Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Scientism's weakest link - science

Stacy's question regarding if science can deal theology a blow (which as of this writing appears to be down) reveals to my mind to be the weakest aspect of what is called scientism, that is, the belief that all knowledge that can be truly knowable is found using the scientific inquiry, or more generically, physical evidence based methods.

Scientific inquiry has yielded benefits for man that no one can deny.  From extending life expectancy to our understanding of the physical universe, modern science has provided benefits for mankind in a variety of ways.  This is indisputable.

In a classic case of "suffering from too much success" though people have elevated scientific inquiry as the be all and end all of inquiry.  "It is the only reliable method of inquiry" so says the followers of these proposals.  In its most extreme form this turns into a kind of Physicalism, a belief that the only aspects of reality are its physical properties.

But there is a tiny issue with assuming this principle.  How did we arrive at the notion that the scientific inquiry is in fact the only reliable method?  If one appeals to the method itself we are arguing in a circle, assuming what we are trying to prove.  If we assume it outright it is little better than any dogma of a religion.

The problem lies in that the assumption that the scientific inquiry is the only reliable method for knowledge that is knowable is that the scientific inquiry cannot verify itself.  One has to assume it is valid in order to use it.  Hence we must arrive at some other means of validating the scientific method.

This leads to another problem however.  If we must arrive at the validity of the scientific inquiry via other methods, then because these methods do not have the validity that the claims of science have (according to our main premise), then the scientific method itself rests on these "lesser" methods.  And therefore anything that the scientific method produces is just as suspect as the method itself.

Ultimately the assumption that the scientific inquiry is valid is a "philosophical" one.  It is the product of a reasoning process (albeit a poor one).  And if it is arrived at via reason, then it is only as valid as the strength of the process of logical reasoning.  Which in turn again invalidates the claim that scientific inquiry is the only reliable process to obtain reliable knowledge.

The inescapable conclusion of this is that the scientific inquiry is only as reliable as the philosophical underpinnings that prop it up.  And if we can use philosophy to arrive at the scientific inquiry, what else can we arrive at with the same strength of reliability?

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