One need not have phobia about science, while finding what has come to be called “scientism” intellectually distasteful. This is a familiar distinction, oft made.

What exactly is scientism? Very broadly, it is a kind of overreach in the name of science, taking it to a place beyond its proper dominion. This can happen in many ways. One way is in the making of large claims on science’s behalf, claims that are philosophical rather than scientific, yet relying—by a sleight of hand, a fallacious conflation—on the authority of science. I have written critically of one such claim in The Immanent Frame: there is nothing, no property, in nature that cannot be brought under the purview of science as a form of cognitive inquiry. The present contribution spells out some implications of these criticisms.

Those who deny such a claim—say, for instance, by asserting that nature contains value properties, which do not fall within the purview of science—are frequently dismissed as being unscientific. It is this dismissal that amounts to illicit outreach. It can only be unscientific to contradict some proposition in some science. But no science contains the proposition that science has exhaustive coverage of nature and all its properties. So, it cannot be unscientific to deny that it does.

What follows from denying it? If value properties (or more simply, values) are in the world, including nature, why does science not have full coverage of nature? Presumably because value properties are peculiar in that when we perceive them in the world (including in nature) they prompt our practical agency—not our theoretical agency; not our agency that seeks to explain and predict, but the agency that seeks to address the normative demands those perceptible values make on us. To give an example I have given before, if we see a phenomenon in the sky in meteorological terms, we might seek to explain it by invoking concepts such as H20, condensation, etc., and we might seek to predict its trajectory. But if we see the very same phenomenon at the very place in the sky in value terms—say, as a threat—it does not prompt our explanatory and predictive stances, it makes normative demands on us. We then seek to address these by exercising our practical agency, for instance by going to the local municipality to seek protection for our thatched dwellings. Value properties (such as threats) in nature1 thus fall outside the scope of science because they prompt what Immanuel Kant called “practical” reason and agency, the subject of his second Critique, quite outside the reach of physics and mathematics that are the explicit examples of the theoretical domain mentioned in the theme-setting Preface of his first Critique.

In recent years, there has been a small but growing recognition of this idea that nature, even artifice or things, are quite properly describable in terms that do not exhaustively fall within the purview of natural science, but rather make normative demands on our practical agency. However, I want to strongly dissociate myself from certain philosophical commitments that seem to others to follow from the idea that nature and “things” make normative demands on us. What I want to disavow is the claim made by some (Jane Bennett, somewhat differently by Bruno Latour) that the use of the expression “normative demands” here is literally true. Bennett explicitly commits to such an intentional vitalism in nature; Latour, more complicatedly, attributes intentions to “assemblages” constructed around nature and artifice. It is both wrong and unnecessary to make any such reckless theoretical commitments.

First, wrong.

The idea that nature makes demands on us is a metaphor. Nature contains values but their normative demands are not intentionally made. The reason is straightforward. It is a mark of what we mean by intentionality that subjects who possess intentionality are potentially appropriate targets of a certain form of criticism. I can criticize you for doing something wrong or for having destructive thoughts, as you can me. More relevantly to our present topic, I can criticize you for making certain normative demands of me—unreasonable ones, by my lights. But we don’t criticize elements in nature or artifice in the same sense. We may say “a hurricane was destructive” but that is a “criticism” only by courtesy, not the sort of criticism that you and I make of each other’s doings and thoughts and demands.

The view I oppose seeks a wider application for intentionality than my restricted one. I don’t want to dogmatically rule this out. We may cautiously admit some cases of this, but only if we have sober grounds continuous with the grounds on which we attribute human intentionality. The possibly admissible cases are not those of the intentional vitalists. Thus, we might allow, for instance, that a group or collectivity of individual human subjects has intentionality. This is quite different from saying that elements in nature or “things” have intentionality. A group of individual human subjects might be said, qua group, to have intentionality, precisely because it can engage in the deliberative structure of thought and decision that individual human subjects do. This happens, say, when individuals in the group put aside their individual preferences and think from the point of view of the group, bestowing on the group a singular point of view. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s contractualism may be read as viewing the general will to be the outcome of such a group reasoner and decision-maker. And that is precisely why we can criticize the group (a corporation) over and above criticizing individuals (its CEO). We may extend the criticism and even punish the corporation (rather than the CEO) by fining it. But elements in nature and things do not possess or carry out any such deliberative structure or process, so there is no similar ground for attributing intentionality to them, nor, as a consequence, intelligibly criticizing or punishing such elements. That is why talk of nature making normative demands on us is metaphorical in a way that it need not be in the case of a group, and certainly is not in the case of individual human subjects.

Second, unnecessary.

There is no theoretical advantage in multiplying notions of intentionality, one that human individuals (and perhaps groups of human individuals) literally possess, as well as another that things in the world (including nature) also literally possess; conversely, no disadvantage, nothing we lose, in conceding that the idea that nature makes normative demands on us is a metaphor. Why not? Because it is not a metaphor that can be paraphrased away without loss of meaning and information. It is not a dispensable metaphor. And the crucial point is that when we say a metaphor can’t be paraphrased away, we are not merely putting forward a linguistic thesis about a certain figure of speech. The linguistic thesis that a metaphor is not paraphrasable away has a metaphysical counterpart. To make the linguistic claim is simultaneously to make the following metaphysical claim: there is an aspect or a fragment of reality, which can only be captured by that metaphor. And the reality that is captured by the metaphorical attribution of intentionality to things, to elements in nature, when we say that they make normative demands on us, is as authentic as any reality that literal attributions of intentionality describe. It is just not the same reality. It is not intentionality.

Thus, without compromising at all the significance of the fact that value properties are in nature, making normative demands on us, I can still disavow intentional vitalism.

I began by joining many in distinguishing science from scientism. Let me close with a vexing question, which must be left to another occasion, if for no other reason than that, at the moment, I have no answer to it, not even a useful way to think about it. Even so, it is a question that surely occurs to all who have reflected on the nature of science and scientism. If the point of the distinction is that one should be able to keep separate science itself from the overreach for science that scientism seeks, we can’t avoid asking: how separate can they be kept? It is certainly true that they are logically separate. There is no logical link between science and scientism of this sort. One does not entail the other. But might it be that there is a predisposition in the kind of thing science is that it leads to overreaching claims on its behalf. Philosophers ranging from Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger through Mohandas Gandhi to Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, have written to suggest an affirmative answer to this question. In doing so, they take it for granted that the notion of a “predisposition” here is a clear and transparent one. Are they right? Noam Chomsky, too, has suggested that science is too often conceived in such a way that it is predisposed along these lines; and has sought to correct some of the assumptions that underlie such a conception of science. As I said, themes to be explored on another occasion.

  1. In “A superstition of modernity” in the TIF project “Is this all there is,” I try to give an argument for why the threat really is in nature and not a mere projection of our vulnerability onto nature.