absolute morality of religious fundamentalists. Rather than carrying out prescriptive actions that is pleasing to a deity, submission to evolutionary dictates is the new idol for worship. And who is it that will decide when the "flourishing of conscious creatures" commandment has been fulfilled? A new priesthood of scientific moralists, perhaps with fervent acolytes ready to pump oxytocin into those who have been determined as sufficiently asocial? Must we recall, yet again, the tens of thousands who were lobotomised, the forced sterlizations, to those who perished under the legal enforcement of scientific race theory or scientific socialism in the last century before another tragedy unfolds? Fortunately whilst moral relativism and moral objectivism lead to untenanble conclusions from their modal confusion, the alternative of universal morality, incorporates the content independence that the relativists prefer and the contextually-independent procedural standards preferred by the objectivists. It validates not on the factual content of activity, but on the informed and intersubjective consensus between the relevant participants.

Earlier reference was made to a major flaw in Gould's non-overlapping magesteria, in regards to the distinction between science and religion. Gould suggested that science should cover the empiricaly realm of factual values and processes, religion for ultimate meaning and moral value, and (almost as a footnote) artistic endeavours for the meaning of beauty. Many, especially the new atheists and some religious fundamentalists, have readily and correctly pointed out that religion and science do come into conflict and as a result the diplomatic call for a ceasefire is implausible. As Blackford points out historically religions offer explanations about everything; scientific questions, moral questions, aesthetic questions and, of course, metaphysical questions. From this perspective it is not science that religion is primarily in conflict with, but rather it is premodern metaphysical theology with modern secular philosophy. Within and between the institutions of organised religions themselves this debate continues with, arguably, an even greater ferocity than is found between science and religion. Whilst historical pre-modern idiom did not distinguish between philosophy and theology, it is certainly evident today. If a stricter, modern, magisterium were to be described it should be between the scientific and instrumental institutions, the legal an d political, and the aesthetic and entertainment - and all of these would have points of conflict and connection with modern religion and philosophy.

But it is not modern religion that the new atheists turn most of their attention to. Rather they conflate the modern post-metaphysical approaches in religion with the premodern fundamentalists, and as a result of their fervour they end up making some very embarassing howlers. Hitchens is particular example in point, apparently forgetting that Socrates claimed that his inner daimon was a sign of divine origin, claiming in stark contrast to even basic existing scholarship that the Israelites never fled Egypt or spent time in the Sinai, confusing the Hindu-derived Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh as a Buddhist sect, and engaging in the most selective scholarship and decontextualised references when he reviews the Bible. Dawkins is of course another who delights in such referencing of religious texts and events and as a result of putting up such strawmen tends to lose substantial points of debate with religious advocates like Ward and McGrath both of whom, incidentally, does a much better job at taking apart religious fundamentalists in other works. All of this is, of course, quite unfortunate, unnecessary, and to a large degree very frustrating in how distracting it is. The New Atheists have many very sensible things to say as a criticism of premodern religious beliefs which are indeed shared with modern liberal religious folk, but they leave themselves wide open to criticism when they do not engage in similar analysis of secular beliefs, and especially - given the scientism of its advocates - the misuse and abuse of scientific knowledge.

Obviously the defining identity of an atheist is the lack of belief in a God. But surely such an aggressive campaign against such a belief which, according to atheists, doesn't exist anyway, is not the main issue. The issue is of course, at least to progressive atheists, the various crimes against humanity and lapses of reason that occur under the name of religion and, it must be noted, the legal protections and elevated social status such organisations receive. Of course, if they were thinking strategically such progressive atheists would seek and find allies on these issues among liberal and secular religious folk as well - after all it's in their interest to see a decline in premodern religious fundamentalism as well. But the new atheists do not seem interested in such practical alliance work; being impractically indignant seems to be a more certain path to book sales. Likewise, when married to a belief in science as all-encompassing body of inquiry that will answer all questions, the new atheists alienate potential allies in other intellectual disciplines. Inevitably, and as a result, the new atheist movement and scientism are in some decline. It is hoped in the coming years that with more carefully considered convictions, a wider range of rational scope, a more pragmatic and strategic group of atheists will arise and succeed in their stead.

Select Bibliography

A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic, Victor Gollancz, 1946 [FP 1936]
Patricia Churchland, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality, Princeton University Press, 2011
Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, Ballantine, 2002
Jurgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action: Volume One - Reason and the Rationalization of Society, Heinemann, 1984 [FP 1981]
Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Free Press, 2010
Norwood Hanson, Patterns of Discovery: An Inquiry into the Conceptual Foundations of Science, Cambridge University Press, 1958.
Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great, Twelve Books, 2007
G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica, Cambridge University Press, 1903.
Karl-Otto Apel, Towards a Transformation of Philosophy, Routledge and Kegal Paul, 1980 [FP 1972,1973]
Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Routledge, 1959 [FP 1934]
Karl Popper, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, Clarendon Press, 1972
W.V.O. Quine, Two Dogmas of Empiricism, The Philosophical Review 60, 1951, p20-43.
E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, Harper Perennial, 1977
Thomas Sorell, Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science, Routledge, 1994
Mikael Stenmark, Scientism, in van Huyssteen, J Wentzel Vrede, Encyclopedia of Science and Religion (2nd ed.), Thomson Gale, 2003
C.L. Stevenson, Ethics and Language, Yale University Press, 1944
Curtis White, The Science Delusion, Melville House, 2013

Presentation to the Melbourne Atheist Society, 12th November, 2013