• Dr. Benjamin J. Williams

Science, Not Scientism

Updated: Aug 29




"I believe in science."


This simple sentence reveals a lot about many modern debates, ranging from ethics to public policy. Buried in the statement are two very different possible meanings which Christians need to distinguish.


  1. I believe in science.

  2. I do not believe in Scientism.


Distinguishing Science and Scientism


The distinction between science and what I am calling "Scientism" is subtle but important. The main difference is that science is a method, while Scientism is the conviction that the scientific method will be ultimately successful when applied to all meaningful questions of life.


For example, Alex Rosenberg, in his Philosophy of Science, muses whether any meaningful questions exist outside of science [1]. He even assigns to philosophy the mere task of evaluating what is happening in science [2].


Rosenberg’s assessment follows in the tradition of Bertrand Russell:


“All definite knowledge – so I should contend – belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man’s Land is philosophy” [3].


In this view, philosophy would only exist as a category for questions science has not answered yet. Such unwarranted optimism about the success of science in human life is a primary characteristic of Scientism.


What Is Science?


As a method, science is a way of correctly surmising a relationship between observable experience and underlying reality. The ancient father of science, Aristotle, states:


“We suppose ourselves to possess unqualified scientific knowledge of a thing, as opposed to knowing it in the accidental way in which the sophist knows, when we think that we know the cause on which the fact depends, as the cause of that fact and of no other, and, further, that the fact could not be other than it is” [4],


Aristotle’s method and confidence in his method anticipate both modern science and Scientism to a degree. However, Aristotle acknowledges that his present knowledge was never the perfect scientific knowledge he longed for. At times, Aristotle will instead sound more like Michael Polanyi’s explanation of science in terms of ever-advancing guesses with an unavoidable ”conjectural character” [5].


Both Polanyi and Aristotle define science as using sensory experiences to assert cause-effect relationships. This is likely the most fundamental definition of science as a method.


What Is Scientism?


In contrast to science, Scientism goes beyond explaining a method to expecting results.


Scientism anticipates the success of science in all areas of possible knowledge.


According to Edward Feser, Scientism posits “that science alone plausibly gives us objective knowledge, and that any metaphysics worthy of consideration can only be that which is implicit in science” [6]. Scientism is similarly defined by Canadian philosopher Tom Sorell as “the belief that science, especially natural science, is much the most valuable part of human learning … the only valuable part of human learning” [7].


Notice the comprehensive ambitions of Scientism as opposed to the modest claims of science itself.


The key difference is: Science claims to know, whereas Scientism claims to know all or at least to be the only means to know what can be known.


Scientism follows implicitly from what Alvin Plantinga describes as 'methodological naturalism.' Methodological naturalism does not necessarily claim that nothing beyond the natural exists but claims that any such supernatural reality is irrelevant to science [8]. However, in practice, there is very little difference between saying the supernatural does not exist and saying the supernatural has no meaningful consequence for human life.


In 1948, evolutionary biologist C.H. Waddington offered this summary of his Scientistic mindset:


Science by itself is able to provide mankind with a way of life which is firstly self-consistent and harmonious, and, secondly, free for the exercise of that objective reason on which our material progress depends. So far as I can see the scientific attitude of mind is the only one which is, at the present day, adequate in both these respects. There are many other worthy ideals which might supplement it, but I cannot see that any of them could take its place as the basis of a progressing and rich society [9].


If anything, Waddington is more modest than some in his allowance that some good ideals might exist outside of the scientific mind.


More recently, evolutionary propagandist Richard Lewontin wrote an even more ambitious assessment of science:


“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. … Materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” [10].


This prior commitment to materialism and devout opposition to the “Divine Foot” is a metaphysical presupposition, not a strictly scientific one. So one sees the religion of Scientism on full confessional display.


Scientism and Christianity


Christianity offers myriad criticisms of Scientism. However, you won’t get far by simply searching for ‘Scientism’ in Scripture.


Even the humanism of Lucretius was barely a century old when the New Testament was written, and no part of his philosophy had yet worked its way into the minds of ordinary Greeks and Romans. Still, a few distinct biblical and philosophical claims can be seen as critiques of Scientism from a Christian point of view.


First, the existence of God and the supernatural cannot be unimportant to our study of His universe. From the historical point of view, Israel confesses that they would have perished “if it had not been the Lord who was on our side” (Psalm 124). To put it simply, God is the ground of all history and reality. According to Augustine:


It is the creator’s power, after all, and the virtuosity, the skill and tenacity of the Almighty, that causes every created thing to subsist. If this tenacious virtuosity ceased for one moment to rule and direct the things that have been created, their various species would at once cease to exist, and every nature would collapse into nothingness. … No, the world will not be able to go on standing for a single moment if God withdraws from it his controlling hand [11].


