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Blinded by Scientism
by Edward Feser
March 9, 2010
The problem with scientism is that it is either self-defeating or trivially true. F.A. Hayek helps us to see why. The first article in a two-part series.
Scientism is the view that all real knowledge is scientific knowledge—that there is no rational, objective form of inquiry that is not a branch of science. There is at least a whiff of scientism in the thinking of those who dismiss ethical objections to cloning or embryonic stem cell research as inherently “anti-science.” There is considerably more than a whiff of it in the work of New Atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who allege that because religion has no scientific foundation (or so they claim) it “therefore” has no rational foundation at all. It is evident even in secular conservative writers like John Derbyshire and Heather MacDonald, whose criticisms of their religious fellow right-wingers are only slightly less condescending than those of Dawkins and co. Indeed, the culture at large seems beholden to an inchoate scientism—“faith” is often pitted against “science” (even by those friendly to the former) as if “science” were synonymous with “reason.”
Despite its adherents’ pose of rationality, scientism has a serious problem: it is either self-refuting or trivial. Take the first horn of this dilemma. The claim that scientism is true is not itself a scientific claim, not something that can be established using scientific methods. Indeed, that science is even a rational form of inquiry (let alone the only rational form of inquiry) is not something that can be established scientifically. For scientific inquiry itself rests on a number of philosophical assumptions: that there is an objective world external to the minds of scientists; that this world is governed by causal regularities; that the human intellect can uncover and accurately describe these regularities; and so forth. Since science presupposes these things, it cannot attempt to justify them without arguing in a circle. And if it cannot even establish that it is a reliable form of inquiry, it can hardly establish that it is the only reliable form. Both tasks would require “getting outside” science altogether and discovering from that extra-scientific vantage point that science conveys an accurate picture of reality—and in the case of scientism, that only science does so.
The rational investigation of the philosophical presuppositions of science has, naturally, traditionally been regarded as the province of philosophy. Nor is it these presuppositions alone that philosophy examines. There is also the question of how to interpret what science tells us about the world. For example, is the world fundamentally comprised of substances or events? What is it to be a “cause”? Is there only one kind? (Aristotle held that there are at least four.) What is the nature of the universals referred to in scientific laws—concepts like quark, electron, atom, and so on—and indeed in language in general? Do they exist over and above the particular things that instantiate them? Scientific findings can shed light on such metaphysical questions, but can never fully answer them. Yet if science must depend upon philosophy both to justify its presuppositions and to interpret its results, the falsity of scientism seems doubly assured. As the conservative philosopher John Kekes (himself a confirmed secularist like Derbyshire and MacDonald) concludes: “Hence philosophy, and not science, is a stronger candidate for being the very paradigm of rationality.”
Here we come to the second horn of the dilemma facing scientism. Its advocate may now insist: if philosophy has this status, it must really be a part of science, since (he continues to maintain, digging in his heels) all rational inquiry is scientific inquiry. The trouble now is that scientism becomes completely trivial, arbitrarily redefining “science” so that it includes anything that could be put forward as evidence against it. Worse, it makes scientism consistent with views that are supposed to be incompatible with it. For example, a line of thought deriving from Aristotle and developed with great sophistication by Thomas Aquinas holds that when we work out what it is for one thing to be the cause of another, we are inexorably led to the existence of an Uncaused Cause outside time and space which continually sustains the causal regularities studied by science, and apart from which they could not in principle exist even for a moment.
If “scientism” is defined so broadly that it includes (at least in principle) philosophical theology of this kind, then the view becomes completely vacuous. For the whole point of scientism—or so it would seem given the rhetoric of its loudest adherents—was supposed to be to provide a weapon by which fields of inquiry like theology might be dismissed as inherently unscientific and irrational. (Obviously the Uncaused Cause argument for God’s existence is controversial, but it has had, and continues to have, prominent defenders to the present day. For readers who are interested, I explain and defend the argument at length—and show how very badly Dawkins and co. misunderstand it—in my recent books The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism and Aquinas.)
