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