Post Author: Bill Pratt
More times than I can count we have skeptics comment on the blog who insist that science is the only means of attaining knowledge. If you don’t believe me, just read the comments underneath last week’s blog posts. I have covered this topic numerous times, but it seems to surface over and over again, which tells me that we are touching upon a fundamental disagreement between two worldviews. In other words, this is a pivotal issue for everyone to understand.
So, I call back to the stand again Professor Edward Feser and his book, The Last Superstition. When confronted with the assertion that only scientific reasoning gives knowledge (justified true belief), how shall we respond?
There are two problems with this view (which is known as “scientism” or “positivism”). First, if they want to take this position, they will need to defend it and not simply assert it; otherwise they’ll be begging the question against their opponents and indulging in just the sort of dogmatism they claim to oppose.
Feser makes an important point here. It is not enough to merely say, as skeptics sometimes do, that scientific reasoning is the only way to know things, and then just leave it at that. This viewpoint may be fashionable among atheists and skeptics, but among the rest of the populace, it just doesn’t fly. The vast majority of thinkers from pre-Socratic Greece to today reject the assertion that scientific reasoning is the only way to know anything. Given that fact, we expect an argument to be made.
Second, the moment they attempt to defend it, they will have effectively refuted it, for scientism or positivism is itself a metaphysical position that could only be justified by using metaphysical arguments.
How so? Why can’t science argue for science without employing metaphysical arguments?
Of its very nature, scientific investigation takes for granted such assumptions as that: there is a physical world existing independently of our minds; this world is characterized by various objective patterns and regularities; our senses are at least partially reliable sources of information about this world; there are objective laws of logic and mathematics that apply to the objective world outside our minds; our cognitive powers – of concept-formation, reasoning from premises to a conclusion, and so forth – afford us a grasp of these laws and can reliably take us from evidence derived from the senses to conclusions about the physical world; the language we use can adequately express truths about these laws and about the external world; and so on and so on.
Notice that none of these are claims of science, are they? As Feser explains, “Every one of these claims embodies a metaphysical assumption, and science, since its very method presupposes them, could not possibly defend them without arguing in a circle. Their defense is instead a task for metaphysics, and for philosophy more generally; and scientism is shown thereby to be incoherent.”
Feser ends this section with a brilliant quote of philosopher E. A. Burtt:
Even the attempt to escape metaphysics is no sooner put in the form of a proposition than it is seen to involve highly significant metaphysical postulates. For this reason there is an exceedingly subtle and insidious danger in positivism. If you cannot avoid metaphysics, what kind of metaphysics are you likely to cherish when you sturdily suppose yourself to be free from the abomination? Of course it goes without saying that in this case your metaphysics will be held uncritically because it is unconscious; moreover, it will be passed on to others far more readily than your other notions inasmuch as it will be propagated by insinuation rather than by direct argument. . . . Now the history of mind reveals pretty clearly that the thinker who decries metaphysics . . . if he be a man engaged in any important inquiry, he must have a method, and he will be under a strong and constant temptation to make a metaphysics out of his method, that is, to suppose the universe ultimately of such a sort that his method must be appropriate and successful. . . . But inasmuch as the positivist mind has failed to school itself in careful metaphysical thinking, its ventures as such points will be apt to appear pitiful, inadequate, or even fantastic.