Today many view “modern science” and “empiricism” – the practice of basing theories on testing of data derived from human experiences – as if these are infallible, objective entities. People believe in science as though it were a new religion. Yet, one hardly remembers that, for example, lobotomy – drilling holes into a patient’s skull – was considered “scientific” only a few years ago. In the 1940s and ’50s, based on what was felt to be observable evidence at the time, drilling into the skull was thought to cure various mental illnesses. This “scientific practice” was kept until new theories emerged that suggested other methods.
This is but one example of how science is not always accurate, although it professes to be, being dependent on current trends and whatever is regarded as politically correct, depending on what is considered appropriate or not. Empiricism is based on experience, and these constantly change, also depending on which elements the scientist is willing to examine. As human experience tends to be flawed, empirical studies often end up reflecting that same bias.
In social sciences, new ideas and approaches have regularly overturned old paradigms or worldviews. It has not happened without ongoing intellectual battles that often lasted for decades before new views won the fight – for example, as when philosopher and early sociologist Auguste Comte developed empirical positivism early in the 1800s – the philosophical method that only recognized that which can be empirically verified through human experience or mathematical logic, therefore rejecting metaphysics and the supernatural.
Comte declared that the only matter we may know as “facts” are those derived from human experience. All authoritative knowledge had to be based on the experiences of human senses, interpreted through “reason” and “logic,” denying any metaphysical reality that was not observable in the physical world. Knowledge was only attainable through empirical, testable hypothesis, which through the gathering of measurable evidence then could be called a “fact.” Everything else should be denied as “non-fact.” His thesis followed along the lines of empiricism, which may be defined as the theory that all knowledge should be based on experience derived from the senses.
In the 1800s, empiricism became a popular way of examining the observable evidence. It spread like wildfire. Now, everything was to be explained empirically, according to that observable by the human eye. It was a good method in natural science, mathematics and within other disciplines, helping the scientist to determine, with mathematical certainty, the probability of this or that. The original idea was to establish methods by which hypotheses could be tested and evidence examined in order to determine how the world works – the object of science itself.
Yet, when applied to philosophy and religion, empiricism seemed unable to describe the metaphysical reality and the subtle inner rooms of the human mind. Comte’s positivism ruled out the metaphysical dimension in a new and starkly atheistic way. His definition of “fact” denied every other reality outside the purely observable. Yet, since empiricism is to be based on human experience and knowledge, and human experience is subjective, empiricism is actually subjectively tainted.
“Positivism” – hoping to represent that which was “positively” empirically certain – clearly should have been renamed “negativism,” taking into account how it incorporates only one part of the driving forces in man – the observable by the naked eye. It explains only approximately half of the evidence, omitting the complex inner psychological and metaphysical elements in the human.
Positivism nonetheless became a major atheistic, philosophical fashion in the West – it dominated the intellectuals and formed the basis for debates. It is the politically correct paradigm even today. Melanie Phillips states in “The World Turned Upside Down” that scientific materialism, the ideology that aims at destroying religion by claiming to be able to explain everything scientifically, leaves no role for any other kind of inquiry of the universe. None whatsoever.
Comte became the popular founder of this kind of “materialist dictatorship,” with the doctrine of positivism, which hoped to replace Christianity with science. The idea was that “irrational religion” was to be replaced by “rational science,” making the scientifically provable the only truth. If it was not empirically provable, it did not exist. Comte actually went very far in presenting empiricism as a religion and scientists as its new clergy – he boasted of this, as Phillips points out, saying he would preach positivism in Notre Dame as the only real and complete religion.
As we see, positivism was not as scientifically objective as it professed to be. Human experience remains terribly subjective and is not as reliable as many seem to think.