Tag Archives: scientism

Materialism vs. Science

science-vs-pseudoscience_box-300x125“Now they [DNA molecules] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.”

– Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

“Now they are trapped in huge colonies, locked inside highly intelligent beings, moulded by the outside world, communicating with it by complex processes, through which, blindly, as if by magic, function emerges. They are in you and me; we are the system that allows their code to be read; and their preservation is totally dependent on the joy we experience in reproducing ourselves. We are the ultimate rationale for their existence.”

– Denis Noble (in response to The Selfish Gene)

The point Noble was making, and one which even so staunch a materialist as Dawkins was willing to concede, is that there is no scientific test to decide between these two views. These both speak to the facts as they stand, and no amount of extra empirical data could alter this situation.

Unfortunately, Dawkins seems to have missed the larger point here.

That is, this shows that there are at least some (and probably a great many) questions that are about subjects other than science. Like many (but by no means all) scientists, Dawkins tends to assume that only those methods he’s personally comfortable with and trained in is the only means of getting at truth.

He seems to have no idea that this assumption is, itself, a philosophical (rather than scientific) position.

This is the basic contradiction of scientism: that it is, itself, not established by science. But there is another point to be made here. One that is, in my view, much deeper and more significant.

For those that know a bit about metaphysics, Noble’s description of genes is vaguely aristotelian, whereas Dawkins’ is basically cartesian. This is significant in that it illustrates, contrary to popular opinion, why talk of aristotelian teleology isn’t answered by appeals to science. Science simply has no way of testing whether or not teleology exists in a particular system.

That is, whether or not a thing in the universe “points toward” something else (say, a match pointing to the creation of fire or a day-dream pointing toward Paris) is basically ignored when doing science. It has never been genuinely ruled out as a possibility.

But I say “basically ignored” rather than simply “ignored” because science (at least as it has been practiced in the last four centuries) tends to presume teleology in the same way that it presumes math and logic.

That is, as David Hume pointed out, the modern materialist has no basis whatsoever for believing that science works. Inductive reasoning is, to such a person, simply a kind of magic that has created all the wonders of the modern world.

Induction, and therefore science, assumes that there are patterns to reality: that like situations will produce like results. This is perfectly explicable in terms of teleology: all things have particular effects that they “point toward”.

The idea that science opposes teleology (and the rejection of materialism it implies) is more an accident of history than anything like a rational argument. Like so many things, it enjoys credibility by a vague association to the mythos of science without actually having been supported by evidence.

And when people begin to assert that teleological systems (such as our minds and wills) can be explained away by science, the fact that scientism is being confused for science becomes all the more obvious. Dawkins is simply a relatively recent example of those who have fallen into this trap.

What is less obvious is that this would be science “explaining away” its own foundations. And, for this reason, real science will never do this. Science is, and always has been, anti-materialist.

Science’s Fortuneteller

4186-1537In defending scientism (the belief that science is the source of all knowledge) Alex Rosenberg insists that he doesn’t actually need to deal with the arguments showing his position to be wrong.

Scientism isn’t required to figure out what is wrong with these proofs that experience can’t be physical, so minds can’t be brains. That’s the job of science— neuroscience in particular. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 228)

It’s already been pointed out that this is a category error–that science simply cannot, by definition, explain the mind. In fact, that is precisely what many of the proofs Rosenberg mentions show. So, to say that science will explain it is to assume, without giving a reason, that these proofs are somehow flawed.

But there is more going on here than circular reasoning. Even granting for the sake of argument that science can inquire into metaphysical objects like minds, this is no defense of materialism. This is because Rosenberg has absolutely no reason why, in order to explain the mind, neuroscience won’t need to propose metaphysical properties or substances very much like those believed in by theists.

Of course, one might object that “Of course neuroscientists won’t propose such things; they wouldn’t be doing science if they did that”. And that is exactly the theist’s point. Science doesn’t propose or test for the metaphysical, and so cannot even in principle explain things like mind or experience.

Essentially, we can’t have it both ways. We need either to see that science doesn’t test for the metaphysical, or (falsely) claim that it does. But, if we do the latter, we shouldn’t be making bold predictions that science will never find it.

But there is still the more the more modest view that, while there is no reason (at all) to think that science will show that the mind is physical, there is no reason to think otherwise. This approach is less presumptuous about what science will do, and only suffers from the fact that it is demonstrably false. Science simply doesn’t test for the mind. And, I hasten to add, is no less amazing for that; it has a very different, equally necessary job.

