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Philosophy, Science, and the Charge of ‘Scientism!’

By Dr. Stephen Law and Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Some scientists dismiss philosophy. They think science and empirical observation provide the sole window into reality. How can we gain insight into the nature of the world out there by sitting down, closing our eyes, and just thinking about it? How can we find out anything about reality by employing the armchair methods of philosophy?

Simultaneously, some philosophers and many religious people think such scientists are guilty of ‘scientism.’ That is, the arrogant assertion that all legitimate questions can only be answered by scientific methodologies. For example, scientists, like Richard Dawkins, who think science is capable of revealing anything about the supernatural – let alone God – are supposedly guilty of hubris, of pride. Dawkins and others are told to show some humility and acknowledge there are ‘more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in their scientistic philosophy.’ So, who is right? Is it those charging ‘scientism,’ or those who dismiss anything other than the deliverances of science as, well, bullshit?

On the one hand, Dr. Law is a professional philosopher. So, you may expect him to carve out a special non-scientific territory for philosophers. On the other hand, he supposes that in the hands of some – including many theologians – the ‘scientism!’ charge has become an unjustified and knee-jerk form of dismissal, much like ‘communism!’ in the past.

There do appear to be questions science can’t answer. Moral questions for example. Science is great at revealing facts about what is the case. Morality, however, is concerned not with what is the case, but with what ought to be. As the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume pointed out, observation does not reveal ‘ought facts.’

Hume also draws attention to the is/ought gap: It appears that premises concerning what is the case – certainly, premises of the sort that pure empirical science is capable of establishing – fail rationally to support moral conclusions: conclusions about what one ought or ought not to do. So, it appears science can’t supply answers to our most fundamental moral questions, either by direct observation or by means of an inference from what has been directly observed.

Or take the question: why is there something rather than nothing? Science points to the Big Bang to explain why the universe exists. But why did the Big Bang happen? Whatever science points to explain that will be more, well, something. So, it seems something must always be left unexplained by science.

Here is another question:

At a family get-together, the following relations held directly between those present: Son, Daughter, Mother, Father, Aunt, Uncle, Niece, Nephew, and Cousin. Could there have been only four people present at that gathering? Actually, there could. It’s possible to figure that by doing some armchair, conceptual work. No scientific investigation is required or would even be relevant here. So, conceptual puzzles are puzzles that science cannot answer, but armchair methods can.

Now, philosophical puzzles also seem to have this conceptual character. Take the mind-body problem. Just how could the activities in our brains give rise to a rich inner world of subjective experience? True enough, scientists might discover everything that’s going on in my brain as I savour the taste of this cheesecake, but surely, my experience couldn’t just be that brain activity, could it?

Isn’t there some sort of conceptual obstacle to identifying minds with brains? Many think there is: we can know, they think, from the comfort of our armchairs, that minds just couldn’t be brains. However, whether or not there is such a conceptual obstacle about something requiring only armchair conceptual investigation to figure out, just as it only took armchair conceptual investigation to reveal there could, appearances to the contrary, be just four people present at that family gathering.

Our view is that philosophical problems are, for the most part, such conceptual problems. As such, they require armchair methods, not the scientific method, to solve them. At the same time, we agree with scientific critics of philosophy who say, “How can you discover anything about reality via armchair philosophical reflection or investigation?” You can’t.

Philosophical reflection can’t discover the basic nature of reality. Pure armchair theorising is an unreliable guide to reality. Science has shown that many of our armchair intuitions about time, space, matter, and so on, are wrong.

Still, while philosophical reflection can’t reveal how nature fundamentally is, it can on occasion reveal how nature isn’t.

Galileo ran a thought experiment to show Aristotle’s theory that a lighter and heavier ball will fall at different speeds cannot be correct. Galileo showed through philosophical investigation that Aristotle’s theory generates a contradiction: if the two balls are chained together, they will fall faster because their weight is now combined; they will also fall slower because the lighter ball will act as a drag on the heavier ball. So, it seems there is an important role for pure armchair philosophical reflection even in science, contrary to the views of some scientists. However, we agree that armchair philosophical investigation can’t explain how nature is – it can at best reveal that certain descriptions cannot be true of it because they involve contradictions.

Have we conceded that the charges of ‘scientism!’ against Dawkins and others are correct? No. To acknowledge questions and puzzles that science is the inappropriate answer does not mean the supernatural, the gods, or God are off limits to the scientific method.

God and the supernatural are normally unobservable. However, the unobservable is not off limits to science. Electrons are not directly observable. Same with the distant past of this planet (unless, of course, a time machine is invented). Yet, we can confirm and refute theories about unobservables via the scientific method. Why? Because existence of electrons and the Earth being older than 6,000 years have observable consequences.

But many claims about God and the supernatural have observable consequences too. Take, for example, the claim about God answering prayers. Two large scale double-blind studies – researchers and participants do not know the control group or the experimental group – have been done on the effect of petitionary prayer on heart patients.

