The Limitations of Empirical Science [In this brief article, I am presupposing that the reader knows the distinction between the Modern Empirical Sciences and the Philosophy of the Modern Empirical Sciences and, further, the distinction between different kinds of Philosophical traditions, e.g., the Classical Realist Tradition and the various forms of Subjectivist Traditions. In this piece, I will set forth one part of the distinctively ‘Classical Realist‘ Philosophy of the Modern Empirical Sciences.]
Some Background Considerations When most people in our contemporary civilization think of science, they automatically think of the Modern Empirical Sciences (even though it is highly probable that most of them have never heard of the term ‘Modern Empirical Sciences). But the term “science,” historically, refers to more than just the Modern Empirical Sciences. In Western Civilization, the Four Basic Kinds of Sciences are the following.
(1) The Philosophical Sciences. The Classical Realists, since the time of Plato and Aristotle, have regarded the Philosophical Sciences as the highest rational-critical sciences possible to man. The Medieval Proto-Scholastics and Scholastics viewed Scientific Philosophy as the penultimate liberal art. Philosophy ranks highest among the sciences because Philosophy includes the two basic normative sciences which govern all other sciences. The two normative (Philosophical) sciences are Logic and Criteriology. Logic is the scientific art of correct thinking. Criteriology is the science of the rules and kinds of evidence. Accordingly, all sciences must follow Philosophy. To emphasize this crucial point some have stated the case colloquially by saying that the Empirical Sciences and Mathematical Sciences must ‘bow down’ to Philosophy. No offence intended. It’s just a matter of stating a fact emphatically.
(2) The Mathematical Sciences.
(3) The Modern Empirical Sciences. Historically, these sciences began in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the developments of Empirical (in contradistinction to Philosophical) Physics and Astronomy. There are three basic divisions within Empirical Science. [i] Natural Empirical Sciences (e.g., Physics, Astronomy, Chemistry), [ii] Life Empirical Sciences (i.e., Biology, Botany), and [iii] Social Empirical Sciences. Most of these Social Sciences were developed late in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth — e.g., History, Empirical Psychology (e.g., Behaviorism, electro-chemical studies of the CNS), Economics, Political Science, Sociology, Police Science, Business Science, Administrative Science and finally — the softest (weakest) of the soft social “sciences” — cultural anthropology and ethnic studies. (4) In order to be complete and historically honest, we must not forget the all too forgotten Theological Sciences. From the time of St. Augustine, Theology was regarded in the Christian West to be the Queen of the Sciences and the Ultimate Liberal Art. This was not disputed in the West until the rise of the Naturalist thinkers from the time of the British and French so-called Enlightenment. N.B., the belief system known as Naturalism is a position which asserts that only the Space-Time Universe exists, that only the quantifiable-empirical domain exists. As such, Naturalists believe that nothing can exist which transcends the limitations of space and time, which transcends the limitations of the quantifiable-empirical domain. Anything which would transcend such limitations would be supernatural. Thus, Naturalism (like Nihilism and Absurdism) is a form of Anti-Supernaturalism — thus, Anti-Platonism, Anti-Neo-Platonism, Anti-Theism, Anti-Christianism, etc.. Accordingly, to put it succinctly, Naturalists are (first and foremost) Anti-Supernaturalists. To clarify: a Naturalist, in this context, is not a person who adheres to the theory of natures (or natural kinds, Ultimate Exemplary Causality, formal causality, or objective formal qualities) as set forth in the Platonic, Aristotelian, and Scholastic Traditions, but rather he/she is a person who claims that only the quantifiable-empirical data exists.
