Philosopher William Craig defines scientism as “the view that we should believe only what can be proven scientifically. In other words, science is the sole source of knowledge and the sole arbiter of truth” (1).
This is a position often held by atheists, including several atheist scientists. In a debate with William Lane Craig (Christian), Peter Atkins (atheist) claims that “science is omnipotent.” One only need to watch Craig demolish that line in this short clip (2). Muslim astrophysicist Nidhal Guessoum tells us that scientism is “often considered a rather pejorative term” and is a result of placing “scientists on a pedestal” (3). Such is also commonly thought of in our culture as Austin Hughes informs us that “it is frequently claimed that natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth. And this attitude is becoming more widespread among scientists themselves” (4).
It is worrisome that mature, wise scientists cannot acknowledge this fact. This failure probably it comes down to worldviews, particularly atheism, that Atkins & Dawkins espouse. To many atheists science is like a god or a deity that is worshiped, and when this happens good science is impeded and we have an abuse of science. Science is then used as a tool to advance the agenda of atheistic naturalism. So, as anyone can see for themselves, to ask fundamentalist atheists to acknowledge limitations in science is just too big of a price to pay. But we shall see that scientism is not science and that it is self-refuting.
Attack on Scientism & Not Good Science.
To attack scientism is not to attack science itself. Rather what one needs to do is to expose is how science can be misused by people that are driven by an agenda (religious, atheist, or other). Jeff McInnis captures this: “Science is a tool, and a useful one at that, but still just a tool. Many tools are useful, but no one tool can be used in every situation – we need a complete toolbox. Many scientists would have us believe that their field of study is the Swiss Army Knife of worldview tools; that every possible task and every possible situation can be evaluated with that one tool. But we know better.”
Firstly, the very claim that “only what can be known by science or quantified and empirically tested is rational and true” is self-refuting. According to philosopher Moreland such a statement itself “is not a statement of science. It is a philosophical statement about science. How could the statement itself be quantified and empirically tested? And if it cannot, then by the statement’s own standards, it cannot itself be true or rationally held” (5). William Craig is of the same view, writing that “Scientism tells us that we should not believe any proposition that cannot be scientifically proven. But what about that very proposition itself? It cannot itself be scientifically proven. Therefore we should not believe it. Scientism thus defeats itself” (6).
Scientific Limitations & Presuppositions.
The very methodologies of science cannot be validated by the scientific method. The validation of science is a philosophical, not scientific, issue. Let’s review several of these. Christian Darwinian evolutionist Francis Collins writes that ”Science is the only reliable way to understand the natural world [but] is powerless to answer questions such as ‘what is the meaning of human existence… We need to bring all the power of both scientific and spiritual perspectives to bear on understanding what is both seen and unseen” (30).
Moreland explains that “One must hold that the senses are reliable and give accurate information about a mind-independent physical world and not merely information about my successive sense impressions. There are two major philosophical theories of perception: perceptual realism, which states that objects in the world are the immediate objects of perception, and representative dualism, which holds that the immediate objects of perception are sense images of the world in the minds (or perhaps, brains) of perceivers. Representative dualists are divided into those who, like John Locke, believe a mind-independent physical world causes our sense impressions to occur, and those who, like George Berkeley, deny the existence of a mind-independent world. These three views are empirically equivalent; that is, they each entail the same sense of empirical experience” (7).
In short, science must assume that we are rational creatures with rational minds, and that the universe itself is rational in a way that we can know and study it. This is what Einstein himself seemed to have in mind when he famously quipped that “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible” (8).
Some Christian apologists have even argued that atheists are presupposing a Christian worldview: “Regarding traditional arguments, I would add: To make sense out of our world, the atheist still must presuppose the Christian worldview. It alone supplies the required pre-essentials for the immutable universals such as laws of thought. These laws are necessary for predication, communication, and the intelligibility of theistic proofs. When the perspective of the Christian worldview is rejected, the unbeliever is left in foolish ignorance because his philosophy does not provide the a priori conditions for knowledge and meaningful experience. This contravenes anti-theism. Christian theism supplies the rational prerequisites for proof, propositions, evidence, and knowledge” (9).
