Friday, January 27, 2012

Scientism Revisited

Scientism is the view that says “empirical science is the only source of our knowledge of the world (strong scientism) or, more moderately, the best source of rational belief about the way things are (weak scientism).”[1] I am addressing, in this post, the more popular-level scientism that one encounters on the Internet. What spurred the post was an interesting interaction on another Christian’s blog wherein a new atheist claimed there could be logical contradictions. In response to the claim that one must rely on some kind of version of the law of noncontradiction for this, he claimed that logic is in the same boat, for it cannot be justified apart from circularity.

The two problems are not, in fact, symmetrical. The first problem, which I shall dub the “logic problem” (or LP), states that logic cannot justify itself, for it would have to presuppose the use of logical reasoning to find out if that same reasoning were justified. The second problem, which I shall dub the “illogic problem” (or IP), states that any attempt to justify why the law of noncontradiction fails will end up relying on some objective form of it.

LP has the luxury of being what Kant would famously call “transcendent.” That is, it cannot be thought of other than by presupposing its truth. Now while that is in fact circular, it nonetheless seems harmless, since any rational criticism given of it will by definition be employing the same rationality it wishes to criticize.[2]

IP has no such symmetrical luxury. In fact, it faces the opposite problem. It must purport that logic does not exist in an absolute or objective manner. IP must then either give an objective reason for such, in which case it is self-defeating, or must give no reason at all, in which case one does not need to believe it. There is a difference between circularity and self-defeat. In circularity, the idea or proposition relies on its own truth in its expression. In self-defeat, the idea or proposition relies on its own falsehood in its expression. And so it is with the idea that logic is faulty.

What does this have to do with scientism and new atheism? In my particular example, the new atheist was not disputing whether or not philosophy suggested there was a God. Rather, he simply concluded philosophy has little or no place because science was all we needed. In defense of science not being able to justify itself nor saying philosophy does not apply, he merely employed a tu quoque response. Science’s not being able to justify itself is not a symmetrical problem either, since the idea of empiricism cannot exist apart from philosophy.[3] Scientism, at least on the popular level, cannot be successfully defended.

                [1] James E. Taylor, “The New Atheists,” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. < >, accessed January 27, 2012.

                [2] Note I am not necessarily defending particular rules of logic as much as logic itself, regardless of the particular formal rules.

                [3] This is just to say that empiricism is not transcendent; it can be thought of apart from presupposing its truth. Thus, the problems of science/IP and LP are not symmetrical in any meaningful sense.

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  1. Of course the glaring problem, is that this 'new atheist' is using philosophy, to demonstrate that philosophy is useless...

  2. Randy,

    I hope you do not mind if I comment on this post, too?

    Was the 'new atheist' claiming that there are logical contradictions or that there are TRUE logical contradictions? If the former, he is of course correct. If the latter, I would argue, he is incorrect.

    Having said that, if you are interested, read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Dialetheism (the position that there are true contradictions):

    and the article on Paraconsistent Logic (which is a set of logics that rejects ex contradictione quodlibet):

    Also, within the philosophy of logic and mathematics, there is a significant literature on the empirical revisability of logic. Again, if you are interested, let me know and I can e-mail you some stuff.


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