Few things earn you more credibility in a conversation than dropping a “scientists have found” or “studies have shown.” This is because our culture places such a high premium on scientific understanding. And, rightly so! Science has given us spectacular insight into our universe and has improved our lives in countless ways.
Do we value science too much?
In 1877, mathematician and philosopher W.K. Clifford published an article titled “The Ethics of Belief.” He stated in the article a principle that has since become more famous than he has:
It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.”
Sparing the historical details (see René Descartes and Auguste Comte), Clifford simply said what philosophers had been thinking for some time. Namely that empirical evidence—that which is observed with the five senses and rationally interpreted—is the only reliable grounds for claiming to know anything.
It is a way of thinking called scientism.
In his book on the subject, Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland defines scientism as “the view that the hard sciences alone have the intellectual authority to give us knowledge of reality.”
Moreland explains that scientism can be found in two forms, strong and weak. Strong scientism holds that science is the only way to know truth while all other claims to knowledge are simply irrelevant. Weak scientism holds that science is the best way to know truth while all other claims to knowledge merely opinion.
Economist E.F. Schumacher explained the concept this way:
The architects of the modern worldview…assumed that those things that could be weighed, measured, and counted were more true than those that could not be quantified. If it couldn’t be counted, in other words, it didn’t count.
So, what is the problem? After all, science is definitively observable, measurable, and repeatable. The facts discovered by the scientific method are just that—facts. What else could be more reliable? What else could we need?
Here’s the thing…
Science is an unspeakably important means of discovery knowledge, but it is not the only one. It tells us a lot, but it doesn’t tell us everything.
The Irony of Scientism
The ironic thing is that scientism is not a scientific claim. It is a philosophical claim—epistemological to be precise. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge, how we know what we know.
The importance of this distinction is illustrated well by a story J.P. Moreland tells of a dinner party he once attended. The host told him that a man would be at the dinner who had his Ph.D. in physics…and hated Christians. Moreland recounts the first interaction:
He says to me, “Hey, say, I understand you’re a philosopher and a theologian.”
“Well, I give it my best shot,” I said.
“Yeah, I used to be interested in that kind of thing when I was a teenager. But when I matured and grew up intellectually, I came to realize that if you can’t quantify your data and prove it in the laboratory, it is nothing but a bunch of idle opinion, hot air, and personal feelings.”
I let him talk about two or three minutes and then I interrupted him, “Listen, I’m having a problem with what’s going on here. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask a question. You’ve made 20 or 30 assertions in the last few minutes, and I can’t think of a single one of them that could be quantified and tested in the laboratory. If I’m wrong about that, please point out which statement…But, you see, if I’m right, then by your own standards, sir, all you’ve been doing the last two or three minutes is spewing hot air, idle opinion, and personal feelings.
In other words, scientism is self-defeating. It is a truth claim that does not hold up to its own test of truth.
Scientism is too speculative to be scientific.
The Reduction of Scientism
Another adverse effect of scientism is the way it reduces our perspective on the human experience. Writing for the AAAS, science historian Thomas Burnett explains the effect scientism had as it spread over time:
In one sense, the rhetoric of these visionaries [Descartes and Bacon] opened great new vistas for intellectual inquiry. But on the other hand, it proposed a vastly narrower range of which human activities were considered worthwhile.
Experiences like art, music, and romance carry value that is simply inexpressible in scientific terms. And so, our appreciation of them becomes reductionistic. They are all reduced to scientific phenomena rather than meaningful experiences. Burnett notes, “With scientism, you will regularly hear explanations that rely on words like “merely”, “only”, or “nothing more than.” These are words that no one wants to hear in reference to experiences that make life so meaningful.
But, that is where scientism leads us. As one scientist puts it, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
In his book on this topic, MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson compares the logic scientism to a successful fisherman who claims, based on his success, that any fish he does not catch must not exist. After all, there’s no fish he can’t catch!
Philosopher Alvin Plantinga gives an equally enlightening analogy. He suggests that scientism is like a drunk man who loses his keys at night. He insists that they must be under a nearby streetlight because that is the only place he can see. In fact, scientism goes father. It is like the drunk insisting that if the keys are not under the street light, they do not exist or they no longer needed.
While science allows you to see more of the universe, scientism reduces all the reasons you would want to.
The Expectation of Scientism
As we elevate science as the intellectual authority, other fields such as theology and philosophy are relegated as personal and emotional subjects.
What is the result? We are left expecting science to answer the meaningful questions that theology and philosophy formerly answered—questions that science is categorically not equipped to answer.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the arena of morality.
Sam Harris speaks volumes in just the title of his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. In the book, Harris challenges the conventional wisdom that moral values are “controversies about which science officially has no opinion.”
[Q]uestions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood….”
His stated purpose in the book is “to begin a conversation about how moral truth can be understood in the context of science.”
Harris’ argument is that moral judgments are produced by the brain, the brain was produced by evolution, and therefore morality may be addressed as any other scientific phenomenon. That is to say, not just “merely to describe how human beings behave” but “how we ought to think and behave.” (emphasis his)
Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel is not so sure. He writes:
Harris’s heart is in the right place, and perhaps his spirited denunciation of moral skepticism will do some good; but it leaves us with difficult moral problems that require more careful treatment than he has time for.
I am not suggesting here that science’s inability to address morality meaningfully is the result of the inadequacy of science. I am only suggesting that we are expecting science to answer questions that it is categorically unable to do. We cannot criticize science for failing to answer moral questions any more than we can criticize theology and philosophy for failing to tell us how many cells are in the human body or how fast light is.
The only failure here is that of scientism expecting science to do more than it is meant to do.
The lesson to learn is not to devalue science, but to recognize what makes it is valuable. It is absolutely reasonable for us to allow science to inform our values and beliefs. But, only science?
 J.P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism, p. 23.
 Thomas Burnett, “What Is Scientism” (https://www.aaas.org/programs/dialogue-science-ethics-and-religion/what-scientism)
 Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe, p. 154.
 Ian Hutchinson, Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism, p. 109.
 Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, p. 1-2.
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2 responses to “The Problems of Scientism”
interesting read. very informative. nice work
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