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.

The Immanent Frame for more

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