Examining Psychic Ability: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
I used to think that philosophy was boring and useless. To me, it amounted to a bunch of over educated impractical people pondering over things that had no real relevance to ordinary life. I couldn’t see the merit in spending much time dealing with what appeared to me to be convoluted discussions. Somehow, I managed to get through most of my life so far without dealing with things in deeply philosophical ways, but when I started researching psi, I was finally forced to confront the beast. Philosophy, it turns out, is pretty darned important.
What makes it so important to understand philosophy? Simple. We already have a philosophy that guides our thinking and actions whether we realize it or not. If we don’t realize that we have a guiding philosophy, we don’t question it, and therefore we’re not aware of whether it has gone off the rails or not. In other words, we won’t realize that we are seeing the world through a set of unquestioned assumptions that may not necessarily be true. The best example of this is Scientism, which is a philosophy that ironically rejects philosophy as not being important.
Scientism is defined as follows:
Scientism is a belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints.
It would be very hard to grow up in western society without embracing scientism at least to a degree. We find the belief in science all around us, in the media and in our lives. It is easy to understand why we hold scientific knowledge in such high esteem; we can see the positive and negative results of that knowledge all around us. Scientific knowledge very often produces consistent tangible results, whereas other types of knowledge are typically not so obvious in their usefulness. We have learned to regard things that are tangible, measurable and consistent as being of more value than than intangible things. I don’t think that this occurs in a conscious way, but rather it operates as a kind of unconscious assumption that we all take for granted to varying degrees. While I am going to single out individuals and types of people who have embraced scientism, that is really just for convenience. I think that the majority of us have adopted this point of view to varying degrees.
At its most extreme, scientism is found in atheistic scientists, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. This view basically consists of bashing any religion or point of view that is not scientifically based on the grounds that it cannot possibly be rational while extolling the virtues of science. Because scientism tends to reject knowledge that cannot be acquired scientifically, it is at its core a belief in a materialistic, mechanistic universe. As a result, it is not at all surprising that scientism is the guiding philosophy behind scientific rejection of psi and any and all research or philosophy that suggests an expanded view of consciousness in the universe.
From a purely philosophical viewpoint, the philosophy of scientism is fatally flawed. Scientism claims that scientific knowledge is the supreme source of knowledge because scientific knowledge has been proven. But you cannot apply this form of proof to scientism itself. There is no scientific way to prove that scientific knowledge is the only true knowledge. Scientism is inherently contradictory and circular in its reasoning. (You can find an extensive and well written article spelling out this problem here.)
What this philosophical argument against scientism highlights is that scientism itself is nothing more than a belief system, indistinguishable in any significant way from any other belief system. Scientism is merely taking a purely arbitrary subset of the vast spectrum of human experiences and declaring it to be more valid than other human experiences. I use the word arbitrary because scientism can provide neither justifcation for choosing which experiences are valid (explain why scientific knowledge is more valuable than other forms of knowledge) nor spell out exactly what those experiences are. (explain what is meant by “scientific?”)
Scientism cannot justify its choices because at its most basic level, scientific knowledge is nothing more or less than human experiences that have been written down and shared. In what way are these experiences substantially different from other experiences that were written down and shared? They aren’t. Science is ultimately based on agreements and assumptions, just like the rest of shared human knowledge.
It might be said that science is a better and more consistent way to obtain knowledge than many other methods available to us, but this speaks only to how the knowledge was acquired; it says nothing about the importance of the knowledge itself. The knowledge obtained by scientific methods is not automatically more useful or inherently superior because of how it was gained.
Another way to phrase this is to say that scientism values the method of gaining knowledge more than the knowledge itself. It’s a strange way to view the world and not surprisingly, it has some rather obvious real world limitations. Scientism doesn’t place any value whatsoever on things it perceives to be the realm of consciousness, since these things elude reductionism and the scientific method. This creates yet one more circularity in the reasoning of scientism since consciousness is required for scientism to exist.
It is also quite difficult to pin down what is meant by the word “scientific.” Evidence might be scientific, but what about the theories? They are just guesses made by a narrow group of specialists and are an interpretation of available evidence. Often other interpretations are available, so while evidence might be considered truly scientific, it is harder to make that case for theories. If you do decide that scientific theories are scientific, now you have a philosophical problem because you have opened the door to allow interpretation into your domain of “supreme source of knowledge.” The problem with this is that now just about anything can be considered scientific, which makes the definition of “scientific” trivial.
This does not mean, of course, that we toss out scientific knowledge as useless and meaningless. Rather, we need to see it for what it is: one more aspect of the canon of human experiences available to us that can be used to our benefit or detriment. We are not bound by scientific conclusions, but rather we need to see them as pieces of a larger puzzle. Science is not a temple and scientists are not its priests, even if they act like it. There is truth in science, and frankly there is a lot of it. But it is by no means the whole truth or even the greater part of it.
In conclusion, it’s fair to say that we need to look closely at our assumptions about the importance we lend to scientific information and weigh it against other sources available to us in our lives. In this way, we are not slaves to the unconscious assumptions we might have about the world and we are free to cast a wider net in our pursuit of knowledge.