This is the website/blog of Philosopher Stephen Law. Stephen is Provost of Centre for Inquiry UK, Reader in philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, and editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal THINK. He has published several books (see sidebar). For school talks and media email: think-AT-royalinstitutephilosophy.org
Sunday, January 15, 2017
(This is a prepublication draft - it's forthcoming in Univ. Chicago
Press volume Science Unlimited (eds.
Pigliucci and Boudry).
The term 'scientism' is applied to a variety of positions about science.
One is the view that the only legitimate questions about reality are those
answerable by science. Another is that, to the extent that anything can be
known about reality, science alone is capable of providing that knowledge.
Critics of religious, New Age, spiritualist, and other, popular forms of divine
or supernatural belief are often accused of scientism by their proponents. The
accusation typically involves the thought that critics have crossed a line or
boundary demarcating those topics or subjects that are the proper province of
science, and those that are beyond its capacity to adjudicate. The accused are
often found guilty of hubris, of an arrogant failure to recognize that there
are 'more things in heaven and Earth' than are dreamt of in their science, of
supposing science is best placed to answer questions that, in reality, can only
be answered by employing other disciplines, forms of inquiry, or 'ways of
knowing'. Within discussion of religious, spiritual, New Age, and popular
divine or supernatural beliefs, this boundary marking the 'limits of science'
almost always plays an immunizing role: to explain why science constitutes no
threat to such beliefs. 'You scientists', say the believers, 'may come this
far, but no further.'
Before we look at some specific examples of this sort of criticism, I want to
outline some of my own views regarding the limits of science. As a philosopher,
you might expect me both to want to carve out some intellectual territory for
philosophers to occupy, and also to resist the thought that philosophical
questions and problems are either non-questions and non-problems or else
questions that will be answered and problems that will be solved, if at all,
through an application of the scientific method. I won't disappoint. However,
while I acknowledge that there are limits to science, I will argue these limits
typically offer little comfort to religious, New Age, and other folk looking
for ways to immunize their beliefs against scientific refutation.
is a further reason why I want to sketch out a case for supposing that
philosophy is essentially a non-scientific enterprise: it will allow me to
compare and contrast my own views with those of Richard Dawkins - who is
perhaps Public Enemy Number One among those leveling the charge of 'scientism'
- and give me an opportunity to explain why Dawkins's position isn't as crudely
scientistic as commonly supposed.
The limits of science
If science has limits, where do they lie? Below are two kinds of
question to which, it's very widely supposed, science can't supply answers.
(i) Moral questions
For those wishing to challenge the suggestion that science can answer
every legitimate question, moral questions are often a first port of
call. Hume drew our attention to the is/ought gap. Morality is concerned with
what we ought, or ought not, to do. The empirical sciences, on
the other hand, appear capable, in isolation, only of establishing what is
the case. And it appears that premises concerning what is the case - certainly
premises of the sort that pure empirical science is capable of establishing -
fail rationally to support moral conclusions: conclusions about what one ought
or ought not to do. But then it appears science can't supply answers our most
fundamental moral questions. For science alone can neither directly reveal
facts about what one ought or ought not to do, nor allow us legitimately to
draw conclusions about what we ought or ought not to do.
Defenders of scientism respond in a variety of ways. Some suggest that there's
something illegitimate about moral questions (that they're meaningless,
perhaps). However, moral questions don't appear to be meaningless. Indeed, we
consider them among the most meaningful and pressing of questions. If they are
ultimately illegitimate or meaningless, the onus is very much on the defenders
of scientism wishing to take this route to show that that's the case.
Alternatively, some defenders of scientism concede that while such questions
are legitimate, and while science may not be able to answer them, there
certainly isn't any other way of answering them. Another option is to
deny there is any is/ought gap: to insist that the kind of facts science
reveals are capable of justifying our most fundamental moral beliefs.
Sam Harris, in his book The Moral Landscape, recently developed a
version of that view (Harris, 2012).
won't take a view here regarding the is/ought gap, other than to note there's
at least a prima facie case for supposing moral questions are questions
science alone is ultimately incapable of answering. But of course, even
if that conclusion is correct, it doesn't follow that science is morally
irrelevant. Science remains capable of playing an important role in justifying
and challenging many moral beliefs, most obviously those whose justification
depends in part upon empirical assumptions. If I believe women ought not to
have the vote because I believe both that people of low intelligence ought not
to have the vote and that women are of low intelligence, then my justification
can be straightforwardly shown to fail by scientific evidence that women are not
of low intelligence. Similarly, if I believe it's morally right to enable human
beings to flourish, then a scientific investigation into what actually enables
humans to flourish becomes morally relevant. Science might also reveal that,
say, at least some of our moral intuitions are not to be trusted, by showing
that what is actually shaping our intuitive moral responses is, in some cases,
morally irrelevant. However, note that these suggestions concerning how science
might play an important role in revealing moral truths and falsehoods are
consistent with Hume's conclusion that science alone is incapable of
justifying any moral position.
On my view, philosophical questions are for the most part conceptual
rather than scientific or empirical and the methods of philosophy are, broadly
speaking, conceptual rather than scientific or empirical.
Here's a simple conceptual puzzle. At a family get-together the following
relations held directly between those present: Son, Daughter, Mother, Father,
Aunt, Uncle, Niece, Nephew, and Cousin. Could there have been only four
people present at that gathering? At first glance, there might seem to be a conceptual
obstacle to there being just four people present - surely, more people are
required for all those familial relations to hold between them? But in fact
that appearance is deceptive. There could indeed be just four people present.
