Scientism, or the claim that science (physics, biology, chemistry, etc.,) is either: the only body of objective knowledge, or the most certain kind, will be the subject of our refutation in this discussion.
Why does it matter? Because those most important and impactful questions to life and for society, such as whether God exists, the soul is immaterial, or whether there are universal and objective moral prescriptions, are not scientific questions but philosophical ones.
And if these philosophical questions and their corresponding answers simply do not exist, or do not come with any certainty, what then becomes of our lives? What would life even mean? It may lose the “means” to mean at all.
So, faced with an impending dismantling of the very fabric of our intellectual universe and with the imposing glamor of science threatening to sweep us away, let us—with heroic courage—drive headlong into the fray, to meet our scientific opponent.
Taking a Second Look
What is science? According to the “Science Council,” science is:
…the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence (sciencecouncil.org).
Another way to understand science is through its “scientific method.” Newton, as one of the scientific method’s championed originators, describes the method’s essential components thus:
This analysis consists in making experiments and observations, and in drawing general conclusions from them by induction, and admitting no objections against the conclusions, but such as are taken from experiments, or other certain truths (Optics, Bk. 3, P.1 Q.31).
In other words, science consists in observations, experiments, and conclusions which are drawn from the two; and within its methodology is our response to the first formulation of scientism.
If science is the only body of objective knowledge, then since it consists (according to its method) solely in observations, experiments, and the resulting conclusions, it follows, then, that scientism is itself a contradiction. It is self-contradictory because the claim of scientism (being neither observable nor experimental) is not itself a scientific claim, but a philosophical one.
To put it briefly, if the claim (of this form of scientism) is true, then scientism is false. It’s analogous to a man giving a speech about how he is unable to speak. Relativism, to give another example, faces the same dilemma. For, if it is objectively true that there are no objective truths then relativism itself cannot be objectively true.
For both scientism and relativism, the toughest objections come not from philosophy or ethics, but sound logic.
A Color Conundrum
Besides being self-defeating, scientism is disproved by ordinary experience, or shall we say, by its inability to explain ordinary experience. Before proving the point, let us hear the opposition. Here are the words of Alex Rosenberg, in his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality:
The phenomenal accuracy of its predictions, the unimaginable power of its technological application, and the breathtaking extent and detail of its explanations are powerful reasons to believe that physics is the whole truth about reality (pg. 26).
However, what about the realities like God, or the soul, which are not accessible to physics? Or take a more mundane example: what about color?
Interestingly enough, there is more to color than meets the eye, or that physics can explain. Let us begin with the stock definition of color:
Light comes to Earth from the sun in waves. Some of the waves are longer. Some of the waves are shorter. We see the waves as the colors of the rainbow (Nasa.gov) (emphasis added).
But immediately this stock, physical definition of color runs us into problems. First, to say that we see the “waves as color” is to admit that the waves themselves are colorless. But if neither things in themselves nor the waves reflecting them are colored, where is color coming from?
Physics has to place color somewhere in the mind, but that doesn’t solve the problem either. Here is Dr. Feser:
The atoms are said to be intrinsically colorless, as well as intrinsically soundless, odorless, tasteless, etc. It is precisely because it is, to say the least, difficult to see how color could ever arise out of what is intrinsically colorless that the atomist was moved to assert that color is not really in objects after all, but only in the mind. But the atoms that make up the brain are no less colorless…(Aristotle’s Revenge, pg. 302).
Additionally, if color is only “waves” and not a real attribute of things in themselves. Then no one has ever actually seen anything, ever. To make the point, here is another philosopher, Mark Johnson:
Unless the external world is colored it is invisible. For if the external world is not colored then we do not see the colors of external things. They are not visible…if colors are not visible then no surface of a material object is visible. But if no surface of a material object is visible, then no material object is visible. Such is the consequence of denying that nothing corresponds to external color, the proper sensible of sight. Unless the external world is colored we do not see it and that means we do not see, period (From his article, How to Speak of Colors, 1997).
It’s crucial to note that no one is saying that physics, regarding its observations and mathematical conclusions, is mistaken: only that there is more to the world than physics has the scope to consider.
For a fuller treatment on qualities (like color) as a real attribute in things, as well as their implications and explanatory causes, will require another post.
For now, suffice it to say that: (a) the common-sense notion of color is correct (b) it is not thoroughly captured by science, and therefore (c) along with God, and the soul, science cannot give us a complete explanation of things. Therefore, it cannot be the only body of knowledge.
To refute the second formulation of scientism, which is the claim that science (although not the only source of objective knowledge) is the most certain kind, here is Aristotle:
Evidently, then such a principle is the most certain of all; which principle this is, let us proceed to say. It is, that the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject and in the same respect…This, then, is the most certain of all principles…(Metaphysics, Bk. IV, P. IV).
Aristotle’s “most certain” principle is commonly called “The Principle of Non-Contradiction” (PNC). The PNC means, essentially, that the phone in your hand cannot at the same time also be a balloon or an ostrich; it’s either a phone or something else, but it cannot be a phone and not-be-a-phone at the same time. If this sounds like common-sense; it’s because it is.
But this bit of common sense is philosophical, not scientific. It’s not scientific because it is presupposed in all scientific inquiry. It goes before science, and therefore can neither be proved nor observed by science. And the PNC is one of the most certain, unshakable intellectual principles we have.
Another philosophical principle at the foundation of all science is the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). One of its most well-known definitions comes to us from Benedict de Spinoza, a 17th-century philosopher. He writes:
Since existing is something positive, we cannot say that it has nothing as its cause (by Axiom 7). Therefore, we must assign some positive cause, or reason, why [a thing] exists—either an external one, i.e., one outside the thing itself, or an internal one, one comprehended in the nature and definition of the existing thing itself (Gebhart., I/158/4–9).1
In layman’s terms, everything that exists has an explanation for why it exists, either in itself or from something else. Going back to the example of the phone, the phone’s existence must have an explanation for why it both: exists at all, and why it happens to be a phone instead of a balloon or an ostrich.
The PSR does not necessitate that we know why the phone is not a balloon or an ostrich, but only that there is such an explanation. This again seems like common-sense; but without it, science crumbles like Jenga.
Without the PSR, the certainty of explanations, in general, goes out the window, and with it all certainty of particular explanations which are built upon it. Ed Feser illustrates the point with this analogy:
Suppose I told you that the fact that a certain book has not fallen to the ground is explained by the fact that it is resting on a certain shelf, but that the fact that the shelf itself has not fallen to the ground has no explanation at all but is an unintelligible brute fact. Have I really explained the position of the book? (Five Proofs of the Existence of God, pg. 150).
Certainty in scientific explanations rests on the certain reality of explanation itself, which is not provided by science but by philosophy.
To the first formulation of scientism: that science is the only source of objective knowledge, we respond thus: that it is both self-refuting and undermined by science’s inability to explain mundane things like color, as well as profound things like God, the soul, and objective moral prescriptions.
To the second formulation of scientism: that it is the most certain kind of knowledge, we respond: that the philosophy’s Principle of Non-Contradiction and Principle of Sufficient Reason are not only more certain than scientific knowledge, but also required for any scientific knowledge.
Therefore, science must give credence to a more certain, more splendid intellectual discipline: philosophy.
The post is inspired, and partly indebted to Ed Feser’s “Aristotle’s Revenge” and “Philosophy of the Mind.”
1. Citation provided by Standford.edu