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Advocates of the doctrine of scientism believe that the boundaries of science (that is, typically the natural sciences) could and should be expanded in such a way that something that has not previously been understood as science can now become a part of science. Thus a possible synonym to scientism is scientific expansionism. How exactly the boundaries of science should be expanded and what more precisely is to be included within science are issues on which there is disagreement.

Scientism in one version or another has probably been around as long as science has existed. From about 1970 to 2000, however, a number of distinguished natural scientists, including Francis Crick (b. 1916), Richard Dawkins (b. 1941), and Edward O. Wilson (b. 1929), have advocated scientism in one form or another. Some promoters of scientism are more ambitious in their extension of the boundaries of science than others. In its most ambitious form, scientism states that science has no boundaries: eventually science will answer all human problems. All the tasks human beings face will eventually be solved by science alone.

Epistemic and ontological scientism

The most common way of defining scientism is to say that it is the view that science reveals everything there is to know about reality. Scientism is an attempt to expand the boundaries of science in such a way that all genuine (in contrast to apparent) knowledge must either be scientific or at least be reducible to scientific knowledge. This epistemological form of scientism must be distinguished from its ontological form: The view that the only reality that exists is the one science has access to. One common way of stating ontological scientism is to maintain that nothing is real but material particles and their interaction. Ontological scientism entails epistemic scientism, but epistemic scientism does not entail ontological scientism. This is because one can affirm the view that knowledge obtainable by scientific method exhausts all knowledge and yet deny that whatever is not mentioned in the theories of science does not exist. One can do this because epistemic scientism does not preclude the existence of things that cannot be discovered by scientific investigation or experimentation. If there are such things, all it says is that one cannot obtain knowledge about them. Epistemic scientism sets the limits of human knowledge but not, like ontological scientism, the limits of reality.

It is often taken for granted that scientism and traditional religions such as Christianity and Islam are incompatible. But this is not necessarily the case. If, for instance, religion is taken to deal essentially with value questions, religion can be compatible with the epistemic and ontological forms of scientism. Of course, many believers are not satisfied with such a conception of religion. They claim that God really exists, that one can know that God is love, and so on. Are not such religious beliefs then incompatible with scientism? After all, scientism denies that it is possible to obtain knowledge of God or of a divine reality (epistemic scientism) and that there exists a transcendent or nonphysical reality beyond the physical universe (ontological scientism). But to the contrary, scientism does not necessarily deny these things. While Dawkins, Crick, Wilson, and others think along these lines, they could be wrong on scientific grounds. This is possible because all that scientism claims is that religious beliefs must satisfy the same conditions as scientific hypotheses to be knowable, rationally believable, or about something real. Scientists like Dawkins, Crick, and Wilson take for granted that religious beliefs cannot meet these requirements, which could of course be questioned. The British philosopher Richard Swinburne (b. 1934), among others, argues that theism can be confirmed by evidence in much the same way that evidence supports scientific hypotheses. Therefore, scientism cannot be equated with scientific naturalism or scientific materialism.

Value scientism and existential scientism

Another way of expanding the boundaries of science is to maintain that not only can science fully explain morality, but it can also replace traditional ethics and tell people how they morally ought to behave. Ethics can be reduced to or translated into science. However, for a claim to be scientistic in this sense, it must maintain more than that science is relevant to ethics. Nobody would deny that. It must rather state that science is the sole, or at least the most important, source for developing a moral theory and explaining moral behavior. There are advocates of this axiological form of scientism (called value scientism ) within the ranks of evolutionary biology. Part of the idea is that evolutionary theory is rich enough to fully explain morality. The explanation is, roughly, that morality exists and continues to exist because it emerged and continues to function as a strategy adapted to secure the fitness of the individuals or of their genes. Some, like Wilson, even think that evolutionary biologists will be able to discover a genetically accurate and completely fair code of ethics and thus provide people with scientific, moral knowledge.

Defenders of scientism can also go beyond morality and expand the boundaries of science so that religion or existential questions fall within its scope. Existential scientism is the view that science alone can explain and replace traditional religion. Dawkins, for instance, maintains that since the advent of modern science, people no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with deep problems such as "Is there a meaning to life?" and "What are we for?" because science is capable of dealing with all these questions and constitutes in addition the only alternative to superstition. Wilson claims that science can explain religion as a whole material phenomenon and suggests that scientific naturalism or materialism should replace religion.

Some advocates of scientism endorse both value scientism and existential scientism. However, it is important to distinguish these two forms. It is possible to affirm that evolutionary theory is the sole, or at least the most important, source for developing a moral theory and explaining moral behavior, while at the same time to deny that biology or any other science can explain the meaning of human life or fulfill the role of religion in peoples' lives. One could maintain that evolutionary theory can show which ethical principles should be used when trying to solve moral problems concerning (e.g., abortion, population growth, conflicts between people of different classes, genders, or races) and stop there, thereby accepting that the choice of religion or worldview is beyond the scope of science.

Thus value scientism does not entail existential scientism. But does existential scientism entails value scientism? This is less clear. Religions and worldviews generally include some ideas about how people should live and what a good life is. If this is correct then the acceptance of existential scientism implies also an acceptance of value scientism. But, on the other hand, it is perhaps possible to say that science alone can answer some existential questions and thus that science can partially replace religion. In other words, one doubts or denies that science can, so to speak, deliver the whole package in the shape of a complete worldview. If this is so, one could maintain, like Dawkins, that every organism's sole reason for living is that of being a machine for propagating DNA, but still deny that science can offer ethical guidelines for how people should conduct their lives. Science can answer, at least, some existential questions, but it can not solve moral problems.

