Article ID: JAR1905AM | By: Angus Menuge,

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Book Review of

Scientism and Secularism

J. P. Moreland

(Crossway Books, 2018)


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If it is science, we can know it, but otherwise, it is only an opinion or a feeling. That is a popular expression of scientism, the default assumption of many people in technologically advanced societies. If pressed, those who believe it would say that this is simply “the modern scientific attitude,” about as controversial as 2 + 2 = 4. In Scientism and Secularism, J. P. Moreland sets out to show that this attitude is deeply confused intellectually and also dangerous to morality and religion.

Moreland notes that scientism comes in two varieties. Strong scientism asserts that, apart from the certified claims of natural science, “There are no truths that can be known” (p. 29). Weak scientism admits that nonscientific sources (e.g., literature or philosophy) may provide some limited insights but still insists that natural science is the most authoritative and reliable source for knowledge (30). This matters, because many Christian claims cannot be certified by natural science; what experiment in physics, chemistry, or biology would establish the existence of objective moral values, the soul, or God Himself? If scientism is accepted, then the Christian claim that we can know these higher realities through reason and revelation is undercut, and the Christian faith is put outside the “plausibility structure” of the modern mind. This not only gives intellectual permission for atheists and skeptics to reject Christianity but also harms Christians by leading them to think that faith is a blind, irrational preference.

The cultural fallout of scientism is tremendous. It has led former Christians to identify as religiously nonaffiliated “nones” because they lack confidence in the Christian faith as a knowledge tradition. It also has led to chaos in the moral sphere, since moral principles and virtues cannot be established by natural science. If no scientific observation can determine the moral status of pedophilia, then all we have are competing opinions and preferences, and no way to say that some are right and others wrong (36).

Scientism also has done great damage to higher education. At one time, a major function of American universities, including Harvard, was to build strong moral character and develop worthy citizens, and it was assumed that religion imparted truths about human nature that could be known in the same way one knows things in natural science (44). Then, however, universities adopted the scientific research paradigm that made natural science the highest arbiter for knowledge of facts, leaving religion and humanities as places to explore subjective values (45). Graduates now have highly specialized degrees in science but understand almost nothing about human nature, ethics, or the great teachings of religion.

Science and Philosophy

One of the tragic consequences of denigrating the humanities is that more and more people are trained in technical and practical areas but unable to think logically about universal issues. Strong scientism claims that natural science is the only source of knowledge, but, as Moreland points out, strong scientism is not itself a scientific claim, like water is H20, since no scientific observation could support or refute it. Rather, strong scientism is a philosophical claim about science, and so, by its own standard, strong scientism cannot be known. Thus, strong scientism is self-refuting, because it cannot pass its own test for acceptability as knowledge (chap. 4).

Even setting that objection aside, Moreland shows in subsequent chapters that scientism is not the friend of science it claims to be. This is because science rests on certain nonscientific presuppositions, for example, that there is an objective, orderly world and objective truth, and that we are capable of knowing it through observation and reason (chap. 5). These assumptions must be made before any scientific inquiry is feasible, and so they are not established by science. Scientific knowledge is possible only if we can know these nonscientific presuppositions of science to be true, and so if (as we would all agree) we do have lots of scientific knowledge, it follows that scientism is false.

Proponents of scientism are hostile to this conclusion because they think that natural science can explain — or explain away — every aspect of reality, including the consciousness, rationality, and morality of the scientist. Yet Moreland argues that we cannot avoid a “first philosophy,” a set of nonscientific assumptions about reality that are autonomous from (independent of) science and may even have greater authority than any scientific claim (chap. 9). Moreland gives several illustrations.

For example, metaphysics has greater authority than natural science when the question is “Why does anything at all exist, rather than nothing?” The ingenious attempt of Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow to redefine nothing as a “quantum vacuum,” from which the universe arises via a fluctuation, does not work. The fact is the quantum vacuum is not nothing, because it “contains energy and is itself located in space” (115). If the quantum vacuum were nothing in the philosophical sense, it could not contain energy and would be unable to fluctuate. What scientism actually does is to encourage irrelevant scientific speculations to masquerade as solutions to a quite different metaphysical question that science does not, and cannot, address.

