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Is the Only Real Knowledge Scientific Knowledge?

Is science the only legitimate form of rational inquiry? The evolutionary biologist and popular atheist Richard Dawkins thinks so.

In a 2012 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.

Written By: Karlo Broussard



  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    Wow – the Church can’t debate the actual science, so they get wrapped around the axle over the terms. Richard Dawkins has said in some of his books that there are some questions science can’t answer – he suggest morals might be one of them.
    From the God Delusion:
    “Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science.” (p XX) Indeed, Dawkins seems happy to concede that moral questions may well fall into this category. Dawkins says: “we can all agree that science’s entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic to say the least”. (p80).
    Sam Harris on the other hand would disagree and say that science indeed can help us determine which is the more moral action, and offers up a very compelling argument in “The Moral Landscape.”
    This strikes me as a silly and distracting topic, intended to distract from real issues. Let’s start by having the Church acknowledge what science already knows today, and then worry about what it will learn in the future. What it knows today is that we evolved, and not from two people 6000 years ago. Evolution does away with original sin – that’s the real issue, not “scientism.”

  2. Guy martin. Reply

    Some know, some don’t, all the arguments in the world are not going to change it, It seems to me people who are unsure, first try to convince themselves of things, then set about convincing everyone else. I am waiting for a new book, called the Richard Dawkins Delusion, I think it is written by God.

  3. thomraff Reply

    Only the ignorant and dogmatic use the bogus pejorative “scientism.” Science validates itself because it works – – – period. This is just another “God of the Gaps” argument. Religion is based on faith, which is belief without evidence. There is no way to verify any religious claim about the supernatural. There is no such thing as the supernatural: there is what we know about reality and what we don’t know about reality.

  4. thomraff Reply

    Scientism is a bogus term used by the ignorant and/or dogmatic. Science verifies itself because it works. There is no supernatural, there is only reality we know about and reality we do not know. Religion does not give knowledge because there is no way to verify or justify its teachings. There is scientific consensus based on evidence, whereas, there is division within religion because of no objective way to ascertain the truth of any of their claims.

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