The relation between different forms of scientism

What then is the relation of value scientism and existential scientism to the first two forms of scientism? Neither value scientism nor existential scientism entails epistemic scientism or ontological scientism. It is coherent to claim that science can answer moral questions and replace traditional ethics or that science can answer existential questions and replace traditional religion, without maintaining that the only knowable reality or the only reality that exists is the one science has access to. Although there is no logically necessary connection between the two later forms, on the one hand, and the two earlier forms of scientism, on the other, these are, nevertheless, often combined.

This variety of forms of scientism shows that one should not equate scientism with scientific naturalism or materialism because there are possible forms of scientism that do not entail an acceptance of scientific materialism or naturalism. This variety also demonstrates that the relation between scientism and traditional religions is not a given. Only between existential scientism and traditional religions is there a direct conflict. Other forms of scientism may be compatible with traditional religions.

The main criticism directed against scientism is that its advocates, in their attempt to expand the boundaries of science, rely in their argument not merely on scientific but also on philosophical premises and that scientism therefore is not science proper.

See also Materialism; Naturalism; Physicalism, Reductive and Nonreductive; Value; Worldview


almeder, robert. harmless naturalism: the limits of science and the nature of philosophy. chicago: open court, 1998.

crick, francis. the astonishing hypothesis: the scientific search for the soul. new york: scribners, 1994.

dawkins, richard. the selfish gene, 2nd edition. oxford and new york: oxford university press, 1989.

midgley, mary. science as salvation: a modern myth and its meaning. london: routledge, 1992.

olafson, frederick a. naturalism and the human condition: against scientism. london: routledge, 2001.

smith, huston. why religion matters: the fate of the human spirit in an age of disbelief. san francisco: harper, 2001.

sorell, tom. scientism: philosophy and the infatuation with science. london: routledge, 1991.

stenmark, mikael. scientism: science, ethics and religion. aldershot, uk: ashgate, 2001.

swinburne, richard. is there a god? oxford: oxford university press, 1996.

wilson, edward o. on human nature. cambridge, mass.: harvard university press, 1978.

mikael stenmark

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Scientism, in a broad sense, is a belief in the superiority of science as a way of understanding. There are many different forms or aspects of this belief, but from the perspective of the social sciences, two aspects of scientism have assumed major significance. These are methodological scientism, the view that the methods of the natural sciences are the most (or only) appropriate way of understanding social phenomena, and reductionist scientism or physicalism, the view that mental and social phenomena can be reduced to or explained in terms of the concepts of the physical sciences. While scientism is sometimes used as a positive term by advocates of such positions, it is typically a pejorative label employed by critics.

While scientism has its roots in the work of Francis Bacon, Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and other pre-twentieth-century writers, the term itself was first used by French writers in the 1930s. It was introduced into English by the economist Friedrich A. von Hayek (18991992) in several publications in the 1940s that were later collected in his book The Counter-Revolution of Science (1952). Hayek presented several arguments that later became central to critiques of scientism:

  1. that meaning and intention are essential to understanding human action and social phenomena generally and that these are not reducible to physical terms;
  2. that the social sciences seek to understand unique, particular phenomena as well as those that can be subsumed under general laws and that context is essential to explaining such phenomena; and
  3. that much of the quantification prevalent in the social sciences is inappropriate, copying the form rather than the substance of physical science.

These arguments are prominent in what later became known as the interpretive approach to social science. The German theorist Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) raised additional arguments against scientism, challenging the traditional separation of science and politics as well as asserting the social sciences need for interpretive and situation-specific understanding.

While the reductionist version of scientism has sometimes been promoted by physical scientists and philosophers, twentieth-century debate in the social sciences largely focused on methodological issues and the ontological assumptions that inform them. The main arguments against scientism have been grounded in social constructivism, the view that we construct, rather than simply discover, the nature of the world. This view entails that scientific knowledge is simply one construction among others and has no exclusive claim to preeminence or truth. These arguments have informed both the methodological debates in the social sciences, often called the paradigm wars, between quantitative and qualitative approaches and the broader critique of science itself (the science wars), most prominently in what has been called the critical sociology of science. The latter combines social constructivism with Habermass political analysis of science to argue that the authority of scientific knowledge derives not from any legitimate claim to truth about the world but from the rhetorical and political strategies used by scientists to promote their claims.

The paradigm wars were widely seen as waning during the last decade of the twentieth century, accompanied by increased acceptance of qualitative and interpretive research and the rise of what has been called mixed methods research, combining qualitative and quantitative approaches. In the early twenty-first century, however, scientistic views have gained renewed prominence and political support, particularly in British and American educational policies, where experimental methods have been promoted as science-based research, in opposition to the diversity of methods traditionally used in educational research. Attempts have been made to develop a middle-ground position, although some of these have been criticized as still incorporating scientistic assumptions.

Philosophers have also attempted to develop a middle ground between scientism and radical constructivism. One such attempt is the development of critical realism as an alternative to both empiricism and constructivism. Critical realism combines a constructivist epistemology (our understanding of the world is to a significant extent socially constructed) with a realist ontology (the world exists independently of our constructions and influences the success of those constructions). Similar views are widespread in the philosophy of science. A parallel critique has challenged the narrowly logical definition of science and scientific method promoted by positivist philosophers and emphasizes the grounding of scientific methods and understanding in our commonsense activities as inquirers. In combination these arguments support both the methodological and the antireductionist critiques of scientism and promote a broader understanding of science that is compatible with methodological and conceptual diversity. They do so while avoiding the relativism of radical constructivism and affirming the value for the social sciences of scientific concepts, such as causal explanation.

SEE ALSO Epistemology; Science


Haack, Susan. 2003. Defending Sciencewithin Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1971. Knowledge and Human Interests. Trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon.

Hayek, Friedrich A. von. 1952. The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Sorell, Tom. 1991. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. London: Routledge.

Joseph A. Maxwell

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