Recovering Sight after Scientism

EDWARD FESER

Seeing that scientism is unsustainable, we must embrace a return to philosophy. The second article in a two-part series.

As I argued in part I, scientism – the view that all real knowledge is scientific knowledge – is either self-refuting or trivial. Moreover, consistently pursued, it leads to the "eliminative materialist" position that the human mind itself is a fiction – that there are no such things as thinking, perceiving, willing, desiring, and so forth. This position is not only incoherent, but undermines the very possibility of science itself – the very thing scientism claims to champion.

Why would anyone be attracted to such a bizarre and muddleheaded view? The answer – to paraphrase a remark made by Ludwig Wittgenstein in another context – is that "a picture holds us captive." Hypnotized by the unparalleled predictive and technological successes of modern science, contemporary intellectuals infer that scientism must be true, so that anything that follows from it – however fantastic or seemingly incoherent – must be true as well. But this is sheer sophistry. If a certain method of studying nature affords us a high degree of predictive and technological power, all that shows is that the method is useful for dealing with those aspects of nature that are predictable and controllable. It does not show us that those aspects exhaust nature, that there is nothing more to the natural world than what the method reveals. Neither does it show that there are no rational means of investigating reality other than those involving empirical prediction and control. To assume otherwise is fallaciously to let one's method dictate what counts as reality rather than letting reality determine what methods are appropriate for studying it. If wearing infrared night vision goggles allows me to perceive a certain part of the world remarkably well, it doesn't follow that there is no more to the world than what I can perceive through the goggles, or that only goggle-wearing methods of investigating reality are rational ones.

That there is indeed more to the world than scientism would allow is evident from what has been said already. But it is evident too even from the deliverances of science itself. Consider this passage from Bertrand Russell (yet another secularist thinker, entirely unmotivated by sympathy for religion):

It is not always realised how exceedingly abstract is the information that theoretical physics has to give. It lays down certain fundamental equations which enable it to deal with the logical structure of events, while leaving it completely unknown what is the intrinsic character of the events that have the structure. We only know the intrinsic character of events when they happen to us. Nothing whatever in theoretical physics enables us to say anything about the intrinsic character of events elsewhere. They may be just like the events that happen to us, or they may be totally different in strictly unimaginable ways. All that physics gives us is certain equations giving abstract properties of their changes. But as to what it is that changes, and what it changes from and to – as to this, physics is silent. (My Philosophical Development, p. 13)

By "the intrinsic character of events when they happen to us," what Russell means is the "subjective" world of "appearances" that makes up our conscious experience. That world – the world which (as we saw in part I) the "objectivist" approach of scientism regards as an embarrassment, and which the eliminative materialist accordingly seeks to banish entirely – that is what we know most fully, for Russell. By comparison, the knowledge physics gives us is so "exceedingly abstract" – that is to say, physics goes so far in the direction of abstracting away from the objects of its inquiries whatever does not fit its quantificational methods – that it leaves it "completely unknown" what the inner nature of those objects, apart from their mathematically definable properties, really is. And yet since the physical world is not a mere abstraction – physics itself presupposes that it is not an invention of the mind, and that we can know about it via perception of concrete reality – they must indeed have some inner nature. If we are to know what that inner nature is, and to know of anything else about which empirical science is silent, we must go beyond science – to philosophy, the true "paradigm of rationality," as John Kekes puts it.

But can philosophy really tell us anything? Don't philosophers notoriously disagree among themselves? Even if it is conceded that there is more to the world than science tells us, mightn't we nevertheless be justified in throwing up our hands and concluding that whatever this "more" might be, it is simply unknowable – that scientism is a reasonable attitude to take in practice, even if problematic in theory?

