Physicist Robert Oerter has added some further installments to his series of posts on my book The Last Superstition, including a reply to some of my criticisms of his criticisms of the book. I will respond to his latest remarks in a forthcoming post, but before doing so it seemed to me that it would be useful to make some general remarks about certain misunderstandings that have not only cropped up in my exchange with Oerter and in the combox discussions it has generated, but which frequently arise in disputes about natural theology (and, for that matter, in disputes about natural law ethics and about the immateriality and immortality of the soul). In particular, they tend to arise in disputes about what we might call classicalnatural theology -- natural theology grounded in philosophical premises deriving from the Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, and/or Scholastic traditions.
To understand the arguments of classical natural theology -- arguments like Aquinas’s Five Ways, for example -- you need to understand the difference between empirical science on the one hand and metaphysics and the philosophy of nature on the other. And you need to understand how the attitudes that classical philosophers (Aristotelians, Neo-Platonists, Thomists and other Scholastics) take toward these three fields of study differs from the attitudes common among modern philosophers (whether early modern philosophers like Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, and Co., or the average contemporary academic philosopher, who has -- often unreflectively -- inherited his basic philosophical assumptions from the early moderns). For the arguments in question are grounded in the philosophy of nature (and in some cases in metaphysics) and not in natural science; and they are grounded in a classical rather than modern philosophical understanding of the three fields and their relationship to one another. (I addressed this issue in a recent lecture which you can watch via YouTube. What follows is some conceptual and historical background to what I said there.)
What is the philosophy of nature?
Metaphysics, as traditionally defined in Aristotelian philosophy, is “the science of being qua being.” What that means is that it is not concerned merely with this or that kind of being, but with being as such, with what is true of anything whatsoever that does have or could have being. Thus it is concerned with questions like: What is it to be a substance? What is an essence? What is it to exist? What is it to have quantity? What is a quality? What are universals and what is their relationship to particulars? And so forth.
Empirical science, as it is typically understood in modern times, studies material reality by developing quantitative models and testing them by observation and experiment. That, at any rate, is the paradigm, which is why physics -- with its mathematical formulae, rigorous predictions and technological applications, and discovery of strict laws -- is commonly regarded as the gold standard of science.
The philosophy of nature is a middle ground field of study, lying between metaphysics and empirical science. Unlike metaphysics, it is not concerned with being as such, but with changeable, empirical reality in particular. But neither is it concerned merely with the specific natures of the changeable, empirical things that happen to exist. It is rather concerned with what must be true of anyworld of changeable, empirical things of the sort we might have scientific knowledge of, whatever their specific natures and thus whatever turn out to be the specific laws in terms of which they operate. Nor is the philosophy of nature concerned merely with the quantitative aspects of material things, but with every aspect of their nature. In Aristotelian philosophy of nature, these fundamental features of any possible empirical reality (or at least any sort we might have scientific knowledge of) include act and potency, substantial form and prime matter, efficient and final causality, and so forth. (That is not to say that some of these concepts don’t also have broader metaphysical significance. But the philosophy of nature approaches them from the point of view of the role they play in making sense of the empirical world, specifically.)
Now one immediate source of potential confusion is the fact that the terms in question are not used by all writers on these subjects in quite this way. Contemporary analytic philosophers tend to use the term “metaphysics” in a broader sense that includes not only what Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophers would think of as “metaphysics,” but also questions that fall under the philosophy of nature. For example, in contemporary analytic metaphysics one finds discussion of whether fundamental physical entities have essences in virtue of which they behave in the ways they characteristically do, whether there are categorical as well as dispositional properties in nature, whether dispositions posses a kind of “physical intentionality” or “natural intentionality” insofar as they are directed toward their typical manifestations, and so forth. This is (even if not all the metaphysicians in question realize it) more or less a revival of Aristotelian and Scholastic notions like substantial form, act and potency, final causality, and the like. And it often arises in contexts where what is at issue is how to interpret the results of modern physics. Hence it really amounts to a revival of the philosophy of nature -- and is sometimes presented as such -- but is nevertheless commonly regarded as part of “metaphysics.”
Aristotelian writers, meanwhile, sometimes use terms like “science” and “physics” in a way that includes theses in the philosophy of nature. This reflects the older, broader Aristotelian understanding of what it is to be a “science” and of what is included in the domain of “physics,” and is a perfectly defensible usage of the terms. But it is so different from the way most people use the terms these days that it seems to me that clarity is better served by following the practice of more recent Aristotelian and Scholastic writers of letting “science” and “physics” retain more or less their current meanings, and then using “philosophy of nature” to cover the sorts of topics I cited as characteristic of that field of study.