Conservatives, more than anyone else, should be wary of the pretensions of scientism, a Procrustean ideology whose pretensions were exposed with particular insight by F. A. Hayek, one of the great heroes of contemporary conservatives (including, perhaps especially, secular conservatives—Hayek himself was an agnostic with no religious ax to grind). In his three-part essay “Scientism and the Study of Society” (reprinted in his book The Counter-Revolution of Science) and his book The Sensory Order, Hayek shows that the project of re-conceiving human nature in particular entirely in terms of the categories of natural science is impossible in principle.
The reason has to do with what Hayek calls the “objectivism” inherent in scientism. Modern science arose in large part out of a practical, political concern—to make men “masters and possessors of nature” (as Descartes put it), and enhance “human utility and power” through the “mechanical arts” or technology (in the words of Francis Bacon). This goal could be realized only by focusing on those aspects of the natural world susceptible of strict prediction and control, and this in turn required a quantitative methodology, so that mathematics would come to be regarded as the language in which the “book of nature” was written (in Galileo’s well-known phrase). And yet our ordinary, everyday experience of the world is qualitative through and through—we perceive colors, sounds, warmth and coolness, purposes and meanings.
How are we to reconcile this commonsense “manifest image” of the world with the quantitative “scientific image” (to borrow philosopher Wilfrid Sellars’ famous distinction)? The answer is that they cannot be reconciled. Thus the commonsense, qualitative “manifest image” came to be regarded as a world of mere “appearance,” with the new quantitative “scientific image” alone conveying “reality.” The former would be re-defined as “subjective” – color, sound, heat, cold, meaning, purpose, and the like, as common sense understands them, exist in the mind alone. “Objective” reality, revealed by science and described in the language of mathematics, was held to comprise a world of colorless, soundless, meaningless particles in motion. Or rather, if color, temperature, sound and the like are to be regarded as existing in objective reality, they must be redefined – heat and cold reconceived in terms of molecular motion, color in terms of the reflecting of photons at certain wavelengths, sound in terms of compression waves, and so forth. What common sense means by “heat,” “cold,” “red,” “green,” “loud,” etc. – the way things feel, look, sound, and so forth in conscious experience – drops out as a mere projection of the mind. The new method thus ensured that the natural world as studied by science would be quantifiable, predictable, and controllable – precisely by redefining “science” so that nothing that did not fit the method would be allowed to count as “physical,” “material,” or “natural.” All recalcitrant phenomena would simply be “swept under the rug” of the mind, reinterpreted as part of the mental lens through which we perceive external reality rather than part of external reality itself.
Hayek’s view was that the very nature of objectivism precludes its coherently being applied across –the board to the human mind itself. Since the mind just is the “subjective” realm of so-called “appearances”—the rug under which everything that does not fit the “objectivist” method has been swept—it cannot even in theory be assimilated via quantificational modeling to the material world, as that world has been characterized by physical science. The very nature of scientific understanding, at least as the moderns have defined it, thus entails what Hayek calls a “practical dualism” of mind and matter—a dualism that the objectivist method itself foists upon us, even if we want to deny (as Hayek himself did) that it reflects any genuine metaphysical cleavage between the mental and material worlds.
Any attempt to redefine the mind in “objectivist” terms, characterizing its elements in terms of quantifiable structural relations—an approach Hayek himself sketched out in The Sensory Order—would only open the same problem up again at a higher level, as whatever aspects of the mind that fail to fit this objectivist redefinition simply get kicked up to a second-order realm of mere “appearance” (and to further levels still if the method is applied to the second-order realm). Scientism’s attempt to apply the objectivistic method to the human mind itself thus entails in Hayek’s view a vicious regress, a methodological “chasing of one’s own tail” on to infinity. The result may provide certain insights—Hayek thought so—but it cannot hope to provide complete understanding.
