Scientistic Dogma and the Soul

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Concerning dogma there are, as Chesterton observed, two kinds of people: those who recognize that they rely on it, and those who don’t. It is the latter who are often the more dogmatic in the sense that is so often decried. Such is most certainly true of the scientistic set, and especially of those who would be physical materialists [1]. Foremost among their dogma is that only that which can be found through the five senses is real—or perhaps more broadly, only that which can be measured and quantified exists.

They have attempted to describe all reality, all existence, in emperiological [2] terms, forgetting all the while that such things as “existence,” “being,” and “reality” are not themselves purely emperiological. One result of this is the occasional “forgetting” of things which we know as people qua people, that is, of things which might be classed as knowledge—or at the very least that form of opinion which is so well grounded as to be nearly identical with knowledge [3]. I am referring to our so-called “common knowledge,” “common sense,” or “common experiences” [4]. In his book The Science Before Science: A Guide to Thinking in the 21st Century, Dr Anthony Rizzi makes a distinction between “proper” and “improper” knowledge [5]:

“In common usage, knowledge can mean anything we take as relatively certain for whatever reason. We can call this knowledge in the improper sense. I have knowledge proper only when I come to conclusions based on facts and principles that I have personally ‘seen’ and, if required, based on a chain of reasoning that I have walked through myself. Belief in the generic sense means having a level of probable, but not certain, conviction that is usually largely based on the word of another.”

He then proceeds to make the case that much of (modern) science is based on improper knowledge. Some of it is even based on belief. Indeed, much of scientific progress relies in the short term (and often the long term as well) on the “belief” that the scientific community has in the data (and results, conclusions) reported by some set of scientists who conduct the experiment in question [6], though in the case of science there is more involved than merely trusting the “testimony”of the scientist who report the results of their experiments [7]. In his Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, Professor Edward Feser states that

“a serious problem with the idea that science is merely in the business of establishing regularities on the basis of observation is that the sorts of regularities that the hard science tend to uncover are rarely observed, and in fact are in ordinary circumstances impossible to observe. Beginning students of physics quickly become acquainted with idealizations like the notion of a frictionless surface, and with the fact that laws like Newton’s law of gravitation strictly speaking describes the behavior of bodies only in the circumstance where no interfering forces are acting on them, a circumstance which never actually holds. Moreover, physicists do not in fact embrace a regularity as a law of nature only after many trials, after the fashion of popular presentations in inductive reasoning. Rather, they draw their conclusions from a few highly specialized experiments conducted under artificial conditions.”

Add to this the expense of building many scientific experiments (I am thinking not only of the multi-billion dollar machines like the LHC or the ITER device, but also of the multi-million dollar price tag of many modern research labs on a small scale), and suddenly the testimony of witnesses becomes very important to the scientific enterprise. So how do we verify whether or not a witness’s testimony is worthy of belief? In his The 4 Dimensions of Philosophy, Mortimer J Adler first gives a brief definition of truth (it is the correspondence of the mind with reality), and then suggests four possible tests of truth:

  1. Whether a judgment (or prediction) turns out to be right
  2. Whether a negative example can be found concerning a generalization
  3. Whether the principle has inner coherence (and unity)
  4. Whether the theory is simple and elegant yet clear and comprehensive.

So where does that leave us concerning science, dogma, and scientistic dogma? Let’s return to the chief scientistic dogma: only that which can be measured and quantified exists. I mentioned before that this is rather dogmatic, and so it is. But is it true? Answering this question would require a short book to do thoroughly, but in brief can be done by asking whether this dogma satisfies the second test of truth. Is there something which is unmeasurable, unquantifiable, and yet which exists?

Does anyone believe that our identity is sucked away with the atoms we lose due to wear-and-tear? Yet this would be the logical consequence of the contention that we are just a collection of atoms.

No scientific experiment has ever measured such things as the human soul that is the thing which makes me myself and you yourself and which is the principle of life. There have been some attempts—as by Prof. Bertrand Russell—to do away with the soul as unmeasured, unmeasurable (the soul is a form and therefore is by definition immaterial), and therefore non-existent. The result is the claim that each of us is merely a collection of random particles. It is a claim which is false-to facts, as we do not say that our identities change if we gain or lose a few such particles from the collection; as the eminent British physicist and Anglican clergyman Dr John Polkinghorne notes in his Science and Theology: An Introduction, “The atoms in each of us are being continually changed by eating and drinking, wear and tear. They cannot be the source of our experience of a continuing self.”