Both revealed prayer had no effect. There was an absence of evidence for prayer working. But there was not just an absence of evidence for the efficacy of prayer, there was also evidence of absence – evidence that prayer does not work in that way. Maybe science cannot in principle answer all questions. Maybe some claims are off-limits. That prayer works is not one of them.

What motivations might be behind the charge of scientism? One seems to be shutting down debate, and immunise religious and supernatural claims against scientific refutation. Bishop James Heiser writes:

“The efforts of scientists to disprove the existence of God is not a pursuit of Science, but Scientism” (Heiser, 2012).

Bishop Heiser seems to have an image of some scientists rubbing their hands menacingly together, cackling, and actively working to disprove the existence of the supernatural or God. As should now be clear, even if that were the aim of some scientists, efforts to test claims concerning the existence of the supernatural or even God do not necessarily involve an embrace of ‘scientism.’ Perhaps science cannot answer every question. Still, it may be able to answer various questions about the supernatural, including various questions about God. To believe this is not, in fact, to embrace scientism. And to point out that scientism is false is not to discredit such investigations. In their paper, ‘Has Science Disproved God?’ Ashton and Westacott write:

“It is important to note that science, unlike scientism, should not be a threat to religious belief. Science, to be sure, advocates a ‘naturalistic’ rather than ‘supernaturalistic’ focus, and an empirical method for determining truths about the physical world and the universe. Yet, the proper mandate of science is restricted to the investigation of the natural (physical, empirical dimension) of reality. It is this restriction that scientism has violated…” (Ashton and Westacott, 2006, 16).

Science is, in fact, capable of investigating the supernatural.

When a believer is stung into doubt about the lack of evidence for their belief in, for example, petitionary prayer, they can be lulled back to sleep by repeating over and over, ‘But this is scientism! It is beyond the ability of science to decide!’ The spell is cast, and the faithful return to their slumber.

No doubt some things will forever remain beyond the ability of science, and perhaps even reason, to decide. We’re happy to concede that. Still, there’s plenty within the remit of the scientific method, including many religious, supernatural, New Age, and other claims that are supposedly ‘off limits.’

However, because the mantra, ‘But this is beyond the ability of science to decide’ has been repeated so often with respect to that sort of subject matter, it is now heavily woven into our cultural zeitgeist. People simply assume it is true for all sorts of claims for which it is not, in fact, true. The mantra has become a convenient factoid that can be wheeled out whenever a scientific threat to belief rears their head. When a believer is momentarily stung into doubt, many will attempt to lull them back to sleep by repeating the mantra over and over.

The faithful murmur back: ‘Ah yes, we forgot – this is beyond the ability of science to decide…. zzzz.’

About Scott Jacobsen

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Scott is the founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing

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8 comments

  1. So, it seems there is an important role for pure armchair philosophical reflection even in science, contrary to the views of some scientists.

    This misrepresents the views of such scientists. They don’t think that conceptual analysis, such as Galileo’s thought experiment, is not useful within science. On the contrary, they fully agree how important it is, but regard that sort of conceptual analysis as part of science.

    I’d suggest that very few physicists would regard Galileo’s conceptual thought experiment as not being “science”, and would suggest that philosophers who regard science as narrowly empirical have too narrow a conception of science.

    • True. Logical deduction which can lead to a contradiction which then disproves a scientific hypothesis is old hat. And so is logical deduction to arrive at a scientific theory. Mathematics is what the author calls “conceptualization” and we all know that math is integral to science and used extensively. While by itself, math is not empirical, but rather rational (pr logical). So yes, scientists do use rational and philosophical methods. The proper scientific method is not strictly empirical. The minute we use a formula it becomes logical as well. Science is thus “empiricological”.

  2. It doesn’t matter what they regard it as being. It’s *not* science. If they think otherwise then they don’t understand what science is. Science crucially involves an empirical investigation of reality. Not merely thinking about it, that’s philosophy.

  3. Science crucially involves an empirical investigation of reality. Not merely thinking about it, that’s philosophy.

    Science involves a great deal of “merely thinking about it”. The empirical side of science is half of it, but the conceptual side is just as important.

  4. The problem with this article is that it assumes questions such as “does god exist” to be well formed and rational questions. They are not, for many reasons. One is that there is no consistent, coherent, and non-contradictory definition of god. So how can philosophers try to discover much about god, when it is poorly defined? Then there is no test for the verification of god, neither is there a test for falsification of god. Thus god is untestable, and no scientist worth hir salt would want to disprove it. Once an object, category, or hypothesis is mal-defined and unprovable or unfalsifiable, it becomes meaningless.

    Logically, there is no difference between the assertion that god exists with the assertion that an invisible unicorn lives in my garden who created Jupiter. If anyone makes such a claim about hir garden, then zhe will be deemed a madman (ooops I meant madperson, apologies). So anyone who believes in the existence of god, can equally be deemed a madman.

    God is a meaningless construct. Theists must first show that it is meaningful before proposing it as a hypothesis. Good luck.

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