More on Scientism

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Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

Dan Egeler writes in the Forward to J.P. Moreland’s book Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology, “As the ideas that constitute scientism have become more pervasive in our culture, the Western world has turned increasingly secular and the centers of culture (the universities, the media and entertainment industry, the Supreme Court) have come increasingly to regard religion as a private superstition. It is no surprise, then, that when our children go to college, more and more of them are just giving up on Christianity.” It is no secret that much of the scientific community believes it is at odds with religion. In fact, scientists see themselves as the voice of reason. It is their intention—for the most part—to stem the tide of all this “irrational belief” in a divine creator or eternal being.

It can be argued that we might have been fooled into this pointless yin/yang fight between science (the physical) and metaphysical (the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter). How can someone believe in God and science at the same time? Science sees itself as the “great revealer” of reality, down to the very mathematical calculations about matter and energy. Belief in God is considered to be “old fashioned” or “backward,” if not outright elitist. Consider the words of Physics Nobel Prize winner Stephen Weinberg:

The world needs to wake up from the long nightmare of religion. Anything we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done, and may in fact be our greatest contribution to civilization” [1] (italics mine).

If science and God do not mix, why were over 60% of Nobel Laureates between 1901 and 2000 Christians? The history of modern science has many great Christian pioneers—Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, Faraday. Ben Shapiro wrote, “Jerusalem and Athens built science. The twin ideals of Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law reasoning built human rights. They built prosperity, peace, and artistic beauty. Jerusalem and Athens built America, ended slavery, defeated the Nazis and the Communists, lifted billions from poverty, and gave billions spiritual purpose.” [2] Shapiro warns that atomistic individualism has a tendency to drift toward the self-justifying oppression of others. To me, atomistic means individualistic; society is comprised of a collection of self-interested and seemingly self-sufficient individuals swirling around one another like atoms. Christianity teaches us about society, neighborliness, love, mutual respect, fellowship, charity. It tells us no one is an island.

Science or Philosophy?

If I told you that the hard sciences alone have all intellectual authority to give us knowledge of reality, and that everything else—especially theology, philosophy and ethics—is based upon private notions, blind faith, or culture, what would you say? More importantly, would you think such a conclusion is “scientific?” Better yet, is it a “provable” conclusion? This is the basic tenet of scientism. It is not science, but a worldview. Specifically, it’s a theory of epistemology (the branch of philosophy that studies what knowledge is and how we obtain it). Not only does scientism not provide a “scientific view,” it is actually a school of philosophy. Scientism is so pervasive today that it distorts reality and pollutes the field of science.

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This worldview believes religions cannot be proven intellectually. They come from within the individual (a private belief) and are typically handed down from our parents as part of our culture. I have no problem with the second part of that statement. Indeed, many beliefs are passed down through generations. This does not mean those beliefs are untrue. To say they are, especially in a biology class in public schools, is to manipulate religious conviction. Why is is appropriate for high school science teachers to promote the theory of evolution as though it were a “proven fact,” while at the same time leaving intelligent design out of the story of life? To do so is to stack the deck.

Moreover, the theory of evolution is rooted solely in “historical” science— using knowledge that is already currently known to tell the story of what happened in the past. Scientific method involves making conjectures (hypotheses), deriving predictions from them as logical consequences, and then carrying out experiments or empirical observations based on those predictions. Scientists then test hypotheses by conducting experiments or studies. Some proponents of naturalism and evolution claim Christian apologists are stretching the concept that historical science is not verifiable; that it is not proper “science” relative to events occurring eons ago. In fact, it is said that creationists fail to appreciate the history of science and science itself.

Historical science is a term used to describe sciences in which data is provided primarily from past events and for which there is usually no direct experimental data. That sounds straightforward to me. Admittedly, however, science does deal with past phenomena, particularly in historical sciences such as cosmology, geology, paleontology, paleoanthropology, and archeology. Arguably, there are experimental sciences and historical sciences. By their very definition, they use different methodologies. Naturalists and evolutionists believe both branches of science can properly track causality. This is where I lose faith in their explanation. If historical science can track causality regarding events alleged to have taken place during as varied a time as tens-of-thousands, hundreds-of-thousands, or millions of years ago, I’d like an explanation. How can we trust in scientific “theory” that cannot be verified?

The scientific method has five basic steps, plus plus one feedback step:

  1. Make an observation.
  2. Ask a question.
  3. Form a hypothesis, or testable explanation.
  4. Make a prediction based on the hypothesis.
  5. Test the prediction.
  6. Iterate: use the results to make new hypotheses or predictions.

