Russell and Duenes

What is a “scientific worldview?”

with 5 comments

Once again Dallas Willard is spot on in his analysis of the “scientific worldview,” or rather, the impossibility of such. In critiquing John Searle’s assertion that “mental phenomena are caused by neurophysiological processes in the brain and are themselves features of the brain” Willard writes,

For what, really, is “our scientific view of the world,” as [Searle] calls it, which every informed person with her wits about her now believes to be true? He speaks of a view of the world which includes “all of our generally accepted theories about what sort of place the universe is and how it works.” (p. 85) “It includes,” he continues, “theories ranging from quantum mechanics and relativity theory to the plate tectonic theory of geology and the DNA theory of hereditary transmission,” etc. We might imagine a very long conjunctive sentence–containing the specific theories he has in mind as conjuncts–that would, supposedly, express the world view in question.

But this will hardly do. Such specific scientific theories as just mentioned cannot provide an ontology: cannot–or at least do not–determine what it is to exist and cannot provide an exhaustive list of what ultimate sorts of things there are. Their existential claims are always restricted to specific types of entities as indicated in their basic concepts.

To suppose that a given scientific theory or conjunction of such theories provided an ontology would be a logical mistake, a misreading of what the theories say. Those theories, and the bodies of knowledge wherein they are situated, actually say nothing whatsoever about the universe or about how it–the whole `thing’–works. That is a merely semantical point about the meaning or logical content of the claims or sentences that make up the sciences. It is to be established or refuted by examining those claims and sentences. It turns out that they do not even mention the universe as the totality of all that exists.

Now, if that has your head spinning, here is what Willard is saying. There is no such thing as a “scientific worldview” because whatever “science” is, it is surely not something that can give us an exhaustive account of what actually exists or even how it all works. True scientific inquiry must restrict itself to something much more modest than the current demi-gods of “science” would have us believe. Much that goes under the name of “science” today claims to explain, or at least have the future possibility of explaining, well, everything, “how the whole thing works,” to use Willard’s phrase. But no scientific theory even claims the ability to explain such things. Willard concludes,

Searle…says that “According to the atomic theory of matter, the universe consists entirely of extremely small physical phenomena that we find it convenient, though not entirely accurate, to call `particles’.” (p. 86)

But could he possibly find the place in some comprehensive scientific text or treatment, or some technical paper, where it is demonstrated or assumed by the science that all that exists consists of `particles’? Would he care to mention the name of the physicist who established this “obvious fact of physics”? Exactly where in the “atomic theory of matter” is the claim about what “the universe consists entirely of” to be found? “After all,” he says, “do we not know from the discoveries of science that there is really nothing in the universe but physical particles and fields of forces acting on physical particles?” But he does not point out when, where, how and by whom this “discovery of science” was made. Was it made?

In Searle’s – and many of the “new atheists” thinking – we see the pretension of “scientism.” I’m all for real science, and Christians certainly have nothing to be afraid of from scientists. We wouldn’t have modern science without Christianity, so we are not obscurantists. But what we object to is the false claim that “science is all we need” to explain everything about the universe, or as Carl Sagan popularized it: “The universe is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be.”



Written by Michael Duenes

November 2, 2010 at 10:11 pm

Posted in Duenes, Philosophy, Science

5 Responses

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  1. I would argue a couple of points mentioned here. Specifically, I think it is manifest that no such system exists that “provides an exhaustive list of what sorts of ultimate things there are.” -So to call out “science” for not accomplishing this feat is a phantom argument. However, does science provide an exhaustive list of things that are known to exist? Yes it does. Can any given religious worldview offer the same? None that I have ever encountered.

    From this perspective, the “scientific worldview” is the most comprehensive and utilitarian worldview to date. Nothing is presumed to exist under a scientific worldview that has not been observed or measured to exist (directly or indirectly), which while a precautionary principle of sorts, is one that would have certainly saved our ancestors much trouble from the weather demons and illness demigods of old.

    Indeed, no single scientific theory claims to explain everything. But each scientific discipline, having “divided and conquered,” so-to-speak, breaks down the nature of existence into manageable parts. So, as Dallas Willard mentions, a long, conjunctive sentence linking the various scientific disciplines does indeed define a comprehensive understanding of what is known to exist, and by extension, what is known to be available to existence. In this way, an understanding of what it means to exist is developed. Just because Willard claims this to be metaphysically unsatisfactory, (which by definition sits beyond what the scientific worldview would acknowledge represents anything other than abstraction,) does not mean that this worldview is physically unsatisfactory – which is the entire point of a scientific worldview. And to boot, honest scientific principles do not rule out the existence of something simply because of an absence of evidence. However, unlike much in metaphysics, a scientific worldview does not presume the existence of anything prior to measurable evidence of its existence, and it does supply a mechanism to rule out the existence of something: by devising a refutable hypothetical scenario and testing it. Metaphysics supplies no such mechanism.

    As for the alleged lacking assertion or scientific discovery about the nature of the universe, the “universe is made entirely of” statement, it can be found, quite simply, in the first law of thermodynamics. Matter can neither be created or destroyed – only changed in form. And hence, if matter is known to be composed of quantum particles, themselves equivalent to energy, and this understanding produces, predicts, and accounts for all known phenomena to date, and considering that nothing is presumed to exist without evidence of its existence, then yes – the discovery of this, the laws of thermodynamics, the nature of matter, and the nature of energy – the very nature of known existence in the universe – has been made and continues to be made as a conjunctive string of the latest discoveries in quantum mechanics, classical physics, and relativistic physics. In this light, it seems to me that Willard’s metaphysical arm-waving is surprisingly ignorant of the state of modern scientific understanding, (unless he claims metaphysical existences are hiding in cosmological Dark Energy, which is currently being researched… But I doubt that is his implication.)