The trouble is that this is itself a philosophical claim, subject to philosophical criticism and requiring philosophical argumentation in its defense. The very attempt to avoid philosophy implicates one in practicing it. As the philosopher and historian of science E. A. Burtt stated in his classic The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science:

Even the attempt to escape metaphysics is no sooner put in the form of a proposition than it is seen to involve highly significant metaphysical postulates. For this reason there is an exceedingly subtle and insidious danger in positivism [i.e. scientism]. If you cannot avoid metaphysics, what kind of metaphysics are you likely to cherish when you sturdily suppose yourself to be free from the abomination? Of course it goes without saying that in this case your metaphysics will be held uncritically because it is unconscious; moreover, it will be passed on to others far more readily than your other notions inasmuch as it will be propagated by insinuation rather than by direct argument… Now the history of mind reveals pretty clearly that the thinker who decries metaphysics… if he be a man engaged in any important inquiry, he must have a method, and he will be under a strong and constant temptation to make a metaphysics out of his method, that is, to suppose the universe ultimately of such a sort that his method must be appropriate and successful… But inasmuch as the positivist mind has failed to school itself in careful metaphysical thinking, its ventures at such points will be apt to appear pitiful, inadequate, or even fantastic. (pp. 228-29)

We have no choice but to engage in philosophy. The only question is whether we will do it well or badly. Those committed to scientism pretend not to do it at all, but what they have really done is (as Burtt puts it) "made a metaphysics out of their method." And as we have seen, it is a very bad metaphysics indeed. Only those who do not eschew philosophy – and especially those who do not engage in it while pretending not to – are going to do it well.

We have no choice but to engage in philosophy. The only question is whether we will do it well or badly.

What of the disagreements among philosophers? Many of the so-called "traditional problems" of philosophy are in fact no older than the scientific revolution. In particular, they are a consequence of an increasing tendency over the last few centuries unjustifiably to privilege what Hayek calls the "objectivistic" method of empirical science (described in part I) and to apply it to areas in which it is inappropriate, such as ethics and the analysis of human thought and action. Redefining the natural world in exclusively objectivistic terms has made an affirmation of moral values, irreducibly mental phenomena, and free will seem mysteriously "dualistic." Denying the reality of these things seems to lead to nihilism and even (as we saw in part I) incoherence. Disagreement within modern philosophy is largely an artifact of this impasse, as thinkers dispute precisely which version of these two unhappy extremes is the best – or the least bad, anyway. Beholden as intellectuals in general are to the scientistic spirit of the age, too few think to question the assumptions that led to the impasse in the first place. Far from being a point in favor of scientism, the disagreement that plagues contemporary philosophy is largely a consequence of scientism, or at least of a methodological bias that scientism has raised to the level of an ideology.

What happens when we do reject this bias? The right answer, in my view, is a return to the philosophical wisdom of the ancients and medievals. Their physics, as Galileo, Newton, Einstein and co. have shown us, was indeed sorely lacking. But their metaphysics has never been surpassed. And while they certainly had disagreements of their own, there is a common core to the tradition they founded – a tradition extending from Plato and Aristotle to the High Scholasticism of Aquinas and down to its descendents today – that sets them apart from the decadent philosophical systems of the moderns. This core constitutes a "perennial philosophy" apart from which the harmony of common sense and science, and indeed even the coherence of science itself, cannot be understood. And it is also in this perennial philosophy that the rational foundations of theology and ethics are to be found.

That, needless to say, is a long story – a story which I have told in The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism and Aquinas. But what has been said here should suffice to show that it is only those who know something about philosophy and its history, and who have grappled seriously with its questions, who have earned the right to pronounce on the rational credentials of theology and traditional morality. And that most definitely does not include those blinded by scientism.


 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Edward Feser. "Recovering Sight after Scientism." The Public Discourse (March 12, 2010).

This article is reprinted and republished with the explicit permission of the Withersoon Institute. Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good is an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute that seeks to enhance the public understanding of the moral foundations of free societies by making the scholarship of the fellows and affiliated scholars of the Institute available and accessible to a general audience.

THE AUTHOR

Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. He has been a Visiting Assistant Professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, an M.A. in religion from the Claremont Graduate School, and a B.A. in philosophy and religious studies from the California State University at Fullerton.

Called by National Review "one of the best contemporary writers on philosophy," Feser is the author of On Nozick, Philosophy of Mind, Locke, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, and Aquinas, and editor of The Cambridge Companion to Hayek. He is also the author of many academic articles. His primary academic research interests are in the philosophy of mind, moral and political philosophy, and the philosophy of religion.

Feser also writes on politics and culture, from a conservative point of view; and on religion, from a traditional Roman Catholic perspective. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and five children. His webpage can be found here.

Copyright © 2010 The Public Discourse




Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter

 

 

Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.