‘Scientism’ was attacked in a recent article (http://www.news24.com/MyNews24/Science-and-Scientism-Not-Such-a-Harmonious-Unison-20131011), I’d like to discuss that article and expose some of its mistakes.
The author presents the following accusation, “[naturalists think that] science can explain everything in and about the world, concluding that something can only be real if it is solely physical and can be subjected to various means of determining the properties of such a thing.” Let me first say this. Science generally, and physics in particular, does not currently have all of the answers to our questions. Many things remain unexplained, and a number of things appear to be (though, I’d argue mistakenly) unexplainable in principle, by science. I haven’t come across anyone who denies this, but if there are such people, they are to be distrusted.
As a naturalist what I think is something like the following. Everything is ‘natural’. That is, everything is identical with, made up of, generated by, dependent on or otherwise compatible with, the theoretical posits, and laws, of fundamental physics. This is a metaphysical claim. I don’t mean to imply (what would anyway be false) that we have the epistemic capacity to describe everything in the language of physics. After all, for example, it seems unlikely that one could describe the intricacies of the stock market by means of wave functions. That is, however, an epistemic problem – a problem about our current (or, perhaps, permanent) epistemic limitations – and needn’t have a bearing on the metaphysical claim that everything is (metaphysically speaking) natural.
Now this can seem like an extreme position, but I don’t think it is. I’ve given a positive and hopefully informative description of what I think is real. Supernaturalists, who believe that there is ‘more’ to the world than what is ‘merely’ natural, cannot do this. Supernaturalists can only define their position negatively, and are in fact quite incapable of saying what they actually think is real.
Now, any supernatural entity must have something like the following description. It is an entity which fails to have any location in space or time. It has no observable qualities (in principle). It has no motion, velocity, momentum, mass, energy, or charge, and it has no potential for any of those things. Its wholly unclear to me what it means to suggest that such a non-entity ‘exists’, but this is what supernaturalism demands.
Many people find the idea of supernatural entities very appealing; I suspect this is due to a lack of reflection on the matter. Needless to say, I don’t find such claims appealing. God is supposed to be supernatural, and the absolute creator of the universe. How, I often wonder, is that possible? How, that is, could a non-being, as described above, interact with the admitted non-existence of anything, to ‘create’ everything? The question strikes me as rather a meaningless one. Supernaturalist sympathies, though, lead to such conclusions. A view which leads to such incoherence can, I think, be regarded as misguided and simply discarded. Minds, emotions like love, and aesthetic properties are meant to be supernatural as well, so uninformed common sense suggests anyway. Those suggestions also, it seems to me, are reducible to incoherence for similar reasons.
The author says that there are things which cannot possibly be explained by science. I wonder if this is accurate. I’d agree that there are many things which currently don’t have a scientific explanation. And there are things which don’t currently look like they can have one (morality, for example). But that is merely an epistemological worry, which, as I said earlier, needn’t have bearing on the metaphysical thesis of the naturalist. But, I suspect, the author might mean something a bit stronger. The author might mean that it is logically impossible for science to explain some things. If that is what he meant, he needs to provide us with an argument for that claim, or, at the very least, some examples. Without such support I’m inclined to doubt this stronger interpretation.
I am quite confused by what he next says, which is this. That since science can’t explain some things, then there must be entities which fail to have any location in space or time; which have no observable qualities; which have no motion, velocity, momentum, mass, energy, or charge; and which have no potential for any of those things. That is, he deduces that there must be some supernatural entities.
I cannot take that deduction seriously for a few reasons. One is simply that it is an invalid deduction – it’s the basic fallacy of ignorance. It doesn’t follow from the fact that science can’t explain something that therefore there are supernatural entities (admittedly, though, he just thinks that supernaturalism is a good explanation of sciences failings; he should probably be clearer on what he really means). The second reason is conceptual. I’m inclined to doubt that talk about such entities is properly formally meaningful.
The third is a bit more complex. His deduction does follow if he means something like this. That there really are things (of which we actually have some awareness) which simply don’t (in principle) have a naturalistic explanation. Since they do exist, but don’t have a naturalistic explanation, it would follow that they were actually supernatural. I have some worries about this though. Firstly, I’d like him to give some examples of these things – for I certainly haven’t witnessed any supernatural entities. If he can’t give these examples, I’d feel warranted in my skepticism. If, on the other hand, he can give an example (which I think is doubtful) he has to deal with two further problems.
One is that it he will have to describe the examples in naturalistic terms. By that I mean, he won’t point me to an entity with no location in space or time (etc.), because that is not possible. Rather, he’ll point me to some observable phenomenon in the world which he strongly-feels is supernatural. If he does this, I’d be inclined to doubt that he was actually pointing out something supernatural. I’d want to suggest that the explanatory failure of science in such cases is merely an indication of epistemic limitations. All of us agree, after all, science is not complete, and that, it seems to me, is the less outlandish conclusion to draw.
Secondly, though, if he insists that he has simply given an incomplete (natural) description of what is really a supernatural entity I would raise what is called ‘the problem of interaction’. That is: by which mechanism, or laws, does this supernatural entity causally interact with the world in such a way that we come to have experience of it? There is, of course, no answer to this question. I’d then, again, be inclined to doubt that we were in the presence of (interacting with) a supernatural entity. And I would be inclined to think, rather the more conservative thought that, what we were in the presence of was a natural entity of which we had imperfect knowledge.
I’d agree that science should explore the possibility of supernaturalism, as does the author. But I’d like to clarify that point by noting that science has explored the possibility and found it incredibly wanting. Supernaturalism is not rejected because it contravenes naturalistic dogma; it is rejected because it makes no sense and has little explanatory value. That is a claim I’d be willing to retract if some of the concerns I raised above could be dealt with. I’d love to see how our causal theories (empirical or conceptual) can be made to accommodate the notion of supernatural/natural interaction – I’d love to see it mathematically formulated. Sarcasm aside, supernaturalistic-interaction won’t be accommodated into our theories and it won’t be mathematically modeled. I suspect the main reason for this is that supernaturalism is constitutive of a misguided approach to inquiry.
It’s a methodology with preciously little to contribute to the production of real knowledge. This is most evident when Supernaturalists claim that such supernatural happens are ‘beyond comprehension’ – I’m quite sure this is correct, because I’m quite sure such locutions are themselves incomprehensible.
I earlier said that that everything which exists is natural, and I clarified what that means. Should I then declare myself scientistic? The author suggests that this view is mistaken because it “refuses to consider all possibilities.” By this I suspect he means that scientism and naturalism refuse to take seriously the claim that there are things which exist which fail to have any location in space or time; which have no observable qualities; which have no motion, velocity, momentum, mass, energy, or charge; and which have no potential for any of those things. I think the word ‘refuse’ is incorrect. Naturalism has explored such possibilities, but found them conceptually flawed, and on that basis rejected such (non) possibilities. Though, I’m also tempted to say simply that no possibilities have been rejected – what the author asserts are possibilities (the existence of entities with no location in space or time, etc.) are simply meaningless. If scientism entails the rejection of such flawed or meaningless ideas, then I’ll proudly admit to being scientistic.
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