Scientism is the philosophy that the natural sciences are the paradigm of truth and rationality. There are varying degrees of scientism, as some emphasize the significance of science above all other branches of education and culture, asserting that science is the only valuable part of human learning, while others insist that scientific testability is a requirement for obtaining knowledge.1 Skeptics often rely upon this philosophy in their objections to God’s existence. I recently encountered such an objection by an individual who contested, “Any belief about God and Jesus is not scientifically verifiable.”
There are two problems with this statement: 1) beliefs about reality (objective truth-claims) are testable using scientific data and investigative methodology, 2) scientific verifiability is not a necessity for obtaining knowledge. This article will demonstrate these two principles, showing that theological components of worldview beliefs are testable, while providing a brief explanation of why scientism fails by undermining scientific testability as a requirement for the procurement of knowledge.
Worldview Beliefs are Testable
An individual’s worldview is comprised of objective truth-claims (e.g., “the material universe exists,” “I have a physical body”). Since these claims refer to external reality, it is possible to test these claims in an effort to determine their validity.2 If evidence suggests the claim corresponds with reality, then the statement is correct, and if the claim does not correspond with reality, the statement is false (this is known as the correspondence theory of truth). For example, if a person professes a belief that the universe is a manifestation of God—and is, therefore, eternal—one can gather empirical data and determine if the evidence supports or refutes the claim. Evidence collected from scientific disciplines of cosmology and physics refute the notion of an eternal universe.3 Thus, a belief in an eternal universe is false. This simple example demonstrates that theological components of worldview beliefs can be verified using simple analysis and empirical data gained from scientific exploration.
Similarly, forensic scientists utilize methodical evidence collection and analysis to investigate historical people and events. Since Jesus is a historical figure, standard methods of research allow scholars to ascertain details of His earthly ministry and validate (with varying levels of confidence/certainty) individual truth-claims pertaining to His life. Therefore, it is categorically false to suggest that beliefs (i.e., objective truth-claims) regarding God and Jesus cannot be tested using scientific methodologies which leverage empirical evidence.
Scientism is Self-Refuting
Scientism cannot be the standard for knowledge because the philosophy is inherently contradictory. The statement, “Something can only be known if it is scientifically testable,” is not scientifically testable. If scientism were true, it would fail to meet its own criteria, thus rendering itself false. Therefore, Scientism is objectively false and cannot provide a valid epistemological framework.
Presuppositions of Science Refute Scientism
Scientism not only renders itself false, but it also undermines the fundamental assumptions of scientific inquiry and methodology. Scientific knowledge is a posteriori (justified by sense experience), but mathematical knowledge is a priori (sense experience is unnecessary for its justification), and science presupposes the truthfulness of mathematics to operate. Moreover, science assumes the existence of a theory-independent external world, the uniformity of natural laws and forces, the existence of objective truth, the reliability of sense perception and rational faculties (needed to conduct scientific investigation), the laws of logic, etc.4 None of these considerations can be tested using operational or forensic science methodologies, yet they are fundamental requirements for scientific investigation.
Expounding upon this concept, philosopher Walter Terence Stace comments,
All the sciences take quite for granted certain principles and facts which are, for them, ultimate… [For example] every science, except the purely mathematical sciences, assumes the truth of the law of causation. Every student of logic knows that this is the ultimate canon of the sciences, the foundation of them all. If we did not believe in the truth of the law of causation, namely, that everything which has a beginning has a cause, and that in the same circumstances the same things invariably happen, all the sciences would at once crumble to dust. In every scientific investigation, this truth is assumed. . . . But how do we know the truth of this law of causation itself? Science does not consider the question. It traces its assertions back to this law, but goes no further. Its fundamental canon it takes for granted.5
Understanding the detrimental ramifications of scientism, Austin L. Hughes, Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina, advises against embracing the philosophy, stating,
Of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its varied guises—from fanciful cosmology to evolutionary epistemology and ethics—seems among the more dangerous, both because it pretends to be something very different from what it really is and because it has been accorded widespread and uncritical adherence. Continued insistence on the universal competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole. The ultimate outcome will be an increase of radical skepticism that questions the ability of science to address even the questions legitimately within its sphere of competence.6
Philosopher Nicholas Rescher echoes this caution saying,
The theorist who maintains that science is the be-all and end-all—that what is not in science textbooks is not worth knowing—is an ideologist with a peculiar and distorted doctrine of his own. For him, science is no longer a sector of the cognitive enterprise but an all-inclusive worldview. This is the doctrine not of science but of scientism. To take this stance is not to celebrate science but to distort it by casting the mantle of its authority over issues it was never meant to address.7
Clearly, scientism fails to account for specific philosophical considerations necessary for science to function. Moreover, the philosophy inherently undermines the very foundations of scientific inquiry, thereby proving detrimental to the disciplines of science.
Scientism Runs Contrary to Common Sense
Scientism not only undermines the fundamental assumptions of science, it runs contrary to common sense. If scientific verification were the standard for knowledge, then it would remain impossible for a person to know the contents of his or her own consciousness. This is absurd. You know your thoughts, beliefs, and feelings through direct, first-person, introspective awareness—not through operational science. This further demonstrates the irrationality of incorporating scientism into a worldview.
With these considerations in mind, it is clear that scientism inherently fails as an epistemological model. Scientism is self-refuting, runs contrary to common sense, and undermines the fundamental basis for scientific inquiry. Moreover, objective worldview beliefs can be tested for verification through philosophical examination and the analysis of empirical data obtained via the various scientific disciplines. As a result, the statement, “Any belief about God and Jesus is not scientifically verifiable,” is fundamentally inaccurate, and the underlining appeal to scientism is detrimental to ascertaining truth and obtaining knowledge.
- Tom Sorell, Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science (New York: Routledge, 1991), x-1; Heinz K. Klein, and Kalle Lyytinen, “The Poverty of Scientism in Information Systems,” Research Methods in Information Systems (1985): 131-161.
- Dr. Kenneth Samples does a masterful job of outlining the composition of a worldview, and systematic testing of a worldview in Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test (Michigan: Baker Books, 2007); also see Kenneth R. Samples, “Worldview Tests,” Reasons to Believe, June 25, 2001, http://www.reasons.org/articles/worldview-tests.
- The Second Law of Thermodynamics, the expansion of the universe, the radiation afterglow from the Big Bang, the great galaxy seeds in the radiation afterglow, and Einstein’s theory of general relativity all preclude an eternal universe.
- Michael J. Wilkins, and J.P. Moreland, Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Michigan: Zondervan, 1995), 9.
- W.T. Stace, A Critical History of Greek Philosophy (London: Macmillan and Co., 1920), 3-7.
- Austin L. Hughes, “The Folly of Scientism,” The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society, no. 37 (2012): 32-50.
- Nicholas Rescher, The Limits of Science: Revised Edition (Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999), 247.