The Non-Empirical Philosophical Assumptions of Science.

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Many people think that scientists, and science itself, operate independently from underlying beliefs. However, this is quite untrue, and we shall examine why in this short essay.

For one, it is naive to believe that the practicing scientist is wholly objective in that he or she doesn’t bring personal values to work. Scientists, as people are also influenced by their cultures, imaginations, thinking, and biases (1). This is not to mention that even after the scientific work has been completed, scientists interpret their findings through a filter that includes their cultures, and personal beliefs, hence the importance of peer review within the scientific faculty. In this way the professional scientist is no different to anyone else, including the philosopher, historian, or you and me.

Nonetheless, where the actual scientific enterprise itself is concerned, many scientists and philosophers of science have identified numerous philosophical assumptions that scientists have to accept before doing their work. The real rub here is that none of these assumptions can be validated by the scientific method itself. These are namely (2):

That the external world exists (the objective reality of the universe) – Science obviously assumes that the external world exists. It would be a bit of a problem for science if it didn’t. However, as philosophers have long argued, we can’t get outside of our five senses (or minds) to prove that this is so. So, if we try to prove the external world (the world that the scientific method investigates) using our own minds we essentially argue in a circle. Thus, the scientist, like anyone else, has to make a faith based commitment before even doing his work.

The order, uniformity, and regularity of nature – This is the assumption that we can investigate and learn about the universe through observing it. When we examine the cosmos, for example, it is not difficult to identify the regularity and patterns that the planets obey as they orbit the sun, for instance. Or take the speed of light which is at an incredible 299 792 458 meters per second. Every time we observe it, it always appears to be that speed. However, we only know this from our own very limited vantage point within the universe. No-one, for instance, measured it one billion years ago, and no-one has yet measured what it will be in five million years time. However, given that in all the places we have examined, the speed of light stays at a constant 299 792 458 m/s, we believe that we are warranted in assuming that that will be the case even in places we haven’t yet explored. However, that is an assumption. According to research specialist Hugh Gauch, “Expressed as a single grand statement, science presupposes that the physical world is orderly and comprehensible. The most obvious components of this comprehensive presupposition are that the physical world exists and that our sense perceptions are generally reliable” (3).

-The basic reliability of human cognitive faculties and sensory organs – To do science the scientist has to assume the reliability of his or her sensory organs. In fact, some thinkers have actually undermined this. For example, biologist Steven Pinker says that “We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking” (4). Pinker would probably have us believe that he and his own mind is the exception to the rule, or why should we believe him and the views he presents in his book? However, without the belief that the human mind can understand reality, there is no reason to study reality in the first place. However, scientists, and you and me, all operate according to the assumption that our sensory organs are reliable. We can’t prove it, we just assume it.

Moreover, philosophers William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland outline 10 philosophical assumptions that the scientists makes prior to engaging his work, some of which we’ve named, the (i) the existence of a theory-independent, external world; (ii) the orderly nature of the external world; (iii) the knowability of the external world; (iv) the existence of truth; (v) the laws of logic; (vi) the reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties to serve as truth gatherers and as a source of justified true beliefs in our intellectual environment; (vii) the adequacy of language to describe the world; (viii) the existence of values used in science (e.g., “test theories fairly and report test results honestly”); (ix) the uniformity of nature and induction; (x) the existence of numbers (5).

Now, given that these foundational philosophical assumptions cannot be scientifically validated, then science itself demands that certain non-empirical assumptions about the world are true. Without these non-empirical assumptions science itself cannot work. Being a scientific realist myself, I’d be the first to admit that this does nothing to devalue the scientific enterprise itself; in fact, that is quite far from what we are saying. The scientific method, namely the methodological components of measurement, observation, experimentation, and modification of hypotheses clearly have a successful track record. It is quite apparent that science, by in large, has not only greatly assisted our quality of life but it also continues to help us to make sense of our world.

However, many sadly jump from the successes of science into the worldview that deifies science. This is most prevalent within communities that embrace philosophical naturalism as their worldview. These people don’t embrace science but rather “scientism,” the worldview that says we should only believe what can be scientifically proven. There are a number of issues with this, as I’ve argued here, though this very statement (“only believe what can only be scientifically prove”) is a philosophical statement about science, hence scientism refutes itself at the get go. It is also the case that other people go in the opposite direction. Rather than deify science, many religious people reject good science because they perceive it to conflict with their theological beliefs. Thus, on one hand we find those who deify science, and on the other hand there are those that verge on denialism.

Though science is by far the best tool for examining the physical universe, it still has it limitations given that its foundational philosophical assumptions cannot be proven scientifically. No-one needs to be afraid to admit that, especially the scientist.


1. One Scientist’s Perspective on “Intelligent Design.” Available.

2. Heilbron, J. 2003. The Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science. p. vii

3. Gauch, H. 2002. Scientific Method in Practice. p. 154.

4. Quoted by Martin Benjamin in Philosophy & the Actual World (2003). p. 95.

5. Craig, W. & Moreland, J. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. p. 349.


  1. The scientist, until he is able to create universes for himself will either consciously or subconsciously be in awe of the being that has created the universe he is trying to understand. I totally agree that we are limited by our consciousness. When the scientist discovers something, what he is actually discovering is god. Though it is very unfashionable for scientists to use such a term, with the exception of the god particle.

    While religion is in place we are held in aspic and god watches us the way I used to play with those ornaments of trees and see saws in a glass ball that if you tipped upside down, white or silver speckles cascaded like snow.