Some Social Sciences Are’t Really Sciences It is arguable that some of the so-called “social sciences” are not really sciences at all since they do not measure up to the standards required for a ‘study’ to be a science as such standards were intimated by Aristotle, and discussed by the Proto-Scholastic, Scholastic, Neo-Scholastic, and even as modified by the Early Empirical Scientific Traditions. This means, among other things, that some of the social sciences lack any definitive, objective axiomatic set or a rationally justifiable set of derivable theorems — and they lack a standard of the normative, e.g., Empirical Psychologies and Sociologies might be able to state what constitutes ‘average’ sorts of behaviors within given populations, but they cannot state what constitutes the normative, exemplary, best attributes of human nature. Nor can they even give an accurate definition of human nature, since if there is any aspect of human nature, such as a non-empirical intellect, will, and soul, then, since such is outside the Empirical Quantifiable Domain, it would necessarily be outside the competence of the social scientist. So, if the social sciences are not genuine sciences, what are they? It would be much more precise to classify them as “Practical Social Arts” or “practical sets of techniques.” (Interestingly, Neil Postman, who was by no means a Scholastic Realist, stated that instead of being classified as sciences, the so-called social sciences should be classified as technique-centered enterprises.) Practical social arts are concerned with the study and implementation of the most pragmatically, expediently useful techniques for manipulating things or persons — according, ultimately, to the subjective estimates of the particular practical social ‘artist.’ Many social scientist (i.e., practical social artists) are, in the final analysis, people-planners or propagandists. For example, on this rationale, it could be argued that power-politics-based ethnic studies courses are nothing more than university-provided platforms for fallacy-filled gregicentric-ethnocentric mind manipulating propaganda — but the entire rational justification for this assessment is a topic for a different article.
A Brief Note on the Meaning of ‘Empirical’ Generally speaking, that which is empirical is sensible, i.e., capable of being sensed by one or more of the senses. That is, an empirical object is an object which can be sensed. For example, a dog is empirical insofar as it is visible, audible, odoriferous, and tactile. There is a technical debate in metaphysics and in the theory of perception as to whether empirical data (i.e., givens) refer to data which exit outside of (external to) the one who senses or to data which exist within some aspect of the the organic structure of the one who senses. Some empiricists say that the only perceivable empirical data exists within the one who perceives and others say that the data is extra-mental and extra-organic with respect to the one who perceives. (For more about this debate see my blog on the Id QuodTheory of Perception versus the Id Quo Theory of Perception.)
The Preeminence of Physics in the Modern Empirical Sciences Without controversy, Empirical Physics is considered to be the highest of all of the Empirical Sciences. We use the term “Empirical Physics” in order to set forth the distinction between it and Philosophical Physics, which pre-dates Empirical Science by more than 1,000 years in Western Civilization. It is arguable that the Greek Philosophical Cosmologist Thales was the first Physicist, and certainly Plato set forth a form of Physics, and without doubt, Aristotle was the first person in recorded history responsible for the first book explicitly dealing with Physics. All other Empirical Sciences emulate Physics — they try to do as Physics does, since Physics has the best record of all the Empirical Sciences. It has been the most successful (i.e., the most useful, practical, expedient, testable, especially in regard to the predictive enterprise), given the standards of Empirical Science.
The Limited Subject Matter of Physics and All Other Empirical Sciences Empirical Physics does not study all of reality. Simply put, the subject matter (or “material object,” in Scholastic terminology) of Empirical Physics is matter in motion. The formal object of Empirical Physics is the application of quantitative reasoning to matter in motion and to the apparent laws which seem to Physicists to be coterminous with matter in motion. From the application of mathematics to matter in motion, the Modern Empirical Physicist is able do measurements of matter in motion and arrive at physico-mathematical formulas. Matter in motion is considered to be either empirical in itself or at least in its effects. Certain types of effects can count as the grounds for inferring or detecting the presence or existence of some categories of matter in motion. The latter mode of inductive inference is often a standard operating procedure utilized by particle accelerator experimentalists. Thus, Empirical Physics has a very limited subject matter, to wit, matter in motion — particularly insofar as matter in motion is quantifiable in such a way that mathematics can be applied to it. That is to say, Empirical Physics studies only the quantifiable-empirical domain that is subject to mathematical formulaic descriptions. But since Empirical Physics is the highest of all the Empirical Sciences, we cannot expect any of the other Empirical Sciences to transcend the domain of matter in motion. All Empirical Sciences are limited to the quantifiable-empirical domain. If any Empirical Scientist goes beyond this domain, he/she is no longer doing an Empirical Science. This means, if there is any object or action in reality which is not part of the quantifiable-empirical domain, then it is strictly off-limits — beyond the competence — of the Empirical Scientist to study. The only logically consistent position that can be taken on such matters by an Empirical Scientistqua Empirical Scientist is a position of absolute silence.