The irony is that the very practice of science itself, which involves the formulation of hypotheses, the weighing of evidence, the invention of technical concepts and vocabularies, the construction of chains of reasoning, and so forth—all mental activities saturated with meaning and purpose—falls on the “subjective,” “manifest image” side of scientism’s divide rather than the “objective,” “scientific image” side. Human thought and action, including the thoughts and actions of scientists, is of its nature irreducible to the meaningless, purposeless motions of particles and the like. Some thinkers committed to scientism realize this, but conclude that the lesson to draw is not that scientism is mistaken, but that human thought and action are themselves fictions. According to this radical position—known as “eliminative materialism” since it entails eliminating the very concept of the mind altogether instead of trying to reduce mind to matter—what is true of human beings is only what can be put in the technical jargon of physics, chemistry, neuroscience and the like. There is no such thing as “thinking,” “believing,” “desiring,” “meaning,” etc.; there is only the firing of neurons, the secretion of hormones, the twitching of muscles, and other such physiological events. While this is definitely a minority position even among materialists, there are those who acknowledge it to be the inevitable consequence of a consistent scientism, and endorse it on that basis. But as Hayek would have predicted, the very attempt to state the position necessarily, but incoherently, makes use of concepts—“science,” “rationality,” “evidence,” “truth,” and so forth—that presuppose exactly what the position denies, viz. the reality of meaning and mind. (I have more to say about the incoherence of eliminative materialism here and here.)
As I argued in part I, scientism—the view that all real knowledge is scientific knowledge—is either self-refuting or trivial. Moreover, consistently pursued, it leads to the “eliminative materialist” position that the human mind itself is a fiction—that there are no such things as thinking, perceiving, willing, desiring, and so forth. This position is not only incoherent, but undermines the very possibility of science itself—the very thing scientism claims to champion.
Why would anyone be attracted to such a bizarre and muddleheaded view? The answer—to paraphrase a remark made by Ludwig Wittgenstein in another context—is that “a picture holds us captive.” Hypnotized by the unparalleled predictive and technological successes of modern science, contemporary intellectuals infer that scientism must be true, so that anything that follows from it—however fantastic or seemingly incoherent—must be true as well. But this is sheer sophistry. If a certain method of studying nature affords us a high degree of predictive and technological power, all that shows is that the method is useful for dealing with those aspects of nature that are predictable and controllable. It does not show us that those aspects exhaust nature, that there is nothing more to the natural world than what the method reveals. Neither does it show that there are no rational means of investigating reality other than those involving empirical prediction and control. To assume otherwise is fallaciously to let one’s method dictate what counts as reality rather than letting reality determine what methods are appropriate for studying it. If wearing infrared night vision goggles allows me to perceive a certain part of the world remarkably well, it doesn’t follow that there is no more to the world than what I can perceive through the goggles, or that only goggle-wearing methods of investigating reality are rational ones.
That there is indeed more to the world than scientism would allow is evident from what has been said already. But it is evident too even from the deliverances of science itself. Consider this passage from Bertrand Russell (yet another secularist thinker, entirely unmotivated by sympathy for religion):
It is not always realised how exceedingly abstract is the information that theoretical physics has to give. It lays down certain fundamental equations which enable it to deal with the logical structure of events, while leaving it completely unknown what is the intrinsic character of the events that have the structure. We only know the intrinsic character of events when they happen to us. Nothing whatever in theoretical physics enables us to say anything about the intrinsic character of events elsewhere. They may be just like the events that happen to us, or they may be totally different in strictly unimaginable ways. All that physics gives us is certain equations giving abstract properties of their changes. But as to what it is that changes, and what it changes from and to—as to this, physics is silent. (My Philosophical Development, p. 13)
By “the intrinsic character of events when they happen to us,” what Russell means is the “subjective” world of “appearances” that makes up our conscious experience. That world—the world which (as we saw in part I) the “objectivist” approach of scientism regards as an embarrassment, and which the eliminative materialist accordingly seeks to banish entirely—that is what we know most fully, for Russell. By comparison, the knowledge physics gives us is so “exceedingly abstract”—that is to say, physics goes so far in the direction of abstracting away from the objects of its inquiries whatever does not fit its quantificational methods—that it leaves it “completely unknown” what the inner nature of those objects, apart from their mathematically definable properties, really is. And yet since the physical world is not a mere abstraction—physics itself presupposes that it is not an invention of the mind, and that we can know about it via perception of concrete reality—they must indeed have some inner nature. If we are to know what that inner nature is, and to know of anything else about which empirical science is silent, we must go beyond science—to philosophy, the true “paradigm of rationality,” as John Kekes puts it.
