Scientism is not merely wrong, but dangerous. This is the claim I want to make to conclude our series on scientism. It probably seems like an aggressive claim; perhaps it is. But it’s also right there in the subtitle of JP Moreland’s book: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology.
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes.
I started this series by explaining why scientism is self-refuting. Whether someone believes in strong scientism or weak scientism, their belief is logically incoherent. If scientism is true, then the non-scientific foundations on which scientism (and science!) rests would be null and void. If scientism were true, it would prove that scientism couldn’t be true; it’s a logical contradiction and has no merit as a system of thought.
I then covered the ways in which scientism influences how everyone talks about abortion. Both pro-life and pro-choice people often act like science is the thing with all the answers, but, in reality, science can only get us so far. Some scientific facts, like those from embryology, give us relevant information, but we have to use that information in non-scientific ways to come to a reasoned conclusion about abortion.
If you’ve gotten this far, you may wonder how scientism still exists and why it continues not only to survive but thrive in the public sphere. My answer is simple: scientism is a means of power for some things against other things. It is a convenient weapon in favor of moral relativism against absolute moral truths and those who claim them. Every meaningful defense of human rights must rest on moral truth, so denying moral truth must lead to an eradication of grounds for human rights. Scientism is not bad just because it is incorrect or unhelpful, but because it is a danger to humanity.
One of our not-so-secret missions at ERI is to help pro-life advocates to think well about philosophy as it relates to the abortion debate. The problem with scientism is it says that philosophy isn’t a valid way to reach truth or discover facts. According to this position, our philosophical case for the unborn doesn’t matter, because only science really matters.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes.
Now, if scientism was true, we would have to drop our strong philosophical arguments and just talk about biology. Biology and embryology can be helpful in articulating the pro-life position, but we don’t think they can get you all the way there. Just knowing that the fetus is human doesn’t tell us how to think about it. But scientism is false—more than that, it’s self-defeating, as I showed in the first article in this series.
So, How Far Can Science Get Us?
This is important, so to say it again: scientism does not equal science. Scientism says that arguments don’t matter, only bare scientific facts. Science stems from philosophical foundations. It answers questions about the world while using basic rules of logic to do so. This makes it a second thing, not a first thing, but scientism pretends that science is first and only. As C.S. Lewis writes:
“You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.”
If we pursue science as first (scientism), then we lose science in its proper place.
And science in its proper place gives us good and valuable facts which can support various arguments in the abortion debate. We cannot say, with the justices playing make-believe about biology in Roe, that we don’t know when life begins. 96 percent of biologists (not just embryologists, mind you) agree in acknowledging that life begins at conception.
The study of embryology expands on this consensus by telling us what happens at and after conception. An individual human being develops from a single-celled organism into a recognizable baby, maintaining biological integrity and continuity the entire way. We can detect early cardiac activity; we can observe the differentiation of stem cells; we can see movement and interaction. And science adds new discoveries, such as the likely pain threshold for prenatal humans recently being pushed back from 25 weeks to 12 weeks.
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.
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.