Intellectualism vs Scientism

This is my ranting response to the article Timothy Ferris: The World of the Intellectual vs. The World of the Engineer.

The author fails to see the reciprocal relationship between intellectualism and engineering- what I would respectively equate to abstract and applied thought (The false dichotomy he seems to be presenting is between intellectualism and scientism). He over and under generalizes the utility of both. His arguments for their failure and success are also weak. For as many failed intellectual theories there are just as many failed scientific theories (Think Fleischmann and Pons’s Cold Fusion, Einstein’s Static Universe, Phrenology, Blank State Theory, Luminiferous Aether, Phlogiston Theory, Ptolemaic Solar System, and the list goes on.) Progress is piecemeal, accreting and tossing out new and old information as we continue to test our understanding in an ever evolving world.

The author states, but fails to appreciate, that intellectualism is about the generation of ideas, whereas science is the testing of these ideas. Intellectualism is concerned with asking the right questions; science is concerned with giving the right answers. Both require each other. Both require trial and error in order to explore their limits. Insofar as these ideas continually stand up to the rigor of the scientific method, they become facts. But facts- being derived from experience- are probabilistic and not true. Facts treated as truths lead to dogmatism, intellectual blindness and stagnation. Intellectualism aim’s to continually challenges facts to render more pragmatic solutions for persistent problems. They challenge the ideologies and methodologies that produce the facts.

He says that Freud did nothing, made no contributions? What of his discovery of the nature and functioning of the unconscious mind? And Marx theories were a complete failure? His theories contributed to what we now call sociology. In addition he contributed to the gender neutral workforce labor theories associated with feminism, formulated labor theories of value by investigating the production and circulation processes of industrial capitalism, developed economic Materialism, expanded on economic theories of the state, and many more. One of Einstein’s favorite authors and greatest influences was philosopher Immanuel Kant, particular his book The Critique of Pure Reason, whose metaphysics would later play on a role in Einstein’s famous re-conceptualization of time and space. But even Einstein’s genius is a temporary artifact on the road to progress (It seems recent evidence at the LHC will likely disprove Einstein’s mass equivalence theory.)

The author seems to think that science and engineering are devoid of ideologies of their own. This is completely wrong. They operate within their own ideologies and paradigms. Chances are, if history has taught us anything, their current paradigms are flawed and may be restricting their ability to see solutions. Read Philosopher’s of Science Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos for more on how ideologies are an inescapable aspect of our subjective psychology.

I have more to say, but I’m done ranting. I’m sure I’ve left a lot out. I guess I don’t know what the author’s point is. What is intellectualism, really? Thinking abstractly? I guess we disagree on the utility of abstract thinking. Science and intellectualism are indispensable to one another’s success. I’ll leave you with this:

Epistemology without contact with science becomes an empty scheme. Science without epistemology is—insofar as it is thinkable at all—primitive and muddled. However, no sooner has the epistemologist, who is seeking a clear system, fought his way through to such a system, than he is inclined to interpret the thought-content of science in the sense of his system and to reject whatever does not fit into his system. The scientist, however, cannot afford to carry his striving for epistemological systematic that far. He accepts gratefully the epistemological conceptual analysis; but the external conditions, which are set for him by the facts of experience, do not permit him to let himself be too much restricted in the construction of his conceptual world by the adherence to an epistemological system. He therefore must appear to the systematic epistemologist as a type of unscrupulous opportunist: he appears as realist insofar as he seeks to describe a world independent of the acts of perception; as idealist insofar as he looks upon the concepts and theories as free inventions of the human spirit (not logically derivable from what is empirically given); as positivist insofar as he considers his concepts and theories justified only to the extent to which they furnish a logical representation of relations among sensory experiences. He may even appear asPlatonist or Pythagorean insofar as he considers the viewpoint of logical simplicity as an indispensable and effective tool of his research. (Einstein 1949, 683–684)

2 thoughts on “Intellectualism vs Scientism”

    1. Much appreciated, Andrew. Don’t hesitate to speak up when you disagree or contribute when you have an insight.
      “Every human being has a right to hear what other wise human beings have spoken to him. It is one of the Rights of Men; a very cruel injustice if you deny it to a man!” ~Thomas Carlyle

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