Monday, April 4, 2011

Can Science Explain Everything?

Scientism is the view which claims science can account for any and all truths; science is the sole means by which we gain truth and knowledge. In its pure and extreme form scientism is easily defeated, since one may just point out it is self-refuting; the claim that all knowledge can only come from science itself does not come from science. However, some feel that by rewording the claim they can make a separate argument and hence avoid altogether any discussion of theistic argument.

The claim is reflected in this post’s title: science can account for everything. The typical atheist line here is that science has accounted for everything thus far, and hence we should expect it will continue to do so in the future.[1] Since no God is needed to explain anything, science can, has, and will continue to explain everything in terms of physical or natural causes. Is this correct?

It seems not. Science cannot inherently account for several things. First, logic and math cannot be proven by science. Science must presuppose both of these things. Without logic science cannot even make basic inferences. Even the law of gravity would never be inferred without logic. Yet if logic is divorced from science and science attempted to prove logic, it would either be completely unsuccessful or reason in a circle.

Second, statements of moral value cannot be proven by science. If objective moral values exist science cannot possibly tell us the origin of these truths since they are not physical or naturalistic in any scientifically testable way. Some atheists may object that scientists have discovered the origin of some kind of moral gene; but this doesn’t tell us anything about the origin of objective moral values themselves (only how we come to know them).[2]

Next, aesthetic judgments cannot be accounted for or proven by science. Things considered beautiful are not themselves subjected to the scientific method. There is no way to know or to gauge the (quite natural) view of beauty. Science can dissect one’s responses to perceived beauty, the brain function, et al., but it can never account for the concept of beauty itself. Even if one claims aesthetic judgments are not in any way objective (which one can easily admit), this doesn’t get science off the hook. The scientist has to make philosophical inference to account for it: he must ask and answer the question of “why” in non-scientific terms (even though it may involve scientific data; science alone cannot account for it).

Fourth, metaphysical truths cannot be proven by science. Truths such as “every event has a cause,” or “the external world is real” or “other minds exist” are all rational to accept (the Matrix notwithstanding) yet we have no scientific way of showing this. Think about it: how would you go about proving, scientifically, that the world was not created ten minutes ago with an appearance of age? If you resort to scientifically measuring the age of the earth or the universe you’ll simply be presupposing that which you’re trying to prove!

Finally, science itself cannot be proven by science. Aside from being circular (since one must use science in order to prove science by science, after all), science holds certain things to be true as a simple matter of truth by way of presupposition. The speed of light as a constant is just one sort of example. One cannot escape by appealing to the fact that it seems this is correct, since the point is that science cannot itself justify such a constant speed and it cannot be proven.

The recent debate between Lawrence Krauss and William Lane Craig brought out some of the claims of scientism in the New Atheist community. In a way, it is highly reminiscent of Logical Positivism with A.J. Ayer and the old-line atheists of the early-to-mid 20th century. Science cannot, in fact, explain everything. Put another way: science alone can explain everything, provided that the things which are taken as presuppositional to science are excluded! But in that case, of course, science still cannot account for many of the most important things! This is not a rant against science but simply a reminder that science can only tell us how or that, not why. In those metaphysical and inaccessible things, science is impotent without appeal to the philosophical discipline.

                [1] A side-issue here is that this also seems to be nothing more than “science-of-the-gaps” when it comes to future explanations.
                [2] It may here be objected that objective moral values do not actually exist, but this is to miss the point. If they do exist, science does not account for them. Dismissing these values’ existence because science cannot account for them is question-begging.

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  1. Hey Randy, nice blog! On this issue, how would you respond to a skeptic who says that logic/philosophy are a "part of science". One person I'm talking with says that, for example, the law of non-contradiction has only examples in the natural, physical world. Even the abstract elements in logical or philosophical statements (A, P, X, the number 2, etc) need some physical "thing" to correlate with. What he's NOT saying is that these laws of logic can be scientifically verified, but rather that they come about as inferences when looking at the natural order of things.

    Any comment on this?

  2. That is a great question Sparx! I think the second part of the argument undermines the first. For instance, it is acknowledged the laws of logic cannot be verified by science. However, the laws of logic can verify science itself. Further, it just seems that not all propositions or laws of logic must have natural referents. For instance, consider unicorns, whose kind doesn't even exist. "Fair enough," one may say, "but they would be physical were they to exist." That's fine, but consider ghosts and ESP. Neither of these are physical, and to assume the laws of noncontradiction do not apply would be absurd! Finally, just in the case the objector thinks even these things therefore have unknown physical properties (which is extremely ad hoc, by the way), we can appeal to mental events and properties. It won't do any good to say these things are unreal, for then we assume a law of logic which applies even to these non-physical, non-natural (in the relevant sense) terms. If all one means by "natural" is "that which exists" and not merely "that which is physical," the objector isn't saying anything interesting at the least, and is committing the fallacy of equivocation on "natural" at the worst. Does that make sense?

  3. I also wanted to mention the conclusion of the whole thing: philosophy can be done without science, but science cannot be done without philosophy.

  4. "they [laws of logic] come about as inferences when looking at the natural order of things."

    How can a person make inferences without knowing & applying the laws of logic? :D

  5. Emmzee, thanks for commenting. I wholeheartedly agree!


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