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Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The Failure of Natural Science in Scientism

Going door to door is a lost art but Austin L. Hughes, the Carolina Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina boldly stands on the doorstep of natural science and shows how “scientism” has become a cruel neighbor in his article, “The Folly of Scientism.” Generally speaking, “science” means “knowledge,” and “natural science” concerns itself with one facet of knowledge; however, “it is frequently claimed that natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth.” Hughes systematically exposes the flaws of the so called “universal competence” of science, or “scientism” by asking the most important question that scientism cannot answer, “Is it really true that natural science provides a satisfying and reasonably complete account of everything we see, experience and seek to understand--of every phenomenon in the universe?”

Taking scientism by the hand, Hughes moves through the neighborhood of disciplines starting with Philosophy and the assumption that Philosophy must be a valuable tool for the scientist. Scientism actually claims to have outgrown its need for philosophy, substitution institutional theory for plain logic; in other words, “good science” and “bad science” are defined by where the National Science Foundation wants to put its money and philosophy is too cerebral and less experimental. The claim is that science never goes backwards (as philosophy tends to do) and always moves forward, never repeating itself, leading the public with the assumption that science must be right because the ideas sound less philosophical and more scientific. The question remains: how are scientific evaluated without the ability to identify something called “false”?

Next, Hughes contrasts scientism with three areas of inquiry: metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. If philosophy is dead to the natural scientist, then the conclusions touching subjects as cosmology fall more in the realm of science-fiction. “Universe” has lost its meaning as a word that encompasses everything known and unknown on every level, giving rise to concepts such as “multi-verses.” This makes no sense, especially because theories of the “multi-verse” must still answer the questions of existence these tries to avoid. Why is our universe governed by scientific laws at all? Natural selection may try to explain species but it cannot explain the fitness benefit of comprehending the universe, or explain why the universe is comprehensible at all.

The contradictions abound! Concerning ethics: how can science assert there is no universal right or wrong and still be science? “If ‘we know now’ that he selfish behavior attributed to our ancestors is morally reprehensible, how have ‘we’ come to know this? What basis do we have for saying that anything is wrong at all if our behaviors are no more than the consequence of past natural selection? And if we desire to be morally better than our ancestors were, are we even free to do so? Or are we programmed to behave in a certain way that we now, for some reason, have come to deplore?”

Hughes correctly concludes that philosophers has the last laugh because the so-called “self correction” of practicioners of scientism find themselves following in the footsteps of Aristotle, attempting to discover the person while in pursuit of happiness. Scientism clearly has not and cannot alone answer questions that fall outside its purview.

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