Many today view science as the only way to arrive at objective truth reliably. Some have termed this ideology “Scientism.“ According to Merriam Webster, Scientism describes, “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation.”
Skeptics today see science filling the “gaps“ in our understanding that ancient man once filled with “god“ as a placeholder. Even though science furnishes us with objective truth, it’s not the only means by which we can obtain truth. In the following, we will examine a few commonly held views about science and how it interacts with faith.
During the course of many conversations about faith and science, I’ve had people say some variation of this statement.
“Science has replaced our need for faith.”
Yet, science fails to answer some of the biggest questions in life. Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project, also emphasizes this: ‘Science is powerless to answer questions such as, “Why did the universe come into being?” “What is the meaning of human existence?” “What happens after we die?”’ Clearly, there’s no inconsistency involved in being a passionately committed scientist at the highest level of academia, while recognizing that science cannot answer every kind of question, including some of the most important questions of life.
Moreover, every human being lives by faith. Many years ago, I was driving a few students to our high school home church. One of the students in the car had been to our home church before, but was not a Christian and had lots of doubts and questions. Each week he would show up with a list of questions and we would spend nearly the entire night making our way through the list. During the car ride, the topic of faith came up. He said, “I’m not really the type of person who has faith. I live my life by what can be proven, by what is rational. I’m not one of those ‘faith kind of people.’”
Instantly, I said, “Everyone exerts a certain amount of faith, it is unavoidable.”
Puzzled by my statement he said: “How is that?”
I said, “There are lots of things that you place your faith in throughout the day. Take the brakes in my car, for example. Suppose I had my brakes fixed yesterday, which in this case is true. And let’s say that by the time I picked you up, I had used my brakes fifty to a hundred times, and each time I applied my foot on the brake pedal, it slowed down to a stop.” As I went on and on, he just gave me this look of confusion. But he was leaning forward from the back seat intently listening to what I was saying. At that point I asked him this question: “Even with all of this certainty, how can I be one hundred percent sure that my brakes are going to work right now as we head towards this light that just turned yellow?”
He didn’t know what to say, partly because my analogy caught him off guard and partly because I was careening toward a busy intersection going fifty miles per hour. About fifty feet from the intersection, I slammed on my brakes and came to a skidding stop. When I put my car in reverse and backed out of the intersection, I said, “I’m glad that worked this time.”
And really this is the way things are. It takes faith to sit in what seems like a perfectly good chair and trust that it is not going to collapse.
The Fatal Error of Scientism
There are some who hold that science is the only way to truth and it can explain everything. They view all talk of God and the spiritual as outside of science, and therefore not objectively true.
Famous philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: ‘Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.’ You would think Russell wouldn’t make a mistake like this. His statement is self-refuting.
To see the self-refusing nature of this statement, you simply need to ask: “How does Russell know this?” His statement isn’t a statement of science. Therefore, his statement falls into the category of what is unknowable.
John Lennox puts it eloquently:
What destroys scientism completely is the fatal flaw of self-contradiction that runs through it. Scientism does not need to be refuted by external argument: it self-destructs...For, the statement that only science can lead to truth is not itself deduced from science. It is not a scientific statement but rather a statement about science...Therefore, if scientism’s basic principle is true, the statement expressing scientism must be false. Scientism refutes itself. Hence it is incoherent.
I’ve encountered others who hold this view.
“Now that we understand the mechanisms driving the universe, we can safely conclude that there was no God who designed and created the universe.”
Let me give you a simple illustration from John Lennox’s book, God’s Undertaker, which refutes this statement. Imagine you took an old Ford Model T and dropped it off in the middle of a remote village. What would the villagers conclude, who had never seen a car and have no knowledge of modern engineering? They may conclude there is a god, Mr. Ford inside the Model T, which animates it. They may imagine that when the engine ran well it was because Mr. Ford was pleased with them. Conversely, when it didn’t run, it was because Mr. Ford was angry.
Of course, if one of the villagers studied engineering and took the engine apart, he would discover no Mr. Ford inside it. He would understand that the principles of combustion would be enough to explain how the engine works.
But what if he then decided that his understanding of these principles made it impossible to believe in the existence of a Mr. Ford who designed the engine in the first place?
This would be patently false – in philosophical terminology he would be committing a category error. Had there never been a Mr. Ford to design the Model T, no Model Ts would exist for him to understand them.
Likewise, it’s a category mistake to suppose that our understanding of the impersonal principles according to which the universe works makes it either unnecessary or impossible to believe in the existence of a personal Creator. In other words, we should not confuse the mechanisms by which the universe works with its cause.
A scientific or mathematical law presupposes an agent.
Without an agent acting, a scientific or mathematical law is nothing. Let’s take the simple law of arithmetic. 1 + 1 = 2, never brought anything into being by itself. It certainly has never put any money into my bank account. If I put $1000 into my bank account and then later another $1,000, the laws of arithmetic explain how I have $2,000 in my account.
But if I put $100 into my bank account and relied on the law of arithmetic to bring money into being in my bank account, I will remain broke. John Lennox states, “The world of strict naturalism in which clever mathematical laws all by themselves bring the universe and life into existence, is pure (and, one might add, poor) fiction. To call it science-fiction would besmirch the name of science.”
Finally, I’ve talked to skeptics of Christianity that would say:
“Faith stifles scientific inquiry.”
These skeptics point out that the church, throughout its history, suppressed scientific findings which seemingly contradicted what they thought the Bible taught.
For example, the church tried to put a gag order on Galileo, who challenged a geocentric perspective of the universe. He was called a heretic, was forced to recant, and was put under house arrest for the last nine years of his life.
And yet, the tables have turned. It’s rather ironic that in the sixteenth century some people resisted advances in science because they threatened belief in God; whereas in the twenty-first century scientific ideas are being resisted because they threaten to increase the plausibility of belief in God.
Not to mention, belief in God drove many to scientific inquiry. C.S. Lewis famously said, “Men became scientific because they expected law in nature and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.” Many of the towering figures of science were theists or Christians. Johannes Kepler, a key figure in the 17th century scientific revolution, explained the driving motive behind his scientific work: “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order which has been imposed on it by God, and which he revealed to us in the language of mathematics.”
Though scientific advancement has filled many of the gaps in human knowledge, advocates of Scientism overreach by claiming “Science is the only way to obtain objective truth.“ As we argued earlier, Scientism suffers from self-contradiction. It claims that only science can furnish us with objective truth. Yet, it’s claim isn’t a scientific statement. It’s a philosophical statement about science. Finally, Scientism fails to answer some of the biggest questions in life, “What is the purpose of my life?“ or “What will happen to me after I die?“