The Great Grand Bluff Of Science

The Great Grand Bluff Of Science

Everybody knows the story of the turtles. The earth is held up by four large elephants, some say, which stand on the shell of an enormous turtle.

When asked what the turtle was standing on, the answer comes, “Another turtle.” And that turtle stands on what? Answer: It’s turtles all the way down.

We are meant to chuckle at this foolish anecdote, expressing, as it does, the naivete of certain untutored persons who have not yet awoken to the marvels of Science. Yet you won’t, I hope, be surprised to learn that Science also believes in The Turtles. Consider scientism.

Scientism is variously defined, but, loosely, it is the proposition that science has the answer to all questions, if not now, then in the future. This seems self-refuting, since science can’t define itself, let alone explain things like math and logic, which are necessary for science, but which themselves are not scientific and certainly not empirical. There must be a metaphysics before there can be a physics, and the metaphysics is not itself science in the same way that math is not science. This all being so, nevertheless, some think they can argue themselves out of all contradictions.

Nobody, even those who wear the badge of scientism proudly, claims that science has the all the answers now. But they do insist these answers are all, scientifically speaking, on their way.

In the book Scientism: Prospects and Problems, which contains essays from a range of people, we hear from arch-materialist and scientism-embracer Alex Rosenberg. I quote extensively, since we must allow Rosenberg to have his say:

Scientism does not already have the answers to all questions, or even all philosophical questions, and it almost certainly won’t until science is “completed.” Even then it will not be evident that these are the right answers to all these questions since it won’t be evident that science is complete. But that will be no more reason to doubt the answers than it will be to doubt the science.

Meanwhile, scientism does have the answers to many of the philosophical questions that have attracted the most interest by philosophers since Plato and that still hold the attention of philosophers and non-philosophers: questions about the existence of God, the nature of reality, the purpose of the universe, the meaning of life, the basis of morality, the existence of free will, the relation of the mind to the brain, and the character of personal identity through time…

For scientism most of metaphysics is easy. Almost all of it can pretty much be read off of science: Reality is fermions and boson and the aggregations of them governed by the laws of physics. The physical facts fix all other facts at least in this sense: Any other corner of the universe that is fermion by fermion and boson for boson arranged exactly as the ones in the neighborhood of the Sun are arranged, will share all other arrangements in common with our region of space, including all other synchronic chemical, biological, psychological, and social facts. It will be for the various special sciences to uncover these facts and explain in detail how they are related. The biological facts—including especially the appearance of a “means/ends” economy in nature—will be explained as purely Darwinian processes driven by the second law of thermodynamics. Since the mind is the brain, the biological facts will include the psychological and social ones, and all of the processes in its domain will secure their appearance of teleology from the operation of the process that Darwin discovered. It will also follow from the fact fixing of physics that there is no free will or for that matter a self, soul, or person, which endures numerically but immaterially identical over the periods of time we might suppose

This is scientism’s Great Grand Bluff, which comes in several circular shades. Take “Reality is fermions and boson and the aggregations of them governed by the laws of physics.” This is pure bluff. Rosenberg doesn’t claim he knows this is true now, but says that someday somebody will say how it is true; therefore, he asks us to infer, we must believe it is true now. This is the Someday My Prince Will Come Fallacy.

Rosenberg bluffs again with “the mind is the brain”, daring you to disagree. Yet this is just a complete a proof as me saying, and insisting you believe because I said it, that “the mind is not the brain.”

We could on like this, taking each of these bluffs and blusters in turn, exposing their flaws, but this invites all kinds of tedious quibbles. Invariably somebody responds with “Ackshually…”, and we enter the land of Reddit, where nothing is ever solved.

Let’s instead go back to the turtles Rosenberg says hold up the universe.

“Wait, Briggs, he didn’t say anything about turtles.”

Ah, but he did, though he didn’t call them that: he didn’t call them anything. He assumed them. He hoped you didn’t notice the Great Grand Bluff. For he has nothing but turtles, and turtles all the way down, to explain why things are The Way Things Are. There has to be a reason the universe it is the way it is: there has to be a Reason there is something rather than nothing.

That Reason cannot be “science”. It cannot be fermions and bosons; it cannot be whatever stuff makes up these elements. There has to be a reason why it’s fermions and bosons and why it is the stuff, whatever this might be, of what makes them up. There must be a reason why these forces and fields rule, and not others.

