Atheism (and Theism) vs. Reality: The Church of Scientific Realism I
The premise of materialistic science is basically that science—in the sense of real, positive and empirical knowledge—can only subsist in what is physical; and that in the non-physical there can be no science, so that the scientific method neglects it and abandons it, by lack of authority, to belief, to the dull and arbitrary abstractions of philosophy, or to the “exigencies” of sentiment and morality. —Julius Evola
Long ago, when I was living in Burma/Myanmar, a recurring theme in the philosophical essays I wrote was philosophical bashing of scriptural dogmatism, since most Buddhists in Burma/Myanmar are fundamentalist scriptural dogmatists—that is, they consider everything in the Pali texts, and even in the medieval commentarial literature, to be 100% gospel truth, even if they don’t follow it. Even most western monks living there appear to be scriptural dogmatists of a sort, and try to win arguments by saying things like, “That is wrong, because in M___ (pick a number) the Buddha says otherwise.”
Then when I returned to America in 2011 I found that Buddhist scriptural dogmatism in the west is negligible, even practically nonexistent. Most western Buddhists don’t know or care all that much about the Pali texts, and western readers of my older stuff would see my older repeated attacks on unquestioning scriptural dogmatism as being rather pointless. Instead, the western lay Buddhists with whom I was interacting tended to be worldly liberal boomers…who happened to believe more in scientific materialism than in Dhamma, even though they considered themselves to be Theravada Buddhists (often without knowing how to pronounce “Theravada” correctly). Many of them were so sold on materialism that they didn’t even believe in liberation, i.e. the transcendence of Samsara. So, in my philosophical essays during that time a recurring theme was the bashing of scientific realism, a.k.a. Scientism.
Now, at the time of the dispensation of this here blog, western civilization is in full swing towards postmodernism; and although there is some validity to that approach to truth and reality, the cultural Marxist left have taken it to such insane lengths that an occasional theme on this site is the bashing of the very postmodern idea that truth is nothing more than a cultural construct. It has even caused me to rethink somewhat my previous bashing of scientific realism. But since the topic at hand is atheism, and since most atheists in the west and elsewhere tend to be materialists or scientific realists who say “When you’re dead you’re dead,” I return to the previous blog’s recurring theme of bashing scientism.
Scientific realism, or scientism, simply stated, is the idea that science actually explains reality—that is, that science more or less faithfully describes a physical, pluralistic external universe that exists as described even if no conscious mind is observing it. Its adherents may even go so far as to insist that it is the only valid interpretation of reality. This is not the only possible interpretation of science, and not all scientists and philosophers of science endorse it; although most scientists and advocates of science not only endorse it, they simply cannot tell the difference between scientism and scientific empiricism itself. This is because most scientists, to say nothing of lay advocates of science, are very philosophically naive.
Another possible interpretation of science, famously endorsed by the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach, is that science doesn’t necessarily describe some objective reality independent of our own mind, but at least it evidently provides us with knowledge of recurring patterns observed in our experience that are useful to us in navigating our way through existence. This approach to science is more humble and more cautiously realistic, methinks, and I am inclined to endorse it (because of course I am not opposed to science, have a university degree in Marine Biology, and hold Charles Darwin to be one of my culture heroes), but as I say, most followers of science are philosophically naive, and maybe a little narrow-minded besides.
Scientific method itself is based upon some axioms that cannot be proven, but are necessary to adopt as a matter of convenience, for example the idea that observed patterns recurring in nature, especially the so-called Laws of Physics, are stable over time, and that the future will behave in a way essentially similar to the past. This is unavoidable; and though such assumptions are uncertain they are not to be lamented, especially so long as one realizes that the unprovable axioms are being assumed to be true for the sake of practical convenience, though ultimately unprovable.
