Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology provides an introduction to and critique of the philosophical position of scientism.
Moreland defines scientism as “the view that the hard sciences–like chemistry, biology, phsyics, astronomy–provide the only genuine knowledge of reality” (Kindle location 263-271, hereafter citations are also Kindle locations). He provides several examples of how he’s encountered this belief in various realms.
The strength of the book is found in Moreland’s arguments that scientism is self-refuting, the possibility of nonscientific knowledge, several principles theism explains that scientism cannot, and the attempt to integrate science and Christian thought. For example, when arguing about scientism being self-refuting, Moreland notes that the claim of scientism itself is a philosophical claim that cannot be tested through the hard sciences. But he goes further, noting that many are aware of this significant difficulty in the theory and instead argue that it can be a kind of first principle. But again, such an attempt to insulate the claim from scientific inquiry itself is a philosophical endeavor, essentially establishing the first principles of knowledge on a basis that those principles themselves reject.
Moreland also offers a condensed form of Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism: basically, if we agree that evolution is true and that naturalism is true–all that exists is the material world–then, minimally, we have at least some small reason to believe our cognitive facilities may be untrustworthy.
Where Moreland struggles is when he tries to outline the vast influence he believes scientism has in our culture. Essentially anything Moreland perceives as a societal ill can be tied back to scientism, in his view. Universities having any sort of secular slant? Scientism is to blame. People believing evolution is true? Scientism is to blame. Specific instances of perceived moral decay? Scientism caused it.
The problem with this is it begins to read more like a screed against positions in disfavor with Moreland than a tightly argued philosophical attack on scientism. A specific example can be found in chapter 3, entitled “How scientism changed the universities.” After an introductory quote from Dallas Willard, who taught at USC from 1965-2013 and is thus taken, apparently, to be broad evidence for the totality of experience at all universities, Moreland argues following another scholar (see below) that American universities followed a specific, three-stage path from 1880-1930 that went from a “Religious Stage” through a “Scientific Stage” before ending up at a “Humanities and Extracurricular Stage” (Kindle location 561-570). Tellingly, Reuben is the only citation of any study in the entire chapter–a work from 1996 about which Moreland states “I have relied on Reuben’s insightful analysis for much of what follows in this chapter” (Kindle location 639).
But following this brief look at what is surely a substantial claim (did all universities in America follow this pattern? based on what evidence? what other studies back up this data?), Moreland goes on to state that the central problem is found in the fact/value distinction and, allegedly, that science became the only knowledge that universities–all of them, apparently–valued (577). This, in turn, de-centered Christian monotheism “from the cognitive domain” and led to the impossibility of having unified curriculums or even “justifying why one discipline should have anything at all to do with another…” (588). One may well wonder how such a claim can be justified when there are such clearly inter-related disciplines as critical theory or intersectionality on the rise which explicitly demand convergence of numerous disciplines, but one also wonders what the evidence is for these claims to begin with. More importantly for the thesis at hand, the question is whether scientism is specifically and verifiably to blame for such a shift in university cultures. Moreland states that it is rather explicitly, but does little to actually support that claim. The same goes for many other things he views as societal ills–scientism is clearly at fault for them all. How? It’s unclear.
Another problem is that Moreland, as he has elsewhere, is quick to assert that his own vision of reality just is the only possible biblical view of reality and so those who disagree with it just are influenced by scientism and secularism and ought to be condemned. In a revealing passage, Moreland writes:
Thus, the ‘dialogue’ between science and theology or biblical exegesis is really a monologue, with theologians asking scientists what the latest discoveries allow them to teach:
Homosexuality is caused by our DNA? No problem. The Bible doesn’t teach the immorality of homosexuality anyway. We have misread it for two thousand years.
Neuroscience shows there is no soul? No problem. Dualism and the soul are Greek ideas not found in the Bible, which is more Hebraic and holistic.
A completely naturalistic story of evolution is adequate to explain the origin and development of all life? No problem. After all, the Bible isn’t a science text.
