Home > Uncategorized > Rescuing science from scientism

Rescuing science from scientism

I recently had a very interesting discussion on a message board. The topic of the thread had to do with an article about “respecting the differences between science and religion.” I’ve found that authors who write things with such titles, in general, have a distorted idea of both science and religion, particularly in relation to their respective epistemologies–that is, what each enable us to know, and what sorts of truths each is and ought to be concerned with. But these things are not well understood these days.

Somehow, in the course of the thread, I found myself taking what might seem like a difficult position. Some of you may have read my previous posts on creation and evolution, and know that I am not a young earth creationist (YEC–this is the idea that God created the universe less than 10,000 years ago, with life pretty much as it is in its present form). In spite of this, I found myself defending the idea that young earth creationism is science, and in particular that creationists follow the scientific method.

People found this claim surprising; indeed, the charge that is always laid against YECs is precisely that they do not follow the scientific method. This is seen to be their chief difficulty–that they ignore the facts and the evidence, and instead base their beliefs about the world on blind faith. I think this picture of them is appealing to people because it reinforces the dichotomy of reason vs. faith, and correspondingly of science vs. religion. Yet, if you look closely at the creationists, ignoring the evidence is not really what they are doing. Indeed, they actually seem quite obsessed with the evidence, the very same body of data that evolutionists study.

The creationists are doing something, and it is clearly quite similar to what ordinary scientists do. The difference, I think, is this obvious point: creationists are committed to the idea, mentioned above, that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. This, and a few other things that they take to be axiomatic about the natural world, shape all of their further reasoning, all of the deductions they make from the data they are presented with.

Well, you might say, this is scientific blasphemy! The whole point of science is to take nothing for granted, to test every hypothesis, to hold everything up to the scrutiny of experimentation. Well, I say, not really. This is an imaginary ideal. In every age, and every community that practices something like science, there will be things taken for granted, propositions about the natural world that are unquestioned, perhaps that have never even occurred to anyone to question, which nevertheless shape the science that is practiced. These ideas are not based on any experiment or known data. Rather they flow out of the worldview and imagination of the community that practices the science.

So I believe young earth creationists are best understood as a particularly insular community that is doing legitimate science within a particular cosmology that the rest of the world has (probably rightly) abandoned. This, I realize, is a somewhat idealistic take–creationists are guilty of many intellectual sins. But, then again, so are we all. The irony, I would argue, is that evolutionists are equally dogmatic about another proposition that is also not established by any experiment: the uniformity of the natural world. This is the belief that unknown causes have not interfered with the natural world in an essential way, throughout the course of its history. This is a basic axiom necessary for the evolutionary paradigm to begin its exploration. A lot more could be said here, and a lot needs to be qualified, but this is a topic for another post.

What I want to focus on now is how to repair the negative effect, in general, of a certain philosophical mindset towards science that is practically taken for granted today by most people. It is the idea that is expressed well by my favorite philosopher, Owen Barfield, writing about the Copernican revolution:

When the ordinary man hears that the Church told Galileo that he might teach Copernicanism as a hypothesis which saved all the celestial phenomena satisfactorily, but ‘not as being the truth’, he laughs. But this was really how Ptolemaic astronomy had been taught! In its actual place in history it was not a casuistical quibble; it was the refusal (unjustified it may be) to allow the introduction of a new and momentous doctrine. It was not simply a new theory of the nature of the celestial movements that was feared, but a new theory of the nature of theory; namely, that, if a hypothesis saves all the appearances, it is identical with the truth. (p. 50, Saving the Appearances, by Owen Barfield)

I love this quote, and I wish with all my heart that more people today understood its significance. Truly modern science effectively began with the notion that, if a scientific theory “saves all of the appearances,” which means that it can predict all phenomena it is concerned with accurately, then it can be identified with the truth. This was the real shift in thinking that was at the heart of the scientific revolution. So from this standpoint, the scientific revolution is not responsible for rapid progress in science directly–rather it is responsible indirectly through the zeal of those who pursue it, through the belief that they were attaining ultimate truth by doing so. This is the idea that has impressed itself on Western consciousness, and it is of great significance to how all of us look at the world today.

And I love the fact that this new philosophy is what the Church, cautious as it always is, was actually opposed to–this is not how the mythology of the scientific revolution is told today. We are taught that the Church opposed the Galileo because he had undermined a cosmology that was taught in the bible. In fact, what was actually being opposed, what was seen as a real danger, was a philosophical shift. And today we see the consequences of that shift–Barfield considers the worldview that developed to be a modern form of idolatry, a sort of worship of the natural world through confusing our representations about it with the truth. In its ugliest form, it is what I would call “scientism.” And this is a philosophy that is casually assumed, without any justification, in news articles, academic journals, and much of our popular entertainment.