The Application of Empirical Science to the Human Person Since all of the Empirical Sciences look up to Empirical Physics as their ultimate empirical guide, they too wind up with very limited subject matters. They do not study the quantifiable-empirical domain in general (as does Physics), but rather they study specific modes of the quantifiable-empirical domain. So, for example, the chemist studies the mode of the quantifiable-empirical domain that is chemical. The biologist studies the mode of the quantifiable-empirical domain that is organic. The psychological behaviorist (of the original Watsonian-Skinnerian school) studies the mode of the quantifiable-empirical domain that is neurologically subject to a stimulus-response explanatory schema. This means that the Empirical Sciences will view the human person as an entity which belongs to some aspect of the quantifiable-empirical domain. So when the physicistqua physicist views the human person, he/she sees nothing other than a particular arrangement of matter in motion. When the chemist qua chemist views the human person, he/she sees only a bundle of chemicals. When the biologist qua biologist views the human person, he/she sees only a bundle of organs which constitute a humanorganism. When the psychological behaviorist qua behaviorist views the human person, he/she sees a stimulus-response organic mechanism. When the economist quaeconomist views the human person, he/she sees a consumer-producer organic mechanism, often supplemented with some sort of behaviorist stimulus-response elements. If any of these Empirical Scientists view the human person as having dignity, rights, minds, goodness, then the Empirical Scientist is no longer doing Empirical Science, but rather he/she is doing Philosophy, which he/she has no formal competence to do qua Empirical Scientist. If one wants to study dignity, rights, minds, and goodness, they must leave the competence-domain of the Empirical Sciences and enter the competence-domain of Philosophy or perhaps even Theology. These examples should be sufficient to show forth the limited view of the human person according to the Empirical Sciences.
Scientism (and Naturalism) and the Hype about the Empirical Sciences Some people believe that the Empirical Sciences have all the answers about reality or can get all of the answers. This is hype. In fact, the hype concerning the Empirical Sciences can be summarized in two basic beliefs. (1) There is the belief, mentioned above, that the Empirical Sciences have all the answers about reality or can acquire all of the answers. (2) There is the belief that Empirical Science is revolutionary in the area of human knowledge insofar as the Empirical Scientists in the sixteenth and seventeenth were the first thinkers ever to think scientifically in any way whatsoever about, or apply any possible scientific method to, the spacial-temporal universe. Belief (1) is held, typically, by people who believe that reality consists of only the quantifiable-empirical domain, hence the only legitimate sciences would be Empirical Sciences. Those who actually believe this theory hold to a belief system — which is tantamount to a religion — called Scientism (which should more precisely be called Empirical Scientism). Scientism, therefore, is a form of Naturalism, which, in turn, is a belief system which alleges Anti-Supernaturalism.
N.B., ‘Naturalism,’ in this context, is taken to mean any position which affirms that (A) reality consists solely of the material space-time universe (i.e., the quantifiable-empirical domain, as studied by Modern Empirical Science) and, accordingly, denies that it is possible for anything supernatural to exist (i.e., that nothing can transcend the limiting conditions of space and time, nothing can transcend the laws and methods of Empirical Physics) and/or (B) the only reality that can be known or reasoned about is the space-time universe (as just described). N.B. (a) These belief-assertions of Naturalism are totally unprovable. N.B. (b) This Empirical Scientism religionist Thesis necessarily involves at least two major logical fallacies, each one of which by itself would constitute a sufficient condition for the permanent refutation of Empirical Scientism. First, Empirical Scientism involves the fallacy of begging the question. In a nutshell, this means that in order for Scientism to prove its two basic beliefs, as stated above, which are the very beliefs that are in question, Scientism would have to presuppose as true those very basic beliefs in the premises with which it would utilize in order to conclude that its basic beliefs are in fact true. This is vicious circular reasoning and, in the end, as a fallacious method of argumentation, proves nothing. Hence, as utilized in this case, it fails to prove the basic beliefs of Empirical Scientism. Second, Empirical Scientism is involved in the fallacy of the misapplied (or misplaced) criterion by naively presupposing that the only legitimate set of criteria (or standards) in terms of which any belief or argument can be tested is the set which affirms the basic beliefs of Empirical Scientism. According to this rationale, any position which is in disagreement with the tenets of Empirical Scientism is deemed to be automatically falsified — if not automatically rendered inherently meaningless — by Empirical Scientism. This is tantamount to the Empirical Scientism religionist saying, “We are right because we say we are right and those who disagree with us are wrong because we say they are wrong.” They have not rationally justified their position, they have merely ruled out of logical court any position which would attempt to refute or even question their position. Belief (2) is simply false. It is simply not the case that Francis Bacon (1561-1626) — or any of his immediate or near contemporaries, such as Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) — was the first to invent a scientific methodology for studying the space-time universe. Already 2,400 years ago Aristotle applied a Philosophical (Cosmological and Ontological) Scientific Method to the material space-time universe. (A) He made observations. (B) He identified problems (e.g., of what do physical objects ultimately consist?, how do physical objects change?, how do physical objects act?, how can many individuals belong to a single species?, how do the basic laws of logic relate to the basic laws of ontology and physics?, how can a spacial-temporal object maintain its identity in spite of spacial and temporal changes?) (C) He gathered relevant data. (D) He examined various hypotheses about the data in question which had been tendered by previous Cosmologists and Ontologists. (E) He formulated hypotheses to explain the data. (F) To the best of his ability, he conducted tests of the hypotheses by careful observation and rational analysis. Note that this was about 2,000 years before the so-called ‘Scientific Revolution’ — or, more accurately, the ‘Modern Empiricistic Scientific Revolution.’
