Why scientism actually undermines science

Becca Lemon 21 Jan 21


According to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this is the answer to the ultimate question of “life, the universe, and everything”.

A two-digit number is proposed to be the answer to the question pondered by humanity for centuries – and yet the answer is, in this fictional universe, produced by an exceptionally advanced supercomputer.

In the end, after this very impressive supercomputer has taken 7.5 million years to calculate this alleged answer – the computer itself, somewhat humorously, points out the fact that those who posed the question didn’t even know what question they were truly asking.

Faith in science

For those of you who haven’t encountered the term scientism before, a quick Google search brings forth the definition of scientism as 'the promotion of science as the best or only objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values'[1]..

It is a belief – a faith, if you will – which holds science and scientific methods to be the only valuable way to acquire knowledge about pretty much anything and everything – from to the nitty gritty of daily life, to the biggest of philosophical questions – questions concerning meaning, truth, and the nature of reality itself.
Essentially, scientism proposes that the methods of science can provide all we need to know about “life, the universe, and everything”.

Perhaps this thought is one you share in – if you’re a science student, you’ve likely at least encountered someone who holds this kind of a belief before, even if it hasn’t been labelled as scientism. Perhaps a lecturer has casually, blatantly stated that science will answer every question humanity has, given time; or a during a chat with a coursemate between classes, you’ve noticed an underlying assumption that science is the only pursuit of any value.

Please don’t get me wrong - as a biomedical science graduate, I love science, and think the many different branches of this wonderful pursuit are incredibly valuable. More importantly, so does our wonderful God – it is a way in which we can engage with the universe He has created; the very universe He cares for so dearly, that He sent Jesus to redeem it.

'For God was pleased to have His fullness dwell in him [Jesus], and through Him to reconcile all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.' (Colossians 1:19-20)

Science leads us to a deeper understanding of this lovingly designed universe, and a profound sense of awe at the thought of the One who created it all.

But if we believe science is the only way to acquire knowledge and understanding of the world – we must think again.

Taking the cake

Take the example given by everyone’s favourite Northern Irish mathematician, John Lennox. In his book Can Science Explain Everything?, he invites the reader to imagine that his aunt has baked him a cake. Give a sample of this cake to a group of top biochemists, and they will be able to inform you very reliably of the various fats, proteins, and more, which make up the cake; a group of chemists will tell you of the elements involved; the physicists, the fundamental particles; and the mathematicians will provide a set of beautiful equations describing the behaviour of these particles.

As helpful and fascinating as each of these explanations are, they say nothing of the reason why the cake was made – nor could they, given all the time in the world. Only by asking Lennox’s aunt – who, in my imagined scenario, has a rather smug grin on her face - could provide this explanation.

None of these explanations contradict or compete with one another – each are valuable and correct in their own right. But if we were to use scientific methods alone, we miss the very thing Lennox’s aunt probably cared about most – we reduce the cake she dotingly made for her nephew to a scientific report detailing its composition. We seemingly have all of the answers, beautifully graphed and crafted into formulas – yet, just like the protagonists in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - we’ve still not a clue what question we were actually asking.

If we use scientific methods alone, we do not – we cannot - see the whole picture. If we use scientific methods alone, we cannot answer what is, arguably, the most important question - the question of purpose.
Is this the kind of world we believe we live in? Where baking a cake is reduced to eggs coagulating and browning reactions? Where the meaning of life is simply a number, only able to be deduced by a man-made machine?

The purpose of it all

Affirming science as the only valuable route to knowledge results in the loss of so much. It’s like trying to use a microscope to perform an X-ray – it simply doesn’t work. Scientific methods are a fantastic tool – but not one that can be used to examine every area of life, if life is to be understood in all its fullness. If we try and use scientific methods to inform us about our sense of morality, our intrinsic human dignity, the purpose of our lives – we lose them all. We actually lose the purpose of science - the very field of study which scientism claims to value so dearly.

The Bible gives us a much more hopeful perspective, and a real, satisfying purpose for the field of study we know and love. Looking at science through a “Christian lens”, if you will, gives science a wonderful significance. Many of the early pioneers of modern science were only driven to pursue it because of their Christian convictions – Newton, Boyle, Faraday and Kepler, to name but a few. To quote C.S. Lewis, men like these became scientists '…because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator.' [2]

With scientism, science actually loses its value - with a sad kind of irony, considering the value with which scientism, at first glance, appears to attribute to science. If we see science as the only reliable means of obtaining knowledge, we lose sight of the greater wonder and beauty of the universe we are endeavouring to understand and describe. We human beings seek more than a purely scientific understanding of our existence – we seek meaning, value, and purpose.

We find all of these things in Jesus.

The letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament begins:

'In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.' (Hebrews 1:1-3).

Through Jesus, the universe was created, redeemed at the cross, and is continually sustained. And so, Christianity '…makes sense of what is otherwise a happy cosmic coincidence'.[3]

Christianity gives our scientific pursuits a new value and significance, within a fuller, richer account of reality – as human beings who have intrinsic value, as beings created by a loving God, wondering at a creation which is continually being upheld by Him – a creation which 'declares the glory of God'.[4]

A slightly more scathing Google result for the definition of scientism, which closely followed the first, defined scientism instead as 'an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation'  .

How wonderful we can confidently place our trust in the One who made it all, instead.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/scientism

[2] C.S. Lewis, Miracles

[3] Alister McGrath, Enriching our vision of reality

[4] Psalm 19