Donate To Care


Medical Science or Medical Scientism: The Crucial Difference!

It sneaked up on us – and it has taken us hostage! We have failed to understand the difference between science as a method versus scientism as a quasi-religious worldview. As a consequence, we have lost sight of the most important foundation of healing – recognizing and responding to human suffering.

The scientific method, scientific materialism, and scientism are distinct concepts that are often conflated, leading to misunderstandings and very significant consequences, particularly in the field of medicine. Understanding the differences between these concepts is crucial for maintaining a balanced and effective approach to scientific inquiry and its applications.

The scientific method is a systematic process of observation, hypothesis formation, experimentation, and analysis to gain knowledge and understanding of the natural world. As Sir William Osler, a renowned physician, stated, “The practice of medicine is an art, not a trade; a calling, not a business; a calling in which your heart will be exercised equally with your head.” The scientific method allows for the rigorous testing of hypotheses and the development of evidence-based practices in medicine. However, it is simply a method, a tool. It is not a philosophy or a religion.

In contrast, scientific materialism is a philosophical belief that the material world is the only reality and that everything, including consciousness and mental states, can be explained through physical processes. This perspective can lead to a reductionist approach in medicine, where the focus is solely on treating physical symptoms rather than considering the whole person. As philosopher Alfred North Whitehead cautioned, “The misconception which has haunted philosophic literature throughout the centuries is the notion of ‘independent existence.’ There is no such mode of existence; every entity is to be understood in terms of the way it is interwoven with the rest of the universe.”

Scientism, on the other hand, is the belief that the scientific method is the only valid way to acquire knowledge and that it can be applied to all areas of human inquiry, including those traditionally reserved for philosophy, religion, and the arts. This can lead to an overreliance on scientific explanations and a dismissal of other ways of knowing. As B. Alan Wallace, a Buddhist scholar and former monk, noted, “Scientism is the belief that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; that science provides a complete description of the universe and everything in it.”

The differences between these concepts are particularly important in medicine, where a holistic approach that considers the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of a patient’s well-being is essential. An overemphasis on scientific materialism or scientism can lead to a narrow focus on physical symptoms and a neglect of the psychological and social factors that contribute to health and illness.

Ken Wilber, a philosopher and integral theorist, argues for a more comprehensive approach: “An integral approach acknowledges that all views have a partial truth but that some views are more comprehensive, more inclusive, more complete than others. An integral vision seeks to be comprehensive, balanced, inclusive. It embraces science, art, ethics, religion, and politics—and it consciously tries to adopt a global, multicultural, and planetary perspective.

Here is a table comparing and contrasting the differences when medicine is practiced through the application of the scientific method, scientific materialism, and scientism:

CharacteristicScientific MethodScientific MaterialismScientism
ApproachSystematic, empirical, and evidence-basedReductionist, mechanistic, and physically focusedDogmatic belief in the superiority and infallibility of science
AssumptionsHypotheses are tested and refined based on evidenceAll phenomena can be reduced to and explained by physical processesScience is the only valid way to acquire knowledge and understand reality
FocusUnderstanding health and disease through observation and experimentationEmphasizing the role of physical factors in health and diseaseApplying scientific methods and principles to all aspects of life, including non-scientific domains
EvidenceRelies on empirical evidence from various sources, such as clinical trials and epidemiological studiesPrimarily focuses on evidence from laboratory studies and quantitative measurementsTends to dismiss or downplay evidence that does not fit within a strict scientific framework
CausalitySeeks to identify causal relationships through controlled experiments and statistical analysisEmphasizes physical causes and mechanisms, often overlooking non-physical factorsAssumes that all phenomena have scientific explanations and that non-scientific explanations are invalid
TreatmentDevelops evidence-based interventions that are continually refined based on new findingsOften focuses on pharmacological and surgical interventions targeting physical abnormalitiesMay overemphasize the role of science in solving complex health problems and neglect other approaches
LimitationsAcknowledges the limitations of current knowledge and the need for ongoing researchMay overlook the role of psychosocial factors and the complexity of human experienceCan lead to a narrow, inflexible, and potentially biased approach to understanding health and disease
IntegrationCan be integrated with other approaches, such as psychosocial and complementary medicineMay be challenged by evidence of non-physical influences on health, such as placebo effectsOften dismissive of non-scientific approaches and knowledge systems, such as traditional medicine

As you review this chart, through which lens are you practicing your medicine?

It is important to note that these characterizations are general and may not apply to all practitioners or researchers within each perspective. Many modern medical professionals and scientists recognize the value of integrating insights from various approaches to develop a more comprehensive understanding of health and disease. However, scientific materialism and scientism offer powerful justifications for profit-driven corporations’ motivations and methods.

In conclusion, while the scientific method is an invaluable tool for advancing medical knowledge and practice, it is important to recognize its limitations and the potential pitfalls of scientific materialism and scientism. The scientific method offers a powerful tool for better understanding ourselves and the universe and has opened up remarkable discoveries. However, its potential will always be shaped by the intention of those that wield its power. By embracing a more holistic and integrative approach, medicine can better serve the needs of patients and promote overall well-being. As healthcare professionals and researchers, it is crucial to maintain a balance between rigorous scientific inquiry and a recognition of the complex, multifaceted nature of human health and experience. Perhaps that is the most important role of the healer – to expand our understanding of what it means to be part of a universe held together by our appreciation that we all in the process of creating ourselves and all other sentient beings. Only compassion, love, equanimity and joy (and not scientific facts) can keep this music playing.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed.” Albert Einstein

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Contact Details

Get In Touch