Yes to Science; No to Scientism

There is a lot of confusion in the debate between science and religion (I use the term “religion” here as it relates to Christianity).

Science is a wonderful, glorious thing.  But scientism is the troll under the bridge that just loves to prance around when it can.  Science is way of knowing the physical and natural world – observe, measure, hypothesise, experiment, drawing conclusions and verification of the conclusions – and has enormously enriched and refined our knowledge of the world.  As Spandau Ballet so memorably sang in True, “I know, I know, I know this much is true.”  And this is the point – science is a search; a search for what is true; it is a search for Truth itself.  In this sense, it is, as G. K. Chesterton noted, “[Physical science] is either infallible or it is false.”  He adds with his usual razor wit, to mix these up is to confuse the role of a medical doctor who tells us that this or that food will kill us; but it is for the philosopher to say whether I ought to be killed.

Scientism is the reduction of all knowledge to the scientific form of knowledge, and this can take the forms of a strong or weak scientism.  The “strong scientism” is seen no more clearly seen than in the current debates around religion and science, especially from the fiercest critics of religion – the “New Atheists” (of whom there is nothing new at all), and which Alistair McGrath reminds us, that scientism is not only alive and well, but has “become the official ideology of the movement.”  John Crosby writes, “Scientism takes the paradigm for knowledge and truth to be the knowledge and truth gained by the natural sciences.  To the extent that philosophy or literature or religion is not amenable to the methods of natural science, it is treated as a sub-standard form of knowledge” (A. J. Ayer and his ‘Vienna Circle’ pals in the 20’s and 30’s and their logical positivism are foundational to the present situation).  It is quite perverse though how this has happened!  It creates a false distinction, as though one has to choose between science and nonsense, which is nonsense!  Scientism is a shame and a sham!  Nothing but an epistemological reductionism masquerading as an enlightened, open-minded, free-thinking and progressive world-view.

This was exemplified in a 2019 science and religion debate between John Lennox and  Peter Atkins over at Unbelievable?  These two are extremely clever men, but one is a Christian (Lennox) and the other an atheist.  The problem is that despite Lennox being a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, Atkins, with quite staggering arrogance, still dismisses Lennox’s Christian faith as immature, telling him and all other Christian/religious people  to “grow up!” It is this kind of allegiance to a scientific-only worldview (i.e. scientism) that even makes Richard Dawkins look sluggish.  Atkins made some good and interesting points, but overall, he only served to prove one thing: that he is so deeply locked into an epistemological method of scientism, with its great reduction and dismissal of any other form of knowing, that he does, in fact, look silly.  He betrays the almost universal consensus that there are non-scientific ways to knowing, as the famous atheist Bertrand Russell once admitted, in acknowledging that mathematics (of which Lennox is a professor!), is a doorway to religion and mysticism.

I do wish Atkins could argue properly with Lennox, rather like the early 20th century debates between Christian G. K. Chesterton and atheist George Bernard Shaw, who could properly argue but still hold a meaningful friendship.  Atkins despises Lennox and all other Christians, and it is at this point the meaningfulness of debate breaks down.  Once, when preparing for a debate, a rotund Chesterton said to a skinny Shaw, “To look at you, anyone would think there was a famine in England!”  Shaw replied, “And to look at you, anyone would think you caused it!”  Sadly, this kind of banter born out of mature relating and friendship is lost to many who hold to scientism.


The saying, “Science has disproved God” is a popular cultural assumption, especially among the young!  But which science?  Which experiment?  Which research?  Which scientist?  Meteorologist Dr Shepherd asks what I call the “blind-spot” question, “What shapes our perceptions about science?”  It’s not like scientism is a deliberate deception, a lie, but it is evidence of a blindness, a bias that the Western culture is swimming in (although, sometimes, it is a deception).  As Dr David Berlinski so humourously, and non-scientifically put it on scientism’s confusion over its limits, “Cows belong in fields not bedrooms!”  Human Beings generally have an instinct as to what is moral or immoral, or in religious language, sinful or holy.  The fact of sin in the world is beyond dispute – indeed, it is a scientifically observable fact (except to those so open-minded that everything that goes in, fairly conveniently falls out); the social sciences, ancient and modern philosophy and most religions of the world – certainly the three Abrahamic faiths all build this moral/immoral anthropological icon.  Following Chesterton again, physical science could never “prove” that a person is sinful (he uses the word “depraved”); a person can’t be cut open to find his sins; he can’t be boiled down until he reveals his depravity.  The physical sciences, he [rightly] says, are incapable of proving a “Fall” except by observation of the entailments of that Fall in the way people are.  He likens it to a thing “wild and whirling” in the nonsensical construction of this sentence: “The plumber can find nothing wrong with our piano; so I suppose that my wife does love me,” adding by way of obviousness, “By its nature the evidence of sin is something that one cannot help finding.”  Cows and bedrooms all day long!

