Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Science vs. Scientism: A Necessary Distinction

When engaging the culture: the distinction between science and scientism is something Christians ought to consider. Science as a field of study is something that the Christian can (and should) get behind. In fact, Christians throughout history have made some of the most significant scientific discoveries. Science has led to fascinating discoveries and remarkable advances in technology that has increased life-expectancy, improved healthcare, streamlined communication, and enhanced predictions on weather phenomena (among many other benefits). Christians, in particular, and all of humanity in general have much to be thankful for because of advances made possible by the discipline of science.

What Christians should be skeptical of is scientism, for it takes science beyond what it is able to do. Science describes what is observed, but it does not distinguish between right or wrong, nor does it determine what is true or false. Science does not equal truth. Instead, science is a tool (like mathematics and logic) that aids in determining truth.

According to John Cowburn in Scientism: A Word We Need (Wipf & Stock, 2013), scientism is a worldview where “only scientific knowledge is valid ... that science can explain and do everything and that nothing else can explain or do anything: it is the belief that science and reason, or scientific and rational, are co-extensive terms.”

Richard Carrier defends scientism (which he calls metaphysical naturalism) in Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (Authorhouse, 2005) and defines it as “an explanation of everything without recourse to anything supernatural, a view that takes reason and science seriously, and expects nothing from you that you cannot judge for yourself.” One’s faith is not in an imagined deity. Instead, one’s faith is grounded and justified “by appeal to the observable evidence.” In short, scientism is a full-fledged worldview that guides one’s actions and informs their beliefs.

Science operates on induction. The inductive method entails searching out things in the world and drawing generalized conclusions about those things based on observation. Scientists can only draw conclusions on what they find, not on what they can't find. Science therefore is completely incapable of proving something like the non-existence of God.

Can science prove there are no unicorns? Absolutely not. How could science ever prove that unicorns don't exist? All science can do is say that scientists may have been looking for unicorns for a long time and never found any. They might therefore conclude that no one is justified in believing that unicorns exist. They might show how certain facts considered to be evidence for unicorns in the past can be explained adequately by other things. They may invoke Occam's Razor to favor a simpler explanation for the facts than that unicorns exist. But scientists can never prove unicorns themselves don't exist.

The only way one can say a thing does not exist is not by using the inductive method, but by using a deductive method, by showing that there's something about the concept itself that is contradictory. I can confidently say for sure that no square circles exist. Why? Not because I've searched the entire universe to make sure that there aren't any square circles hiding behind a star somewhere. No, I don't need to search the world to answer that question. The concept of square circles entails a contradictory notion, and therefore can't be real. A thing cannot be a square and be circular (i.e., not a square) at the same time. A thing cannot be a circle and squared (i.e., not a circle) at the same time. Therefore, square circles cannot exist. The laws of rationality (specifically, the law of non-contradiction) exclude the possibility of their existence.

This means, by the way, that all inductive knowledge is contingent. One cannot know anything inductively with absolute certainty. The inductive method gives us knowledge that is only probably true. Science, therefore, cannot be certain about anything in an absolute sense. It can provide a high degree of confidence based on evidence that strongly justifies scientific conclusions, but its method never allows certainty.

Some take the position that if science doesn't give us reason to believe in something, then no good reason exists. That's simply the false assumption scientism. Don't ever concede the idea that science is the only method available to learn things about the world. Remember the line in the movie Contact? Ellie Arroway claimed she loved her father, but she couldn't prove it scientifically. Does that mean she didn't really love him? No scientific test known to man could ever prove such a thing. Ellie knew her own love for her father directly and immediately. She didn't have to learn it from some scientific test.

There are things we know to be true that we don't know through empirical testing--the five senses-- but we do know through other ways. Science seems to give us true, or approximately true, information about the world, and it uses a technique that seems to be reliable, by and large. (Even this, though, is debated among philosophers of science.) However, science is not the only means of giving us true information about the world; its methodology limits it significantly.

One thing science cannot do, even in principle, is disprove the existence of anything. So when people try to use science to disprove the existence of God, they're using science illegitimately. They're misusing it, and this just makes science look bad.

The way many try to show God doesn't exist is simply by asserting it, but that's not proof. It isn't even evidence. Scientists sometimes get away with this by requiring that scientific law--natural law--must explain everything. If it can't explain a supernatural act or a supernatural Being then neither can exist. This is cheating, though.

Scientists haven't proven God doesn't exist; they've merely assumed it in many cases. They've foisted this truism on the public, and then operated from that point of view. They act as if they've really said something profound, when all they've done is given you an unjustified opinion.