Wolfgang Smith, Cosmos & Transcendence: Breaking Through the Barrier of Scientistic Belief, (La Salle: Sherwood, 1984).
Smith makes an important distinction between scientific knowledge, that which is observable and emperically verifiable, and scientistic belief, that which is presupposed in science and not subject to scientific analysis. Scientific knowledge can be rigorously verified through the scientific method. It relies on tangible evidence and is continually subject to scrutiny and validation. In contrast, scientistic beliefs are not able to be empirically verified, but form the philosophical underpinnings of scientific endeavors.
From there, he seeks to demonstrate that many of the metaphysical scientistic tenets upon which science rests are volatile and groundless. Looking at the fields of cosmology, evolution, and psychology, Smith traces the origin of the scientistic unconscious that has formed an unfounded, dogmatic confidence in science.
Finally, having revealed the limitations of emperical science and scientistic belief, he considers the metaphysical concept of transcendence, thus "breaking through the barrier of scientistic belief." In presenting this idea of transcendence, he gives an enlarged picture of the universe and of what lies beyond it.
I use Smith's distinction between scientific knowledge and scientistic belief as a springboard for my own analysis. I also follow the general outline of the book for my own research so that Smith's book can be easily referenced on any topic. I also provide extensive footnotes for further research.
Typical explanations of what the physical universe is made of include space, time, and matter, or matter and energy, or something more complicated and inconceivable.1 But all of these explanations share in common that the universe is conceived of in an abstract mathematical way. Light is electromagnetic radiation with a certain range of wavelengths. Sound is a pressure wave created by vibration. Odor is a mixture of tiny chemical particles released into the air. Thoughts are patterns of neurons firing.
This physical picture of the universe cuts out nearly everything involved in the human point of view. The outside world and our perceptions of that outside world become completely seperate, distinct things.2 This bifurcation into primary qualities, the noumenal, and secondary qualities, the phenomenal, is at the heart of science. Primary qualities such as size, shape, and position are seen as those things which are real about the object. Secondary qualities like color, taste, and smell then are mere products of the mind, and the mind is reduced to the primary qualities of the brain.
The result of this position is that everything is reduced to an abstraction. No longer do we have a universe because all that's left is a model, and we've mistaken the model to be all that there is.
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the first known to give an argument for a version of the primary/secondary quality distinction, uses many examples like the oar in the water to argue that the various appearances of a body are inessential while the primary affections like size, shape, and number are essential to bodies.3 Likewise, René Descartes (1596-1650) distinguishes between sensible qualities and material bodies.4 This is seen clearly in his ideas that the mind and body are distinct, independent substances and that matter and motion can explain everything in the physical world.
This set the stage for Isaac Newton (1642-1727) to popularize a philosophy of Cartesian metaphysics and extreme empiricism.5 This primarily took place through the Principia which was seen as the exemplar of scientific achievement.6 By the end of the 19th century, Newtonian physics appeared unassailable, and his philosophy followed uncritically with all the authority that his physics did. Despite this significant achievement, certain insoluble difficulties remained. It wouldn't be long before a paradigm shift took place in physics with the advent of the special theory of relativity of Albert Einstein (1879-1955).7 Despite this theoretical shift away from Newtonian physics, Newton's questionable metaphysical bifurcation still loomed large.
Physicists in the early 20th century began to reassess the foundations of Newtonian physics. This reevaluation revealed that Newtonian physics was not dealing with absolute entities that exist independently of observation. Instead, it focused on what could be observed, marking a significant shift in the understanding of the physical world.8
Quantum mechanics is built on the foundations of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.9 The uncertainty principle, a key element of quantum mechanics, imposes strict limits on our ability to simultaneously know certain pairs of properties, such as an object's position and momentum.10 This limitation underscores the intrinsic subjectivity of quantum physics, as it implies that our knowledge of the physical world is inherently statistical and uncertain. Thus the wave-function in quantum mechanics represents a system but doesn't describe the system itself; rather, it embodies our knowledge of it.
