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School, Science, Scientism

Published onJun 06, 2023
School, Science, Scientism

When the terrible news hit me, I was visiting Berlin with my wife and two daughters. We had just explored the old Rathaus Schöneberg where John F. Kennedy gave his famous Cold War “Ich bin ein Berliner”–speech in 1963, a fierce attack on communism and the Soviet Union.

In the Konditorei, opposite the actual spot Kennedy gave his speech, we were enjoying drinks and sweets and discussed the historic significance of Kennedy’s words. Then we heard the news. With his wife Lidwien Heerkens and their daughter Marit, Willem Witteveen, a legal theorist at the Law School of Tilburg University, a senator for the Dutch Labour Party, founder of the Liberal Arts and Sciences program in the School of Humanities, and a warm colleague, was a passenger on flight MH17 that was shot down from the skies over East-Ukraine with a BUK missile from separatist-occupied territory on 14 July 2014 during the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine – a conflict that has recently and dramatically developed into a full-blown war. This tragic death of three members of the Witteveen family, cynically and brutally illustrated how important it is to understand the intricacy of the connections between events. Ironically, one of the goals of the Liberal Arts and Sciences program (LAS) is to teach students ways to discover the relations between events through the study of different fields of research, to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of these events – like separatists bringing down a civilian airplane over East-Ukraine carrying 298 passengers. Marit Witteveen was one of our bright LAS students. Through Alkeline van Lenning’s initiative, apt memorial signs have been put in place to never forget the heartrending fate of the Witteveen family.

Showing resilience and wanting to draw attention to the Liberal Arts and Sciences program at Tilburg, Alkeline van Lenning (Dean LAS), Wim Drees (Dean Tilburg School of Humanities & Digital Sciences), and I (Dean Education Tilburg School of Humanities & Digital Sciences) developed the LAS program into a University College. In cooperation with the neuropsychologists from the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, the University College Tilburg program was expanded with the field of cognitive neuroscience. The combination of law in an international context, arts and humanities, business and economics, social science, and cognitive neuroscience gives students ample opportunity to find understanding through using the heuristics of coherence and integration. Convinced as we are of the fruitful educational approach from different angles and perspectives, we started the University College Tilburg (UCT) in September 2016.

This interdisciplinary approach of the University College Tilburg program was backed up by what I and Alkeline van Lenning presented as a fitting educational vision statement for Tilburg University (De Regt & Van Lenning 2017). The ‘Knowledge, Skills, and Character’ slogan we advertise aims at bringing together three goals of academic education: transferring knowledge to our students, training the skills of our students, and weaving an academic character in our students (cf. Leesen & Van Lenning 2021). As a follow-up to the 2016 celebratory UCT opening conference theme of Utopia, it is this ‘weaving of an academic character’ that I want to explore a little further when thinking about what an ideal, or Utopian, University College Tilburg curriculum ought to look like.

I start with a brief reference to Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and highlight the idea that just like More’s Utopians, we ought to give our students the most probable information available about the world and ourselves. For academics, science is the way to go, and not surprisingly, my conclusion will be that University College Tilburg, with Alkeline van Lenning as Dean, is absolutely right programming the course ‘Thinking about Science’ for its first-years. Yet, it ought also to accept in a much more honest way, what science means for the self-image of the LAS students, the issues we want them to help solve and the new perspectives we want them to develop.


In 1516, edited by Desiderius Erasmus, Thomas More’s Utopia was published. The opening page states: ‘A truly golden little book, no less beneficial than pleasing about the best state of a commonwealth and the new island of Utopia.’ There is so much to say about this ‘truly golden little book’ that we need to pick a perspective. I suggest for now we focus on what is told during the conversation between Raphael Hythloday, Peter Giles, and Thomas More about the island of Utopia concerning attitude, science, and education.

More writes: ‘[Raphael] began in this manner: “The island of Utopia is in the middle two hundred miles broad and holds almost at the same breadth over a great part of it, but it grows narrower towards both ends. Its figure is not unlike a crescent”’ (1516, pp. 78-83). Raphael then continues reporting what he knows about the island of Utopia, starting with a general description: ‘Utopus, that conquered [Utopia], brought the rude and uncivilized inhabitants into such a good government, and to that measure of politeness, that they now far excel all the rest of mankind. Having soon subdued them, he designed to separate them from the continent, and to bring the sea quite round them’ (1516, p. 84).