A further complicating factor is that much of what falls under the label “science” these days doesn’t really fit the physics paradigm, whatever people like Alex Rosenberg think. Indeed, even some of what physicists themselves say is really philosophy rather than physics. Thus, when physicists pronounce upon the nature of physical law, or causality, or the role of the observer in physical systems, they are really (in part) doing philosophy of nature, metaphysics, or epistemology rather than physics. And when some contemporary scientists and philosophers of science suggest an “emergentist” or “non-reductive physicalist” interpretation of certain chemical, biological, or psychological phenomena, they are really rediscovering (albeit in an often piecemeal or inchoate way) Aristotelian notions like substantial form, immanent final causality, etc. -- and in the process rediscovering that natural phenomena cannot be exhaustively described in the quantitative terms characteristic of physics, but require for their analysis the conceptual tools provided by the philosophy of nature.
Now if we nevertheless insist on counting these sorts of claims as part of “science,” then we are in effect returning to something like the older, broader Aristotelian sense of the term -- a sense that includes the sorts of theses I’ve characterized as part of the philosophy of nature. If instead we go along with the modern conceit that something falls short of “real” science to the extent that it fails to conform to the mathematical and predictive techniques of physics and/or fails to be reducible to what physics tells us exists, then (the Aristotelian will argue) this entails that “science,” so defined, captures only certain aspects of material reality, and philosophy of nature captures the rest.
In any event, it is, as I have said, in premises drawn from the philosophy of nature (and in some cases in premises drawn from metaphysics), rather than in premises derived from science in the modern narrow sense, that the arguments of classical natural theology are grounded. (The same thing is true, at least to a large extent, of arguments in classical natural law theory and in classical arguments regarding the existence and nature of the soul. For example, Thomistic natural law theory is grounded in the idea that human beings have an essence in the sense of having an immanent nature or substantial form. Hence, while discovering the details of human nature is something to which empirical science is relevant, the question of whether we have such a nature in the first place is not a question for empirical science, but a question for the philosophy of nature. By the same token, since for the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, the human soul is the substantial form of a human being, and intellect and will are powers inherent in anything having such a form, human action -- and thus questions about free will -- can only properly be understood in terms of concepts derived from philosophy of nature. And so forth.)
Classical versus modern philosophy
Early modern philosophy was defined more than anything else by its rejection of the Aristotelian-Scholastic apparatus of act and potency, substantial form and prime matter, final causality, etc. -- that is to say, by its rejection of the Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophy of nature. Now in one sense, what the early moderns put in its place was an alternative, “mechanistic” philosophy of nature, central to which was the insistence that there is in the material world nothing like substantial forms or immanent natures and nothing like immanent or “built in” teleology. But in another sense, precisely because this alternative philosophy of nature was essentially negative, defined only by the Aristotelian ideas it rejected rather than in terms of any positive content (or at least was entirely negative after earlier aspects of mechanism like push-pull causation were abandoned), the effect was that philosophy of nature as a field of study largely disappeared. Empirical science came to be seen as giving us the wholetruth about the material world rather than only the quantifiable aspects of material world.
Now the story is in fact more complicated than this. Despite his hostility to Scholasticism, Descartes’ work is permeated with Scholastic ideas (albeit they are put to anti-Scholastic use). Writers like Locke attempted to formulate, in a manner consistent with the new “mechanical philosophy,” something like the older Aristotelian-Scholastic idea that material objects have inherent powers. Newton and others thought that extrinsic final causes -- teleology imposed on the world entirely from outside, by God -- were necessary for a complete account of the natural world. But gradually these ghosts of the older Scholastic framework disappeared and the view that the material world as described by physics just is the material world full stop came to prevail. There have, of course, always been dissenters who pointed out that this cannot be right -- that the abstract mathematical structure described by physics cannot be the whole story, since there needs to be some concrete reality to have this structure. Idealists, process philosophers, and neutral monists would make diverse suggestions about the nature of this underlying reality -- seeking, in effect, a new philosophy of nature that would allow them to resist reductionism without returning to Aristotelianism. And Neo-Scholastics would, of course, continue to uphold the Aristotelian position. But materialists and their Cartesian opponents alike would come to treat natural science as if it gave us an exhaustive description of material reality. And since materialism and Cartesianism came to seem the main alternatives in general metaphysics, the philosophy of nature as a field of study largely dropped off the radar screen.
