Science: “only discipline that tells us new things about reality” [???]

Science: “only discipline that tells us new things about reality” [???] August 9, 2018

Scientism or Near-Scientism as a Very Common Shortcoming of Atheist Epistemology


This dialogue came about as a result of atheist “JustAnotherAtheist2” [“JAA2”] critiquing one sentence I wrote in response to another from well-known online atheist Bob Seidensticker:

Bob: “Science is the only discipline that tells us new things about reality.” [link]

Me: “Like many atheists, he takes the epistemologically naive and stunted view of scientism: that science is the only legitimate means of knowledge.” [link]

For a helpful treatment of scientism, see the following papers by the atheist evolutionary biologist and philosophy professor, Massimo Pigliucci:

“Staking positions amongst the varieties of scientism” (4-28-14)

“The Problem with Scientism” (1-25-18)

Pigliucci has also written or edited two books [one / two] about scientism.

JAA2 started up a line of criticism in the combox of my paper about Bob and why he was blocked from my blog:  (his words in blue henceforth):

I’ll bite, what other methods of investigation are there? How are they performed? [8-8-18, 1:15 PM EST]

Stuff like philosophy, theology, experience, intuition, revelation, properly basic beliefs, our senses, mathematics, logic . . .

Even your question is not science. It’s philosophy. Hence you presuppose by even asking it that there must be other ways to obtain knowledge besides science, since you are seeking this knowledge, and assume that it can really be gained (else you wouldn’t ask me these two questions). This discussion isn’t science; ergo: science is not the only legitimate means of knowledge. You have already proven that in the very asking of your question. [8-8-18, 2:01 PM]

I’ll grant you that I neglected to fix your poor phrasing of the original question. My apologies. Here goes another try. What methods are there to investigate and make discoveries about external reality aside from science? How are they performed? [8-8-18, 2:27 PM]

I already answered. Methodologies differ according to which one you choose. And it depends on what you mean by “investigate.” I think philosophical speculation is investigation. It’s just not always empirical.

My point was a very simple one. You already agreed with it, as I have shown. I think it’s self-evident. Science is not the only form or means of knowledge. [8-8-18, 4:37 PM]

See also my papers:

Is Christianity Unfalsifiable? Is Empiricism the Only True Knowledge?

Science, Logic, & Math Start with Unfalsifiable Axioms

Dialogue with an Agnostic: God as a “Properly Basic Belief”

Non-Empirical “Basic” Warrant for Theism & Christianity

15 Theistic Arguments (Copious Resources)

Implicit (Extra-Empirical) Faith, According to John Henry Newman 

[8-8-18, 4:49 PM]

Actually, now that I’ve read the Pigliucci links, I can say with confidence I am not engaging in scientism. The problem here appears to be that your conflation of knowledge about external reality with knowledge in general. As I said in an earlier reply:

Either intentionally or unintentionally, you’ve misrepresented the question. No one suggests that science is required for all knowledge. If I think of a baby elephant in my garage, I don’t need science to know what I thought of. But only science can tell us whether there actually is a baby elephant in my garage.

What other method can I use to determine whether there actually is a baby elephant in my garage? [8-8-18, 11:01 PM]

1. See what an elephant looks like, at a zoo, or in a book of zoology, or even by description in a book (“a large, lumbering, gray creature with a big long nose and wrinkly skin, which makes a sound like a trumpet”).

2. See (or hear) the same (baby) elephant in your garage.

That’s not yet science. It’s simple observation. But you already have real knowledge that the elephant is there, before it is scientifically proven that it’s there, in the same way that you believe 100% that you see your Aunt Mabel in the garage and it never occurs to you to prove it scientifically. You know she is there simply by looking at her or even by hearing her distinctive voice calling out for you.

Neither scenario has yet gotten to science proper. It’s the evidence of experience and of our senses. In fact, we have to place an implicit (but not entirely provable or non-erroneous) trust in our senses in order to do science at all. It’s one of the non-scientific starting axioms of science, as philosophers of science have noted. The philosophical, non-empirical assumption of uniformitarianism is another. [8-9-18, 3:27 AM]

Fair enough, for the sake of argument we’ll distinguish between mere observation and science proper.