Indeed, since some of the atoms which are currently a part of me may in the future be a part of you, it is clear that these atoms cannot contain within themselves the principle of our identity [8]. For that matter, we know that the mere collection of atoms which are in our bodies does not give us our identity, either: there is, for example, some period of time after I eat an apple and yet before it has been digested, yet none would claim that the undigested apple has yet become a part of my identity [9]! It is a part of our “common knowledge” or “common experience” that we know that we are not an apple, or that the apple is not a substantial (as opposed to accidental) part of us as we eat it.

Likewise, we know, as a matter of common sense and common experience, that we are not just the atoms of which we are composed, that though our body (as a whole) is a part of us [10], we are not only the body. In his Three Approaches to Abortion, Professor Peter Kreeft makes a 15-step case against abortion which begins with knowing what an apple is. The fourth of these steps is that we know what human beings are:

“Our fourth principle is that we know that we are, that we know what human beings are. If we know what an apple is, surely we know what a human being is. For we are not apples. We do not live as apples. We do not feel what apples feel, if they feel anything. We do not experience the existence or growth or life of apples. Yet we know what an apple is…All the more, then, we know what we are; for we have ‘inside information,’ privileged information, more and better data here.”

Granted, there is plenty that we do not know about ourselves, speaking either singularly (myself, yourself) or collectively (humanity)–a point which Dr Kreeft himself acknowledges; but there is still much more we know about humans and humanity than we know about apples and “appleness.” We know what it is to be a human being, but we only know about apples: we have more of both the common and special knowledge concerning humanity than we ever could have about apples. And what we do know suggests that we are more than a collection of atoms. This is very nearly self-evident, as even our language attests: for I can claim it as my language, and you can claim it as yours, all while speaking in the singular, and using the singular pronoun. I am a unity of body and soul, which is to say that I am one and not many, not even merely a collective. Body and soul are two sides of the same coin, then, as form and matter are both necessary for any material object; indeed, the soul is the form of the body. Saint Thomas Aquinas instructs us of this when he writes that

Aquinas gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “I knew because a little bird told me…”

“A second division is according as substance is divided into matter and form and composite. Matter indeed is that which in itself is not a definite thing (hoc aliquid). Form is that thanks to which the thing is now actual. The composed substance is a definite thing. That is called a definite thing (hoc aliquid) which can be pointed out as complete in being and kind and, among material things, this is true only of the composed substance…The difference between matter and form is this: that matter is potential being, and form is entelechy, that is the act whereby the matter comes to be actually, such that the composite being actually is” (Commentary on De Anima, Book 2, lesson 1, quoted in Prof Ralph McInerny’s A first Glance at St Thomas Aquinas: A Handbook for Peeping Thomists).

Professor McInerny, for his part, notes that our “soul is that whereby we primarily live, perceive, and think,” and that “knowledge of it emerges from an analysis of change.” That is to say, we know that we have a soul because though my body may change (e.g. by losing a few atoms to “wear and tear,” and then replenishing these by eating), I do not, that is, my identity remains the same.

Scientists pride themselves on their study of “actual beings.” This much is certain. But note that an actual being is a composite of form and matter (matter without form would be “prime matter,” and form without matter would be an angel or God), so that scientists must be studying mostly matter-form composites; we might quibble over how to define the beings of reason—mathematical entities—used by scientists, but the point of modern physics is the study of the material universe. So science presupposes form, even if it thereafter attempts to ignore it.

So the existence of the soul is not contrary to science, any more than the existence of any form is. In fact, form is presupposed by modern science, and so modern science cannot disprove its existence. A corollary of this is that modern science cannot disprove the existence of the soul. Taking this a step further, the enterprise of science relies on the trusting of eyewitness reports of observed data, largely in the case of special experiences. These experiences may not be so specialized as those described by Dr Feser, yet they are still “special,” in that the scientists involved must conduct some experiment to gather data, whether the experiment is simple (e.g. dropping a ball and timing its fall) or complex (e.g. searching for the infamous and enigmatic Higgs Boson).

