Project overview

Project leaders: René van Woudenberg, Gerrit Glas, Jeroen de Ridder, Gijsbert van den Brink
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Funded by Templeton World Charity Foundation
January 2013 – August 2016


René van Woudenberg

Jeroen de Ridder

Gerrit Glas

Gijsbert van den Brink


Rik Peels

Leon de Bruin

Emanuel Rutten

Kelvin McQueen

Myriam Kyselo

PhD Students

  • Naomi Kloosterboer
  • Lieke Asma
  • Hans van Eyghen
  • Scott Robbins
  • Josephine Lenssen

Analyzing Scientism

The first subproject gives an analysis of scientism. This is important, for scientism is a phenomenon with many faces. There is such a thing as academic scientism. On methodologicalacademic scientism, all academic disciplines should adopt the methods of the natural sciences. And according to reductive academic scientism, all academic disciplines are reducible to the natural sciences or, according to some versions of scientism, even to one particular science, such as chemistry.

Scientism is, however, not restricted to the academic realm. Some scientists and philosophers claim that religion or morality can be replaced with science. Others make even bolder claims, namely that all knowledge is to be delivered by the natural sciences or that only those things exist which are mentioned in our best scientific theories. What these varieties of scientism have in common is that they imply that the boundaries of science are to be extended (far) beyond what most people consider to be limits of science. In this first project, these varieties of scientism are spelled out in much more detail and their interrelations are investigated.

Scientism in Action

The second subproject focuses on scientism in particular disciplines. More specifically, in this part of the project four scientistic theses are carefully scrutinized.

  1. There is the claim, especially in neuroscience, that free will is an illusion. We are our brain, or our brain takes the decisions we think we take ourselves, or we are determined to make the choices we think we make freely.
  2. There is the somewhat related thesis, found in neuroscience and in psychology, that we do not take our decisions on the basis of reasons, but that we are determined to take them or that we are driven by irrational and subconscious motives in taking the decisions we take. The reasons we provide for our actions are better understood as hindsight rationalizations.
  3. Morality is an illusion. Our intuitions, beliefs, affections, and dispositions regarding good and evil have been evolutionarily advantageous, but there is no objective reality corresponding to them. It is a trick fobbed off on us by our genes.
  4. Religious belief is illusory. It is the product of a Hyperactive Agency Detection Device, a Theory of Mind, or some other mechanism that is not aimed at truth.

What each of these varieties of scientism in a specific discipline share is the implication that our common sense about some phenomenon is deeply mistaken and that this is shown by science. This part of the project gives an account of these varieties of scientism and lays bare the relevant presuppositions and background ideas.

A Critique of Scientism

The third subproject provides a twofold critique of scientism. On the one hand, there are good reasons to think that scientism is false. Among them are the following:

  1. There is the problem of self-referential inconsistency. Scientism is not and cannot be itself a product of science.
  2. Scientism undercuts the requirements for science, such as free inquiry (humans with free will) and rational inquiry (rational deliberation and belief formation on the basis of reasons).
  3. Science relies on common sense and it has to do so. It relies on the reliability of sense perception, memory, and logical reasoning.
  4. There are certain key-principles in science (and even in scientism) that science, by its very nature, cannot defend or even scrutinize, such as the principle of the strong supervenience of the mental on the physical.
  5. Scientism is oblivious to the limits of science. Science cannot tell us anything about morality, for instance.

On the other hand, there are good reasons to think that scientism is harmful.

  1. It is harmful for our self-understanding and flourishing. Claiming that morality is an illusion, for instance, can seriously decrease the value of one’s life.
  2. It is harmful for various important social and professional practices, such as religion, the legal system, psychiatry, and education. For instance, if there is no free will, it seems that the whole system of law is merely manipulative and utterly unjust.
  3. Scientism is harmful to science itself. If scientism is true, then certain things seem highly improbable or even impossible, such as that we reliably form true beliefs about reality and that we have the ability to reason validly.

Beyond Scientism

The last part of the project goes beyond scientism. One of the main purposes here is to develop a theoretical model in which science and non-scientific sources of knowledge are integrated. This model addresses issues such as the following.

  • Science is built on common sense sources of knowledge: it has to assume that they are largely reliable.
  • Science can and does sometimes correct common sense sources.
  • These common sense sources also often correct scientific theories, partly by providing a different foundation than the one initially adopted and partly by conflicting directly with a scientific theory.
  • Are there any guidelines or criteria we can formulate for the weight several sources have when they conflict with each other?

This part of the project also pays attention to developing alternatives to scientism in specific fields. Among other things, a virtue theoretical epistemology is developed which provides an alternative to epistemological scientism, the intellectual autonomy of revelation is defended and it is argued that religious experience can be a reliable source of knowledge, and a normative practice model is developed which corrects the one-sided scientistic materialism which is often found in the field of psychiatry.


Check out the publications for this project.

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