    ‘Religion Separates Man From God,’ an ebook

  2. Fear of God

    Galileo was chided by the God-fearing for observing that the solar system is Copernican, not Ptolemaic. And yet… the wanderers did and do move about the sun.

    Newton was chided by the God-fearing for describing all motions with mathematics, not with divine will. And yet…measurements in mechanics could and can be predicted with precision through calculation.

    Lavoisier was chided by the God-fearing for explaining chemistry as quantative reactions, not as miracles or magic. And yet…substances did and do appear and disappear with predictable regularity in labs everywhere.

    Darwin was chided by the God-fearing for showing the diversity of life resulting from ecological factors and adaption to them, not from theistic interventions. And yet…life had and has a single structure and has changed and does change forms in time.

    Einstein was chided by the God-fearing for demonstrating the democracy of observers, not the absolute Godʼs-eye view. And yet…space and time have changed and do change from frame of reference to frame of reference, and the laws of nature have been and are the same for all frames.

    Perhaps the God-fearing are right to fear God. If God is the source of reality, they have been fighting or ignoring Godʼs facts for four hundred years!

    Ronnie J. Hastings, Ph.D. (1983)

  3. Religious beliefs like denominations, sects and churches, seem to branch out opinion-wise, leaving one with quite a mixed bag of claims, while science appears to continue to slowly acquire and concentrate more knowledge about the cosmos, broadening our sight and knowledge of the very small, very big, even of cognitive function (including cognitive biases) things we had not seen nor known as clearly in the past. Science has found ways to grow and preserve more food, fight disease, provide energy, warn against coming storms and earthquakes, transmit its knowledge across continents and through space via electrical and radio waves, and ignited tremendous interest in continuing to study (and aid) the world scientifically rather than via prayers, crystals, personal and written holy revelations.

    That doesn’t mean science should become a new religion, but it does help explain the attraction of science to people interested in the world and how it works, including how the internal mental world of human beings functions, i.e., compared with the continuing schisms and disagreements that have branched and spread out over time after the founding of each religion.

    And what about Christianity having to accommodate some of its revelation to things that science has revealed? The vast ages of the earth and of humanity, the shared ancestry of humans with the animal kingdom, and the debate still in progress among Christians concerning whether there ever was a “first couple,” a literal “Adam and Eve?” Catholic doctrine still posits that one must believe in a first couple, as do many Evangelicals, but the science of genomics has increasingly challenged the idea that a literal first couple existed and instead argues that a population of humans evolved together. Moreover, what about the idea of a “fall?”

    In this book, Richard H. Jones presents arguments concerning the positive and negative roles Christian doctrines have played in the rise and development of modern science. Philosophers and scientists have written numerous books about how Creationism and Intelligent Design are not part of science, but they have ignored two more encompassing historical and philosophical issues underlying the conservative theists’ attack on science.

    First, conservative Christian scholars commonly claim that Christian theological doctrines are the source of modern science. To them, modern science is the step child of medieval Christian theology or early Protestant doctrines. That is, without those theological beliefs as presuppositions, modern science could never have arisen, and Christianity or at least theism is the only possible source of these beliefs. Moreover, they argue that even today to practice science all scientists must be committed to these theistic or specially Christian ideas, whether they realize it or not. This “dependency” thesis has become widely accepted, even outside conservative circles. Such scientists as Edward O. Wilson and Paul Davies in their writings for the general public accept the historical part of this thesis as a given.

    Second, some conservative Christians argue that theology has the epistemic right to control the content of all scientific theories and indeed the very nature of science. To them, science unfettered from theological control cannot reveal all of the true nature of the universe, and so theology must control the content and methods of all science. In the words of the philosopher Alvin Plantinga, “Scripture can correct science.” These Christians in fact advocate religious “control beliefs,” not only over science, but over all thought.

    Both the “dependency” thesis and the “control belief” thesis are challenged here. First, the Dependency Thesis is presented, and the historical and philosophical case against it is laid out. Next, an argument for why modern science arose in the West and not in some other culture is presented. The negative effect of “control beliefs” on science is then presented, followed by a more general discussion “science and religion.”

    • Every day the scientist gets up, the unknown exists. The scientist cannot travel to another habitable planet the way you would commute to work. Maybe this is intimidating, so the unknown is sort of conveniently pushed to one side, as not overly important. The scientist will be uncomfortable thinking he is studying god. Until it saves his life, then like men before him, his quest for knowledge will not come before he considers and is humbled by science being developed in the presence of god,..

  5. Just why do you feel the need to clog up James’ blog with your irrelevant ramblings? You have your own site – is that not enough?

  6. […] Most contemporary philosophers are hesitant to pronounce the death of metaphysics; William Lane Craig explains that “Since the demise of Verificationism in the mid-twentieth century, metaphysics, despite Kant’s strictures, has been booming once again” (5). Logical positivism lost its potency when philosophers increasingly agreed that its verification principle would not only render theological statements meaningless but also “a great many scientific statements—along with ethical, aesthetic, and metaphysical statements as well— so that the Principle was wholly unreasonable” (6). Many philosophers find that ethical, aesthetic, and metaphysical statements are in fact meaningful and that within them lies objective truth. For example, many philosophers hold to the existence of moral facts, the view that human acts are evil or good and that this corresponds (see correspondence theory of truth) to the world factually. Moreover, most philosophers agree that the scientific enterprise is itself permeated with underlying non-empirical, metaphysical assumptions. […]

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