Saturday, June 20, 2015

Craig on Scientism

I have sometimes been told that I am guilty of scientism.  If that's the case, then I suppose it would be worthwhile for me to find out exactly what it is that I'm guilty of.  The term 'scientism', when used by Christians (or more generally, people who adhere to a rationalist epistemology, as opposed to empiricism) is a pejorative that refers to someone (usually an atheist) who is blind to all avenues of human inquiry except for science.  It seems to imply a lack of morality, a failure to appreciate the arts, and even an inability to recognize the truth of logic.  In short, it describes someone who is devoid of humanity.

WL Craig expresses two main problems that he sees with scientism:

First, scientism is too restrictive a theory of knowledge. It would, if adopted, compel us to abandon wide swaths of what most of us take to be fields of human knowledge. Your friend admits this with regard to moral and aesthetic truths. On his view there is nothing good or evil, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly. But is it plausible to think that there are no aesthetic or moral truths? On your friend’s view there’s nothing wrong with torturing a little girl to death. Why should we accept such a conclusion simply because of a epistemological restriction? Isn’t this a signal that we need rather to broaden the scope of our theory so as to encompass other types of knowledge? Your friend says he will treat logical and mathematical truths as merely empirical truths. Good luck! Truths like “If p implies q, and p, then q” or “2 + 2 = 4” are to all appearances necessary truths, not merely empirical generalizations. And what about science itself? Science is permeated with assumptions that cannot be scientifically proven, so that an epistemology of scientism would destroy science itself. For example, the principle of induction cannot be scientifically justified. Just because A has always been succeeded by B in the past provides no warrant for inferring that the next A will be followed by B. For we could be at the beginning of a chaotic series of As and Bs whose initial segment is ordered ABABAB. So trying to provide “a good inductive argument for scientism” is hopeless, since it must presuppose the validity of inductive reasoning.

Secondly, scientism is self-refuting. Scientism tells us that we should not believe any proposition that cannot be scientifically proven. But what about that very proposition itself? It cannot itself be scientifically proven. Therefore we should not believe it. Scientism thus defeats itself.

Craig correctly notes that scientism is an epistemology.  Epistemology is the philosophical study of what we know and how we know it.  Scientism is actually empiricism, or a form of it, which holds that the things we know are derived from sensory information.  So it is surprising that Craig goes on to describe scientism in non-epistemological terms.  He uses ethics as an example.  He states that on this view "there’s nothing wrong with torturing a little girl to death".  Craig is telling us that the absence of objective moral truths (an epistemological position) is equivalent to an absence of morality (an ethical position).  It isn't, and he should know the difference.  He also mentions aesthetics.  Again, this is not about epistemology.  One's appreciation of beauty or the arts is a matter of subjective experience, and it has little or nothing to do with what we know or how we come to know it.  Having an empiricist epistemology implies nothing about one's morality or one's appreciation of the arts.

Then there's his discussion of logic, where he dismisses the notion that we can come to know logical truths by empirical means.  To that, I would reply that logic itself is not knowledge.  Deductive logic is a set of rules by which we can manipulate information (as supplied in premises).  It gives us no new information that we don't already have.  The premises to a logical argument are a matter of empirical knowledge.  The axioms and rules of deductive logic are something we understand by observing our world, in much the same manner as we discover laws of physics.  There are an infinite number of logical or mathematical truths, and we don't automatically know all of them, but the only way we can discern whether a given proposition is true is to apply the rules of logic.  There is no other built-in facility that we have for understanding these truths.  It ultimately comes down to applying logical rules to things we already know.  Rationalists think that deductive reasoning is the only means by which we know things, but the fact of the matter is that deductive reasoning, while useful, actually gives us no new knowledge.