The question then becomes, would someone blinded by scientism claim that mere observation isn’t enough to substantiate that an elephant is in their garage? Or how about something more mundane; does scientism require more than mere observation to know it is raining outside? [8-9-18, 7:47 AM]


Doubting ThomasHow is “properly basic beliefs” a methodology and give me one thing that it has demonstrated is true? [8-8-18, 6:30 PM]

It’s not a “methodology.” My original statement referred to “legitimate means of knowledge.” JAA2 introduced the notions of “methods of investigation.” Not all of the forms of knowledge I mentioned involve that. Science does, and since JAA2, like Bob Seidensticker, appears to espouse the absurd belief of scientism, he couldn’t resist smuggling in those notions. But it was switching horses in midstream: trying to get the discussion to go where he wants it to go. I continue to make the same obvious point I made in the beginning, while he (and now you) seek to divert it to your seemingly empirical-only dogma.

You guys need to learn to think outside of the box and the bubble you are in. [8-8-18, 6:45 PM]

So how is a belief, even a “properly basic” one, a “means of knowledge?” How does a belief also demonstrate its own validity? And what has been shown true by it? [8-9-18, 9:12 AM]

That’s an entirely different topic and a very complex one. In such cases I usually refer readers to other papers of mine. I already did so regarding this topic in this thread. [8-9-18, 10:42 AM]


Unfortunately you didn’t answer, Dave. Going through each:

Philosophy – First, science is a form of philosophy, so it’s impossible to know where you’ve drawn the line. More importantly, for any form of philosophy to provide insight about external reality, the premises must accurately reflect reality. Which philosophy itself can’t do without running into a feedback loop.

Theology – Can you point to a single verified fact of reality derived from theology?

Experience – How is this distinct from science?

Revelation -. Once again, what verified fscts about reality were derived from revelation?

Properly Basic Beliefs – Yes, mere thought can help us derive these types of insights, but they don’t tell us anything about the world itself, just our limitations in understanding it. Remember, the question isn’t about knowledge in general (as you conveniently misinterpret), it’s about knowledge about external reality

Senses – Once again, how is this distinct from science?

Mathematics – Math is the language of reality, but it isn’t reality itself. In order for purely math conclusions to be considered reflective of reality, the inputs must have started that way…which means math itself isn’t the original source. Same for extrapolations, once they become sufficiently theoretical, the conclusions must be verified.

We can know things about math itself, of course, but once again that isn’t the question you were asked.

Logic – Logic is the tool used to ensure proper thought processes and conclusions, it isn’t an investigative technique of its own.

Either intentionally or unintentionally, you’ve misrepresented the question. No one suggests that science is required for all knowledge. If I think of a baby elephant in my garage, I don’t need science to know what I thought of. But only science can tell us whether there actually is a baby elephant in my garage. [8-8-18, 7:28 PM]

Philosophy / theology / Revelation examples and properly basic beliefs: each of these would require far too long of a discussion, and the way this one has been going (basically talking past each other the whole time), I highly doubt that it would be worth the time and energy spent.

Experience – How is this distinct from science? / Senses – Once again, how is this distinct from science?

I think I just demonstrated how in my reply to your elephant in the garage scenario.

Mathematics – Math is the language of reality, but it isn’t reality itself.

But of course that is true of science as well (which you seem to insinuate is that reality, unlike mathematics). It describes physical reality by nature of its laws, etc. (which reduce to abstract theories and hypotheses, which are then tested through observation, replication, etc.). But it’s not reality. Mathematics can also teach us about external reality, and indeed, is a very practical tool in relation to it (e.g., the crucial. indispensable use of mathematical calculations to determine how to launch a rocket sending astronauts to the moon — i.e., from a moving planet to its moving moon — or an unmanned spacecraft to Jupiter).

We can know things about math itself, of course, but once again that isn’t the question you were asked.

You have screwed this whole discussion up by changing horses in midstream, as I have already noted. Your whole “line of discussion” took off from one reply of mine: “Like many atheists, he takes the epistemologically naive and stunted view of scientism: that science is the only legitimate means of knowledge.” That was my response to Seidensticker’s statement: “Science is the only discipline that tells us new things about reality.”

The examples of other knowledge [“about reality”] that I gave render his statement clearly untrue. It’s contradicted a billion times. “tells us new things about reality” is itself an epistemological statement, which is a species of philosophy. That was what I was responding to. You tried to move it to something else immediately, by writing, “what other methods of investigation are there?” That confines itself primarily (in its ostensible thrust: though it’s not certain) to empiricism, which is the typical atheist response (because y’all are hung up on empiricism and [physical] “evidence” often to the detriment of many other kinds of knowledge: strongly tending towards scientism, or else an extreme overemphasis on science, which is the virtual religion of many atheists, to the detriment of other forms of knowledge).