Recognizing that we all approach the world with presuppositions, biases, misconceptions, and (at times) faulty data, it is critical to admit that these conditions shape the way we see and interpret the empirical world. In this regard, historical science cannot be considered on equal footing with operational science. Because no one was there to witness the past—with the exception of God—we must interpret scientific claims regarding origin on a set of starting assumptions. Creationists and evolutionists have the same evidence; they just interpret it within a different framework or worldview. Evolution denies the role of God (as intelligent designer) and creation accepts His eyewitness account (related in the Bible) as the foundation for arriving at a correct understanding of the universe. Admittedly, this is based on an act of faith. Scientism and evolution, however, are also based on faith. They are philosophical viewpoints in the same manner as theism and intelligent design. Some, in fact, regard science as their religion.

J.P. Moreland on Scientism

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J.P. Moreland cites an example in Scientism and Secularism regarding the policy of public schools in the State of California in 1989, “Science Framework,” which offered guidance to teachers about how to address students who expressed reservations about the theory of biological macroevolution:

“At time some students may insist that certain conclusions of science cannot be true because of certain religious or philosophical beliefs they hold… It is appropriate for the teacher to express in this regard, ‘I understand that you may have personal reservations about accepting this scientific evidence, but it is scientific knowledge about which there is no reasonable doubt among scientists in their field, and it is my responsibility to teach it because it is part of our common intellectual heritage'” (italics mine)[3].

The above “policy statement” is actually a picture of knowledge it assumes to be true: knowledge about what is real can only be determined  by hard science, and empirical knowledge derived from hard science is the only knowledge deserving of the backing of public institutions. Science uses terms like “conclusions,” “evidence,” “no reasonable doubt,” and “intellectual heritage” to elevate itself as the only method for understanding reality. Scientism denigrates terms like “beliefs,” “faith,” and “personal reservations” as non-empirical and inappropriate, unfounded opinions. Indeed, this is not a level playing field!

It is critical to realize that scientism is a philosophy or belief system and not science. It is not proof beyond reasonable doubt. Scientism is not the identification of something as scientific or unscientific but the belief that “scientific” is far more valuable than “non-scientific” or worse, that “non-scientific” has negligible value. Moreover, this conclusion is making a huge assumption: there is no scientific proof of intelligent design or a supreme being. To decide this to be true is to close one’s mind to any possibility that science can prove metaphysical claims. Granted, whenever science establishes a prior metaphysical or ephemeral claim as fact, it moves from the category of metaphysical to the physical or scientific category. Unfortunately, the New Atheists label those who believe in God as irrational, deluded, backward, or closed-minded. And they feel justified in doing so because they believe there are no truths that can be known apart from appropriately certified scientific claims. First, that is not uncategorically true. Second, it dogmatically decides no such evidence will ever be found.

The Damage Done

Battle Between Science and Christianity

Because scientism is virtually everywhere in our postmodern pluralist society, it is considered to be “normal” if not essential. Increasingly, Christians are considered to be out of touch with reality. Stuck in the past. Scientism wants everyone to agree that religion is a byproduct of fear, doubt, and the quest for meaning, and that science has moved mankind further along the continuum of information. The only “stuff” that matters today is data. Scientism puts Christian claims on the outside looking in—beyond what people generally consider reasonable and rational. Accordingly, one of the disturbing side-effects of scientism is making the ridicule of Christianity more common and acceptable. It states that any belief in an invisible God or an intelligent designer is not just untrue, but unworthy of any rational consideration.

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The rise of modern science in the seventeenth century was founded on testing and rejecting authoritarian claims of truth. Whether Scripture, tradition, or Aristotle, authority must not stand in the face of logic and evidence. We see proof of this with the story of Galileo, who trusted the truths of mathematics and personal observation despite the fact that his conclusions contradicted the doctrine of the church or the authority of the ancients. Indeed, our universe is heliocentric (earth and the other planets revolve around the sun) not geocentric. Earth is not the center of the universe. Over the centuries, the scientific method led to better comprehension of nature and life. Technology transformed our world beyond the scope of mere fantasy.

Unfortunately, science has been erroneously identified as an “authority” we tend to bow to without question. Research necessarily leads to provisional conclusions, yet these conclusions are typically taught (if not worshiped) as the only definitive basis for the physical world. Science enjoys a prestige that often obscures how tentative its claims are in reality. This has led to professional advancement, political advantage, and ideological “certainty” which is intrinsically bound to the acceptance of new ideas or alleged truths. Countless individuals suspend any doubt or skepticism simply because science has “proven” something. This is a dangerous conclusion that is based on the worldview of scientism.

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More critically, science has encroached improperly on the world of human thought, philosophy, religion, and truth. Scientists have decided to apply the physical sciences to the behavior and motivations of people, their social and cultural practices, and their theological beliefs. They insist that everything in the universe (the physical and the metaphysical) can be understood through the precepts of natural laws; able to be predicted and analyzed by Newtonian physics. Carl Sagan famously said, “The cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.” Frankly, this viewpoint is both illogical and based solely on conjecture. It is a personal belief and a scientific fact.

