Science Without a Worldview

November 25, 2007    By: Jacob J @ 2:05 pm   Category: Uncategorized

Science offers a worldview. Sure, it is good for a lot of other things too (technologies for example), but I think the scientific worldview is one of the most important things science has to offer. It seems to me that the advances in physics over the last hundred years have left science in an awkward position, which both frustrates and fascinates me.

Ever since Isaac Newton, the prevailing scientific worldview has been one of mechanism, the idea that everything can be explained by physical causes. The universe is seen as a big pinball machine with things bumping into each other, each action causing an equal and opposite reaction, and so forth. Causal determinism follows naturally and has been the underlying assumption of science for the last few centuries. The great thing about the scientific worldview coming out of Newton’s work is that it made the universe understandable. Everything obeyed certain laws and moved about in an orderly fashion. We have all played billiards, so it is easy to imagine that everything from electrons to planets moves around like a billiard ball going straight until they bump into something else.

Then along came quantum mechanics suggesting that very small things are governed by irreducible probabilities. Then comes Big Bang theory saying that very big things (like the universe) were created out of nothing along with time and space. Then chaos theory threw a monkey wrench into lots of everyday things like the weather and boiling water, saying that they are, in principle, unpredictable. Then string theory comes along to suggest that all matter is grounded in tiny strings of energy vibrating in 10 dimensional space neatly tucked away where we can’t see them: at every “pixel” of space. These sorts of advances in science did not have the same effect that Newton did. While they did provide better mathematical models, which are able to predict the behavior of the physical world with great precision, they threw the scientific worldview all out of whack.

Causal determinism, which is so beautifully intuitive, is challenged by the indeterminacy and unpredictability of quantum mechanics and chaos theory. What does it mean, on a fundamental metaphysical level, for something to be random, or statistical in nature? Suppose either A or B can happen and it turns out that A always happens 30% of the time given an adequate sample. On a given instance where A ended up happening, why was it A and not B? The answer seems to be that there is no answer. But then, how do things know to do A 30% of the time and B the other 70%? Indeterminacy is harder to wrap your mind around than determinacy. Things governed by statistical probabilities are easy to calculate, but hard to imagine.

So, after a pretty good stretch of time where science seemed to be making sense of the universe and answering our questions about the way things really are, we started hitting some fairly substantial stumbling blocks about one hundred years ago. No one really knows what to make of quantum mechanics. No one knows why randomness at the small scale smoothes out to become Newtonian physics at the scale of household objects. Since the advances in science led to such vast disagreements as to “what it all means,” the old worldview, mechanism, is still widely believed to be the scientific worldview.

But is mechanism really the worldview of “science”? It is certainly the worldview of a lot of scientists, but I would argue that this is simply a holdover from the past. Science in its current state seems to me to have no worldview. Since there is no worldview to go along with scientific advancements of the last hundred years, the old worldview remains by default. Mechanism is so satisfying in its simplicity and explanatory power, we are reluctant to acknowledge that it has been fundamentally undermined. If there was something to replace it, that would be one thing, but nature (and apparently science) abhors a vacuum.

In this context, it is worth noting that some of the biggest conflicts between science and religion occur in the realm of worldviews and not specific scientific experiments. The free-will / determinism debate is a good example. Although specific experiments enter the debate from time to time, the real conflict is between worldviews. The heart of the objection to free-will is not that it conflicts with experimental findings, but that it conflicts with a worldview of determinism. The fact that determinism as a worldview has been undermined by scientific advancement seems to go unnoticed. And so, the biggest problem for free-will, in my estimation, is that we cannot imagine anything other than determinism. Ironically, this is also one of the biggest problems preventing science from developing a new worldview.

So, am I wrong? Does science have a worldview? If so, what is it? Or if you agree that science lacks a worldview, do we suffer for it? Does it matter?


  1. What do you mean by “worldview”? I’m not sure that mechanism really qualifies as such in any but a rather trivial sense of the word. Is science really in the business of developing worldviews? As near as I can tell, worldviews are primarily concerned with value-systems, and science doesn’t really seem to have much direct relevance to such issues.

    I also worry that proper attention has not been paid to the methodological/metaphysical distinction. For instance, science certainly endorses methodological naturalism, but it is difficult to see how science can, on its own terms, move beyond this position to metaphysical naturalism.

    Furthermore, while quantum indeterminacy may rule out mechanism at the sub atomic level, scientists rarely apply it at that level. At larger scales, indeterminacy seems to have little if any relevance as far as I can tell.

    It is also REALLY difficult to see how indeterminacy is at all significant in the freewill debates. If anything, the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics is even worse than determinism.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 25, 2007 @ 2:50 pm

  2. Jacob,

    Science is applied materialism. I don’t think those who are sympathetic to more expansive points of view have any idea how to bridge the gap. These days anyone who tries tends to be ridiculed incessantly. The majority of scientists are so hard core materialist that they cannot imagine that any other point of view is intellectually consistent.

