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Why Scientism is False

  • DEACON DOUGLAS MCMANAMAN

Scientism is the view that the only real knowledge that human beings possess is scientific knowledge, that is, knowledge acquired through a method that is empiriometric.

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The empiriometric sciences resolve their conclusions in a way that is empirical and measurable in some way; anything outside of this is, according to scientism, a matter of belief and opinion, not true knowledge.

But scientism is impossible to maintain with any rational consistency, as I will attempt to explain. Firstly, the scientist cannot even establish, as a scientist employing an empiriometric method, that what he is doing when he does science, is a rational activity. Only as a philosopher is he able to establish that point, and every scientist is a philosopher before ever becoming a scientist.

To grapple with the question of whether science is a rational type of inquiry or not, he has to begin by becoming aware of what it is he is doing when he does science. And he is aware of that, at least vaguely. He is aware that he is thinking, reasoning, formulating hypotheses, making predictions, drawing conclusions on the basis of prior premises, etc.

But if he wants to do science, why doesn't he just go out to the local ice rink and play a game of hockey, or the pool hall and shoot a game of pool? Why doesn't he visit the art museum? The reason is he knows that reasoning is different from playing (hockey or pool) and contemplating beauty (visiting the art museum). But how is reasoning different from play?

To answer that question, he has to reflect upon what it is he is doing when he reasons and what it is he is doing when he plays hockey or pool. He has to determine what his object is when he plays and what his object or purpose is when he formulates a hypothesis, investigates, and reasons. He knows that his purpose in playing hockey or pool is not to possess truth, but to win the game by scoring more goals than the opposing team, or by racking up more points than his opponent in snooker. Why is he playing for such an end as that? To develop his skill, perhaps, or just for its own sake, for the pure enjoyment of the game. But his purpose in pursuing science is to possess truth, or to know the cause of something that tweaks his curiosity.

Furthermore, upon further reflection, he knows, perhaps only implicitly, that the end defines his activity. For example, shooting a gun at a target (i.e., a tree) as a way to improve my skill (that is my end or purpose) is a different kind of act than shooting a gun at a man so that he will die (that is my end or purpose); the former is practice or sport, the latter is murder. An action is determined to be of a specific kind by the end intended. The scientist knows this because he is a man, and a man is a knower. Before he even begins to do science, he knows that the two activities (hockey and science) are essentially different kinds of action.

As a man, he knows that a rational inquiry like science has as its end the possession of truth, the understanding of the cause or causes of a particular phenomenon, i.e., why did the rotors crack, causing the brakes to malfunction? Or, why is John hearing voices and experiencing inordinate anxiety? Why does iron rust?

To understand that scientific activity is rational activity essentially different from play or the contemplation of the beautiful requires no empirical investigation; that is, it did not require a deliberate, planned, devised way of getting data beyond the ordinary experience of human beings. All that is required is reflection upon ordinary experience and reasoning soundly from that point onwards.

Can the scientist empirically verify the premise that the end or purpose defines an action, that is, determines it to be the kind of act it is? No, and that is why he does not try to empirically verify it. He also has no need to; he reasons quite naturally to that conclusion without the need to perform an experiment. In other words, every scientist is a philosopher – at least at a rudimentary level – before becoming a scientist.

There is a mode of knowing that is prior to science, and this pre-scientific mode of knowing is the condition for the possibility of science. In other words, a scientist cannot do science without it. Finally, this mode of knowing is a non-scientific mode of knowing, a philosophical mode of knowing. And so, if all knowledge outside of the empiriometric method of the sciences is invalid or nothing more than opinion, then science is founded upon quicksand.


Pre-Scientific Assumptions

There is a whole universe of pre-scientific knowledge that the scientist possesses as a human being – not as a scientist – without which he cannot even begin doing science. He knows, for example, that there is order to the world around him. He does not expect oranges from an apple tree, nor does he expect fish to beget acorns. He does not attempt to put out fires with gasoline, but with water. In other words, he knows that agents act for determinate ends that are intelligible, meaningful and predictable. This is because he has always known that each being is "what" it is, not what it is not (the principle of identity), and he knows that the activity of each thing or being reveals what it is. Beings act according to their natures. That's why as a scientist, he studies the actions or reactions of things, to better understand their natures.