As this middle ground field of study virtually disappeared, metaphysics on the one hand and natural science on the other came to seem the only avenues of investigation of reality. And metaphysics no less than science was transformed as a consequence of the abandonment of the Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophy of nature. For Aristotelian metaphysics itself can be seen to be an outgrowth of the philosophy of nature. Consider the theory of act and potency. It originated as a response to the view of Parmenides and Zeno that change and multiplicity are illusions. It is thus central to the Aristotelian account of how it is possible for there to be a world of diverse empirical, changing things susceptible of scientific study. But these notions end up having a completely general application. Being, the core notion of metaphysics, is inseparable from the notion of act or actuality. Though metaphysics takes us well beyond the natural world, then, its concepts have a foundation in our empirical knowledge of that world -- to be sure, not necessarily in the knowledge of the specifics of the empirical world that natural science gives us, but in the knowledge of what must be true of any empirical world in general, which the philosophy of nature gives us.
But when this middle ground discipline was effectively abandoned, metaphysics could no longer be given such a foundation. Moreover, general epistemology was bound to be transformed as well, since the epistemology of the Scholastics had also been grounded in Aristotelian concepts. Empiricism and rationalism would fill the void, and radically alter not only epistemology, but metaphysics as well. Now for the Aristotelian no less than for the empiricist, all of our concepts and all knowledge must ultimately derive from experience. But for the Aristotelian, concepts are irreducible to images or phantasms, so that strictly intellectual activity, though grounded in sensation and imagination, ultimately outstripssensation and imagination. (To take a simple example, our concept of triangularityhas a universality and determinacy that mental images and sensations cannot have.) The modern empiricists, by contrast, denied that there is any difference in kind between intellectual activity on the one hand and sensation and imagination on the other. (Hence to have the concept of triangularity came to be seen by them as a matter of associating a mental image of a triangle with the general term “triangle.”) The history of empiricism from Locke to Hume is a history of the gradual drawing out of the implications of this conflation -- namely complete skepticism about the very possibility of metaphysical knowledge, or indeed any knowledge at all, since this would require the having of concepts that outstrip one’s immediate sensations and mental images. (This remains true even if we interpret Hume as a kind of “skeptical realist.” Realism might for Hume be part of common life, but it still has in his view no rationalfoundation, and its hold over us rests on a kind of animal faith.)
Now the rationalists could see that intellectual activity cannot be reduced to sensation and imagination and that we have all sorts of concepts that cannot be accounted for on a modern empiricist epistemology. But rather than grounding these concepts in empirical reality by reaffirming the older, richer Aristotelian understanding of the role of experience in concept formation, the rationalists divorced our key metaphysical concepts from empirical reality altogether. Such notions were held to be a priori or even “innate.” When the doctrine of innate ideas and the notion of a priori knowledge came to seem problematic, metaphysics came in turn to seem grounded in mere “conceptual analysis” or even in contingent linguistic usage. Key metaphysical theses were thereby transformed and ultimately deflated. For example, the Aristotelian-Scholastic principle of causality -- which is intended as a claim about objective reality -- was transformed into the rationalist “principle of sufficient reason” -- a so-called “law of thought,” in effect a description of our explanatory practices. And to the extent that metaphysics came to seem little more than conceptual analysis or wordplay with no necessary connection to mind-independent or language-independent reality, the principle of sufficient reason came to seem lacking in any necessary application to the objective world -- an ungrounded insistence that the world meet our explanatory demands. Kant’s critique of metaphysics was, naturally, the sequel.
Natural theology was also radically transformed as a result of these developments. Since a thoroughgoing empiricism ultimately takes everything down with it -- natural science no less than metaphysics -- the empiricist tradition has tried to pull back from the Humean brink and modify its position in a way that will make room at least for science. Accordingly, the broadly empiricist approach to natural theology has been to transform it into a kind of scientific theorizing, making of God a “hypothesis” “postulated” as the “best explanation” of this or that natural phenomenon -- Paley’s design argument being the best-known instance of this kind of “natural theology.” Rationalists, by contrast, grounded natural theology in metaphysical rather than scientific premises, but where the metaphysical premises in question are purportedly a priori theses like the principle of sufficient reason -- Leibniz’s version of the cosmological argument being a well-known instance of this kind of natural theology. Kant’s critique of natural theology, an extension of his critique of metaphysics, lay just around the corner.
