Episode 175 - Is Science the Only Way to Know Anything?

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Today we're going to talk about science and part of its relationship to Christianity and how we know things and how we live. And for many people, this might not be a consideration that comes up hardly every and for another type of listener, another type person in today's world, this is probably something you're encountering all the time. Well we're having conversations about ethical issues and moral issues and in society and how we know and people are constantly saying, "Well, science says this and science says that," and, well, the question might come up when we talk about gender or sex or abortion. Well, what does science say?

And so science is an important topic for Christians to be able to talk about and know something about and yet, all too often, we don't speak much about it at all. And we're going to be talking about something today called scientism. It's a belief and it has different flavors but it's a belief, generally speaking, that only science can give us truth. As Christians, we should not be anti-science. I do think it's appropriate for us and important for us to have a correct understanding of science as a tool. It's a tool that tells us about the natural world and it doesn't tell us about the supernatural. It can't tell us about all of the sorts of things that exist in reality because not everything that exists is physical. There are non-material things in the world. Things that are not made of stuff, of atoms. God would be an a example of that. Your soul would be an example of that. There are other immaterial realities like moral laws and the laws of logic and other things that actually exist, but you can't touch.

So, one of the first problems with scientism, this idea that only science can give us truth, is that it assumes materialism. It assumes that the only things we could know about or perhaps the only things that exist are material. It's something like scientism that's often behind the claim, "God does not exist." Or we can't know that God exists. And some people will say, "God does not exist because science has shown that he can't exist." Now, I do want to ask them how they came to that conclusion. That's important. But at a fundamental level, that can never be, because science is a tool that tells us about the natural world. God, by definition, is not a part of the natural world so science can't disprove his existence in that way. Science could provide evidence one way or the other that could be used in some other sort of proof, but science, if it can only tell us about the material, can't tell us about the immaterial, the supernatural, which is what God is part of.

Now some people will say, "We can't know that God exists because science can't tell us." And the view here is better than the previous view, because at least they're acknowledging that science can't tell us about the existence of God directly because it's not the right sort of tool. The problem with this view though is they think if science can't tell us, nothing else can. They think science is the only tool that could tell us about the sort of truth which would be God existing or not existing. Because they seem to believe that only science can give us truth. So the first problem with this is it assumes materialism. It assumes too much also about the tool itself. It can only tell us about the natural world.

The other problem, the second one we'll look at, is an existential argument. No one lives like this. I think this is increasingly important. When I first started giving reasons for why Christianity is true and why people should believe it, when I first started doing Apologetics, I downplayed this sort of existential argument and I would go with more philosophically-based arguments or biblically-based arguments. But I think the existential argument's pretty private powerful here. No one lives like this. Even the person saying, "Well, I've seen a study and it shows this so, therefore, this is true and everything else is false." They don't live like that in other areas of their life. So there are people who will say the same sorts of comments we looked at earlier, that God doesn't exist, we can only know things from science, etc. And then you ask them, "Well, were the Nazis evil? Is it evil to commit genocide?" You know, maybe this person's also made a claim about the God of the Bible misunderstanding what happened in the Old Testament and they're claiming that God was evil there. And my question is going to be, "How do you know that? How do you know the Nazis were evil? Is that a scientific truth?"

It can't be. It's a moral claim. And science does not tell us about morality. Science tells us about the physical world. It doesn't tell us about our obligations to one another. And that's what a moral claim is. It's a just claim to something. It means that I have a right to do something. I have the obligation to do something or you have the obligation to do something to me. None of that is grounded in the physical world. Those are immaterial, intangible obligations. So if someone wants to claim the Nazis were evil and that they know the Nazis were evil, they can't hold to scientism. At least a full orbed view of it. They can't hold to the view that only science gives us truth. Because they're claiming to know a moral truth which science can't tell them about.

