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By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 9 February 2015

Scientism is the idea that science alone, gives us objective knowledge ie that science alone reliably exposes the world to us as it actually is. Edward Feser in his Book Scholastic Metaphysics argues that there are "no good arguments whatsoever for scientism, and decisive arguments against it."

Rather, he claims that ancient scholastic metaphysics, typified by Thomas Aquinas, has much more to say about how the world actually is than natural science.

He argues that the idea that "the methods of science are the only reliable way to secure knowledge of anything" is not itself a scientific claim that can be established with the scientific method. How could such statement be tested?


Surely the statement is not a scientific statement but a philosophical one. It's truth or falsehood cannot be tested in a laboratory but the philosopher would certainly have something to say about it.

Feser points out that the scientific method relies on a number of philosophical assumptions: that there is an objective world external to the minds of scientists, that this world is governable by regularities of the sort that can be captured in scientific laws and that human perception can uncover and describe these regularities.

It is therefore absurd to state that the only way we can know about the world is through scientific speculation since this activity is dependent upon assumptions that are not established by science. The argument is circular.

This should be the death knell of scientism, but there is more. Not only does science rely on philosophical assumptions for its methodology it also relies on philosophy to interpret its results. "For example, is the world fundamentally comprised of substance or events? What is it to be a "cause"? What is the nature of the universals referred to in scientific laws – concepts like quark, electron, atom, and so on? … Do scientific theories really give us a description of objective reality in the first place or are they just useful tools for predicting the course of experience?"

It would seem that philosophy is the rational basis of science and there is a case for saying that philosophy is the very paradigm of rationality, not science.

The reason that science cannot give us a complete description of reality is that it is, by its nature, quantitative. Physics can only capture those aspects of reality that are "susceptible of the prediction and control of characteristics of quantifiable phenomena." Other phenomena that may not be measured or described mathematically fall through the scientists methodological net.


Feser uses the example of using a metal detector. Such use will only tell us about the presence of metals, it will not give us anything else. Thus empirical science will only give us information for which it is suited.

Our experience of nature is not quantitative but qualitative. All of our perceptions of the world are qualitative, we smell, hear sounds, see vistas etc. Indeed, we know about gravity in our every waking moment through the sense of our bodies. We do not know about it because we have learnt Newton's inverse square law or the idea that mass distorts space courtesy of Einstein. Theories about gravity are abstractions that do not enter into our experience of the world except if we are trying to lob a missile on a distant city or get a spacecraft to the moon.

The problem with scientism, especially those who are trained in a scientific discipline, is that there is a danger that it restricts what we understand as knowledge. If the only trustworthy knowledge is that described by natural science we are at a loss to understand art, theology, literature or love. We are thus doomed to becoming someone who lives on some spectrum of autism.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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