This crescent island of Utopia is an ideal state or nation and close to self-supporting. Utopians are well-organized and each knows his or her craft:

‘Agriculture is that which is so universally understood among them that no person, either man or woman, is ignorant of it; they are instructed in it from their childhood, partly by what they learn at school, and partly by practice, they being led out often into the fields about the town, where they not only see others at work but are likewise exercised in it themselves. Besides agriculture, which is so common to them all, every man has some peculiar trade to which he applies himself; such as the manufacture of wool or flax, masonry, smith’s work, or carpenter’s work; for there is no sort of trade that is in great esteem among them’ (1516, p. 94).

Utopians know what to do to make their lives easier and are able to solve practical problems – each practices his or her craft and to accomplish this Utopians are well-informed:

‘[Children] and a great part of the nation, both men and women, are taught to spend […] hours in which they are not obliged to work in reading; and this they do through the whole progress of life. [They] had made the same discoveries as the Greeks, both in music, logic, arithmetic, and geometry. [They] knew astronomy and were perfectly acquainted with the motions of the heavenly bodies; and have many instruments, well contrived and divided, by which they very accurately compute the course and positions of the Sun, Moon, and stars’ (1516, pp. 118-9).

To learn, to know how to learn and why to learn seems to be a strong awareness amongst Utopians. Indeed, ‘it is ordinary to have public lectures every morning before daybreak, at which none are obliged to appear but those who are marked out for literature; yet a great many, both men and women, of all ranks, go to hear lectures of one sort or other, according to their inclinations: but if others that are not made for contemplation, choose rather to employ themselves at that time in their trades, as many of them do, they are not hindered, but are rather commended, as men that take care to serve their country’ (1516, p. 96). All this education both embodies and leads to an inquisitive mindset, using existing information, but also exploring new ways to understand what happens for what reason:

‘[Utopians] have a particular sagacity, founded upon much observation, in judging of the weather, by which they know when they may look for rain, wind, or other alterations in the air; but as to the philosophy of these things, the cause of the saltiness of the sea, of its ebbing and flowing, and of the original and nature both of the heavens and the earth, they dispute of them partly as our ancient philosophers have done, and partly upon some new hypothesis, in which, as they differ from them, so they do not in all things agree among themselves.’ (1516, pp. 119-20).

But make no mistake, to all this understanding, information, and research, something else is added: ‘They reckon up several sorts of pleasures, which they call true ones; some belong to the body, and others to the mind. The pleasures of the mind lie in knowledge, and in that delight which the contemplation of truth carries with it; to which they add the joyful reflections on a well-spent life, and the assured hopes of a future happiness’ (1516, p. 129). A well-spent life – Utopians have learned not only what they value but also what they ought to value to have a justified hope of a future happiness. It looks like they learned this through observations, experiments, and inquiry. They truly cultivated and adopted an attitude of acquiring reliable information to find out how to live their lives in the best viable way under the best possible government. In fact, Utopians seem to have discovered that to be able to live a happy governed life, the governors and their counsellors ought to take decisions on vital matters on the basis of the most reliable hypotheses at hand.

Of course, Utopia is the work of Thomas More, a quiet revolutionary and Renaissance humanist, and a king whisperer himself. This is one of the reasons why I fancy Donald Loose’s fascinating interpretation of More’s Utopia, when he draws a parallel between Machiavelli, Erasmus and More, claiming:

‘More reveals himself as a split personality. He is the idealist who believes in a more just social order, and he is convinced of the need for reforms in that direction. But he is also the skeptic who is suspicious of a radical social, political, and religious revolution [...] Machiavelli, Erasmus and More relied on the Bildung of a new elite. In doing so, they wielded the ductus obliquus, the infiltration of the new into established beliefs, hoping to educate the competent counsellors of the future by breaking the scholastic traditions of their time and criticizing the false dogmas.’ (2016, pp. 120-124; my translation).

Dramatically, the Catholic Thomas More was a counsellor, got involved as Lord Chancellor in the gruesome actions against the religious Protestant revolt, refused to acknowledge the annulment of Henry VIII’s marital bond with Catherine of Aragon, stuck to the superiority of the Papacy over the King, and was executed in 1535. But if Loose is right about the intention of Utopia, one can see how this ‘truly golden little book’ may even inspire us today to ‘educate the competent counsellors of the future by breaking false dogmas’ in a University College curriculum.