Quantum mechanics also introduced the concept of wave-particle dualism.11 This means that particles, such as electrons, can behave both as discrete particles and as continuous waves depending on the experimental context. This challenges classical ideas of distinct, solid particles. This wave-particle dualism defies classical determinism and highlights the inherent complexity of the physical world.12
The scientific depiction of the universe as primarily a configuration of matter, energy, space, and time, stripped of human-centric qualities, presents a profound metaphysical riff in reality. This division relegates the experience of humans to mere secondary phenomena, products of the mind's interaction with a fundamentally impersonal world. While this perspective has driven vast scientific progress, it inevitably renders the cosmos an abstraction—a model devoid of the qualitative aspects that comprise the entirety of human perception. Thus, science, in its quest for objectivity, leaves the universe unrecognisable to the beings trying to understand it because of its fundamental philosophical assumptions.
The history from Galileo to Einstein reveals a trajectory of thought that progressively abstracted the universe into mathematical laws and principles. This underscores a certain philosophical undercurrent wherein the sensory qualities experienced by humans are systematically divorced from the 'real' qualities inherent in the physical world itself. Galileo's primary qualities, Descartes' dualism, and Newton's empirical framework set the stage for a world-view heavily predicated on quantifiable phenomena at the expense of the qualitative aspects of existence. As such, the achievements of classical physics, while significant, left unresolved tensions and gaps that only began to surface with the seismic shifts brought about by Einstein and the quantum revolution; however, the basic philosophical difficulties still remain.
The uncertainty principle and the concept of wave-particle duality introduce challenges to the clear-cut distinctions of classical physics. In this light, reality is no longer a static entity to be dissected into primary and secondary qualities, but a dynamic and partly unknowable interaction that resists full comprehension through traditional scientific means. Quantum mechanics thus reveals the limitations of deterministic laws and the crucial role of the observer.
These three considerations demonstrate that science rests on certain philosophical principles that are not self evidentally true. Its presuppositions can be tested on philosophical grounds. We will proceed by first examining which scientistic beliefs can be supported or discredited and then look at what philosophical account can best explain the scientific data.
1. Christopher Smeenk, Philosophy of Cosmology, (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), 2017.
2. Lisa Downing, George Berkeley, (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), 2011. Cartesian dualism opened the door for the idealism of Berkeley.
3. Martha Bolton, Primary and Secondary Qualities in Early Modern Philosophy, (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), 2022.
4. Lisa Downing, Sensible Qualities and Material Bodies in Descartes and Boyle, 2010.
5. Andrew Janiak, Newton’s Philosophy, (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), 2021.
6. George Smith, Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), 2007.
7. Imogen Clarke, How to manage a revolution: Isaac Newton in the early twentieth century, The Royal Society, 2014.
8. Jenann Ismael, Quantum Mechanics, (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), 2020.
9. Jan Hilgevoord, The Uncertainty Principle, (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), 2016. See also Physics Explained, What is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle? A wave packet approach, (YouTube), 2023, for the most in depth video explanation.
10. Fermilab, Demystifying the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, (YouTube), 2023. This video demonstrates the underpinnings of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in a simple way. Because waves govern the quantum world, we can make certian observations about waves to demonstrate uncertainty: (1) A wave function tells you the location of an object with the uncertainty of Δx in the position. (2) All wave functions can be made out of sines and cosines which is seen in Fast Fourier Transform (FFT). (3) FFTs show the connection between uncertainty in position and the number of waves. (4) Momentum is related to wavelength.
Image from user137661, Is this explanation for the uncertainty principle correct?, (physics.stackexchange), 2019. See also 3Blue1Brown's But what is the Fourier Transform? A visual introduction (YouTube), 2018 and The more general uncertainty principle, regarding Fourier transforms (YouTube), 2018.
11. Meinard Kuhlmann, Quantum Field Theory, (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), 2020.
12. Wayne Myrvold, Philosophical Issues in Quantum Theory, (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), 2022.