Studies in the human genome suggested human life did not begin with Adam and Eve? No problem. We can reread the historical narrative in a new way.
And on and on it goes. (Kindle location 1025ff)
Moreland, of course, sees scientism to blame for all of this. Christians and even theologians, he asserts, are so steeped in scientism that they cannot see past it and instead conform all of their theological beliefs to the latest fashionable science. But Moreland doesn’t establish his claim in reality. This lengthy passage shows his feelings about all of these developments, but it fails to account for the fact that without scientific discoveries that may challenge interpretations of Scripture, these discussions wouldn’t be possible in the first place. That is, he complains about he lack of “dialogue” between science and theology, but is apparently upset when that dialogue leads some to differing conclusions from himself, which conclusions, of course, can only be due to the theologians total capitulation to scientism.
Never mind that science and theology have informed each other for much of history. Note that one of Moreland’s complaints is not “Exploration of space and mathematical models have shown that the Earth revolves around the sun? No problem. The Bible doesn’t actually teach that the Sun revolves around the Earth.” Never mind that Moreland would almost certainly hold that latter position, and that such a revision of reading the Bible did in fact take place. Never mind that some theologians actually did turn to seeing divine accommodation in Scripture when it came to scientific truths instead of demanding that a re-reading of the Bible make it so that the sun did not literally rise. No, this is an issue that Moreland himself agrees with, so it can’t be due to scientism, right?
These examples show a weakness in the book that is unfortunate, because on some other counts it is quite strong. Moreland is keen to cast aspersions on rival theological positions and to blame scientism for more than he can establish in reality that it may make readers of the book less interested in those parts of the book he does establish fairly well. For example, his critique of the possibility of rational thought given a purely scientistic worldview is spot-on, and his analysis of how scientism is self-defeating ought to seal the deal for most readers.
Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology is a brief but solid critique of scientism contained within a broader attack on secularism in general. What’s unfortunate is that Moreland seems to see the latter as not just entirely encompassed (or at least caused by) the former, but also that he does so without reason for making such an equivocation. The book thus ends up as an uneven look at an important topic.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)
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The Knower and the Known- Interview with Stephen E. Parrish– Stephen Parrish is a Christian philosopher who has written a wonderful tome on philosophy of mind. Here’s an interview with Parrish about the central themes of the book. See also my review of the book. I’ve read it a few times now, and it is phenomenal.
Ben Hur: An Epic Movie of Christian Forgiveness in an Empire of Hate– A great look at the Christian themes that can be found in the latest iteration of the classic story of “Ben Hur.” Also check out my own reflections on the film.
Obama’s Pardons– Whatever one’s political affiliation, I believe this post from Thinking Christian will be a thought-provoking read. It is by someone who was incarcerated, and speaks to the real injustice in some portions of the United States’ criminal justice system.
Science and the Optimistic Naturalist– Is it truly rational to punt to possible future scientific understanding to answer what are currently understood as metaphysical questions?
Every Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!
The Failure of Scientism
Edward Feser is a profoundly brilliant scholar. Every time I read something he writes–even if I disagree–I realize I must contend with his argument. In his latest book, Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, he provides a robust look at the ways in which Scholastic philosophy and Thomism may be applied to the modern day. He touches on any number of important and interesting topics, including scientism–the notion that the physical sciences are the only way to know anything. But he doesn’t have much nice to say about scientism:
[T]he glib self-confidence of its advocates notwithstanding, there are in fact no good arguments whatsoever for scientism, and decisive arguments against it… First, scientism is self defeating… Second, the scientific method cannot even in principle provide us with a complete description of reality. Third, the ‘laws of nature’ in terms of which science explains phenomena cannot in principle provide us with a complete explanation of reality. Fourth, what is probably the main argument in favor of scientism–the argument from the predictive and technological successes of modern physics and the other sciences–has no force. (10)
Now of course this is quite a bit to swallow, and Feser expands on these points over the next several pages, arguing that each of these points demonstrates the failure of scientism.
I’m still going through the book, but it has been a fantastic read so far.