So, in Rosenberg, we run into one of modern culture’s more curious paradoxes. As one of scientist’s most passionate supporters, he seems to know very little about how science actually works–and it is precisely his love affair with science which, like an infatuated teenager, keeps him from seeing the real person through the illusion that he’s found the answer to all of life’s problems.

Rather than make a goddess out of science, however, we need to see it for what it is: an astonishingly useful tool for revealing physical truths, which achieves such power by ignoring (not disproving) the non-physical. Prophesying that science will one day save the materialist from proofs of the non-physical is anything by scientific.

And this is key. Scientism is not merely not science; it is positively anti-science.

Speaking for Science

pseudoscienceIn laying out his philosophy, atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg makes quite a few bold claims about what science has shown.

Science provides clear-cut answers to all of the questions on the list: there is no free will, there is no mind distinct from the brain, there is no soul, no self, no person that supposedly inhabits your body, that endures over its life span, and that might even outlast it. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 147)

I’ve encountered this general sentiment many times, and my favorite response is simply to ask which experiments verified these claims. I know of no experiment which has tested these theories–or even a scientific way to test these claims, leaving me to conclude that science has established nothing of the sort.

It is scientism, not science, that has led Rosenberg to think these things. Much like the fundamentalist preacher who claims to speak for God, he is quick to tell us that science endorses his personal view, whether it does or not.

But this isn’t simply attempting to pass off a philosophy as science, it is a positive undermining of science. For, if there is no free will, no person, and no way that we can actually think about things, then there is no reason to trust science.

Of course, science does seem to work rather well.

There are those who would say that this is simply a brute fact. Usually, this is coupled with the statement “I’m okay with not knowing”.

But, for those of us interested in advancing inquiry, stopping here is not good enough. And, once we start to explain how science can actually work as it does, we’re back on the path to theism.

Philosophical Hot Potato

dep_6413941-Hot-potatoYesterday, I wrote about Rosenberg’s commitment to genetic determinism. I think it is a fitting followup to write about his claim that, while people are “programmed” to have the same morals regardless of what we think, that people aren’t programmed to make the same mistakes.

At least, that is what he seems to be saying.

In trying to defend the idea that all humans are programmed to be good (and therefore don’t need to believe things about morals to be good), he addresses the rather obvious objection that we seem to commit so much evil:

Where most Nazis “went wrong” was in the idiotic beliefs about race and a lot of other things they combined with core morality, resulting in a catastrophe for their victims and for Germany. (“The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”, pp. 143-144).

That is, the Nazis shared our basic morals, they merely had bad science (in embracing racial eugenics).

This statement is far more controversial than its proponents insinuate. The fact that eugenics is making a comeback in academia is proof enough of that. But, if one needs more, a real look at the Nazis’ beliefs will show something very different from current moral convictions.

But the more obvious problem is the fact that Rosenberg gives no attention at all to what “idiotic beliefs” might be blinding the current generation–or future ones.

The racial darwinism of the Nazis was supported by respected scientists and philosophers of the time, but Rosenberg gives us no reason to think a similar thing couldn’t happen again. Is there any reason at all to think that we “programmed” humans aren’t going to fall victim to the same insanity if we accept some “bad science”.

As prime suspect number one in the case of bad science, I’d present Rosenberg’s own darwinistic nihilism. That seems as dangerous a pseudoscience as any.

But, in the event that his own bad science brought about something terrible, Rosenberg may well ask us to remember this about the Nazis:

But these decisions should not be misrepresented as scientific ones. Science is always neutral on what we should do. In these cases, as elsewhere, it’s core morality that does the deciding. (ibid, p. 290)

So, we can trust that we will behave well because we all have “core morality” programmed into us. Of course, it doesn’t work if we accept a piece of bad science. But, really, that is the core morality’s fault, nothing to do with science.

I’m genuinely confused as to why Rosenberg seems to think I should find this comforting.

At this point, it seems that Rosenberg needs either to bite the bullet and admit that his “nice nihilism” is simply “nihilism” or (as I would prefer) to consider that he might have been wrong to say that thoughts and morality are illusory. After all, these are as basic to human life as any other perception.

But that, of course, would lead him to reject his materialism.

Fatalism Excuses Nihilism?

