Why Scientism Can’t Explain Morality or Reality - Cairn University (2022)

Every semester I require students in my Christian apologetics classes to interview a non-Christian using questions I’ve prepared. I don’t want them to start a debate with the person; I just want them to become more comfortable asking questions of people who don’t share their beliefs, to practice the skill of listening, and to better understand non-Christian thought.

This is one set of the questions: “Is there anything that could persuade you that Christianity is true? If so, what? If not, why?” My students commonly hear requests for empirical or sensory evidence. Some describe this as needing “tangible” evidence, while others speak of needing “scientific” proof for the existence of God or the possibility of miracles.

In either case, people seem to assume that only what can be scientifically confirmed is worth being called “evidence.” Maybe that’s your assumption, too, and a reason why you’re deconstructing your faith. If so, I think you’re asking the impossible of science.

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Science is a wonderful means of discovering the workings of the natural world. But claiming reality is restricted only to that which we’re capable of detecting with our senses is, as philosopher Alvin Plantinga has said, like a drunk looking for his lost car keys under a streetlight because the light is better there. It’s a form of naturalism or materialism, a view that holds that the natural world is all that exists. This claim is not scientific in nature but philosophical. It’s not a scientific conclusion but an ideological pre-commitment concerning the nature of reality.

Problem of Scientism

The demand that God’s existence be subject to scientific verification fails to account for the kind of being Christianity claims he is. It’s to treat God as if he is simply a part of creation rather than the one who, according to the Bible, is responsible for not only creating all that is not himself but also maintaining its existence. As the apostle Paul proclaimed to the philosophers of Athens, he is the “Lord of heaven and earth” who “made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24). Because all creation owes its original and continued existence to God, we shouldn’t expect him to be detectable as if he were simply a grander piece of nature’s furniture. He qualitatively transcends what he has made; he’s not a part of it. Saying you can only believe that the God of the Bible is there if empirical science confirms it is essentially to say that you’ll only believe Christianity is true if it’s other than what it is.

Not only does the demand for scientific or empirical evidence fail to recognize the limits of science, it artificially restricts the meaning of evidence. I’m not willing to concede the absence of scientific findings consistent with and supportive of a Christian perspective. But, for the sake of argument, the biblical narrative still makes sense of existential phenomena common to humanity, such as our aspirations for justice, our belief in human rights, our appreciation of beauty, and the inevitability of making moral judgments about human behavior. These values may not be scientific, but they should still be acknowledged as evidence. They’re simply otherkindsof evidence.

The belief that science is the only way of knowing what’s true or real is called “scientism.” Many, even if they’ve never heard the word, take scientism for granted as if it’s self-evident. It’s so deeply ingrained in some people’s minds that they regard anyone who would dare contest it as backward and anti-scientific. But that’s to conflate science and scientism. One can (and, as I’ll argue, should) reject scientism without disparaging science. Even aside from the evaluation of Christianity’s claims, scientism is intellectually and existentially flawed. I’d like to examine just a few problems with scientism that you might not have thought about—including one major difficulty related to whether Christianity warrants your trust.

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Perhaps the greatest intellectual deficit of scientism is that it’s self-refuting. It fails to meet its own standard. Remember, according to scientism, science is the only way of knowing what’s true or real. If something hasn’t been verified by science, we’re not justified in saying we know it to be true or real. We can say webelieveit, but we can’t legitimately claim toknowit. The problem for scientism arises, though, when we ask: “How do I know that science is the only means of knowing what’s true or real?” If that assertion is really true, then the only acceptable answer to that question would have to be “Science says.” If we appeal to anything other than science to answer the question, we’ve denied its exclusive claim. But while the sentence makes a claimaboutscience, it’s not a scientific claim. There’s no way to establish its truth on the basis of experimentation or sensory experience. That’s because it’s not a scientific conclusion but a philosophical commitment to a particular theory about the means to and extent of our knowledge.

