Scientism: the Self-Refuting Argument that has Contaminated Abortion Dialogue

Part One

Scientism is the belief that truth, insofar as it exists, is only (or best) discovered by using the scientific method. In other words, scientism says that fields like biology, chemistry, and physics are superior ways (or the only ways) of knowing what is true and that philosophy or theology can only be matters of opinion, rather than ways to discover the reality around us. This belief isn’t often named, but it shows up everywhere. Public media and private conversations about all sorts of topics make use of this worldview by stealth.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes.
Nuclear Energy Waste

Science vs. Scientism

Despite “science” being in the name, scientism is actually not a doctrine of science. Rather it is a philosophical position that distorts science by undermining its very foundation.

We want to help you confront this false ideology when it appears in conversations about abortion and other important issues. We’re indebted to Dr. J.P. Moreland’s work on this topic, Scientism and Secularism, and we’ll just use page numbers to reference his book (which you can buy on Amazon) throughout this series of posts. Moreland is a professor at Biola University with a Ph.D. in philosophy, but also majored in chemistry and was awarded a fellowship for Ph.D. study in nuclear chemistry before choosing philosophy instead. In other words, he knows a thing or two about both science and philosophy.

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Strong Scientism

I’ve been talking so far as if scientism was a monolithic worldview. Actually, there are two forms of scientism: strong scientism and weak scientism. Even though they differ in relevant ways, they both lead to pretty much the same place when it comes to admitting non-scientific evidence, so they can be handled together.

Strong scientism holds that science is the only legitimate way to know truth. Only facts that can be independently verified by the scientific method, which are secular, repeatable, and testable, merit the label “true.” Everything else is just “opinion” or “values,” subjective statements which tell us about the speaker and nothing else.

Of course, this worldview discounts philosophy. Throwing out everything that isn’t empirically verifiable is the Achilles’ heel of strong scientism because it means throwing out its own philosophical foundation (which I’ll explain in a minute).

Weak Scientism

Weak scientism tries to dodge the bullet that strong scientism has to bite. Instead of holding that everything but science is invalid, it just treats them like second-class means of knowledge. In other words, philosophy is a perfectly reasonable way to know things, but science is always better. If scientific data ever casts doubt on anything (say, the supernatural creation of humanity), then science always wins.

Weak scientism tries to get around the whole not-actually-being-science thing by allowing for non-scientific truth. On the surface, it seems like it could work. It’s okay that scientism is undergirded by philosophical claims, they might say, because there’s no scientific alternative. But after that, science is able to take over.

Scientism is Logically Self-Refuting

What does it look like for something to be self-refuting? Take Moreland’s example: “All sentences are exactly three words long” (p. 50). The sentence makes a claim (all sentences have three words), but it also violates that claim (it is a sentence with seven words). The sentence cannot be true, because it falsifies itself. It is false by necessity.

Strong scientism works just like this. Scientism is a philosophical position; it is in no way derived or able to be derived from science. If strong scientism was correct to deny non-scientific means to truth, then scientism would have no truth content because it is non-scientific. Strong scientism is false by necessity.

Weak scientism doesn’t hold up any better. Science is based on non-scientific assumptions and arguments (p. 57ff). For example, science has a foundational preference for natural rather than supernatural explanations. There is nothing scientific about this preference; it’s based in philosophy and logic (you can’t test or repeat supernatural explanations, generally speaking, so they don’t work well for the scientific method). While weak scientism accepts philosophy and other non-scientific systems in a limited capacity, it holds that science’s claims are more valid. The problem is, science has non-scientific foundations. Science cannot generate conclusions that are more valid than its foundations (p. 55). Because science has non-scientific presuppositions, it can’t be more valid than all non-scientific systems. Weak scientism, too, is self-refuting.

How Should You Deal With Scientism in Conversations?

Now that you know why scientism is problematic, how should you spot it and deal with it in conversations?

Moreland provides multiple examples of scientism (p. 26ff):

  • There is nothing human about (human) embryos unless you’re a backwater rube who believes in souls.
  • You shouldn’t entertain rational arguments about religion, because it’s not falsifiable since it can’t make any real truth claims.
  • Science teachers were taught to reply to religious objections by saying, “I understand that you may have personal reservations about accepting this scientific evidence, but it is scientific knowledge about which there is no reasonable doubt.”

