Is science the only legitimate form of rational inquiry? The evolutionary biologist and popular atheist Richard Dawkins thinks so.
In a 2013 debate with Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dawkins claims that religion, as opposed to science, is “a betrayal of the intellect.” He asserts that appealing to God to explain the universe is “a phony substitute for an explanation” and “peddles false explanations where real explanations could have been offered.” What counts as a real explanation? For Dawkins, it’s science.
The belief that real explanations can only be offered by science is scientism. But is scientism itself a real explanation? Is scientism worthy of the human intellect?
I suggest it is not.
A betrayal of the human intellect
First, scientism is self-refuting.
The statement “Scientific knowledge is the only legitimate form of knowledge” cannot be verified by scientific methods. It’s a metaphysical proposition and thus not subject to scientific inquiry. No matter how successful science is, it is restricted to physical reality. Metaphysics deals with foundational truths about reality that go beyond the merely physical (e.g., questions about existence itself, time, space, etc.). Science can never go beyond the boundaries of its data source, so, in principle, cannot verify the truth of scientism.
But if science cannot verify the truth of scientism, then scientism itself cannot be a legitimate form of knowledge, in which case it’s self-refuting.
Moreover, scientism is self-refuting because it undermines science as a rational form of inquiry. Consider that science presupposes various philosophical assumptions that are not subject to scientific verification—e.g., there is an external world outside the minds of scientists, the world is governed by causal regularities, and the human intellect is capable of uncovering these regularities.
Now, in view of scientism, how could science be a legitimate form of rational inquiry if its presupposed assumptions are not the product of scientific inquiry? It can’t. Scientism seeks to exalt science, but it actually undermines it in the process.
No human minds allowed
The second reason why scientism is unsustainable is because it leads to the denial of the human mind. Philosopher Edward Feser argues such in his article “Blinded by Scientism.”
Feser explains how scientism is based on the divide in modern science between the quantitative-objective-real and qualitative-subjective-appearance images of the world. According to this divide, anything that cannot be quantifiably measured is not real. Since scientific inquiry is subject only to the quantitative aspects of reality, scientism views knowledge of such things as the only real form of knowledge. But this causes a problem.
Concerning the mind, Feser correctly argues that it falls on the qualitative-subjective-appearance side. The mental activities in the practice of science such as the formulation of hypotheses, the weighing of evidence, technical concepts, and the construction of causal chains cannot be described in the language of mathematics. There is no microscope or telescope that can show us the existence of mental beliefs. They do not fall within the purview of the quantitative-objective-real image of the world. Consequently, the activities of the mind fall on the side of the divide that is subjective and mere appearance—that is to say the mind is not real.
Now, as Feser points out, rather than seeing scientism as an absurdity and rejecting it in this light, many proponents of scientism follow their logic and reject the mind outright, viewing human thoughts as mere physiological events. But one has to wonder, “How can one argue for scientism when such argumentation presupposes the very thing scientism logically denies—namely, the mind?”
The answer is, you can’t. Therefore, since scientism denies the reality of the human mind, which is needed to argue in support of scientism itself, scientism is not reasonable.
Confusing methodology with ontology
Finally, scientism is unreasonable because it confuses methodology (method of knowing) with ontology (reality). Due to the success of the quantitative methodology in modern science, many think the method exhausts nature. But such success shows only that the method is useful for dealing with those aspects of nature that are quantifiably measurable.
To use Feser’s popular analogy, the claim that nothing exists beyond the boundaries of scientific inquiry is like saying plastic cups do not exist on the beach because of the metal detector’s failure to detect them. The metal detector’s failure says nothing whether or not plastic cups exist. It’s simply a manifestation of the limitations of its detecting powers.
Similarly, science’s inability to detect entities that are not quantitatively measurable or empirically verifiable (immaterial entities) says nothing whether or not such things exist. It’s simply a manifestation of the limitation of science’s detecting powers—science detects only physical reality.
Scientism, therefore, commits the fallacy of confusing method with reality—letting the method dictate what is real rather than letting reality dictate the proper method for studying it.
Whether appealing to God in explaining the universe is the best explanation is something worthy of consideration—theists and atheists need to present arguments to substantiate their worldviews. But what is not worthy of consideration is scientism. It’s self-refuting, it undermines science, and it commits the elementary blunder of confusing method with reality.
Dawkins may reject God as the best explanation for the universe on the basis of bad arguments, but he can’t reasonably reject theism on the grounds that it’s not scientific knowledge. To do so would be to betray the human intellect.