Scientific realism on the other hand—Scientism—is a full-blown faith-based intellectual system, more sophisticated than old fashioned religious superstitions in its insistence upon evidence and the testing of hypotheses, but still fundamentally based on irrational faith. Also, like pretty much all science, it has the severe limitation of being restricted to the realm of the superficial, to what is detectable by our sense organs and by mechanical instruments, and it is thus oblivious to the transcendent and unseen, often to the point of materialists flatly declaring its nonexistence.
Scientism is an updated, more advanced version of the default metaphysic of pretty much all humans, monkeys, dogs, and chickens, namely naive realism or commonsense realism—i.e., the idea that we experience things as they really exist. A scientist will admit that this is not the case: for example the redness of an apple is not inherent in the apple itself, but is simply a symbolic interpretation of a certain wavelength of electromagnetic radiation reflecting off the apple and focused onto the retina of the eye which triggers electrochemical impulses which are interpreted as redness in the optical processing areas of the brain. In other words, the redness of an apple, not to mention its sweetness and firmness, exists only subjectively, in a perceiving mind. Even so, the assumption is that, even though we do not see reality as it really is, we see real objects in a real world, in ways that are distorted in a discernible and comprehensible way. In some ways the updated version of naive realism is more implicitly based on faith than the 1.0 version.
My purpose here isn’t to give an exhaustive refutation of scientific realism. For that I refer the curious reader to other essays, like this one, and maybe this one. But I will offer a few faith-based assumptions or axioms of scientism that cannot be proven, but which are taken as gospel truth as a matter of subliminal emotional faith, as examples demonstrating my point.
A big one of course is the assumption that a physical universe doing its thing independent of conscious perception even exists. Instrumentalism does not make this fundamental error—not the error of assuming it, but the error of insisting that the assumption is necessarily true. This is two faith-based assumptions really: the assumption that the universe continues doing its thing with no consciousness observing it, and the assumption that physical matter even exists. Scientists can provide evidence that these assumptions appear to be quite true, like evidence of astronomical phenomena that presumably took place billions of years ago; but they cannot in any way demonstratively PROVE them to be true. They simply consider these assumptions to be so likely, or even obvious, that they are not really bothered really to get to the bottom of the situation, which they couldn’t do anyway. And anyone who remains skeptical is viewed as a soft-headed loon.
One of the easiest ways of demonstrating my point here, and one of my favorites, is an appeal to George Berkeley. He developed, way back in the early 18th century, a philosophy called immaterialism, which asserts that in all this universe there are only two things: minds, and perceptions. No physical matter at all. How it works is that there is a central, coordinating mind, namely God, who implants perceptions into every other mind as though there is a physical, objective universe. So we all live in a kind of virtual reality or waking dream, with God coordinating our experiences so that they dovetail with everyone else’s experiences. Now, I personally don’t think Berkeley was correct, just as pretty much nobody else in the world thinks he was correct nowadays; but even so, I have to admit that even though I think he’s wrong, I can’t prove that he is wrong. How on earth could somebody prove that this world isn’t just a dream created by God, merely resembling a physical universe? I don’t think it could be done. For the past few hundred years philosophers (let alone Samuel Johnson, who tried to refute Berkeley by merely kicking a rock) have attempted to prove him wrong, but I am unaware of anyone really succeeding. But the thing is, so long as an advocate of scientific realism is unable to prove Berkeley wrong (and good luck with that), by the same token he is unable to prove that his beloved physical universe really exists—and also by the same token he is unable to prove that scientism isn’t bullshit. And remember, it’s not science that is in question here, but only a certain interpretation of science, which most scientists are too naive to differentiate from actual science.
(The best attempted refutation of immaterialism that I can think of, incidentally, would be a psychological refutation of pluralism, or multiplicity, à la Parmenides or some of the Indian mystics. But this would lead towards a higher conception of God or the Absolute, and further away from the objective, pluralistic physical universe of scientific realism.)
I suspect what I’ve written thus far is a sufficient mass of words and ideas to choke the average person trying to follow along, so I suppose I should stop here, and continue bashing scientism next time.