But self-refutation isn’t scientism’s only problem. It also has high existential costs. For example, if it were really the case that science and sensory experience are the only means of arriving at true knowledge, then we would have to admit there are many things we assume we know that we actually can’t know. For example, even though you might not be a historian, you probably think you have some knowledge of past events (globally, nationally, and locally). Is your knowledge of any of those things based on science or empirical confirmation? No, because historical knowledge is not the result of repeated experimentation and observation. A great deal of our knowledge of the past depends on the testimony of people who lived in those times. But if scientism were true, then we’d have to give up any claim of historical knowledge, since it wouldn’t be the finding of science. Even claims to knowledge of the recent past, including ours, would have to be abandoned if science is the only means of knowing what is true or real. I have no doubt that I ate a chicken burrito bowl for lunch shortly before typing this paragraph. But my knowledge of that delicious meal doesn’t rest on science. Of course, someone could pump my stomach and verify that I did, in fact, consume what I claim; that would be a finding of science. But that in no way means my confidence concerning what I ate isn’t knowledge.

Moral Knowledge

Moral knowledge is yet another casualty of scientism. When you insist that truth is restricted to scientific verifiability, you must do away with all claims concerning knowledge of right and wrong, justice and injustice, and moral obligation. Science isn’t capable of detecting or determining the existence of such entities as objective moral values and duties, since they’re not subject to apprehension by the senses. But are you willing for that reason to deny that they are real? To be consistent with scientism, you must.

To illustrate this point, I ask students to imagine this situation: to a willing participant I attach a number of devices to monitor physical activity such as blood pressure, heart rate, perspiration, brain activity, and so on. Imagine I apply to the same individual, increasing electrical shocks through electrodes attached to various parts of his body. Throughout the experiment, an assistant monitors the devices tracking his vital signs. What will the assistant observe? No doubt, we’ll find that as the voltage increases, there will be a corresponding increase in heart, blood pressure, and perspiration rates. We would probably hear vocalizations and cries of increasing decibels as the experiment progressed.

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What could we legitimately conclude from this experiment? We could conclude that increased electrical voltage applied to a living subject results in mounting pain accompanied by a variety of observable elevations in the bodily systems we have monitored. What we could not conclude, on the basis of what was observed, is that oneought notinflict such pain on another. We couldn’t rightfully say, in other words, that it’s wrong to do so. Moral obligations simply aren’t the kind of thing science can detect or quantify.

But let me ask you something. Do youknowit’s wrong to unnecessarily inflict excruciating pain on another? Do you know it’s really wrong to physically or mentally abuse another person? If scientism is true, you don’t and you can’t. There’s no third way. Either abandon scientism or your claim to know moral truths; you can’t have both. If moral outrage at perceived injustice, suffering, abuse, and cruelty is to be anything more than a mere expression of personal or group preference, it must be grounded in something real, unchanging, and not of our making.

Moral Objections

Moral disillusionment and disappointment with Christianity might be reasons for thinking about abandoning the faith you once professed. So many of the objections to Christianity I hear lately are moral in nature. Maybe you’ve been seriously injured by the church or someone professing to follow Jesus. Or perhaps recent revelations about the sins and hypocrisy of highly respected Christian leaders have led you to wonder whether Christianity is true. Or perhaps as you’ve watched continuous coverage of suffering caused by COVID-19, racial strife, political polarization, and various forms of injustice and dehumanization, you’ve concluded that the God you once claimed to love probably isn’t there after all. You have some sense of the way thingsoughtto be but are clearly not. Deep within there’s a nagging sense that life is broken. You’re making inescapable moral evaluations based on what you take as real moral standards. You have a sense of moral indignation that only makes sense if, in fact, there is true right and wrong, justice and injustice. If you’re clinging to scientism, you’re undermining your moral objections to the faith.

C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologist who spent many years of his life as an atheist, recounts the effect this realization had on him. His argument against God had for a long time been based on the apparent injustice and cruelty of the universe. But then he asked himself a question that, if you haven’t already asked it, I hope you will: “How had I got this idea ofjustandunjust?” He added:

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A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?

Lewis rightly realized that if the universe was all there wasall there was andriddled through with meaninglessness (because there is no “Meaner” behind it), then there wasn’t anything to account for his opposition to the way things are. He would just be another part of the meaningless whole. He then made a crucial point about the relationship between his argument against God and the necessity of an objective standard of justice:

Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies.