The idea that the only things worth knowing are what can be scientifically verified make this claim contradictory:  For how can this very claim itself be scientifically verified?  It’s an example of a power-truth claim but is unable to use the only tools that it alone has chosen, to verify its own claims.  Anthony Thiselton in ‘On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise’ writes,

“For what counts as true for one group is often disparaged as a manipulative disguise to legitimate power-claims by another group. If different groups try to adopt different criteria of truth to determine what counts as true, or even what counts as a meaningful truth-claim, rational argument and dialogue become undermined by recurring appeals to what one group counts as axioms, but seem far from axiomatic for another. At this point argument becomes transposed as rhetoric. Rhetoric then comes to rely on force, seduction, or manipulation.”

The popular atheists of our day make this mistake.  They fall into extremes (idiots), just like religious fundamentalists do (idiots), when they need to avoid over-estimating it as much as someone else can under-estimate it.

Going back to Dr Shepherd (who gave a great TED talk by the way), he was talking about perceptions as it related to the weather, but meteorology is a science, and so his method is useful for our discussion.  He said their are three things that impact what we think we know:

  1. Confirmation Bias:  Finding evidence to confirm existing belief (Gralefrit comment:  this problem is as much a danger in the scientific community as elsewhere).
  2. Dunning-Kuger Effect:  Thinking we know more than we know (Gralefrit comment:  Scientism has temporarily won the culture war in persuading many scientifically illiterate people that “science” has trumped religion, thus many are duped into “thinking they know more than they know”).
  3. Cognitive Dissonance:  New information contradicting existing beliefs.  (Gralefrit comment:  See no.1).

Similarly, Susan Haack exposes scientism in this way, as “…a kind of over-enthusiastic and uncritically deferential attitude towards science, an inability to see or an unwillingness to acknowledge its fallibility, its limitations, and its potential dangers.  One side too hastily dismisses science; the other too hastily defers to it.”

An inability or unwillingness is the key here.  Most of us could forgive quite easily someone’s inability; but an unwillingness?  This is pathetically immature, reductive and damaging, and this is reflected in the title of JP Moreland’s recent book, ‘Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology‘:

“Rigid adherence to scientism—as opposed to a healthy respect for science—is all too prevalent in our world today. Rather than leading to a deeper understanding of our universe, this worldview actually undermines real science and marginalizes morality and religion.  In this book, celebrated philosopher J. P. Moreland exposes the self-defeating nature of scientism and equips us to recognize scientism’s harmful presence in different aspects of culture, emboldening our witness to biblical Christianity and arming us with strategies for the integration of faith and science—the only feasible path to genuine knowledge.”

To allow scientism such dominance is to skew all the other disciplines.  Seeing and knowing only scientifically is not an expansion of knowledge and truth and reality, but a reduction of it.  The same is true if economics takes the central place, as it does in all forms of Marxism, then everything else, such as science, art, philosophy, etc., will be seen as epiphenominon – and that’s no good for anyone.  Just turn on the radio (BBC 4 Today Program for example) to see what dominates:  Money (economics) and perpetual “growth” – it’s all rather obvious!  What we need is not a passion for the particular, but a passion for the whole, and scientism and its exponents miss this to almost comic-tragic effect!

Susan Haack lists six signs of scientism, which are a very helpful starting point for seeing what is being claimed and counter-claimed:

  1.  Using the words “science,” “scientific,” “scientifically,” “scientist,” etc., honorifically as generic terms of epistemic praise.

  2. Adopting the manners, the trappings, the technical terminology, etc., of the sciences, irrespective of their real usefulness.

  3. A preoccupation with demarcation, i.e., with drawing a sharp line between genuine science, the real things, and “pseudo-scientific” imposters.

  4. A corresponding preoccupation with identifying the “scientific method,” presumed to explain how the sciences have been so successful.

  5. Looking to the sciences for answers to questions beyond their scope.

  6. Denying or denigrating the legitimacy or the worth of other kinds of inquiry besides the scientific, or the value of human activities other than inquiry, such as poetry or art.

I will outline these excellent points Haack makes in another post.

But for now, and finally, what is at stake is not nothing but everything.  What is at stake is myself, me.  You.  The contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor speaks of the “buffered self” (admittedly not in the video linked to his name here but hey! I just wanted you to see him).  He says this is one of the marks of our secular, post Christendom culture.  This is surely another way to say we, as a culture in the West, are cut off from our ancient roots, in that we no longer have a sense of the transcendent, except maybe, as tourists to a Cathedral.  It seems to me, that scientism is now the new spokesperson to the post-Christian world and has become the official philosophy of the buffered self, and this is but one aspect on what Donald Capps calls ‘The Depleted Self’ – but that’s for another time.

To end with G. K. Chesterton.  The semi-scientific revolutionists he refers to are the scientism advocates today.  He says, “They are the party of platitude.  They do not shake [Christianity]:  rather, Christianity seems to shake them.”

Yes to science; No to scientism!

Good day.

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