But people also live like this in less important ways. Like when they look at a sunset or they look at the face of their spouse on their wedding day and they think that it is beautiful. Science can't tell them that they know that's beautiful. Science can't tell us what beauty is. But scientism also can't account for trust or love. I would say I know my wife loves me but that is not scientifically demonstrable. On a scientistic worldview, I could not claim to know that my wife loves me, because that's not scientifically verifiable and only science gives us truth, therefore, I can't know that. So, once again, this view of scientism does not fit with the way people actually live, with the kinds of statements that come out of their mouth when they make moral claims and claims about beauty and other intangible things and when they claim to know and trust and love people. So, that's the second problem with it. The first, is it assumes materialism and it's a tool that's not actually equipped to tell us about more than the material world. The second, is that there's this existential problem. We don't actually live like science is the only thing that can give us truth.

And the third thing, and perhaps most foundationally, is this is actually a self-refuting claim. We've talked about these on the podcast in the past but just to quickly recap, a self-refuting claim, a self-contradictory claim, is one that applies to itself and actually contradicts itself. So if I were to say, "I can't speak a word in English," that claim actually contradicts itself because by saying that statement in English, I am demonstrating that it is false that I can't speak a word of English. I'm actually saying it in English. If someone was to say, "You're wrong for judging." What did they just do? Well, they judged you. They did something wrong while they said it. That's a form of a self-refuting claim. And that's the same way with this view that only science can give us truth. When someone says that, a very pertinent and reasonable question is, "Is that true?" If they say only science can give us truth, what I want to know is, is that true? "Is it true that science is the only source of truth? And if so, how do you know that from science?" Because this view, this truth claim, this assertion that only science can give us truth, cannot be demonstrated scientifically.

You could also ask if you wanted to be a little more edgy, I suppose, "What lab experiment was done to demonstrate that? How was the scientific method employed in coming to the conclusion that only science can give us truth?" And what your hopefully leading the person to with these questions is the understanding that they're making a claim about how they see the whole world and the claim contradicts itself. The whole principle they use to determine what is true and what is false, at least in what they claim like we've established, they probably live differently, cannot be demonstrated scientifically. It's a philosophical, ideological, presupposition that they bring to bear and then see everything through but they can't demonstrate scientifically that only science can give us truth. That is viciously circular. And so it's self-refuting in this way. It contradicts itself. If science is the only thing that can give us truth, it is false that science is the only thing that can give us truth.

So there are three quick problems that we've looked at today there. There is the existential problem, no one lives like it. There's the problem of an assuming materialism. It's the wrong type of tool often to tell us about certain things in the world. And the third problem, as we just saw, is that it's self-refuting. It contradicts itself. I want to read a quote here from a scientist named Richard Lewontin who's telling us, very candidly, about how he and the scientific community often look at science. I don't want to paint everybody with a broad brush here and like I alluded to earlier, there are different views of scientism and people have a stronger or weaker or harder or softer views. But let's look at this quote from Richard Lewontin which is very telling about how many people look at science today.

"Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs." He's saying, "We believe science, in spite of the fact that some things seem clearly ridiculous and absurd." He goes on, "In spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories. Why? Because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism." Remember that's the view that only material things exist. "It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the world, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, and no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door."

I want to go back to part of that and kind of explain it in a little more common language. He said, "On the contrary, we are forced by our a priori adherence to adopt material causes." What he's saying is, "We have a starting position and it's that only material things exist. We didn't come to that because of science." At least he's speaking for himself and many people he knows. "We actually started there." So materialism was not a conclusion for him, it's a starting place for how people think you have to do science. But if that's true, then what you're actually doing is being more narrow minded. You're closing yourself off to a whole other category of potential causes when you look at the world, if you only look at material causes because there are also super natural causes, nonmaterial causes. Your mind actually causes your body to do things. God and other spiritual forces cause things and yet when you only look at science through a materialistic lens, you're cutting yourself off from potential other explanations and causes. But he's saying that we don't come to that as a conclusion. We don't start neutrally and come to that. Actually, that's our starting place for all of science and you ask why.

