BOOK REVIEWS, CONTEMPORARY ISSUES, & THEOLOGICAL DISCUSSIONS
“If you can’t see, touch, taste, hear, or smell it, then it doesn’t exist!” You hear claims like this all the time from academics and laymen alike. What should Christians make of it? I mean, it sounds true in a prima facie sort of way. After all, we don’t typically believe in things that we can’t see, touch, hear, and all the rest! When it comes to God however, we obviously think that he exists, yet he isn’t accessible by any of our five senses. Is there a contradiction here on our part? Are we guilty of special pleading?
Not at all! We are only guilty of poor reasoning if we think that the popular claim above, which is foundational to the view of scientism (also called verificationism or positivism), is true. In this short article, I’ll show how pervasive scientism is in modern Western culture, its roots in philosophical history, its inherent incoherence, and its ultimately anti-scientific nature.
Scientism in Popular Culture
The popularizer of science and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins epitomizes the scientistic mindset that pervades Western culture in his book River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, where he writes, “Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not.”1 Notice Dawkins’s implicit equation of myth and faith; the two are apparently synonymous with one another. And why is that? It is because faith makes claims about the world that are not open to the physical sciences (e.g. the claims that angels and demons exist and that Christ will come again one day), and are therefore nonsensical on his view. Faith is mythical, then, in two senses of the word. It is mythical in that it presents an archaic, idealized view of the world and it is mythical in that the picture of reality it proffers is one of pure fiction and fantasy.
In their book The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow write, “How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? 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.”2 They go on to say that, “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”3 That’s a pretty hefty claim, but such is representative of the scientistic mindset.
Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin, yet another prominent atheist thinker, states that the “social and intellectual apparatus, Science, [is] the only begetter of truth.”4 Observe the qualifier “only.” It’s not that science is the best way to discover truth, it’s the only way! People like Dawkins, Hawking, Mlodinow, and Lewontin are extraordinarily influential in our society today, but the framework under which they operate is not original to them.
The Historical Roots of Scientism
In the early nineteen-hundreds, a group of philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians from the Vienna Circle, in the attempts to exalt the physical sciences above the other academic disciplines, developed the so called “verification principle of meaning.” A.J. Ayer, a twentieth century naturalistic philosopher, delineated the principle like this: “A proposition is meaningful if and only if it is empirically verifiable in principle.”5 In simpler words, a proposition is only meaningful if its truth can be possibly determined by using our five senses.
The verification principle of meaning, which was quickly embraced by many in the academic sphere, rendered religious, ethical, and metaphysical claims not just false, but literally meaningless. On verificationism, saying “God loves me,” or “Jesus Christ died for your sins,” is no better than saying incomprehensible gibberish, for those assertions are not empirically verifiable in principle.6 Just think, what scientific tests could you devise to substantiate those claims? Would you find the truth of those statement through the lens of a microscope or in a test tube? Of course not! And it is not merely that those statements are not true, they are actually empty of any real meaning. In the words of Alvin Plantinga, these assertions “don’t even have the grace to be false.”7
Scientism’s Inherent Incoherence
Verificationism (i.e. scientism) however, is ultimately self-defeating and logically incoherent. Philosopher J.P. Moreland describes for us what it means for a proposition to be self-defeating, writing,
"When a statement includes itself within its field of reference and fails to satisfy itself (i.e., to conform to its own criteria of acceptability), it is self-refuting. For example, ‘There are no true statements,’ ‘I do not exist,’ and ‘No one can utter a word in English’ (uttered in English) are all self-refuting. If they are false, they are false. If they are assumed to be true, what they assert proves them false…Either way, they are necessarily false."8
Exposing the falsity of the verification principle of meaning, Steven Cowan and James Spiegel write,
"Is it possible, even in principle, to empirically verify the [verification principle of meaning]? No, it is not. There are no conceivable physical circumstances that would allow us to verify that statement. So the verification principle fails its own criterion. If the principle is true, then it is meaningless!…[I]t is self-defeating (and thus false)."9
And echoing their sentiments, Paul Copan writes,
"Scientism is self-refuting in that we can't scientifically prove that everything must be scientifically provable. The challenge, ‘Prove that scientifically!’ shows us that our challenger believes he's an exception to his own rule-the rule that everything must be scientifically provable, which itself can't be scientifically proven. No wonder: it’s a philosophical claim (a statement about science), not a scientific one (a statement of science-that is, the result of scientific investigation)." 10
While verificationism is obviously false and it has been abandoned in the university for over half a century, its impact on the Western world cannot be overstated. The vast majority of Westerners, whether they realize it or not, operate within this philosophical system, hence the quotes from Dawkins, Hawking, Mlodinow, and Lewontin above.
The Anti-Scientific Nature of Scientism
If being necessarily false were not enough however, scientism is, ironically, incredibly unscientific. Some of our best theories in science involve appealing to theoretical, that is, unobservable, entities. For instance, genes are not directly observable, yet we appeal to them all the time in explaining the physical traits of persons. Scientism commits us to a radical scientific anti-realism and leaves us without a sound explanatory mechanism. Philosopher of science Del Ratzsch points out that in light of this, “Some positivists have been driven so far as to deny that science has anything to do with explanations. It merely describes, they say. But to take that route is to strip science of one of its most distinguishing features—its theoretical and explanatory power.”11 Postulation of theoretical entities can be extraordinarily helpful in our attempts to understand the nature of physical reality, and yet scientism leaves us with a very unsatisfactory epistemological system.
Conclusion: A Call to Apologetics
Why is it important to know this information? As we know, the news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, is not heard in a vacuum. People bring baggage to the table which affect their perceptions and even preclude them from accepting certain points of view. Therefore, if we are to make a legitimate impact for the kingdom of God in the West, then we better have an understanding of what we are up against; we’d better know how worldviews and mental frameworks affect the way the Christian message is heard. If we disregard the culture’s intellectual considerations, which the church has largely done for the past hundred years, then we will find that the culture has disregarded us.
In short, when it comes to evangelism, context is crucial. Everyone has a lens for viewing reality and it should be our goal to shape our culture’s lens into one that is friendly and open to the Christian faith. Offering good arguments and evidence for the truth of Christianity is vital if we are to reach our modernistic world.