I really dislike lima beans. (Bear with me.) I’ve despised them since childhood, when my mother would insist I eat them in servings of mixed vegetables. I found their consistency and flavor so distasteful that I did my best to swallow them. Decades later, if my wife serves mixed vegetables with lima beans, I try to down them as fast as possible without biting into and feeling their mushiness. What if I were to propose an argument, let’s call it “the problem of lima beans,” that said a good, all-powerful God can’t exist because lima beans do, and I don’t like them? Would you find that argument at all compelling? I hope you wouldn’t. God’s existence and my dislike of lima beans are unrelated. It doesn’t follow that God can’t exist because he has permitted things I don’t prefer. It wouldn’t even follow if I found a large group of others who hate lima beans. Personal and collective tastes are still subjective. My confident assertion that lima beans are nasty gives you insight into my preferences, but it doesn’t really tell you anything about the nature of lima beans.

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This is what Lewis was getting at when he said that his argument against God failed if his idea of justice is simply a “private idea of my own.” His calling life unjust would be on the same order as my saying, “Lima beans are nasty,” a mere articulation of his personal taste that didn’t actually say anything about the world outside himself. In order for his evaluation that the universe was unjust to carry any weight, there had to be an actual, absolute standard of goodness and justice by which he made his assessment. This led him to conclude:

Thus, in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never have known it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.

Before you conclude there is no evidence for Christianity, consider that your moral intuition bears witness to the God of the Bible. Christianity makes sense of the inevitability of making moral judgments about others and ourselves. We can try with all our might to deny it, but we can’t escape on some level thinking that there is a moral straight line,anydeviation from which is evil. I emphasized the word “any” because we tend to reserve the word “evil” for what we regard as the greatest atrocities (usually those we don’t commit ourselves). But just as any deviation from a perfectly straight line constitutes crookedness, any deviation from pure goodness is evil. And that’s a problem for each of us, for which only the Christian faith is the solution.


Why can science not be used to determine morality? ›

Science can tell us how and why we value what we do, but it cannot tell us what we should value. This goes back to a belief put forth by philosopher David Hume, who stated that you can't get an ought from an is — statements and facts about the world as it is don't give ground for saying what we ought to do about it.

Can morality be explained by science? ›

Critics include physicist Sean M. Carroll, who argues that morality cannot be part of science. He and other critics cite the widely held "fact-value distinction", that the scientific method cannot answer "moral" questions, although it can describe the norms of different cultures.

What are the 2 main arguments against scientism? ›

Two central arguments against scientism, the (false) dilemma and self-referential incoherence, are analysed.

Can science help us answer questions about morality? ›

Questions of good and evil, right and wrong are commonly thought unanswerable by science. But Sam Harris argues that science can -- and should -- be an authority on moral issues, shaping human values and setting out what constitutes a good life.

What is the relationship between science and morality? ›

Across four studies, both naturalistic measures of science exposure and experimental primes of science led to increased adherence to moral norms and more morally normative behaviors across domains.

Does science have a moral obligation? ›

Scientists have a moral obligation first to be good citizens, second to be good scholars, and third to be good scientists.

Can morality be deduced from the facts of science? ›

Wilson, in a 2009 interview[1] where he also said “If the empiricist world view is correct, ought is just shorthand for one kind of factual statement, a word that denotes what society first chose (or was coerced) to do, and then codified.” So, morality can be deduced from science, according to Wilson.

Is the science that is concerned with morals and right conduct? ›

Ethics is the philosophical science which studies morality in general and morals as one of the most important aspects of the life-activity of man, as a specific phenomenon of history, and as a form of social conscious- ness.

What is moral science Short answer? ›

Moral science teaches ethics and values. It influences critical thinking and helps a student to differentiate the right from wrong. When a person chooses to be right it exhibits his moral value, and if his morality reflects the willingness to do so, then it is called ethics.

What is the problem with scientism? ›

Perhaps the greatest intellectual deficit of scientism is that it's self-refuting. It fails to meet its own standard. Remember, according to scientism, science is the only way of knowing what's true or real. If something hasn't been verified by science, we're not justified in saying we know it to be true or real.

What is scientism and why is it a mistake? ›

Scientism is the view that science is the only objective means by which to determine what is true or is an unwarranted application of science in situations that are not amenable to scientific inquiry.

What is the concept of scientism? ›

Unlike the use of the scientific method as only one mode of reaching knowledge, scientism claims that science alone can render truth about the world and reality.

Do you think science and scientific thinking can help us form ethical values and make moral decisions? ›

In sum, scientific evidence provides increasingly interesting information on the nature of our moral judgments and actions, including a wealth of evidence that extends from genes to behavior. But most of this work plays no role in shaping the moral conversation.

