In my last post I discussed our current mental environment which champions science above all other forms of human understanding. I noted that the most extreme version of this attitude is scientism; the view that science, alone, is the only valid source of human knowledge. Or, as the philosopher Alex Rosenberg puts it:
"... the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything . . . [that] Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understanding is all about."
A view which is also shared by many prominent scientists. A recent example of this can be found in Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's popular book The Grand Design. In it they maintain that:
". . . philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientist have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge."
In this post I seek to show that science is well suited to answer a great number of questions . . . just not all questions. There are a number of questions--philosophical questions--the scientific method, in principle, can not answer. Thus, the proponent of scientism needlessly undercuts her ability to answer many questions of great importance. To make my point crystal clear, let's begin with an illustration.
Metal-Detectorism . . . It's So Hot Right Now
Consider this bit of fiction inspired by the philosopher Edward Feser. A group of metal-detecting enthusiasts in Blackpool conclude--after years of successfully discovering metal objects on the beach--that metal detectors, alone, are the only reliable instruments capable of detecting physical objects. Let's call their view, metal-detectorism.
Given metal-detectorism, the only reliable way to detect the presence of a physical object is by means of a metal detector. We can formalize the argument ( call it A1) thus:
(1) If metal detectors are the only reliable instruments capable of detecting physical objects, then the only reliable way to detect the presence of a physical object is by means of a metal detector.
(2) Metal detectors are the only reliable instruments capable of detecting physical objects (i.e., metal-detectorism).
(3) Therefore, the only reliable way to detect the presence of a physical object is by means of a metal detector.
Now, metal detectors are fantastic at detecting the presence of metal; in fact, they are designed specifically for that task. Suppose I asked the proponents of metal-detectorism the following question:
a. How many metal chairs are in Lufkin Coffee?
To answer this question reliably, we'd need to use a metal detector to locate and count the number of metal chairs. Fortunately, metal detectors are perfectly suited for this task! So far, so good . . . but what if I asked the proponents of metal-detectorism this follow up question:
b. How many wooden tables are in Lufkin Coffee?
Now we've got problems. A metal detector is not designed to detect wooden objects. How, then, is the proponent of metal-detectorism to respond? Well, there are at least four options: (1) They can dismiss question b as a pseudo-question, (2) they can determine that questions like b, which require us to locate non-metallic objects, can only be answered in the negative--e.g., "there are no wooden tables at Lmfkin Coffee", (3) they can provide a woefully inadequate answer--e.g., citing the number of metal tables in Lmfkin--or, (4) they can abandon metal-detectorism and use some other method to determine how many wooden tables are in the cafe.
At the end of the day, metal-detectorism severely, and irrationally, limits our ability to detect objects. It just doesn't follow that metal detectors are the only reliable instrument for detecting objects because they successfully locate metallic objects on the beach all the time! Consequently, adopting this position seems to have undercut our ability to adequately answer questions like b.
But, what does all this have to do with scientism? Well, everything.
Scientism . . . Relentlessly Narrow-Minded
Given scientism, we must accept that the only reliable answer to any question is one that has been arrived at by means of the scientific method. Why? Because the only reliable source of knowledge is the scientific method. We can formalize this argument ( call it A2) thus:
(1) If science is the only reliable source of knowledge, then the only reliable answer to any question is one that has been arrived at by means of the scientific method.
(2) Science is the only reliable source of knowledge (i.e., scientism)
(3) Therefore, the only reliable answer to any question is one that has been arrived at by means of the scientific method.
Assuming, for the moment, this argument is sound, let's take a look at a set of questions. Call this set-S:
a. Why do objects fall to the ground when released from a great height?
b. What causes the moon to orbit the earth?
c. Why do woodpeckers have long beaks?
d. What atoms combine to create a water molecule?
e. How helpful are people to strangers on the subway?
The questions in set-S are perfectly suited for the scientific method. The subject of each question (e.g., the moon or woodpeckers, or water molecules, etc) is open to empirical observation and testing; and any answer provided to the questions in set-S is open to empirical falsification. This means we can develop models to explain the given phenomena in each question and test our answers to see if they line up with our observations.