    Within the limitations of that framework, it would probably help if physicists weren’t so ad hoc about things like realism. Phlogiston is a better (i.e. more realistic) picture of combustion than we generally have of quantum mechanics.

    And it is worth noting that string theory isn’t really a theory at all. It is a theory about theories that no one has any way to test. A world view without a world.

    Comment by Mark D. — November 25, 2007 @ 6:02 pm

  3. Jeff G,

    Thanks for commenting, I was interested in what your take on this post would be. As to the meaning of the word “worldview,” my experience is that it is used more broadly than you suggest. The wiki entry I linked to summarizes it as referring “to the framework of ideas and beliefs through which an individual interprets the world and interacts in it.” If I google “scientific worldview” it returns a lot of hits, so I don’t think I am outside the general usage of the word. Be that as it may, all I mean to say is that science has shaped our assumptions about the nature of the universe. Further, I am claiming that these assumptions have become extremely widespread because of the amazing success of scientific discovery and technology in recent history. All that is as it should be. The problem is that science has sort of stalled out in advancing our worldview because it uncovered a bunch of stuff no one can come to grips with. So, we are left with a widespread and largely outmoded worldview while scientific advancement goes on unabated.

    I agree with you fully that the distiction between methodology and metaphysics is crucial. As you say, “it is difficult to see how science can, on its own terms, move beyond this position to metaphysical naturalism.” However, scientists do this in spades. That is a big part of my point.

    At larger scales, indeterminacy seems to have little if any relevance as far as I can tell.

    Yes, but why this is the case remains one of those fundamental mysteries. There are various theories and very little agreement. Explaining this could potentially go a long way to providing a new-and-improved scientific worldview.

    It is also REALLY difficult to see how indeterminacy is at all significant in the freewill debates.

    Notice that I didn’t try to equate indeterminacy with freewill or any such thing. I offered the determinism/free-will debate as an example of the way our worldview shapes what we think is possible. Determinism is part of the widespread set of assumptions I have referred to as a scientific worldview. It is not that the discovering of indeterminism in the basic constituents of matter supports free-will, rather, it is that it undermines the principal position held by opponents of free-will (viz. determinism).

    Periodically, determinists stop briefly to acknowledge quantum mechanics, just long enough to say that indeterminacy is not free-will and doesn’t help the free-will proponents. Then, they go on arguing a bunch of positions that rely on metaphysical determinism. This makes me wonder if they have really internalized the fact that determinism has been disproven according to our current scientific understanding.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 25, 2007 @ 6:57 pm

  4. Science doesn’t have a single worldview. There are many worldviews. (At a minimum the many ways one can attempt to reconcile GR and QM) But there are also issues in epistemology which can be said to help determine a worldview. The idea that science says nothing about true but is just about making predictions for measurements. (Roughly instrumentalism) The idea that science only speaks truths about sense-data. (Empiricism) The idea that science makes positive claims about the real world independent of my observing. (Realism) Then there are debates about the range of science in epistemology. That is scientism and whether anything knowable is knowable by science and the stronger form which claims that the only way to know anything is by science.

    Claims about causality (roughly what is discussed in terms of determinism) are interesting. But since the 1920′s are so open it’s hard to say much since there are simply so many different views.

    The more interesting one in which there is anything but unanimity of views is over materialism or physicalism. There’s not a single way of putting this. But sometimes it’s the claim that all that exists is what physics claims exists. This is often (although not always) taken to deny certain elements of mind. That is the idea that there are particles in motion but not real mind. However some argue that physicalism ends up entailing panpsychism or the idea that elements of mind are inherent in the universe since our first person perspective is so obvious. Others deny this and say it is reducable in many ways. The debate ends up complex. But I think it safe to say that here, as in the above, there isn’t a single scientific worldview.

    At best a scientific worldview is the very vague position that we learn through our senses, reasoning, and testing. That we should always have a skeptical stance and try to avoid subtle and often unconscious biases. And that one should be rigorous in ones investigations and seek peer criticisms. That and a general acceptance of the positive claims within the body of scientific theories.

    Comment by Clark — November 25, 2007 @ 7:38 pm

  5. In my view the epistemological assumptions of the scientific method dictate what it is possible to conceive as possible for a scientific approach to reality. Jeff G. knows that better than anyone. Jeff, you adopted a “scientific only” approach and immediately assumed that it precluded belief in God. Why did you conclude that atheism, or at best agnosticism, is the only tenable possibility if limit yourself to the scientific method? It is because the scientific method assumes that what is real is what is testable and publicly available for inspection and scientific discussion by a scientific community. Further, I don’t think that you are correct that scientific method doesn’t and cannot entail a metaphysical naturalism. The scientific method assumes a thoroughgoing physical naturalism in which everything is analyzed and explained in terms of the properties of microphysical wave-particles. If you want to know why a car acts as it does, analyze the physics of its most basic parts for the most basic explanation — its atoms. Further, science is always a social construct- that entails a sociology or community seeking consensus by the methods and evidence deemed as possibly persuasive by the scientific method. That is why science is a contextual and social construct that has a horizon.

