Science versus philosophy? (Part 1)

By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, February 12, 2009)

Science versus philosophy? (Part 1)
Some folks subscribe to the following statement: A claim is reasonable to believe only if it is a claim of science—so philosophical (and theological) claims should be dismissed.

The above view is known as strong scientism (hereafter, scientism). Here is one reason (of three) for not believing scientism: it’s a classic example of a self-refuting statement.

First, some clarifications.

A statement or claim has a field of reference: it’s about something. For example, the statement, “Cats are furry creatures,” is about cats.

Some statements include themselves in their field of reference. For example, the statement, “All printed English sentences contain letters of the alphabet,” refers to itself as well as other English sentences.

A self-refuting statement includes itself in its own field of reference but fails to satisfy its own criteria of truthfulness or rational acceptability. Consider these claims as examples: “All English sentences are less than three words long” (yes, count’em); “There are no truths” (an alleged truth); “Language can never communicate ideas” (think about it).

So far, so good.

Now, here are some claims of science: Each molecule of water consists of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen; energy equals mass times the speed of light squared; gold is soluble in aqua regia; the universe began 13.7 billion years ago; after 1,620 years approximately half the radium atoms in a given quantity of radium will have transmuted into radon atoms.

Okay, now consider scientism, the claim that, of all claims, only the claims of science are reasonable to believe.

Notice that the scientism claim includes itself in its own field of reference (because it’s a claim about claims). Notice, too, that this claim isn’t a claim of science per se (such as those in the list above having to do with H2O, E=mc2, etc.); rather, it’s a claim of a different order—it’s a claim about scientific claims.

But (and this is the crucial point), because scientism isn’t a claim of science—instead, it’s a claim about the claims of science—scientism isn’t reasonable. After all, scientism asserts that claims other than the claims of science are not reasonable. Hence, scientism self-refutes.

What, then, is scientism? Scientism is a philosophical claim. It’s a claim about what constitutes knowledge (in philosophical parlance, it’s an epistemological claim).

Think of it this way. Scientism asserts that the set of reasonable claims is exhausted by non-philosophical claims of the sort in the above-listed claims of science (the scientific findings); however, because scientism is not a member of the set of claims of science—i.e., scientism describes this set philosophically/abstractly “from the outside” (it is about/above the set, not in it)—scientism is, by its own criteria, not reasonable.

The upshot: As truly important and wonderful as science is, the realm of good reasoning and knowledge is not exhausted by it.

[Stay tuned for reasons 2 and 3.]

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba.)

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