Uniformity in Nature.
Science assumes the uniformity of nature, in other words, science assumes that one can legitimately infer from the past to the future and from the examined cases to unexamined ones of the same kind. Schumacher puts this into perspective:
“Science has faith in logic, mathematics, natural laws, and the intelligibility of the universe and believes all such things are firm and will never change. People also act on faith every day from meals they eat in restaurants, medicine they take from doctors, and marriages they participate in with their spouse” (10).
Moreland continues: “Just because hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water in all past or examined cases, why should we assume that the same will happen in future or unexamined cases? Science seems to assume the existence of universals and the uniformity of nature to justify such inductive inferences from the examined members of a class to all the members of a class (past and future), but these assumptions cannot themselves be justified inductively. The justification of induction is a philosophical issue” (11).
Yet, how is such uniformity justified on atheism? What is his explanation? Famous scientist Sir Isaac Newton once wrote: “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who sets the planets in motion” (12). Such uniformity in nature calls out for explanation.
The Laws of Logic.
Science also assumes that the reality of the laws of logic. According to philosopher Tim McGrew the “Laws of logic are topic-neutral patterns of reasoning that display the necessary connections, such as entailment and contradiction, between propositions.”
McGrew goes on to explain that “One of the virtues that good scientific theories possess is that they tell us not only what to expect but what not to expect. In limiting cases, they tell us what must happen (if nature is left to itself) and what cannot happen (again, if nature is left to itself). But without logic, we cannot even see that much, because we cannot know what our scientific theories rule out. That is one of the key ways in which logic is fundamental to the practice of science” (31).
Science assumes moral, epistemic, and methodological values. Astrophysicist Deborah Haarsma explains that “Many questions related to morality, ethics, love and so on, are questions that science simply isn’t equipped to answer on its own. Science can provide some important context, but religious, historical, relational, legal, and other ways of knowing are needed” (13).
For example, one cannot empirically verify via the scientific method that it is morally wrong to murder human beings in order to study the effects of death on the body, or undergo experimentation on dead bodies. William Craig informs us:
“And yet what could you do to prove scientifically to these Nazi scientists that what they were doing was wrong? What experiments could you perform, what data could you gather, to prove that this is morally wrong? Moral values are not found in a test tube. The point is this, there are ethical truths and yet these are not open to being proven scientifically” (15).
Morality, as many have pointed out, a serious issue for atheism since how is morality justified on a worldview without any transcendent standard? This is not to say that atheists cannot act morally, but rather how it is grounded on such a worldview. Ravi Zacharias asks: “How, then, may we know what is good for us? Thinking atoms discussing morality is absurd” (16).
The former atheist Philip Vander Elst also articulates this point, by saying “if this is the case, what explains the existence within us of this inner moral code or compass? According to atheism, human beings and all their thinking processes are simply the accidental by-products of the mindless movement of atoms within an undesigned, random, and purposeless universe. How then can we attach any ultimate meaning or truth to our thoughts and feelings, including our sense of justice? They have, on this view, no more validity or significance than the sound of the wind in the trees” (17).
However, the realm of scientific practice makes full use of an ethical compass, for instance, experiments are to be conducted ethically and honestly. In other words, truth telling is a moral virtue that scientists (most!) try their best to uphold.
Beauty, such as the view of a forest or mountain, cannot be determined by the scientific method. According to Craig: “Imagine you are sitting on the side of a mountain side looking at a beautiful sunset. Now you could give a scientific description of that sunset in terms of the refraction of the sun’s rays through the dust in the atmosphere, you could give a description of the fauna and the flora that populate the mountainside, you could give a geological description of the plate tectonic processes that formed the mountains and the processes of erosion that formed the valleys, and yet you would not have said anything whatsoever about the beauty of that scene before you” (18).
