Scientism

Atheistic blogging of late has generated a lot of dry tinder for intellectual cannons. It goes to show, like Richard Dawkin’s book The God Delusion, that brilliant scientists can make miserable philosophers. Today I’m going to look at what scientism is, and why it’s clearly irrational.

As a methodological principle, if I want a definition for a philosophical term, I go to a philosopher. J. P. Moreland, distinguished professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology writes;

Strong scientism is the view that some proposition or theory is true or rational if and only if it is a scientific proposition or theory. That is, if and only if it is a well-established scientific proposition or theory that, in turn, depends upon its having been successfully formed, tested, and used according to appropriate scientific methodology. There are no truths apart from scientific truths, and even if there were, there would be no reason whatever to believe them…

[W]eak scientism allows for the existence of truth apart form science and are even willing to grant that they can have some minimal, positive rationality status without the support of science. But, science is the most valuable, most serious, and most authoritative sector of human learning. If strong scientism is true, then theology is not a rational enterprise at all and there is no such thing as theological knowledge. If weak scientism is true, then the conversation between theology and science will be a monologue with theology listening to science and waiting for science to give it support. For thinking Christians, neither of these alternatives is acceptable.1

STRONG SCIENTISM

Now strong scientism is self-refuting. That is, if strong scientism is true, then it is also false by its own merits. At base level, strong scientism is self-referencially incoherent. Things that are self-refuting are not merely false, but necessarily false. To dissect further, lets ask a couple of questions generated in response to the recent statement, “If you don’t use honest process like science you don’t get to the truth.2

Is the statement “If you don’t use [an] honest process like science you don’t get to the truth,” true? If it is not true then it is false. If it is true then that statement, which itself was not arrived at by a scientific process, breaks its own rule. This is a philosophical claim about science methodology, and not a scientific claim established by the scientific process. Therefore, the statement is false either way.

Perhaps what was meant is, “If you don’t use [an] honest process like science you won’t be able to know if the conclusion is the truth or not.3

This rephrasing does avoids self-refutation, but leaves the ‘honest process of science’ self-defeating. As a philosophical statement about how we know truth and not scientific one, we have no way of knowing if the statement itself is true or not. If it is false then we shouldn’t believe that science is the only process by which we attain truth. If it is true, then as the statement did not come via the scientific process, we cannot know it is true.

Perhaps a more generous reading of the modified statement is required, and “an honest process like science” means we should include other methods such as logic, philosophy and experience as ways one can discover and know truth. If that is the case this would severely undermine the charge of scientism displayed by atheistic bloggers and open the door once again for a two way dialogue on God’s existence. Alternatively, perhaps it means to exclude dishonest processes4 such as those supposedly employed by Christian apologists. But as apologists use philosophy and other truth gathering methods that effectively drains away all meaning from the point originally being made (which was it is illegitimate to plug God into a gap where there is scientific ignorance5), and the task of the apologist’s detractor remains the same – to show that the method or argument used in garnering specific truths is faulty.

WEAK SCIENTISM

There are two considerations that equally undermine both strong scientism and weak scientism.

FIRST

It does not adequately allow for the task of justifying the assumptions necessary for science’s success. The practice of science relies upon some necessary presuppositions that themselves need to be supported. Science cannot be strung up on thin air.

But the conclusions of science cannot be more certain than the presuppositions it rests on in order to reach those conclusions. Thus it is philosophy, and not science, which is in a better position and is the far stronger candidate for being the paradigm of rationality.

A list of the assumptions is given here;6

(1) The existence of a theory-independant world

(2) the orderly nature of the external word

(3) the knowability of the external world.

(4) the existence of the truth

(5) the laws of logic

(6) the reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties to serve as truth gatherers and as a source of justified beliefs in our intellectual environment

(7) the adequacy of language to describe the world

(8) the existence of values used in science (honesty)

(9) the uniformity of nature and induction

(10) the existence of numbers.

