“The problem is to get [people] to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth.” – Richard Lewontin
Clarity is the great harbinger of truth. Truth is clear, hard, and bright, like light or crystal, while falsehood is soft, obscure, soporific, and fuzzy.
Certainly, there are some opaque truths and some clear falsehoods. These are the minority, while truths almost always interlock with a great interlocking web of luminous truth; and falsehoods almost always jostle within a blooming, buzzing hive of unclarity.
The striking feature of each pillar of the modern secular worldview is not its falsehood but its haziness. Modern secular doctrines such as physicalist materialism, totalitarian political correctness, and unlimited sexual autonomy have come to replace the older, ruddier Christian doctrines of incarnation, original sin, and the traditional family. But what do you mean by ‘physical’? And which phrases are supposed to offend me today? If anything two consenting adults do in the bedroom is morally acceptable, why not incest?
The same fuzziness is a feature of the belief that “science is the only begetter of truth”. Call this doctrine ‘scientism’. One of the our latter-day high priests of secularism Richard Lewontin praises scientistic dogma in a sermon to his enlightened flock. His goal is to save the unenlightened from the demons in their imaginations. We can applaud his evangelistic fervor. But before we join his flock, let’s be clear on the doctrine.
The problem with scientism is not that it is false. (Understood one way, I take scientism to be obviously and unquestionably true.) The problem with scientism – in a word – is unclarity. Those who believe in scientism do not know what they believe. As we might worry about some religious believers, the faithful of scientism think their doctrine is true and have placed a lot of stock in the though, but it is likely they haven’t given it a moment’s thought.
Taking Leowontin’s text as the reading for the day, I shall do the work of giving scientism a moment’s thought. My conclusion, in brief, is this: scientism is either tautologically true or false.
Scientism is what Daniel Dennet calls “a deepity.” A deepity is a phrase (like “Love is just a word”) that taken one way is obviously true but insignificant, but taken another way is momentous but obviously false. Of course ‘love’ is a word, as is ‘God’, ‘hate’, and every other word. But of course love is not “just” a word – it is also an emotion, a powerful benevolent force, a divine energy of God.
Likewise, scientism is either trivial or false. In either case, scientism as a thesis for disputation is not worth disputing. But since a gentleman does not complain of a problem without offering a solution, I shall offer a thesis that is worth disputing: namely, that science begets supernatural explanations of the world.
To state the central thesis of scientism, I turn to one of the communities in the world today most deeply mired in scientism: The community of anonymous Wikipedia editors. They define scientism in this way: “Scientism is belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most ‘authoritative’ worldview or the most valuable part of human learning - to the exclusion of other viewpoints.”
In a word, scientific methods and scientific conclusions are authoritative over everything else. Science is the only begetter of truth.
Defenders of scientism are vociferous believers in reason and experimental methods. Since they believe that supernatural explanations are irrational or untestable, they oppose them. Fair enough. But they beg the only important question, as we shall see: namely, whether supernatural explanations are irrational or paradigmatically rational.
Scientism is a live topic today. Its defenders are those like Leowontin who defend natural science and the “scientific worldview”: Jerry Coyne (Fact vs. Faith), Alex Rosenberg (Atheist’s Guide to Reality), Sean Carroll (The Big Picture) and other luminaries of philosophy and science. Its detractors are philosophers like Friedrich Hayek, Paul Feyarabend, Edward Feser, and others view it as a dangerous “expansion” or “invasion” of scientific methods or doctrines into non-scientific disciplines.
Without clarifying what “science” and its cognates mean, a discussion of scientism is bound to degenerate into assertions. But science cannot be defined in isolation of other key concepts, like knowledge, nature, and reality. There is a sort of delicious circularity to the definition of science with reference to nature: Science is the study of nature and nature is whatever science studies. Isn’t that good enough?
My first argument is that scientism, once clarified, is not worth disputing. For any proposition that is either trivially true or obviously false is not worth disputing; and the thesis that all genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge is such a proposition.
