Scientism is the belief that only scientific claims are meaningful, that science is the only way for us to gain knowledge. However, this is a self-refuting claim. The claim that “only scientific claims are meaningful” cannot be empirically observed, it is a philosophical claim. Thus, those who push scientism as the only way to gain knowledge fail, since the claim itself is a philosophical one. Although science (and the scientific method) do point us in the direction to gain knowledge, it is not the only way for us to gain knowledge. We can, too, gain knowledge through logic and reasoning. The claim that science and science along can point us towards objective facts about knowledge and reality is false.
There is no doubt about it: the natural sciences have pointed us toward facts, facts of the matter that exist in nature. However, this truth has been used in recent times to purport that the sciences are the only way for us to gain knowledge. That, itself, is a philosophical claim and cannot be empirically tested, and so it is self-defeating. Furthermore, the modern sciences themselves arose from philosophy.
Richard Dawkins puts forth a view of epistemology in his book The Magic of Reality in which all of the knowledge concerning reality is derived from our five senses. So if we cannot smell it, hear it, touch it, or taste it, we cannot know it. Thus, how we know what is true or not always comes back to our senses. The claim is “All knowledge of reality is derived from our senses.” There is a problem here, though: this is a philosophical claim and cannot be verified with the five senses. What a conundrum! Nothing that one can see, hear, taste or touch can verify that previous claim; it is a philosophical, not scientific claim and, therefore, the claim is self-refuting.
Science is dependent on philosophy, but philosophy is not dependent on science. Indeed, even the question “What is science?” is a philosophical, not scientific, question and cannot be known through the five senses. Even if all knowledge is acquired through the senses, the belief that all knowledge is acquired through the senses is itself not a scientific claim, but a philosophical one, and is therefore self-refuting.
In his book I am Not a Brain: Philosophy of Mind for the 21st Century, philosopher Markus Gabriel writes (pg 82-83):
The question of how we conceive of human knowledge acquisition has many far-reaching consequences and does not concern merely philosophical epistemology. Rampant empiricism — i.e., the thesis that all knowledge derives exclusively from sense experience — means trouble. If all knowledge stemmed from experience, and we could hence never really know anything definitively — since experience could always correct us — how could we know, for example, that one should not torture children or that political equality should be a goal of democratic politics? If empiricism were correct, how would we be supposed to know that 1 + 2 = 3, since it is hard to see how this could be easily revised by sense experience? How could we know on the basis of experience that we know everything only on the basis of experience?
Rampant empiricism breaks down in the face of simple questions. If all knowledge really stems from the source of sense experience, what are we supposed to make of the knowledge concerning this supposed fact? Do we know from sense experience that all knowledge stems from sense experience? One would then have to accept that experience can teach us wrongly even in regard to this claim. In principle, one would have to be able to learn through experience that we cannot learn anything through experience … How would this work? What kind of empirical discovery would tell us that not everything we know is through empirical discovery?
The thing is, the claim that “All knowledge stems from sense experience” cannot be corrected by sense experience, and so, it is not a scientific hypothesis that can be proven or disproven. No matter how well a scientific theory is established, it can always be revised and or refuted and pieces of evidence can come out that render the theory false. Therefore, what Gabriel terms “rampant empiricism” (scientism) is not a scientific hypothesis.
Scientism is believed to be justified on the basis of empirical discoveries and the fact that our senses can lead to the refutation or revision of these scientific theories. That in and of itself justifies scientism for most people. Though, as previously stated, that belief is a philosophical, not scientific, belief and cannot be empirically tested and is therefore self-refuting. Contemporary scientists and pundits who say, for example, that “Philosophy is dead” (i.e., Hawking and de Grasse Tyson) made philosophical claims, therefore proving that “Philosophy is not dead”!
Claims that science (empiricism) is the be-all-end-all for knowledge acquisition fall flat on their face; for if something is not logical, then how can it be scientifically valid? This is further buttressed by the fact that all science is philosophy and science needs philosophy, whereas philosophy does not need science since philosophy has existed long before the natural sciences.
Haak (2009: 3) articulates six signs of scientism:
1. Using the words “science,” “scientific,” “scientifically,” “scientist,” etc., honorifically, as generic terms of epistemic praise.
2. Adopting the manners, the trappings, the technical terminology, etc., of the sciences, irrespective of their real usefulness.
3. A preoccupation with demarcation, i.e., with drawing a sharp line between genuine science, the real thing, and “pseudo-scientific” imposters.
4. A corresponding preoccupation with identifying the “scientific method,” presumed to explain how the sciences have been so successful.
5. Looking to the sciences for answers to questions beyond their scope.
6. Denying or denigrating the legitimacy or the worth of other kinds of inquiry besides the scientific, or the value of human activities other than inquiry, such as poetry or art.
People who take science to be the only way to gain knowledge, in effect, take science to be a religion, which is ironic since most who push these views are atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Lawrence Kraus). Science is not the only way to gain knowledge; we can also gain knowledge through logic and reasoning. There are analytic truths that are known a priori (Zalta, 1988).
Thus, the claim that there is justification for scientism—that all of our knowledge is derived from the five senses—is false and self-refuting since the belief that scientism is true is a philosophical claim that cannot be empirically tested. There are other ways of knowledge-gaining—of course, without denigrating the knowledge we gain from science—and therefore, scientism is not a justified position. Since there are analytic, a priori truths, then the claim that “rampant empiricism“—scientism—is true, is clearly false.
Note that I am not denying that we can gain knowledge through sense experience; I am denying that it is the only way that we gain knowledge. Even Hossain (2014) concludes that:
Empiricism in the traditional sense cannot meet the demands of enquiries in the fields of epistemology and metaphysics because of its inherent limitations. Empiricism cannot provide us with the certainty of scientific knowledge in the sense that it denies the existence of objective reality, ignores the dialectical relationship of the subjective and objective contents of knowledge.
Quite clearly, it is not rational to be an empiricist—a rampant empiricist that believes that sense experience is the only way to acquire knowledge—since there are other ways of gaining knowledge that are not only based on sense experience. In any case, the argument I’ve formulated below proves that scientism is not justified since we can acquire knowledge through logic and reasoning. It is, for these reasons, that we should be against scientism since the claim that science is the only path to knowledge is itself a philosophical and not scientific claim which therefore falsifies the claim that empiricism is true.
Premise 1: Scientism is justified.
Premise 2: If scientism is justified, then science is the only way we can acquire knowledge.
Premise 3: We can acquire knowledge through logic and reasoning, along with science.
Conclusion: Therefore scientism is unjustified since we can acquire knowledge through logic and reasoning.