Why Scientism is Not Only Unscientific But Also The Enemy Of Science

By Amir Mahdi Ghafarian

Scientism can be defined as the belief that science, and more precisely the natural sciences, has the most authoritative, reliable and authentic means by which humanity can get an understanding of reality and “truth.” There are two forms of scientism: strong scientism and weak scientism. Strong scientism implies that the validity and truth of a conclusion is entirely contingent upon it being empirically proven, whereas weak scientism privileges truth claims from other disciplines with some consideration even if they’re not provable scientifically. However, should there ever arise conflicting conclusions from a scientific and non-scientific discipline, the scientific discipline takes priority. Many theistic doctrines are “refuted” in virtue of not being empirically provable. Religious and philosophical beliefs are relegated to the domain of private opinions or personal feelings where no one is wrong, and everyone is right (for themselves).

Although most people, and in particular youth, don’t consciously espouse scientism, scientism still does influence their thoughts and their assessment of religious claims to knowledge/reality. For example, “Observing [insert religious injunction] is mandatory and beneficial to your spiritual/physical well-being” or “Islam’s scriptural account of Prophetic miracles despite me not having witnessed them myself” are typically treated with less certainty or seriousness than “Drinking [insert a poison] will harm you physically because of the scientific proof of the impact of [insert the same poison] on your body.” For this reason, I have decided to briefly summarize J.P. Moreland’s exposition on why scientism is not only self-refuting but is also unscientific.  For those interested in reading more on this, feel free to read his book Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology: Scientism and Secularism.

Scientism is Self-Refuting

Self-refuting ideas are ideas whose falsehood is the natural consequence of asserting them – their logical incoherence is intrinsic to them. Examples of self-refuting statements are:

  • “All sentences are exactly three words long.”
  • “This sentence is false.”
  • “I don’t exist”

In order for a statement to be self-refuting it must fulfill three conditions. Under each condition provided, I will mention how scientism fulfills it.

  • The claim establishes some requirement of acceptability for an assertion to be true.
  • Scientism claims being empirically verifiable is a requirement of acceptability.
  • The claim places itself in subjection to the requirement.
  • Scientism claims to be true.
  • Then the claim falls short of satisfying the requirement of acceptability that the assertion itself stipulates.
  • The claim of scientism is philosophical and cannot be engaged through experience nor measuring.

Because the assertion that “for a belief to be true, it must be empirically verifiable (making it scientific)” itself is not empirically provable (you cannot experience nor measure it), it does not fulfill the requirement of acceptability it itself stipulates. Furthermore, self-refuting statements don’t happen to be false, rather, they are false by necessity. No further research or omnipotent power can “make it true.” Now that it has been proven how scientism is false, it will be shown how scientism is in fact the enemy of science and that it purports an un-scientific claim.

What Makes Scientism Unscientific?

“Science cannot be practiced in thin air; it is based on many assumptions, each with its own challenges. And the business of stating, criticizing, and defending its assumptions is not scientific but philosophical.” As Moreland states, science, alike other disciplines, rests upon certain presuppositions that grant credibility to exercising science. These presuppositions establish a foundation from which science can build from. Without a foundation, any exercise of science will be futile and dispensable. Doing science without having established the validity of its foundation is akin to “doing” hermeneutics without having first established the divinity of a scriptural text.

Furthermore, to defend and justify the presuppositions of science, one must utilize a non-scientific discipline, known as philosophy. As it will be seen, none of the presuppositions of science are empirically provable. By undermining philosophy, a non-scientific discipline, scientism destabilizes and discredits the foundations (presuppositions) of science. What follows is a brief outline of the various presuppositions science relies on.

1. A world exists “out there,” independent of mind, language, or theory.

Science relies on the assumption of a world really existing independent of our mind, language, and the theories ascribed to the natural world. Science operates to understand the real world through empiricism because it really does exist. It’s existence is not impacted by whether we perceive it or perceive it not (independent of mind). Even if the entire human population became of the understanding that water does not consist of two hydrogen and one oxygen molecule, this would not change the chemical composition of water. If mankind began to believe that hydrogen consists of 10 electrons, this would not change the reality that hydrogen contains only a single electron. What exists out there is independent of our minds or what we ascribe to it, this is why it’s worthwhile investigating it.

