Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Scientism Criticized

Originally posted on May 10, 2014

Scientism is a term for applying the methods or criteria of science to assess whether something is true. It over-reaches, assuming that it is the only way to assess the usefulness of an idea. I think that scientism is wrong; while there are many things that merit being tested by science, there are other things that are better approached through other means. Example: “I love you sooo much,” said by a child to a parent or a lover to her love might better remain untested as a thesis. All poems that use metaphors that stretch their meanings cannot be tested as the definitions are ambiguous.

Then there’s psychotherapy, which many are demanding be proven. But first one must pin down what psychotherapy is. I question the process as being complex beyond the power of science to assess. What if psycho-therapy is really the offering of other constructions that have some hope of creating syntheses more than the negative conclusions now operating? What if it’s mutual story-telling with a generous component of drawing clients out as to their stories? Then an alternative interpretation is offered, one constructed so that it yields more hopeful implications and suggests more useful corrective behaviors.

All this is sort of postmodernist. It doubts the meta-narrative of science. That is to say, in more down-to-earth words, that maybe the requirements of science can’t adequately address phenomena whereby people in their life-predicaments, adapting their minds to these predicaments, sometimes come to conclusions that drive behavior that makes the problem worse rather than better; and in that case, re-creating the mind-history-constructive process so that different conclusions, even provisional, tend to drive behaviors that might better address the problem, might better yield more positive results.

So while I acknowledge that science is better than non-science for a good many questions, it may not be the best criteria for certain other questions, such as, for example, the interpretation of a dream. Science  is intellectual humility, systematically applied: Let’s just find out if that’s indeed so. It may not be what it seems. A measure of doubting and testing is a good strategy. But it may not be so that science is the way to approach all problems.

I fear being viewed as retreating to a stance that supports past superstitions or fixed but questionable beliefs. Not so, there are other alternatives. What if truly complex situations, including mind interacting with other minds, cannot—can not—be reduced to science, because there are way too many variables and subtle nuances within those variables? After millennia of superstition, and centuries of science, and great progress from science, dare we question that science has certain limitations? Can there be problems that science cannot solve?

Sure! The world is complex! Shall we be pessimistic or optimistic? There’s a question! Is there any rational foundation for faith, considering the pervasiveness of stupidity? That’s just a re-phrasing of the previous question. But it’s important.

A variation involves how I shall view my puny, meaningless life: In what non-testable story is my wife not puny, nor meaningless? How can I live and adapt? The question transcends given criterion: What if I fail to measure up to snuff on the scales given? Are we to accept that those scales are exhaustive or might there yet be other criteria that we can come up with, criteria for meaning that might not have been considered by clever outside scientists?

As you might guess, I respect science, but only to a limit. I believe there is such a thing as asking science to answer questions it cannot properly answer. The belief that science can answer all meaningful questions—or even most—is called “scient-ism,” and it’s deeply wrong. There are lots of things science can’t do, and what’s needed is more of a philosophical, spiritual, flexible psychological art—mutual constructionism, based on cybernetic principles.

Can psychotherapy be thus conceived of? Might this re-frame bring it closer to a contemporary philosophy such as Jaspers’ ideas about existential psychotherapy. But can such a view be worthy of the interfering agenda of medical insurance and third-party payers? Need it be? Thoughts?

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