The Limits and Problems Involved in Empirical Scientific Explanatory Methodologies From the beginning of the Empirical Scientific Revolution, several Empirical Scientists, such as Francis Bacon, made it clear that they were revolting against the Scholastic Tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, St. Albert the Great, and others. The two most important parts of this revolution involved (1) the overthrow the Scholastic Laws of Logic and Ontology, including the laws and the five kinds of immanent causality and the three kinds of Transcendental Causality in the area of explanation and (2) the overthrow of natural kinds, cf. (a) the moderate realism of Aristotle) or (b) the Exemplaristic Transcendental Realism of Plato and Christian Neo-Platonists or (c) a combination of the two via St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure, according to which the Real Transcendental Forms of Plato are interpreted as Divine Ideas, which are ultimately one and simple, as is God, combined with Aristotelian immanent substantial forms, which are now intreptable as really, ultimately “conformities,” each one of which conforms to their respective Divine Ideas in the order of First Exemplarity — and finally in the orders of First Efficiency and First Finality. The position of the Modern Empirical Scientific Revolution (and of Naturalism in general) means that First Efficient, Exemplary, and Final Causality, secondary final causality, secondary formal causality of natures (including secondary cognitive formal causality) were “thrown out” of the explanatory enterprise of the Empirical Sciences. Hence, for the Empirical Sciences, there is no place for purpose, meaning, natural kinds, real universals, Intelligent Design, Divine causality. Thus the Empirical Sciences limit themselves (by virtue of their self-imposed Empirical Mandate) to merely material and efficient causality. It should be noted that the Scholastic Tradition employed all five species of causality and the three species of Divine causality, along with a whole set of ontological principles, such as existence and essence, substance and accidents, which allow for a much richer, more complete and precise explanatory methodology than that which is held by Empirical Science. Overthrow (2) means that Empirical Science (by virtue of its strict Empirical mandate) reduces itself to nominalism (or at best some nominalistic-influenced form of conceptualism). But the embracement of nominalism would make generalizations about objects and actions impossible or at best convenient fictions. But since generalizations are necessary for Empirical Scientific conclusions, the nominalism of Empirical Science would logically undermine Empirical Science.
There is More to Reality than the Quantifiable-Empirical Domain If any object or action exists which transcends the limitations of the quantifiable-empirical domain, the limitations of space and time, then it follows with necessity that the quantifiable-empirical domain cannot possibly be the only domain of reality. Since all objects belonging to the quantifiable-empirical domain are such that they are objects or actions which have some type of atomic or sub-atomic structure or feature and which are subject to the laws and methods of physics. Accordingly, if any object or action exists which does not have these quantifiable-empirical attributes, such an object or action would count as a legitimate logical counterexample to the claim that “Only quantifiable-empirical objects and actions exist” or “Only matter in motion exists.” From a logical point of view, Just one single existential counterexample that is not a quantifiable-empirical object or action such would constitute a sufficient condition for refuting the Strict Empiricist thesis or the Strict Materialist thesis — theses which often inform the worldview of Modern Empirical Scientists and Empirical Scientismists. Some common sense examples of such non-empiricist, non-materialist objects and/or actions would be the Basic Laws of Logic and all other logical entities (e.g., deductivity, inductivity) truth per se (understood as a real relation which obtains between propositions and the states of affairs to which they are in adaequatio — to which they correspond or refer), referentiality, rationality or reason per se, proof per se, definitions per se, concepts and percepts per se, the mental acts of intentending (or intentionality in the Scholastic sense and Early Neo-Platonic Phenomenological sense), inferring, presupposing, mora deliberation, choosing, comparing, and remembering. Note well: these kinds of objects and actions are necessary conditions for the objectivity and correctness of the Empirical Sciences.