To see that there being just four people present is not conceptually ruled out,
we have to unpack, and explore the connections between, the various concepts
involved. That is something that can be done from the comfort of your armchair.
philosophical puzzles have a similar character. Consider for example this
puzzle associated with Heraclitus. If you jump into a river and then jump in
again, the river will have changed in the interim. So it won't be the same. But
if it's not the same river, then the number of rivers that you jump into is
two, not one. It seems we're forced to accept the paradoxical - indeed, absurd
- conclusion that you can't jump into one and the same river twice. Being
forced into such a paradox by a seemingly cogent argument is a common
particular puzzle is fairly easily solved: the paradoxical conclusion that the
number of rivers jumped into is two not one is generated by a faulty inference.
Philosophers distinguish at least two kinds of identity or sameness. Numerical
identity holds where the number of objects is one, not two (as when we discover
that Hesperus, the evening star, is identical with Phosphorus, the morning
star). Qualitative identity holds where two objects share the same qualities
(e.g. two billiard balls that are molecule-for molecule duplicates of each
other, for example). We use the expression 'the same' to refer to both sorts of
identity. Having made this conceptual clarification, we can now see that the
argument that generates our paradox trades on an ambiguity. It involves a slide
from the true premise that the river jumped in the second time isn't
qualitatively 'the same' to the conclusion that it is not numerically 'the
same'. We fail to spot the flaw in the reasoning because the words 'the same'
are used in each case. But now the paradox is resolved: we don't have to accept
that absurd conclusion. Here's an example of how, by unpacking and clarifying
concepts, it is possible to solve a classical philosophical puzzle. Perhaps not
all philosophical puzzles can be solved by such means, but at least one can.
So some philosophical puzzles are essentially conceptual in nature, and
some (well, one at least) can be solved by armchair, conceptual methods.
Still, I have begun with a simple, some might say trivial, philosophical
example. What of the so-called 'hard problems' of philosophy, such as the
mind-body problem? The mind-body problem, or at least a certain versions of it,
also appears to be essentially conceptual in character. On the one hand, there
appear reasons to think that if the mental is to have causal effects on the
physical, then it will have to be identical with the physical. On the other
hand, there appear to be conceptual obstacles to identifying the mental with
the physical. Of course, scientists might establish various correlations between
the mental and the physical. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that science
establishes that whenever someone is in pain, their C-fibres are firing, and
vice versa. Would scientists have then established that these properties are one
and the same property - that pain just is C-fibre firing - in the
way they have established that, say, heat just is molecular motion or water
just is H2O? Not necessarily. Correlation is not identity. It
strikes many of us as intuitively obvious that pain just couldn't be a
physical property like C-fibre firing - that these properties just couldn't
be identical in that way. Of course, the intuition that certain things are
ruled out can be deceptive. Earlier, we saw that the appearance that the
concepts son, daughter, etc. are such that there just had to be more
than four people at that family gathering was mistaken: when we unpack the
concepts and explore the connections between them it turns out there's no such
conceptual obstacle. Philosophers have attempted to sharpen up the common
intuition that there's an armchair obstacle to identifying pain with C-fibre
firing or some other physical property into a philosophical argument. Consider
Kripke's anti-physicalist argument, for example. Kripke's argument turns on the
thought that the conceptual impossibility of fool's pain (of something that
feels like pain but isn't because the underlying physical essence is absent),
combined with the conceptual possibility of pain without C-fibre firing (I can
conceive of a situation in which I think I am in pain though my C-fibres are
not firing), conceptually rules out pain having C-fibre firing as an underlying
physical essence (which it would have if the identity theory were true)
(Kripke, 1991, Lecture III). Has Kripke here identified a genuine conceptual
obstacle to physicalism? Perhaps. Or perhaps not: perhaps it will turn out, on
closer examination, that there is no such obstacle here. The only way to show
that, however, will be through logical and conceptual work. Just as in the case
of our puzzle about whether only four people might be at the family gathering
and the puzzle about jumping into one and the same river twice, a solution will
require we engage, not in empirical investigation, but in reflective armchair
inquiry. Establishing more facts about and a greater understanding of what
happens in people's brains when they are in various mental states, etc. will no
doubt be scientifically worthwhile, but it won't, by itself, allow us to answer
the question of whether there exists such a conceptual obstacle.
many philosophical problems - from some of the most trivial to some of the
hardest - appear to be essentially conceptual in nature, requiring armchair,
conceptual work to solve. Some are solvable, and indeed have even been solved
(the puzzle about the river). Others aren't solved, though perhaps they might
be. On the other hand, it might turn out that at least some philosophical
problems are insoluble, at least by us. Perhaps, as some 'mysterians' propose,
while some philosophical problems have solutions, they are solutions that lie
beyond our human cognitive and conceptual grasp. Alternatively, perhaps some
philosophical problems have no solution, period, because the problems
result from certain fundamental conceptual commitments that are either directly
irreconcilable or else generate unavoidable paradoxes when combined with
certain empirically discovered facts.
there are perfectly good questions that demand answers, and that can be
answered, though not by empirical means, let alone by that narrower form of
empirical investigation referred to as 'the scientific method'. In order to
solve many classic philosophical problems, we'll need to retire to our
armchairs, not to the lab.
is that all there is to philosophy? What of the grander metaphysical vision
traditionally associated with academic philosophy? What of plumbing the deep,
metaphysical structure of reality? That project is often thought to involve
discerning, again by armchair methods, not what is the case (that's the
business of empirical enquiry) but what, metaphysically, must be so. But
how are philosophers equipped to reveal such hidden metaphysical depths by
sitting in their armchairs with their eyes closed and having a good think?