Most contemporary commentators on the issues we’re discussing, including most academic philosophers, think entirely inside the box constructed by the early moderns. If you say that metaphysics provides knowledge that natural science cannot give us, they will assume that you must believe that such knowledge has no empirical foundation but derives instead from something called “conceptual analysis.” If you say that there are solid arguments for the existence of God, they will assume that you must be committed either to something like Paley’s design argument or to some Leibnizian sort of cosmological or ontological argument. If you respond that you are talking instead about (say) Aquinas’s Five Ways, they will assume that Aquinas was just giving arguments of the sort Paley, Leibniz, et al. gave. And if you answer that the sorts of arguments you have in mind are grounded instead in the philosophy of nature, most of them will have no idea what you are talking about. They simply do not realize how radical are the differences between classical and modern authors, and how contingent and open to challenge are the assumptions made by the latter.
Some common misunderstandings
As I have indicated, ignorance of the distinction between natural science, metaphysics, and the philosophy of nature, and of the differences between the classical and modern conceptions of these three fields of study, underlies a number of common misconceptions about the arguments of classical natural theology. Here are some of them:
1. Confusing questions in philosophy of nature with questions of empirical science
When Aristotelians maintain that any actualized potential must be actualized by something already actual (a version of the principle of causality), or that there are substantial forms, or that there are final causes immanent to material processes, they are not trying to answer the sorts of questions empirical science (in the modern, narrow sense discussed above) is trying to answer. Empirical science seeks to uncover the physical causes that happento exist, or the chemical structure of the material substances that happen to exist, or what have you. The philosophy of nature is concerned with deeper questions -- for example, with what has to be true if there is to be any causality at all, or any material substances at all.
Hence, when the Aristotelian says (for example) that natural objects must have substantial forms, he is not trying to give an explanation of the sort that the modern chemist is giving. He is not claiming that we can say everything we need to know about opium simply by noting that whatever it does it does by virtue of its substantial form, and that no further chemical analysis is needed. Rather, he is saying that, whatever the specific chemical details of opium (or water, or lead, or whatever) turn out to be, if these really are natural substances about which we can have scientific knowledge, then there must be some intrinsic principle that grounds the properties that chemistry uncovers and that gives them the regularity that chemistry shows them to have. That is to say, it cannot be that a tendency toward such-and-such effects is to be found only in this or that sample of opium, but must derive from opium as such, from something common to any instance of opium; it cannot be that opium’s typical behavior derives from something extrinsic to it, but must be grounded in an inherent source; if it has causal properties that are irreducible to those of its parts, then there is a sense in which opium itself is irreducible to its parts; and so forth. Naturally we still have to do chemical analysis in order to discover the specific means by which opium brings about its characteristic effects. The Aristotelian does not deny this because he is not making a claim that is in competition with chemistry. He is rather approaching the phenomenon from a different and more fundamental level of analysis, and asking a different sort of question about it. (This is one reason Moliere-style “dormitive virtue” objections to substantial forms are puerile. I have discussed that objection in more detail in The Last Superstition and Aquinas.)
Thus, to raise considerations from physics, chemistry, biology, etc. as if they cast doubt on arguments like Aquinas’s Five Ways is simply to make a fundamental category mistake. For such arguments are not addressing the same sorts of questions addressed by natural science in the first place, but rest instead on premises derived from the philosophy of nature. Nor is the point merely that empirical science is different fromthe philosophy of nature. Natural science is less comprehensive and fundamental than the philosophy of nature. Physics in particular confines itself to those aspects of material reality susceptible of rigorous prediction and control, and thus susceptible of mathematical modeling. It deals with abstractions from concrete reality, not concrete reality itself. It does not tell us anything about the deeper nature of the substances and processes that bear the mathematically definable properties it identifies. But that deeper nature is precisely what the philosophy of nature is concerned with.
This, as I have emphasized before, is the deep reason why considerations drawn from Newtonian mechanics or quantum theory simply do nothing to undermine arguments like Aquinas’s First Way, contrary to what Oerter and others suppose. For physics does not give us anything close to a complete description of material reality in the first place. Hence, that physics makes no reference to some principle affirmed in Aristotelian philosophy of nature is neither here nor there. You might as well say: “There’s good reason to think that the scissors cannot be in any of the kitchen drawers. Therefore the scissors are nowhere in the house.”