He knows the world exhibits order and meaning. If it did not, he wouldn't bother trying to understand it. One cannot understand what lacks order and intelligibility. For example, take a word processing program and start pounding the keys with your fingers, any keys, as fast as you can. Do not try to order the letters into intelligible words. Once you have typed out five hundred thousand characters, print it out and hand it to anyone and ask them to spend the next hour or so reading it. They won't. Why? Because there is no intelligible order to the characters; there is nothing for the reader to know or discover. So too, the scientist begins to pursue knowledge of the world because he experiences it as ordered, meaningful, and knowable.

His science, i.e., physics, or biology, does not reveal that order – at least not at that initial level. He experiences it before he begins doing science, which is why he was inspired to engage in scientific inquiry. He wishes to discover the reasons for certain effects that he sees in organisms, or compounds, or metals, etc. His investigative method (scientific method) is employed in order for him to possess knowledge of certain kinds of causes – i.e., what is the cause of this patient's depression and anxiety? Is there a causal connection between the depleted levels of serotonin in his brain and his mood disorder? He will form a hypothesis, make predictions, and test it. He will reason inductively on the basis of those results.

But what counts as sound reasoning? What are the rules of deductive reasoning? And are those rules arbitrary? Or are they established on rational ground? What is an unwarranted conclusion?

Science does not provide answers to these questions. Rather, the scientist needs to know this before he can do science properly. He cannot reason to scientific conclusions if he has no ability to reason validly, and scientists need to know how to reason logically before doing science precisely because logic is the tool of all sciences. But it isn't science that tells us that logic is the tool of all sciences. A pre-scientific knowledge (philosophy) does.

The scientist knows as a philosopher, not as a scientist, that when one event precedes another, it does not necessarily follow that the succeeding event was caused by the preceding event. That distinction, among others, renders it possible for him to do his science logically. If he does not start his science with the ability to distinguish between a cause and a correlation, he cannot hope to determine the proximate causes of anything.

And so, a scientist understands the fallacy of false cause before he begins doing science. Consider the following:

I have been suffering from stomachaches these past few weeks. I've also been eating about 4 bran cookies every day. Therefore, bran cookies are wreaking havoc on the insides of my stomach. I'd better stop buying them.

A scientist can easily test the hypothesis that my stomachaches are caused by bran cookies. To do so, he introduces a controlled experience (an experiment), gets me to stop eating bran cookies and to continue my regular diet unchanged. He observes the results and reasons inductively. But I continue to experience stomach pains weeks after giving up the cookies. So he concludes that perhaps my stomachaches are the result of drinking too much soda pop. And so now he gets me to stop drinking pop for a time.

A pre-condition for his conclusion is an understanding of the difference between cause and correlation. But let's ask the scientist to prove, scientifically (empiriometrically) that there is such a difference between cause and correlation. Let's ask him what it means to be a cause, and to demonstrate his answer empirically. Moreover, we can ask: "Why is it that nothing moves itself from potentiality to actuality, except by something already in act? Or, why is it that every body remains at rest unless it is compelled to change that state by a force acting upon it?" Finally, why does the scientist know that necessity is not the same as possibility? Certain things happen all the time, but what enables us to conclude that these things must necessarily happen?

Science cannot answer these questions, but science needs them – i.e, the rules of deductive and inductive reasoning, the knowledge that potency is not reduced to act except by something in act – as starting points of his scientific endeavor. Scientism's claim to establish all real knowledge places it in a predicament similar to that of the teenager who complains of not being able to get a job: "Nobody will hire me, because I have no experience, but how can I get experience if no one hires me?"

It is the task of philosophy not only to examine the presuppositions that are the starting point of science, but also to interpret the data provided by science. To interpret what it is that science tells us of the world is to engage in philosophy, not science.

Now, the scientist might not feel a desire to pursue the ultimate causes of rational activity, the ultimate nature of knowing, the nature of logical reasoning, the difference between a necessary conclusion and a probable conclusion, or what makes a cause a cause, etc. He may want to study other causes, such as the cause of depression or schizophrenia, or leukemia, or the causes of planetary motion, or the behavior of light, etc. In that case, he goes on to pursue the sciences.

