Appendix 06: Scientism, Assumption, and the Real

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2011
Reproduced with Permission

Modern proponents of scientism maintain that knowledge, to be genuine, must be tested and supported by empirical evidence. If it is not validated by empirical testing, the "knowledge" is without foundation and is not "knowledge" worthy of the name, but is at best an approximation of knowledge.

Of course, if this is true, it is not possible for those who adhere to scientism to know that, since they cannot test the initial premise. But there is more that scientism is prevented from knowing on the basis of its original premise, and the implications of those limits are important to draw out, if for no other reason than that proponents of scientism very often make metaphysical pronouncements on the nature of reality, which they have no way of doing, if what they argue about knowledge is true.

Suppose a person decides that henceforth he will only put forth tested conclusions, that is, conclusions supported by a reasonable amount of empirical evidence. He will always begin by conducting a number of tests and gathering evidence in order to write something definitive on a subject matter, i.e., free will, or the human person, the real world, or subatomic particles, etc. At one point, he does a number of brain scans of the people he plans to use for some empirical based research, he conducts a study on the addictive behaviour of hundreds of people with regard to, let's say, smoking. He conducts interviews, etc.

Note, however, that he begins all this evidence gathering on the basis of an assumption that he is able to know the "real" in the first place and that what he knows through his senses is really the world as he experiences it. For example, he assumes that the brains he scans are really the brains of people outside of him, that the scanner is really something that exists outside his mind, and that the people he interviews and the paper they are asked to write on are real things that exist independently of his knowing them, that is, that they are not his own creation, but are real independent "things". He assumes that the lab he uses is a real lab that has a real existence outside his mind and that subatomic particles, for example, really do exist, however indeterminate they may be, etc. He begins with those assumptions about his ability to know and what it is he knows, and he gathers data with those assumptions intact.

Now, how does he or any other scientist justify those initial assumptions? How is he able to trust that initial "knowledge" before it is tested? In other words, shouldn't he demand that those assumptions be tested, since he insists that genuine knowledge is always tested? Shouldn't he have sufficient empirical evidence or solid mathematical data, or whatever, that justifies his starting points, before he begins doing science, so that his science is grounded upon real or genuine knowledge, and not an assumption?

But how is it possible for him to test those assumptions, to experiment, to measure, to gather evidence, in order to justify his initial ability to know, so that he can proceed to gather evidence, experiment, measure, and test? For in order to do any testing, any measuring, any evidence gathering, he first needs to be able to know reality at a basic level, however imprecise. How does he test, gather evidence, measure, etc., in order to justify his knowing abilities so he can trust his knowing abilities, ultimately so that he can proceed to test and gather evidence reliably, so that he may end up with solid, tested conclusions? He would have to be able to test and gather evidence before knowing anything at all, in order to verify that he can trust the knowing that takes place at the start of his evidence gathering. But this, of course, is absurd.

In other words, science cannot justify itself. Scientific knowledge can only be justified on the basis of a non-empirical mode of knowing, that is, a philosophical mode of knowing. That is why scientism, although it may not render science impossible (unless its logical implications are fully articulated and accepted), places science on a non-scientific foundation, namely assumption (belief). If the only valid knowledge is empiriometric knowledge, then all science exists under the umbrella of an assumption.

In other words, proponents of scientism are believers; they believe that the world is "real", but they cannot demonstrate that through the only valid method of knowing that they acknowledge, that is, the empiriometric method. This means that I cannot say anything about what reality is ultimately, because I just don't know. All I know is the world as it appears to me (phenomena), but I do not know whether appearance is in fact the world as it is in itself (noumena).

It follows that whatever I know through science, I know on the basis of a starting point that is an assumption, and this means that I can only pronounce on what takes place under the umbrella of the "assumption that I can know reality", which is nothing more than an assumption, at least from the standpoint of scientism.

A realist philosopher would argue that one's initial knowledge of the real, which is the pre-scientific foundation of the scientific process, is not an assumption, but genuine knowledge. It is the condition for the possibility of empirical science. But strict adherents of scientism could not agree with this without giving up scientism; for if one insists that the only genuine knowledge is tested knowledge, then science takes place on the basis of an assumption, and that means the entire scientific edifice is founded not on the hard cement of genuine knowledge, but on an assumption, that is, a belief.

