November 17, 2018
Scientism claims that it has cognitive superiority over all other fields of knowledge and study. But what if there are things that we can know with greater certainty, and in different ways, than we know the claims of the hard sciences?
Consider the importance of the laws of logic and of basic mathematics. But what is it about these areas of knowledge that set them above science? They have two characteristics that are worth noting.
First, the laws of logic and basic mathematics are known in an a priori manner, by direct rational intuition or awareness, without appealing to sense experience to justify them. One can just “rationally see” that the basic laws of logic and math are true. And just like a doctor, a trained logician or mathematician is able to “rationally see” more when looking at a chain of logical or mathematical reasoning than is an untrained layperson. His intuitive awareness stretches beyond that of those who are untrained.
By contrast, the theories and laws of science are, in one way or another, known in an a posteriori fashion, eventually requiring an appeal to observation and sense experience. And for any set of observational data, there is always more than one law or theory consistent with those data. This does not mean that, in such cases, there is no law or theory that is superior to its rivals. But that claim must be made by appealing to cognitive values like simplicity, empirical accuracy, predictive success, scope of explanatory power, and so forth.
And sometimes, if there are two rival theories, advocates of one theory may elevate one value (e.g., simplicity) while the advocates of the rival theory elevate another value (e.g., scope of explanatory power). When this happens, it often becomes hard to know which theory is the best one. It is generally (though not universally) agreed that greater rational certainty is available for a priori truths than for a posteriori truths.
The second characteristic of truths in logic and mathematics is that if they are true, they are necessary truths. It is impossible for them to be false. Even God could not create a world in which 2 + 2 = 57.68. God could not create a world in which something is both true and false at the same time in the same way (e.g., it is raining and not raining at a specific location and time).
By contrast, scientific truths are contingent. Even if a scientific principle is true, it could have been false. It is possible, for example, to imagine a world with different laws of nature, like a world with a different law of gravity, or a world with no gravity at all; a world with a different type of matter, or a world with no matter at all (e.g., a world with only angels in it).
Someone might object that the law stating that “water is H2O” is a necessary truth. However, this is not quite correct. To be sure, any possible world that has in it what amounts to water in our world necessarily has H2O in it. But unlike the truths of logic and basic mathematics, there could easily be worlds without any water in them at all. In those worlds, the statement “water is H2O” is false because there is no such thing as water in those worlds like water is in our world. The conditional statement “If there were water in these worlds, there would be H2O” would be true, but the basic assertion that, in those worlds, “water is H2O,” would be false.
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