The Scope and Limits of Science: A Response to Scientism – Science & Christianity: Part 3/6

Science as Sacred Cow
Science is an amazingly successful discipline, but in recent times it has been distorted into ‘scientism’ which asserts that science is the ultimate discipline that is capable of describing all reality. Science has become the measure of all truth and the only reliable path to true knowledge about reality and the nature of things. For scientism, any truth claim must be analyzed and tested according to the ‘scientific method’ before it can be accepted. Conversely, anything that cannot be explained by science is not worth pursuing. In short, science has been elevated as a sacred cow for modern society.

However, scientism is subject to several criticisms. First, the claim of scientism is just a claim. It is a self-refuting claim as it is in principle not open to scientific verification. Second, scientism simply ignores the unresolved “hard problems” of knowledge such as the nature of consciousness, the origin of the universe and the fundamental laws of nature, the origin of life and the nature of consciousness which suggest there are limits to scientific explanation. Presumably, all reality does not include problems that seem intractable to scientific explanation.

Science is Unable to verify its Own Presuppositions
Scientism seems unwilling to acknowledge that all knowledge enterprise, including science, must proceed with assumptions. Aristotle’s observation remains indisputable: “It is not everything that can be proved, otherwise the chain of proof would be endless. You must begin somewhere, and you start with things admitted but undemonstrable. These are first principles common to all sciences which are called axioms or common opinions.”/1/

As John Kekes observes,

Science is committed to several presuppositions: that nature exists, that it has discoverable order, that it is uniform, are existential presuppositions of science; the distinctions between space and time, cause and effect, the observer and the observed, real and apparent, orderly and chaotic, are classificatory presuppositions; while intersubjective testability, quantifiability, the public availability of data, are methodological presuppositions; some axiological presuppositions are the honest reporting of results, the worthwhileness of getting the facts right, and scrupulousness in avoiding observational or experimental error. If any one of these presuppositions were abandoned, science as we know it, could not be done. Yet the acceptance of the presuppositions cannot be a matter of course, for each has been challenged and alternatives are readily available. /2/

Put concisely, the fundamental assumptions of physical reality of science include the following:
Matter (or matter and energy) is the fundamental reality of the universe.
Physical reality is objectively observable.
Physical reality is orderly and is knowable because of reliable human senses and cognition.
Language and logic are adequate for scientific descriptions of reality.
Description of physical reality must be mathematically consistent.

It is significantly that science is unable to specify the scientific processes and criteria necessary to verify these assumptions. To the extent that verification is neither forthcoming nor possible, the claim of scientism remains nothing more than a claim. For Etienne Gilson the claim is misguided as “philosophy is the only rational knowledge by which both science and nature can be judged. By reducing philosophy to pure science man has…abdicated his right to judge nature.” /3/

John Kekes concurs with Gilson and proceeds to highlight the Achilles heel of scientism.

A successful argument for science being the paradigm of rationality must be based on the demonstration that the presuppositions of science are preferable to other presuppositions. That demonstration requires showing that science, relying on these presuppositions, is better at solving some problems and achieving some ideals than its competitors. But showing that cannot be the task of science. It is, in fact, one task of philosophy. This the enterprise of justifying the presuppositions of science by showing that with their help science is the best way of solving certain problems and achieving some ideals is a necessary precondition of the justification of science. Hence philosophy, and not science, is a stronger candidate for being the very paradigm of rationality.

The scientific method
One of the hallmarks of scientific inquiry is the requirement for successful experimentation and testing before any theory is accepted. The textbooks on science give the typical description of the processes of scientific inquiry:

First, collection of sufficient data through careful observation.
Second, interpretation of data. This is the process of induction which is the process of generalization of particulars into meaningful patterns of relationship between sets of observable data. This process entails some working assumptions about nature which provisionally explain how the observations came about.
Third, we deduce the logical consequences of our assumptions to develop a theory which describes how the underlying process of nature gave rise to the observed phenomena.
Fourth, a theory is useful only if it is able to predict some results which can be confirmed or disconfirmed through tests and experiments.
Fifth, the experiments should yield new data whether the theory is confirmed or disconfirmed. This new data leads to a repetition of the process of inquiry.
Finally, if the repeated process leads to a consistent description explanation, the theory gains acceptance, albeit provisionally.

However, it would be advisable to view this neat description of the ‘scientific method’ with some caution:
First, what comprises the “scientific method” remains a matter of dispute among feuding philosophers of science. For example, the Humean problem of induction continues to vex philosophers of science. Ian Barbour offers a more modest understanding of science,

At the outset, it should be stated that there is no “scientific method,” no formula with five easy steps guaranteed to lead to discoveries. There are many methods, used at different stages of inquiry, in widely varying circumstances. The clear and systematic schemes of the logicians or of the science teacher’s lectures may be far removed from the ad hoc procedures and circuitous adventures of the man on the frontier of research. /5/

Second, while the processes give the impression of objective, if not disinterested inquiry, the reality is that scientific inquiry is always driven by personal interests. That is to say, observation is never a random process. The experiments are devised within an assumed theoretical framework, that is, the reigning scientific paradigm which determines what data is relevant for collection and set the ground rules for testing. What interests the scientist is not “raw” data, but “interpreted” data. All data is theory-laden. After all, a proof is accepted if it is consistent with interpreted data and when the theorems are consistent with the assumptions made. The working assumptions may further be generalized into theories or paradigms to guide research within the scientific community.