The major premise is easily defended: Trivial truths such as “All mammals are mammals” or “the beginning of time was the beginning of time” are not worth disputing. Also, obvious falsehoods like “King George III was the first president of the United States” or “Gold is iron” are not worth disputing.
The minor premise says that scientism is either trivially true or obviously false. I will establish each disjunct in turn. To do so, I only ask you to grant me two suppositions. First, suppose that one of the legitimate meanings of the English word ‘science’ is the old Latin sense of the word, namely, ‘knowledge.’ Second, suppose that ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ are roughly synonymous – the Oxford English Dictionary supports the commonsense definition of knowledge as “apprehension of truth” and truth as “knowledge”.
With these suppositions in hand, let’s rephrase Leowontin’s poetic thesis. Replacing “science” with “knowledge” by the first supposition, the doctrine of scientism becomes the less grand but more clear thesis that: “knowledge is the only begetter of truth.” Fair enough.
Replacing “truth” with “knowledge” (or vice versa) by the second supposition renders the same proposition as follows: “knowledge is the only begetter of knowledge” (or “truth is the only source of truth.”) True, but hardly startling stuff.
My two suppositions do not, I think, alter the meaning of the thesis. They are eminently plausible and respectable. So, if they hold, they help us to see that the central doctrine of scientism is a perfectly empty tautology to which no sane person would object: all knowledge comes from knowledge! Great! So what?
Tautologies like this are apt phrases for a moment when no substantive statement will do, as when we shrug and utter “It is what it is,” and “Que sera, sera.” (C’est la vie!) But tautologies like this do not illuminate what really needs illuminating – what, substantively, is truth?
My minor premise was that scientism is either trivially true or obviously false. How might scientism be obviously false?
Again, I only ask you to grant me two uncontroversial suppositions. First, suppose that there are several different kinds of knowledge. For example, my familiarity with California beaches is different from my muscle memory of how to play Bach’s solfeggietto, which are in turn different from my certain affirmation of the Pythagorean formula, my tentative affirmation of Aristotelian metaphysics, and my incorrigible memories about breakfast. The different kinds of knowledge are distinguished by their different objects (persons, places, things, concepts, beings, and so on) and by their different levels of confidence and by their different methods of acquisition (ratiocination, perception, and so on). Second, suppose that natural sciences such as physics, chemistry, astronomy, cosmology, geology, and biology, botany, physiology, etc. are not the only kinds of knowledge. There are, for example, there are so-called formal sciences mathematical disciplines, various logics, various kinds of statistics, computer science, game theory, decision theory, and so on (not to mention history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, art, philosophy, and theology, disciplines which I shall return to below).
How do these two suppositions clarify Leowontin’s grand thesis that science is the only begetter of truth? Let’s not assume that he means that all kinds of knowledge are the only begetters of knowledge, or that some kinds of knowledge are the only begetters of truth; if he meant that, we would replay the first disjunct above.
Instead, let’s assume he means to say the other option: “some kinds of knowledge are the only beggeters of knowledge.” This is a bit more clear, but something is off. It needs further clarification.
Does “Some kinds of knowledge are the only beggeters of knowledge” mean “physical sciences produce knowledge, but life sciences do not”? Does it mean “physics, biology, and other natural sciences produce knowledge, but logic, mathematics, and other formal sciences do not”? Does it mean “all the kinds of knowledge that have to do with matter and living organisms except humans produce knowledge, while all the kinds of knowledge that have to do with humans do not”? Implicit in the scientistic arguments of Coyne, Rosenberg, et. al. is a vacilation between “science” as all knowledge and “science” as natural sciences, such as physics and biology. But this ambiguity is fatal. There are many sciences that are not hard natural sciences: social sciences are the prime example. But there are also formal sciences that are not even material: logics, mathematics, computer science.