On a practical level, it makes no difference to science itself whether the scientist comes to the realization that reality can be initially known or that it is only assumed - he can do good science regardless. What it does mean, however, is that a consistent adherent of scientism should feel a special affinity with the religious who base their lives on a belief, for example, faith in a God that cannot be known through the scientific method, a God whose real existence cannot be empirically tested. The entire scientific edifice is also built upon an assumption, a non-testable belief that our ordinary sense experiences provide us with a genuine knowledge of reality as it is outside the mind. If not a feeling of affinity with the religious, we should at least recognize that it is hypocritical to scoff at religious believers for basing their lives on a non-testable foundation; for scientists do so naturally all the time.

Most importantly, however, this means that science cannot say anything definitive that bears upon what reality is ultimately. Any question that bears upon the ultimate nature of reality is outside of the realm of science per se. Hence, I cannot say things like "reality is indeterminate", or "everything is a probability", nor can I suggest that things (on whatever level) can and do happen without a cause, or that the universe always existed, or that the universe came from nothing, much less that something can both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect, etc. The only time I will ever be able to make any kind of pronouncement that has a bearing upon what reality is ultimately and in itself is after I (or anyone else) have demonstrated that ordinary pre-scientific sense experience provides me with a genuine knowledge of the real, that is, when the possibility of philosophy is acknowledged. But that is not a road down which modern adherents of scientism would like to travel anytime soon, for it means admitting that it is not true that the only valid knowledge we possess is that which is tested or empirically verified.

Now if determined adherents of scientism answer these points by identifying ordinary experience with what it means to test, then it means that all knowledge is, initially at least, tested. The implications of this point are important to understand. If ordinary experience, that is, the pre-scientific knowledge that is presupposed in any scientific undertaking, is said to be tested knowledge, then scientism has nothing to argue; for it is entirely irrelevant to maintain that the only valid knowledge is tested knowledge, since all ordinary experience is now said to be tested. The reason is that on the basis of that tested knowledge, which is ordinary experience, philosophy can proceed to zero in on this pre-scientific knowledge, which is very complex in itself, and attempt to understand its principles through the very same acts of the intellect that enable us to grasp the real in the first place. But because the scientific method presupposes that initial knowledge of the real, science is barred from ever explaining it; for it presupposes it; one cannot cut the very knife that one needs to cut anything at all.

Moreover, it would be entirely unwarranted to demand that philosophical conclusions be subject to empirical testing, for it starts with knowledge that is tested. Now, to reason to a non-testable conclusion is justified, as long as the premises are true and the reasoning is valid (i.e., it does not violate any of the rules of logic). If that occurs, we have a conclusion whose certainty is assured, for it rests ultimately on tested knowledge.

If adherents of scientism find that unacceptable, then they cannot identify ordinary experience with tested knowledge. They are forced to maintain that our pre-scientific experience of the world is not knowledge per se, but an assumption the status of which they are not able to alter.

Adherents of scientism will often object, claiming that anyone who chooses not to make those "initial assumptions" that they can trust their senses, would have to act as if their senses are lying to them.

But that objection, in the first place, acknowledges that science rests on initial assumptions. Secondly, it is not about choosing not to trust our senses; rather, it is about recognizing that the idea that our initial pre-scientific sense experiences provide us with genuine knowledge is a belief, that is, an assumption. Finally, it is not true that the one who chooses not to make those initial assumptions would have to act as if their senses are lying to them. On the contrary, he simply acts as if he does not know whether what appears to be so is "really" the case. He just assumes that what he is inclined to "believe is real" may or may not be real; but he does not know one way or the other. He may have reasons for choosing not to assume that his senses provide him with knowledge of reality as it is in itself - and there are plenty of reasons for not making that assumption.

But that in no way implies that he should stay put on the path of an oncoming vehicle and that he has nothing to fear from it. That objection once again assumes the point that needs to be proven; it assumes that what he perceives is real and that a collision proves it to be real. If I see a truck but do not move, I will get hit. But that does not prove my senses provide me with knowledge of the real that exists outside my mind, independently of my "knowing" it. My getting hit and thrown and my subsequent experience of suffering - were I to survive the hit -, are all sense experiences. The question is whether those experiences amount to genuine knowledge. The entire experience only shows that what I see (the truck) and what I hear (the truck) seem to be sensations of the same object of sensation and that the "thing" that hit me is the same thing I saw and heard. But all that is experience at the ordinary, non-scientific level.

To insist that this proves the truck is real is to assume that the sense of touch provides a knowledge of the real, but not necessarily the sense of sight. But what justifies such an assumption? The point being made is not that science is unable to establish that the sense of sight provides us with a knowledge of the real - while the sense of touch does. Rather, the point is that science cannot establish through its empiriometric method that its initial "knowledge", its pre-empiriometric "knowledge", is genuine knowledge.

