Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism

By Blair, Anthony L. | Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism


Blair, Anthony L., Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith


MONOPOLIZING KNOWLEDGE: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism by Ian Hutchinson. Belmont, MA: Fias Publishing, 2011. 261 pages. Paperback; $18.95. ISBN: 9780983702306.

In his marvelous work Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe (2007), reviewed earlier in this journal, Richard G. Olson uncovered and explored the roots and patterns of the scientism that emerged in nineteenth-century Europe, particularly in the aspirations to scientific credibility evident in Saint-Simon socialism, positivism, and even biblical higher criticism. In The Unraveling of Scientism: American Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century (2003), Joseph Margolis continues and attempts to complete this narrative by sounding the death knell for analytic philosophy, of which scientism is a prime example, in the work of W. V. Quine and others in the mid- to late twentieth century. While both narratives are ultimately critical of the agenda and methodologies of scientism, they adopt a historical/narrative stance that imparts a certain academic objectivity.

Not so with the present volume. Ian Hutchinson finds scientism to be alive and well, perhaps even the dominant worldview of early twenty-first-century America, and seeks to demolish it in the cause of faith and truth. "It [scientism] is an awkward, ugly word and that's fine with me, because I think it's an awkward, ugly and erroneous world view" (p. vii). Elsewhere, "scientism is a ghastly intellectual mistake" (p. 1), a harmful contributor to unnecessary confrontations between science and religion but also limiting to other means of seeking knowledge that lies outside of that which is claimed to be "scientific." Olson and Margolis had defined scientism largely within the parameters earlier identified by economist F. A. Hayek: the attempt to lay claim to the epistemological credibility of the natural sciences through adoption of presumptively parallel methodologies by other disciplines and fields of inquiry. Hutchinson expands this definition somewhat:

   Scientism is the belief that all valid knowledge is
   science. Scientism says, or at least implicitly assumes,
   that rational knowledge is scientific, and
   everything else that claims the status of knowledge
   is just superstition, irrationality, emotion, or nonsense.
   (p. 1)

He thus seeks to restrict the adjective "scientific" to the activities of the natural sciences alone.

There is a polemical tone to this work. This doubtless reflects the book's intended audience, which is the educated layperson (whom Hutchinson anachronistically addresses as "gentle" or "dear reader" periodically throughout the text). The volume has an epistolary feel to it, as though a more knowledgeable elder brother were warning the less informed sibling against running with the wrong crowd and admonishing her toward a less popular but more helpful society of friends. As a result, it touches lightly on a wide variety of subtopics, addressing few of them with the nuance or subtlety that the academically trained readers of this journal are likely to prefer. As an intellectual historian, I found myself quibbling and cringing on occasion as I read his "fly-over" survey of the evolution of science as means of inquiry, epistemological method, and academic profession. But might there be a need for a more accessible exploration of the intents and limits of scientism?

Perhaps. But such an exploration has already been offered--and in more helpful volumes. One such is Michael D. Aeschliman's The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism (1998), which, yes, draws heavily upon Lewis's argument in The Abolition of Man but ranges far beyond him, a well-written, well researched study designed for the literate layperson. …

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