ImageMaterialist Alex Rosenberg is convinced that a society full of nihilists would get along as well as any other.

By the same token, adopting nihilism as it applies to morality is not going to have any impact on anyone’s conduct. Including ours. (“The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”, p. 96)

He claims because all people have the same moral “programming” due to evolutionary pressures, it, therefore, doesn’t matter what one actually believes.

I expect that even the most passionate of evolutionary psychologists is bound to hesitate here. Surely, not every single thought in our heads is simply dictated to us by our physiology, completely apart from our professed beliefs?

But the materialist might have a hard time arguing against Rosenberg. As he discusses in his book, a consistent materialist should reject the idea that thoughts or beliefs exist at all. And it is certainly hard to argue that non-existent things affect behavior.

I’ve discussed some of the problems with this already. But part of what is going on here, I think, is that Rosenberg and others seem to dismiss the power of cultural pressures. This might seem an odd thing to say about a group that makes frequent use of the word “indoctrination”, but many of them don’t seem to be aware that the same force works equally well in secular circles.

What does this have to do with morality? Social pressure does a lot to influence people, even moral nihilists. This being the case, it simply does not follow that, because there is a small minority of well behaved nihilists in a culture, that a culture filled with them would not decline in their moral standing.

Because Rosenberg is so focused on the physical, he fails to note, let alone answer, this argument. Yet it is the primary concern about the growth of moral nihilism in modern culture.

Of course, none of this is to say that nihilism is untrue. It may well be that morality is a fiction (though I’ll be arguing otherwise in the future). Even then, a nihilism that finds so much time for moral indignation at religious believers seems something of a contradiction.

And that may be Rosenberg’s biggest issue. He can’t seem to give anyone either an intellectual or a moral reason to accept the scientism he so fervently pushes.

In fact, the view leads him to reject the existence of both thought and morality.

Now That the Building is Here, We Don’t Need the Foundation

destroyed-beach-mansion-at-rodanthe-beachI think apologists should be grateful for atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg, as he (inadvertently) lays out the flaws in modern atheism more clearly than any theist has managed.

[My position] is the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything.
– Rosenberg (Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 6)

We trust science as the only way to acquire knowledge. That is why we are so confident about atheism. – (ibid, p.20)

Rosenberg sees clearly what many secularists miss completely: that modern atheism stands or falls with the idea that science is the only source of knowledge. That is, that the kinds of things science studies are the only kinds of things that exist. Eager as he is to salvage modern atheism, he bites the bullet and declares that science alone can tell us anything about reality.

The most obvious problem with this is actually Rosenberg’s own discipline of philosophy. It has often been pointed out that this is an attempt to use philosophy to reject philosophy (making it self-contradictory). But, even more clearly problematic is the fact that science itself is not rational without the philosophical basis which supports it.

And this is something of a Catch 22 for him. To demand that science is the only source of knowledge is to undercut the entire enterprise of science. But, if he acknowledges the tools of philosophy as a valid path to knowledge, he is then obliged to answer the formidable philosophical arguments for God’s existence.

Rosenberg choses the former path, while completely ignoring the consequences named above. Still, he can’t manage to completely avoid the fact that he doesn’t have a reason (other than his atheism) for taking this position. He is reduced instead to demanding, rather caustically, that one is somehow hypocritical to trust the validity of both science and other fields of study.

Though he can’t support his conclusion , his passion is completely understandable. This position is both the rhetorical and intellectual core of contemporary atheism.

That it is unsupported, self-contradictory, and undercuts science, however, is devastating for this position.

Trust Past Records, but not if they’re of the Past


“Knowing human history will be useless for anything but telling diverting stories.”

“Physics’ long track record of success is the strongest argument for the exclusion of purpose or design from the account of reality.”

Did you spot the contradiction between these quotations? If so, it might surprise you to learn that they are taken from the same book: Alex Rosenberg’s “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”.

He spends some time arguing that the history of science is the best reason to trust that it will, in the future, vindicate naturalism (the belief that only the physical is real).

He later spends an entire chapter explaining that history is useless because (he claims) it can’t help us make predictions about the future

Personally, I don’t accept Rosenberg’s apparent assumption that making predictions is the only purpose knowledge can serve. Still, his obsession with science and its ability to predict material events has led him to undercut his own trust of science.