SECOND

Truth can be known apart from the scientific process. There are many fields outside science and wholly apart from the scientific process that provide us with true, rationally justified beliefs. Highlighted here are five of these areas.

First, logical and mathematical proofs.

  • 1 + 1 = 2
  • Laws of inference, (e.g., modus ponems, disjunctive syllogism)
  • Law of non-contradiction, (e.g., you cannot be man and non-man at the same time and the same place)

Second, metaphysical truths.

  • There are other minds that are not my own,
  • The past was not created five minutes ago with the appearance of age.

Third, ethical beliefs or value judgements of right and wrong.

  • It is wrong to torture babies for fun.
  • Feeding the poor is a virtue.
  • Kicking orphans and widows is wicked.

Fourth, there are aesthetic judgements,

  • A sunrise beaming through a morning fog is beautiful.
  • The glacial lake surrounded by ice-capped mountains is inspiring.
  • Mozart’s second symphony is sublime.

Fifth, certain propositions.

  • Red is a colour.
  • I am now thinking about science.

All these examples are well within our rational rights to believe, though we have no confirmation of their truth from science. In fact, one hundred years from now all these will still be perfectly rational and hold greater epistemic status than certain scientific theories. For instance the metaphysical truth that I am not only a brain being stimulated in a vat, or that absolute truth exists, hold greater warrant than the science that says the plane I’m on will successfully supersede the law of gravity according to the laws of aerodynamics, or the major cause of global warming the human carbon footprint.

CONCLUSION

Considering the above it becomes evident that scientism, in either its weak and strong form, is a hindrance to science. It is also anathema to truth and bears a striking resemblance to the dogmatism the advocates of scientism wish to avoid. It is for this reason that scientism is considered among philosophers to be a bankrupt system of thought and avoided at the cost of rationality. Nicholas Rescher, University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, concludes;

The theorist who maintains that science is the be-all and end-all — that what is not in science books is not worth knowing — is an ideologist with a peculiar and distorted doctrine of his own. For him, science is no longer a sector of the cognitive enterprise but an all-inclusive world-view. This is the doctrine not of science but of scientism. To take this stance is not to celebrate science but to distort it by casting the mantle of its authority over issues it was never meant to address.7

FOOTNOTES

1. J. P. Moreland, Love God With All Your Mind (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997), P. 144-145.

2. Ken Perrott, “Fine tuning of the universe?”, 75., (http://openparachute.wordpress.com/2008/12/19/fine-tuning-of-the-universe; Retrieved 13 Jan, 2009)

3. Heraclides, “‘Scientism’ in the eyes of the beholder”, 14., (http://openparachute.wordpress.com/2009/01/05/scientism-in-the-eyes-of-the-beholder; Retrieved 13 Jan, 2009)
4. Ibid., 23.

5. Ken Perrott and James, “Fine tuning of the universe?”, 70, 72., (http://openparachute.wordpress.com/2008/12/19/fine-tuning-of-the-universe; Retrieved 13 Jan, 2009). See also Stuart McEwing, “The “god-of-the-gaps” argument”, 6, 7, 11, 17., (http://talk.thinkingmatters.org.nz/2008/the-god-of-the-gaps-argument; 28 Dec, 2008)

6. J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVarsity Press: 2003) p. 348.

7. Nicholas Rescher, The Limits of Science (Berkley, University of California Press: 1984).

60 replies
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  1. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    What makes your statement “the word of god is true” more coherent than “All truth is scientifically verifiable.

    Let’s call the proposition “The word of God is true” proposition W. Let’s call the proposition “All truth is scientifically verifiable” proposition S.

    1. W is possibly true because it doesn’t refute itself. S is impossibly true because it does refute itself.

    2. W provides its own justification, viz 2 Timothy 3:16 and Hebrews 6:18. Thus, if it is true, it is self-referentially true and does not require external justification. Therefore, it can operate as a first principle. S does not provide its own justification, and so is not self-referentially true. Therefore, it requires external justification which would presuppose some other first principle. It therefore cannot operate as a first principle itself.