Science beyond 1516

More writes in 1516. In hindsight, and through the processes of global history (Poskett 2022), Europe was only beginning to sense the vastness of information we can extract from our observations, experiments, and logic. It would take centuries to accept the unimaginable effect of the new and experimental philosophy of nature, and in the 16th century, The Bible, the Church, and Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia (1472) still ruled the world, despite the work of Vesalius and Copernicus published in 1543. If one would ask a Utopian whether God exists, whether the human soul is immortal, whether there is an afterlife, or whether humans have free will – each time the answer would be in the confirmative, without a sliver of doubt.

Today, we have discovered that the world and the universe are not the way people thought in 1516. Physics, from Newton’s mechanics to Sean Carroll’s treatment of quantum mechanics (Carroll 2020), shows us that every event is lawfully caused by an earlier event and that we really seem to live in a universe that is causally closed. Biology, through the work of Darwin, Ramón y Cajal & Golgi, Watson, Crick, & Franklin, and Christof Koch, shows us that we are evolutionary physical creatures with a physical brain. Psychology, through the work of Wundt, James, Watson, Skinner, and Noam Chomsky, shows us that we have (phenomenal) consciousness, that we experience the feeling of choice, and that what we experience is important, but often not veridical. Again, if one would ask today whether God exists, whether the human soul is immortal, whether there is an afterlife, or whether humans have free will – the scientifically well-informed scholar would answer, perhaps with a ring of disappointment, “No.”

Once we are committed to the method of science as the most reliable method of belief fixation (Peirce 1877, 1878), we are also committed to the results of applying that method. From a Utopian view, we ought to teach young people how science challenges our self-image and what the implications are, facing this challenge with them in a world that is growing in complexity – a world continuously suffering from social problems. We explore with them ways to change this for the better, so that there is hope, social hope (Rorty 1999). We do what Utopus wanted: ‘to take care that no person lives idle, but that everyone may follow his trade diligently’ (1516, 95). We explore, through science, the best ways to live a well-spent life. A University College curriculum is the place par excellence to bring together all the scientific information we have gathered, and to figure out how that information helps us shaping the world we strive for.

Science and Scientism – Old and New

We have surpassed the famous discussion initiated by C.P. Snow’s 1959 Rede lecture ‘The Two Cultures’ (Snow 1961). While Snow is arguing for a school system that teaches humanities and science on an equal footing (so that students can understand both Shakespeare’s work and Schrödinger’s quantum wave function), nowadays we praise any science offering any reliable information about ourselves and the world we live in, and we want to trace the implications of our allegedly empirically adequate scientific models for how to achieve what we want to achieve and what we have learned to want to achieve.

Evidently, we can handle the world better (i.e., solve problems better) if we have empirically reliable knowledge of that world. Science, under the assumption that there is a world independent of my idiosyncratic, personal beliefs about that world, comprises any and every hypothesis and instrument that contributes empirically reliable knowledge of the world by using calibrated research methods in specific domains of phenomena, heuristically informed by coherence and integration (De Regt, Dooremalen, & Schouten 2021, p. 619). That very science reports with the highest degree of certainty that we are specimens of a naturally evolved species of Homo sapiens: we are phylogenetically (as a natural species) programmed to behave and think in particular ways under specific circumstances, and ontogenetically (as social individuals) programmed to learn. As a matter of fact, science is our most explicit and empirically most reliable way of getting to know the world and slowly correcting our behavior (in the light of our goals). So, what we learn about the world can promote a more sustainable relation with that world and the organisms it encompasses — it helps us align what we value with what we learn is valuable (De Regt, Dooremalen, & Schouten 2021, Chapter 14).

Science constitutes conjectural knowledge, science is a technical skill, and science is a powerful tool. This latter property means that we should probe the ends for which we use science (Dewey 1929). But even here we can learn. All of this implies we ought to weave in our students an academic character: they need to be taught what I call new scientism.