suspect this is the main reason why there's considerable suspicion of
philosophy in certain scientific circles. If we want to find out about reality
- about how things stand outside our own minds - surely we will need to rely on
empirical methods. There is no other sort of window on to reality - no other
knowledge-delivery mechanism by which the nature of that reality might be
is, of course, a traditional empiricist worry. Empiricists insist it's by means
of our senses (or our senses enhanced by scientific tools and techniques) that
the world is ultimately revealed. There is no mysterious extra sense,
faculty, or form of intuition we might employ, while sat in our armchairs, to
reveal further, deep, metaphysical facts about external reality.
the above thought is correct, and armchair methods are incapable of revealing
anything about the nature of reality outside our own minds, then philosophy,
conceived as a grand metaphysical exploration upon which we can embark while
never leaving the comfort of our armchairs, is in truth a grand waste of time.
broadly sympathetic to this skeptical view about the value of armchair methods
in revealing reality. Indeed, I suspect it's correct. So I have a fairly modest
conception of the capabilities of philosophy. Yes, I believe we can potentially
solve philosophical puzzles by armchair methods, and I believe this can be a
valuable exercise. However, I am suspicious of the suggestion that we
philosophers should construe what we then achieve as our having made progress
in revealing the fundamental metaphysical nature of reality, a task to I which
suspect such reflective, armchair methods are ultimately hopelessly inadequate.
perhaps there's at least this much right about scientism: armchair
philosophical reflection alone can't reveal anything about reality
outside our own minds. However, as I say, that doesn't mean such methods are
without value. After all, scientists sometimes employ the same methods, and
with scientifically valuable results. Galileo is credited with constructing a
thought experiment by which he established that the Aristotelean theory that
heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones in direct proportion to their
weight is mistaken. Galileo noted that Aristotle's theory predicted that two
balls, one heavier than the other, should fall at different speeds: the heavier
falling faster. This theory could be empirically tested of course, and some
suppose Galileo tested it by dropping objects from the top of the leaning tower
of Pisa. However, Galileo himself records no such experiment. What Galileo did
do was perform a thought experiment. He imagined the hypothetical balls of
different weights now chained together. Being now combined into a single, even
heavier object, Aristotle's theory predicts the balls combined should fall even
faster than they did individually. However, because the lighter ball previously
fell more slowly than the heavier, Aristotle's theory also predicts the lighter
ball should pull tight on the chain behind the heavier ball and act as a brake
on it. But then the balls combined should fall more slowly than did the heavier
individually. In short, Aristotle's theory, in combination with some modest
assumptions about the effects of the chain, generates a logical
contradiction. Thus it cannot be true.
course, Galileo's thought experiment did not allow Galileo to predict what
would happen when such balls are released. It didn't reveal how reality is
(such objects, when released, might fall at the same speed, at different
speeds, or might transform into a pair of doves and fly off into the sunset -
we can't know what they will or won't do without observing at least some
instances). It just revealed that Aristotle's theory, in so far as it contains
or generates logical contradictions, can't constitute a correct description of
while thought experiments and other forms of armchair reflection can't tell us
anything substantive about how things stand in reality, they can at least allow
us to make significant scientific progress by showing that certain theories
about reality are false. Is Galileo's thought experiment an example of science,
or philosophy? In so far as it targets a scientific theory - a theory about how
physical objects behave - perhaps it belongs more properly to science. However,
note that the same armchair method employed by Galileo is also regularly
employed by philosophers (for further discussion of the legitimacy of armchair
methods see Sorrell in this volume).
Richard Dawkins on science and philosophy
I turn now to Richard Dawkins. To what extent is Dawkins wedded to
scientism? In 2013 I engaged in a public discussion with Dawkins on this
subject. (Dawkins and Law, 2013) Dawkins began by acknowledging that
'philosophy does seem to me to be a subject' (he contrasted philosophy with
theology, which Dawkins does not consider a subject, and which he has elsewhere
likened, much to the annoyance of many theologians, to fairy-ology). Moreover,
when presented with an example of a conceptual puzzle similar to my example
above involving familial relations, Dawkins said 'that's something you get out
a pencil and paper, ... you do a scientific investigation in your head'
(my italics). According to Dawkins, this sort of armchair, conceptual activity is
science: 'Plenty of good science goes on in armchairs'. When I suggested to
Dawkins that the mind-body problem was, at root, a conceptual puzzle that
cannot be solved by empirical enquiry, a problem that will be solved, if at
all, by armchair methods, Dawkins responded: 'That has the ring of sense to me'
(Dawkins and Law 2013, at 39 mins 50 secs). Further, when I suggested that,
given my understanding of what philosophy should be, 'maybe I'm going to turn
out to be a scientist', Dawkins replied: 'Well of course you are' (2013, 35
Dawkins is not dismissive of philosophy as I understand it and in the form I
would wish to defend it. Dawkins also acknowledges that, for example, the
mind-body problem is a philosophical puzzle - a puzzle we will need to employ
armchair, conceptual methods to solve if it's to be solved at all. However,
Dawkins's conception of 'science' is sufficiently flexible to encompass all
these activities, so that even philosophers engaged in purely conceptual,
armchair inquiry qualify as 'scientists'. Having said that, I suspect that,
insofar as philosophy is understood as an activity aimed at revealing how
things stand in reality, Dawkins would dismiss armchair philosophy as a waste
of time. But then I suspect he'd be right to do so.
does Dawkins unambiguously acknowledge that '[p]erhaps there are some genuinely
profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science'
(2006, 80) he also seems happy to concede that moral questions may fall into
this category. About moral questions, Dawkins says: 'we can all agree that
science’s entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic to say the
least' (2006, 80) (he may not even consider such questions answerable at all).
have looked at two kinds of questions - moral and philosophical - that Dawkins
appears prepared to acknowledge empirical methods can't, or probably can't,
answer, and that (at least in the case of some philosophical questions) other
methods might. I don't doubt there are other examples of questions that
science (understood as a form of empirical enquiry) alone cannot, or cannot
fully, answer but other methods might.
