The universe is neither clockwork nor alive

What follows and doesn't follow from rejecting scientism

Max Weber famously saw modernity as having a disenchanting effect: modern science removed the mystery and moral significance from natural events that religion previously bestowed on them. But philosophers have come to recognize that this disenchantment only follows if we espouse scientism – the idea that science can offer a complete description of nature. What’s less clear is what follows from rejecting scientism. Some philosophers believe that we should re-enchant nature, seeing it as alive, as having intentions and making moral demands on us. However, that doesn’t follow from disavowing scientism. When we say that nature “threatens us” or “punishes us” we are using metaphor, even if that metaphor reveals something metaphysically deep, writes Akeel Bilgrami.


One need have no phobia about science whatever, indeed may admire some of its achievements greatly, while finding what has come to be called ‘scientism’ intellectually distasteful.   This is a familiar distinction, oft made.

But while there might be a degree of agreement among philosophers that scientism is a bad thing, it’s not obvious what’s supposed to follow from its rejection. One thing that does follow is that there are properties in nature that aren’t captured by scientific descriptions of nature, like moral properties. What does not follow, however, contrary to what some philosophers believe, is that nature itself literally makes moral demands on us.

What exactly is scientism?  Very broadly, it is a kind of overreach in the name of science, taking it (at least as we know science to be in its present form and methods) to a place that is no part of its proper dominion.  This can happen in many ways.  One way is this: the making of large claims on science’s behalf, claims that are philosophical rather than scientific, but relying --by a sleight of hand, a fallacious conflation-- on the authority of science.  Here is a familiar example: there is nothing, no property, in nature that cannot be brought under the purview of natural science as a form of cognitive inquiry.   This is the chief claim of the philosophical doctrine that sometimes goes by the name of ‘naturalism’

No science contains the proposition that science has exhaustive coverage of nature and all its properties.

Those who deny such a claim - say, for instance, by asserting that nature contains value properties, which do not fall within the purview of natural science - are frequently dismissed as being unscientific.  It is that dismissal which amounts to illicit outreach or overreach.  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 rejecting scientism

Yet, let’s be sure what exactly 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 which seeks to explain and predict, but the agency which seeks to address the normative demands that those perceptible values make on us. Suppose, for instance, that we see a phenomenon in the sky and think of it in meteorological terms. We might seek to explain it, to predict when it will next occur, and we would in our explanations and predictions deploy concepts such as H20, condensation, etc.  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, and we seek to address these by exercising our practical agency, for instance by going to the local municipal authorities to seek protection for our thatched dwellings. Value properties (such as threats) in nature, thus, fall outside the scope of science because they prompt what 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 (or to use Kant’s word ‘speculative’) domain mentioned in the theme-setting Preface of his first Critique.

Value properties in nature fall outside the scope of science because they prompt what Kant called ‘practical’ reason and agency.

What I am calling the superstition of the modern period would simply deny that ‘threats’ are properties in nature, claiming instead that when we talk of what we see in the horizon as an impending threat, we are not talking of any real property in nature, we are merely and illicitly projecting our vulnerability onto nature. But this scientistic stance has no explanation of how something viewed merely in scientific terms (H20, condensation…) should generate in us a feeling of vulnerability.  Threats and vulnerabilities go together.  There is a chasm between something like H20 and vulnerability and we have no explanatory account  that science can construct to bridge that chasm.

What does not follow from rejecting scientism

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, here I want to strongly dissociate myself from a certain set of 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 in any sense literally true.  Bennett seems to explicitly commit herself to such an intentional vitalism in nature, Latour has a more complicated position attributing intentions to ‘assemblages’ constructed around nature and artifice.  I think it is both wrong and unnecessary to make any such reckless theoretical commitments. Here are very briefly stated reasons for each.

First, it’s wrong.

I have said that when we perceive value properties in the world (including nature), they –unlike the properties that natural science studies-- make normative demands on our practical agency. But the idea that nature makes demands on us is, strictly speaking, a metaphor. It does not literally make normative demands on us in the way that we, human subjects intentionally voice normative demands on each other. Nature, in that sense, does not contain states of mind like intentions, beliefs, desires, etc. The reason for this is quite straightforward.  It is a mark or an implication of what we mean by intentionality (i.e., states of mind of this sort) that subjects who possess them are the sorts of subjects that 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 it makes no sense to criticize elements in nature or artifice in the same sense. We can say of a hurricane that it is 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.  Those who have proposed that there is no reason to restrict intentionality to human intentionality have said that there are ‘actants’ over and above actors and that intentionality is a property that has wider application than I am suggesting.

The idea that nature makes demands on us is, strictly speaking, a metaphor.

