Science as the Conceptual Foundation of Human Thought: Two Cases of Scientism

Merrill Ring 

I shall be examining cases drawn from philosophical reflection on two sciences, biology and chemistry, that are quite alike in that philosophical thought about them has ended up indulging in scientism. Scientism is the idea that all forms of intellectual inquiry must conform to the model(s) of science in order to be rational.[1] However, the name 'scientism' is a pejorative: no one who holds the view in question will refer to it as scientism. Thus to claim that some view is scientistic is to both describe it and criticize it.

However, the charge of scientism is often a protest not against that general view of the conduct of intellectual life but against some particular idea that (1) rests on nothing more than the belief that it is an established piece of science and (2) does not consider criticism of the idea. It is that latter version of the charge of scientism that is relevant here.

Contemporary biology, thoroughly infused with, and unintelligible apart from, evolutionary theory, has accepted a new view of what constitutes a biological species. The traditional idea, in biology and outside, was that a biological species is a class, a kind, something that is spread out through time and space whose members qualify for inclusion in the species by sharing some type of property, some characteristics. But today biology holds that a biological species is a lineage[2], a historically organized sequence of individuals. Each individual in a lineage has come into being from others in the sequence and has the biological wherewithal to make reproductive contributions to the continuation of the sequence.

Some philosophers have derived philosophical consequences from that view. (I have in mind particularly David Hull and Michael Ruse.[3]) The following is a case Hull has produced. Suppose we are aboard the first Earthian space ship to arrive at a distant planet, call it Bucephalus. Once there, we encounter some native creatures who greatly resemble what back on Earth are horses. They are of similar size, eat (the equivalent of) hay, love our sugar cubes, whinny when scratched behind the ears, can be broken to be ridden, etc. etc. (Perhaps they also have, say some odd tufts of hair that our horses never have.)

Assuming that there is no possibility of previous contact between Earth and Buchephalus, the philosopher impressed with the biological definition of species (as Hull is) claims that the Buchephalean creatures cannot be horses. For they are not, given the stipulations, individuals within the Earthian lineage that constitutes the horse species. And despite the very extensive morphological and behavioral similarities, the failure to be of that lineage means that they cannot be horses.

What ought to be said about that view? First, to declare that those creatures on Bucephalus are not horses and to do so on the grounds that contemporary biology would not classify them as belonging to the same species as Earthian horses, is to indulge in scientism. That is, the charge is that to deny horsehood of those creatures on Bucephalus because they are not of the Earthian lineage is to privilege a claim for no other reason than it is taken to be a consequence of an accepted scientific theory.

Now for a major warning: while Hull and other philosophers claim to be speaking for biology and science in this matter, it is not clear that they are. Hence the scientism here may be only that something is taken to be true because the philosopher takes it to be a claim made by science – or, more likely, takes it to be a matter that is a consequence of a biological view. Whether biologists generally would make the claim, and would continue to do so in the face of such criticism as I am developing here, has never been established.  Hence, Hull's thesis is not a thesis in biology but a thesis by a philosophers derived from reflection on biology.

What, on the contrary, might be said? Evolutionary biology has come to the view that for purposes of understanding the nature and place of creatures, it is best to say that a species is to be thought of as a lineage. There is no trouble with that claim - unless of course the biological community comes to think that there is. The philosophical problem arises when Hull (and others) appropriate the name 'horse' as a biological species name, i.e. as a lineage name, and then claim that it cannot properly, correctly, be used otherwise, i.e. as we would be using it were we to call the Bucephalean creatures 'horses'.

To put the objection crudely, the philosopher who makes that claim (and the biologists who may or may not so use the term) have no right in the absence of satisfactory argument, which has not been made, to the name 'horse'. The only thing that suggests that they have such a right is a piece of ideology, namely scientism. For 'horse' is a perfectly good term of ordinary life and horses are perfectly familiar animals for human beings. Should we land on Bucephalus and make the discovery discussed, it would not be in the slightest mistaken or irrational, even knowing contemporary evolutionary biology full well, to call those creatures 'horses' and to treat them as horses.

We can say to the philosopher of biology and to the biologist  'Look, "horse" is not a technical term of biology and hence you are not in a position to correct us by claiming that the creatures on Bucephalus are not horses. What you are entitled to say, given biological theory, is that those creatures on Bucephalus are not of the species Equus ferus caballus[4] - for only creatures of a certain Earthian lineage are members of that species so named.[5]

Note a consequence of my claim: if that discovery of the Bucephalean creatures were made, in learning biology one would have to learn that not all horses belong to the species Equus ferus caballus. That is not odd at all – for not all horses previously existing on Earth were of that (sub-)species either.

