In today’s climate if you call someone’s beliefs or behavior ‘unscientific,’ you usually do so with an air of superiority, looking down your nose at the poor benighted fool. Science has achieved an epistemic (i.e., relating to the standards, structure, and limits of ‘knowledge’) cachet few, if any, other areas of inquiry have. And is this not deserved? After all, look at what science has given us: men on the moon, TVs and microwavable TV dinners, computers, medical breakthroughs and, who could forget, the light bulb. The above type of achievements inspired Rudolph Bultmann to write,”It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles” (“New Testament and Mythology,” in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. H. W. Bartsch, trans. R. H. Fuller (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 5.). Thus, when someone mentions they believe in the resurrection of Jesus a reply in the above vein might be to scoff, “How unscientific of you; where have you been, don’t you realize such a belief is impossible given Energy Star™ lightbulbs?” ‘Unscientific’ here is used as a pejorative.
We can add to the above achievements of science: cloning, nuclear bombs, germ warfare, and efficient factory farming. Add to this the images on the horizon: AI, trans and post-humanist hopes—which include, among other things, genetic breakthroughs that will allow rich parents to design handsome, beautiful, athletic, intelligent and, heterosexual babies. But some people (these could be politically liberal, atheistic bioconservatives, homosexuals, pacifists, vegans, etc.) are not as sanguine about these “advancements” (or at least their use). When they are in-turn called ‘unscientific,’ and are scolded for standing in the way of science and its progress, they respond with a new term: Scientism. This too has become a pejorative. Thus, those who set no limits on science and grant it preeminent status, giving it carte blanche to do what it can conceive, are accused of worshiping science, or, ‘scientism.’
While the above report is somewhat exaggerated, it gives us a good jumping off point. Surely something like ‘scientism’ is alive and well in our culture. This can be seen in the character “Esqueleto” in the movie, Nacho Libre.
Esqueleto is memorable as Nacho’s lovable sidekick who constantly declaimed with a thick and clichéd Mexican accent: “I don’t believe in God, I only believe in science.” To which Nacho would say that he is “a little concerned right now. About… your salvation and stuff,” and then ask, “How come you have not been baptized?” Esqueleto would answer, “Because I never got around to it ok? I dunno why you always have to be judging me because I only believe in science.” It’s this attitude that “I only believe in science” that we might call ‘scientism.’ It affords science a unique status. Only claims of science are to be believed. But, while we might agree that popular culture at least caricatures some kind of improperly placed faith in science, other than the Bultmann reference it’s not clear what this has to do with reasons against Christianity—and I’ve already written too much by way of vague introduction!
Admittedly, the use of ‘scientism’ above is vague. However, something like it is alive and well today. Philosopher of science Samir Okasha agrees, “Scientism is obviously quite a vague doctrine, and since the term is in effect one of abuse, almost nobody would admit to believing it. Nonetheless, something quite like science-worship is a genuine feature of the intellectual landscape” (Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2002) p.122). Statements defining just what ‘scientism’ is are varied and not identical. They range from Devitt’s characterization that “there is only one way of knowing: the empirical way that is the basis of science (whatever that may be)” (“Naturalism and the A Priori,” Philosophical Studies, 92: 45-65, p.45), to Quine’s quip quoted thus: “In our pursuit of truth about the world we cannot do better than our traditional scientific procedure . . .” (“Naturalism or Living Within One’s Means,” Dialectica, 49: 251-262, p.257), to the esteemed Nicholas Rescher’s more elegant description,
The theorist who maintains that science is the be-all and end-all—that what is not in science textbooks is not worth knowing—is an ideologist with a peculiar and distorted doctrine of his own. For him, science is no longer a sector of the cognitive enterprise byt an all-inclusive world-view. This is the doctrine not of science but of scientism, To take this stance is not to celebrate science but to distort it by casting the mantle of its authority over issues it was never meant to address. (The Limits of Science (Pittsburgh 1999, revised ed.), p.247).