But as was said, the scientist always begins his scientific endeavors with certain philosophical assumptions. One very important assumption that he cannot establish, as scientist, is that there is a world that exists outside his mind that is meaningful and intelligible. Moreover, he assumes that his senses bring him into contact with the world outside of him and that his mind is able to uncover and accurately describe the laws or regular patterns he encounters in nature. If he did not, he would not begin to do science.

These are real assumptions that are his starting points, but scientism argues that science is the only truly rational mode of inquiry that results in real knowledge. It follows that in order for the scientist to establish that our senses indeed open us up to the world outside the mind and that this world is intelligible and meaningful, and that the intellect can uncover and describe the regularities he observes, he will have to begin with certain assumptions in order to prove those very assumptions.

But that is circular reasoning. To reason in a circle is to assume the point one intends to prove. And, if his science eventually proves that his intellect cannot uncover and accurately describe the regularities he encounters in the world, then we only have to ask: "How was he able to uncover that?" It is like climbing a tree in order to see whether or not trees exist, and having reached the top, concluding that trees do not exist.

But if he sets out to establish that our senses really do open us up to the world outside the mind and that this world is intelligible and meaningful, and that the intellect can uncover and describe the regularities he observes, then no matter what he does, he is inevitably and necessarily led to one conclusion, namely, that they obviously do. So the endeavor is redundant.

But he does not care to preoccupy himself with why it is the case that his intellect can uncover and accurately describe the regularities in the world of nature. He assumes it, and pursues his interests: he is interested in the cause of schizophrenia, or the cause of the expansion of the universe, or the cause of cancer, etc. The philosopher is interested in the causes of knowing in general, the content of consciousness, what it means to be a cause, the ultimate reason why the world is intelligible and behaves in a way that is regular, lawful, and predictable, what being is, etc.

As a philosopher, I experience the world as something that exists outside my mind independently of my knowing it, but I wish to know whether or not that is illusion or real. I experience the order that the scientist experiences as a man, but I wish to account for that order, by coming to understand what order is and what it is we mean by disorder, and whether order can come from disorder, etc. I see that scientists are doing their work, but I wish to know whether what they are doing is possible at all, whether science is a fiction or a real rational endeavor that ends in the knowledge of real causes, etc.

To do all this, I have to go outside of science, that is, I have to adopt a methodology that is not investigative but philosophical. I have to reason to my conclusions on the basis of premises also arrived at through reasoning, and it all began with and was made possible by my ability to know that I know, that is, my ability to reflect upon what I am doing when I know. It all begins on the level of ordinary experience, but it proceeds upwards, beyond the level of ordinary experience, via the "engine" of human reasoning on the basis of first principles.

For example, consider the assertion that absolutely everything in this universe happens by chance, a claim typically made by proponents of scientism. Some who maintain this argue that since we can, regarding any event whatsoever, ask the question 'what are the chances of this or that happening?' and then proceed to calculate the chances, every event is a chance event.

But this confuses "method" with "the real". Method is in me, the real is outside of me. A method, such as a mathematical one, opens us to the measurable aspects of the real, and leaves other non-measurable aspects in the penumbra. Now, when something happens by chance, we are often moved to wonder: "What were the chances of that happening?" That's a natural reaction, because chance is an aberration, a kind of disorder. I receive a call from the President of the United States, but his call was the result of chance – he intended to call the President of France, but misdialed one number on the area code and another number, and so my phone rang. That was a genuine chance event. What are the chances that my phone number would be different from that of the President of France by only two numbers, and that the President of the United States would misdial those two numbers at the exact time when I was at home watching TV?

But I can also ask: "What are the chances that my friend will call me today?" The answer is: a much greater chance than the President. Were my friend to call me, we could not conclude that his call was a chance happening. His call is not a disorder, an aberration or irregularity (from the Latin regulus, or rule). As a rule, my friend calls me; the President of the United States does not.

To argue that all things happen by chance because we can ask the question regarding an event's likelihood is to confuse "being of reason" (what exists in the mind, i.e., questions, equations, methods, etc) with "real being". It is also a syllogism with an undistributed middle term:


Chance events are those of which I can inquire of their probability.
Regular events are those of which I can inquire of their probability.
Therefore, regular events are chance events.

