Why Strong Scientism is Self-Refuting

October 3, 2018

You can help break the grip of strong scientism on people's thinking by showing how it is self-refuting.

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What is a self-refuting statement? Such a statement has three features: (1) The claim establishes some requirement of acceptability for an assertion (such as having to be empirically verifiable). (2) The claim places itself in subjection to the requirement. (3) Then the claim falls short of satisfying the requirement of acceptability that the assertion itself stipulates. In other words, when a statement is included in its own subject matter (i.e., when it refers to itself) but fails to satisfy its own standards of acceptability, it is self-refuting.

Self-refuting statements can come in many forms. Take a look at these examples:

• “All sentences are exactly three words long.”
• “I cannot utter a word of English” (spoken in English).
• “I do not exist.”
• “This sentence is false.”
• “Truths can only be verified by the five senses or by science.”

If we look closely at these sentences, we will see how each satisfies the criteria for being self-refuting. We must first be careful to make sure the statement refers to itself. The statement must be a part of its own subject matter.

Here’s the key point to remember: self-refuting statements do not just happen to be false; instead, they are necessarily false. No amount of future research will show that these statements are true after all.

So, test your understanding: is the following statement of strong scientism self-refuting?

“Only what is testable by science can be true.”

Let’s check it against the three criteria we saw for a self-refuting statement.

1. Does this statement establish a requirement of acceptability?

Yes: it says that something must be testable to be true.

2. Does this statement place itself in subjection to the requirement?

Yes: it purports to convey truth.

3. Does this statement fall short of satisfying its own requirement?

Yes: this is a philosophical statement about science that cannot
itself be tested by science.

Not only is strong scientism false, but it is self-refuting. In addition, nothing will ever be discovered that can change this. No amount of future research or blockbuster discoveries can show that a self-refuting statement was true after all. Since the statement “Only what is testable by science can be true” will never itself be testable by science, a skeptic cannot respond by saying, “There may be no current evidence for its truth, but someday science will advance to the point of proving that it is true after all.” In other words, it is not only false and self-refuting, but it is necessarily so. No further scientific discoveries could make the statement true, so the skeptic’s response expresses a misunderstanding that the statement and others like it (see above) are necessarily false.

The irony is that strong scientism is a philosophical statement, expressing an epistemological viewpoint about science; it is not a statement of science, like “water is H2O” or “cats are mammals.” Strong scientism is a philosophical assertion that claims that philosophical assertions are neither true nor can be known; only scientific assertions can be true and known. Christians, therefore, should not be intellectually intimidated when they hear very smart people with advanced degrees sitting in positions of authority say things that are self-refuting.

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About J.P. Moreland

J.P. Moreland is the Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Biola University.

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