Third, the results of scientific inquiry is always provisional and not absolute. Regardless of how many times a theory has been verified, it is always possible that some new results might turn up which contradict the current theory. Science can only yields probable truths as scientific theories and laws are generalized through laws of statistics. What science may claim is the consistency between observed interpreted data and theory, rather than insight into absolute truth (assuming that there is such a thing).

Fourth, science deals exclusively with the realm of the physically observable. Only what is observable is open to confirmation or disconfirmation. For this reason, Karl Popper proposed the criterion of falsification as the demarcation between science and non-science – “statements or systems of statements, in order to be ranked as scientific, must be capable of conflicting with possible, or conceivable observations.” This surely means that science deals only with the physically observable.

Finally, if the purview of science is restricted to the physical world, this would limit its domain of authority. As such, scientists are acting beyond their competence and authority when they make final judgment on matters of morals and religion. Admittedly, any long standing and proven conflict between science and any religion would raise questions about the validity of that religion (or at least its dominant interpretation). Nevertheless, the existence of God is not inimical to the use of reason. As we wrote in our earlier post, the Christian doctrine of God and creation played a vital role (amidst a complex of social and historical factors) in the emergence of modern empirical science. It cannot be gainsaid that there exist true and rationally justified beliefs outside science. Certainly, life is immensely richer if we go beyond the narrow and impoverishing outlook of scientism and give due regard to truths of historical understanding, moral valuation, political judgment, aesthetic satisfaction and religious fulfilment of ultimate meaning and purpose in life.

Science is certainly an important paradigm of rationality since it has been extremely successful in providing law-like explanations of why certain events occur under certain conditions and making prediction of what will happen if certain conditions obtain. However, the limits of science are undeniable in that it does not adequately explain questions of history, morals, politics, religion and personal values. The criticism of scientism raised by John Kekes is both pertinent and devastating.

The answer to these questions is that defenders of scientism are steeped in science and view the rest of life from the scientific point of view. They may do that of course, but only at the cost of failing to recognize that there is an enormous amount of life that other people, or perhaps even scientists in their civilian capacity, regard as immensely important and life as greatly impoverished without some historical understanding, moral sensitivity, political acumen, religious hope, and the satisfaction of some personal preferences. These objectives are no less rational than those of science. It is a narrow and life-diminishing approach to the possibilities and limits of life to insist that their overriding significance emerges from the scientific point of view. The scientific view is important and illuminating, but so are the others. Defenders of scientism are as misguided as historical pedants, dogmatic moralists, political ideologues, religious fanatics, and self-centered individualists. They all cultivate a deliberately narrowed sensibility and misguidedly celebrate it as a token of their dedication to rationality. /6/

Christians should hold science in the high regard. It is one thing to celebrate the achievement of science in explaining the workings of physical reality. However, to claim that nothing significant is knowable outside science would be like a fisherman who asserts that whatever is not caught in his nets does not exist.

To conclude, the assertion of scientism that knowledge is true and acceptable only if it is certified by science is unfounded. On the contrary, physical reality may be explored in a variety of ways with the use of common sense, logic, mathematics and philosophy. This would require a synergy between the discipline of humanities and sciences.

All truth is God’s truth. The goal of the quest for knowledge must be an integrated set of truths adequate to understand nature, to provide moral guidelines for wholesome living and to develop a comprehensive Christian worldview.

Footnotes
/1/ Morris Kline, Mathematics in Western Culture (Oxford UP, 1953), p. 43.
/2/ John Kekes, The Nature of Philosophy (Blackwell, 1980), pp. 156-157.
/3/ Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (Sheed & Ward, 1938), p. 283.
/4/ Quoted in J.P. Moreland, Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation (Baker, 1989), p. 103. See also, John Kekes, “Chapter 8: Science and Scientism” in The Nature of Philosophical Problems (Oxford UP, 2014), pp. 135-151.
/5/ Ian Barbour, Issues in Science and Religion (Harper & Row, 1971), p. 138.
/6/ John Kekes, The Nature of Philosophical Problems, p. 141.

Related Posts on Science and Christianity. 6 Parts.
Part 1: Is there a War between Science and Religion?
Part 2: Christianity and the Rise of Modern Science.
Part 4: Book Review: John Horgan, The End of Science. Basic Books, 2015.
Part 5: Models of Integrating Science & Christianity.
Part 6: Science and Theology as Analogous Research Programmes.