No doubt some will object that this makes arguments like Aquinas’s “unfalsifiable” or otherwise arbitrarily immune to criticism. This is like saying that someone who insists on looking for the scissors in the rest of the house and who refuses to draw conclusions from what can be found in the kitchen drawers alone has thereby made his position unfalsifiable. Obviously such a person’s position is not unfalsifiable; rather, the range of evidence that may or may not falsify it is simply larger than is supposed by someone who is fixated on the drawers. Similarly, nothing I have said entails that the arguments of classical natural theology are not subject to rational evaluation or criticism. The claim is rather that the kind of rational evaluation and criticism to which they are subject is not the sort typical of empirical science.
2. Confusing nonessential illustrations with crucial empirical claims
A related error is the confusion of examples that are intended merely to illustrate philosophical points with purported empirical evidence for those points. For example, expositions of Thomistic arguments for the existence of God often make use of examples like that of a hand which is moving a stick in order to move a stone. One point of such examples is to introduce the idea of instrumental causality, where an instrumental cause is one whose causal power derives from something outside it, as the stick derives its power to move the stone from the hand. Another point of such examples is to introduce the idea that God is cause of the world not merely in the temporal sense of having gotten the universe going at some point billions of years ago, but in the deeper sense of keeping the universe going at every moment, just as the stick’s movement of the stone persists only insofar as it is itself kept moving by the hand.
Now when a physicist illustrates a point he is making by asking us to imagine what we might experience if we fell into a black hole or rode on a beam of light, no one thinks it a clever response to point out that photons are too small to sit on or that we would have been ripped apart by gravity long before we made it into the black hole. Such “objections” would completely miss the point. But it would similarly miss the point to insist that Aquinas is refuted by the fact that there is a very slight time lag between the motion of a stick and that of a stone it is pushing (as one hostile reader of this blog used to point out obsessively a few years back, as if it were a fatal objection). For nothing in Aquinas’s argument rides on the question of whether the motion of a stick and that of the stone it is pushing are strictly simultaneous, any more than it rides on a hand’s really being a “first” or non-instrumental cause in the relevant sense (which it obviously is not since the hand itself is moved by the arm). The example is intended merely as an illustrationto jog the reader’s understanding of abstract concepts like instrumental causality and conserving causality. And as I have argued in several places, once the homely examples in question give us a grasp of these concepts, as well as of concepts like that of the actualization of a potency, we are on the way to seeing that even the sheer existence of a thing from moment to moment (never mind its local motion) requires a sustaining cause. (For more on how properly to understand the causal claims made in arguments like the First Way, see this post, this post, and my ACPQ article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways,” which you can read online by doing a Google search and clicking “Quick View” on about the fourth search result.)
A somewhat different but related point is that the falsification of certain specific applications of theses derived from the philosophy of nature does not falsify the theses themselves. For instance, Aristotle held that the local motion of an object like a stone has the earth, specifically, as its natural end or terminus. He was wrong about that, but that does not show that there are no final causes or natural ends, any more than the falsification of phlogiston theory shows that combustion and rusting don’t have a chemical explanation. That there are, in general, final causes, substantial forms, etc. in the natural order is something the Aristotelian argues we can know from philosophical analysis. But the specific details of the nature or finality of this or that particular substance or process is something that requires careful empirical study, and claims about such details are open to empirical scientific challenge. (Compare: Most naturalists would agree, on philosophical grounds, that there must in general be something like laws of nature if empirical science is to be possible at all. But it doesn’t follow that every specific claimabout whether such-and-such is a law can be settled on general philosophical grounds, and it doesn’t follow that the falsification of such a claim shows that there are no laws after all.)
3. Reading modern philosophical assumptions back into classical writers
A third common error is to assume that the general philosophical assumptions underlying arguments in classical natural theology are the same as those made by modern writers. As I have noted many times, reading Aquinas’s Fifth Way as if it were more or less the same as Paley’s design argument is a particularly egregious example of this error. But it is also erroneous to assume that when classical writers like Aquinas talk about contingency and necessity, they are (like modern rationalist writers) appealing to what is “conceivable,” or to “possible worlds,” or to logical necessity. And it is erroneous to assume that their versions of the cosmological argument rest on the “principle of sufficient reason,” if that is understood in Leibnizian rationalist fashion as a “law of thought.” For the Scholastic principle of causality is a claim about objective realityitself -- not a claim about our explanatory practices, about how we do or even must think about objective reality (where the latter sort of claim opens modern cosmological arguments up to the Kantian critique).
Again, classical writers would not accept the empiricist or rationalist assumptions that ultimately underlie modern arguments in natural theology -- assumptions that had their origin in the rejectionof the Aristotelian philosophy of nature in which arguments like those of Aquinas are grounded.