    I also agree with Clark that there isn’t a single scientific worldview — but there is an assumed physicalism and more importantly a physical reductionism. The center of the debate in the philosophy of mind is the reductionist/nonredutionist divide. Neurophysiologist assume that mind = brain or brain function in some sort of algorithmic relationship. The non-naturalistic view is that there is more to mind than mere physical events. My view of emergence straddles both views in significant senses.

    So I would suggest that there a world-view assumed by the scientific method. It is a reductionist view where the world is ultimately explained by physics — and all sciences are reducible to physics or the behaviors and properties of ever smaller levels of explanation. So there are no autonomous sciences of biology or chemistry pr psychology since they reduce to explanation by microphysical properties. All science is reduced to physics.

    In the end, this assumption that all reality is explained by microphysical reductionism is in fact deterministic just as Jacob suggests. Even if there is indeterminism at the level of quantum wave/particles, that doesn’t mean that there is anything other than random indeterminism defined by the formulae of quantum physics. So the underlying assumption of physicalism is the underlying assumption of the scientific method that all reality is ultimately reducible to and explained by the properties of microphysical realities and there is nothing real over above that that can be really explanatory. In the end, we wind up with epiphenomenalism and the possibility of rational thought, or reasoning, is assumed to be impossible, because the causal properties of microphysical realities are the ultimate explanation of all that exists and these microphysical realites are related by a-rational causal laws. There are no mental causes. There are only microphysical events in the end. That seems to me to be a metaphysical commitment without evidence, but which determines what can count as evidence.

    Comment by Blake — November 25, 2007 @ 8:09 pm

  6. Jacob,

    I guess I’m just uncomfortable with the way “the scientific worldview” was tossed around so loosely. If by this you mean scientism, then I understand pretty well what you are talking about. I just got the impression that you had a broader target in mind.

    My view on the matter is as follows: science is not a worldview, nor does it have one. Scientism certainly is a worldview, though a strict form of it seems to be woefully lacking when it comes to things of value. (I suspect that there are VERY few people who actually limit their worldview to ONLY that which science can demonstrate.) I do, however, think that science is probably the best tool which people have to inform their worldviews. At least no suitable alternatives come immediately to mind.


    I don’t think you accurately represent my views of the relationship between science and religion. Science had very little to do, directly, with my de-conversion. I simply concluded that the burden of proof was on the religionist and that this burden has yet to be met in my mind. I have a hard time seeing how science plays that much of a role in such reasoning.

    I also disagree with the claim that science assumes reductionism. Take Dennett for example. He is a physicalist, if there ever was one and yet he denounces in the strongest terms any hope of reducing the intentional to the physical. While I myself am not sure where I stand on this issue, I find Dennett’s idea to be a fascinating alternative to the boogeyman which you have made out of materialism. In Dennett’s worldview, if I may use the word, rationality, reasoning, etc. is assumed to exist from the very start. Interesting stuff.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 25, 2007 @ 10:49 pm

  7. Of course I agree with everyone that science doesn’t have a single worldview. In point of fact, I have just argued that at there are now so many different views it can’t be said to have a worldview at all. I am contrasting that with the time when there were not so many different views, when there were no scientific challenges to the assumptions of mechanism, physicalism, determinism, and so forth. I am suggesting that these became the basis of a de facto scientific worldview in the glory days of Newtonian physics, and further, that this outmoded worldview is still alive and well, largely because although scientific advancement goes on, there is nothing close to a consensus on how that worldview should be updated.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 26, 2007 @ 12:42 am

  8. Jeff G. As you well know, science cannot just assume that rationality can exist — or that there is mental causation. I agree that science engages the assumption of rationality. That was my point. It engages an assumption at odds with its methodology of reductionism which insists that there cannot be teleological explanation. So observing that science engages the assumption of rationality isn’t something I disagree with — it is something I assert to show in incoherence is a merely scientific project.

    Further, Dennett isn’t doing science when he speaks of consciousness. When Dennett speaks of consciousness, he is engaged in a metaphysical program and not a scientific agenda — just as his critics claim. Further, I disagree that Dennett isn’t a reductive physicalist when he engages empirical evidence. His intentional stance is simply a way of ignoring the very empirical basis for mind that he insists upon while simultaneously claiming that the consciousness of the intentional stance is just a different way of seeing the same thing. His two aspect theory is just a way of asserting an incoherent denial of one’s own program. That is why his books are always divided into two parts — one dealing with empirical evidence and the other dealing with consciousness with scant little to suggest how the two could be explained in terms of one another or even how they have contact. The mere assertion that they are two different ways of seeing the same thing — without evidence or sound argument — is hardly a persuasive view to me.

