Science is truly one of the great intellectual enterprises that humankind has ever developed. But what exactly is science? Is it mainly a narrow method or practice for obtaining knowledge about the natural world? Or does it involve a broad philosophical system?

I respect and appreciate science and I enjoy interacting with scientists. But my background in logic and philosophy motivates me to ask critical questions that help me to understand just what science is and how it relates to beliefs, ideas, and truth in general.

Defining Science

According to the National Academy of Sciences, science is “the use of evidence to construct testable explanation and prediction of natural phenomena, as well as the knowledge generated through this process.”1

The popular source Wikipedia offers a bit more of an expansive definition: “Science (from the Latin word scientia, meaning ‘knowledge’) is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.”2

These two sources seem to define science more as a practice or method that involves observing nature and then developing predictive models about the natural world that can be tested for their explanatory power. Science understood this way—as a basic practice—is limited in obtaining knowledge about the natural world. Focused narrowly, science does not deny that there may be other sources of knowledge—such as philosophical and religious-based knowledge. This narrow definition of science also does not speak directly to broader worldview concerns like metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics (the meaning and purpose-oriented issues relating to ultimate reality, goodness, and beauty).

Defining Scientism

Some secularists go further than just viewing science as a limited practice. They have adopted a full-fledged science-oriented philosophy known as scientism. According to scientism, science confers genuine knowledge to humanity. In terms of epistemology (relating to knowledge), scientism takes two forms: (1) strong scientism says science is the only path to knowledge, and (2) weak scientism says science is the best path to knowledge.

Well-known scientists and outspoken atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, and Peter Atkins seem to advocate a strong scientism. They affirm that science can indeed answer the big questions of life concerning humankind’s meaning, purpose, and significance. Strong scientism thus tends to deeply depreciate the belief that knowledge can come from moral, aesthetic, and religious experience and sources.

Strong scientism also generally accepts two foundational assumptions—one metaphysical (relating to reality) and the other epistemological (again relating to knowledge).

First, metaphysically speaking, this robust version of scientism asserts that the material, physical universe is the sole reality. For example, to quote astronomer and secularist Carl Sagan: “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.”3 Scientists who adopt a more complex view of reality by affirming a multiverse or many-worlds hypothesis extend reality beyond this present universe, but ultimately all reality is still only natural (material and physical in nature).

Second, epistemologically speaking, science is the only way of verifying truth claims about reality. Therefore a belief that is not scientific or doesn’t pass scientific scrutiny is considered false or meaningless. So the foundational question becomes: “Can you prove it scientifically?” This approach, again, seems to make moral, aesthetic, and religious knowledge superfluous.

The claims of strong scientism are both breathtaking and logically incoherent. For example, the assertion that the material, physical world is all that exists cannot be shown by science. And the claim that all truth claims must be scientifically verified cannot itself be empirically verified by science. Both claims, therefore, stand as self-referentially incoherent and thus false. Strong scientism cannot back up its extravagant metaphysical and knowledge claims.

Christianity and Science

The powerful enterprise of science was birthed, established, and ultimately flourished within the context of the Christian worldview.4 Christian scholars view science as extremely effective in explaining aspects of the natural world. Nevertheless, its focus is limited. Thus, the Christian worldview provides other sources of knowledge (moral, aesthetic, and religious) that help augment the genuine knowledge derived from science. In this way, Christianity provides answers to big questions—for example, is life worth living? or why be moral?—that science does not address.

Reflections: Your Turn

Why is it important to distinguish between science and scientism? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

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Endnotes
  1. “Some Frequently Asked Questions From Reporters,” National Academy of Sciences (website), Accessed March 9, 2020, http://www.nationalacademies.org/newsroom/faq/index.html.
  2. “Science,” Wikipedia, last modified February 29, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science.
  3. Sagan’s 13-part television series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980), opened with these words.
  4. For more about Christianity’s influence upon science, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 188–91.

 

About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.



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