    3. W is prima facie plausible, since it implies certain epistemological, metaphysical, ethical, and anthropological facts which make sense of the world. S is prima facie highly implausible, since it implies that epistemological, metaphysical, ethical, and anthropological facts are all reducible to empirical phenomena, which would contradict our experience of the world.

    4. If W is true, then it provides objectively true knowledge of the world. If S is true (which thankfully it cannot be, as established above), then it provides subjectively probabilistic beliefs about the world. At best, these probabilities are inscrutable; at worst they are zero. Therefore, if S is true it ultimately destroys our ability to know anything at all.

    Those are just four that come to me off the top of my head.

  2. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Which argument, specifically? Bear in mind that a first principle is necessarily circular. It’s either that, or enjoy the irrationality of an infinite regress of propositions in one’s worldview. You eventually have to stop somewhere.

  3. Ken
    Ken says:

    Bnonn – #23

    Sure. I’d say that the Christian first principle is adequately stated in the proposition: The Bible is the word of God.

    ??

    My mate told me differently. He said the Koran is the word of Gpd. He’s a nice guy so I have no reason to disbelieve him!

  4. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    I know this is not the point, but its good to recognise that Ken’s reason @55 for accepting (or rejecting if it was meant in a sarcastic or ironic way) a first principle is the genetic fallacy.

    As comment 55 scores no hits, perhaps it would be best for Ken to elucidate an adequate method to discern truth apart from the scientism he so often espouses.

    Postscript: What makes Christian scripture the word of God and true as opposed to Islamic scripture is an interesting question. What I think it would come down to is its internal logical consistency, empirical adequacy and experiential relevance, just like any other worldview. Further development of an argument would be required, but on analysis I think the Christian scripture is far superior than the Koran.

  5. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    The Koran is self-refuting; it commands the reader to judge whether its content is accurate against the standard of previous revelation; namely the Bible (both Old and New Testament); cf Suras 2:136; 4:136; 5:44,46,47,49. The Bible, of course, testifies that the Qur’an is essentially a false prophecy; it contradicts genuine revelation in any number of ways.

  6. Ken
    Ken says:

    Careful Stuart – with all this talk of “empirical adequacy and experiential relevance” someone will start accusing you of “scientism.” And, Bnonn, “self-refuting” must be the phrase you use most often. In my mind resorting to such a phrase is an open admission of inadequacy.

    The fact remains that my Muslim friend is more convincing than you. He has the advantage of a more recent document, relating a first-person conversation with his god, using a pure language so less distortion, etc., etc.

    Also, on the personal level (and this can be important in communication) my friend does not reject science, is not promoting dishonest media like “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed in this Film” and is respectful in our discussion. (He may think that I am sometimes a “silly old fool” but he has never called me a moron). Consequently I am more likely to respect his honesty in these matters.

    And we get along well, we have a respectful relationship and can give each other positive criticisms of, and help in, our work. All this despite the fact that we both know that we disagree with each other when it comes to religious belief.

    Because, after all, I place the Koran and the Bible at the same level of credibility with respect to Bnonn’s claim.

  7. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    I think you need to re-read the definition of scientism given, as no one in their right mind would accuse me of advocating scientism. And I’m not against the use of the empirical to help determine the truth. I’m only against the idea that the empirical is the only way to arrive at truth – it’s obviously not the case.

    “self-refuting” must be the phrase you use most often. In my mind resorting to such a phrase is an open admission of inadequacy.

    Rather, what is more and admission of inadequacy is failing to recognise ones own philosophy is self-refuting. Admonishing the use of the phrase is a futile attempt at deflection.

  8. Matthew Flannagan
    Matthew Flannagan says:

    Simon says

    *”But let’s play this argument out; if I can abbreviate your scientism statement to “All truths are scientifically verifiable”, and I defy you and say “Yes, the statement “All truths are scientifically verifiable” is a scientifically verifiable truth”*

    I would point out that the argument is obviously circular, and anything can be verfied in a circular manner.

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