Can We Have Too Much Science?
Exposing the fallacy of ‘scientism’
Though you probably wouldn’t know it if you listened to some of today’s most vocal critics of Christianity, it turns out that many of history’s greatest scientists were devout Christians. Copernicus, Bacon, Galileo and Newton are just a few examples of great Christian minds whose love for God motivated their scientific pursuits.
Even so, a growing number of people today believe science is in conflict with Christianity, or with faith in general. So, what do we make of this? Is it true that science and Christianity are in conflict? To answer this question, we need to unpack one of the underlying assumptions of those who think so.
The most common assumption at work here is what philosopher J.P. Moreland calls “an empirical theory of knowledge.” In Science, Perception and Reality, naturalist Wilfrid Sellars, an advocate for this view, put it this way: “in the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.”
In other words, science is supposedly the arbiter of what humanity can know about reality. Today, we call this view “scientism.” In sum, scientism is the idea that we can only know things we can test scientifically. According to scientism, there are no truths other than scientific truths.
When you read the arguments against belief in God from some of the so-called New Atheists, you quickly find that the driving force behind their arguments is a commitment to scientism.
Consider, for example, what Sam Harris has to say in his book The End of Faith: “We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common we call them ‘religious’; otherwise, they are likely to be called ‘mad,’ ‘psychotic’ or ‘delusional.’”
Harris argues that religion “preaches the truth of propositions for which it has no evidence,” and, in fact, “the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable.”
According to Harris, the only reason we don’t call Christians “mad, psychotic, or delusional” is that there are so many of us. In his view, Christianity has no rational justification; it’s not even conceivable. Why would Harris think this? Have not philosophers and theologians been providing evidence supporting these claims for hundreds of years?
Harris simply ignores that evidence because he believes people did not acquire it the right way. That is, science did not establish or support it. Even though Christianity’s claims do have evidence supporting them, a commitment to scientism means adopting an approach to learning about the world that only allows for truths science is capable of revealing.
Is it true that science and Christianity are in conflict?
So, if it’s the commitment to scientism that underlies these kinds of arguments against Christianity, how do we respond to it? Well, thankfully, it’s not that difficult to come up with a response.
Recall that the operating assumption is only science can get us to truths about the world. What we need to do is ask a question about that assumption. Is that question itself a scientific question? Can we run some scientific experiment resulting in the idea that only science can get us to truth? Of course not.
If it were true we should only accept scientific claims, then we should reject the claim that, “We should only accept scientific claims.” Why? Because that is not a scientific claim but a philosophical one.
Advocates of scientism mistake a claim of science (e.g., all objects, regardless of their mass, fall to the ground at the same rate) with a claim about science (e.g., employing a scientific method is the best or only way to garner accurate results).
Scientism says we should only care about scientific truths — claims of science — but scientism itself is not a claim of science; it’s a claim about science. Scientism doesn’t pass its own test. It is self-refuting.
Now that we’ve seen that scientism is self-refuting, we no longer have any reason to believe that scientific evidence is the only kind of evidence available to us for the truth of the Christian worldview.
We can now seek philosophical evidence for God’s existence, historical evidence for the reliability and accuracy of the New Testament, and even experiential evidence of a personal relationship with God.
As Christians, we know that reality comprises much more than just the physical stuff we can see or touch. It’s important we don’t adopt an approach to science that ends up removing our ability to claim to know about non-physical reality.
At the same time, there’s nothing about science itself requiring one to adopt scientism. So, it’s just as important that we not run from the sciences either. Can we have too much science? Well, if we approach science as we do any other discipline and recognize that it’s one way, but not the only way, to discover truths about the world God created, the answer is “no.”
If you would like to look at this topic in more detail, Chapter 2 (“The Naturalist Story”) of J.P. Moreland’s Kingdom Triangle is very helpful. For a book-length treatment on the relationship between science and Christianity, see How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough by Mitch Stokes.