This is a consistent problem with Rosenberg (as I’ll discuss in later posts). He’s much more willing than most atheists to face up to the strange conclusions that follow from naturalism. But he is completely unwilling to see the consequences for science itself.

In one sense, this makes “Atheist’s Guide to Reality” a very useful book for Christian apologists. For, by the final page, Rosenberg has unwittingly argued that modern atheism is both self-contradictory and opposed to science.

(Full disclosure: I’m aware of my own contradiction. I claimed earlier that I’d not be writing about Rosenberg. But I find that he raises too many significant points for me to simply ignore him.)

Dawkins Promoting Science?


Prominent New Atheists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss have released a trailer for an upcoming film, which seems to follow the same pattern as previous New Atheist productions: Documenting one or more of the New Atheists travels as they interview and debate people on the subject of religion.

Quite a few things struck me about this, actually. But my key issue is this:

The film claims to be promoting science

I don’t see how there can be people in western culture who are convinced that science’s main difficulty is a lack of trust being placed in it.

For my money, the biggest obstacle to a clear understanding of what science is and does is the scientistic philosophy being promoted by Dawkins and Krauss themselves.

That they have put so much energy into convincing people that science addresses spiritual questions, gives us an approach of how to live life, and is somehow advanced through political activism puts them more in league with the Scientologists than anyone doing legitimate research.

Personally, I’d be very interested in a film that promotes good science, rather than the creator’s personal philosophy masquerading as science.

William Lane Craig vs. Alex Rosenburg

As a quick break from my series on Bertrand Russell, I enjoyed watching the debate between Dr. Craig and Dr. Rosenburg this week. Obviously, my own views are much more in line with Craig’s, but I must say that I appreciate Rosenburg’s courage in accepting the strange conclusions which follow from scientism (even if I found him a bit caustic). He rightly sees that the popular belief that science describes all of reality has some very counterintuitive (I would say “incoherent”) results.

I may write up some of my thoughts on Craig in the future, but, as for Rosenburg, I doubt I can add anything of value to what Dr. Edward Feser has already written. This is also a series, but worth looking over if you’re interested in the debate over naturalism.


I’m beginning to think that scientism is not only the greatest threat to religious belief in our current society, it is also the greatest threat to our discovering any valid philosophy of life.

That is, we seem to be heading back into the late nineteenth century mentality that science will give us all truth about life.

This, of course, immediately brings to mind the reasons why such an attitude failed – as well as the fact that our current optimism seems no more prepared for those difficulties than its nineteenth-century counterpart. The limits of science, the brutality of human nature, and the uncertainty of perception have not changed. I’ve even seen a growing defense of eugenics, as if the issues of corruption and discrimination have somehow been solved.

Rather, it has been shocking to me how many people find themselves unable to seriously question the idea that all truth is physical – that any true statement can be measured by science. Of course, philosophers are quick to point out that this belief, itself, cannot be measured by science and that, consequently, it fails on its own terms.

What concerns me, however, is the speed with which many try to rescue scientism from this self-contradiction. I’ve encountered several methods, all of which are poor, but it is extremely rare that a proponent of scientism seems to genuinely question the idea. I consider this to be extremely dangerous:

“Even the attempt to escape metaphysics is no sooner put in the form of a proposition than it is seen to involve highly significant metaphysical postulates. For this reason there is an exceedingly subtle and insidious danger in positivism [i.e. scientism]. If you cannot avoid metaphysics, what kind of metaphysics are you likely to cherish when you sturdily suppose yourself to be free from the abomination?”

– E.A. Burtt

To simply believe the philosophy one absorbed from PBS documentaries and high-school science classes, rather than understanding the exact nature of the discipline of science, brings a sort of absolute certainty that allows all the judgment, ridicule, and tribalism we see in any fideism.

Rather than insist that the limitations we impose on reality are correct, or claim that the (often wild) extrapolations modern people make from science are automatically valid, let us be open to the idea that physical evidence is irrelevant to many of life’s biggest questions. Simply using the terminology of science does not make science applicable to the question.

As a professed lover of science, I’m offended that people can’t enjoy science for what it is – simply marveling at the insights it gives us – rather than feeling the need to eliminate all other forms of knowing. Is science not amazing enough until we declare our rejection of everything else? Certainly, science itself does not comment on other fields of study.

I find that, while I don’t need to believe in fairies to enjoy a garden, I can equally enjoy it without pausing to eschew all belief in anything which can’t be reduced to physical processes.