It should be obvious that there is considerable similarity between the situation with respect to horses and biological terminology and the more famous issue raised by Hilary Putnam concerning Twin Earth adventurers and the matter of water being H20.[6] Putnam's claim is that the stuff found on Twin Earth is not water despite its water like appearance and behavior under normal conditions. The ground offered for that thesis is that the Twin Earth stuff has the chemical formula XYZ and not, as water on Earth, H20. Now to deny the common name 'water' to that stuff on Twin Earth on the sole ground that we learn from chemistry that water is H20 is once again a piece of scientism. Chemists were not asked by Putnam and friends what they might say if the substance on Twin Earth behaves as it does and yet has the formula XYZ – it is philosophers who declare it not water (and do so without considering alternatives).[7]

Contrary to Putnam, it is neither incorrect nor irrational for the crew of the space ship first splashing down upon Twin Earth and taking their first cooling drink of it to declare that here there be water, even after they have taken out their chemical analysis kits and done some testing: 'Well I'll be: this water has a different chemical composition than the stuff back home' is not at all absurd and may be favored in the long run by intelligent people.

The problem here is slightly different from the Bucephalean case. For in that, the reigning scientific theory does say that lineages are species and so we might have resort to the distinction between 'horse' and 'Equus ferus caballus' to solve the cramp. In the case of water it is not certain that there is a conflict between chemical theory and any inclination to call the Twin Earth stuff 'water'. It might turn out that chemists would stop talking about water entirely and retain only the terminology of 'H20' and 'XYZ'. They might conclude that their aim is discover natural kinds, that the natural kinds they are interested in can only be specified in terms of chemical formulae and that water, given both Earth and Twin Earth, can be either one of the two natural kinds. (And biologists might drop 'horse' and allow that the name 'horse' is not part of their province other than noticing that horses include several biological species.

If at this point a Putnamian insists that that road can't be walked, then what appears is a new and slightly different manifestation of scientism. For then it would be being claimed that the aim of science is not to discover natural kinds but to provide accounts of nature that correct our misguided ordinary accounts of things. That move, however, builds into the very aims of science a view that it must be privileged in a very special way.

One important point to recognize: I am not claiming that whenever there is an ostensible conflict as in the above cases, the ordinary view must be privileged against science. That too would be wrong. Consider the case of emeralds. It turns out that the stones historically called 'emeralds' have been of various chemical compositions. The upshot has been that those interested in the emerald trade have come to accept only one of those chemical compositions as being legitimately that of emeralds, that to be an emerald a mineral must have the composition Be3Al2(S1O3)6. Notice here that it is not science that has forced the issue – rather collectors and dealers in rare stones have been behind the narrowing of what emeralds are - from, roughly, 'precious green stone' to 'stone of chemical composition PQR'. We similarly might if we like decide that the creatures on Bucephalus are not horses, but some very similar beings and that the liquid on Twin Earth is not water, water being only H20. But that would not be an outcome forced upon us by rationality and the importance of science.



1. For a good account of scientism see P.M.S. Hacker, 'Wittgenstein and the Autonomy of Humanistic Understanding', in Wittgenstein, Theory and the Arts, ed. by Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey, 2001, Routledge; available on the web at Section 1 is especially relevant to understanding what scientism is.

2. The standard term in biology for this notion is that a species is a population. Since this is a philosophy paper and is considering philosophical thought, I use David Hull's term 'lineage' rather than the standard biological 'population'.

3. The actual example of the other planet and a horse-like creature I heard at a presentation by David Hull at a conference on evolutionary theory held at California State University Fullerton. Hull's chief theoretical paper on the issues (one that includes a mention of horses) is David L. Hull, 1978, A Matter of Individuality, Philosophy of Science 45:335-360; reprinted in Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology, E. Sober (ed.), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984; and in The Units of Evolution, M. Ereshefsky (ed.), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992. Ruse's view is best found in Michael Ruse, The Philosophy of Biology, London: Hutchinson, 1973  (also available in Spanish, Russian and Italian translations)

4. Equus ferus caballus is strictly a subspecies of the wild horse Equus ferus – other subspecies have died out (E. ferus ferus) or are hanging on narrowly (E. ferus przewalskii).

5. In a completely different context later in the same paper, Hull actually makes my point: "If pets or computers function as human beings, then from certain perspectives they might well count as human beings even though they are not included in the biological species Homo sapiens".

6. The major paper Is Hilary Putnam, 'The Meaning of "Meaning"', 1975, reprinted in his Philosophical Papers, Vol II: Mind, Language and Reality, Cambridge University Press.

7.  Chemists have a more difficult time imagining that XYZ and H20 are so close in appearance, etc. than is true of the biological case.  They need to be reminded that this is a science fiction case about imaginability and intelligibility. Moreover, as many others have pointed out, H3O, heavy water, does occur on Earth and is called a kind of water.