However, I'll stick with just these putative illustrations.
I turn now turn to religious, New Age and popular divine or supernatural
belief, and the suggestion that those who are critical of such beliefs from a
scientific perspective are often guilty of scientism.
thought often employed by those who make the accusation of scientism in defence
of such beliefs is that reality is divided by something like a veil. On
one side of the veil lies the empirically observable, investigable, material
world. On the other side lies a divine or supernatural realm. This realm is
variously supposed to be populated by beings such as the deceased (who are
supposed to have 'passed over' to the other side not just figuratively, but
literally), angels, spirit guides, demonic beings, and of course gods. Occult
forces and energies are also supposed by some to operate behind such a veil.
Knowledge of what 'lies beyond' is often supposed to depend on the ability of
at least some of us to peer, if only dimly, through this veil and obtain
glimpses of what's on the other side. Usually, some sort of super-sense is
invoked. TV's Psychic Sally, for example, claims that she can sense the
presence of those who have 'passed over' and can communicate with and relay
messages back from the other side. Others believe they are able to sense the
presence of guardian angels or other spirit guides or beings. Sometimes, the
'doors of perception' to what lies beyond are supposedly opened with chemical
assistance. The Delphic oracle of ancient Greece received communications from
the god Apollo while perched on a tripod placed over vapors rising from a
chasm. Some religious people believe also that at least some of us possess a
reliably functioning god-sense or sensus divinitatis by means of which
the Judeo-Christian God reveals himself. Many self-styled 'spiritual' folk
claim to have experienced some sort of transcendent, spiritual realm. It's by
means of such subjective experiences, and perhaps also signs given and wonders
performed on this side of the veil by those on the far side, that we can obtain
at least some knowledge of those residing 'beyond'. The empirical sciences, by
contrast, are incapable of penetrating the veil. The proper province of those
sciences lies this side of the veil. There's usually acknowledgement, from
those who believe in the veil, that their beliefs concerning what lies beyond
cannot be 'proved' by scientific means. But then, they quickly add, neither can
these beliefs be refuted by such means. The veil effectively immunizes beliefs
about what lies beyond against any sort of scientific, empirical
version of this thought that there are these two domains, of which the methods
employed by empirical science are suited to investigate only one, is presented
by paleontologist Stephen J. Gould, who maintained that science and religion
are 'non-overlapping magisteria'. Science is concerned with the age of rocks,
etc., whereas religion is focused on the 'rock of ages'. Religion is not
well-equipped to address questions about, say, the way the Earth was formed and
life appeared. That is the proper business of science. But then, similarly, the
empirical sciences are in no position to address questions about meaning and
value or the existence of, say, souls or God. Such 'big questions' are the
proper province of religion, not science. Gould writes that science
tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to
develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other
hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human
purposes, meanings, and values—subjects that the factual domain of science
might illuminate, but can never resolve. (2002, 4)
Gould specifically mentions the existence of souls as something the
investigation of which lies beyond the proper remit of science:
But I also know that souls represent a subject outside the magisterium
of science. My world cannot prove or disprove such a notion, and the concept of
souls cannot threaten or impact my domain. (2012, 575)
On Gould's view science and religion are not in, and cannot come into,
conflict. Science is no threat to religious belief, properly understood, though
of course it is a threat to Young-Earth creationist beliefs about the age of
rocks. Young Earth Creationism is an example of religions entering territory
that is the proper province of science.
true that beliefs concerning gods, souls, the supernatural, and so on, and are
immune to refutation, or at least to scientific refutation? No. Here are three
First, it is possible to refute beliefs about what lies beyond the veil by
showing that the beliefs involve some sort of logical contradiction or
conceptual muddle (a point Gould might of course concede). Suppose someone
claims to have discovered a round square in the jungles of Brazil. Will the
world's mathematicians mount an expedition to Brazil to investigate? Of course
not. They can know, from the comfort of their armchairs, that there's no such
thing in the jungles of Brazil. In the same way we might refute a scientific
theory by showing that it generates logical contradictions (we have already
noted Galileo's armchair refutation of Aristotle's theory about falling
objects). But then god beliefs might also generate contradictions of this sort.
Take belief in some sort of divine agency that is supposed both to have beliefs
and desires on which it acts, but also to be non-temporal: a being that does
not exist in time, as we do, but is the creator of time. Perhaps we can show
this belief doesn't make sense, given that psychological states such as belief
and desire necessarily have temporal duration. In which case, we might refute,
from the comfort of our armchairs, belief in such a deity, despite the fact
that the deity in question supposedly resides behind the veil (I don't claim
this particular refutation succeeds; I merely point out that such refutations
of beliefs regarding what lies behind the veil is at least possible). Would
such a refutation be 'scientific'? I'd call it philosophical, but note that we
have already seen Dawkins's use of 'science' is sufficiently elastic to allow
such armchair, conceptual refutations to qualify as 'scientific'.
beliefs about what is behind the veil, though not directly observable, are potentially
empirically refutable given they have consequences for what we should or
should probably observe on this side of the veil. Scientists regularly confirm
and disconfirm hypotheses about unobservables. Hypotheses about the distant
past of this planet - such as that dinosaurs once roamed the Earth - also
concern tracts of reality that are necessarily unobservable by us. Yet such
hypotheses can be confirmed, and indeed refuted, by observation. That's because
there are things it's much more likely we would observe (certain kind of
fossilized skeleton, etc.) if the hypothesis were true than if it were false.
