Why Knowledge Requires More Than Science

Author Aaron Brake Published on 09/19/2018

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy (not science) that deals with how knowledge is defined, what we know, and how we know it. Richard Dawkins summarizes one view of epistemology in the first chapter of his book The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True:

We come to know what is real, then, in one of three ways. We can detect it directly, using our five senses; or indirectly, using our senses aided by special instruments such as telescopes and microscopes; or even more indirectly, by creating models of what might be real and then testing those models to see whether they successfully predict things that we can see (or hear, etc.), with or without the aid of instruments. Ultimately, it always comes back to our senses, one way or another.

According to this view of epistemology, all knowledge concerning reality comes through the five senses. If you can’t see, touch, taste, smell, or hear it, you can’t know it. How we know what’s true “always comes back to our senses, one way or another.” We can phrase it this way:

All knowledge concerning reality is acquired through the five senses.

The problem with this view is immediately obvious. The belief “all knowledge concerning reality is acquired through the five senses” is not itself acquired through the five senses, i.e., there is nothing you can see, touch, taste, smell, or hear from which you can deduce that all knowledge concerning reality is acquired through the five senses. This is a philosophical claim (not scientific) and cannot be justified or grounded in any sensory experience. The claim is self-refuting.

Science Is Only One Way to Discover What Is True

Science is good, but science isn’t everything. Science is only one way to discover what is true, but it is not the only way. Anyone who says otherwise is no longer practicing science but rather “scientism.” This is the view, philosopher J.P. Moreland says, that “science is the only paradigm of truth and rationality.... Everything outside of science is a matter of mere belief and subjective opinion, of which rational assessment is impossible.” While there are both weak and strong versions of scientism, Dawkins seems to make his bed in the camp of strong scientism, according to which you can’t know something unless you can prove it scientifically (using, of course, the five senses). This is an attempt to elevate science and sensory experience to an illegitimate and unreasonable level.

No doubt Dawkins’s scientism is influenced by his prior commitment to philosophical naturalism. Ironically, even this commitment (to philosophical naturalism) shows that his philosophy comes before his science, thus again undermining his own self-refuting epistemology. We could ask Dawkins how he knows philosophical naturalism to be true, a belief which would be impossible for him to justify based on anything he can see, touch, taste, smell, or hear. The very fact that Dawkins deals with the topic of epistemology in chapter one of his book before moving on to scientific issues again demonstrates the priority and presumption of philosophy over science (as well as the inability of science to justify his philosophy).

Science Presupposes Philosophy

Philosophers of science understand that science is dependent on philosophy, not philosophy on science. You can do philosophy without science, but you can’t do science without philosophy. Even the question “What is science?” is philosophical in nature (not scientific) and therefore should be addressed by philosophers of science. The project of science could not even be undertaken without taking certain philosophical assumptions for granted. In Love Your God with All Your Mind, J.P. Moreland lists some philosophical presuppositions that science assumes:

  • the existence of a theory independent, external world
  • the orderly nature of the external world
  • the knowability of the external world
  • the existence of truth
  • the laws of logic
  • the reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties to serve as truth gatherers and as a source of justified beliefs in our intellectual environment
  • the adequacy of language to describe the world
  • the existence of values used in science (for example, “test theories fairly and report test results honestly”)
  • the uniformity of nature and induction
  • the existence of numbers and mathematical truths

Not only must science assume the truthfulness of each of these philosophical presuppositions, but sensory experience will never be able to serve as the justification or warrant for these beliefs.

What Science Can’t Account For

In a 1998 debate, William Lane Craig faced off against Peter Atkins on the question “What is the Evidence For/Against the Existence of God? During the debate, Peter Atkins made the claim that science can account for everything and is “omnipotent.” When questioned by Atkins regarding what science can’t account for, Craig listed the following five examples of things that cannot be scientifically proven but that we are all rational to accept:

  1. Logical and mathematical truths
  2. Metaphysical truths
  3. Ethical beliefs about statements of value
  4. Aesthetic judgments
  5. Science itself

Anyone who espouses scientism has placed himself on the horns of an epistemological dilemma. Either all knowledge concerning reality is acquired through the five senses, or it is not. If all knowledge concerning reality is not acquired through the five senses, then scientism is wrong. But if all knowledge concerning reality is acquired through the five senses, the belief itself that “all knowledge concerning reality is acquired through the five senses” cannot itself be known since that belief is not acquired through the five senses, and so scientism is again wrong. So, if scientism is wrong, it’s wrong; but if it’s right, it’s wrong as well. The epistemology is self-refuting.