Where Science and Faith Converge
Reflections

How to Distinguish between Science and Scientism

By Kenneth R. Samples - March 17, 2020
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Science is truly one of the great intellectual enterprises that humankind has ever developed. But what exactly is science? Is it mainly a narrow method or practice for obtaining knowledge about the natural world? Or does it involve a broad philosophical system?

I respect and appreciate science and I enjoy interacting with scientists. But my background in logic and philosophy motivates me to ask critical questions that help me to understand just what science is and how it relates to beliefs, ideas, and truth in general.

Defining Science

According to the National Academy of Sciences, science is “the use of evidence to construct testable explanation and prediction of natural phenomena, as well as the knowledge generated through this process.”1

The popular source Wikipedia offers a bit more of an expansive definition: “Science (from the Latin word scientia, meaning ‘knowledge’) is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.”2

These two sources seem to define science more as a practice or method that involves observing nature and then developing predictive models about the natural world that can be tested for their explanatory power. Science understood this way—as a basic practice—is limited in obtaining knowledge about the natural world. Focused narrowly, science does not deny that there may be other sources of knowledge—such as philosophical and religious-based knowledge. This narrow definition of science also does not speak directly to broader worldview concerns like metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics (the meaning and purpose-oriented issues relating to ultimate reality, goodness, and beauty).

Defining Scientism

Some secularists go further than just viewing science as a limited practice. They have adopted a full-fledged science-oriented philosophy known as scientism. According to scientism, science confers genuine knowledge to humanity. In terms of epistemology (relating to knowledge), scientism takes two forms: (1) strong scientism says science is the only path to knowledge, and (2) weak scientism says science is the best path to knowledge.

Well-known scientists and outspoken atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, and Peter Atkins seem to advocate a strong scientism. They affirm that science can indeed answer the big questions of life concerning humankind’s meaning, purpose, and significance. Strong scientism thus tends to deeply depreciate the belief that knowledge can come from moral, aesthetic, and religious experience and sources.

Strong scientism also generally accepts two foundational assumptions—one metaphysical (relating to reality) and the other epistemological (again relating to knowledge).

First, metaphysically speaking, this robust version of scientism asserts that the material, physical universe is the sole reality. For example, to quote astronomer and secularist Carl Sagan: “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.”3 Scientists who adopt a more complex view of reality by affirming a multiverse or many-worlds hypothesis extend reality beyond this present universe, but ultimately all reality is still only natural (material and physical in nature).

Second, epistemologically speaking, science is the only way of verifying truth claims about reality. Therefore a belief that is not scientific or doesn’t pass scientific scrutiny is considered false or meaningless. So the foundational question becomes: “Can you prove it scientifically?” This approach, again, seems to make moral, aesthetic, and religious knowledge superfluous.

The claims of strong scientism are both breathtaking and logically incoherent. For example, the assertion that the material, physical world is all that exists cannot be shown by science. And the claim that all truth claims must be scientifically verified cannot itself be empirically verified by science. Both claims, therefore, stand as self-referentially incoherent and thus false. Strong scientism cannot back up its extravagant metaphysical and knowledge claims.

Christianity and Science

The powerful enterprise of science was birthed, established, and ultimately flourished within the context of the Christian worldview.4 Christian scholars view science as extremely effective in explaining aspects of the natural world. Nevertheless, its focus is limited. Thus, the Christian worldview provides other sources of knowledge (moral, aesthetic, and religious) that help augment the genuine knowledge derived from science. In this way, Christianity provides answers to big questions—for example, is life worth living? or why be moral?—that science does not address.

Reflections: Your Turn

Why is it important to distinguish between science and scientism? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

Endnotes
  1. “Some Frequently Asked Questions From Reporters,” National Academy of Sciences (website), Accessed March 9, 2020, http://www.nationalacademies.org/newsroom/faq/index.html.
  2. “Science,” Wikipedia, last modified February 29, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science.
  3. Sagan’s 13-part television series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980), opened with these words.
  4. For more about Christianity’s influence upon science, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 188–91.

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