That (subtle, but real) change of topic has led to the confusion and non-constructive nature of this discussion ever since.

Logic, as well as mathematics, certainly are (in their own ways) “investigative technique[s] of [their] own.” And they can truly tell us about the external world [remember, I am replying always to Seidensticker’s claim that “Science is the only discipline that tells us new things about reality“] before they are verified scientifically.

If you want an example of that, I would submit theoretical physics, and specifically Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which he developed basically from mathematical equations and thought experiments in his head. That’s not yet science; nor is it empirical. It was abstract philosophy (hardly even having to do with the senses). General relativity was not proven by any scientific experiment till eight years after Einstein came up with it in his head:

Based on calculations Einstein made in 1911, about his new theory of general relativity, light from another star should be bent by the Sun’s gravity. In 1919, that prediction was confirmed by Sir Arthur Eddington during the solar eclipse of 29 May 1919. (Wikipedia: “Einstein”)

Or, see an article on “How a Total Solar Eclipse Helped Prove Einstein Right About Relativity” (5-29-17):

Without being able to experimentally test his new theory, Einstein’s idea might have languished indefinitely in a journal on a dusty library bookshelf. However, British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington was paying attention to Einstein’s outlandish yet powerful new ideas . . . and realized he could lead an experiment to test the theory. . . .

In 1917, Sir Frank Watson Dyson, Astronomer Royal of Britain, had conceived an experiment that would plot the positions of background stars close to the sun’s limb during an eclipse — an experiment that Eddington would lead two years later. If the positions of the stars could be precisely measured during the 1919 eclipse and then compared with their normal positions in the sky, the effects of warped space-time could be observed — beyond what Newton’s classical mechanics would predict. If the position of the stars were altered in exactly the way that Einstein’s theory predicted they should be, then this might be just the test general relativity needed. Eddington most likely knew that if this test confirmed general relativity theory, it would turn the view of the Newtonian universe on its head.

Thus, the theory of general relativity started philosophically and mathematically in Einstein’s head (not empirically). Even the experiment that empirically confirmed it started in someone else’s head (Dyson’s). Both things were true knowledge that were later verified. Now, you may say that the key is the verification, and that is science. In one sense that’s true. But in another, it’s true that the knowledge was already there and was a true observation about reality before it was verified (in the same way that a witness truly did see Person X leaving a crime scene, which was later verified with virtual certainty by a DNA test).

Einstein’s theory of general relativity thus told us “new things about reality” as a philosophy, before it was verified scientifically, by an experiment with real-world astronomical phenomena. And that puts the lie to Seidensticker’s epistemologically absurd and ridiculous assertion that only science does so.

And that’s only one example. Theoretical physics is filled with such examples. And it is a species of science (just a relatively more philosophical and non-empirical one). Quantum mechanics, insofar as I can understand it, was also conceived entirely philosophically and mathematically before it was ever scientifically verified by observable experiment:

Ludwig Boltzmann suggested in 1877 that the energy levels of a physical system, such as a molecule, could be discrete. He was a founder of the Austrian Mathematical Society, together with the mathematicians Gustav von Escherich and Emil Müller. Boltzmann’s rationale for the presence of discrete energy levels in molecules such as those of iodine gas had its origins in his statistical thermodynamics and statistical mechanics theories and was backed up by mathematical arguments, as would also be the case twenty years later with the first quantum theory put forward by Max Planck.

In 1900, the German physicist Max Planck reluctantly introduced the idea that energy is quantized in order to derive a formula for the observed frequency dependence of the energy emitted by a black body, called Planck’s law, . . .

In 1905, Einstein explained the photoelectric effect by postulating that light, or more generally all electromagnetic radiation, can be divided into a finite number of “energy quanta” that are localized points in space. From the introduction section of his March 1905 quantum paper, “On a heuristic viewpoint concerning the emission and transformation of light”, Einstein states:

According to the assumption to be contemplated here, when a light ray is spreading from a point, the energy is not distributed continuously over ever-increasing spaces, but consists of a finite number of ‘energy quanta’ that are localized in points in space, move without dividing, and can be absorbed or generated only as a whole.

