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Some who have argued against the validity of scientism have argued that the view that only science can uncover truth is not a scientific discovery but rather a epistemology. Hence it has been claimed that it is self refuting.

Is this a valid critique of this view or can scientism still be defended?

  • Maybe I should have substituted the word scientism with postivism. My bad. – Neil Meyer Mar 5 '13 at 17:01
  • It's a matter of definitions. One can label as "science" anything that has led to any "truth" in the past and claim empirical evidence on "the view that only science can uncover truth". Without proper definitions anything can be said about science and nothing can be refuted. Related question: "How can I write something about science?" – Trylks Aug 28 '13 at 17:52
  • I think you should define your use of scientism in the question. The concept is not clear, and is usually used as a pejorative. I have never heard of anybody that supports scientism and the concept is therefore only defined in negative terms, or rather, only defined by people who oppose it. In that sense, it is very strange to speak of it as self-refuting, as you wouldn't expect a "theory" that is defined by its opponents to be coherent (that is, something created as a straw-man). – fileunderwater Aug 29 '13 at 15:11
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I don't see the “self-refuting”. ‘Scientism’ is a term of abuse. Therefore, perhaps inevitably, there is no one simple characterization of the views of those who are thought to be identified as prone to it. Perhaps open to the charge of scientism is to think that philosophical problems are scientific problems and should only be dealt with as such. A successful accusation of scientism usually relies upon a restrictive conception of the sciences and an optimistic conception of the philosophy as hitherto practiced. Nobody espouses scientism. A proposition is epistemic if and only if it has some implication for what, in some circumstances, is rationally worthy of belief. Scientific's propositions are epistemic propositions.

I do not see science as a progress toward THE FINAL TRUTH. Many past theories were not approximately true or truthlike. Ptolemy's geocentric theory was rejected in the Copernican revolution, not retained in the form “approximately Ptolemy”. Indeed, the progressive steps from Ptolemy to Copernicus or from Newton to Einstein are not only matters of improved precision but involve changes in theoretical postulates and laws. There is no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like "really there", each theory has its own ontology. Convergence to the truth scientific progress seems to be impossible, if ontologies change with theories observations, and ontologies are relative to theories. Science is progressive only on values other than the truth, such as simplicity, predictive accuracy, comprehensiveness, and requirements for consistency. Scientific theories are hypothetical and always corrigible in principle. They may happen to be true, but we cannot know this for certain in any particular case.

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    You are understanding the question backwards, the question is: "can we refute all that leads to truth is science?", you are answering: "can we refute all the outcomes of science are true?". Shortly: $(S \subseteq \top) \neq (\top \subseteq S)$. – Trylks Aug 28 '13 at 18:00
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    @Trylks No matter what is your favorite theory of truth, it always makes sense to say “but that maybe not true”. No matter if you call your theory of truth of science or metaphysics, faith or anything else. There is no evidence available in principle that can distinguish a theory’s truth from its utility and reliability in prediction. – Annotations Aug 29 '13 at 1:39
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    I don't see how that relates with the topic here. – Trylks Aug 29 '13 at 2:51
  • Well, if we define truth (truthness, right, correctness, etc.) as efficiency, then science is a movement towards truth. But then the question is whether philosophy is such. – rus9384 Sep 13 '18 at 20:04
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I like this quote by Heisenburg (copied from wikipedia)

The positivists have a simple solution: the world must be divided into that which we can say clearly and the rest, which we had better pass over in silence. But can any one conceive of a more pointless philosophy, seeing that what we can say clearly amounts to next to nothing? If we omitted all that is unclear we would probably be left with completely uninteresting and trivial tautologies.

To restate the original question: Is positivism flawed because the assertion "sensory experience is the only source of authoritative knowledge" is not based on sensory experience?

I would say no. Positivism doesn't claim to be able to pick itself up by its own bootstraps. Positivism is specifically undecided about truth-statements like bootstrapping. As someone who is not a positivist, you may criticize positivism for not being able to bootstrap. However, as a positivist, the inability to bootstrap is irrelevant. IMHO bootstrapping is not the most important feature of a philosophical system. Would you buy a house because you like the color of the curtains?

  • I always like to hear what the great scientists have to say. They have proven that they can see things few others could in the scientific realm, which increases the probability they can do the same in other realms. :-) – labreuer Dec 3 '13 at 20:54
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Perhaps this is not quite what you were looking for, but..

Science in and of itself can grant man nothing. Raw data in and of itself is meaningless without interpretation. Ergo there is no such thing as 'self evident truth' or truth which may communicate its meaning and intrinsic nature to another being with no kind of processing necessary by that observer.

The scientific method cannot provide man with the answers of 'why' only the 'how'. Deep, meaningful, truth comes from taking this data and turning it into information. Making connections, drawing conclusions and occasionally employing leaps of logic.

