A Bit of a Critique of a Feser Critique of “Scientism”

1. In his Scholastic Metaphysics. A Contemporary Introduction* (p. 10 ff.), Edward Feser identifies four “general problems” he sees facing “scientism,” the thesis that (pp. 9-10) “…science alone plausibly gives us objective knowledge.” The first problem is that (p. 10):

…[S]cientism faces a dilemma: it is either self-refuting or trivial.

Addressing the first horn of the dilemma, Feser (Ibid.) goes on to tell us that:

The claim that “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything” (Rosenberg 2011, p. 6 [**]) is not itself a scientific claim, not something that can be established using scientific methods. Indeed, that science is even a rational form of inquiry (let alone the only rational form of inquiry) is not something that can be established scientifically.

He then (Ibid.) offers an argument on behalf of the latter thesis:

For scientific inquiry rests on a number of philosophical assumptions: the assumption that there is an objective world external to the minds of scientists; the assumption that this world is governed by regularities of the sort that might be captured in scientific laws; the assumption that the human intellect and perceptual apparatus can uncover and accurately describe these regularities and so forth. Since scientific method presupposes these things, it cannot attempt to justify them without arguing in a circle.

2. II don’t find Feser’s reasoning here is compelling. Let’s take a look at the first of the “philosophical assumptions” he points to, “that there is an objective world external to the minds of scientists.” I don’t myself think that “that there is an objective world” is a mere assumption. Rather, it is immediately evident and known, in experience, that:

There is a plurality of changing finite-in-quantity beings.

The recognition that there are minds, it seems to me, would come much later, after the epistemological recognition that we have knowledge, more specifically, intellectual knowledge. And the recognition that “there is an objective world external to the minds of scientists” has to await further the recognition that the objective world is not internal to the minds of scientists (or philosophers).

Science is no more but assuming the features of the changing beings known in experiences to which it restricts itself (their plurality or number which it counts and their quantities which it measures) than is philosophy.

3. Similarly, it does not seem to me that the second of the “philosophical assumptions” Feser points to, the assumption “that this world is governed by regularities of the sort that might be captured in scientific laws” either is just an assumption. Just as the thinker engaged in philosophy recognizes, rather than assumes, that the various “laws” of being, such as that of non-contradiction, hold, so too the thinker engaged in science recognizes, rather than assumes, that the various “laws” of physics.

Finally, it does not seem to me that the third of the “philosophical assumptions” Feser points to, the assumption “the human intellect and perceptual apparatus can uncover and accurately describe these regularities and so forth,” is just an assumption. Rather, it represents a discover, this time one belonging to epistemology.

3. Nothing that I have said here entails a rejection of Feser’s thesis that, again:

The claim that “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything” (Rosenberg 2011, p. 6) is not itself a scientific claim, not something that can be established using scientific methods.

With that I am entirely in agreement.

Until next time.

* Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics. A Contemporary Introduction (Neunkirchen-Seelscheid, Germany; editiones scholasticae, 2014)

** Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2011)

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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4 Responses to A Bit of a Critique of a Feser Critique of “Scientism”

  1. Well put. I think that Feser conflates knowing the exact nature of an objective reality with knowing /that/ there is an objective reality. I’m on board with seeing the findings of science as limited to the intersubjective (and am no fan of scientism, as I think it makes for bad scientists), but I think your points here are spot on.

    • Thank you for the “thumbs up.” I’m curious, however, about how you draw the distinction (which I think) you suggest there to be between the objective and the intersubjective?

      • I mean that science is largely about shared perceptions about objective reality, as seen through representative models (language, laws, equations, etc.) and is largely dependent on the agreement of subjective viewpoints. Objective reality is just reality as it is, not as it is for us. Scientific agreements can tell us about that reality, but are always at a remove. Our intersubjective view can change over time (as we presumably get closer to seeing objective reality) while reality itself (in so far as how things work) remains constant. The shift from epicycles to heliocentrism is one example of and intersubjective scientific model shift that is something distinct from the objective reality of planetary movement (which needs no central reference point, but simply is).

  2. As we say where I come from, okey-dokey. Or, as my youngest would put it, cool. But, I will ponder the “at a remove” and the “get closer” from time to time.

    Cheers.

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