Scientism is naïve

Dr. Peabody,

Thank you for replying to my letter about the relationship between science and Christianity. I appreciate that you are willing to dialogue about these things. However, I’m somewhat confused by a few of your statements. You said, “The problem with Christianity, along with all religion, is precisely this: it presents claims that are not scientifically verifiable and pretends to know things without empirical support. But today we are right to recognize that anything outside of investigation by the scientific method is simply fairytale.” That is certainly strongly stated! However, I’m glad that you’ve clarified your perspective, because this allows us to interact about our basic assumptions.

The viewpoint you seem to espouse is epistemological naturalism—or, as it’s popularly labeled, “scientism.” That is, that science is the proper source of knowledge for modern humanity, and anything that is not derived from the scientific enterprise does not constitute true knowledge. I trust that you understand how radical this claim is, if held consistently, for it would mean that there are no such things as historical truths, literary truths, mathematical truths, ethical truths, and so on—since none of these disciplines are scientific. The scientific method simply does not address whether or not the Mona Lisa is aesthetically pleasing, or if Voldemort should be considered the protagonist of Harry Potter, or whether Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis is the sixteenth president of the United States, or even whether the external world exists (since this is a metaphysical rather than scientific claim). On scientism, these matters are likewise fairytales.

Perhaps you are willing to discard all such non-scientific knowledge. But have you considered the implications of this for science itself? Science presupposes certain metaphysical principles that cannot be derived from the scientific method. For example, it assumes that nature is uniform, that objective truth exists and is knowable, that our sense perception and cognitive faculties are reliable means of investigation. There are assumptions concerning mathematical principles and their relationship to the physical realm. There are ethical values about the purity of unbiased examination and honesty in reporting. Indeed, the entire scientific enterprise is based upon a value judgment that empirical research and experimentation toward developing tested hypotheses is the best way to gain knowledge of the natural world. But what kind of science experiment could possibly demonstrate that?

Scientism, then, is not friendly to science. Nevertheless, this is not the primary concern with epistemological naturalism. The main problem is that it is self-refuting. “We should only believe what can be scientifically proven.” The position sounds reasonable enough, until one realizes that, if it is true, it is false—for what scientific proof is available for this contention? It is not a scientific claim but an epistemological one. That is to say, it is the espousal of a philosophical opinion, which is a non-starter on scientism. Moreover, there is no good reason to believe that this is true.  The claim itself is unprovable, but even granting it (on faith?), it creates an incoherent position. One must reject scientism in order to espouse scientism.

I hope that it is clear that I am not in any way questioning the importance of science. However, I do want to help you to see its limits. To say that science is able to render knowledge does not mean that it provides the only kind of knowledge available. There are certain worldview presuppositions that must be in place in order for science to operate; and, I would argue, only the Christian worldview is able to provide this foundation.

I look forward to hearing back from you. I pray that God blesses your research!

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About Evan May

Evan May is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary and a pastor at Lakeview Christian Center in New Orleans.
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3 Responses to Scientism is naïve

  1. Matthias says:

    Is the letter from Dr. Peabody, which you refer to in this post, publicly available?

  2. Pingback: Some Problems with Physicalism | Evan May

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