If I do not assume that my senses put me in touch with the real, I do not necessarily act as if I am being misled by a liar (i.e., my senses), for there is no reason for such a course of action. But the question can be asked, "If I don't have grounds for knowing that my senses give me a knowledge of reality, why do I assume it?" The answer is not, "Because I have no choice". I do have a choice. I can assume that my senses do not give me a knowledge of reality, but to assume that they do is just as much of an assumption.

Certainty vs. Precision

Now some adherents of scientism argue that our ordinary and pre-scientific experience is an uncertain knowledge, but that it is science that provides a more certain knowledge of the real. But this also cannot be the case.

It is true that science often corrects our initial interpretation of the world. We might have thought that the sun rises, but through a more precise knowledge given by science, we are now certain that this is not the case. Many more examples can be put forward to prove the point.

What science does here, however, is it corrects a specific kind of interpretation (an hypothesis regarding secondary causes), not our general or pre-scientific knowledge, which is the pre-condition for science. For example, I can come to know that my cancer was not caused by too much sugar (my original hypothesis), but was the result of exposure to pesticides, etc. What science does not and cannot do is justify its initial assumptions about its pre-scientific knowledge of reality. In other words, the claim that the scientific process gradually does justify our initial knowledge by making it more precise confuses precision with certainty. The empiriometric sciences make our general knowledge—which according to the classical realist is more certain than scientific knowledge—more precise.

And so, when a scientist shows that a commonly held interpretation of a particular phenomenon is wrong (i.e., it is not the union of sperm and menstrual blood, but sperm and ovum that is the starting point of human life), he does not show that our ordinary knowledge is uncertain; rather, he shows that our ordinary knowledge lacks precision. The new advancement does not correct ordinary knowledge, but a previous attempt at a more precise knowledge, that is, a scientific interpretation of a particular phenomenon whose cause we wish to know. His new interpretation, which is empirically based and tested, is a more precise knowledge of something we know at the ordinary level (i.e., this baby is alive and is human). Scientific knowledge continues to rest on ordinary knowledge, because it is a more precise knowledge, and a "more precise" knowledge means a more precise knowledge of what we knew less precisely, but initially.

It does not and cannot mean that ordinary knowledge is uncertain until we acquire that more precise knowledge; for if ordinary knowledge is uncertain, then a more precise knowledge is just as uncertain, for it would participate in that original uncertainty; it is merely a more precise knowledge of an original uncertainty. For example, I see something that I am not certain is real; it could be a ghost. There is something unreal about the spectre before me, but the more I look at it, the more I see that he has green eyes, is wearing a blue coat, has old shoes on that one might have worn at the time of the First World War, his hairstyle is not current, etc. These more precise details do not alter my original uncertainty about its reality. They only extend that uncertainty - it is a detailed knowledge of an uncertain reality. I am still not certain that those shoes are real, that the hairstyle is one belonging to a real being, that the coat is real, etc. Precise scientific knowledge participates in the reality of our initial and ordinary experience.

So, to repeat, scientism leaves the entire scientific edifice on the foundation of an assumption. Science cannot even establish itself as a science, for the word is derived from the Latin verb "to know"; and so only if scientism is wrong is it possible to maintain that science is genuinely science (knowledge).

Further Implications

Scientism is useful, however, in providing an outline that marks the limits of what science can and cannot treat. The scientist begins by planning a controlled experience (experiment), in order to understand more precisely something that everybody knows initially and more generally, i.e., water, or an animal, or a plant, a hand or a foot, the regular behaviour of human beings, the irregular behaviour of some human beings, the sun and the moon, etc. He plans to burn a piece of wood, to boil water, to cut into a corpse in order to study it, to place a potted plant in a dark room with a window in the corner, etc.

His starting points are that he lives in a world of beings (substances or things), that these "things" are related to other things, that they can cause certain effects in other things, that they can be acted upon, that they reveal or disclose themselves through the way they act or react with other things, that they can undergo change, etc. And that is why the scientist begins to subject these things to experiment in order to investigate them more carefully, in order to understand them more precisely.

But there is a host of things he presupposes in order to begin his work. He does not attempt to justify the phenomenon of cause and effect. For example, he does not ask before engaging in the scientific process whether it is really possible for one thing to bring about (cause) an effect in something else, i.e., does this flame really cause this wood to change? Was that sound that came from the direction of the door really caused by the action of the person on the other side? Is cause and effect something that I can perceive with the senses? What am I doing when I declare something to be true? Is truth a relationship? Is it possible for me to actually say anything that is true?

