Thomas Aquinas in Study — Gentile da Fabriano [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Against the Errors of Scientism

Question; Should We Only Rely On The Scientific Method For Knowledge?

In my couple of years of internet apologetics, I’ve interacted with various kinds of atheists who will use science as an exhaustive basis to dismiss non-scientific ways of knowledge. Here, I wish to detail the various attempts at doing so, attempt to dismantle these approaches, and show why I find none of them convincing. Here what I want to do is take the various positions and answer them similarly to how Saint Thomas Aquinas engages in philosophical inquiry in the Summa Theologica.

Before I begin, I want to outline the various positions of scientism that I’ll address in each article.

Naive Scientism — The claim that knowledge must be inherently scientific by nature.

Weak Scientism — The claim that knowledge must be contributive to science, so logic, mathematics, metaphysics, and epistemology can be validated so long as they’re necessary for our scientific models and inquiries.

Tentative Scientism— The claim that since philosophical problems — such as solipsism, the problem of other minds, global skepticism, the possibility of metaphysics and knowledge- are either (1) unanswerable or (2) pseudo- questions (that is, they’re not well formed), we should ignore them and differ to only questions answerable by the scientific method.

Article 1 — Is Knowledge Inherently Scientific by Nature?

Objection 1. It would seem that knowledge is inherently scientific by nature, otherwise the success of science would be a huge coincidence. Since huge coincidences are not likely, knowledge must be inherently scientific.

Objection 2. If philosophy was a path to knowledge, it would be nearly or as successful as science. Since it is not nearly or as successful, it must not lead to knowledge.

On The Contrary; If these arguments are true, they would be self-defeating, for the rules of logic — such as their reliance on the valid logical structure of modus tollens- is what would bind us to the exclusivity of science, and not science itself, meaning knowledge would not be inherently scientific.

I Answer That; There are various forms of knowledge that aren't reached by science. The existence of other minds, of the external world, ethical statements, and mathematical statements are all examples. Further, if we want to say all knowledge is scientific then mundane exercises like trusting the simple statements of people would have to be considered scientific.

Reply to Objection 1. It need not follow that science needs to be exhaustive of knowledge to be successful. Science could just be a reliable system to reach truth.

Reply to Objection 2. The end of philosophy is not in telling us how to predictably map the world, and as such to judge its success in that end is like judging a hammer’s ability to paint a wall. Philosophy, among other things, is to produce correct (or at the very least useful) ideas through inquiry and dispute.

Given that philosophy has provided (among other things) the scientific method, psychology, logic (and its early application for computer programs), influence in early general relativity (see Hume’s influence on Einstein), forged the foundation of western civilization through political theory, and providing existential comfort for those seeking a sense of purpose, it would seem that philosophy is successful in the developments of not just sciences, but also politics and existentialism, through researching, and crafting ideas that become instrumental for both the success and development of other fields, and the lives of people.

Article 2— Must Knowledge be Contributive to Science?

Objection 1. It would seem that knowledge must be contributive to science, or else we would have no way to measure its success.

On the Contrary; Since philosophy is more fundamental to science, science must cohere to some philosophical rules. Coherency according to some sort of comprehensive logic, is one such example. Not to mention we cannot use science to answer to epistemic objections to the methods of science from sophists in religious fundamentalist circles (presuppositionalist young earth creationism), as well as radical leftest circles (postmodernists).

I Answer That; Philosophy can be successful in living a good and virtuous life, and providing existential motivation to individuals who value it. Hence success is not only measurable through the field of science.

Reply to Objection 1. Answered above.

Article 3— Is Philosophical Knowledge Worth Pursuing?

Objection 1. It would seem philosophy is not worth pursuing, for there are still many unsettled disputes therein.

Objection 2. Since there is no way to verify philosophical solutions to philosophical problems, there is no way to know if they do solve the problems they bring up.

Objection 3. Since you can always question any philosophical solution with more scepticism, we might as well begin with science and skip philosophical questions, and make science our dogmatic starting point.

On the Contrary; Philosophy, in its original sense, is pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, coming from the Greek “φιλοσοφία, literally "love of wisdom”.

I Answer That; Since humans have a positive propensity of wonder, and that leads us to question the nature of things, then seeking wisdom for its own sake through teaching and reforming our best philosophical tools (systems of logic for example) is part of a well structured life that we should teach people to follow. In an analogous way of teaching people to properly manage their body through tools of health because we have a positive propensity for bodily fitness, we have justification for philosophy.

Reply to Objection 1. If in exploring and disputing seemingly unanswerable questions, we come to conclusions that later prove helpful, and we have (see; reply to objection 2, article 1 for examples), then it seems philosophy is worth pursuing.

Reply to Objection 2. There are two senses of the word verify, one is to verify within the rules of a method (a scientific theory verified by the scientific method), and the other is external to a method. A theory could be validated by science, but to validate the scientific method by itself is circular. So, science would need an external justification to avoid the charge, and it is by this more foundational system we can determine a methodology true or not. (See; Foundationalism and Foundherentism as possible examples of starting points)

Reply to Objection 3. All answers are susceptible to doubt, science is not excluded. To draw a line at science without justification (as dogma) is contrary to to reason.