This statement has been called the most revolutionary sentence written by a physicist of the twentieth century. These energy quanta later came to be called “photons”, a term introduced by Gilbert N. Lewis in 1926. The idea that each photon had to consist of energy in terms of quanta was a remarkable achievement; it effectively solved the problem of black-body radiation attaining infinite energy, which occurred in theory if light were to be explained only in terms of waves. In 1913, Bohr explained the spectral lines of the hydrogen atom, again by using quantization, in his paper of July 1913 On the Constitution of Atoms and Molecules.

These theories, though successful, were strictly phenomenological: during this time, there was no rigorous justification for quantization, . . . (Wikipedia: “History of quantum mechanics”)

Scientific verifications came later; for example, from Robert A, Millikan:

[H]e verified experimentally Einstein’s all-important photoelectric equation, and made the first direct photoelectric determination of Planck’s constant h (1912-1915). (“Robert A. Millikan – Biographical” at

Thus, Planck’s constant had to wait some 12-15 years to actually be verified and to go beyond mere abstract philosophical / mathematical abstraction, just as general relativity had to wait eight years to be experimentally verified in the real world.

Either intentionally or unintentionally, you’ve misrepresented the question.

Absolutely not, as I have shown yet again, but in far greater depth than I did before. You probably won’t be convinced. But many readers of this will understand my reasoning and its soundness and validity, and see that Seidensticker made a huge error in making the dumb statement that he did. Since the intention of the statement was in the context of “proving ” how ignorant and stupid Christians habitually are (as this is what Bob constantly writes about), and the article in which he made it was entitled, “25 Stupid Arguments Christians Should Avoid (Part 6)”, I do confess to more than a little satisfaction at having shown, I think, that he is the one making the stupid argument, and falling into the rather obvious error of epistemologically uninformed and naive scientism.

A bit of turning the tables . . . [8-9-18, 5:01 AM]

Like many atheists, he takes the epistemologically naive and stunted view of scientism: that science is the only legitimate means of knowledge.” That was my response to Seidensticker’s statement: “Science is the only discipline that tells us new things about reality”

Yes, that’s why I responded by pointing out your conflatiom of new discoveries about external reality with all knowledge…. conflation that you’ve maintained in this very quote.

Rather than offer more long-winded misdirection and obfuscation, please provide a yes/no answer to the following question. Is there a difference between the set that contains all knowledge and the set that contains new discoveries about external reality? [8-9-18, 7:27 AM]

His statement is simply false, as I have shown, and his particular statement is what I was responding to. I was responding to his statement, and you need to interact with my reasoning, rather than simply reiterating your own over and over. That doesn’t make your argument any stronger.[8-9-18, 10:37 AM]

There are constructive discussions that could be had about many aspects of scientism or near-scientism (thinking science is vastly superior to other forms of knowledge and is of a class almost by itself in terms of all knowledge), but that is not this discussion. This discussion was started by you, about one sentence I wrote in response to one sentence that Bob wrote.

As far as I am concerned, you have not overcome my reasoning: including a lengthy foray that I posted last night which got into the fact that even the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics were not initially “scientific” at all. Rather, they were non-empirical and philosophical / mathematical. As such, they are precisely refutations of the silly thing that Bob said, and often implies in his writing. You utterly ignored that and offer more simplistic offerings. That shows me that our discussion on this is over. It makes for a great instructive dialogue, though, in my opinion, and it’ll be a new blog paper, to go up shortly.

I understand that you either can’t or really don’t want to concede, since Bob appears to be someone you highly revere (and I’m a mere Christian). Very few people do. But good and bad arguments are what they are, regardless. [8-9-18, 10:54 AM]

It’s really odd that you view a discussion about your reasoning as a concession of some kind. What else should I do if your reasoning is flawed? What good are more long-winded comments if they rest on a fundamental error?

For the record, though, am I to take that as confirmation that you think “science is the only discipline that tells us new things about reality” = “science is the only legitimate means of knowledge”? [8-9-18, 10:58 AM]

We’re done. This has been beaten to death, and the more work I do to try to answer, the less you directly respond. Thus it has become futile: tires spinning in the mud . . . But everything you have written will be in the new dialogue paper. [8-9-18, 10:59 AM]


Further replies (from those other than myself) may be read at the original thread. As far as I am concerned, the discussion is exhausted, and my point has not been overthrown in the least. I’m delighted for this opportunity to considerably strengthen it.


Photo credit: Formal portrait of Albert Einstein taken in 1935 at Princeton by Sophie Delar [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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