There must be a reason why, even, that 1 + 1 = 2. You can fall back, in this case, to the axioms which support proofs why this equation holds. But you have no definitive proof for the axioms. You must simply believe them. On faith. You must have faith. Faith is utterly inescapable. And you must have it in why these axioms, and not others, are true.

Richard Dawkins is a great font of scientism fallacies. Now you might recall that in physics models (a.k.a. theories) there are certain entities called “constants”. These are measured values of various physical parameters (such as the speed of light) that cannot be deduced from simpler propositions. In a way they are like axioms, though not quite, because they are bound up in models (a.k.a. theories). In any case, they must be measured and cannot be know from simpler principles.

The question then arises—this question is conditional on the theories—why these constants and not others? I mean, why do they take these values and not others? Some say these constants are set by God himself. Dawkins responds using the Great Grand Bluff:

To attribute the “fine-tuning” of cosmological constants to an intelligent creator is futile, as it merely shifts the question to how the intelligent creator itself is fine-tuned. The full episode is here: #god #religion #ThePoetryOfReality

I responded to him:

This is the Side Step Fallacy. He dismisses calls for an explanation of constants by saying we don’t have explanation for God’s “constants”, whatever that is.

There still must be a reason why these constants, and why specifically they came to be.

He shuffles off smiling.

Of course, there may be no constants. These may be figments of models, and something else besides them may underlie Reality.

But there must be a reason for why things are why they are, and are not something else.

Calling to “randomness” to explain this is a separate fallacy.

For then you must explain this “randomness”, and why it chose these values and not others.

It cannot be random turtles all the way down.

Science can never answer the question why is there something instead of nothing, which is the same as why are things The Way Things Are. For answers we must venture outside science. We must gaze into theology, if you like. Or even if you don’t like. There is no alternative. Everything else is a Great Grand Bluff.

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  1. Tillman Eddy

    Damn, Briggs… you cost me money! Aside from my contributions to your (splendid) site, you pique my curiosity and I buy publications: “Scientism: Prospects and Problems”


  2. Briggs


    Not cheap, either.

  3. Joy

    This is vintage Briggs!

    Materialists just don’t want reason to exist but they have a reason why they think it.

    They say there is no why.

  4. Joy: vintage indeed – it is wrong, but brilliant ( thought provoking) and the kind of stuff I read the blog for.

    So: yes, Rosenberg does not understand physics and so bs’es (bluffs) – of course I don’t either (see God/info on for my version) but there is an Augustinian (stables?) gednanken ex people can try: imagine a 3d or higher nothing. Can’t be done without boundaries. … so if nothing cannot exist -a mobius sphere of nothing would still be something because it has shape- there is no “why is there something?” Question because nothing is not possible.

  5. Johnno

    Scientism is a man sticking his pecker into the buttocks of another man, hoping to have a baby.

    Acceptance of Sodomy correlates with the rise of Scientism. Coincidence?

    Not at all!

    You need only realize the truth, that neither one actually wants a baby, aka the natural results of the scientific process. The sterility/futility of the act IS THE POINT!

    It just makes them feel good. And they don’t want the scientific inquiry into why that is, because they know deep down that they won’t like the answer.

    Here’s another related example of the pursuit for turtles, and therefore power over the turtles:

  6. John B()

    When I was much younger, I wanted that Grand Unification Theory.
    I wanted a reason for everything.
    I wanted a cause and effect for everything and that cause and effect knowable if not known.

    Even though I’d learned about Turing and Goedel,
    I was still stuck in Asimov’s Foundation world where math can predict and shape the future.

    Of course there were George Orwell and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, but for way too long I clung to Asimov

  7. john b()

    This statement got me to thinking about Goedel:
    Scientism does not already have the answers to all questions, or even all philosophical questions, and it almost certainly won’t until science is “completed.”

    This statement got me to thinking about Turing:
    … it will not be evident that these are the right answers … since it won’t be evident that science is complete.

    But that will be no more reason to doubt the answers than it will be to doubt the science (sic).

    Without completeness, there is more than enough reason to doubt “THE ANSWER” (TM) and for the same reason to doubt “THE SCIENCE” (TM)

  8. C-Marie

    That God is Who He is, is the answer, always.
    God bless, C-Marie

  9. The grand bluff is that humanity is capable of comprehending and describing the workings of reality. That is a giant assumption unless you accept that God made man in his image and capable of exercising free will within the constraints imposed by reality.

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