Can science solve moral disagreements? ›

The challenge is that moral disagreements are unresolvable by scientific means. Disputes in science can be settled through data confirming or disconfirming hypotheses. Yet, moral disputes cannot be resolved through scientific methods.

Does science make you moral The effects of priming science on moral judgments and behavior? ›

Thinking about science leads individuals to endorse more stringent moral norms and exhibit more morally normative behavior. These studies are the first of their kind to systematically and empirically test the relationship between science and morality.

What is the difference between science ethics and morality? ›

Ethics are usually based on logical reasoning and a shared set of values, while morality is often based on gut instinct or religious beliefs.

What is the difference between science and morality? ›

Science: The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. Morals: A person's standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do.

How do we determine what is morally right and wrong? ›

There are many ways in which we can achieve moral understanding: by perception, by first-personal experience, and even by moral testimony. In particular, agents can achieve moral understanding of why, for example, sexual harassment is morally wrong even when they lack the ability to articulate their understanding.

Why are morals important in science? ›

Scientists need to integrate scientific values with other ethical and social values. Obviously, science can help identify unforeseen consequences or causal relationships where ethical values or principles are relevant. In addition, individuals need reliable knowledge for making informed decisions.

What is the scientific study of moral beliefs? ›

Metaethics is a branch of analytic philosophy that explores the status, foundations, and scope of moral values, properties, and words. Whereas the fields of applied ethics and normative theory focus on what is moral, metaethics focuses on what morality itself is.

What does CS Lewis say about morality? ›

Morality is like a fleet of ships

First, the ships must stay out of each other's way, and they must not collide. Second, the individual ships must be seaworthy, everything working in proper order. Third, the fleet of ships must be on its proper course.

Is morality based on facts? ›

Moral relativism suggests that there are no moral facts. There are facts (i.e., things that can be proven or that exist) and there are opinions (things that you believe). And the distinction between fact and opinion is that facts can be proven. Everything else is an opinion.

Can moral facts be real? ›

Insofar as moral statements are understood as expressing psychological facts about the world, moral statements can be true or false. Some “moral” statements are true in this way. Furthermore, they are true because they correspond to the world.

Can science determine what is right or wrong explain? ›

The domain of science is to describe nature, and then to explain its descriptions in terms of deeper patterns or laws. Science cannot tell us how to live. It cannot tell us right and wrong. If a system of thought claims to be doing those things, it cannot be science.

Is the study of morality of what is considered right or wrong? ›

Morality is “normative,” it is concerned with how people should behave, not just how they actually do behave. Some people use the term “ethics” for the systematic study of morality. But really there is such looseness in the use of the terms that in the minds of many morality and ethics are the same.

Why ethics is the science of the morality of human acts? ›

a kind of science that lays down the principles of the right living, a study about the rectitude of the human conduct, a practical science that guides humans in actions as well as how humans live rightly and well, and it is a science that is normative and practical and based upon reason which studies the human conduct ...

What is the true meaning of morality? ›

Morality is the belief that some behaviour is right and acceptable and that other behaviour is wrong. ... standards of morality and justice in society.

Why do you think that moral science is an important subject explain any five points? ›

Moral science teaches you the moral values. It teaches you certain ways and behavior that you have got to follow in order to mingle and get alone in society in order to keep up your relationship. Its mostly rules and procedures that shows justice towards the society. Merits are:- It helps in building...

Which is the best definition of a moral? ›

ˈmär- : of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior : ethical. moral judgments. : expressing or teaching a conception of right behavior.

Why is scientism not a science? ›

Because scientism has no jurisdiction over human freedom, only over matter and technology, its response to human existence is formulaic. Scientism operates outside the realm of objective science.

What is the importance of scientism? ›

Science isn't limited to the study of the natural world, disease, or human lifespans. Without science, we wouldn't have technologies like computers, the Internet, cars, and so on. These inventions transformed how humans live in the world, including how we travel, how we communicate, and how we learn.

What is the difference between true science and scientism? ›

Conclusion. The main difference between science and scientism is that science is the study of nature and behaviour of natural things and knowledge obtained through them while scientism is the view that only science can render truth about the world and reality.

What is an example of scientism? ›

A tendency to pathologize anyone who is perceived to be critical of science or technology. For example, a quickness to label anyone who points out risks related to technology as a luddite.

