The Faulty Foundations Of A Scientific Credo

“I only believe what is scientifically verifiable.”

This is a popular sentiment utilized in arguments against the existence of God.

The only problem is that it is itself not scientifically verifiable. Thus, a scientific epistemology faces the same dilemma as a relativistic epistemology (epistemology being a view of knowledge). For example, the proposition that “All truth is relative” is an absolute truth claim. It refutes itself, as does the claim “All truth is empirical.” Both the relativism and the empiricism claims cannot survive their own logic.

Let me explain. I understand why people are repelled by the superstition of many “religious” people, particularly from what is often called the “Dark Ages.” However, I’m not sure a strictly empirical view of truth is the best solution. I’m being coy. I’m confident that it is not.

I’ve met several people who would accept such a view, though I’ve never met anyone who actually lives accordingly. Not only is it flawed from the beginning, it is also unlivable. Most people live as though things like mind, personality, free will, beauty, and morality are tangible parts of reality.

The scientific epistemology is flawed from the beginning because it cannot survive its own test. It cuts it own legs off in the attempt to stand as an absolute axiom upon which all knowledge is built.  I understand why some people choose such an epistemology. I’m just not convinced that anyone holds such a view based on science. It seems there are prior commitments involved.

Perhaps I should just let someone who holds such an epistemology describe it for themselves. The following quote is from Richard Lewontin’s 1997 New York Time’s book review. Lewontin holds the following titles at Harvard University: Professor of Biology Emeritus, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Emeritus.

In his review of a Carl Sagan book, he offers a telling description of the priorities involved in the scientific epistemology:

“We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

For Lewontin, it is an a priori commitment (a belief not based on empirical evidence) to materialism (nothing exists apart from matter) that leads his scientific methodologies and interpretations.  For, as he so clearly states, “We cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

In a review of Lewontin’s review (that’s a lot of reviewing), Wayne Booth from the University of Chicago reflects on the challenges of Lewontin’s commitment to a scientific epistemology:

“About most of the issues that we care about, hard science can teach us nothing, but that does not mean that when science fails what is left is irrationality. What is left are a broad range of more or less rational arguments, to be tested not in the laboratory but in the courts of reasonable discussion. The brilliant, learned Lewontin might well start his re-education by settling into a careful reading—or re-reading?—of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Then he could do a book tracing the non-scientific rhetorics, defensible and indefensible, of various prominent scientists.”

Science has much to teach us. But there is still much to learn. There are questions science cannot answer. Science is wonderful. It is not absolute.

That is unless  you are committed to keeping a Divine Foot from cracking open the door. If you hold such a commitment, then you will of course seek to negate everything that does not have a scientific explanation. Everything, that is, except for the foundational credo upon which the whole thing is built.



Richard Lewontin, Billions and billions of demons (review of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, 1997), The New York Review, p. 31, 9 January 1997. Available online for subscription: here

Wayne Booth’s response also available at New York Times Book Review website: here