Similarly, hypotheses about subatomic particles concern tracts of reality that
are unobservable, but again we can observationally confirm or refute hypotheses
about electrons, the Higgs Boson, etc. because these hypotheses also have
consequences so far as what is empirically observable.
then, similarly, hypotheses about what lies behind the veil in some divine or
supernatural realm may be empirically confirmed or refuted in so far as they,
too, have consequences so far as what we should expect to see on this side of
the veil. If I posit a cosmic doodah behind the veil, and say no more about it
than that it's an ineffable thingummyjig, it appears I've made a claim that's
hard to refute observationally, given that it has no obvious observational
consequences. However, as we add more content to our beliefs about what 'lies
beyond', those beliefs do become potentially empirically confirmable or
refutable. Belief in a god that answers petitionary prayers, for example, has
been scientifically investigated. Two large-scale multi-million dollar studies
of the effects of petitionary prayer on heart patients (one performed under the
leadership of Herbert Benson, a cardiologist who previously suggested 'the
evidence for the efficacy of intercessory prayer … is mounting' (Benson, 2006))
found prayer had no beneficial effect on patients. This was not mere absence
of evidence of the beneficial effects of prayer, it was evidence of the
absence of such effects, and thus evidence against the existence of a god
who produces such beneficial effects in response to petitionary prayer.
Despite the fact that they are considered to concern powers, beings, and so on
behind the veil, various New Age, spiritual, and other claims have also been
scientifically investigated. Take for example the claim that meditating while
holding crystals can, by means of some power operating behind the veil, bring
about higher concentration powers, energy levels, and increased spiritual
well-being. That meditating while holding crystals has such effects was
scientifically investigated in a double blind controlled experiment conducted
at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit Goldsmith's College, University of
London (French, O'Donnell, and Williams 2001). No such effect was found (no
difference in response from those holding real crystals and those holding fake
crystals). Again, this was evidence against the existence of any such power
operating behind the veil.
claims concerning the divine also appear to be evidentially challenged. Take,
for example, the claim that this world is the creation of an omnipotent,
omniscient, and supremely malevolent deity whose malice is without end.
If there were such a deity behind the veil, surely things should look very
different on this, the empirically observable, side? Yes there's pain and
suffering, but surely there's far too much love, laughter, ice cream, and
rainbows for this to be the creation of such a supremely wicked being. But if
we can, quite reasonably, rule out such a deity on the basis of observation,
why can't we similarly rule out the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and
supremely benevolent deity on much the same basis (there's far too much
suffering in the world for this to be the creation of such a god). Assuming
this is an effective refutation of these two god beliefs,
is it a scientific refutation? It's certainly empirically-based.
However, if we understand a scientific refutation to involve the scientific
method and scientific institutions developed over the last few hundred years,
then it appears not to be scientific. It's a variety of that still highly
effective 'common sense' kind of refutation that might have been offered long
before the development of those methods and institutions. Another example: I
might effectively empirically refute your claim to have a cat under your shirt
by carefully going round you and patting your shirt. If I find no suspicious
lumps and hear no 'meows', it's reasonable for me to believe there's no cat
there, despite my not having actually looked under your shirt. Is this
successful refutation of your claim 'scientific'? I'd say not.
is not to the say that the argument from evil against the existence of
omnipotent, omniscient, and supremely benevolent god can't take a scientific
form. Much of the suffering the world contains has been revealed by science.
Examples include hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering before
humans have shown up, and two hundred thousand years of approximately a third
to a half of every generation of human children dying (typically pretty
horribly, from disease, malnutrition, and so on) before reaching the age of
Another way in which science, or empirical inquiry, might threaten beliefs
concerning what lies behind the veil is by providing evidence that we are
highly prone to error when it comes to forming such beliefs on the basis of,
say, subjective experiences involving a sense of presence (much like the experiences
TV's Psychic Sally reports). Perhaps, if I seem to see a snake lying in front
of me, it is, other things being equal, reasonable for me to believe there's a
snake there. But if I am then told by a reliable source that I have been given
a drug that causes highly convincing-looking snake hallucinations, it's no
longer reasonable for me to believe there's a snake before me. Of course there
might still be a snake present, and indeed, my belief that there's a snake
might have been brought about by my reliably functioning perceptual faculties
(perhaps I have been misled about having been drugged and am just observing a
real snake in the usual way), but, still, given this new evidence, surely it's
no longer reasonable for me to continue to believe there's a snake there. But
then, similarly, science might reveal we humans are constitutionally prone to
false beliefs in the presence of invisible agents (gods, ghosts, spirits,
angels, demons, the deceased, etc.) when those beliefs are merely grounded in a
subjective sense of presence.
Under those circumstances, surely I can no longer reasonably maintain my belief
in such an agent given only such a subjective sense of presence. Here is
evidence, not that there are no gods, ghosts, or whatever, but that my
subjective sense that there are can no longer be trusted. If a subjective sense
of presence is my only basis for belief, then I should cease believing.
sum up, while there may be 'limits to science', certainly when understood as a
form of empirical inquiry grounded in methods and institutions developed only
over the last few hundred years or so, it does not follow that religious
beliefs, New Age beliefs, beliefs about the supernatural, and so on are immune
to refutation, let alone scientific refutation.