However, there are many worldviews (Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eastern religions) who take the “external world” to be a mere illusion or as a world of which there is no objective understanding of. Such worldviews espouse internal realism – the view that the notions of “existence” and “non-existence” are only intelligible in relation to a theory and have no application to an alleged theory-independent “real” world – instead of external realism, the view that there is an external and objective world that really exists. What does internal realism imply when it states a world does not exist independent of our mind, language and theory?

Internal realism believes that one should abstain from speaking about reality while instead resort to reality assertions. Why is that? That’s because claims regarding existence are only sensible and intelligible in the context of a background theory or linguistic community. For example, assertions regarding electrons or protons only make sense by their role within atomic theory. The assertion that “electrons exist” is meaningless to those who don’t ascribe to atomic theory or espouse a theory in which there is no place for electrons. As such, everything (all claims regarding the universe) is theory dependent. One theory warrants one understanding of reality while another viewpoint warrants another understanding of reality (hence why one should make reality assertions rather than talk about reality itself).

Therefore, for the internal realist, things really exist only within a community’s narrative. A community’s linguistic framework allows for understanding of notions, but for those not ascribing to that linguistic narrative, those notions are nonsensical.

To assert otherwise would require making a case for external realism philosophically. Science relies on the assumption of a world really existing independent of our mind, language, and theories ascribed to the natural world.

2. The nature of the world is orderly, especially its “deep structure” that lies under and beyond the manifest world of ordinary perceptions.

Orderliness of the world is a prerequisite for laws to apply to it. “For example, we know that, at constant volume, if the temperature of a gas increases, so does the pressure. This is captured by the ideal gas law (PV=nRT). Or, the motion of the planets revolving around the sun exhibit an order that can be subsumed under Newton’s laws of motion. Such laws are indeed statement of the phenomena’s uniformity: e.g., “Planets will consistently behave in such-and-such way.” If there is no orderliness, then the discipline would be useless (for it would make theories and laws regarding how the world is, meanwhile the very next day, or year, it may change).”

The “deep structure” that lies under the manifest world of ordinary perceptions refers to the world of atoms, molecules and so forth. We are only able to utilize mathematical formulas to reflect natural phenomena because the world is orderly. Again, if there is no orderly nature for their behavior, the fruits of science would be entirely fruitless. This is akin to attempting to structure a daily schedule for an individual whose tastes and inclinations change on a daily basis. This endeavor would be impossible for there is no consistency in the behavior of the subject. There would be no use to attempting to understand the natural world (the goal of science) if it’s nature and its deep structure randomly changed sporadically.

The view that the world is not orderly is not foreign to academia. In fact, the great philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) opined that the order in the world of our experience is due to our senses and mind imposing order on whatever world there was in itself. Meaning, we can only know the world as it is to us but not the world as it is in itself. It is not rare to find scholars who adhere to a form of linguistic relativity, the view that it is groups, through a common language, that carve the orderliness of the world for themselves. The contemporary postmodernist thinker Joseph Natoli have also opined similar notions.

As such, science relies on the assumption that the world is in fact orderly, especially its “deep structure”, in order to have meaningful findings. A world whose nature is consistently changing and open to subjective interpretation is not a world from which valuable scientific findings came come from.

