By J. P. Moreland.
“I’m too scientific for religious superstition. Science is the only way of gaining knowledge of reality, and it tells us the physical world is all there is.” This claim, espoused by scientific naturalists, is called scientism, the view that science is the paradigm of truth and rationality.
There are two forms of scientism: strong and weak. Strong scientism implies that something is true if and only if it is a scientific claim that has been successfully tested and used according to appropriate scientific methodology. Within this view, there are no truths apart from scientific truths, and even if there were, there would be no reason to believe them.
Weak scientism allows for truths to exist apart from science and grants them some minimal rational status without scientific support. Still, weak scientism implies that science is the most authoritative sector of human learning.
If either form is true, drastic implications result for theology. If strong scientism is true, then theology is not a cognitive enterprise at all and there is no such thing as theological knowledge. If weak scientism is true, then the conversation between theology and science will be a monologue, with theology listening to science and waiting for its support.
What, then, should we say about scientism, and what should Christians say to those who hold this belief?
Note first that strong scientism is self-refuting. Strong scientism is not itself a proposition of science but a proposition of philosophy about science to the effect that only scientific propositions are true and/or rational. And strong scientism is itself offered as a true, rationally justified position. Propositions that are self-refuting do not just happen to be false; they are necessarily false-it is not possible for them to be true. No future progress will have the slightest effect on making strong scientism more acceptable.
Two more problems count equally against strong and weak scientism. First, scientism does not adequately allow for the task of stating and defending the necessary presuppositions for science itself to be practiced. Thus scientism shows itself to be a foe and not a friend of science. Science cannot be practiced in thin air. Scientism has many assumptions, each has been challenged, and the task of stating and defending these assumptions is a philosophical one. The conclusions of science cannot be more certain than the presuppositions it rests upon and uses to reach those conclusions.
Strong scientism rules out these presuppositions altogether because neither the presuppositions themselves nor their defense are scientific matters. Weak scientism misconstrues its strength because it believes that scientific propositions have greater intellectual authority than those of other fields, such as philosophy. This would mean that the conclusions of science are more certain than the philosophical presuppositions used to justify and reach those conclusions, and that is absurd.
Here are some of the philosophical presuppositions of science:
• the existence of a theory of an independent, external world
• the orderly nature of the external world
• the knowability of the external world
• the existence of truth
• the existence of the laws of logic
• the reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties to serve as truth gatherers and as a source of justified beliefs in our intellectual environment
• the adequacy of language to describe the world
• the existence of values used in science (e.g., “Test theories fairly and report test results honestly”)
Second, there are true, rational beliefs in fields outside science. Strong scientism does not allow for this fact, and it is therefore to be rejected as an account of our intellectual enterprise.
Moreover, some claims outside science (for instance, “Torturing babies is wrong” or “I am now thinking about science”) are better justified than some believed within science (for example, “Evolution takes place through a series of very small steps”). It is not hard to believe that many of our currently held scientific beliefs will and should be revised or abandoned in a hundred years, but it would be hard to see how the same could be said of the nonscientific propositions just cited. Weak scientism does not account for this fact.
In sum, scientism in both forms is inadequate, and it is important for Christians to integrate science and theology with genuine respect for both.
Adapted from the Apologetics Study Bible, pgs 946-947