Dawkins's argument in The God Delusion
Dawkins's book The God
Delusion has provoked many accusations of 'scientism', some of which I'll
examine shortly. The central aim of Dawkins's book is to show that there very
probably is no God. Dawkins is critical of design arguments - such as
fine-tuning arguments - that aim to justify belief in God by pointing to
features of the universe that might seem highly improbable if not a product of
some sort of intelligent design. In response to such arguments, Dawkins insists
that, when theists appeal to god to explain such otherwise supposedly
improbable features of the universe, they overlook the fact that the god to
which they appeal must be at least as complex, and thus at least as improbable,
as that which he is invoked to explain:
A designer god cannot be used
to explain organized complexity because any god capable of designing anything
would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his
own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us
escape. (2006, 136)
If the existence of the
universe having such features by chance is highly improbable, then, says
Dawkins, the existence of a god having the kind of complexity to account for it
must be even more improbable. So, by introducing god, we merely postpone the
problem of accounting for such complexity. But then the universe's complexity
provides no justification for introducing god. Worse still, if the theist is
right and the probability of such complexity just happening to exist is low,
then, by the same logic, the probability of God existing must be even lower.
Dawkins suggests this argument is 'scientific', but is it? Why does Dawkins
suppose God must be at least as complex as that which he is invoked to explain?
Perhaps because, if something is to qualify as having been designed by God, it
must be represented in the mind of God, and the structural complexity of what
is designed must be there in the representation if it is to qualify as a
designed feature. However, this thought about what must be true of
representations appears to be delivered by armchair, conceptual reflection on
the nature of representation, rather than by empirical inquiry. In which case,
isn't Dawkins' argument philosophical rather than scientific? Perhaps
not: because Dawkins classes even such armchair philosophical reflection as
'science', his argument still qualifies as 'scientific' as Dawkins uses that
Dawkins's very elastic use of 'science' - on which even armchair philosophical
reflection qualifies - legitimate? I don't particularly object to Dawkins using
the term in this way so long as he is clear about what he means. The fact that
Dawkins's Foundation is called The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and
Science suggests that even Dawkins understands reason to extend beyond the
scope of mere science (otherwise, why not just call it The Richard Dawkins
Foundation for Science?). So where, according to Dawkins, does
science end and the rest of what falls under the umbrella of 'reason' begin?
That isn't clear to me.
Dawkins's argument cogent? I won't assess it here. A number of theists have
attempted to refute it, include Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, and
Alvin Plantinga. My interest lies, not in attempts to directly refute Dawkins's
argument, but in the charge of 'scientism'.
McGrath's response to The God Delusion
Theologian Alister McGrath, author of The Dawkins delusion - Atheist
Fundamentalism and The Denial of the Divine, is one of the leading
religious critics of The God Delusion. McGrath has penned numerous
articles attacking Dawkins's book and argument. A fairly typical example is
'The Questions Science Cannot Answer - The Ideological Fanaticism of Richard
Dawkins's Attack on Religious Belief is Unreasonable to Religion - and
Science', published in The Times newspaper in 2007. In that article,
McGrath begins by pointing out that even scientists such as Peter Medawar
acknowledge there are questions science can't answer:
In The Limits of Science,
Medawar reflected on how science, despite being 'the most successful enterprise
human beings have ever engaged upon', had limits to its scope. Science is
superb when it comes to showing that the chemical formula for water is H2O.
Or, more significantly, that DNA has a double helix. But what of that greater
question: what’s life all about? This, and others like it, Medawar insisted,
were 'questions that science cannot answer, and that no conceivable advance of
science would empower it to answer'. They could not be dismissed as
'nonquestions or pseudoquestions such as only simpletons ask and only
charlatans profess to be able to answer'. This is not to criticise science, but
simply to calibrate its capacities. (2007b)
McGrath then accuses Dawkins of being ideologically committed to
science, of supposing that 'science has all the answers'. However, we have
already seen that Dawkins clearly acknowledges in the book McGrath is here
attacking that 'perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful
questions that are forever beyond the reach of science' and suggests that moral
questions may fall into this category. So McGrath is attacking a straw man. We
have seen that Dawkins allows room for philosophy too (though his understanding
of 'science' is broad enough to allow even a priori armchair philosophical
theorizing and reflection to qualify as science).
McGrath's charge of 'scientism' not only misrepresents Dawkins, it is also,
more importantly, irrelevant to the question of whether or not Dawkins’s
argument against the existence of McGrath's God is cogent. Suppose McGrath
is right that there are questions science cannot answer, and that other methods
can. Does it follow that Dawkins's argument against the existence of God fails?
Clearly not. Dawkins's argument might still be sound.
McGrath then attempts to refute Dawkins's argument against the existence of
God, not by identifying some specific flaw in it, but by simply insisting we
can't prove there's no God. However, Dawkins himself points out in the The
God Delusion that McGrath's earlier attack on Dawkins seem to turn on the
'undeniable but ignominiously weak point that you cannot disprove the existence
of God.' (2007, 80) In The God Delusion, Dawkins clearly and explicitly agrees
with McGrath that we can't conclusively 'prove' there's no God, but then points
out that doesn't mean belief in God is immune to scientific skepticism. For, as
we have already noted, God hypotheses can have observable consequences: '[a]
universe with a superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from
one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?' (2007, 80) Dawkins notes in The
God Delusion that, in response to this question, McGrath previously offered
no answer. It's ironic, then, that, even in this later attack now aimed
squarely at The God Delusion itself, McGrath still offers no answer.