3. Objective truth exists

Scientists aim for objective truths in their findings. Objective truths are not invented, nor constructed, they just are. When science claims that “electrons have a negative charge”, this assertion is taken to be objectively true, independent of someone believing in it or not. This is called the correspondence theory of truth: a proposition is true if, and only if, it corresponds to reality. The proposition that “The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell” is only true if, and only if, the mitochondria is indeed the powerhouse of the cell. There are alternative versions such as:

  • Coherence theory: proposition is true if, and only if, it coheres suitably with another proposition
  • Pragmatic theory: a proposition is true if, and only if, in some sense, it “works”

The debate on whether there is an objective reality independent of the human mind is a heated one. More importantly, this is a philosophical debate and not a scientific one. No sort of experiment in the lab can resolve this debate – because science relies on the presupposition that an objective truth exists to even experiment it. If it is not presupposed that an objective truth exists, scientific findings such as “Hydrogen has 1 electron” are meaningless (because such a thing does not truly exist, it only exists in our mind and relative to our own mental construction of it. It would be just as valuable as the conclusion “Hydrogen has 10 electrons”).

4. Our sensory and cognitive faculties are reliable for gaining truth and knowledge of the world, and they are able to grasp the world’s deep structure that lies beyond the sense-perceptible world.

Suppose we accept that a world that is orderly really does exist out there. How do we know our sensory and cognitive faculties are reliable for gaining truth and knowledge of the world? If the answer is naturalistic evolution naturalism, the problem is: the sensory and cognitive faculties need not accurate perceptions or true beliefs in order to aid it in survive. If these perceptions, be they correct or not, aid the organism in its struggle for survival, they are evolutionarily serving their purpose.

Moreland gives the following example:

“If an organism consistently perceived its large predators as small but these misperceptions caused the organism to flee for whatever reason [coupling of incorrect perception with incorrect cognitive beliefs], these perceptions, though inaccurate, would be evolutionarily advantageous. Similarly, if every time Joe sees a tiger and forms the desire to hug the tiger and the belief that the best way to do this is to flee and hide in the nearest cave, this belief/desire set would be as evolutionarily advantageous as forming the desire to get away from the tiger and the belief that hiding in a cave is the best way to get away”

From an evolutionary point of view, what matters is the output behavior, and not whether the output is the product of true beliefs. A person could behave or believe correctly for the wrong reasons. Truth is not necessary for survival if consistent errors that produce the same output work just as well. One can believe and act upon the right things for the wrong reasons. It is not necessary for the input to be right for the output to be correct as well. One who believes The Ideal Gas Law is true because of a scientific account of it is just as correct as one who believes the ideal gas law is true because his/her professor said so. Both beliefs are correct, even though the reason for the latter individual is not.

Dealing with this dilemma and proving the reliability of our senses and cognitive faculties, is a task of philosophy and not science (because for science to even be functional it presupposes that our senses and cognitive faculties are reliable). Thus, since science cannot justify its own assumptions, scientism poses a threat to the foundation of science.

5. Various types of values and “ought’s” exist

 Scientists presuppose numerous values in their work:

1) Moral Values

– One ought to record and report their data honestly and tell the truth about their experiments, and not doing so is immoral.

2) Rational Values

– One ought to prefer a theory that is simpler, more empirically accurate, more predictively successful, has a wider scope of explanation than its rivals and etc.

– Violating such rational values would be irrational and scientists abstain from it.

3) Aesthetic Values

– One ought to prefer a theory or equation that is more beautiful and elegant than alternatives, and not doing so is irrational and ugly.1

Science would not be functional without these values, especially moral and rational values, and making a case for them is the job of philosophy, and not science. It is not scientifically possible scientifically prove that one must report honest data – for how can one know that report is also honest?

6. The laws of logic and mathematics exist.

Scientists presuppose the validity and reliability of logical and mathematical laws in their work. In fact, the works of no discipline would be fruitful if it’s logically incoherent. Scientists cannot prove their validity despite however many laboratory experiments they use.

In conclusion, science relies on the aforementioned presuppositions, and many more, as a foundation upon which it functions. Defending these presuppositions is the job of philosophy and not science. Scientism’s claim that only scientific findings are reliable pieces of knowledge ironically destabilizes the very foundation of the discipline it seeks to champion – for the foundations of science (presuppositions) are only provable though a non-scientific discipline, namely, philosophy.

Footnotes

  1. Regarding the role of aesthetic values in science, see Judith Wechsler, ed, On Aesthetics in Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981)

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