Much of philosophy of mind is autonomous from science. For example, there are several major alternative views about the nature and existence of consciousness and the soul, including strict physicalism, property dualism, and substance dualism. But Moreland points out that these philosophically different options are empirically equivalent (they are compatible with all the same observations), so science is irrelevant to determining which of them is true (chap. 10). Our reasons for preferring one of these options to another comes down to its ability to account for certain facts about our minds that are given by introspection but are not available for public scientific investigation. For example, we know what it is like to feel pain, to make a free choice, or to carry out a piece of reasoning from premises to a conclusion.

If we ignore these sources of evidence because they are not “scientific,” we are liable to either deny or falsify our basic self-understanding as human beings. And then we lose the ability to give personal explanations, where “the agent brought about a result by exercising a power in order to realize an intention as an irreducible teleological goal” (128, emphasis in original). Naturalistic science is good at discerning impersonal, undirected causes in a physical system, but does not recognize the active power of agents (free will) or goal-directed actions. But if we are to give an adequate account of the rationality of scientists themselves, we must allow personal explanations. Without them, we cannot say, for example, that scientists make predictions and design experiments with the goal of finding out whether a theory is confirmed or disconfirmed. By excluding personal explanations, scientism therefore undercuts the rationality of science.

Moreland points out there are many other examples of important questions that are, in principle, beyond the ability of science to explain, and yet which surely do deserve an explanation (chap. 12). Science cannot explain the origin of the universe, the fundamental laws of nature, the fine-tuning of the universe, the origin of consciousness, and the existence of moral, rational, and aesthetic laws. In every case, theism is a better explanation, since it grants the existence of a supernatural being whose nature is perfectly rational, moral, and beautiful, and whose creation reflects that nature.

But another problem with scientism is that, by giving science an undeserved hegemony, it distorts and disfigures philosophical and theological reflection (chap. 13). What invariably happens is that, in the name of exalting science as the only or best standard for knowledge, a highly prejudicial philosophy of science is used to undermine the cognitive authority of other disciplines. For example, it is claimed that science requires methodological naturalism, which states that science proper may infer only undirected, natural causes. But combined with the view that science is the only or best source of knowledge, this implies that we can never know that our world is designed, despite the overwhelming evidence that it is! Ironically, methodological naturalism is not part of science proper. Like scientism itself, it is a philosophical claim about science, and Moreland points out that it rests on weak arguments. It is an example of a “demarcation criterion”—“a line of demarcation between science and nonscience” (162, emphasis in original). Yet historians and philosophers of science agree that all examples of such criteria are vulnerable to counterexamples. It is hard to see how a no-holds-barred investigation into the causes of phenomena can presume at the outset that some answers are inadmissible. And in fact, many sciences do appeal to intelligent causes, such as archaeology, SETI, forensic science, psychology (165), so it is inconsistent to allow intelligent causes in some areas of science but to disallow them when they just might be God.

Moreland concludes his book by considering the best way to integrate science and Christian theology (chaps. 14 and 15). He notes that, in most cases, science and theology have little connection: molecular structure has no direct bearing on the Christian faith, and spiritual gifts do not directly inform the science of chemistry. Where there is overlap, science often supports theism, for example, by showing an orderly, rationally intelligible world. The areas of conflict mostly cluster around issues of the correct interpretation of biblical texts. Moreland notes that there are many different models for negotiating these areas of tension, and argues that in some cases, Christians are rationally justified in resisting the claims of scientific experts. For example, they may resist naturalistic evolution because it does not allow a reasonable interpretation of biblical texts, it has been critiqued effectively by credentialed scientists in the Intelligent Design movement, and because there are plausible psychological and sociological explanations of why many post-Enlightenment thinkers would like God to be excluded from science.

J.P. Moreland has done a great service. This accessible, well-argued text gives a clear exposition of the nature and cultural impact of scientism, and provides multiplelines of refutation. Like Sauron’s fortress, Barad-dûr, scientism may seem impregnable, but Moreland’s book effectively exposes the weakness of its foundations. —Angus Menuge

Angus Menuge, PhD, is president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society and professor of philosophy at Concordia University Wisconsin.