Elsewhere, McGrath does at least explain why he supposes there can at least be
no conclusive 'proof' or 'disproof' of the existence of God. In The Dawkins
Delusion, he says:
Any given set of observations can be explained by a number of theories.
To use the jargon of the philosophy of science: theories are under-determined
by the evidence. The question then arises: What criterion be used to decide
between them, especially when they are ‘empirically equivalent’. Simplicity?
Beauty? The debate rages, unresolved. And its outcome is entirely to be
expected: the great questions remain unanswered. There can be no scientific
‘proof’ of ultimate questions. Either we cannot answer them, or we must answer
them on grounds other than the sciences. (2007a)
The suggestion seems to be that, consequently, the 'ultimate question'
of whether or not God exists cannot be settled by science (by the way, notice
McGrath understands 'science' more narrowly than Dawkins - he supposes that
what 'science' can settle is settled, in every case, by observational
'God exists' and 'God does not exist' 'empirically equivalent'? Do these two
'worldviews' fit the observational data equally well? Dawkins's point is, of
course, that they are not empirically equivalent. Given that hypotheses
about unobservables (subatomic particles, the distant past of this planet,
etc.) can indeed be empirically confirmed and disconfirmed beyond reasonable
doubt by reference to what is observable, why shouldn't God beliefs also be
similarly empirically confirmable or disconfirmable? Given we can empirically
disconfirm the belief that there's a God who answers petitionary, and that the
belief in a God that is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnimalevolent also
appears to be empirically disconfirmable, why should we suppose that McGrath's
belief in a God that is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent is
not empirically disconfirmable? McGrath offers no explanation. He simply
declares, without argument, that his God is off-limits to science.
William Reville on religion and 'scientism'
In a 2014 article titled 'Philosophers must Oppose The Arrogance of
Scientism', William Reville, Professor Emeritus of biochemistry, defends
religion against Richard Dawkins and others whom Reville also accuses of
scientism. These scientists dismiss religion, thinks Reville, because they are
fundamentalist materialists who think 'nothing exists but the material'.
However, 'materialism is a philosophy that has not - and probably cannot - be
proven.' Reville adds:
It is reasonable to be a materialist. But, since materialism is
unproven, materialists must accept that, no matter how improbable it seems to
them, there is a possibility they might be wrong and a supernatural dimension
might exist. Materialists are therefore obliged to respect the position of
religious people who believe in the supernatural but accept all that science
has and will discover. (2014)
Reville thinks the supernatural is off limits to science:
Science studies the natural world. It is materialistic in its method but
not in its philosophy. Science does not deny the supernatural, it simply has
nothing to say about it. Science and religion address different aspects of
reality and do not contradict each other, as noted by the eminent science
writer Stephen J Gould in his book Rocks of Ages. (2014)
Now, as we have seen, Dawkins actually justifies his rejection of belief
in God by an argument. Reville does not address or even mention that
argument, but instead simply declares that God, being supernatural, is
off-limits to science. Perhaps Reville is right and it is possible a
supernatural realm exists. However, that's not to say it's remotely probable.
Many supernatural claims are highly improbable, and in some cases have been
shown to be so through an application of the scientific method. The
supernatural is not off limits to science. But then, if supernatural claims are
often empirically investigable and can, in fact, be empirically refuted, why
shouldn't Dawkins and others succeed in refuting - perhaps even in empirically
refuting - a particular God claim? Reville does not explain.
Reville does encourage philosophers like myself to make clearer to
scientists that science has limits:
One very important function of philosophy is to identify scientific
questions. This is important in order to keep science from going off the rails.
Philosophy is not doing its job. (2014)
While, as a philosopher, I am happy to acknowledge science has its
limits, I see no reason to agree with Reville that supernatural claims are in
principle off-limits to science. Indeed, they are not off-limits, and neither
are many God claims.
Some other illustrations
I have provided two illustrations of how the charge of 'scientism' has
been made in a baseless and indeed irrelevant way against critics of religious
and/or supernatural beliefs. It is not difficult to find further examples.
for example, is Bishop James Heiser:
[T[he efforts of scientists to disprove the existence of God is not a
pursuit of Science, but Scientism. (Heiser, 2012)
As should now be clear,
efforts to disprove the existence of God do not necessarily involve an embrace
In their paper 'Has Science
Disproved God?', Ashton and Westacott write:
It is important to note that
science, unlike scientism, should not be a threat to religious belief. Science,
to be sure, advocates a 'naturalistic' rather than 'supernaturalistic' focus,
and an empirical method for determining truths about the physical world and the
universe. Yet the proper mandate of science is restricted to the investigation
of the natural (physical, empirical dimension) of reality. It is this
restriction that scientism has violated... (Ashton and Westacott, 2006, 16)
This is another example of
authors just assuming the supernatural is off-limits to science and then using
that assumption to immunise their religious belief against any potential
scientific threat. As we have seen, empirical science is more than capable of
investigating many supernatural claims, and has done so successfully. To
suppose otherwise is not to be guilty of scientism.
G.K. Chesterton scholar Dale
Too often a prominent
physicist or biologist is believed when he declares that empirical science has
disproved the existence of God... The fallacy is, of course, that empirical or
experimental science is limited to the work of discovering and applying truths
about the material world. If there is a spiritual presence in the material
world, physical science will not discover it; and if we discover it, physical
science will have no idea of what it means. Chesterton would have none of such
What can people mean when they
say that science has disturbed their view of sin? Do they think sin is
something to eat? When people say that science has shaken their faith in
immortality, do they think that immortality is a gas? (Ahlquist, 2104)
But immortality doesn't have
to be material - and certainly doesn't have to be a material substance
like a gas - in order to be scientifically investigable. Neither does God.
