Is Scientism Fundamentally Flawed? Part 3

Introduction

In the first part of this three-part article series we looked at what ‘Scientism’ as a worldview entails. In summary it says that all of reality is physical or material, nothing exists other than matter and energy in space and time. Scientism then goes on to say that the only way we can know that reality is through science. There is no other knowledge than scientific knowledge.

In the second part of the series we looked at the first two approaches to refute Scientism. In this third and final article in the series, we will identify non-physical/ immaterial realities that we know exist, but which are not able to be known through science. If we can identify just one such thing, just one entity, then scientism is refuted. Just one will do, but in fact there are many.     

Refuting Scientism: Non-Physical/Material Realities

Moral Principles & Obligation: In the worldview of scientism, moral principles are not objectively real, in the sense that they exist externally to the human mind and are knowable. Moral principles are merely human constructs. So in reality, good and evil; right and wrong, can change over time, they are subjectively decided by society. Therefore, there is no real obligation on an individual to follow them. There is no real shouldness or oughtness. Largely according to the view of scientism, the majority, persuasion, or power, decides what is right or wrong. Might makes right! Interestingly, this even undermines the application of values in science, for example, the need to accurately report results and not cheat. But scientism has no real evidence to support its claim that ‘might makes right!’. How could it, since scientism denies the reality of such immaterial realities and is not the appropriate method through which to know them. Remember, you don’t use a weighing scale to measure how tall you are. Christianity explains moral principles as an immaterial objective reality grounded in the character of God and revealed in His Word. The obligation to follow them comes from the fact that God is our creator. The same applies to human virtues such as courage, honesty and compassion. This explanation is more powerful and plausible than the alternative offered by scientism.     

Objective Aesthetic Beauty: True objective beauty in the natural world, the wonder of the Grand Canyon, or the splendour of a peacock’s feathers, are not real with scientism, they are just subjective, chemically induced reactions. Similarly, music: dance: the arts: so essential to being human in all societies, are not objects of true beauty. Scientism again reduces our experiences to physical, mechanistic, reductionist explanations, that seem at odds with our most basic human intuitions. Similarly love, the most powerful force known to humanity, is reduced to mindless chemicals in our brain! But the claims of scientism here, are just that—claims, mere assertions—there is no real evidence presented to support them. This just seems so intuitively wrong, and perhaps our intuitions are correct.

The Human Soul, Freewill and Self Identity: The existence of an essence to each human being, a soul, is simply denied with scientism. There is no soul, mind or consciousness, there is just a physical brain. But, again, these claims are not supported by science in the traditional sense of the word. In fact, there is much positive evidence for a soul. 

First, there is our basic intuition that we are more than our body, more than our brain, common to all humanity. Second, there are philosophical arguments based on the law of identity that show that the immaterial mind is different to the physical brain, in that they are not identical in their substance and properties. Third, there are numerous strong credible reports of near death and out-of-body experiences, pointing to an immaterial reality at the core of all of us.

Related to this question of the soul/mind, scientism claims there is no real human freewill, no real volitional choice, all that is really happening is endless physical cause and effect in the brain. Scientism inevitably entails a deterministic view of human life. This determinism, combined with the implication that there are no real moral principles, means that according to  scientism no one should be held accountable for crimes, since crime is just a societal construct in the first place; and secondly, since free will is an illusion, that they didn’t really make any moral choice. Further to all this, the idea of self, an ongoing unique personal identity, makes no sense under scientism. If we are just physical atoms which are replaced over time, then we are a completely different person in the future than we were in  the past, as all the atoms of the human body are replaced. Within the view of  scientism, the self has to be reduced to ideas such our narrative, our abilities, our accomplishments. But these things  are all transient, so if we lose our memory, lose our abilities, who are ‘we’? Who am ‘I’? There is no ‘me’ or ‘I’ at the core of scientism. But scientism has no evidence to support such a radical claim, it is a claim based on the assumption that there can be no other non-physical, immaterial answer. The issues of human personhood, abortion, and euthanasia are replete with views stemming from this baseless scientism.   