But can philosophy really tell us anything? Don’t philosophers notoriously disagree among themselves? Even if it is conceded that there is more to the world than science tells us, mightn’t we nevertheless be justified in throwing up our hands and concluding that whatever this “more” might be, it is simply unknowable—that scientism is a reasonable attitude to take in practice, even if problematic in theory?
The trouble is that this is itself a philosophical claim, subject to philosophical criticism and requiring philosophical argumentation in its defense. The very attempt to avoid philosophy implicates one in practicing it. As the philosopher and historian of science E. A. Burtt stated in his classic The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science:
Even the attempt to escape metaphysics is no sooner put in the form of a proposition than it is seen to involve highly significant metaphysical postulates. For this reason there is an exceedingly subtle and insidious danger in positivism [i.e. scientism]. If you cannot avoid metaphysics, what kind of metaphysics are you likely to cherish when you sturdily suppose yourself to be free from the abomination? Of course it goes without saying that in this case your metaphysics will be held uncritically because it is unconscious; moreover, it will be passed on to others far more readily than your other notions inasmuch as it will be propagated by insinuation rather than by direct argument… Now the history of mind reveals pretty clearly that the thinker who decries metaphysics… if he be a man engaged in any important inquiry, he must have a method, and he will be under a strong and constant temptation to make a metaphysics out of his method, that is, to suppose the universe ultimately of such a sort that his method must be appropriate and successful… But inasmuch as the positivist mind has failed to school itself in careful metaphysical thinking, its ventures at such points will be apt to appear pitiful, inadequate, or even fantastic. (pp. 228-29)
We have no choice but to engage in philosophy. The only question is whether we will do it well or badly. Those committed to scientism pretend not to do it at all, but what they have really done is (as Burtt puts it) “made a metaphysics out of their method.” And as we have seen, it is a very bad metaphysics indeed. Only those who do not eschew philosophy—and especially those who do not engage in it while pretending not to—are going to do it well.
What of the disagreements among philosophers? Many of the so-called “traditional problems” of philosophy are in fact no older than the scientific revolution. In particular, they are a consequence of an increasing tendency over the last few centuries unjustifiably to privilege what Hayek calls the “objectivistic” method of empirical science (described in part I) and to apply it to areas in which it is inappropriate, such as ethics and the analysis of human thought and action. Redefining the natural world in exclusively objectivistic terms has made an affirmation of moral values, irreducibly mental phenomena, and free will seem mysteriously “dualistic.” Denying the reality of these things seems to lead to nihilism and even (as we saw in part I) incoherence. Disagreement within modern philosophy is largely an artifact of this impasse, as thinkers dispute precisely which version of these two unhappy extremes is the best—or the least bad, anyway. Beholden as intellectuals in general are to the scientistic spirit of the age, too few think to question the assumptions that led to the impasse in the first place. Far from being a point in favor of scientism, the disagreement that plagues contemporary philosophy is largely a consequence of scientism, or at least of a methodological bias that scientism has raised to the level of an ideology.
