Book Review: Scientism, by John Cowburn SJ

– Tom Uytterhoeven –

(An expanded version of this review will be published, together with many more reviews and reports on recent developments in the field of science and religion, in the next issue of ESSSAT-News. See here for more info on ESSSAT-membership)

Is scientism a word we need, and if so: for what purposes do we need it? This is the core question of this book. Cowburn offers the following definition of scientism in the first chapter: “(…), the belief that science can explain and do everything: it is the belief that science and reason, or scientific and rational, are co-extensive terms.” (p. 14) He argues for a distinction between different approaches within science, and between science and scientism respectively.

Throughout the book, however, it seems that the distinctions between science and scientism are at times blurred, as becomes most apparent in chapter nine, on scientism and religion. In this chapter, Cowburn focuses strongly on conflict between science and religion, thereby conflating science and scientism. Should we not use the word ‘scientism’ precisely in this context, to enable us to conceive of other forms of relation between science and religion, beyond conflict? For, as Cowburn himself suggests in the introduction to the ninth chapter: “Many scientists have believed, and many now believe, in God and belong to one or another Christian church. (…) That is, they believe in science, not scientism, as one can be rational without being a rationalist.” (p. 112)

In the last chapter, somewhat detached from the flow of the rest of his book, Cowburn offers a hierarchy of levels of reality, claiming that “(…) physics is the most fundamental of the sciences but it is the lowest, not the highest.” (p. 155)

By not entirely achieving what the book set out to do, namely delineating clearly what scientism is, it makes it clear that without a proper distinction between ‘science’ and ‘scientism’ one risks seeing conflict as the only possible relation between science and other disciplines, such as religion. In that regard, we indeed need the word “scientism”.

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