RPM, Volume 12, Number 14, April 4 to April 10 2010


*This article was strongly influenced by chapter seven (Apologetic Reasoning and the Christian Mind)
in a book entitled Love Your God With All Your Mind by J.P. Moreland.

By Scott Schuleit

Many of us have heard the view expressed in our culture, whether through a professor, a friend, or the media, that science is the only valid means by which one might gain knowledge of the world around us. According to this view, all other means are considered to be either invalid or greatly inferior and subservient to the methods of science. This view is called Scientism or Scientific Positivism. A different form of it known as Logical Positivism became fairly prominent several decades ago, its popularity diminishing in time under the successive (and successful) hammering by its critics.

With regards to scientism, perhaps a more strict definition is required before a critical analysis of this theory is conducted. Scientism is the belief that science, and thus, by way of implication, scientific methods, remain the only (or primary) means whereby knowledge regarding reality may be acquired. Any field or discipline existing outside the scope of science, that is, outside the realm of accessibility for consideration under scientific investigation, including philosophy and theology, is either a completely invalid method for the acquisition of truth, or a very weak one, and must turn its frail gaze to science for answers and support in order to stand. Hard-line proponents of scientism would consider anything lying outside the region of its methodology as unknowable, and therefore, irrelevant. Once again, anything that defies empirical analysis, that cannot be perceived through the five senses—anything lying outside the sphere of pliability for assessment under their strict, investigative methodology—would be regarded as being subjectively gathered, and thus, a matter of pure, irrational opinion. You'll notice the materialistic presuppositions behind this view and the reduction of every arena of thought—every single field of human learning under the sole arbitration of science. That's a lot of power in the hands of the few. Is scientism a view that corresponds to truth?

One objection is that of scientism's self-refutational nature. The hard-line view by many of its proponents that scientific methods are the only means by which we can acquire knowledge is a self-contradictory statement. It is intrinsically false for it fails to uphold its own criterion. It is impossible to scientifically test the statement that scientific methods are the only means by which we can acquire knowledge. Their proposition, by its abstract and philosophical nature, is disqualified for submission under the methods of empirical investigation. Rather than emerging from scientific investigation, their statement arose out of philosophical reflection. They are making an assertion not of science, but a statement from philosophy that attempts to describe science.

Another objection involves the fact that scientism undercuts the wonderful and legitimate field (within its particular scope) of science itself for it denies the validity of the philosophical means by which various foundational presuppositions absolutely necessary to science were acquired. The very existence of science depends on many assumptions that have emerged from out of the sphere of philosophy and not of science, and therefore, the philosophical view of scientism actually, unwittingly, attacks the very pillars supporting the field of science itself. Some of these assumptions include: belief in the external realm outside of the self and that it is knowable, the uniformity of nature and its obedience to various laws, the reality of objective truth, and a belief in our capacity to acquire knowledge and express it. These are all foundational assumptions within the field of scientific investigation as well as within any other field of study. Other assumptions could be named, but I think the point has been made. Science stands on the back of philosophy rather than the other way around.

One wonders at the temerity regarding the efforts of scientism's adherents to center science as the sole paragon of reason, the very apex of rationality. Science itself, by nature, unable to fulfill such boundless (and groundless) optimism concerning what is seen as its place, buckles and cracks under this immense mantle of authority thrown upon it. Within its most excellent and proper place, we can learn much from science, (and from using the scientific method) but let us beware of exalting it beyond measure as well as the other extreme error of downplaying it beneath its position. Having said that, I think it would be true to say that within our culture, it is far more common to see science exalted than denigrated. This little essay is not an attempt to undermine science, though some, no doubt, will want to see it that way, but rather an attack on scientism, of which, unfortunately, retains, to some degree, a persistent place within the sector of scientific endeavor as well as within the minds of many within our society, and the world at large.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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