Clarified, the central doctrine of scientism means something like this: “disciplines that study material nature such as physics and biology beget knowledge but disciplines that study formal systems such as mathematics and logic do not beget knowledge.” Once made explicit, these statements are obviously – and disastrously – false. If a physicist came to disbelieve in the scientific reliability of algebra or differential geometry, his physics would be ruined. If an evolutionary biologist came to disbelieve in the scientific reliability of abduction or inductive inference, his biology would be ruined. If an anthropologist came to disbelieve in history, likewise.There are many kinds of knowledge – corresponding to different objects, methods, levels of certainty, etc. – but all of them (not surprisingly) produce knowledge, and many of them are needed in the production of (other kinds of) knowledge.
So I conclude that scientism, once clarified by plausible paraphrases, is either obviously and trivially true or obviously and disastrously false. I would reiterate that I don’t mean to persuade the reader that scientism is false. Most of those who ascribe to scientism, vaguely and unconsciously or explictly and consciously, take it to mean something like the belief that “only true things are true,” or the methodological principle, “Only methods that work to produce knowledge really work to produce knowledge,” or the commitment that “I shall only believe that true things are true,” – and I for one join them in that commitment.
I affirm scientism but deny that it is worth disputing. Instead, I offer for consideration a second argument, which is that genuine theological knowledge is scientific knowledge. For all genuine knowledge is science; and theological knowledge, say about God’s attributes and his actions in the world are genuine items of knowledge.
My second argument is that theological knowledge, when it is genuine knowledge, is scientific knowledge. This is compatible with scientism, since all knowledge is science, just as all that exists is “natural.”
To arrive there, we need to show that all genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge. In support of this premise, I call the witness stand no less an expert than Sam Harris, neuroscientist, pop philosopher, atheist, and (when it comes to religion) all-around trouble-maker. Harris says: “The remedy for all this confusion is simple: We must abandon the idea that science is distinct from the rest of human rationality. When you are adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence, you are thinking scientifically. And when you’re not, you’re not.” (Harris, “Our Narrow Definition of ‘Science’”) I rest my case, your honor. The German word wisseschafte
The second premise is a bit more difficult: Theological knowledge (about God, supernatural explanations of the world, etc.) is genuine knowledge. To prove this, one needs to examine the best arguments from philosophy of religion about whether a god exists and what they are like. For example, a few good theses for disputation are: that God is one; that he created the cosmos; that he is responsible for its order and beauty; that he is responsible for the existence of life on earth (and perhaps elsewhere); that he is knowable in general; that he has, to a number people, revealed himself in some detail; that is responsible for particular miraculous events; that he is responsible, moreover, for human rationality – including our ability to invent and conduct natural science; that he holds us accountable not only for what we do but what we believe; and that if we persist in unscientific falsehoods, we will be judged accordingly.
Disputing such theses is, naturally, beyond the scope of this paper. But if any of them hold up under the severest scrutiny – if any of them are found to be instances of genuine knowledge by some of the world’s greatest minds (say, Plato, Aquinas, Kant, Franics Collins, Alvin Plantinga, Anthony Flew, etc.), then, theological knowledge is scientific knowledge.
Many modern doctrines are just too fuzzy to criticize. People believe them because they spread by propaganda and sophistry. While falsehood spreads like a virus, rational thinking is like hand-washing. It can stop many a problem before it starts.
Scientism is so deeply ambiguous that it should not even be rationally disputed. Taken one way, scientism deprives not just theology but even life sciences and formal sciences of the honorific label of genuine science or knowledge. In this sense, all lovers of knowledge should rightly and righteously reject scientism. Taken another way, however, scientism does not exclude any knowledge whatsoever; it includes theology, and ethics, and metaphysics, and anything else that is genuine knowledge. In this sense, I affirm scientism whole-heartedly. If these two senses are so different, and so intractably intertwined in the word, I recommend that we dispute about something else.
For example, some readers may wish to dispute my assertion that there is any such thing as theological knowledge. I warmly welcome that disagreement. So long as we are engaging in a calm, cool, and rational argument about the premises of our arguments and the meaning of our terms, then we are thinking clearly again, and clarity is a harbinger of truth.