To put it another way, which may or may not be incorrect as I have not dedicated any serious time to scrutinizing this analogy inside and out, science is the tool with which to gather the necessary data. Philosophy is the means by which it is processed and applied to gather meaning and truth.

The answer above me is also correct in that scientism is mostly a pejorative. People don't say "Scientism is what I believe in!", it's what people accuse you of buying into if you're a bit too overenthusiastic about the limits of science's utility to man.

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The pejorative label "scientism" is often used to represent metaphysical naturalism or skepticism. Neither of the actual positions being maligned would claim that science is the "only" way of getting to the "truth", it would be more accurate to say that both philosophies, and naturalistic philosophies in general, are deeply interested in observation, human fallibility, and the repeatability of experience.

In any case, "self-refuting" would imply that there is an inherent contradiction in the postulates of a philosophy, which would be the case if science claimed absolute, exclusive, and unquestionable truth. It doesn't. The position of science is that things appear to act in certain ways, and we can predict the ways that things will act to within certain tolerances using certain techniques.

Science does not claim that you can't make predictions about reality using anything other than science, as you suggest.

  • Maybe science does not claim it but I can talk about certain scientist who believe it. – Neil Meyer Mar 7 '13 at 9:10
  • @NeilMeyer I can talk about any number of Christians who believe we have a duty to use up all the natural resources on the earth in order to bring about Armageddon. Does that mean that "theism" is inherently self destructive? – philosodad Mar 9 '13 at 20:56
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Setting aside the pejorative (or friendly) quality scientism [EDIT]( or positivism for that matter)], I am unclear about the issue raised here. Why would just having an epistemology necessarily mean the activities based on it are inherently self-refuting (*1) ?

Consider that anything we think about has to have an underlying "world view." Be it science, religion - or the art of cooking cheeseburgers, everything is underpinned by the human methods of thinking. So science must have an epistemology - or science could not even be science. (Sure, there may be more than a few unthinking scientists, but that's another fish to fry.)

The OP seems to be addressing folks who, to me, are raising a false philosophical dilemma. Or better said, are presenting a form of the mind-body problem conflated with the "three blind men and the elephant" story.

Consider: science can be only as objective as the thinker. (Who may or may not be a scientist.)

Thought is its own solvent.


(*1) If we have come to think that epistemologies are inherently UN-objective, and if that stance is truly indicative of philosophy today, then we've all already been to hell in frayed hand baskets.

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Consider the claim:

Science is the only way to discover truth.

Is this science? No. What experiment shows this? None. It is a self-defeating statement. Consider a modified claim:

No method other than science has been shown to discover truth.

This statement is no longer self-defeating. But what is meant by 'truth'? Let's say "how reality works". We consider F = ma to be 'true', at least in certain domains. In others it's an alright approximation, and others it's a terrible one. It seems best to think of this kind of 'truth' as "true under these circumstances". Surely though, my inner thought-life is part of reality. Can science understand how it works? Somewhat. Can I say true things about it apart from doing science? Herein lies the rub.

If we define 'truth' as "what science does", then we essentially say that a color is only 'red' if it has sufficient 'redness'. A claim is only true if it is sufficiently investigable such that science can be done on it. But these leaves huge swaths of life where science can't be done (many events in people's lives are nonrepeatable and not sufficiently similar to other events), or oughtn't be done (let's see what happens when infidelity is encouraged, under controlled settings). Do we really want to deprive ourselves of the concept 'truth' in these areas?

I suggest a significant reframing:

Scientific claims are less likely to be wrong than unscientific claims.

This, I suggest is virtually a tautology. Something is considered 'scientific' when it has been shown to model reality sufficiently well. That is, when the amount of time the model is wrong passes below a certain level, it is considered 'science'.

This also says nothing about whether scientific claims are Absolutely True. That is because they are not: too much 'accepted wisdom' has been disproved, time and again, for very many good scientists to make claims to absolute truth. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow coined the term model-dependent realism, in a sense capitulating to possibility that there isn't One True Way to describe How Things Are.


For fun, I suggest asking whether the philosophy of Atomism was helpful to scientific endeavor. If it were, I suggest that calling something 'true' only after science has verified it (or attempted to falsify it) is tantamount to saying that something is only 'food' after it is served—not when it is in ingredient form. We can define our terms this way, but doing so might hide the fact that we need things in addition to science to discover what is true. Just like the newscaster needs a huge support staff to do what he does. Valuing only the last stage of a process is a great way to do the process poorly.

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Not at all. An epistemology can be discovered through observation. And indeed, that's precisely how the epistemological basis of science has been developed/discovered: by proposing a theory, testing it, modifying as necessary, rinsing and repeating.

That is to say: the scientific method was developed using the scientific method.

Indeed, most people I have met with a strong belief in science happen to believe in science precisely because they have observed its successes, and observed as well the failures of all other epistemological systems.

That is to say: they have arrived at "science" via science.

No contradiction.

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