How does a Conservative differ from a Secularist? – Part 2 (The Fallacy of Scientism)
Updated: Apr 11
Secularism, like most political terms these days, can mean many things. As I endeavored to explain in Part 1, the sort of secularism I wish to compare and contrast with the conservative view is the secularism that is not merely neutral on religious matters, but holds to the belief that religious and moral teachings have no business in the public square because they cannot be factual in the same way that science can be factual.
This is a belief we might call scientism. And Scientism is the view that the only genuine knowledge of reality can be obtained through science and nothing more. In other words, any truth claims reached by some means other than science are to be rejected out of hand or—at the very least—are fine so far as they go so long as they’re supported by scientific fact. It may be well and good if a person wants to go on believing in some supernatural myth if that’s what helps them get on in life, but it’s quite another thing when that person begins to suggest their belief is actually true and—worse yet—that we’d all be better off believing it as well. Only science can be believed in. Only science can be trusted to tell us what’s true and what isn’t.
This is pure nonsense, and I’ll spend the remainder of this post offering reasons why.
Scientism is Self-Refuting
If scientism is the view that the only genuine knowledge of reality can be obtained through science and nothing more, one might reasonably ask how do we know that to be true? Did we arrive at that belief through scientific means? If so, what scientific means exist that might help us reach such a conclusion?
Science is the study of the physical and natural world through observation and experimentation. It is not in the business of making self-reflective truth claims on the nature of science. But there is another field that is equipped for just such a task: Philosophy. Philosophy is the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, and the question is science the only means of obtaining genuine knowledge of reality? is a philosophical—not a scientific—question.
“Scientism is a philosophical assertion that claims that philosophical assertions are neither true nor can be known; only scientific assertions can be true and known,” argued philosopher and theologian J. P. Moreland in his book, Scientism and Secularism. The obvious problem here is that if scientism makes a philosophical claim that only science is capable of providing us knowledge, scientism is self-refuting. At a minimum, scientism must acknowledge that at least one philosophical truth exists outside of science: the notion that science is the only tool we have for obtaining truth, except for the philosophically true notion that science is the only tool we have for obtaining truth.
But scientism’s self-refuting goes deeper still. If we have no other tools at our disposal for determining what is true, then the very instruments we use to conduct scientific experimentation—our senses and our reason—cannot be relied upon either. If the only way to arrive at truth is science, we would have no philosophical basis for asserting that truth corresponds to what we see, feel, hear, taste, and smell; nor could we argue that our minds were capable of perceiving truth because just such an argument would have to be made philosophically.
The Is/Ought Fallacy
Because humans are hardwired to think in terms of moral imperatives, this one can be hard to spot at first. But, the fact is, nothing in science can demonstrate how we ought to behave, speak, or think. Science might be able to provide interesting insights into why the grisly act of torturing infants for pleasure is disadvantageous, but science cannot provide a reason why it is immoral.
This is what’s known as the is/ought fallacy: The assumption that because things are a certain way, they should be that way. It may be that the vast majority of people would strongly detest the act of torturing infants. But if some psychologically deranged person found the act quite enjoyable and had no empathy whatsoever to the suffering of infants, there’s nothing in science that can provide some moral code that imposes an ought. Religion can. Philosophy can. Science cannot.
If scientism is true, your feelings on the subject of torturing infants for fun are literally personal preferences and nothing more.
Science Can’t Explain Everything
While it is true that science cannot explain everything, this is an area that often trips up theist or those who defend a religious viewpoint. I recall in my younger home-school days Dad teaching me a lesson on the process of pollination. The Christian science textbook we were using went on to explain that, while science could explain an awful lot about the process, there was still much we did not know. And because science was unable to explain the process through and through, the gaps that were missing must surely be miraculous and, therefore, be evidence for a Creator.
This is what’s known as the God of the gaps fallacy: The idea that in order to account for some natural phenomenon that science (currently) cannot explain, God must be behind the “gaps” in our knowledge. There are plenty of problems with this line of thinking; not the least of which is, just because science can’t (currently) explain some natural phenomenon doesn’t mean it will never be able to explain it. Indeed, many a child raised in a Christian home departed from the faith of their parents when they began to explore the trustworthiness of science for themselves and found that many of the supposed gaps had been covered quite nicely by science. If one’s evidence for a Creator rests on what we currently can’t explain, that evidence evaporates the moment we can explain it.
It is, however, quite true that science cannot explain everything. The problem with the God of the gaps fallacy is that it looks for natural phenomenon that science cannot (currently) explain. A much better approach is to look for supernatural phenomenon. Science cannot explain the supernatural not because of some current limitation on our part, but because science is literally operating only inside the realm of the natural universe. As J. P. Moreland put it, “The problem is not that we lack sufficient data—the problem is that these are the sorts of things that science cannot explain, even in principle.”
“Causes that are physical or that are subject to scientific law presuppose time, space, and matter to exist. But [if] we are asking what caused time, space, and matter, the cause itself must be something other than each of these. In other words, it must be timeless in order to cause time; it must be nonspatial in order to cause space; it must be immaterial in order to cause matter; it must therefore be supernatural, capable of existing without the natural world and without being subject to the ultimate laws of nature.”
Science can give us incredible insight about things that exist. But science can’t tell us how the things that exist got here in the first place. Science studies process. But Moreland points out that “coming into existence from nothing is not a process. It is not as though the entity in question starts off being 100% nonexistent, then is 90% nonexistent and so on until it is 100% existent…Science can only be applied to transitions of one thing into another, but coming into existence is not a transition; it is, as it were, a point of action or instantaneous event.”
A Priori Truth vs A Posteriori Truth
What exactly do we mean when we say that science is true or is a means of obtaining truth? Is science true in the same sense that a statement like “I think, therefore I am” or the notion that one and one make two is true? Certainly not. But why not?
We’ll focus on consciousness in Part 3 but for now, think of the mathematical truth that adding one and one gets you two. Can you imagine a universe in which adding one and one gets you three? I’m betting you can’t. Now think of the scientific truth of the Theory of Gravity or the Law of Gravity. Can you imagine a universe in which it never occurs to Sir Isaac Newton to develop the theory because the apple tree he happened to be sitting under that day grew apples that flew to the sky instead of drop to the ground? I’ll grant you it sounds absurd, but you are able to imagine such a thing. In fact, you probably envisioned a floating apple the moment I said it, but you still can’t get one and one to give you three.
What’s going on here is the difference between a priori and a posteriori truths. Both are true, but not in the same sense. An a priori truth is something that is true by reason alone; that is, no “proof” or use of your senses is necessary to arrive at the truth. In fact, a priori truths are the very foundation that other truths rest upon. An a posteriori truth, conversely, is something that is discerned by appealing to empirical observations. So, a priori truths are self-evident and need no further evidence whereas a posteriori truths require evidence to demonstrate that they are true.
The practical upshot of all this is that truth arrived at through science can—and often is—revised or even discarded as further experimentation and observation shows that previous “truths” were, in fact, not true. If tomorrow we discovered an apple tree with floating apples we’d either need to determine why this particular apple tree was defying the law of gravity—perhaps someone had engineered it so—or revise the law of gravity to account for the phenomenon.
None of this means that truths we arrive at through scientific means are wrongheaded or untrustworthy. But these truths are necessarily secondary to a priori truths. A scientific truth can be wrong. An a priori truth cannot. And the best example of an a priori truth I can think of is one that’s likely even more certain to you than one and one gets you two. And that is where we’ll pick up in Part 3.