Metaphysics reveals limits of scientism

“The four philosophical limitations of modern science make it crystal clear why we need metaphysics.”

Scientism Undermined by Metaphysics
scientism metaphysics

science needs metaphysics

The quote above is from Prof Christopher S. Morrissey’s review of Prof Ed Feser’s new book Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (Editions Scholasticae, 2014). In his summary, Morrissey highlights the four limitations of modern science. Why is metaphysics so important to medicine? Have a look at my post No Metaphysics No Medicine.

Why else is metaphysics so necessary? Firstly, and ironically, scientists cannot discuss many of their topics without entering into the field and language of metaphysics. Secondly, metaphysics analyses science – which science itself and atheistic philosophy hardly ever do in any self-critical way. Hence, the problem with scientism.

As homeopaths, we know there is more to reality than the purely physical. So, take what you will from Feser’s four criticisms of science below. The first criticism is on scientism and in his final critique of science, Feser, according to Morrissey’s review, says despite the successes of science, scientism is not justified.

Definitions of Scientism

“Scientism” is a vague term but is an extreme appreciation of science to the point of rejecting any other forms of knowledge or any form of obtaining knowledge that isn’t achieved by the scientific method.

Scientism, according to the Oxford Reference, “is the belief that scientific methods can be applied to all problems, with the consequent application of inappropriate scientific methods in unsuitable circumstances.”

Sean Johnston in his The History of Science defines it thus: the conviction that the methods and conclusions of science provide the only legitimate foundations of knowledge.

Johnston says scientism is an “unrefined faith (interesting term!) in the powers and benefits of science. The term is used in a pejorative sense to represent dogmatic and excessive trust” (p. 93).

Problems with Scientism

Scientism has no shortage of critics. Roger Trigg has a number of criticisms in his very readable Beyond Matter: Why Science Needs Metaphysics (Templeton Press, 2015). Trigg uses the example of Peter Atkins, the Oxford chemist, who “upholds the view that ‘scientific method is the only method of discovering reality’ and says that it ‘has not yet encountered a barrier, except the one asserted to exist by those fearful of its illumination'” (p.21).

Trigg explains that this smacks of a circular argument. To put it simply: “What science cannot tell us cannot be there. Why? Because science cannot tell us about it.” And when it’s pointed out to Atkins there might be barriers to the reach of science, Atkins’s response is the ad hominem one; you are afraid,” Trigg tells us.

He then gives the problem with Stephen Hawking’s claims that “philosophy is dead” and “we have reason to believe an objective reality exists.” Both these issues lie at the heart of traditional philosophy and according to Trigg cannot be answered within science without assuming philosophy has ceded all rights to science. Yet, he points out, whether it can let alone ought to must itself be a major philosophical question.

The obvious question for Trigg then is: “Where does anyone stand to make statements about the scope of science and its capabilities? Is one within or outside science? If we are still within it, the whole question seems to be begged. If outside, the argument destroys itself in that it appears one needs philosophy to be rid of philosophy” (pp. 21-24).

A separate but related issue Trigg raises is that scientism implies atheism. But “such a belief carries with it a great deal of metaphysical baggage since atheism is as much a metaphysical stance to the nature of the world and the possible ultimate character of reality as is theism” (p. 130).

Brendan Purcell in From Big Bang to Big Mystery (pp. 99-100) says “it doesn’t do any harm to remind ourselves that scientism hasn’t been arrived at by any inquiry by the natural sciences.” In other words scientism hasn’t been scientifically proven; it doesn’t stand up to its own scrutiny.

When scientists insist that the only evidence acceptable is the type of evidence required by, say physics or biology, Purcell quotes the political philosopher Eric Voegelin who reminds us:

The popular assumption that mathematical science is the model of science par excellence, and that an operation not using its methods cannot be characterized as scientific, is neither a proposition of mathematical science, nor of any science whatsoever, but merely an ideological dogma thriving in the sphere of scientism (Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics, p. 376).

Purcell further quotes Voegelin who states that “all reality that is not accessible to the sciences of phenomena is either irrelevant or, in the more radical form of the dogma, illusionary” (Science, Politics and Gnosticism, in Modernity Without Restraint, p. 261).

What Voegelin is saying about scientism then according to Purcell, is that it is part of a more general diagnosis of ideological thinking in general, a closure of rational inquiry characterized by its routine “prohibition of questioning”.

Scientists guilty of scientism often fall into the trap of commenting on disciplines outside of their expertise. Purcell says this is why the well-known biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote a now famous article “Darwinian Fundamentalism” in which he took Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett to task for precisely this type of “fundamentalism” – fundamentalism not being limited to narrow-minded religious attitudes.

This intellectual closure in the natural sciences is what we’re calling scientism, says Purcell, but he adds, there’s a serious consequence of scientism; reductionism.

