(This is Post 2 in a series of 3. The first post can be found here.).
In response to the Michael Reiss affair, Harold Kroto has claimed that his sacking was necessary since Reiss (along with all religious people) show their lack of intellectual honesty by claiming to know anything that cannot be subjected to scientific testing. Let’s look closely at Kroto’s “lemma” (I’ll paraphrase slightly): only those statements that can be subjected to scientific examination may be significant, or valid.
This is a textbook definition of the school of philosophy known as verificationism, or logical positivism. This school had its heyday in the 1st half of the 20th century, championed by Ayer and Bertrand Russell, among others. It has been almost universal abandoned by philosophers of science for two reasons. Firstly, it rules out all metaphysical, aesthetic and ethical knowledge. The impossibility of ethical knowledge in particular means that Kroto’s accusations of a lack of honesty and intellectual integrity, as well has his noble “struggle to save the democratic freedoms of The Enlightenment for our grandchildren” are, in fact, meaningless as they cannot be substantiated by the scientific method.
Secondly, is it is self-refuting. Consider this question: is Kroto’s lemma subjectable to scientific examination? Well … no. What experimental confirmation of the lemma is possible? To put it more succinctly, the claim “all truths are scientific truths” is not itself a scientific truth. The claim “there is no such thing as metaphysics” is itself a metaphysical claim. The statement “only empirically supportable claims are meaningful” is not empirically supportable. The statement “there are no ways of knowing other than science” cannot be known through science.
This is no mere technicality. Kroto is attempting to define the boundaries of what is knowable in such a way that excludes all religious knowledge. He sees religious believers outside the boundary and accuses them all of dishonesty. But if he looks a bit harder he will also see his own definition lying outside its own boundary. If you claim that only the scientific method can lead us to the truth, then do not be surprised when all you know is facts about the physical universe. You cannot claim that the boundaries of science are the boundaries of knowledge without contradicting yourself.
All of this leaves open the question of whether religious knowledge is, in fact, possible. I’ll look at this in my next post.