Is Science or Naturalism an Ideology?

January 12, 2011

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, neither science nor naturalism can be an ideology.

From the OED, the modern meaning of “ideology” is “A systematic scheme of ideas, usually relating to politics, economics, or society and forming the basis of action or policy; a set of beliefs governing conduct.”

Let’s compare this definition of “ideology” with science and then with naturalism.

Science is the group of careful methods for empirically investigating the world and for logically validating hypotheses about how the world’s processes work. Science culminates in warranted knowledge, such as classifications of observable phenomena, confirmations of laws of nature, explanations for events in terms of prior conditions, and theories about hard-to-observe entities (the very small, the very fast, the immensely vast, the distant past, etc.) responsible for observable natural processes.

Naturalism is the philosophical worldview built from the judgment that scientific knowledge exemplifies the best kind of knowledge. Science itself cannot supply all knowledge; there are other kinds of practical reliable knowledge gained from broadly experimental learning. However, any alleged knowledge that requires a contradiction against science is rejected by naturalism. Other sources of practical knowledge should either be directly translatable and reducible into scientific knowledge (e.g. how a traditional health remedy might be confirmed as efficacious by endocrinology) or they must at least fit coherently with scientific knowledge (e.g. how consciousness’s features are what would be expected because they are generated by a nervous system). As another example, ethics could be scientific by using broadly experimental methods and avoiding premises that contradict scientific knowledge about evolution or human capacities.

Some sciences approach ideology without becoming ideology. For example, well-confirmed sociological theories about the behavior of political groups competing for economic resources in a democracy are schemes of ideas relating to politics, economics, and society. But the OED definition of ideology is quite correct in supplying two parts to its definition: a systematic scheme of ideas, usually (1) relating to politics, economics, or society and (2) forming the basis of action or policy; a set of beliefs governing conduct. A sociological theory about how political groups DO behave in a democracy is hardly the same thing as a prescription for how a political group, or a democracy, OUGHT to behave. Sociology, by itself, need not leap across the “Is-Ought” gap by additionally claiming that it has scientific knowledge about how people ought to act or govern their conduct. At most, sociology, like any science, can offer hypothetical prescriptions about the smart means for accomplishing given goals, but sociology can remain silent about what goals ought to be pursued. Do sociologists from time to time become ideological voices for social reform? Of course (think of Marx or Spencer or Du Bois), because their sociological knowledge gives them something useful to start from. But the ultimate goals of these reformers (such as social justice or world peace) have an origin beyond sociology or any of the sciences.

Naturally, when some other ideology relies on premises which get refuted by a science, that ideology tends to react badly, accusing the source of the contrary facts of erecting a rival ideology. For example, if some ideology about how capitalism should work gets refuted by knowledge from economics that a proposed financial system could never actually work, then that ideology has every temptation to denounce economics as offering a rival ideology. Similarly, if some religious ideology relies on a premise about the personal survival of the mind after death, which has been refuted by science, that religion tends to denounce science as an ideological rival. But the scientific source of stubborn factual knowledge is not, by itself, an ideology, even if other ideologies think they can only detect a new rival.

Similarly, naturalism cannot be an ideology. Not because naturalism is the source of fresh factual knowledge (science itself has that job), but because naturalism is essentially neutral towards politics, economics, and society. Naturalism by itself is only about how people ought to go about establishing reliable knowledge about the world. In other words, naturalism fulfils the second part, but not the first part, of the definition of ideology: a systematic scheme of ideas, usually (1) relating to politics, economics, or society and (2) forming the basis of action or policy; a set of beliefs governing conduct. Because naturalism encourages everyone to base their beliefs about how the world actually works upon science, it does offer a set of beliefs about how people out to conduct themselves (you should learn using science!).

However, naturalism’s guide for conduct only extends to the increase of knowledge, not to the proper organization of politics, economics, or society. Again, science’s knowledge should be relied on for supplying the means of intelligently pursuing some political, economic, or social goals, but those goals come from beyond science and naturalism. Like what happens to science, naturalism gets accused of being ideological when some other ideology finds in naturalism only inconvenient truths. Religions, for example, love to accuse naturalism of being a rival ideology to their supernaturalisms because religions don’t want to trust science. But such religions are only erecting false rival idols of their own making.

Neither science nor naturalism can be an ideology, according to the neutral broad definition supplied by the OED. And they surely can’t be ideologies according to the popular narrow notion of ideology as a pernicious thought-system sustained by propaganda, group-think mind control, and sustained ignorance (see my earlier blog on Religion and the Madness of Crowds ).

As an exercise for my dear readers, you may proceed to think through why secular humanism does satisfy the OED definition of an ideology, with its marriage of scientific naturalism and humanist ethics. Hint: secular humanists want to change the world! And the recent issue of Free Inquiry magazine contains fine essays about the social and political functions of secular humanism, too. Not all ideology is bad ideology. In the human world, beware of anyone claiming to live without ideology. We all have the responsibility to figure out better ideologies for the benefit of all.