But most importantly, a chance event can only be understood to be so against the backdrop of what is a non-chance event, that is, a regular or ruled event (a governed event). Chance is not governed.

It should be obvious at this point that a method enables us to focus on aspects of the world, leaving other aspects in the dark. Mathematics, for example, abstracts from concrete intentions or purposes, that is, real causes. My typing on this computer at this moment is not a chance event, but mathematical reasoning abstracts from real purposes or causes. Method filters the world. The scientific method as well filters the real world, allowing us to uncover certain aspects, leaving other aspects covered up.

A philosophical method also has its limits. It cannot proceed downwards, below the level of ordinary experience. We need the senses to do that, and a microscope is an extension of our sense of sight. With a microscope, we can see so much more than without one. We now see the membrane and the nucleus in a cell, etc. But we cannot see logical validity, or intelligibility, causality, necessity, law, etc. We have to reason about what it means to reason validly on the basis of first principles. The philosopher, therefore, has to be able to move in the opposite direction of the scientist who moves below the surface of ordinary experience; the philosopher has to be able to stand over and above himself (transcend himself). Although I cannot sense that I sense, see that I hear, or touch my sense of touch touching, I do have to have the ability to know that I know, and know that I sense, and know that I reason, etc.

It is the task of philosophy not only to examine the presuppositions that are the starting point of science, but also to interpret the data provided by science. To interpret what it is that science tells us of the world is to engage in philosophy, not science. For example, after a thorough scientific analysis of the chemical constitution of the inorganic world, one can finally ask: "Is the world comprised of determinate substances? Or is substance but a name for an unintelligible conglomeration of matter that provides us with the illusion of 'thing'? Is a living organism a substance? Is the fertilized ovum a human being?

The scientist can come to understand the behaviour of the cell, the replication of cells, etc. But is the cell a part of a larger substance? Is the organism nothing more than the entire conglomeration of cells? Is the cell merely a name for the entire conglomeration of the parts that constitute it?

These are not questions that the scientist can answer as scientist. What is meant by "thing" is not something science can grapple with. A scientist can acknowledge that a dog is a thing and proceed to examine its anatomy. But he begins with the assumption that it is a thing. But what is "thing"? Is it quantity? Is it a quality? Can a "thing" exist without quantity and quality? To answer these questions requires that we move beyond an empiriometric methodology.

Scientists use concepts such as velocity, electron, element, atom, quark, meson, organism, etc. But these are universal terms. There is no "atom", just atoms of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, etc. So what is "atom" in general? What is the nature of these universals? Are they just concepts that exist in the mind? Do they have a real reference to some particular thing outside the mind? What is the origin of these universal terms?

The scientist does not answer these questions, but the scientist formulates universal terms nonetheless. It follows that if the proponent of scientism should not admit into the arena of real knowledge whatever he cannot establish through his empiriometric method, he ought not to employ such terms until he can establish their accuracy or validity on scientific grounds. Since proponents of scientism do not do so, they are inconsistent in their approach to science.

The Elimination of the Subject

Scientism is also reductionistic. The problem with reductionism as it is applied to the human mind is that it eliminates the mind. It does this by reducing the qualitative world we experience (the world of color, sound, taste, texture, smell, purpose, and intelligibility, etc.) to what is quantifiable, predictable, and controllable. What is not quantifiable, measurable, and controllable (what is not subject to the scientific methodology) is not real, but appearance, merely subjective, and reducible to the measurable. For example, color is nothing other than the reflection of light photons at particular wavelengths, and sound is nothing but compression waves. The qualitative world of color, smell, taste, hot and cold, is thus a projection of the human mind. The color of the apple is not in the apple, it is in me; it isn't the farmer's field that stinks; rather, you stink (smell is in you, not in the thing).

The realm of the mind is reduced to the realm of the objective, quantifiable, measurable and controllable. In other words, the mind is nothing but brain activity, neural biochemistry, the firing of neurons, that is, the random motion of particles, etc.

