Science as the Only Way of Knowing

From Uncommon Descent

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What’s wrong with Moran’s claim that science is the only way of knowing?

In his post, Can theology produce true knowledge?, Professor Moran concludes that “for the time being, science is the only proven way to arrive at true knowledge.” If he had taken the trouble to read Associate Professor Edward Feser’s short article in Public Discourse, Blinded by Scientism (March 9, 2010), he would have seen why this statement is simply ridiculous. Here’s how Feser (an ex-atheist) demolishes the view that all real knowledge is scientific knowledge (scientism):

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.

(The bolding in the above passage is mine – VJT.)


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Science is not the only way of knowing: we are now bound to submit to the white-cloaked priesthood.

While science as a tool (as opposed to a master) has its place, I myself have a high regard for the historical record: an accurate historical record is of more import than what a scientist claims is or is not possible.


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