But if the scientist is to trust eyewitness reporting of specialized experiments—that is, of “special experience”—then he cannot retain consistency when he becomes suspicious of “common experiences” attested to by the whole of mankind. He cannot trust in the reliability of specialized observations if he does not irst trust in the reliability of generalized observations. The dogmatic conclusion of scientism that there is no soul because the souls is not measurable by science is a conclusion which begins with principles which undermine science itself. It denies the common experience of mankind that there is something more to being human than merely being a collection of atoms—that is, it ultimately denies the self [11]. Scientism thus fails at the very least Adler’s third test of truth—that of inner coherence—by causing science to deny one of its own prerequisites. As for the scientistic dogma that there exists nothing which cannot be measured, it likewise fails (at least) the second test of truth: for the existence of substantial forms in general and the soul in particular provide an example of something existing which is unmeasurable. Those of the scientistic mindset would therefore be well-advised to heed the assertion which Charles de Koninck makes in his The Hollow Universe:

“In plain English, what are we asserting? That the physicist need not know what a man is any more than the shipping agent weighing trunks need be aware of what is in them. Far less, in fact. To the physicist, Mr. Smith is part and parcel of the shadowy world of symbols; and how else can a physicist treat Mr Smith? Indeed, it would mean a much closer approach to what Mr. Smith is to state that he can be turned into a good soap—which is a demonstrable fact. So all we ask is that the mathematical physicist realize what his science presupposes: that if he wishes to deal with men he cannot permit himself the use of words. It is precisely the improper use of words which makes [Bertrand] Russell’s statement concerning Mr Smith [that he is no more than a collection of atoms] so delightfully comic.”

Or, in the words of the late Fr Stanley L Jaki, he must beware the limits of his limitless science.



[1] Or “physicalists,” to distinguish them from (for example) the Marxist/economic materialists.

[2] In his The Science Before Science, physicist Anthony Rizzi—a man who is worthy also of the title philosopher—gives the following definition for empiriological knowledge:

“That tool of a broader science, e.g. Physica, that makes heavy use of being of reaon to bring sensorial data under certain organizational principles, especially in such a way as to maximally predict outcomes. It both reflects and hides in varying degrees the underlying real being which is the ultimate cause of the relations and properties seen. It usually considers the average featres of many things, ratehr than the essential features of a given thing. The emperiological method contrasts with ontological methodology, for the latter has the aim of understanding the essence of things; what things are. The result of emperiological science is usually a puzzle waiting to be understood ontologically.”

Doctor Rizzi further divides emperiological knowledge (or the emperiological approach to knowledge) into two subcategories: the emperiometric (the primary mode of operation of modern physics) and the emperioschematic (an approach applied sometimes/often in biology, in which empirically obtained information is organized into schemas).

[3] And here there is a distinction to be mad between what the Greeks called “episteme” (idealized knowledge) and “doxa” (knowledge which retains some shadow of doubt). In his The 4 Dimensions of Philosophy (pages 31-32), Mortimer J Adler notes that

“The judgment that all swans are white is falsified by one negative instance—the perceptual experience of one black swan. Generalizations that time and time again are exposed to the possibility of falsification by contrary perceptual experience and escape such falsification are correctly judged by us to be true knowledge with an increasing degree of probability but they never attain certitude. They always remain in the sphere of doubt. They are never beyond the shadow of doubt.”

In the footnotes to this passage, Dr Adler writes that there are a small number of self-evident truths which the Greeks would consider episteme, and much of the rest of what we “know” is what they would call doxa. In the epilogue to that book, he writes that true philosophy should be more concerned with doxa than episteme, and that one of the great philosophical mistakes was the attempt to turn doxa into episteme, which was done widely during the “modern era” of philosophy (beginning with Descartes, etc.). He discusses this in more depth in his Ten Philosophical Mistakes, and Professor Ralph McInenry also has some discussion of this in his A First Glance at St. Thomas: A Handbook for Peeping Thomists, as for that matter does the previously mentioned Dr Rizzi.

[4] We might class or possible sources of data as “common experience” and “special experience.” This is done frequently by Thomistic philosophers (though I am sorry to say that I haven’t read the original work of St Thomas or, as is likely, of Aristotle in which this distinction is made). Most scientific experiments (in the modern sense) would fall under the category of “special experience,” since they are generally carried out under specialized and controlled conditions, e.g. in a laboratory to which most men do not have access. Common experience is more common to all man-kind, and in fact must be made use of in order to lay the foundation of science.

[5] See footnote [3] above; proper vs improper knowledge seems to me to be equivalent to doxa as opposed to episteme.

