10 Things You Should Know about Scientism

This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.

1. Scientism is a philosophical thesis that comes in two forms.

Scientism is a position in philosophy, not science. The claims of scientism are assertions about science, not of science.

Strong scientism is the view that the only knowledge we can have about reality are those that have been properly tested in the hard sciences (especially physics and chemistry). All other claims—e.g. theological, ethical, political, aesthetic—are mere expressions of emotion and private opinions.

Weak scientism allows that there may be modestly justified beliefs outside science, but the settled assertions of the hard sciences are vastly superior to claims outside science.

2. Strong scientism is self-refuting.

A statement/sentence is self-refuting if (1) it refers to a group of things; (2) the statement/sentence itself is included in that group; and (3) the statement/sentence does not satisfy its own requirements of acceptability.

For example, “All English sentences are shorter than three words” refers to the group of all English sentences. However, the sentence itself is a part of that group, and the sentence fails to satisfy its own requirements of acceptability (it contains eight words and, thus, is not shorter than three words).

“The only knowledge we can have about reality are those that have been properly tested in the hard sciences” is not itself a statement about reality that has been properly tested in the hard sciences, so it cannot be a knowledge claim about reality. It is actually a claim of philosophy to the effect that all claims outside the hard sciences, including those of philosophy, cannot be known to be true. Thus, it is an inherently self-refuting claim.

3. Weak scientism is a foe and not a friend of science.

Science rests on a number of assumptions, e.g., the laws of logic and math, the correspondence theory of truth, and the objectivity and rationality of the external world. Our faculties are suited for gaining knowledge of the external world, including its deep structure that lies underneath the everyday world of common sense and causes that world to be what it is. These assumptions cannot be formulated or tested within the limitations of science, especially the hard sciences. Yet every one of them has been challenged and rejected by many in the academic community.

One of the tasks of philosophy is to formulate and defend the assumptions of science so science’s claims can be taken as approximately true and rational. A theory, including a scientific theory, can only be as strong as the assumptions on which it rests. By disregarding the rationality of philosophy, weak scientism disallows the clarification and defense of science’s assumptions. Thus, weak scientism is a foe and not a friend of science.

Scientism is at the very foundation of our secular culture, and its nature and weaknesses should be the first priority in this area of church teaching.

4. Scientism leads to secularism and marginalizes Christianity and ethics.

Scientism leads to the secularization of culture because it leads people to believe that no one can know anything about God, right and wrong, and so on. Thus, claims in religion and ethics can be ignored since no one can know whether those claims are reasonable or foolish.

5. Scientism is causing people to abandon Christianity.

According to a Barna research poll, five of the six reasons people leave the church and abandon Christianity involve the suspicion that there is no good reason to believe it in the first place. One of those six was the fact that the church does not keep up with (and help parishioners keep up with) the developments of modern science and know how to relate to them from a biblical worldview.

6. Contrary to scientism, there are things we know with greater certainty in theology or ethics than certain claims in science.

Consider these two claims:

  1. Electrons exist.
  2. It is wrong to torture babies for the fun of it.

Which do we know with greater certainty? The second claim is the correct answer. Why? The history of the electron has gone through various changes in what an electron is supposed to be. No one today believes that Thompsonian electrons (J. J. Thompson was the discoverer of electrons) exist because our views have changed so much. It is not unreasonable to believe that in fifty to one hundred years, scientific depictions of the electron will change so much that scientists will no longer believe in electrons as we depict them today.

Regarding the second claim, someone may not know how they know it is true, but nevertheless, we all, in fact, know it is true. If someone denies that, he needs therapy not an argument. Now it is not hard to believe that in fifty to one hundred years, most people will no longer believe the second claim. But it is hard to see what kind of rational considerations could be discovered that would render the second claim an irrational belief. Thus, we have more certainty in the second claim than in the first. And the same is true for certain theological assertions—like that God exists.

7. There are five things science cannot explain but theism can.

Here are at least 5 things science cannot explain but theism can:

  1. The origin of the universe.
  2. The origin of the fundamental laws of nature.
  3. The fine-tuning of the universe.
  4. The origin of consciousness.
  5. The existence of moral, rational, and aesthetic objective laws and intrinsically valuable properties.

Scientism and Secularism

J. P. Moreland

This book exposes the inadequacy of scientism by demonstrating its self-defeating nature and 7 important facts it can never explain, arguing that together science and theology have true things to tell us about the world.

8. Scientism gains strength from methodological naturalism.

Methodological naturalism is the view that while doing science, explanations of phenomena must be limited to natural objects and natural laws. No appeal to the act of an agent or to a personal explanation is allowed.

This means, for example, that Intelligent Design theories and different versions of creationism are not science, but theology. Theistic evolution is the only view allowed. But methodological naturalism is false as seen by the number of sciences that explain things by reference to the intentional act of a personal agent and not to a natural object or law: forensic science, archeology, neuroscience, SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), psychology, and others.

9. Knowledge—not faith or mere belief—gives people authority to speak and act in public.

It is on the basis of perceived knowledge that we give dentists, lawyers, history teachers, and so on the authority to speak about matters within their areas of expertise. If a dentist said he had a set of deeply held beliefs about molars and was emotionally committed to those beliefs even though he didn’t actually know that his beliefs were true, he would not be allowed to continue as a dentist. Knowledge also gives people courage and boldness to speak because they know why they believe what they do.

10. The claims of scientism and their refutation must be presented to believers, especially parents and pastors.

We often fail in the church to teach people why to believe what they believe. And we often do not prepare our children to engage ideas in the culture. Scientism is at the very foundation of our secular culture, and its nature and weaknesses should be the first priority in this area of church teaching.

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