Craig’s analogy demonstrates that aesthetic realities are not verifiable by the scientific method. Yet, how much of humanity revolves around aesthetics? It plays an enormous role in art, design, in the entertainment industry, in the choosing of a potential partner, music, architecture, poetry and writing etc. Even mathematics has been called beautiful, Einstein once quipped that “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas” (19), whereas according to Paul Dirac “God used beautiful mathematics in creating the world” (20).
Metaphysics is yet another reality that cannot be empirically verified by the scientific method. Metaphysical truths are truths that we are all rational to hold even though we cannot empirically verify them. For example, how can we scientifically prove that we are not a brain in some scientist’s lab that gives us the impression that the external world is real? We may assume that that is not the case but there is no way scientifically to disprove such a hypothesis.
Another truth we are rational to hold but cannot verify would be the belief that the world was not created just five minutes ago with an appearance of age. We are also rational to hold the belief that the external world exists but at the same time we can’t scientifically disprove that reality may actually be an illusion. Neither can we prove scientifically that other minds exist independent of our own mind.
Science itself cannot be justified by the scientific method. In other words, if one were to say that we should only believe what can be scientifically proven then he would be throwing out science altogether. According to philosopher Craig there are three ways in which science assumes realities that cannot be scientifically proven:
“First of all, science is permeated with assumptions which cannot be scientifically proven, and yet which lie at the root of scientific theories. Let me give just three examples. Number one, the Copernican Principle. The Copernican Principle states that we occupy no special or privileged place in the universe. This principle underlies all of modern astronomy and astrophysics, otherwise you could say that distant galaxies run on entirely different laws of nature than the ones that we know here on earth. And yet the Copernican Principle is something than cannot be proved scientifically, it is simply an assumption that you have to make.
Secondly, the Continuum Hypothesis. According to the Continuum Hypothesis, between any two points on a line there is always another point. This underlies all of modern space-time theories in physics, and yet again it is a hypothesis which simply cannot be proven scientifically.
Or thirdly, the constancy of the one-way velocity of light. You cannot measure the one-way velocity of light, all we can measure is the round-trip velocity of light as it goes on an out and return journey. But we have to simply assume that the speed at which it travels on its outward bound leg is the same as the speed that it travels on its return leg, but there is no way to prove that assumption, that light has a constant one-way velocity. And yet this assumption lies at the root of the Special Theory of Relativity, which is one of the main pillars of modern physics” (21).
Moreland also notes that certain: “presuppositions are necessary to ground science as a rational discipline which gives us approximate truth about the world. But these are philosophical assumptions or brute givens which cannot themselves be verified by science itself without begging the question” (22).
Scientism is a restrictive theory of knowledge.
In hindsight of what we have seen one may argue that scientism is too restrictive as a theory of knowledge. We would need to reject many truths that we all believe we are rational to hold even though they cannot be empirically verified. The realities of aesthetic truths, metaphysical truths, and moral truths are some of these. On top of this science presupposes the laws of logic, human cognitive rationality, and the rational intelligibility of the universe in order to be able to do science in the first place. Science can only operate in a uniform universe governed by the laws of nature.
William Craig summarizes this for us: “It would, if adopted, compel us to abandon wide swaths of what most of us take to be fields of human knowledge. Your friend admits this with regard to moral and aesthetic truths. On his view there is nothing good or evil, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly. But is it plausible to think that there are no aesthetic or moral truths?” (23). If scientism were true then the poor art & design faculties at universities would go out the window, and any philosophy of ethics would likewise be pointless.
Arrogance of its proponents.
The arrogance held by those who hold to scientism is putrid, of course this does not undermine their worldview (of which we have attempted to do here) but it is unattractive. For example, atheist Stephen Hawking announces that philosophy is dead:
“What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? … Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge” (24). Peter Atkins also rather arrogantly quips: “I consider it to be a defensible proposition that no philosopher has helped to elucidate nature; philosophy is but the refinement of hindrance” (25).
