Why Is “Scientism” False? Part 1

Posted on May 13, 2013 by


Post Author: Bill Pratt 

ScientismMany atheists believe that reality consists of only what physics can describe. This viewpoint is also known as scientism. They point to the fact that the progress of physics over the past few hundred years has been astounding and that the mathematical descriptions of the natural world, given us by physics, have brought us technological advances that our ancestors could not have imagined.

While I completely agree with the success of physics, it simply does not follow that because physics has been successful, that only what physics describes exists. Edward Feser also sees that this argument is fallacious. He criticizes one of the foremost proponents of it, atheist Alex Rosenberg. According to Feser, here is Rosenberg’s basic argument:

1. The predictive power and technological applications of physics are unparalleled by those of any other purported source of knowledge.
2. Therefore what physics reveals to us is all that is real.
What does Feser think of this argument? He thinks it is bad, spectacularly bad. In order to demonstrate just how bad the argument is, he compares it to the following metal detector argument:
1. Metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins and other metallic objects in more places than any other method has.
2. Therefore what metal detectors reveal to us (coins and other metallic objects) is all that is real.

Feser explains the problem with the metal detector argument:

Metal detectors are keyed to those aspects of the natural world susceptible of detection via electromagnetic means (or whatever).  But however well they perform this task — indeed, even if they succeeded on every single occasion they were deployed — it simply wouldn’t follow for a moment that there are no aspects of the natural world other than the ones they are sensitive to.
And so by analogy, why does Rosenberg’s argument fail?
Similarly, what physics does — and there is no doubt that it does it brilliantly — is to capture those aspects of the natural world susceptible of the mathematical modeling that makes precise prediction and technological application possible.  But here too, it simply doesn’t follow for a moment that there are no other aspects of the natural world.
Rosenberg, however, is frustrated with theists who want the benefits of physics, but who deny that physics explains all of reality. He believes that it is a package deal. In part 2, we will look at Rosenberg’s complaint and Feser’s response.
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