Our Thoughts, Feelings, Desires and Memories: Our private thoughts, feelings, desires, and memories are not accessible by science, they are non-physical realities. Brain waves and maps may correlate with certain emotions and thoughts, but they will not tell us what they are, since they are non-physical and not publicly accessible by science. Memory knowledge is interesting in this case, since much of what we know is memory, but our memories are not testable by the classic scientific method. Therefore, scientism reduces a huge body of our personal knowledge to non-knowledge! It would deny its reality, yet that reality is fundamental to us.   

The Existence of Evil and Suffering: This may seem an odd reality to include in this list. But while moral goodness, discussed above, is a non-physical objective reality that undermines the worldview of scientism, the existence of evil and suffering similarly does so, but perhaps even more powerfully. If scientism is accepted, then evil and suffering are not real in an objective sense, they are just things we subjectively don’t like! However, believers in scientism will often argue that the existence of evil and suffering disproves God. How could an all good, all powerful, all knowing God allow evil and suffering? They will often rightly be passionate about injustice, suffering and evil in the world, especially those that have been propagated in the name of religion. While there is not space here to outline good reasons why God may allow evil, many have presented such reasons in the past. For the purpose of this discussion, the important point is that the reality of objective evil and suffering in this world is something we all intuitively perceive, and something even people purporting to believe in scientism will invoke. But this then means that if some things are objectively wrong, there must be a right; if some things are objectively evil, there must be a good. We can’t know crooked if there is no such thing as straight! Deep inside we all know that some things are just plain evil—not just socially constructed wrongs—and that evil is a non-physical immaterial reality, which undermines the worldview of scientism.

Scientism may claim that its opponents hold to an argumentum ad consequentiam—we dismiss the truth because we don’t like the consequences. It claims that we just don’t like the fact that our thoughts, feelings, consciousness, soul, mind, moral principles, beauty, love, purpose, and meaning are all illusions. However, our case is that there is positive non-physical philosophical, experiential, existential, intuitive, perceptive and historical evidence for knowing these non-physical realities. In order to so quickly dismiss everything that makes us human as an illusion, needs very strong evidence, as in doing so it undermines everything that makes us human in the first place. Scientism fails to provide such evidence.

Conclusion

The cumulative impact of these refutations should be enough to persuade any open-minded person that scientism is fundamentally flawed as a worldview. It is simply false. Additionally, the worldview of scientism, in reducing humanity to mere machines, claims that there is no real meaning to life and no purpose. Not even the pursuit of knowledge through science has any real meaning or purpose in the worldview of scientism! Christianity on the other hand is prepared to follow the evidence wherever it leads. It will lead you to the foot of the cross and into eternity, if you are prepared to follow it—I encourage you to do so.

Bibliography

Austin L. Hughes, ‘The Folly of Scientism’, The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society, 2012.

John C. Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything? London: The Good Book Company, 2019. 

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, New York: Macmillan, 1955S.

McDowell & J. Morrow. Is God Just a Human Invention – And Seventeen Other Questions Raised by the New Atheists. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2010.

J. P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology. Wheaton, Illinois, Crossway, 2018.    

2 replies
  1. Frank Arduini
    Frank Arduini says:

    Coming late to this discussion when the comments on the previous two articles in this series are closed, I will not attempt to respond to either of them in detail. I will only point out that to the extent that the authors portray “Scientism” as a world-view comparable to a religious belief they are setting up and knocking down a straw man. Unattributed assertions such as “the only truth we can know is discovered through science” are in and of themselves not scientific, and no serious scientific thinker believes them.

    The real position among those who genuinely understand science is vastly more qualified. It is that science is the single best method we have discovered as humans for incrementally approaching truth. It makes no bald assertions of having actually discovered truth, as it is always tentative and subject to self-correction. But it is still, bar none, the single most pragmatically productive enterprise in all of human history.
    We know this because it works. It actually does cure diseases, increase crop yields, send humans into space and allow you and to communicate across vast distances at the speed of light… while religion and philosophy do not. Each time you put fingers to keyboard you tacitly concede the practical power of science in our lives. And even the most devout theist is obligated to concede at least that one empirical reality.

