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Straw Man Scientism

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Today's guest post is from atheist blogger Qu Quine who writes at Quine's Queue. Qu is also a frequent commenter here at Strange Notions. After reading this post, be sure to read the reply by Catholic contributor Dr. Chris Baglow: "Scientism vs. Methodological Naturalism: Responding to Qu Quine".


As an atheist, I've had to get used to being accused of "Scientism" in my online discussions with religious people. It also came up very early on while walking with my missionary neighbor. It is human nature to want certainty over uncertainty, and this gets projected from people of faith onto us, non-believers. It is a false dichotomy to take our position of wanting to have evidence to support positions accepted as true, as meaning that positions without such must, therefore, be false. No, it is not like that. Ideas without evidence may be true. There is no part of the Scientific Method that says it will eventually result in working out the truth of every idea that is true, and every scientist starts with things that he or she suspects are true in hopes of getting the evidence to back that up.

This misunderstanding leads to the red herring that faith need be invoked to depend on the Scientific Method, but that such depending is ruled out by the Scientific Method. Daniel Dennett ran into that in this discussion and dealt with it there. The Scientific Method is not a property of Nature that we analyze as true or false using the Scientific Method. We use methodological naturalism because we have found it to be useful. We have no proof that there is no better way, we just have not found a better way. The importance of the Scientific Method is that it gives us a way to find out new things about the world that we can depend upon with a bounded uncertainty. That uncertainty gets smaller over time as the self-correcting property of the Method keeps testing what we think we know. This produces knowledge that we can turn over to the developers of technology with reasonable expectations of results that work (such as the screen that you are reading).

The other thing I have had to work on my neighbor about is understanding that most of the power in methodological naturalism is to show what is demonstrably not true. Things that are shown by clear evidence to not be true almost never come back, later, to be shown to have been true all along. Thus when the data from scientific measurements tell us that the Earth is not flat, or that the Sun does not revolve around it, is likely not going to be found mistaken, ever. This tends to give scientists more authority when debunking the untrue with clear counter examples than when they show what they think is true because the search for counter examples has found none (yet).

Sometimes I am pressed by the extreme examples. For example, Science cannot disprove Solipsism or even Last Thursdayism. But if you take these positions you can't go any further. I can't prove that philosophical dead ends are necessarily false; I can't justify the assumption of the existence of the external world, but I live with it because it allows me to get access to thoughts and experiences beyond just myself.

I let my neighbor know that I do expect there are truths that are not yet known to science (that is why there are still jobs for scientists). But we do know many things with near certainty and know a great more about what is not true, with clear certainty. We know the Earth did not form in six days. We know there was no "Adam and Eve" as first humans because the human population (and that of our common ancestors with other apes) was never below a few thousand. We don't know by scientific evidence that Jesus did not rise from the dead, but the need for extraordinary evidence for that level of extraordinary event (against the very definition of "death" itself), together with the problem of false stories coming from the same scriptural sources, causes me to put that in the most probably fictional category until positive evidence can be produced.

These days "Scientism" is used as a pejorative that may be deserved by some who improperly make claims of the Scientific Method beyond its true scope. I am not one of those.
(Image credit: Fast Company)

Qu Quine

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Qu Quine lives in the San Francisco Bay area where he is semiretired from a long career in the high technology sector of Silicon Valley. That career having interrupted his study of Philosophy from an early age, he now spends much of his time catching up. Follow his blog at Quine's Queue.

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