Another point that is worth making is that there is no separation between science and logic.  Science employs more than just inductive reasoning (as Craig would have us believe).  It makes full use of deductive and abductive, as well as inductive reasoning to generalize our observations, formulate explanations about how things work, and confirm those understandings.  Here is a discussion of scientific epistemology that is worth reading for those who share Craig's view of scientism.  Since scientific epistemology is broader than rationalism (as it includes deductive reasoning and much more), it might be fair to say that the rationalist is the one who has a severely limited epistemology.

Craig thinks that scientism is self-refuting, because it demands scientific proof that can't be provided by science.  But science doesn't purport to prove anything, nor does an empiricist view demand proof.  What science does is disprove things.  Even the most strongly held scientific theories are always tentative, and will be discarded or modified if and when the evidence shows that they are not valid.  The position of scientism is that empirical evidence gives us reason to believe things, and that scientific method gives us confidence in the things we believe, but we understand that there is no final word on the things that we learn through science.

So it seems that Craig has built a straw man in his view of scientism.  This is a view that is widely accepted, even to the point that some atheists like Pigliucci buy into it.  But this view of scientism is not real.  It doesn't represent the actual views or epistemology of people like me or anyone else on the planet that I know of.  It paints us as inhuman, immoral, and blind to truth.  I don't mind being called an adherent of scientism, but only if the term is used in a manner that reflects my views. 

Yes, I am an empiricist.  I believe that the things we know are derived from the senses.  I believe there are no objective moral truths, but I have a moral code, as most of us do.  I am stimulated by fine literature.  I appreciate beauty.  I enjoy music.  But I do not conflate subjective experiences with knowledge.  Those who would paint a false picture of my humanity and morality might be regarded as lacking in humanity and morality themselves.  At the very least, they are dishonest.


  1. Here's a great parable that absolutely devastates the "empirical evidence only!" mindset:

    In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other, “Do you believe in life after delivery?”

    The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. It seems we are obviously here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later and that we have capacities that are meant for something greater than here.”

    “Nonsense!” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What makes you think there is?”

    The second said, “Well, I am going to suppose that since we have eyes and legs and mouths that there is a world outside that has more light than here so that we can see, and where will walk about with our legs, and eat with our mouths. I mean, why would we have legs if we weren’t ever going to walk, or eyes if we weren’t ever going to have light and see? Maybe there will be many other things that we can’t understand now.”

    The first replied, “That is absurd. Your are just engaging in wishful thinking and hoping that things will get better. This is all there is. Who needs to walk? And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. And since the umbilical cord is so short, life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”

    The second insisted, “Well I think there is something more than this, outside and beyond this womb. Some sort of longing is in my heart to see and walk freely and to eat and enjoy things. I mean, why would we have these legs and eyes and mouth and hands? And where did we get the longing to use them if we weren’t meant for something more? Indeed, maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”

    The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”

    “No,” said the second, “Surely we will meet our mother and she will take care of us.”

    The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in a mother? That’s laughable. If a mother exists then where is she now?”

    The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are from her and it is in her that we now live. Without her this world we are in now would not exist.”

    Said the first, “Well I don’t see her, so it is only logical that she doesn’t exist.”

    To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when I am in silence and I focus and really listen, I can perceive her presence, and hear her loving voice, calling down from above.”

  2. An interesting study in failure to examine the evidence.

    I'm sure your little story is trying to equate the first fetus to the naturalist (who is wrong about what exists outside his little world) and the second to the theist (who correctly discerns that there is more out there).

    But the analogy breaks down. Both of them could, if they chose to examine the empirical evidence, determine that there is in fact a mother. It is the belief of the first fetus that there is no mother, but his belief is unsupported by evidence. All he has to do is follow the cord. The second fetus speaks of hearing the mother's voice. That actually is evidence. But there's a big difference between that mother's voice and the religious experience that theists claim to have. The mother's voice is objectively real. It can be detected and measured. The religious experience, on the other hand is in the mind of the believer. It is purely subjective.

    So of the two fetuses, the first is blinkered by beliefs that have no evidence to back them up, and the second has real evidence to support his belief. I would now expect the first one to accuse the second of scientism.