Scholastic Metaphysics reviewed by Christopher Morrissey

Quoting at length, Morrissey simplifies Feser’s arguments as follows:

1. The philosophical theory known as “scientism” is either self-defeating or trivial. Feser shows that science depends upon philosophy to justify its presuppositions and its method, as well as to interpret its results. Usually, whenever scientists are caught making self-defeating “scientistic” philosophical claims – by claiming they don’t require philosophy – when the self-defeating contradiction is pointed out to them, they then claim that philosophy is allowed so long as it has “scientistic” presuppositions. But obviously such a claim is trivial, since it rules out dialogue with all other philosophical points of view. It rigs the debate in advance, since it defines those other points of view as “non-scientific,” and unworthy of philosophical consideration, because they do not endorse the superiority of science the way the philosophy of “scientism” does.

Failings of Scientific Method

2. In principle, the scientific method is incapable of a complete description of reality. Modern science in general, and modern physics in particular, is fond of quantifying things with mathematical equations or univocal schemata. But this craze for quantitative description, powerful as it is for unlocking many fundamental secrets of nature, is still in principle leaving out vast sectors of reality from its descriptions: namely, those qualitative aspects of reality that cannot be subjected to empiriometric mathematization or empirioschematic quantification. As the great physicist Erwin Schrödinger recognized: “the mind itself remains a stranger in this picture, it has no place in it, it can nowhere be found in it.” After all, who is applying the scientific method, if not beings with minds?

Clearly, there is here a fundamental aspect of reality that will forever elude scientific description, because the mind cannot be reduced to the merely quantitative, without annihilating all the qualitative features of the mind and of the scientific method that it wields. To maintain otherwise, Feser points out, is like saying we can clean a house by sweeping all the dirt under a certain rug—and then arguing that we can get rid of the dirt under that same rug by applying the very same method. In the same way, the scientific method, by targeting only particular and specific aspects of reality (like the quantitative), guarantees that we are in principle leaving out everything not targeted by that method. To then step beyond that method, by rashly claiming that everything can be explained by and reduced to what that method focuses on, is an unjustified—indeed, a crazy—philosophical manoeuver.

Laws of Nature

3. In principle, the laws of nature discovered by the scientific method offer incomplete explanations of reality. Feser discusses how the much-ballyhooed “laws of nature” presuppose physical things that exist and that operate in accordance with the laws. But even if the “laws of nature” are able to describe how, for the most part, actual physical things really behave, that description is still different from an explanation as to why they do what they do. In other words, science answers the “how” questions but not the “why” questions.

Are the physical things listening to a decree from God that demands that they follow the laws he prescribes? Hardly. But this puzzle opens up vast arenas of philosophical controversy. Yet we need only appreciate for the moment the difference between a description and an explanation. All too often, the proponents of “scientism” think that because they can write equations for “laws of nature” they therefore somehow possess explanations of physical things. But usually they don’t; usually they are simply confusing mathematical descriptions with essential explanations.

Feser points out that “laws of nature” need not tell us anything about the natures or essences of physical things. Philosophy, Feser says, is destined to play an indispensable complementary role along with science whenever humanity seeks ultimate explanations for the real natures of things in the most rigorously essential terms.

Successes of Science

4. The successes of modern science can in no way vindicate the theory of “scientism.” Impressive technological achievement is the worst, and yet the most popular, of all the arguments for “scientism.” But it is a flat-out non sequitur. The strongest fist or prettiest face is no argument for who should be the ruler of the playground or the student body president, no matter how many people knuckle under or melt in the presence of such dazzling displays.

It is foolish to think that the successes of modern science either prove, or even render probable, the overconfident claim that science alone can reveal to us everything that is real. To prove his point, Feser offers an analogous line of reasoning to expose the fallacy:

1. Metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins and other metallic objects in more places than any other method has.

2. Therefore what metal detectors reveal to us (coins and other metallic objects) is probably all that is real.

Morrissey concludes by saying, “The tradition of Scholastic metaphysics, which is a bracing alternative to today’s regnant ‘scientism’. Even contemporary philosophers will be surprised by the depth and rigour of the metaphysical tradition’s most potent Aristotelian-Thomistic reflections, which Feser amply adumbrates in his impressive new book.”

Homeopathy Sceptics and Scientism

In 2007 Richard Dawkins interviewed Dr Peter Fisher, Clinical Director and Director of Research at the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine, then the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital. The interview was for a programme ironically titled “Enemies of Reason”.

Apart from the usual sensationalism and editing from Channel 4, Dawkins showed the traits of scientism: there was no open debate, Dr Fisher didn’t get to ask any questions, homeopathy was rubbished because it couldn’t be proven to the same degree or in the same way as physics and Richard Dawkins himself, not being a doctor or homeopath steps outside his own area of expertise by commenting on homeopathy and medicine – Stephen Jay Gould’s earlier criticism of him.

Further Reading
The Origins of Scientism by Eric Voegelin: click here
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