Common to all of these is this basic theme: if you can’t back up what you’re saying with a scientific paper, it’s garbage. Religion and philosophy are reduced to something worse than false; they’re below rational consideration.

In conversations about abortion, you’ll probably hear:

  • “You just believe that because your sky daddy tells you to” (this one’s also bound up with secularism).
  • “Science shows us that the embryo is just a blob of tissue, so it has no value.”
  • “You act like you’re giving real arguments, but that’s just your opinion.”
  • “You can’t prove that the fetus should have rights.”

How should you respond? I would go on a counteroffensive by asking questions about what they believe to lead them to uncover for themselves the bankruptcy of their belief system. The fancy term for this approach is “presuppositional apologetics.” So, if they deny that my philosophical arguments are valid, I’d ask them on what basis they value scientific arguments more highly. I’d then explain that their answer was philosophical, not scientific, and why that’s a problem. Finally, I would offer them an alternative way forward: we can both ground our claims in reason and argumentation, using any valid sources of truth at our disposal. Here’s what this might look like:

Scientism: We shouldn’t let unscientific values have any say over real decisions in the world. Scientific fact is the only basis for knowledge.

Philosopher: That’s an interesting claim. I’m genuinely curious, on what basis do you believe science is a better means to truth than philosophy or religion?

Scientism: Well, only scientific fact can be empirically verified by repeatable experiments.

Philosopher: That’s true, but I don’t think that answer gets you very far. Has there been, or could there be, a scientific test that shows that truth is best achieved by the scientific method?

Scientism: No, I don’t think so.

Philosopher: I don’t think so, either. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing science can test or measure. So you don’t have a basis in scientific fact to believe that knowledge can only come from scientific fact.

Scientism: But how are we supposed to know anything if we can’t even trust science?

Philosopher: Science only becomes untrustworthy if you try to make it the best source of truth. Science uses philosophical foundations, so it can’t be stronger than those foundations. That’s why I believe philosophy is a necessary source of truth.

What about religious claims? Contra scientism, I believe that religious claims are either true or false and must be evaluated and accepted or rejected as such. However, I don’t usually draw upon religion when talking about abortion, despite the fact that I believe my religious claims are true and valid as evidence. This is a pragmatic choice, not a principled one. I don’t want to impose an additional burden on the person with whom I’m speaking about an already contentious issue. But if that person’s worldview precludes meaningful dialogue (e.g., scientism, utilitarianism), I need to change their worldview before I can talk about abortion with them.

And this may or may not surprise you, but scientism often comes into play on the pro-life side of conversations about abortion, too:

  • “The embryo is biologically human and alive so we know it is a person.” (“Biological humanness” and “alive” are scientific claims, but “person” is a philosophical term.)
  • “This baby has unique DNA so it is wrong to kill her.” (Again, scientific information like “unique DNA” cannot get you to a moral conclusion like “wrong to kill.”)

I will talk more about the limitations of science in the abortion debate in the second article of this series. As pro-life advocates, we need to understand how both science and philosophy operate in the abortion debate so we can avoid committing scientism ourselves as well as identify when the pro-choice person (or another pro-life person) makes statements like these.

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The post Scientism: the Self-Refuting Argument that has Contaminated Abortion Dialogue originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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Director of Content & Research

Andrew Kaake (pronounced like “cake”) is the Director of Content & Research at Equal Rights Institute. He holds a bachelor’s degree in classics and political science, cum laude, from Amherst College, where he wrote a thesis on the topic of C.S. Lewis and natural law philosophy. He completed his master’s degree in bioethics at Trinity International University, studying the philosophical underpinnings of controversies about life, death, and technology and trying to create ways to communicate that information to others. During his studies at Trinity, he worked as a research assistant for The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity.

Andrew wants the pro-life movement to help foster a culture that seeks truth and embraces logical consistency. “What I believe about humanity and personhood clearly impacts what I think about abortion, but it also holds implications for how I should (and, more importantly, shouldn’t) dialogue with other people who disagree with me.”

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