Again, an unjustified and mistaken characterisation of the remit of science is
used by the author to immunise religious belief against any potential
In 'Has Science Done Away With
God?', Catholic apologist Matt Fradd asks:
Hasn’t science disproved God?No, and it is not within the ability of science to do so. Science is a
method that one can use to discover information about the natural world...
Examining God’s material creation using a method which, by its very nature, is
limited to the material universe cannot provide evidence against the existence
of an immaterial God.... The view that science can or should provide the answer
to every question is known as scientism. (Fradd, 2012)
Fradd asserts that it is
beyond the remit of science to 'disprove God'. But no justification for this
claim is given. We're just told those who suppose otherwise are guilty of
In the hands of some - including many theologians - the charge of
'scientism!' has become a lazy, knee-jerk form of dismissal, much like the
charge of ‘communism!’ used to be. It constitutes a form of rubbishing,
allowing - in the minds of those making the charge - for criticism to be
casually brushed aside. No doubt some things really are beyond the ability of
science, and perhaps even reason, to decide. But there's plenty that does lie
within the remit of the scientific method, including many religious,
supernatural, New Age, and other claims that are supposedly 'off-limits'.
However, because the mantra 'But this is beyond the ability of science to
decide' has been repeated so often with respect to that sort of subject matter,
it is now heavily woven into our cultural zeitgeist. People just assume it's
true for all sorts of claims for which it is not, in fact, true. The mantra has
become a convenient, immunising factoid that can be wheeled out whenever a
scientific threat to belief rears its head. When a believer is momentarily
stung into doubt, many will attempt to lull them back to sleep by repeating the
mantra over and over. The faithful murmur back: 'Ah yes, we forgot - this is
beyond the ability of science to decide.... zzzz.'
Ashton, J. and Westacott, M. 2006. 'Has Science Disproved God?' In
Whitney, B.L. The Big Argument, Does God Exist?Green Forest AZ.:
New Leaf Publishing
Barrett. J.L. 2004. Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Lanham
Sylvialand: AltaMira Press.
Benson, H. et al. 2006. 'Study of the Therapeutic Effects of
Intercessionary Prayer (STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: A Multicenter
Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessionary
Prayer', American Heart Journal 151: 934–42.
Boyer. P. 2002 Religion Explained, The Evolutionary Origins of
Religious Thought. New edition. London: Vintage.
Dawkins, R. 2006. The God Delusion. London: Bantam.
Dawkins, R. and Law, S. 2013. 'In Conversation with Richard Dawkins -
Hosted by Stephen Law'. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvkbiElAOqU
French, C. Williams, L. and O'Donnell, R. 2001. Unpublished paper
presented to the British Psychological Society Centenary Annual Conference in
Glasgow in 2001
Gould, S.J. 2002. Rocks of Ages. London: Vintage.
Gould, S.J. 2012. 'Nonoverlapping Magisteria', In Pojman, L. and Rae,
M.(eds.), Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology. Boston MA, Wadsworth.
Harris, S. 2012. The Moral
Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. London: Black Swan.
Heiser, J. 2012. 'Will Science Disprove God's Existence?' The New
Kripke, S. 1981. Naming
and Necessity. New edition. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.
McGrath A. 2007a. The
Dawkins Delusion. London: SPCK.
McGrath, A. 2007b. 'The
Questions Science Cannot Answer - The Ideological Fanaticism of Richard
Dawkins's Attack on Religious Belief is Unreasonable to Religion - and Science'
in The Times newspaper, February 10th.
Reville, W. 2014.
'Philosophers must Oppose The Arrogance of Scientism', The Irish Times,
 So, for example, I am not persuaded by those forms of 'scientism' that
insist that, say, humanities subjects like history should employ nothing but
the scientific method understood narrowly, so as to exclude the kind of
understanding one acquires through an imaginative identification with others,
in some cases achievable only through the use of music, poetry, painting and
other forms of artistic expression. While there's much that science can
contribute to history as a discipline, that's not to say that history is, or
should be replaced by, science narrowly conceived. For further of this issue discussion see Kitcher in this volume.
 Notwithstanding the construction of theodicies and appeals to
'sceptical theism' that might, in each case, be invoked to try to deal with
this apparent evidence against these two god claims, I believe it is.
 That we humans are indeed constitutionally prone to false belief in
invisible agency has been noted by many scientists, including evolutionary
psychologist Justin Barrett, who has also postulated a mechanism to account for
this tendency - an evolved Hyper-Active Agency Detecting Device. See Barrett
2004 and Boyer 2002.
 Notice my argument here is not that where a religious or other
seemingly supernatural experience can be correctly explained
naturalistically (in the style of Barrett and Boyer, for example - see
preceding note), it ought not to be trusted. Such naturalistic debunking
arguments may or may not be cogent. Rather, my argument is a defeaterargument:
if I have good grounds for thinking that, in the circumstances in which it
appears to me that P, that appearance is quite likely to be misleading, then I
ought not to rely on that appearance - I ought not to believe that P. Such
defeater arguments don't require my particular experience actually to be
produced by an unreliable mechanism (I might actually be seeing a
real snake via a reliable perceptual mechanism, and not be drugged), or indeed
have a correct naturalistic explanation (God might, on this occasion, actually
be supernaturally revealing himself to me). Even if I am actually perceiving a
snake, or am actually experiencing God, by what is in actual fact a reliable
belief-grounding mechanism, the fact remains that I shouldn't believe
given the evidence that I'm in a situation where such experiences are very