While there’s no complete agreement here there is, as Wittgenstein might say, “family resemblance.” The way this might be used by some as a reason against Christianity is now a little clearer: The claims Christianity makes are not knowable through “the methods of science,” thus they are either unknowable or epistemically worthless.
To the extent that the above can be more rigorously spelled out, scientism suffers some serious defects. Most philosophers have agreed that there is a distinction between strong and weak scientism, defined respectively as:
Strong scientism is the view that some proposition or set of propositions is true and or rational to believe if and only if it is a proposition of science, i.e., it has been formed and tested according to the scientific method.
Weak scientism takes the above but weakens it a bit, allowing for some epistemic or cognitive value to be accorded to beliefs gained by non-scientific methods (note: I said non not un!), but claims that all and only beliefs obtained by the scientific method are superior to all other beliefs, being much higher in value and authority than a belief justified any other way.
The main problem with strong scientism is this: the belief that strong scientism is true and or rational to believe is not itself a proposition of science, i.e., it has not been formed and tested in accordance with the scientific method. Hence, it is either untrue or not rational to believe. In other words, it’s self refuting. To respond that it isn’t meant to be a truth but, rather, a principle, rule, or guide, invites the response: But why should we believe it? Is it true? If so, then it’s self-refuting. If not, so what? It’s just the non-epistemic preference of a group.
But while the only version of strong scientism that seriously threatens Christian belief is self-refuting, weak scientism is not self-refuting. It should be noted, though, that weak-scientism, not being a proposition of science, only has minimal epistemic or cognitive value. It’s not among the most desirable, superior, and authoritative beliefs to hold. Like it’s self-referentially incoherent older brother, it’s a claim of philosophy and about science. Furthermore, there are several presuppositions of science. Science presupposes a uniformity to nature, the reliability of cognitive faculties like sense perception and reasoning faculties, the knowability of the external world, not to mention other metaphysical (and some philosophers of science would say, religious) presuppositions, such as that the world is simple (a presupposition needed to employ Ockham’s razor/simplicity as a theoretical virtue to help with theory selection). None of these are scientific claims but science presupposes or rests on them for its intelligibility (at least certain conceptions of science, I am ignoring the realism/anti-realism debate for simplicity). Weak scientism has it, then, that science’s undercarriage is less cognitively sturdy and supportive than the body of scientific propositions are. Moreover, there seem to be paradigm cases of non-scientific beliefs that are more epistemically weighty and sure than any scientific belief could be, e.g., 5+7=12, other minds exist, and that murder is immoral.
Lastly, while I will be brief here, some of the terms used in the above definitions are hotly disputed in the philosophy of science literature. For example, no reputable philosopher of science believes in the myth of a single scientific method. There are at best scientific methods (plural). But it’s not only debated what, exactly, those are, but also how to demarcate them from what has been called non- or pseudo-scientific methods. As Okasha notes, “it is far from clear what, exactly, the ‘methods of science,’ or ‘the methods of natural science,’ actually comprise . . . If we want to know whether the methods of science are applicable to every subject matter, or whether they are capable of answering every important question, we obviously need to know what exactly those methods are” (Okasha, ibid., 124-125). But note here: this debate is largely philosophical in nature, and thus seems to undercut strong and weak scientism again.
In closing, I am not trying to say that particular findings of science are not relevant to Christianity or could serve as defeaters to some of the beliefs Christians hold about what the Bible ostensibly teaches. Maybe they are maybe they are not, I simply haven’t commented on that either way. I will in upcoming posts address (or have addressed) some putative defeaters, but the point here was to undermine the cudgel used by some that since many if not all of the claims made by Christianity are not properly ‘scientific’ (in the above vague sense of being formed and tested according to ‘scientific methods,’ whatever those are), we couldn’t know them or that they are somehow epistemically suspect. At all events, a pithy take away is this: In response to the claim, “But your belief in God is not scientifically testable, and so shouldn’t be believed,” you ask, “Is the belief that the only beliefs that should be believed are beliefs that are scientifically testable itself a scientifically testable belief?”