It’s not that I want to dogmatically rule this out. We may cautiously admit some cases of this, but only if we have sober grounds that are continuous with the grounds on which we attribute human intentionality.  The possibly admissible cases I have in mind are nothing like what is being suggested by the intentional vitalists I am inveighing against. Thus, we might allow, for instance, that a group or collectivity of human subjects, something that does not coincide with an individual human animal, has intentionality.  This is quite different from saying that elements in nature or ‘things’ have intentionality.  A group or collectivity 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.  On some plausible readings of Rousseau’s contractualism, the general will aspired to be the outcome of such a group reasoner and decision-maker. And that is precisely why we can criticize the group (a corporation, say) over and above criticizing individuals (its CEO, say). We may extend the criticism and even punish the corporation (rather than the CEO) by, say, fining it.  But elements in nature and things do not possess or carry out any such deliberative structure or process and 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, it’s unnecessary.

We can say of a hurricane that it is 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.

Unlike, the positions I am opposing, I don’t think there is any 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.  There might have been an advantage in saying this if there was a disadvantage, something we lose, in conceding that the idea that nature makes normative demands on us is a metaphor.  But nothing is lost in conceding something like that.  Why not?  Because it is not a metaphor that can be paraphrased away. It is not a dispensable metaphor. And the crucial point is that when we point out that 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 at the same time to make the following metaphysical claim:  there is an aspect or a fragment of reality, which can only be captured by that metaphor.  And WHAT IS CONVEYED BY the metaphorical attribution of intentionality to things, to elements in nature, when we say that they make normative demands on us,  IS AS REAL as any reality that literal attributions of intentionality describe.  It is just not the same reality. It is not intentionality.

To make the linguistic claim is at the same time to make the following metaphysical claim: there is an aspect or a fragment of reality, which can only be captured by that metaphor.

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

Does science have a predisposition to overreach?

I began this brief essay by joining many in distinguishing science from scientism.  I want to close with a vexing and interesting question, which must be left to another occasion, if for no other reason than that, at the moment, not only do I not have any answer to it, it is not even clear to me what an answer to it might look like or eventually shape up to be. Even so I feel sure that it is a question that must occur 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 this kind of 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 –and this is the question to which I have no obviously sensible or tractable direction to give by way of answer-- might it be that there is a pre-disposition in the kind of thing science is that it leads to overreaching claims on its behalf.  Philosophers ranging from Nietzsche and Heidegger through Gandhi to Horkheimer and Adorno, have written to suggest an affirmative answer to this question.  In doing so, they take it for granted that the notion of a ‘pre-disposition’ here is a clear and transparent one. Are they right?  Chomsky too has written to suggest that science is too often conceived in such a way that it is pre-disposed 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.

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mlsloan 22 November 2021

My interest is in presenting the science of morality (morality from scientism’s perspective) in ways that will be culturally useful.

So, I was disappointed to read the author’s claim that “One thing that does follow is that there are properties in nature that aren’t captured by scientific descriptions of nature, like moral properties.”

It is true that some moral properties, such as innate bindingness regardless of our needs and preferences, are not captured by scientific descriptions of nature. But there also is no conclusive evidence such properties (or any properties not captured by scientific explanation) have any mind-independent existence. Such properties may only be conjectures or biology-created delusions.

Could any moral properties be sensibly based on scientific descriptions of nature?

In the last 40 years, science has essentially answered the question, “Why do cultural moral norms and our moral sense exist?” The literature supports something like “Cultural moral norms and the judgments made by our moral sense were selected for by the benefits of cooperation they produced, though sometimes by exploiting others.” This simple hypothesis explains virtually all the diversity, contradictions, and strangeness of past and present cultural moral norms and everything we know about our moral sense. (Suggestions for counterexamples are always welcome.)

The further hypothesis “Strategies that solve cooperation problems without exploiting others are universally moral” identifies a subset of descriptively moral behaviors that are “universally moral.” “Universally moral” here refers to being a universal subcomponent of all descriptively moral behaviors. No mysterious bindingness, ‘magic ought’, or “nature making normative demands on us” is implied or wanted.

To aid in achieving shared group goals, it seems helpful to understand “solving cooperation problems without exploiting others” as a moral property. That is, we can use this scientific knowledge about the existence of a universal moral reference to resolve moral disputes and thus better achieve our shared goals.

Now consider moral properties related to questions such as “How should I live?”, “What is good?”, “What are my obligations?”. Science is essentially silent on these ought questions. They also have no objective answers.

Yes, there are moral properties not captured by scientific descriptions of nature. But thus far, they arguably are just speculations. The only moral property I am aware of that does have an objective existence is solely a product of the scientific description of cultural moral norms and our moral sense.

Couldn’t it be helpful to focus more attention on an objective moral property rather than speculative moral properties?