Critical issues concerning human behavior and motivation cannot be scientifically defined. We are decidedly different from animals or other natural phenomena. We have a mind, consciousness, self-awareness and self-determination, and (most importantly) the freedom to choose how we will act. None of these attributes has been explained solely through science. Psychology and sociology are considered “soft” sciences for this very reason. Give a man a situation and he will decide for himself in that situation how to react to it. In fact, most of our problems today are caused not so much by the situation itself as they are based on how we respond to that situation. Response has power to create a pseudoreality. We “see” things through the eyes of gender, race, culture, nature/nurture, personality, religion, and political viewpoint.

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Consider how these variables impact science. Sagan said, “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” Of course, he believed this was an accurate statement. It was his intention to impose this conclusion of everyone. Moreover, a statement such as this has no basis in scientific fact, theory, or empirical evidence. It is Sagan’s feeble attempt to see inside the soul of man. The very fact that this was his worldview meant he was not likely to “see” any evidence to the contrary. This is precisely what makes scientism dangerous and damaging.

Worldview is the framework of our most basic beliefs. It shapes our view of and for the world, and is the basis of our decisions and actions. Unfortunately, it is built in part on our preconceptions, presuppositions, biases, prejudices, and culture. James Sire said our propositions are actually deeply-rooted commitments of the heart. Quoting Naugle, Sire states, “Theory and practice are a product of the will, not the intellect; of the heart, not the head.” [4] Entwistle provides an important insight into worldview, stating, “What we see depends, to some degree, on what we expect and are predisposed to see.” [5] 

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Since time began, man has been bothered by metaphysical questions to which there seem to be no simple answers. Ravi Zacharias (a leading Christian apologist) says there are four great questions regarding life: (1) What is the origin of life?; (2) What is the meaning of life?; (3) Where does morality come from?; and (4) What is our ultimate destiny after death? From a philosophical and theological viewpoint, there are no universal responses to these questions. Scientice would like us to believe there are. Science believes it hold the only answer to the first two questions; they relegate the last two answers to philosophy or theology. It’s obvious that worldviews are as divergent as mankind itself. What makes this issue more complex is that worldviews are not limited to matters of culture or science, nor do they reside solely in the intellect. Rather, they are typically of the heart, not the head. A person’s worldview serves as the foundation or infrastructure for their values, which determine their behavior. Accordingly, it is crucial that Christianity labors to establish the ontological (underlying) truth of all things. This can only be accomplished by first grasping the meanings contained in the Scriptures, and then defending the very reason for our faith (1 Pet. 3:15).

I will admit, the same thing can be said about religion or faith. Theology is not science, but it is not anti-science. That’s the great lie evolutionists and most biologists tell everyone: Religion cannot be proven; faith is a private, subjective belief in something unseen; science clearly establishes the basis for all reality—indeed, all truth. Hold on a sec! That last one is not science; it is scientism. We’ve established that scientism is not science, but a worldview. It is a philosophical opinion about science that is not based on logic or evidence. Further, I agree that my belief in Almighty God (theism) and the life, teachings, ministry and atoning death of Jesus (Christianity) is at least to some degree based on faith.

Faith is not at issue. Mankind is not just a cluster of “meat” or “carbon-based” individuals wandering through the universe—material conglomerations of matter changing with every moment. We are individuals with responsibilities, morals, beliefs, and the ability to reason and question. What’s at issue is scientism’s claim that science is the only source of truth and reality, which is a philosophical claim and not an empirical scientific fact. Period. Moreover, to deny reason would be to end all human interaction, destroy our politics and sociology, and tear down what it means to be human at the root. It would be to decide one of two things: either the four great questions of Ravi Zacharias are not relevant to life itself or, perhaps worse, that science is the only vehicle by which we can definitively answer these questions.

Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (NIV). Faith has always been the hallmark of Christianity. The “principle” tenet of Christianity is planted in the heart of the believer through the Holy Spirit. Faith, in this manner, is a firm persuasion and expectation that everything the Bible says about God and Christ is true. Moreover, the believer has decided to trust that Scripture provides a true and accurate account of the origin of all things.

Is it just me, or does Darwinism make the same “faith” claim, but does so as if it were an ontological, underlying, clearly-proven fact?

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I want to start encouraging more feedback so we can open a dialog. Presently, in order to leave a comment you need to scroll back to the header and click on LEAVE A COMMENT, but I’m in the process of figuring out how to move the COMMENT bar to the end of each post. Thanks for reading. God bless.

Footnotes

[1] Stephen Wineberg, New Science, Issue No. 2578, November 18, 2006.

[2] Ben Shapiro, The Right Side of History (New York: HarperCollins, 2019), p. xxiv-xxv.

[3] J.P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), p. 28.

[4] James Sire, Naming the elephant: Worldview as a concept, 2nd ed (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2015), p. 35.

[5] Davide Entwistle, Integrative approaches to psychology and Christianity, 3rd ed (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2015), p. 93.

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