The Limits Of New Scientism

Steven Shapin explores the question of whether or not science can make us good. He notes that while modern iterations have shorn religion of its claims to authority, “the ambitions of the new scientism may be self-limiting”:

Different scientists draw different moral inferences from science. Some have concluded that it is natural and good to be ruthlessly competitive; others see it natural to cooperate and trust; still others embrace the lesson of the naturalistic fallacy and oppose the project of inferring the moral from the natural. That was the basis of T. H. Huxley’s skepticism in 1893:

The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.

Nor does the new scientism solve the long-standing problem of whom to trust. Just like every modern scientist, the advocates of the new scientism do what they can to sell their wares in the marketplace of credibility. And here the new scientism, for all its claims that there is a way science can make you good, shares one crucial sensibility with its opponents: having secularized nature, and sharing in the vocational circumstances of late modern science, the proponents of the new scientism can make no plausible claims to moral superiority, nor even moral specialness.