    Further, unlike religious worldviews, the obvious objection to this statement is systemically addressed. “But what if there is more to existence?” one asks? — If more to the universe exists than particles, energy, and the fundamental forces that accompany them, the good news for adherents of the “scientific worldview” is that science itself is not closed. It is an open, evolving understanding. So, should evidence of further planes or types of existence come to light, such evidence will be examined, tested, and incorporated into the “scientific worldview” in due course.

    Science has been all we need to explain existence in the universe so far, from stars to squid, from violent human impulses to volcanoes, and from gravity to grains of sand. Until we find phenomena that science simply finds itself incapable of addressing, I don’t personally see any reason why this array of practical scientific theories, itself forming a matrix of universal understanding, is anything other than what Searle purports.

    Two cents.


    November 3, 2010 at 10:14 pm

    • You’ve given a well-articulated and thoughtful comment. I’ll have to think on it a bit and either comment in response or write a post in response. I appreciate you taking the time. My initial thought, however, is to say that you’ve assumed that the scientific enterprise can even get off the ground without metaphysical assumptions. At least that’s what I think you’re saying. If so, I think that some questions need to be asked, one of which would be: Why should scientists think that what they are seeing is actually what exists? Who or what in science tells them that the eye and their own thoughts are reliable? Can empirical science answer this question? Has it?

      More to come.



      November 3, 2010 at 11:29 pm

      • I would like to thank you as well for offering a measured and thoughtful reply. All-too-often I have found it practically impossible to hold an honest discussion of ideas along these lines, as the content is so emotionally-charged or intentionally antagonistic these days. (And, while I don’t always have the time for in-depth discussions, I find myself with the time now and am taking advantage of it!)

        As for your question, the relationship between physical science and metaphysics has always been a personally curious intersection to me. You’re right in that I believe that the scientific enterprise can get off the ground without metaphysics at all, in a strict utilitarian sense. (I can hear the philosophers screaming now.) To the point, I would argue that science *is* off the ground, is famoulsy successful so far (at least in its endeavor to describe and predict physical phenomena), and that science did it without the metaphysical underpinnings that logically support the endeavor. (i.e., most of the scientific experimentation that has resulted in new breakthroughs, theories, and frameworks was done, well, practically, not philosophically.)

        If I read you right, your subsequent question is really simply, “Can scientists be sure of objective reality?” -(I should add that this is an issue I’ve grappled with for quite some time, myself, before coming up with a personally satisfactory answer.) I would claim that empirical science can, in fact, address this question. Further, I believe that there is evidence to support the reality that I see being the same reality that you see, and there is an empirical means to verify it.

        My father is red-green colorblind. He cannot see pink, brown looks green, and purple appears blue. Our perception of the universe is clearly not the same. This brought home to me at a very early age what some claim is evidence against even the possibility of objective reality, while opening the universe to infinite possibilities of existence and experience. How can anyone know that what I see is a green color looks anything to me like what a green color looks to you? Does this mean that “green” does not even really exist?

        However, whereas many (most?) stop the intellectual exploration of empirical reality there, accepting that there can be no such thing as objective reality, few realize that science has risen a step above this conundrum. It is, scientifically, actually irrelevant what your green looks like compared to my green. The point is that green-colored light has specific, measurable atributes, like wavelength, frequency, and intensity. So, no matter how our perception of the color “green” differs, you and I can identify the color we are referring to, empirically measure its attributes, and agree that these attributes represent the color green in the reality we share, operate in, and use to explore relationships in the universe. These attributes have never been found to vary, though our personal perceptions of them might differ. This is a metaphor for the entire concept of a scientific worldview.

        In this way, a scientific worldview accepts our biological limitations and simply moves beyond them. No single person defines what it is to be green, yellow, 2 kilograms in weight, a meter long, or any other measurable attribute. These attributes are instead defined by using multiple measurers (researchers, observers, etc.,) and tools (artificial senses) we know to be much more accurate than our own senses, and by testing and verifying these results with better and better tools or methods over time, all the while identifying and acknowledging their limitations (percent error). If what scientists “see” does not actually exist, it seems a logical impossibility (or quite a cosmic conspiracy!) that different perceptions, either human or of different technical natures, “see” the same attributes independently, (e.g., wavelengths of light, densities of material, properties of energy, etc.). This, to me, establishes the idea that objective reality exists, though we only truly confirm or understand its existence by mistrusting our own personal senses and relying on more reliable means of measuring it.

        Our personal reality, then, is just an approximation of empirical reality. (My Dad swore the pink carpet was gray. However, that carpet reflected the same wavelength of light for him as they do for me. Our different biologies just led us to percieve it differently.)

        I don’t think it would be an overstatement for me to say, then, that for someone with a “scientific worldview,” our own experiences are not “believed” as strongly as information obtained by more accurate or reliable (i.e., “scientific”) methods. We take our own experiences with a grain of salt until we can collect other researchers, measurement equipment, and controlled methods to verify that we are not metaphorically (or literally) colorblind.

        So far as I understand it, this manner of understanding the universe has been consistent (and self-improving!) since it began.

        Two more cents.


        November 4, 2010 at 10:36 am

      • Thank you again for taking the time. I think you misread my response. I assumed, correctly, that you believe that the scientific enterprise CAN get off the ground without metaphysics. I believe that it cannot. But, I’ve written a detailed response to your initial comment, which I will post and I hope will help articulate my thoughts better.



        November 4, 2010 at 6:29 pm

      • *grin* – Actually, I think you misread my response. I understood very well that you do not believe science can function without metaphysics. I only said you were right in thinking that I believe it can, not that you yourself believed it can. In any case, I look forward to reading your response, and take care.



        November 5, 2010 at 11:09 pm

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