Sunday Quote– If you want to read more Sunday Quotes and join the discussion, check them out! (Scroll down for more)
Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Books; Editiones Scholasticae, 2014).
The problem of evil is often seen to be the greatest philosophical challenge to theistic belief. The problem of evil is also most frequently raised by people who are ardent empiricists (which undergirds their atheism). There are many versions of empiricism, but the one we will investigate at the moment is naturalistic, atheistic empiricism, which holds both that there is nothing but the natural world in the sense of the world which can be directly accessed via the senses and only sensory, empirical evidence is sufficient evidence for holding a proposition to be true.
On this view, it seems extremely difficult to figure out what exactly evil is. Sam Harris is well known for trying to show that science is capable of dealing with moral issues (discussed here). The method basically involves finding out what makes people happy (which is “good”) and what makes them unhappy (which makes it “bad”) (see here). It remains totally unclear to me, however, how Harris makes the jump from “happy” to “objective good.” Measuring people’s happiness doesn’t mean measuring goodness. There are serial killers who are very happy to go about secretly killing as many people as possible. That doesn’t make their action “good”, unless you boil “good” down to a purely subjective basis, on which nothing can be decried as “evil” unless 100% of people agree it is indeed evil.
Returning to the problem of evil, then, it seems like theists can simply ask the atheists a question: “What evil?” Judging something as “evil” is necessarily a valuation of an action. How does one make an experiment which can make a value judgment? Certainly, one can try to argue, as does Harris, that values are just [scientific] facts (note that the theist agrees that moral values are facts… but facts centered on the nature of God, not on empirical grounds). But simply asserting something doesn’t make it so. I often say “God exists.” People don’t tend to take this as profound evidence that the statement is true. (Though, perhaps if I said “God exists is a fact.” I might win some over… at least those who take Harris seriously when he makes a similar claim about values in the video linked above.)
So the question remains: What evil? On an atheistic empirical standpoint, there doesn’t seem to be any way to judge actions or events as “evil” other than by saying “I don’t like that.” But perhaps I do like that same event/action. Who’s to judge between us? Bringing numbers into the mix won’t help either. Imagine a scenario in which 1,000,000 people thought some action (rape) was evil. On the other side there were 10,000 who thought the same action was perfectly reasonable, because, after all, that’s how our ancestors behaved. Who is right? Well, on empiricism, perhaps one could argue that the 1,000,000 are right, but then we’re making a judgment on values simply because of a majority vote. Science doesn’t work that way. We don’t just vote on what is empirically correct.
The only way to solve this problem would be to argue that in moral questions, the majority is correct. Yet I don’t see any way to argue in this matter other than metaphysically, which is exactly what the empiricist is trying to avoid. Therefore, on empiricism, there is no such thing as evil. Just good and bad feelings. And that’s not enough.
And so we get to my main argument.
1) One cannot rationally hold both to a proposition’s truth and falsehood.
2) On atheistic empiricism, there is no evil.
3) Atheistic empiricists argue that evil disproves (or challenges) the existence of God [implicit premise: evil exists].
4) Therefore, atheistic empiricists hold that both evil does not exist, and that it does exist (2, 3).
5) Therefore, atheistic empiricism is irrational (1, 4).
In order to avoid the argument, the atheistic empiricist can simply deny 3). However, this would disarm the strongest anti-theistic argument. I see no reason to feel threatened by the problem of evil when it is leveled by an empirical/naturalistic anti-theist. In fact, some have argued that:
1) If evil has meaning, then God exists.
2) Evil has meaning.
3) God exists (1, 2, modus ponens).
This argument is a kind of reverse moral argument, and I think it works, though I doubt one will find many anti-theists who will accept premise 1). As is the case with the moral argument [1) If objective morals exist, then God exists; 2) Objective morals exist; 3) therefore God exists], I believe atheists will vary between denying 1) and 2) as they find convenient.
I leave it to the naturalistic/empirical atheist to show that science can, in fact, test for objective morality, rather than just measuring feelings.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation and provide a link to the original URL. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.