In other words, Hawking’s scientism takes science not only to be better than philosophy at answering such questions, but the only means of answering them. Of course Hawking flat out contradicts himself, we can let philosopher of science John Lennox explain:
“Hawking’s inadequate view of God could well be linked with his attitude to philosophy in general. He writes: “Philosophy is dead.” But this itself is a philosophical statement. It is manifestly not a statement of science. Therefore, because it says that philosophy is dead, it contradicts itself. It is a classic example of logical incoherence. Not only that: Hawking’s book, insofar as it is interpreting and applying science to ultimate questions like the existence of God, is a book about metaphysics — philosophy par excellence” (26).
Having considered Lennox’s view it becomes understandable why Craig claims that “The professional philosopher can only roll his eyes at the effrontery and condescension of such a statement” (27)
However, atheists appear not to see that science is fallible: “That science can fail, however, shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. It’s a human construct, after all” (29). Again, this is not some esoteric knowledge unknown to scientists. This is commonly accepted and we need “to appreciate science for what it is: a long and grinding process carried out by fallible humans, involving false starts, dead ends, and, along the way, incorrect and unimportant studies that only grope at the truth, slowly and incrementally.”
So not only is scientism a self-refuting worldview to hold to, but certain failings in its explanatory scope highlight the limitations in the atheistic worldview. It brings to the forefront atheism’s inability to explain moral, aesthetic truths, as well as the laws of logic and uniformity in nature. Former atheist Alister McGrew saw this, writing that “Atheism, I began to realize, rested on a less-than-satisfactory evidential basis. The arguments that had once seemed bold, decisive, and conclusive increasingly turned out to be circular, tentative, and uncertain” (32).
1. Craig, W. 2011. Is Scientism Self Refuting? Available.
2. Youtube. 2009. Dr William Lane Craig vs Dr Peter Atkins highlight. Available.
3. Guessoum, N. 2013. Why Should Scientists Care About Religion? Available.
4. Hughes, A. 2012. The Folly of Scientism. Available.
5. Moreland, J. 1987. Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity. Chapter 7: Science & Christianity.
6. Craig, W. 2011. Ibid. Available.
7. Moreland, J. 1987. Ibid.
8. From “Physics and Reality”(1936), in Ideas and Opinions, trans. Sonja Bargmann (New York: Bonanza, 1954), p292.
9. Robinson, M. 2015. When Obvious Proof is Purposely Missed: The Willful Blindness of Atheists. Available.
10. Schumacher, R. An Examination of Atheism’s Truth Claims. Available.
11. Moreland, J. 1987. Ibid.
12. Goodreads. Sir Isaac Newton Quote. Available.
13. Moreland, J. 1987. Ibid.
14. Interview with Dr. Deborah Haarsma in: Religion, Science and Society. 2015.
15. Craig, W. Has Science Made Faith in God Impossible? Available.
16. Zacharias, R. 2004. The Real Face of Atheism. p. 128.
17. Vander Elst, P. From Atheism to Christianity: a Personal Journey. Available.
18. Craig, W. Has Science Made Faith in God Impossible? Available.
19. Gaither, C. & Gaither, A. 2012. Gaither’s Dictionary of Scientific Quotations p. 1354.
20. Kursunoglu, B. & Wigner, E. 1990. Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac: Reminiscences about a Great Physicist. p. xv.
21. Craig, W. Has Science Made Faith in God Impossible? Available.
22. Moreland, J. 1987. Ibid.
23. Craig, W. 2011. Ibid. Available.
24. Hawking, S. & Mlodinow, L. 2010. The Grand Design: new answers to the ultimate questions of life. p. 5.
25. Atkins, P. quoted in The Folly of Scientism by Austin Hughes, 2012.
26. Lennox, J. 2011. Gunning For God. p. 32.
27. Craig, W. The Grand Design – Truth Or Fiction? Available.
28. Jeff McInnis quoted by Why?Outreach, 2014. Available.
29. Belluz, J. & Hoffman, S. 2015. Science Is Often Flawed. It’s Time We Embraced That. Available.
30. Collins, F. 2008. The Language of God. p. 6.
31. Personal correspondence with Tim McGrew (Facebook).
32. McGrath, A. Breaking the Science-Atheism Bond.