4. Radically oversimplifying the notion of “cause”
A fourth common error is a corollary of the others. The Scholastic tradition had worked out a complex and sophisticated theory of causation. For the Scholastics, following Aristotle, there are the four basic kinds of cause: formal, material, efficient, and final. In the realm of efficient causes there is the principle of causality, the principle of proportionate causality, the principle of proper causality, distinctions between primary causes and secondary or instrumental causes, essentially ordered causes and accidentally ordered causes, total and partial causes, concurrent causes, sustaining causes, and so on. Efficient causes were also taken to presuppose final causes, and final causes were in turn essentially connected to substantial forms (and thus to formal causes, which in turn were instantiated in matter and thus required material causes). Now the moderns gradually chucked out almost all of this nuance -- which, despite its complexity, is really just a systematic articulation of common sense thinking about causation -- as they unpacked the implications of their anti-Aristotelian revolution. By the time of Hume, little was left except the notion that causation involves some kind of necessary connection between temporally separated events, but where the “necessary connection” aspect was something for which it was hard to find an objective basis. (See Kenneth Clatterbaugh’s The Causation Debate in Modern Philosophy 1637-1739 for a useful account of this gradual desiccation of the notion of cause.)
In physics too the notion of cause was reduced more or less to the vanishing point -- to something like the law-like correlation between temporally separated factors A and B, where the causality of A per se is irrelevant and the law-like correlation is really all that matters. Of course, that it is law-like seems to suggest some kind of inherent connection between A and B, but Humean empiricist arguments together with the replacement of law-like correlations with statistical ones effectively undermined the appearance of such a connection, so that causality itself seemed to recede like a will-o’-the-wisp.
Now, if you start with the moderns’ desiccated notion of “cause” andbuy Hume’s empiricist presuppositions and/or the scientistic claim that physics gives us the whole story about material reality, then the causal claims made in arguments like Aquinas’s can seem shaky at best. But there is (so the classical philosopher will argue) no good reasonto accept any of those presuppositions. And in any event, merely to presuppose them simply begs the question against Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophy of nature, and thus begs the question against any argument grounded in that philosophy of nature, as Aquinas’s arguments are.
5. Begging the question in favor of scientism
New Atheist types tend to be very impatient with remarks of the sort I’ve been making. They’ve absolutely fallen in love with the “Science has refuted religion” meme and don’t appreciate being shown how superficial and ill-informed it is. As a consequence their tendency is to double down on the snark while just repeating yet again the very assertions that have been called into question. “Science has refuted theism, and that’s that, and don’t bother me with all this philosophy BS, and nothing in this long-winded exercise in medieval nostalgia shows that your sky daddy exists and nyah nyah nyah I’m not listening anyway even though I find myself posting obsessively in your combox…”
Still, it is worth emphasizing for atheists of good will that it simply will not do to appeal to some further specific finding of modern science, or to the predictive and technological successes of science in general, or to what most contemporary academic philosophers happen to think. All of this simply begs the question, for the reasons stated above. And as I have argued many times (e.g. here, here, here, and here) there are in any event no good arguments for scientism and decisive arguments against it.
It also will not do to throw up one’s hands and retreat into agnosticism, declaring that even if science doesn’t answer every question, it is still the only intellectual enterprise worthy of attention since it is the only one that provides something close to definitive answers and consensus. For one thing, this is like avoiding classes you know you won’t do well in and then appealing to your GPA as evidence of your superior intelligence. As the esteemed Mike Flynn put it in a recent blog post:
[Francis Bacon’s] goal of “mastering and possessing” nature necessarily focused scientists on just those aspects of nature that could be predicted and controlled; and this required Descartes’ quantitative, mathematical approach. Baconian science thus ensured that Nature would be “quantifiable, predictable, and controllable” by defining nature as quantifiable, predictable, and controllable.
If you will allow to count as “scientific” only what is quantifiable, predictable, and controllable, then naturally -- and trivially -- science is going to be one long success story. But this no more shows that the questions that fall through science’s methodological net are not worthy of attention than the fact that you’ve only taken courses you knew you would excel in shows that the other classes aren’t worth taking.
For another thing, the claim that questions susceptible of scientific investigation are the only ones worth investigating is itselfnot a scientific claim, but a philosophical claim, and thus one that requires a philosophical defense. You cannot escape philosophy. The only question is whether you will do it well or badly. And if you pretend you are not doing it, or pretend that it is not worth doing, or refuse to familiarize yourself with its history and methods, you are going to do it badly.