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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Science versus Its Evil Twin: Scientism

One of the difficulties Christians face in defending their faith today is this misplaced elevation of science above everything else. I've had conversation with people who, like the trident chewing gum ad, think that if a majority of scientists hold a view then that somehow provides evidence for that view being correct. They believe this even if the point we're discussing is not a point of science! They claim that science is the only way we can know truth and if a claim doesn't have its basis in science then it's either not knowable or not worth discussing.

Those who claim that science is the only way to find truth remind me of actors cast in a 1950's b-grade movie, a flickering sci-fi tale where our hero (science) is replaced by his evil twin, intent on ruling the world. All those in the film who should know better continue to mistake the twin for the original, even though signs are clearly there to tell the two apart. The name of this evil twin is scientism, and while it may look like science on the surface, all the signs are there to prove that it's nothing like science at all. Of course everyone watching the movie can easily see the differences, but those poor victims never see the clues and usually fall right into scientism's evil clutches. So, to make sure we don't become scientism's next victims, let's take a look at the first of five clues that show the differences between the role of science and the philosophy of scientism.

Clue #1—Scientism selfishly believes only its own rules apply

Those practicing science make theories based on observable evidence.

Whenever school children begin science programs, the first thing that they are asked to learn is what the concept of science entails. Usually, this includes some nod to the scientific method of observation, hypothesis, testing and reporting results. The National Science Teachers Association defines science as "characterized by the systematic gathering of information through various forms of direct and indirect observations and the testing of this information by methods including, but not limited to, experimentation."1 C. John Collins, in his book Science and Faith comes up with this definition:
"A science is a discipline in which one studies features of the world around us, and tries to describe his observations systematically and critically."2
Whichever definition one uses, it's normally understood that the study of science has at its basis observations. Many times we picture a scientist in a lab doing experiments, but as Collins rightly points out we cannot also discount someone like the ornithologist whose specialty is migratory patterns of birds. Although he does not gather his information in the lab, he does observe birds and makes predictions and conclusions from those observations. So, science has observation as a necessary condition of its practice at some point in its process.

Those holding to scientism exclude any theories that cannot produce observable evidence as unworthy or not true.

Given the above, things we know to be real or true and are yet unobservable must be learned by some way other than science. Moral knowledge is one example. Moral laws are not things we can see or feel. We cannot measure them with a ruler or say "They occupy this amount of space and have this much mass." While we can observe the effects of people breaking moral laws, we cannot see the laws themselves. Therefore we know them by ways other than science. But we know moral laws are real.3

However, those who hold to scientism are not satisfied with the possibility that there are ways of knowing beyond the scientific method. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in a recent debate gave a stark example of scientism. He opened his talk by noting that colleague Peter Atkins, when asked to give a talk at Windsor Castle was questioned by Prince Phillip who asked "You scientists are awfully good at answering the ‘how' questions but what about the ‘why' questions?" According to Dawkins, Atkins replied "Sir, the why questions are just silly questions."4 In one sweeping generalization, Atkins and Dawkins dismiss all those "big questions" of life, the ones that humanity has held in the highest regard for most of our existence! They reject wholesale the pursuit of understanding for why there is a universe at all, whether man has a purpose, how we fit into the grand scheme of things.

What motivates such a dismissal of the very issues that have been at the center of human consciousness throughout recorded history? It's because those who hold to scientism believe in another proposition that you may not know about. They believe that the natural world is the only world there is; that anything that cannot be explained by exclusively natural causes is either not real or not worth knowing. Dawkins alluded to as much in the quote above. But notice, this is a belief; a philosophical one known as methodological naturalism.5 The evil twin has contradicted himself! In stating that only things that can be explained by nature are knowable, he has made a statement of knowledge. But there's no way that the statement itself can be found in nature! Those who hold to naturalism as the only way to know things have undercut their own position because they start with a belief not found through science! Like our study in moral relativism, we see that scientism has a problem in that it cuts its own legs out from underneath itself. Yet, those who cling to it continue to deny that there are other ways of knowing. They believe their own rules only apply. Anything that doesn't fall within the realm of scientific investigation is considered a "silly question."

Science's evil twin, scientism, has made a mistake as bad guys always seem to do. He has tried to fool the world into believing that only his rules apply and are worthy of consideration. Some may believe that for a time. However, if you are sensitive to this trick, you can see that it really makes no sense to hold onto such a belief at all. Naturalism is self-refuting, which makes scientism the position that's silly.

For part two of this series, click here.


1. "National Science Teachers Association. The Nature of Science Position Statement. July 2000. 9 March 2011 .

2. Collins, C. John. Science & Faith: Friends or Foes? Wheaton, Il: Crossway Books. 2003. p34.

3. For reasons on why moral laws are real things, see "The Case for Morality" section of chapter two.

4. Dawkins, Richard. "Debate: Does the Universe have a purpose?" 10 November 2010. YouTube. 09 March 2011 .

5. In a recent trial on the merits of teaching school children intelligent design along with evolution, Judge John Jones III, after hearing testimony from three scientists, stated "Methodological naturalism is a 'ground rule' of science today which requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify." Jones III, John E. "Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District;Decision of the Court, Part 2." 31 December 2005. The Talk Aroigins Archive. 21 March 2011.


  1. RE: "They believe that the natural world is the only world there is; that anything that cannot be explained by exclusively natural causes is either not real or not worth knowing. Dawkins alluded to as much in the quote above. But notice, this is a belief; a philosophical one known as methodological naturalism."

    You are using the wrong term. Every scientist agrees that science is "methodological naturalism," even Christians that work in science. When you refer to the philosophy, it is called "philosophical naturalsim" or "metaphysical naturalism." So you made a mistake on your terms for this article.

  2. Hi Bernie,

    While some define methodological naturalism in the way you describe (and admittedly the name seems to imply that interpretation), I'm using it in the way the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it. From their page:

    "In what follows, ‘methodological naturalism’ will be understood as a view about philosophical practice. Methodological naturalists see philosophy and science as engaged in essentially the same enterprise, pursuing similar ends and using similar methods. Methodological anti-naturalists see philosophy as disjoint from science, with distinct ends and methods." More at

    I appreciate your distinction and I agree that those are real distinctions. But that actually is a factor that separates science from scientism.

  3. RE: "Given the above, things we know to be real or true and are yet unobservable must be learned by some way other than science."

    Morals and ethcis are learned through reason. They are not learned by some sort of communication with God. How do you think morals are learned and discovered? There's a huge amount of material in ethical/moral philosophy.


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