So far, so good . . but not all questions are equal. Consider the questions in set-P:
a. Do the laws of physics objectively exist, or are they merely constructs of the human mind?
b. What is a cause?
c. What is knowledge?
d. Does your personal identity persist through change over time?
e. How helpful ought people be to strangers on the subway?
There is no empirical test one can run to determine the nature of knowledge, or what the laws of physics are, or what a cause is, or whether or not the same individual person persists through change over time, or how someone ought to behave in any given circumstance. We can observe regularities like an apple falling from a tall building; we can not observe the 'laws of physics'. We can infer that the force of gravity causes the moon to orbit the earth and then test this theory with observation; but we can not empirically observe the abstract universal concept: 'cause'. We can observe that an individual undergoes constant change through time; but we can not observe the ontological ground of that person (that which remains unchanged and constitutes the persons essential identity). Neither can we use the scientific method to conclude that a persons personal identity does not persist through change over time. Finally, we can observe how people do in fact behave to strangers on a subway but not how they ought to behave. I can't observe and test a universal moral imperative.
Furthermore. to do science we must presuppose the answers to many of these questions. For example, we must presuppose we can obtain knowledge of the world, and must even assume some basic notion of what knowledge is. We must also presuppose that the world is basically ordered (i.e., behaves in a regular law-like manor), and that there are causes and effects. However, these ideas are not the subject of scientific verification or falsification; rather, they must be assumed in order for scientific investigation to get off the ground.
It would seem, then, there are some questions science, in principle, can not answer. Questions with answers that can not be verified or falsified by the scientific method. It is not that scientists just need more time to run tests; the problem is that the scientific method is not designed to handle questions like the one's in set-P. No matter how long scientists work on it, or how many tests they run, they will never find an adequate answer. Just as someone using only a metal detector will never detect the presence of wooden tables at a cafe.
Yet, the proponents of scientism may still insist science can and must be used to find answers to questions like those in set-P. When this happens the proponents of scientism (like those of metal-detectorism), typically respond in one of four ways: (1) They dismiss such questions out of hand, labeling them pseudo-questions, (2) they determine such questions can only be answered in the negative--e.g., "there is no way that people ought to behave to strangers on the subway (nihilism)", (3) they provide a woefully inadequate answer--e.g., cite what some sociological study says about how people treat strangers on a subway--or, (4) they unwittingly abandon scientism and answer the questions philosophically.
Ironically, option (4) is precisely what Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow go for in their book The Grand Design. After lambasting philosophy and declaring its death (see the quote above) they go on to spend a significant chunk of their book attempting to answer question a in set-P--Do the laws of physics objectively exist, or are they merely constructs of the human mind?--philosophically. The sad thing is, they don't realize they are doing philosophy, and do not appear to be familiar with the vast body of philosophical literature on the subject. Hence, as many professional philosophers have pointed out, the Hawking/Mlodinow response to question a is riddled with problems.
Scientism, like metal-detectorism, is needlessly, and irrationally, restrictive. Just as a metal detector is not designed to locate none metallic objects, the scientific method is not designed to answer philosophical questions (like those in set-P). No matter how long I search for wood, using only a metal detector, I will never find wood. Likewise, no matter how long I strive to answer questions like those in set-P using only the scientific method, I'll never find an adequate answer.
Having said all of this, one might object to what I've argued. It could be that premise (2) of A1--'Metal detectors are the only reliable instruments capable of detecting physical objects-is false. In contrast, it could be that premise (2) of A2--'Science is the only reliable source of knowledge'--is true. In other words, metal-detectorsim may be a faulty position when it comes to locating physical objects; but scientism may be the correct stance in epistemology. Thus, whether we like it or not, the truth of scientism might just compel us to accept the conclusion of A2: The only reliable answer to any question is one that has been arrived at by means of the scientific method.
I shall address this objection in my next post.