Scientism and the welfare of athletes: Minds, brains, genes and agency

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One possible focus of attention in considering issues relating to the welfare of athletes is the things that are done to, or done by, athletes; another is the structures and systems within which those things are done; yet another is the ways of seeing things (pictures or conceptions), reasoning (logic), values and ideologies that motivate or sustain the aforementioned practices, systems and structures. The focus of this chapter is the third of those sets of options. More precisely, it is concerned with some of the ways in which scientism in some prominent views of the relationship between minds, brains and persons, and of the body, genes and athletic performance, seems to contribute to the development and perpetuation of a conception of performance enhancement in sport that frequently seems to be to the detriment of the welfare of athletes.

The conceptualization of athletes as some kind of machines is a well-established habit, and may be thought by some to be harmless. It probably began with innocuous similes, such as ‘Your body is like an engine, it needs plenty of fuel!’ However, first the ‘like’ is dropped and the simile becomes a metaphor, then it becomes hard to remember that it is a metaphor, then metaphor-laden interpretations of scientific research are employed to support the picture viewed as literally accurate when the relevant level of abstraction is claimed to be the ‘fundamental’ level of explanation, and, as Wittgenstein put it, ‘the decisive moment in the conjuring trick has been made, and it was the very one that seemed to us quite innocent’ (PI §308). In recent years, however, a sequel has emerged to that story. The chapter will consider the contribution of widespread cognitive scientism, which falls foul of what Bennett and Hacker (2003) call ‘the mereological fallacy’, to a view of the athlete that reduces agency, through the reduction of mental attributes, to neurological ‘activity’ (a metaphor) in the brain. The picture of the body of the athlete as a machine and the picture of the mental attributes as fundamentally the result of the functioning of that machine seem to fit together nicely, but each is like an Escher drawing, as is the result of combining the two.

The athlete is the proper subject of admiration because the attributes to be admired are those properly ascribed to human beings, not to parts of human beings, and therefore to the athlete in question, not to parts of that athlete (or his or her support team). Performance enhancement by prohibited means detaches those means of bringing about victory from the subject of admiration on the achievement of victory (or records). If the prohibited means of performance enhancement were the thing that made the difference between winning and losing, or breaking a record and not breaking a record, then the athlete isn’t a proper subject for admiration in relation to that particular victory or record. Such an observation underlines the fact that the enterprise shouldn’t be thought of as being about winning at any cost or by any means, but it also emphasizes the fact that the reductionism evident in scientistic conceptions of the athlete not only paves the way for pictures, reasoning and values that might justify performance enhancement practices (prohibited or otherwise) that may be detrimental to the health and welfare of the athlete, but it creates conditions that render any apparent ‘achievement’ hollow, and the realization of that, should surely negatively affect the welfare of the individual person long beyond the point he or she ceases to be an athlete.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRoutledge Handbook of Athlete Welfare
EditorsMelanie Lang
Number of pages9
ISBN (Print)978-0-367-19325-6
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2020

Publication series

NameRoutledge Handbook of Athlete Welfare


  • action
  • agency
  • athlete welfare
  • cognitive scientism
  • the mereological fallacy
  • philosophy of sport
  • scientism


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