Science, Scientism and the Fate of Spirituality in the Western World

“Postulates are based on assumption and adhered to by faith.” – Isaac Asimov

“I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.” – Richard P. Feynman

A CRASH COURSE IN WESTERN PHILOSOPHY: LESSON 5

In our last lesson we transitioned from the Middle Ages into the Enlightenment and the modern age of philosophy. What we found were new variations of the intellectual conflict between the ideal and the real that the early Greeks were wrestling with.

Does God exist? Do we have freewill? These are just forms of the big question of philosophy. My premise for this course is that all of the big questions stem from the one BIG question about the foundation of reality. Is reality rooted in some transcendent realm that can only be experienced in our minds, or is the physical world of our senses the basis of reality and our experience of mind merely an outgrowth of that?

Big questions like these are part of what is called Metaphysics, and the endless debate around such questions leads us to questions how we can possibly know. The study of how we know is called epistemology. Metaphysics and epistemology work hand in glove. Any legitimate search for truth must include an examination of any epistemological assumptions. We cannot just ask what is true, we have to also ask how we know it.

The leading epistemological methodology today is the scientific method. The most obvious epistemology of science tells us that truth is found in experimental results. But what happens when more than one theory fits the results? How do we know then?

Another epistemological theory often utilized by science was an idea developed by William of Ockham, a monk in the Middle Ages. This epistemological theory is often called Ockham’s Razor and it states that whenever there are two theories that explain the same observation the one that requires the least number of assumptions is true. In other words, when looking for truth we should always look for the simplest explanation possible.

It is this epistemological idea that makes the scientific mind uncomfortable with spirituality, and assumptions like the existence of God. After all, why should we assume the existence of such a mysterious intelligence if we don’t have to? As humanity emerged from the middle ages a battle began to rage between the fathers of the church and the new intellectuals of the Enlightenment. That struggle continues today even though it had seemed for a time that the debate was over and that science had won.

Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries the discoveries of science and the rapid improvements to human life they created were simply too much for religion to contend with and science seemed to win the battle for the Western Mind. In fact, many people still feel that the debate is over. To them it is obvious that the experimental method of science is the supreme means for discovering what is true. For others the debate is far from over.

Certainly science has proven magnificently effective in helping us understand the physical world. We have all benefitted from the triumphs of science. And yet we find ourselves perched on the edge of global destruction facing a host of problems that science seems incapable of solving and in some cases has even had a hand in creating.

The failing of science is not really about the scientific method; it is about an largely unrecognized epistemology that developed as a result of the success of science. This faulty epistemology can be called scientism, and we should make a sharp distinction between science and scientism.

Science is a method of inquiry and the knowledge acquired by that method. The scientific method involves hypothesizing, experimenting, observing and drawing conclusions. Central to the method of science is that no theory is ever considered final. All theories are subject to scrutiny and reexamination, and it is assumed that all will eventually be proven false by a more comprehensive theory. Scientism, on the other hand, is the belief that the methods of science are superior to any and all other methods of determining truth. Science believes things because they have been observed to be true. Scientism believes things because science says they are true.

Most of us are guilty of scientism to some extent. We hear about things having been scientifically proven and we assume that means they are true. We didn’t do the experiments. We didn’t look up the results. We didn’t analyze the data. We simply assumed that if the science proved it, it must be true. There is often good reason to feel justified in this assumption, and at the same time anyone who has ever done science knows that experimental evidence is always interpreted, and interpretations are always fallible.

Scientism, to the extent that it is active in our thinking, obviously calls our belief in science into question. No one would argue with that, but there is an even more subtle case to be made against the epistemological superiority of science.

Besides the scientific method and Ockham’s Razor, there is another epistemological assumption behind the scientific method. It is known as “Logical Positivism.” You and I and almost anyone likely to read this post are probably at heart logical positivists without even knowing it. Logical Positivism claims that something is only true if and when there is conclusive evidence that demonstrates it to be true. In other words we shouldn’t take anything on faith!

But, why do we think that conclusive evidence is the best way to tell what is true?

For a couple of centuries after the Enlightenment the evidence-based logic of science seemed to have won a decisive victory over all other ways of knowing. The wisdom of faith and the revelations of Religion appeared to on the run. Eventually however considerations were raised that challenged the scientific worldview and its claim to epistemological supremacy. In fact, some began to believe that mystery and uncertainty were part of the fabric of the universe and that it very well might turn out that ultimately truth is always a matter of faith. Even the position of Logical Positivism is a matter of faith in the end, because the idea that conclusive evidence is the best way to know what is true is itself taken on faith.

In our next lesson we will learn about the first of the intellectual movements that arose as a challenge to Enlightenment rationality. This was the literary movement of Romanticism.