Unlike science, which is a method of attaining knowledge of the natural world, scientism refers to the claims that scientific knowledge is the only kind, and that it is the best way to attain answers to all of life’s questions, including moral and political ones. Sohrab Ahmari explores the dangers of believing in scientism:
We rarely pause to notice [that] the (very real) achievements of modern science continually beguile reason into surrendering its mandate to men and women in lab coats. Only occasionally, under the press of extraordinary calamities, do we attain the lucidity needed to pose fundamental questions anew.
There is nothing quite like a sudden and unforeseen pandemic to puncture the confidence of confident men. Scientists have calculated the age of the universe down to the smallest unit of time, penetrated into the most minuscule depths of physical reality, built self-driving cars, and on and on—yet a novel and mysterious virus can jump from a certain species of bat into Homo sapiens and wreak havoc on the modern world. Yes, science will very likely conquer the novel coronavirus (please God!). But events of this kind should shatter the illusion of scientific-technical progress toward some terminus of ultimate truth expressible in scientific or mathematical language. Nature, it seems, keeps throwing up new mysteries, keeps humbling us.
We long for a meaning science can’t supply. We wonder why we should carry on living and transmit life. We marvel at our discoveries, yes, but we also wonder why reality is intelligible to us in the first place: why, for example, do we find such beauty in the swirling shapes of galaxies, even as the sizes of these objects boggle our minds? We wonder, too, what it means to live well, what duties we owe one another and the other creatures that share the earth with us. And so on. Four centuries after it took off, the scientific outlook still can’t supply scientific answers to these fundamental questions.