    This third part of the essays on Scientism, though, is deserving of a more focused response. It asserts the existence of at least four categories of things that are “Non-Physical/Material Realities.”
    To avoid burying the lede, the response to all of them is fundamentally the same; all of them (to the extent that any of them exist) are neatly explained without any appeal to non-material phenomena. None can be shown to exist independently of human mind… and mind is simply what brain does. The first-person experience of a thought, or a memory, or a sense of awe might be reserved only to the person experiencing the effect. But we have no problem observing any of them in the third-person as the electro-chemical operation of a physical organ. With the technology of PET scans or other instruments we can observe the physical phenomena that in our first-person experience might be interpreted as immaterial.

    The article attempts to dismiss this fact with the assertion that “Brain waves and maps may correlate with certain emotions and thoughts, but they will not tell us what they are, since they are non-physical and not publicly accessible by science.” But this is increasingly untrue as technology advances. We CAN already identify emotions based on observed brain activity. And increasingly we are able to decipher observed brain activity into phenomenon more subtle and sublime. For example, researchers have had stunning success using a computer to convert brain activity into images that actually do reflect the mental images experienced by the subjects.

    It perhaps the single most consistent outcome of scientific investigation that what was previously “not accessible by science” eventually becomes accessible. It is historically a risky position to hold that what is not accessible is inaccessible. History is littered with examples of that which was believed beyond understanding that became understood. Science advocates for more humility on the part of the apologist.

    We actually have little problem meeting the proffered challenge to provide “very strong evidence” that the illusion of immaterial things is just that; an illusion. There is no component of mind, to include our experiences of any of the “Non-Physical/Material Realities” posited by this essay, that we cannot change or destroy through physical alteration or destruction of the brain. Whether through the temporary intervention of psychoactive drugs, or the more permanent impact of surgery or cerebral lesions, all of these allegedly immaterial things are vulnerable to material alteration. If they were actually non-physical or immaterial, they should persist independently of and be immune to physical/material manipulation.

    But they are not.

    That we share so much from person to person is only a reflection of our shared biology and experience. But even within our species we find a diversity of experience regarding what is or is not moral, what is or is not beautiful, even what is or is not self.

  2. Mark Powell
    Mark Powell says:

    Thanks for your critique Frank, I offer the following responses;

    – This article is pointing out the flaws in ‘scientism’ , i.e. what is also called philosophical naturalism, physicalism or materialism. It is not a strawman, but a belief system that many have, and is a worldview, a religion if you like , since it claims to explain everything in the universe and all human experience. When you say the assertion that “the only truth we can know is discovered through science” is “not scientific” I completely agree. That is one of my points, ‘scientism’ is completely different to ‘science’, i.e. methodological naturalism, which recognises that science has been very successful at helping us understand the natural world. But when you say that “no serious scientific thinker believes them” i.e. them being “the only truth we can know is discovered through science” then it is you who are guilty of not making bold not attributed claims, may philosophical naturalist make such claims , for example, see this clip of William Lane Craig debating famous scientist Peter Atkins, when Atkins claims that Science explains everything https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RuDReCqkNRs . I think Atkins is generally regraded as a “serious scientific thinker”.

    – Then for most of your reply you seem to disregard your earlier comment that nor serious scientific thinker would believe that the only truth we can know is discovered through science, by seemingly claiming that the examples I gave as non-physical realities that cannot be explained by science, can in fact be explained by science, or will be in the future , in a sort of ‘science of the gaps’ argument.

    I see nothing in your response that refutes or negates the arguments I’ve made in these article and you yourself seem both deny that scientism and science are the same and then later conflate them.

    Finally, I want to emphasise here the argument I’m making is not against science. Science has been a wonderful tool for the human race, although it has also been horribly misused (e.g. atomic and biological weaponry, eugenics,). Science really helps us understand the physical universe, but that is its limit, the physical/natural/material. It really has nothing to say about morality, about how we ought to live, it has nothing to say about beauty, or the ultimate desire of the human heart, love. What this article is arguing against is scientism, the belief that all that exists is the natural/physical/material and that science explains everything. Have a look at this which probably make the case far better than I can https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-folly-of-scientism.

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