[6] The late Fr Stanley L Jaki, physicist ad theologian, explains this in his Miracles and Physics when he wrote that

Immediate and direct observation of things and the certainty of that observation (or at least the certainty with which it can be corrected or improved) is the rock bottom basis of not only philosophy but also of science as well….if it is impossible to start a march with the second step, concern about the laws of nature should give second place to concern man’s ability to register things and events with certainty….

Courts of all levels, governments of all jurisdiction, depend on witnesses and their plain witnessing, and so do laboratories. In none of these forums can a discrimination against plain witnessing of unusual facts be condoned or else the most important cases may be prejudged and the only avenues for progress be blocked. Had Oersted refused to believe his eyes when they noted that the magnetic needle which he placed under a live wire turned in a direction which he believed to be impossible, the discoveries of Faraday and Maxwell might not have followed as they did. The discovery of the world of atoms depended on Roentgen’s chance witnessing of the formation, that was not expected to happen, of the negative image of a key on a photographic plate. Far more importantly, would Newtonian science have happened at all if Kepler had not unconditionally trusted in Tycho Brahe’s eyes in making countless naked-eye observations about the position of the planet Mars?

[7] In his essay “The Pimacy of Common Sense,” Pierre Duhem writes:

When a sincere witness, sufficiently sober so as not to take the whims of his imagination for observation and familiar enough with the language to express his thought clearly, affirms to have registered a fact, the fact is certain. If I declare to you that on such a day, at such an hour, I saw a white horse, you must believe, unless you have reason to consider me a liar or a victim of hallucination that on that day, at that hour, in that street, there was a white horse….But…what the physicist states as the result of an experiment is not a recital of facts registered by him. It is rather an interpretation of these facts, it is their transposition into the abstract, symbolic world of theories which he considers to be well established.

Therefore, after the physicist’s testimony has been submitted to the rules which establish the degree of confidence due to the account of a witness, you have accomplished only a part, and the easier part, of the critique of his experiment.

Thus, establishing that some level of trust—some amount of belief—in the data reported by the scientist conducting the experiment is a necessary though not a sufficient step in the process of advancing science. The next step is to ensure that the scientist’s interpretation of his data as his results is sound, and from there that his conclusions actually do follow. A similar process is employed in good philosophy (or history, literary criticism, theology, etc.), allowing of course for the differences between science and philosophy (etc.) regarding how each gathers its data, the form of the data, the methods each uses in interpreting and analyzing its data, etc.

[8] Both St Augustine (City of God) and St Thomas Aquinas (Summa Contra Gentiles) address a similar point in their discussions of the resurrection. They did not know of atoms in the same sense that we do now, but they were quite familiar with matter, and with the fact that matter must be ingested to replenish lost matter, and with for example, the existence of cannibals whose diet included the bodies of other people.

[9] At least, none would until they realized that in so doing they undermine the position of the pro-abortion movement, which by-and-large hinges on the assumption that the unborn child is somehow still a part of his mother. But this reversal of position is based less on an attempt to make the mind conform with reality than an attempt to redefine reality for the sake of convenience.

[10] Nor are we just our souls, for we are a dynamic relationship of mind, body, and spirit, or of body and soul. Take away the soul but leave the body, and the body is a corpse; take away the body and leave the soul, and we have what we call a ghost.

[11] Sometime scientistic philosophers attempt to get around this by making a dualistic assumption in which the self is like the software and the body the hardware: Cartesian mind-body dualism reborn! I will not attempt to refute this today, other than to say that it again ignores that science studies matter-form composites, and so cannot assume that such composites are non-existent, or non-composite, or separable for its purposes.

Nicene Guy

Nicene Guy

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”

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5 thoughts on “Scientistic Dogma and the Soul”

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    I had the wonderful fortune to find “The Science Before Science” at a tiny book sale after mass at my parish when I was about 15. Yet not since have I ever heard it cited or referenced anywhere, not until today. I am happy to see his thought recognized a little. 🙂

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    I found Dr Rizzi’s book after a number of my readers recommended it to me. I suspect that it isn’t referenced more often because he isn’t a professional philosopher, and so much of what he writes is explanations and “popularizations” of good sound philosophy. This is unfortunate, since he applies the philosophy in clear terms to problems uncovered by (modern) science, which is something that most of the professional philosophers don’t do at a “popular” level.

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