Accordingly, if these objects and acts do not exist objectively, then none of Empirical Sciences could count as ‘objective’ sciences nor could they possibly in any relevant sense exist objectively (due to the fact of the nullification of a whole set of their necessary conditions). Empirical Science would only be epistemically subjective, relativistic. It would be magical thinking — nothing short of hocus pocus. It would be to assert that Modern Empirical Sciences could be objective even though the necessary conditions which are presupposed for their existence were purely subjective. But the objective cannot be derived from the purely subjective. Further, an effect cannot be ontologically greater than its cause. Hence, magic (and absurdity) would have to come into play. Further, there are other counterexamples to the Empiricist and Materialist models of reality. For example, the moral values of good and evil, the aesthetic values of beauty and ugly, the appetitive values of love, hate, anger, daring, fear, boldness, despair, sorrow, and joy. So we see that the Empirical Sciences cannot study Existence (ontology principles), Meaning, Truth (alethiological objects), wisdom (sophialogical objects per se), Values (axiological objects), Mathematical entities, or Logical entities.
Neuro-philosophers Beg the Question Neuro-philosophers assert that all of the proposed counterexamples to the quantifiable-empirical domain mentioned above are reducible to certain types of electrochemical activities of the brain, hence they do belong to the quantifiable-empirical domain after all. But this is a bare assertion without any proof whatsoever. Neuro-philosophers totally miss the early phenomenological point of intentionality. For example, when I think of the Law of Non-Contradiction, does such a thought of necessity logically entail that I have the cognitive intention to refer exclusively to a certain type of electrochemical activity in the brain. Is the intended meaning of the Law of Non-Contradiction an electrochemical activity in the brain? Whose or which brain? One brain, some brains, all brains? Can numerically distinct brains share specifically identical activities? If not, then we are stuck with an unresolvable, radical incommensurability problem. If so, this could be shown to be sufficient to overthrow the nominialistic, or at least conceptualistic, presupposition of neuro-philosophy. A more devastating critique of neuro-philosophy is the topic for another paper. This should, however, be sufficient to show that neuro-philosophy is totally off-track.
Stephen Hawking Goes Beyond His Area of Compentence As noted above, physicists are limited in their subject matter and in their axiomatic set. In spite of this demonstrable fact, Stephen Hawking recently had the audacity to make the following claim. “We wonder. We seek answers, so we can answer the greatest question of all: is there meaning to life? You might take it as a philosophical question. But I think philosophy is dead. I believe that science holds the key.” This is what he says verbatim at the very beginning of the episode entitled ‘The Meaning of Life’ from the seriesStephen Hawking’s Grand Design (a series which aired on the Science Channel in March of 2013). The narrator of the episode states unequivocally that life and whatever meaning there exists “is nothing more than physics.” Sorry Stephen. If the thesis presented in this article is correct, then you would have to be given an “F Minus.” Remember, the physicist qua physicist cannot comment about what the Realist philosophical tradition means by ‘meaning’ — especially ‘the meaning of life.’ Nor can the physicist quaphysicist prove that philosophy is dead. These are objects which intentionally stand outside of the quantifiable-empirical domain. Hawking is also illogical in this case because he is committing the performative contradiction doing philosophy (at least according to the Realist, Aristotelian, Scholastic Traditions) in the very act of claiming that there is no philosophy. The denial of philosophy is itself a philosophical position, and a very bad philosophical position. Aristotle has at least implicitly demonstrated this 2,400 years ago.
Conclusion The Empirical Sciences are limited — very limited. The Empirical Sciences do not have all of the answers, nor can they ever have all of the answers, because there is far more to reality than what the Empirical Sciences are competent to study or comment upon.
Do not despair. More answers are out there. They can be found in the Realist Medieval Scholastic and the Neo-Scholastic Philosophical traditions. But that will have to be demonstrated in another article.
Hello. You have arrived at the blog of Chris Curry PH.D. In this blog I will discuss philosophical issues from a realist point of view. By “realist” I specifically mean the school of Classical Realism which has been influenced by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, some Neo-Platonists, some Neo-Thomsists, some Neo-Scholastics (other than Neo-Thomists).