10 Things You Should Know about Scientism

By J.P. Moreland - Posted at Crossway:
Scientism is at the very foundation of our secular culture, and its nature and weaknesses should be the first priority in this area of church teaching.
This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.

1. Scientism is a philosophical thesis that comes in two forms.

Scientism is a position in philosophy, not science. The claims of scientism are assertions about science, not of science.

Strong scientism is the view that the only knowledge we can have about reality are those that have been properly tested in the hard sciences (especially physics and chemistry). All other claims—e.g. theological, ethical, political, aesthetic—are mere expressions of emotion and private opinions.

Weak scientism allows that there may be modestly justified beliefs outside science, but the settled assertions of the hard sciences are vastly superior to claims outside science.

2. Strong scientism is self-refuting.

A statement/sentence is self-refuting if (1) it refers to a group of things; (2) the statement/sentence itself is included in that group; and (3) the statement/sentence does not satisfy its own requirements of acceptability.

For example, “All English sentences are shorter than three words” refers to the group of all English sentences. However, the sentence itself is a part of that group, and the sentence fails to satisfy its own requirements of acceptability (it contains eight words and, thus, is not shorter than three words).

“The only knowledge we can have about reality are those that have been properly tested in the hard sciences” is not itself a statement about reality that has been properly tested in the hard sciences, so it cannot be a knowledge claim about reality. It is actually a claim of philosophy to the effect that all claims outside the hard sciences, including those of philosophy, cannot be known to be true. Thus, it is an inherently self-refuting claim.

3. Weak scientism is a foe and not a friend of science.

Science rests on a number of assumptions, e.g., the laws of logic and math, the correspondence theory of truth, and the objectivity and rationality of the external world. Our faculties are suited for gaining knowledge of the external world, including its deep structure that lies underneath the everyday world of common sense and causes that world to be what it is. These assumptions cannot be formulated or tested within the limitations of science, especially the hard sciences. Yet every one of them has been challenged and rejected by many in the academic community.

One of the tasks of philosophy is to formulate and defend the assumptions of science so science’s claims can be taken as approximately true and rational. A theory, including a scientific theory, can only be as strong as the assumptions on which it rests. By disregarding the rationality of philosophy, weak scientism disallows the clarification and defense of science’s assumptions. Thus, weak scientism is a foe and not a friend of science.