The limits of scientism

The mantra ‘following the science’ has become a commonplace of the coronavirus vocabulary.

A scientist in a laboratory
A scientist in a laboratory

The mantra ‘following the science’ has become a commonplace of the coronavirus vocabulary. And indeed, social distancing represents a virtually unparalleled opportunity for scientists to shape human norms. One metre or two metres? Should face masks be worn inside? How politicians choose to interpret the deliberations of science determines whether businesses fail or survive – even whether we can hug our friends.

Much of modern European thought can be divided up into periods of truce between the humanities and the natural sciences and periods when the two sharply diverge.

Renaissance education handbooks were dominated by rhetorical models drawn from Classical thinkers like Aristotle. The humanist thinker Petrus Ramus declared boldly that logical maxims could be applied uniformly to just about any aspect of human affairs: ‘Grammaire, Rhétorique, Logique, Mathématique, Méchanique, Physique, Ethique, Politique, des loix divines et humaines et generallement de tous ars.’

The methods were pretty crude – argument in utrumque partem and syllogistic reasoning feature prominently. The sceptical philosopher, Montaigne, ridiculed the ambitious exponents of the scientific method: ‘Ils laissent là les choses, et s’amusent à traiter les causes. Plaisants causeurs.’

All the grand language of reasoning and order, Montaigne argues, leaves men ‘plaisants causeurs’: mere prattlers occupied with general rules, rather than with the facts of the matter.

The Renaissance argument about the value of the scientific method in the practice of human affairs did not go away – indeed, in the nineteenth century, positivist thinkers like Helvetius and Saint-Simon began to advocate a highly centralised political order administered by wise social planners – a vision of technological and human progress pursued in step with each other which has haunted 20th century culture.

Indeed, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film Alphaville features a city of the future (although it was shot in the newly constructed banlieues in Paris – sans CGI) ruled by a vast supercomputer which is programmed to eradicate love, loneliness and fear in the name of order and progress: ‘Rest assured that my decisions always have in view the ultimate good,’ it tells us.

When the claims of science are fused with the related claims of political life and the conditions under which we choose to obey other people, we should remember Montaigne’s warning: never confuse ‘causes’ – and the fruits of imperfect human reasoning – for ‘things’ as they really are.

Science has its proper place – at its best, it calls us to make our decisions in the light of reason. But to claim to follow ‘the science’ is to be deceived, like Ramus, that reason always leads us in the same direction. Perhaps, it’s time to nudge the debate in the other direction, to look less to what the classification of knowledge can divulge, and more to the workings of the human personality, in all its mystery and confusing offshoots.


Alastair Benn