In popular culture, scientism stands for an unwarranted belief in the statements of science. In his Wheatley Institution lecture ‘Scientism & The Humanities,’ and later in his essay ‘Scientism in the Arts and Humanities’ in The Atlantic (Scruton 2013), Roger Scruton describes scientism as ‘pretending to apply scientific method to a question that is not scientific’. What he has in mind is allegedly mistaken fields of research like neuro-ethics. Yet, what we learn from neuropsychology seems to be relevant for understanding how we experience and solve moral problems. Scruton, who passed away in 2020, was a conservative philosopher thinking that one can use the distinction between the normative and the descriptive to separate ethics from neuropsychology. Marking the denial of these distinctions as the core of scientism allows him to dismiss scientism as impossible.

What I like to suggest is a new way of understanding scientism. Scientism should be understood as a program: based on the history of the philosophy of science, the proposal is put forward to use science as a method of inquiry, to accept its results, and to apply these results to achieve a world with less suffering. Let us call this new scientism.

Of course, I understand that (what I would call) ‘old scientism’ triggers strong emotions. In her digital Rounded Globe book Scientism and Its Discontents (2017), philosopher Susan Haack sketches what is wrong with old scientism. People accepting such a scientism forget the fallibility of current scientific models. They sanctify science as ‘a near-vacuous expression of approval’ and fortify the frontiers by drawing a strict demarcation between science and non-science. In doing so, they mythologize method as they think it is the method that is distinctive of science. Haack continues in accusing the advocates of scientism to dressing up dreck by using science to disguise a lack of rigor, to colonize culture via scientification of non-scientific disciplines, and to devalue the different through denigrating and denying non-scientific disciplines and activities (Haack 2017, Lecture 1, section 2).

Here, my brief answer to Haack, whose philosophy of science I almost completely share (which is no surprise since we are both enthusiastic about American pragmatism), would be to suggest a new scientism. We have learned that fallibility is forever and that the results of science are always conditional and tentative. Yet, we ought to stimulate the sciences as ‘scientific’ is an honorific epistemological term and this means indeed fortifying the frontiers as we do not want the pseudo-sciences rule the day. We need to manage the method in our research since the method of science is the best method of belief fixation. We can use science to degrade the dreck and show people the risks of believing “alternative facts” and vacuous conspiracies. In this way science helps us to care about culture as we learn how to learn and can explain the feelings of understanding and mystery people experience in a complex world. It is a fallacy to believe, like Scruton and others, that science has nothing to do with the normative. Science teaches us to value the values and shows us how to get a grasp on why humans think and feel what they think and feel, and therefore why they do what they do.

The University College Curriculum: A Utopian View

The self-image that emerges within new scientism is that we are evolutionary biological organisms determined by natural laws that exist in the universe. Our social behavior as individuals is the result of chemical and electrical processes in our bodies, most importantly our brains and nervous system. We have the feeling of freedom of choice, but we could not have behaved in any different way than we did. We have feelings of pain and pleasure, love and care, fear and anger, and many more. These are all there to evade the stress of living doubt and retain homeostasis. Luckily for us, we have an extraordinary capacity to teach and demonstrate, to learn and anticipate. It makes our lives livable (if we are fortunate), but ultimately, we die with the decay of our bodies without any non-physical residue. Denying this is not taking science seriously.

The implications of this self-image for our students, for the way we want them to learn to solve societal issues, and develop new perspectives, are drastic and counterintuitive. We ought to instill in our students the academic character to accept the scientific image of Homo sapiens. They need to look for solutions to problems and develop new perspectives of meaning that are coherent with, and can be integrated with the best information we have about ourselves and the universe we live in. It may have substantial consequences for our view of law, social communities, climate warming, belief dynamics, management, consciousness, free will, health care, pension reform, moral issues, mental disorders, religions, sustainability, economics, societal crises, coping and caring strategies, and the very meaning of life. The scientific image of Homo sapiens refers to the challenge to be true to ourselves. If you defend theism, you are a theist. Likewise, if you defend scientism, you are a scientist.

Science constitutes knowledge, science embodies a skill, and science offers power that needs reflection – for what ends shall it be used? Just like Thomas More’s Utopians in the 16th century, 21st century students in a University College curriculum are the ones best placed to access the most plausible synoptic view of human life. We should weave in them an academic character that makes them brave enough to accept new scientism and its relation to ideas about a life well-spent. I think a University College curriculum ought to facilitate this. The course ‘Thinking about Science’ at the very start of that curriculum was an excellent move by Alkeline as Dean of University College Tilburg. Her successor should be as bold.


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