What happens when we do reject this bias? The right answer, in my view, is a return to the philosophical wisdom of the ancients and medievals. Their physics, as Galileo, Newton, Einstein and co. have shown us, was indeed sorely lacking. But their metaphysics has never been surpassed. And while they certainly had disagreements of their own, there is a common core to the tradition they founded—a tradition extending from Plato and Aristotle to the High Scholasticism of Aquinas and down to its descendents today—that sets them apart from the decadent philosophical systems of the moderns. This core constitutes a “perennial philosophy” apart from which the harmony of common sense and science, and indeed even the coherence of science itself, cannot be understood. And it is also in this perennial philosophy that the rational foundations of theology and ethics are to be found.
That, needless to say, is a long story—a story which I have told in The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism and Aquinas. But what has been said here should suffice to show that it is only those who know something about philosophy and its history, and who have grappled seriously with its questions, who have earned the right to pronounce on the rational credentials of theology and traditional morality. And that most definitely does not include those blinded by scientism.
There is no such thing as “thinking,” “believing,” “desiring,” “meaning,” etc.; there is only the firing of neurons, the secretion of hormones, the twitching of muscles, and other such physiological events.
The rational investigation of the philosophical presuppositions of science has, naturally, traditionally been regarded as the province of philosophy.
There is also the question of how to interpret what science tells us about the world. For example, is the world fundamentally comprised of substances or events? What is it to be a “cause”? Is there only one kind? (Aristotle held that there are at least four.) What is the nature of the universals referred to in scientific laws—concepts like quark, electron, atom, and so on—and indeed in language in general? Do they exist over and above the particular things that instantiate them?
Scientific findings can shed light on such metaphysical questions, but can never fully answer them.
Yet if science must depend upon philosophy both to justify its presuppositions and to interpret its results, the falsity of scientism seems doubly assured.
As the conservative philosopher John Kekes (himself a confirmed secularist like Derbyshire and MacDonald) concludes: “Hence philosophy, and not science, is a stronger candidate for being the very paradigm of rationality.”
Here's where he starts reaching. They are not metaphysical questions. They are physical. We can explain them all away with invisible gnome gods, if that makes it easier.
Main Entry: meta·phys·ics
Function: noun plural but singular in construction
Etymology: Medieval Latin Metaphysica, title of Aristotle's treatise on the subject, from Greek (ta) meta (ta) physika, literally, the (works) after the physical (works); from its position in his collected works
a (1) : a division of philosophy that is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being and that includes ontology, cosmology, and often epistemology (2) : ontology 2 b : abstract philosophical studies : a study of what is outside objective experience
Wrong. The philosophical presuppositions (assumptions), and subsequent interpretations, both must be justified by scientific inquiry. Not the other way round.
Saying science is something it isn't, is not a criticism of science or 'scientism'.
Originally posted by TruthOverload
all knowledge should be provable by basic scientific method.
Originally posted by Wertdagf
Yeah in the last 100 years we have made so much progress, but the religious still hang on to the tenuous thread of conciousness. Its a pity you cannot comprehend the rapid advancement of knowledge.
Originally posted by Wertdagf
reply to post by OnceReturned
As if infinite regression in and of itself is any more evidence of a magic fairy that sneezed everything into existance. The religious belief actualy has the same problem.
Who created god?
Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. [...] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?
In other words, Mary is a scientist who knows everything there is to know about the science of color, but has never experienced color. The question that is raised is: once she experiences color, does she learn anything new?
Ontologically, the following argument is contained in the thought experiment:
(P1) Any and every piece of physical knowledge in regards to human color vision has been obtained (by the test subject, Mary) prior to her release from the black-and-white room. She has all the physical knowledge on the subject.
(P2) Upon leaving the room and witnessing color first-hand, she obtains new knowledge.
(C) There was some knowledge about human color vision she did not have prior to her release. Therefore, not all knowledge is physical knowledge.