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Scientism is still alive

May 7, 2014

I was in a conversation with an atheist very recently and the question came up about the nature of evidence suitable as a ‘proof’ for the existence of a god. This atheist made the claim as we were debating:

Everything about the universe has to be empirically and/or mathematically supported. 

This is classical scientism i.e. that the only ‘true’ (or valuable) knowledge about the world  is that which can be confirmed by science. I responded by demonstrating the self-refuting nature of that statement, as I said,

I’m not sure your statement that ‘everything about the universe has to be empirically and/or mathematically supported’ can be supported either empirically or mathematically, meaning that statement as self-defeating. 

Scientism is a terribly reductionist way of viewing the world. Not only is the very claim unscientific but the very assumptions that science is built upon are also “unscientific” i.e. they can’t be ‘proved’ empirically e.g. the laws of logic, the existence of numbers, these are reasonable a priori assumptions which help us interrogate and understand the universe. But they cannot be ‘proved’ empirically.

Scientism also devalues and eliminates any other alternative sources of ‘truth’ e.g. poetry or revelation. Poetry can illuminate and provide truth that science cannot. Similarly I can only find out my wife’s favourite drink by her ‘revealing’ it to me i.e. her speaking to me. There is no possible scientific experiment that can be conducted which can produce this ‘fact’. To suggest that ‘everything’ about the universe has to be scientifically or mathematically supported is too simplistic and reductionistic.

Yet unperturbed my atheist friend continued to pursue this philosophical approach:

My statement in question is a self-evident statement of fact. It is supported by the observation that almost everything concretely known about nature as of yet has been discovered and subsequently proved using methods of science, and seldom by methods of mulling things over in an armchair. 

This statement is not a ‘self-evident statement of fact’. Not everything has been discovered using the ‘methods of science’ (as I outlined above). To pit philosophy against science as my friend has done here does gross injustice to both science and philosophy.

Another atheist chimed in and contributed to this debate trying to justify the scientism of his atheist counterpart:

First, I’d just like to mention that that’s a fairly overused tactic, and it doesn’t do you much good. Because, with utility as the standard, empirical rationalism blows magical thinking to pieces. With reality, actual reality as the metric, nothing can compete with an epistemology predicated on evidence and refutation.

So unlike philosophy/theology, which ultimately swallows its own tail, we have a system that’s verifiablly predictive and explanatory. If you want proof that Arjun was correct, see if you’re using a chunk of plastic and circuitry to beam your thoughts across the world in the blink of an eye. Then tell me utility isn’t a good standard to judge epistemologies by. 

Unfortunately this statement overlooks and misunderstands the philosophical position I was taking. I was never for a second suggesting that science is useless – I completely agree science is an outstanding tool. My point is that it isn’t the only way of determining truth.

Further, the reason my response may seem ‘overused’ is because it’s philosophically true.  Again, unfortunately my other atheist friend has completely overlooked the philosophical foundations of science and the limits of science. As leading atheist Dan Dennett wisely suggests, ‘There is no such thing as philosophy free science, just science that has been conducted without any consideration of its underlying philosophical assumptions’.

It is unsurprising that those advocating ‘scientism’ fail to see evidence for god, because the clearest evidence for a god is through ‘revelation’ i.e. that he has spoken through the person and works of Jesus Christ. Just like I only know things about my wife because she tells me, the only way we can know things for certain about God is because he has spoken to us.

I find it disappointing that it appears that scientism still appears to be alive even though it is completely self-refuting and ignores alternative, valid pathways to truth.


From → Philosophy

  1. I suspect what you mean by truth is inward satisfaction with your life situation and indeed there are numerous paths to attain this. It is something that all who have sufficient, seek. We must not forget many in the world do not have time for such niceties. I find the world intrudes on my inner state making me constantly aware of its horrors. As I look at it I see impending disaster.

  2. I find it disappointing that it appears that scientism still appears to be alive even though it is completely self-refuting and ignores alternative, valid pathways to truth.

    The Oxford Dictionary defines truth as “That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality”; and “A fact or belief that is accepted as true”.
    Rob, if you are really referring to some alternative, subjective or otherwise personal definition of “truth”, then (a) you ought to make that clear, and (b) trying to provoke any rational discussion about it is pointless. I’d rather read someone else’s blog about their culinary adventures with breakfast waffles.