But the knower that does the reducing is a subject of knowledge (i.e., scientific knowledge). Moreover, there is no "object" of thought without a subject. For the very concept of "object" is correlative to the concept of "subject". Reduce the mind to something purely objective, like a computer, and there is no "subject" that possesses any knowledge.

The problem with reductionism as it is applied to the human mind is that it eliminates the mind. It does this by reducing the qualitative world we experience (the world of color, sound, taste, texture, smell, purpose, and intelligibility, etc.) to what is quantifiable, predictable, and controllable.

A computer, for example, is an object. It is not a subject that knows. Although we speak of a computer as having memory, there really is no memory of past events, for there is no single subject that remembers all that has happened to it since it came into being, i.e., that it has travelled from one city to another, that it has often been carried across the border, that it has been repaired, has had a "transplant" (i.e., an additional hard drive installed), etc. The computer is not a single subject that is conscious of itself, much less transcends itself or teaches itself, nor does it build other computers, or prescribe its own remedies in order to function better, heal itself, etc. It is simply an object, an artefact, a product of technology. It has no interior that it chooses to reveal or conceal; it is an ordered conglomeration of other substances manufactured to function in a way that serves a human need. But the computer that I am working on does not understand any of the ideas contained in this essay; it is not part of the debate. The hard drive that contains the essay is not a mind (a power that possesses ideas).

Only a single subject capable of perfect self-reflection (i.e., one who knows that he is knowing) can make himself an object of knowledge. If there were no subject irreducible to an object, the proponent of scientism could not embrace scientism or reductionism. In other words, reducing myself to nothing more than an object pure and simple would not be possible unless I were more than an object pure and simple. And so the only way a reductionist can actually be a reductionist is if he is wrong. If he is right (i.e., if reductionism is correct), he could not be a reductionist; for he wouldn't be a subject in relation to which he could grasp what it means to be an object, and thus what it means to be "objective" phenomena.

Reduce the mind to an object so that it is nothing other than a pile of neurons firing at random and it ceases to be a single subject of knowing; the entire scientific endeavour collapses with it.

Now if the entire scientific endeavour is a product of meaningless and purposeless neural biochemistry – since the mind has been reduced to biochemical activity lacking final cause or purpose – , the debate that proponents of scientism have with their opponents is ultimately meaningless. It has no more reality than color, smell, taste, sound, etc. And that is why honest and consistent proponents of scientism acknowledge that all human activity, including scientific activity, is nothing but a fiction (a human construct). Of course, ultimately there is no man to do the constructing!

One has to wonder why proponents of scientism bother debating at all. In fact, one has to wonder why they bother voicing their opinions. Why not save one's breath, open a bottle of wine and drink? It's much easier and far more enjoyable. After all, there is no objective meaning to anything we do.

A final difficulty with reductionistic scientism is the following: I perceive an apple, and I see that it is large, solid, of a certain size, weight, and position in space, etc. But the apple's quantifiable aspects – which alone are objective and real, according to scientism – are perceived by me through my perception of the apple's qualities, that is, its color, texture, in short, sense qualities. If my perception of these qualities is mere projection, thus appearance, that is, if the qualities are nothing other than objective neurological activity, then my perception of the thing's quantifiable aspects (size, shape, position in space, weight, etc.) is mere appearance as well. Hence, there is no objective world at all. To be is to be perceived. The world exists only when I perceive it.

And so, reductionistic scientism leads to the conclusion that there is ultimately no mind, and at the same time, there is no objective world outside the mind. The world is inside the mind, and yet there is no mind in which the world can exist. Ultimately, nothing exists.

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Acknowledgement

Deacon Douglas McManaman. "Why Scientism is False." CERC (November 2010).

Printed with permission of Deacon Douglas McManaman.

The Author

mcmanamanwbasmMcManamanaDoug McManaman is a Deacon and a Religion and Philosophy teacher at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He is the past president of the Canadian Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. He maintains the following web site for his students: A Catholic Philosophy and Theology Resource Page. Deacon Douglas studied Philosophy at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. He is the author of Why Be Afraid?, Basic Catholicism, Introduction to Philosophy for Young People, and A Treatise on the Four Cardinal Virtues. Deacon McManaman is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2010 Deacon Douglas McManaman
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