EVALUATING SCIENTISM: Is science the only way to truth?

EVALUATING SCIENTISM: Is science the only way to truth?


The splendour of science and scientific achievements has cast its spell on modern civilisation, penetrating its way deep into the mind. The achievements of science cannot be belittled or negated but the glamour associated with it has gradually developed into Scientism, which is problematic. Captivated by the speedy and substantial progress of science, the modern mind assumes science to be “enough in itself and the only way to arrive at truth. The truth is far from it.
The notion of scientism is self-defeating because the claim that science is the only way to truth cannot be proven scientifically/empirically. It is more of an inductive belief or conviction. Moreover, the lenses which science puts on to observe nature have certain foundational (a priori) assumptions/axioms which are taken for granted without any scientific/empirical proof. Notions like reality, subject-object dualism, causal relations, mathematics, etc, are some of the examples. No science is, therefore, philosophically innocent. It cannot emanate from an intellectual vacuum.
The idea that science is purely empirical, impersonal, and objective is a misconception. The participation of the human subject in accessing reality (recognition of Kant’s a priori grids) exposes the intrusion of subjectivity into supposedly objective natural sciences. An obsessive objectivism neglecting the subject will not do. Dualism is an issue and science cannot just talk it out of existence. We as subjects interpret reality. Knowledge that is built on human reason and senses is necessarily going to be anthropocentric. Scientific theories are not simply given to us by “raw data” but rather the data passes through our mental interpretation as noted by Hilary Putnam. The idea that scientists collect data objectively as if they were empty vessels is incorrect. There are antecedent conceptual factors which determine their whole subsequent work. Data collection and interpretation is inevitably affected by antecedent theoretical presuppositions. Thomas Kuhn explained that individual scientific theories are part of much larger conceptual paradigms which shape and define them. He outlined two main phases of scientific activity: first, any new data collected will be appraised through the lens/paradigm of an existing theory, like Evolution; then, slowly minor anomalies with the theory would begin to accumulate, till we get to a point where we reject the existing theory altogether. This Kuhn called a “scientific revolution”. Thus, under normal “usual” science, all data collection and interpretation is informed by and filtered through the specific “paradigm” of the science in place.
These lenses naturally define, confine and thus limit science’s vision of reality. It is through these lenses that science observes nature. But the assumption that these limited set of ‘categories of understanding’ completely exhaust nature is unfounded and absolutely uncalled for. This dogmatic belief in finality and exclusivity of scientific vision of reality is actually a result of extreme anthropocentrism. Science is a description of the world as we humans perceive and understand it. Our particular mode of perception and understanding does not exhaust nature. Science like any other human enterprise is a mental construct superimposed on reality. Under this construct reality reveals itself through the categories of quantity, matter, minerals, resources, etc. No human construct exhausts reality inside out. Science projects certain categories of thought onto the patterns and regularities we observe in nature. Any scientific understanding rests on the “belief” that future events are going to concur and behave exactly like the past.
Mention needs to be made of the philosophy of Logical Positivism which Scientism dons, flaunts and parrots, and which particularly has been responsible for converting many believers into Scientism. This philosophy has long been discarded and cannot be presented as a meta narrative anyway. The verification principle first of all was never properly formulated in it. It stumbled its way through direct, indirect methods of verification and then Strong and Weak verification until its very demise. The Verification Principle itself is not verifiable at all. The statement that “true statements should and need to be verifiable” itself cannot be tested or verified. It is just like any other arbitrary statement or method. The claim that the only meaningful statements are either synthetic or analytic, is itself neither of the two. Verification, Falsification and Repeatability provide nothing but working models of the experience of world we have. Classical mechanics though testable and verifiable methods does not encompass the whole reality.
Science is just “one way” of looking at “certain” aspects of reality and hence lacks holism. Science comprehends reality piecemeal but man as a rational being seeks a holistic understanding of the whole reality. Science is always compartmental and this nature of science is getting more amplified with the trend towards specialisation. As Allama Iqbal notes in his Reconstruction: “We must not forget that what is called science is not a single systemic view of reality; it is a mass of sectional views of reality — fragments of a total experience which do not seem to fit together.”
Elsewhere, Iqbal says that it is pure dogmatism on the part of science to assume that the spatial aspect of man that it has selected for its study is the only aspect to human existence. There are normative values (how should I act), existential meanings, qualities, teleology/purpose, pursuit of Truth (which is inadequately defended by Darwinian evolution because all quest for knowledge cannot be explained away by survival instinct theory) and other aspects which transcend scientific study. Science catches hold of one aspect of reality and specialises in that. Scientism is a dogmatic denial of this plain simple truth. Science by its very nature is “analytic”. It pulverises stuff into individual units to understand it. It cannot taste the whole. Quality of red colour for example in itself cannot be appreciated with the scientific lens because it only knows certain number of Angstroms or a particular wavelength. A flower crushed into pieces mathematically/quantitatively is still a flower but the quality of a flower as we know it is gone. In the same light physics is restricted within the calculations of quantities, it has no clue of what phenomenon mean in actuality.
Let’s go further than this. Why do we do science? What is the fun of it? “It has benefits”, it is said, but what is the fun of benefits? What is the fun of life? Why live? Science and scientific rationalism is nihilistic and characterised by arbitrariness. It lacks a fundamental ontology or reference point. Everything is therefore nonsense and unimportant in the ultimate analysis.
Note that even though being dualist in nature, science over time has completely neglected the subject as Husserl noted. We know more about distant galaxies than our own consciousness. Mind is not directly apprehended (as Buddhists or mystics do, they are laughed away in ridicule); science on the other hand studies mind indirectly; either in relation to behaviour or mental correlates. All this long science has been taking measurements but is completely oblivious of the observer who is taking the measurements. Ontological Dualism is so difficult to sustain that even science could not help but dissolve mind into matter and thus adopt pure materialism. Therefore all we are left with is just matter with the perplexing problem of ‘who is the subject and who is the observer?’

The writer is a Civil Engineering graduate with interest in Philosophy and Religious Studies. [email protected]

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