What does he say at the end? "Materialism is absolute because we cannot allow a divine foot in the door." That does not speak of a neutral starting place where we've evaluated evidence and come to conclusions. Though, sometimes, evaluation obviously in concluding is part of science. No, this is a philosophical view here. It's an ideological view. It's actually a worldview and a religious statement that we are choosing to start here and cordon off how we look at the world because we don't want to allow a divine foot in the door. And doesn't this just speak, obviously I think, of Romans 1 where people deny the truth in unrighteousness. They suppress what has been made clear about God because they love the darkness, not the light. That's what I read here from Richard Lewontin. So we've quickly looked at three reasons why scientism doesn't work. We've also seen a very candid admission by Lewontin. I want to talk about two areas today where people who may affirm scientism actually hold other strong stances that don't fit with it.

So this is a more informal kind of self-refutation. So, people today often, even if they have never heard of scientism, hold to a kind of implicit or default scientism where they're going to say, "Well, science says this and that's why I believe it” or “Science didn't say that so it's not true or I don't believe it." An area where that surfaces is abortion. And the whole question of abortion should really come down to what is the unborn? Is it a human being that's alive and if it is, it should be accorded all other privileges that human beings get because it shouldn't be just separate because it's smaller or less developed or in a different environment or is more dependent on people. And so the question of when does life begin? And is the unborn human? Those are the two fundamental questions. And if the unborn is actually alive, that's a scientific statement. It's not a philosophical statement.

And so we can demonstrate that the unborn is alive. It takes in nutrients, it expels waste, it has its own DNA, it has its own blood type. Often, if its blood and the mother's blood mix, the mother's blood sees it as foreign. It's not just a part of the woman's body. It has a heartbeat, it has its own brain activity. All of those things point to the fact and demonstrate the fact that it's alive. The medical textbooks and genetics textbooks are not confused about when life begins. It begins at conception. And so science has affirmed when life begins. And so abortion should be unthinkable because it's murder. We know what murder is. It's taking the life of an innocent person without proper justification.

Yet, what do people want to do today? They want to hold to this idea that science tells us about reality ,but then they want to smuggle in philosophy and ideology and worldview presuppositions when it comes to talking about abortions. Say, "Well it's not actually a person that's alive because personhood happens when it comes out of the birth canal." Really? Can you demonstrate that scientifically? Is that a scientific claim that personhood begins when something comes out of the birth canal? No, it's not. It's a philosophical claim. A pretty poor one at that. But scientifically it should be noncontroversial that the unborn is a human that's alive. And since it is, we should treat it like any other human that's alive. So scientism doesn't fit here.

It also doesn't fit when we come to the gender and sex conversation today. Where biology is a science. And it is very clear what makes something male and what makes something female. Once again, in reproductive textbooks and medical textbooks it's very clear that what makes something male is a Y chromosome. The ability to reproduce in that way, to give sperm that then goes and fertilizes an egg. So, one person is a genetic transmitter, another is a genetic receiver. Yes, that's very clinical language, but that's often what's used in genetics texts and other textbooks. So science is very clear on what makes a man and what makes a woman, but what do people want to say today? "Well, you are what you think you are. If you think you're a man, then you're a man. If you think you're a woman, you're a woman. If you think you're in the middle, then you're in the middle." And yet what does that say scientifically? It makes no sense scientifically to say I am what I think I am. That's a philosophical point of view. A pretty poor one also.

But, once again, it's not scientific. And so all of this goes back to the existential argument we looked at earlier. People do not live by the things they claim. Now, as Christians, yes, we make claims about what is right and what is wrong and we sin and we should acknowledge that is sin. We should agree with God about our sin and repent and turn from it. So I'm not simply saying that not living like something is indicative of a worldview problem. But I am saying if you live in two intentional ways that contradict, you have a more major problem there. So if you want to hold to the view that the Nazis were evil, that your spouse is beautiful, and that you are the gender you think you are or someone else is, you can't hold to scientism. You are entirely inconsistent, because scientism says that only science gives us truth. So you are not what you think you are. You are what can naturally be demonstrated that you are. The Nazis can't be said to be evil because you can't demonstrate that scientifically.

So we've looked at many lines here, but I hope this has been helpful. Science is an awesome tool. We should not be scared of investigation of the natural world. The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The sky displays his handiwork. We understand that even more fully and more deeply as we can see more details about it through our investigative process of science. But science is not God. It's not the only way to know truth and if you actually believe that, you can't even account for how you would know that.