The scientist presupposes these initial starting points; he does not justify them. In his mind, he knows that the flame causes the wood to burn, that Bill's knocking caused the sound that proceeds from the door, that the plant died because it was deprived of water for too long a period, etc. But he cannot justify these notions through his method of doing science, because he needs this "initial knowledge" of cause and effect, the notion of substance or entity, an awareness that there is such a thing as truth, etc., as the starting points of his work.

That is why as scientist he is barred from pronouncing on cause and effect, the nature of truth, whether truth is a relationship or not, whether his initial general knowledge of things is certain or general, whether greater precision means absolute certainty or only a relative certainty, etc. Again, he is barred from saying anything about the ultimate nature of things. To do so is to cross a line; it is to say something that exceeds the capacity of the empiriometric method of the scientist.

As an example of a scientist crossing the line and pronouncing on the ultimate nature of things is the claim that the thought experiment devised by physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 (Schrdinger's cat) refutes the principle of non-contradiction. The principle of non-contradiction is that nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. The logical formulation of this principle is that nothing can be both true and not true at the same time and in the same respect.

To deny the principle of non-contradiction is to pronounce on something that has a bearing upon what reality is ultimately, because the principle of non-contradiction is a first principle that bears upon being as being, that is, on whatever is.

Let us assume that it has been refuted. What does that imply? It means that the principle of non-contradiction is not true. This means that something can be both true and not true at the same time and in the same respect, or something can both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect.

But denying the principle is a definite assertion. It follows that those who continue to affirm the principle, like realist philosophers, are wrong. In other words, those who hold that the principle of non-contradiction is absolutely true, that it is a principle that bears upon whatever exists (numbers, particles, leptons, protons, light waves, possibilities, indeterminacies, etc) are wrong. And they are wrong because "science has refuted the principle".

But if they are wrong, then the principle of non-contradiction is true, and the realist philosophers are right. Why? Because it is said that they are wrong, not right. To declare that they are wrong, not right, is to declare that they cannot be both right and not right at the same time and in the same respect.

If the "Schrödinger's cat" thought experiment refutes the principle of non-contradiction, then at the same time it proves it. In fact, it would mean that we could not ever again say that someone is wrong, for to do so would be to employ the principle. In fact, if the principle is not true, then to be wrong is to be right, and to be right is to be wrong. If the principle of non-contradiction is refuted, then at the same time it has not been refuted, and every other established truth in the world of science can be safely contradicted, because the principle of non-contradiction does not really express a law of being (a metaphysical principle) that nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect.

Another example of exceeding the limits of the scientific method is the claim that a particular phenomenon occurs without a cause. This crosses the line because empiriometric science presupposes an initial, ordinary knowledge of cause and effect as a condition for the possibility of doing science. The relation of cause and effect and what that relation means ultimately, is not an object of scientific inquiry, for in itself that relation is not measurable and not empirical, but intelligible.

To claim that something happens without a cause is completely unwarranted; for how is it even logically possible for a person to know that a cause of a particular phenomenon does not exist, that there simply is no cause, especially in light of the fact that to understand a particular phenomenon is to understand its cause or reason? What moves us to inquire of the sufficient reason for a particular phenomenon is the knowledge that the sufficient reason (that whereby something is) is not contained within the thing we wish to understand - if it were, we would not desire to know the reason for the act, we'd possess it already. To know that the sufficient reason is not contained within that which we are seeking to understand, and to assert at the same time that there is no sufficient reason, reveals an Olympian audacity.

Perhaps we will never know the cause, or perhaps we cannot know the cause through empirical means, but to claim that the effect can be greater than the cause (for the cause does not exist, so it must be less than the effect) is to identify nothing with something: nothing is that out of which something comes to be. But to identify something with nothing and nothing with something is to eradicate the principle of non-contradiction, which in turn renders the entire scientific process impossible.

If scientism is upheld, then science inevitably rests on an assumption from which it cannot escape. The implication is that science cannot pronounce on anything about reality ultimately, but only on matters within the confines of that assumption. In short, science rests on a belief. Although adherents of scientism readily admit that science begins with assumption, they tend to want to forget that and will soon begin to behave like realists, forgetting that such privilege is not theirs; for the entire scientific edifice is founded upon a belief. All metaphysical conclusions stemming from scientific knowledge are per se impossible and must never be taken seriously, or they ought to be subjected to an entirely different kind of testing, the kind of testing that scientism denies is possible, namely a philosophical testing that does not depend upon an empiriometric approach to the real, but on reason.

Return back to "Table of Contents"


Chapter: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26