Augustine sounds much like Paul, who wrote that “in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-20).

In this view of God, nothing could be more consequential than God’s existence. God is the ground of our knowledge of reality because no object so utterly dependent upon God, as Augustine claims, could ever be fully grasped without some knowledge of God. Stated Scripturally, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10).


The Christian view of knowledge is not anti-science. Science – as opposed to Scientism – shares a deep concord with Christianity. Thus, Stanley Jaki has argued that Copernicus’ confidence in the “full rationality of the universe” was derived from his devout and even creedal Catholic faith [12]. This confidence allowed heliocentrism and science to grow in the Christian West, whereas other scientific projects stalled in ancient Greece, China, and India.


Likewise, even Galileo, so often cast as a martyr for the cause of science against religious bigotry, described his model conversation between Salviati, Sagredo, and Simplicio as “the contemplation of the wonders of God in the heavens and upon the earth” [13]. Likewise, Campanella defended Galileo before the courts by arguing that theology and science could not contradict one another because the book of nature and the book of Scripture shared the same Author [14]. The history of modern science from Kepler to Lemaître is an essentially Christian story, and not by coincidence.


Western Science has a Christian character because it was built on a Christian foundation. Christians expect what Wigner described as “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.” He wrote regarding the observations of Galileo, “Without invariance principles … physics would not be possible. … It is not at all natural that ‘laws of nature’ exist, much less that man is able to discover them” [15].


Nor is the fascination with discernable natural law a relic of the Newtonian era. At the dawn of the quantum era, Heisenberg mused, “That these interrelationships display, in all their mathematical abstraction, an incredible degree of simplicity, is a gift we can only accept humbly. Not even Plato could have believed them to be so beautiful. For these interrelationships cannot be invented; they have been there since the creation of the world” [16].


Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the noted Indian astrophysicist, references the following line from a conversation between Heisenberg and Einstein: “You must have felt this too: the almost frightening simplicity and wholeness of the relationships which nature suddenly spreads out before us and for which none of us was in the least prepared” [17].


Whereas Scientism must be flummoxed by natural, mathematical regularity, Christian monotheism expected it.


Conclusion


Christianity has nothing to fear from science, nor does science have anything to fear from Christianity.


Though the last century or two have often cast these two as enemies, Christianity and science have long been allies in pursuing knowledge and human flourishing.


However, Christianity cannot tolerate Scientism, the belief that no question could ever lie outside the scope of the scientific method. Christianity believes that many of life’s most important questions are not accessible to mere human experience or sense.


Right and wrong. Beauty. Identity. Our past and our future. All these essential human topics are outside the Petri dish and the telescope. To be truly human, Christianity tells us that we must be more than mere scientists.


We must also be worshippers.


Stay tuned for more articles from Benjamin Williams on the topic of faith and science!



Reference Note: Some endnotes below are abbreviated. Full bibliographical information can be found in my full dissertation, "Scientific Epistemological Contextualization."


[1] Alex Rosenberg, Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2012), 22 & 35.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Third (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945), xiii.

[4] Posterior Analytics I.2. Unless otherwise noted, all references to works of Aristotle will come from Richard McKeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle, Third (New York: Random House, 1941).

[5] Michael Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society (London: Oxford University Press, 1946), 17–18.

[6] Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (Heusenstamm: Editiones Scholasticae, 2014), 10.

[7] Tom Sorell, Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science (New York: Routledge, 1991), 1.

[8] Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies, 168–74.

[9] C H Waddington, The Scientific Attitude (West Drayton, Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, 1948), 170.

[10] Richard C. Lewontin, “‘Billions and Billions of Demons’ a Review of Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,” The New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997.

[11] This is found in De Genesi ad Litteram IV.22 from Augustine, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, trans. Edmund Hill (New York: New City Press, 2002), 253. It is also cited in a concurring opinion by Aquinas in ST Ia.104.1.

[12] Stanley L. Jaki, The Savior of Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 94–95.

[13] From the section titled “To the Discerning Reader” in Galileo Galilei, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican, trans. Stillman Drake (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 7.

[14] Bernardino M. Bonansea, “Campanella’s Defense of Galileo,” in Reinterpreting Galileo, ed. Wallace, Williams A, vol. 15, Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018), 205–40. See also “Galileo and the Evidence from the Telescope” in Richard DeWitt, Worldviews: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2018), 138–53.

[15] Eugene Paul Wigner, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” in Symmetries and Reflections: Scientific Essays of Eugene P. Wigner (Woodbridge, CT: Ox Bow Press, 1979), 227.

[16] Elisabeth Heisenberg, Inner Exile: Recollections of a Life with Werner Heisenberg (Boston: Birkhäuser, 1984), 144.

[17] S. Chandrasekhar, Truth and Beauty: Aesthetics and Motivations in Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 65.

[18] Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies, 285.





Dr. Ben Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.







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