    How can one who has had spiritual experiences suggest that the burden of proof is somehow on religion to justify that experience or carry the burden of proof? What is the basis for your conclusion that the burden rests where you say it does? Where is the evidence or argument for that stance? Further, what would carrying that burden of proof exist in? As you made clear in several discussions, that burden would have to be met in terms of scientific evidence to count for you. So you assumed the priority of the scientific methods and then placed a burden on what is necessarily a personal (inter-personal) and unique experience that cannot be tested or verified by a scientific community. No wonder you like Dennett.

    Further, I suggest that you look more closely at what the scientific method requires. It certainly rejects explanation in terms of teleology and mind. It assumes explanation by microphysical reduction. Pointing to a philosopher who holds a theory of mind that simply fails to engage the issue of his own implicit reductionism does little to suggest otherwise in my view.

    Comment by Blake — November 26, 2007 @ 8:04 am

  9. Blake,

    You seem to accept the physical sciences as the only “real” sciences. What about the social sciences, especially economics? Economics certainly seems like a legitimate science which takes rationality as an assumption and Dennett’s pretty much sees all science as either physical science OR economics, niether of which are reducible to the other. This doesn’t seem all that bad. (Yes, I understand that science can’t willy nilly assume rationality, but its hard to see how the existence of something such as rationality could ever be empirically confirmed or disconfirmed by way of the physical sciences.)

    As for the burden of proof, I can see two reasons for why it belongs with the religionist. First, when dealing with existence claims, the burden of proof always lies, by default, with those making the affirmative claim. Second, and more importantly, the theistic position is not merely a belief, but a commitment; when someone asks something of you, they tacitly accept a burden to give you a reason why you should do it.

    With regards to how this burden can be met, I’m not as picky as you suggest. Evidence akin to that accepted by the physical sciences would be nice, but so would reasons as typically accepted by the social sciences. I’m not holding out for proof, only a good reason for why I should believe X rather than Y, Z or simply not X.

    As for evidence for these positions, they simply make good sense. This is how people live their lives and the abandoning of these strategies would quickly lead to all sorts of absurdities. Of course you could protest that one need not be to strict in their all or nothing attitude toward these strategies, but I think that we should be. If we are going to compromise on either one of these strategies, it should be for a good reason; but this is simply to adopt the strategies in question.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 26, 2007 @ 12:17 pm

  10. Blake:

    I also agree with Clark that there isn’t a single scientific worldview — but there is an assumed physicalism and more importantly a physical reductionism.

    While physicalism (as normally discussed – although it’s a problematic term) is the majority view, I think that there are exceptions. Consider the debate over whether biology is reducible to physics. Lots of people feel that it isn’t but that then poses an obvious problem for traditional physicalism quite independent about the discussion of mind. Many philosophers of science feel biological laws as discussed in contemporary biology simply can’t be reduced to physics. (For the record I disagree – but it’s certainly an important issue)

    Then there are debates about the so-called soft-sciences and how they should be treated (and sometimes even if they are really sciences).


    In the end, this assumption that all reality is explained by microphysical reductionism is in fact deterministic just as Jacob suggests. Even if there is indeterminism at the level of quantum wave/particles, that doesn’t mean that there is anything other than random indeterminism defined by the formulae of quantum physics.

    While most positions end up variations of determinism/indeterminacy I think there are minority views that are still considered acceptable. Consider the rather interesting view by Paul Davies in his current book that takes entanglement in the past with the future to entail that the universe is developing laws on its own. (A near Peircean view) There are others as well.

    But I agree that most scientists reject a robust ontology of mind in the sense of there being mental substances of some sort. (Although I think variations on panpsychism still are acceptable)


    My view on the matter is as follows: science is not a worldview, nor does it have one.

    I think this is semi-accurate as far as it goes. The problem is that there certainly are worldviews science rejects. And science, as a social phenomena, clearly has majority views – views that often impose a kind of pressure for compliance on people.

    The biggest problem in science (IMO) is that folks make tons of epistemological and ontological commitments without being aware that they are. This can lead to problems. The question then becomes whether such unconscious commitments end up being unconscious worldviews within science.

    The alternative is to view science in a thorough-going instrumentalist way. But that is itself a worldview that not everyone shares.

    Comment by Clark — November 26, 2007 @ 6:05 pm

  11. Jacob:

    Check out my new book “The Scientific Worldview” at

    Glenn Borchardt

    Comment by Glenn Borchardt — January 11, 2008 @ 11:23 am

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.