Scientism is distinct from science: science is rational and creative, it explores, questions, and delights in knowledge. Scientism is dogmatic and conquering. Science is playful; scientism is utilitarian. Science adores creation for its own sake; scientism worships its own understanding of creation. Now, scientism hails the “scientific method” as the source of the success of science. And I believe that it does so in order to contrast itself to superstition, which is its method of caricaturing religion. I think that this little move has done a great disservice to our understanding of what science is, and what scientists actually accomplish. It causes us to miss the imaginative and human elements to science.

We must come to see that it is not really the scientific method that makes science great. Nor is it totally what makes it progress. This is only one ingredient among many others. Just as mathematics is more than just formal proofs (yet everything must be subjected to them), science is more than a formal method. The scientific method, to the extent that it is even well defined, can only ever really be a filter, a way of making sure our ideas make sense and match up with reality. But much more goes into doing science: scientists engage in a characteristic way of thinking, a frame of mind that considers nature abstractly, trying to explain things in a causal and mathematical framework.

I want to restore the human element to science, and to help us to stop taking ourselves so seriously in regards to it. We need to stop thinking of it as some sort of “ultimate truth project.” Rather, we should rejoice that we are small explorers of a glorious and complex creation. We discover patterns and beauty, we come up with interesting ways to explain them. When these models fail us, we update them, still recognizing the beauty of the old models, and still taking hints from them as to how to go about exploring new things. Creation is our friend, but not our god–it is endlessly fascinating, but exploring it is only one of the reasons why we are here.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. June 16, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Excellent! Darwin acknowledges that without the Theory of Uniformity, proposed earlier by Wallace, evolution cannot proceed with its principles–which proceed to organize nature and roll out a terrain in which nothing outside current perceptual experience ever happened in the world–meaning: in the past. This has ever since given license not only to biology, but astronomy and cosmology. And your other point about Owen Barfield I have always cited as his KEY understanding; locating and defining what the issue really was with Galileo.

  2. June 16, 2010 at 8:08 pm

    Thanks. That really is one of Barfield’s best points–its cool as you say how the rest of his thinking can be seen as flowing out of identifying this as the real issue.

  3. janet thayer williams
    June 17, 2010 at 10:23 am

    “…the beauty of the old models…” is important to hold up, for sure. At one of the libraries I worked in, in a job they called “detailing”, the books were scanned for the date they were last checked out and then discarded if they weren’t currently popular! (I spoke up for some of these discards, if I was around while it was happening, but the practice itself still goes on)In the big book sale for discards and other donations at the central library, though, the old science books and stuff written by the passionate experts of the past in various disciplines, even textbooks, are eagerly bought up by “the human element”!

  4. June 17, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    Brilliantly put. That some things remain even beyond the scientific method is a tough pill for our generation (and a few generations before it) to swallow. Knowledge has progressed at such a clip in the last few hundred years that we now seem to think we are almost there, at the brink of knowing it all. Even if I didn’t believe in God, I’m not sure I think we’d ever quite make it there, and probably not even close.

  5. jerod
    August 20, 2010 at 11:07 am

    This was a fascinating post. I think the post-Enlightenment world is often confused about how to go about finding truth, and what truth actually would look like if it were found.

  6. joysong
    August 23, 2010 at 11:30 am

    Wow, great article! Good way to look at things!

  7. August 23, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    Thanks for the compliments, Mom, Josh, Jerod and Joysong (and joysong, I know who you are because of the email address :)).

  8. October 15, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Hi, I would like to send you a copy of my book on yoga psychology, which contains many ideas similar to the ones you’ve written about here. Several chapters are directly concerned with the ideas Owen Barfield writes about in “Saving the Appearances”. The book is “Yoga Psychology and the Transformation of Consciousness: Seeing Through the Eyes of Infinity”. You can see a video of ours on youtube,

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrG0HiUWDzk or just go to youtube and search “Beyond the Matrix: The Only Way Out”

    Please send me your street address if you’d like a free copy of the book. My wife and I are working on videos challenging the idea that materialism is a necessary foundation for science and would love feedback.

    • November 11, 2010 at 11:37 pm

      Sorry, I meant to reply to this. I have watched the video. To be honest, I don’t think I’d agree with the general thrust of your book, and would have no desire to read it, if the video is at all representative of the philosophy that underlies it. I disagree strongly with the idea that the solution to our existential anxieties is to “look within”–that the solution to it all is to turn our attention inward. Why would this be so? What does that even mean? I would prefer embracing scientific materialism to embracing this notion. At least the materialists are concerned with truth…

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