What kind of theory is scientism? ›

Scientism is the idea that all forms of intellectual inquiry must conform to the model(s) of science in order to be rational. [1] However, the name 'scientism' is a pejorative: no one who holds the view in question will refer to it as scientism.

What do you call people who believe in scientism? ›

a scientist. One who places dogmatic faith in a system might be called. a dogmatist or dogmatic.

What is scientism and where does it lead? ›

What is scientism and where does it lead? Scientism is the philosophical belief that reliable knowledge is obtained solely through the scientific method and it leads to scientist telling us what is right and wrong.

What is the opposite of scientism? ›

What is the opposite of science?
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Can or should science be used to help us answer questions of morality? ›

Questions of good and evil, right and wrong are commonly thought unanswerable by science. But Sam Harris argues that science can -- and should -- be an authority on moral issues, shaping human values and setting out what constitutes a good life.

Why science Cannot deal with values or morals? ›

Science can tell us how and why we value what we do, but it cannot tell us what we should value. This goes back to a belief put forth by philosopher David Hume, who stated that you can't get an ought from an is — statements and facts about the world as it is don't give ground for saying what we ought to do about it.

What problems Cannot be solved by science? ›

Love, hate, relationships, poetry, art, music, literature, and spirituality are all outside the realm of science. Any problems that arise in these areas cannot be completely solved by science.

How can science inform moral debates? ›

Scientific evidence often plays that role in moral debates within bioethics today. But it is entirely another thing to suggest that science can answer the moral questions that interest human beings, that by applying the scientific method we can arrive at the objectively "true" moral "fact" about a matter in dispute.

Why do we disagree on morals? ›

What leads to moral disagreement? In many cases the difference in belief is based on having different information, a difference of opinion about how to interpret information, or strongly held beliefs about others' thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, and behavior.

What deals with the moral issues in the life sciences? ›

The ethical question is, “What should we do, all things considered?” The “bio” puts the ethical question into a particular context. Bioethics is commonly understood to refer to the ethical implications and applications of the health-related life sciences.

Why is it important to know the moral issues in science and technology? ›

The uses of technology have the capability of making many innocent people suffer, and this is a moral concern. An example of such issue can be the fact that nuclear technology has the potential of killing many people and consequently destroying the environment. This issue raises some health problems.

What Cannot be determined by science? ›

Moral judgments, aesthetic judgments, decisions about applications of science, and conclusions about the supernatural are outside the realm of science.

Who separates science from morality? ›

People find it very difficult indeed to separate the factual from the emotional. This is why philosopher David Hume, perhaps the most perceptive figure of the 18th century Enlightenment, famously separated “ought”, the dictates of morality, from “is”, the facts of science.

Why moral principles Cannot be tested and confirmed in the way scientific principles can? ›

In the first sense of "observation," moral principles can be tested by observation—"That this act is wrong is evidence that causing unnecessary suffering is wrong." But in the second sense of "observation," moral principles cannot clearly be tested by observation, since they do not appear to help explain observations ...

Can science really explain everything? ›

Though science has great explanatory power and insights, Randall cautioned that it has limits, too. Science doesn't ask every possible question, it doesn't look for purpose, and it doesn't tell us what's right or wrong. Instead, science tells us what things are and how they came to be.

Why can't science provide answers to all questions? ›

Like all disciplines, it is limited by the unique tools at its disposal: in the case of science, it is the tools of mathematics and empirical observation. The tools of science are quantitative; they are therefore limited in the possible answers they might give to quantitative answers.

Can moral principles be tested and confirmed in the way scientific principles can answer? ›

Harman presents some tenets of scientific beliefs against moral beliefs; one, moral principles cannot be tested and confirmed in the way scientific principles can. Two, observation plays a role in science that it does not seem to play in ethics.

Why is it so important to learn moral science explain the reasons? ›

Moral science teaches ethics and values. It influences critical thinking and helps a student to differentiate the right from wrong. When a person chooses to be right it exhibits his moral value, and if his morality reflects the willingness to do so, then it is called ethics.

What decision theory Cannot tell us about moral uncertainty? ›

Ultimately, decision theory can't provide us with answers to hard moral questions about how to morally approach moral uncertainty—those require direct engagement in often messy, and less precise, moral theorizing.


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