Saturday, October 26, 2013

Scientism Schism

     It has been a long, long time since my last activity on this blog. The reasons for this absence are many and varied, and will no doubt be the subject of a future post, but for now I can do nothing better than to simply dive in where I climbed out. I want to discuss a topic which is ubiquitous in Christian apologetics but which is little talked about elsewhere. It is something called "scientism." Roughly defined, scientism is the view that the only way to gain knowledge is through science. This is often taken to mean the "hard sciences" like biology and physics, and, to some degree, mathematics. The reason it's important to know and to be able to interact with it is that it is the primary "ism" of contemporary popular-level atheism. Atheists like (you guessed it) Richard Dawkins paint a rhetorical picture wherein theists primarily know what they know through "faith" (which he interprets as believing in the absence of evidence, and even with disregard for evidence). For Dawkins, faith and science are very much competing and incompatible methods of arriving at knowledge. The insidious rot of this presumption is that it attaches with viral ferocity to the minds many unbelievers (and of many believers as well). It is my hope to explore scientism in some depth, and in addition, I hope to illuminate not only why scientism is false, but why it is dangerous.

     The easy refutation for the idea that all real knowledge comes through science is to simply assert that scientism itself is not a view demonstrated by science. It is what is technically called an "epistemological axiom" or a beginning principle for the study of what knowledge is and how knowledge is gained. As an axiom, it has the dubious distinction of earning the most embarrassing grade any philosophical truth claim can earn: it is not only false, it is self-referentially incoherent. This means that the prize fighter of the New Atheism is not only a slobbering drunk and therefore unable to swing-and-hit, but actually stumbles around assailing itself. It's not that scientism merely happens not to be true, it's that scientism, could never, even possibly be true.

     There are several other angles from which I want to consider scientism, however. Even if we accept a somewhat more relaxed definition of scientism, something like "The best justification for a view is a justification based on the sciences," I contend that we still encounter insurmountable problems. When discussing whether a view is justified, it is helpful to frame it in terms of for whom it is justified. There is not some existing thing out there "Justification" which somehow attaches itself to propositions unilaterally. Rather, beliefs become justified for individuals if and when they satisfy the criteria (whatever it is) for a belief to be justified. Applied to our relaxed understanding of scientism, I hold the belief that the intestinal tract is composed of several segments. I do not know this on the basis of any human anatomical dissection I might have performed. I know this on the basis of the word of people who have performed them. I hope that this trend will be recognizable to all my readers. Even for high-level scientists, most of their scientific knowledge will be based upon books that they have read, tables they have memorized, professors under whom they have studied, etc... Very little of their scientific knowledge will be based upon their own personal research. And even much of that will take for granted prior research done by others. So my question is this, "When scientists distill their research and assemble their results and formulate their beliefs about the implications of their findings, even assuming that their theories are correct, for whom are their findings justified? It seems to me they are only justified for the scientists who did the research and were present for all the steps. For everyone else, it is belief based upon trust in the accuracy of the process and the honesty of the men and women doing the research. This may seem like an awfully fine hair to split, but It seems to me more like a hairball. If we are including "trust in those who performed the experiments themselves" in our list of ways a belief can be justified, then the Christian will rightly cry out that this sufficiently broadens the definition of justification such that, in principle, even instances such as the apostle Thomas placing his hand in the risen Jesus' wounds could serve as justification for us. After all, we need not know the scientist personally to think them trustworthy. They need not even still be living. In the same way, it seems to me that the written testimony of eyewitnesses is sufficient to justify beliefs for people living even thousands of years later.

     If we relax our definition of scientism even further to mean anything which could be, in principle, verified/justified by the five senses, then an atheist who wishes to use scientism to disqualify theism begs the question against theism. If God/angels/heaven do exist, they are obviously things which could be, in principle verified by the five senses. If one finds oneself in a future state of earthly utopia wherein there is no sunlight but only Godlight, where a very physical Jesus reigns and where the Holy Spirit clearly moves God's people to worship and adoration, where all evil and crying and pain have subsided, where the lion and the lamb do nap together, where humans have physical bodies with supernatural abilities, who neither age, nor die, and one perceives all this with one's five senses, then it's clear heaven, Jesus, the afterlife do exist and belief in them is justified. So, under this even further relaxed definition of scientism, one must assume heaven/God do not exist in order to think that couldn't be justified by the five senses. Because if they do exist, they clearly could be. The fact that heaven/God have (allegedly) not yet been verified by the five senses is not a tick mark against them, in this view, because it asks us to consider only what could in principle be so justified, not what has in fact been so justified.

     Scientism was an epistemological embarrassment for all who understood it and were sincere, just as the verification principle of meaning was. But even those embarrassed by it were often impacted, subtly, by its implications. It implies that religious belief is not justified. It creates a scenario in which science seems to be inconsistent with religious conviction. It cashes in on the immense cultural capital of science, warping it and abusing it, making it appear naively and falsely omni-competent by enlisting it as a foot soldier in a battle between the atheists and the theists, the know-somethings and the know-nothings, the faith-heads and the "brights", the superstitious and the rational. I see it as a great tragedy that many theists have capitulated and now regard religious belief as something God expects us to just do, apparently without reason. The tragedy is magnified because atheists perceive the theists backing away, and think therefore that the arguments of scientism, have merit. Faith is thought to be a substitute for knowledge or evidence; it is thought to be raw belief. In reality, faith is an attitude that one has toward one's beliefs. To have faith in God is not simply to believe in God. To have faith in God is to trust in the God whom you already believe to exist.

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