    Assuming you do mean the same thing as the Oxford definition of truth above, then you might want to consider more carefully these apparent “valid pathways” to it.

    There are valid pathways to the truth about the physical universe, and they include observation, measurement, hypothesis-forming and testing. Learning your wife’s favourite drink falls within this process too, because she can tell you and as many people as necessary for it to become recognised as an undisputed fact for any practical purpose it might serve.

    I would really expect that a valid pathway to the truth comprises at least some elements of objectivity. To illustrate, consider that it is possible the published value for absolute zero of -273.15 degrees C isn’t actually correct (despite all physicists accepting it as truth). It is possible also that we misunderstand your wife and/or we disagree in our interpretations when she tells us what her favourite drink is.
    In both cases, however, we can pretty much agree on the general approaches and mechanisms for collecting the data. We can agree universally that the data exists.

    However, you also seem to be implying that personal revelation of God (ie., him speaking to us), is a valid pathway to truth.
    I cannot understand how you expect this assertion to be accepted, when you know that revelations of God are just not recognised at large as real occurrences?
    There is no universal agreement that the data exists.

    So, if you’re really going to go with personal revelation, then I could equally make the claim that I learn hitherto unknown facts about our universe from ghostly visits by my dead parents. Surely you would have to agree then, that seances are also a valid pathway to the truth. Correct?

    • Im just wondering out loud here if the fact that every scientific measurement comes attached with a relative uncertainty implies that science can only establish truth within a range of values.
      to argue that a measurement plus or minus x can pin point an exact truth is a little misleading.

  3. Matt, it depends on the context and the type of language you use. I never used words like ‘exact’ and ‘pinpoint’. ‘Objective’ is better, meaning that observations can repeated and/or tested by others that have no vested interest in the outcome of the subject.
    Focussing on semantics like ‘exactness’ is the thing that is misleading. The real issue is about whether claims to some kind of personal or supernatural inspiration be be accepted as ‘pathways to truth’.
    I contend the answer is no, unless you want to thoroughly distort the meaning of the word ‘truth’ into something other than the commonly-understood, dictionary definition.

  4. James Garth permalink

    Regarding whether divine revelation could be accepted as a ‘pathway to truth’, consider this formulation;

    1. The definition of God is a being who has the power to do all things that are possible.
    2. It is possible for a human to possess reliable knowledge regarding certain features of the world.
    3. It is possible that God exists.
    4. Therefore, it is possible that God can provide a person with reliable knowledge regarding certain features of the world.

    I see no contradiction here. Certainly I don’t see a case by which revelation ought to be swiftly and categorically dismissed from the table. Much more argument would be required to establish this case in my view.

  5. James, that is an elegant piece of logic you have there. However, you’re still missing the point about objectivity and verifiability. The scientific method provides empirical data and methods that can be agreed universally. Penicillin kills (certain) bacteria, atomic bombs cause mass destruction, and planes fly. These things are true, and universally agreed as such.
    The supposed occurrence of divine revelation just isn’t in the same universe of “truth” as these types of things. You can assert to me that your own personal revelation is a real thing until you’re blue in the face if you like.
    And you know what? You might even be right.
    But I still ain’t gonna believe it.
    While you might be convinced personally, it should be clear even to you that your assertion fails to meet any criteria that could be considered objectively true.

    If you genuinely can’t accept this, then consider the following formulation, which has equivalent soundness to your own conclusion and collection of premises:
    1. The definition of temporal entanglement is the phenomenon by which pieces of matter are connected through space and time, such that the patterns of certain pieces of matter in a given space and time can lead to reliable predictions about other pieces of matter in a future time. It is an extension of quantum entanglement, an empirically observable phenomenon predicted from the study of quantum mechanics:
    2. It is possible for a human to possess reliable knowledge regarding certain features of the world.
    3. It is possible that temporal entanglement exists.
    4. Therefore, it is possible that a person can predict future events by studying the pattern of entrails from a slaughtered animal.

    Now, if I go ahead and read entrails and make an accurate prediction from them, you have no case categorically dismiss haruspicy from the table as a pathway to truth.

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