Science isn't Scientism
Dr. Ian Hutchinson dispels misunderstandings between faith and science.
Science and Christianity are compatible, but scientism and Christianity are incompatible, because they are essentially two competing religious views. On Thursday, January 24, Dr. Ian Hutchinson, a world-renowned physicist from MIT came and gave a lecture on a crucial distinction we must make in the 21st century: the difference between science and scientism.
His lecture centered on this term (scientism): the belief that science is all the real knowledge there is. According to Hutchinson, the belief in scientism is reason-denying and life-sucking, and is the heart of misunderstanding between science and faith.
The belief in scientism is often more implicit than explicit. Hutchinson gave some of the history of this misunderstanding, and accordingly, he offered a short history of the word science and the word nature, both nebulous and vague terms. As the history of science unfolded, science’s key characteristics came to be most commonly or satisfactorily inherent in its methods: chiefly in the 1) reproducibility, and the 2) clarity of its methods. As these methods are employed in reproducible experiments, the measurements which are used necessitate the reduction of descriptions of nature to numbers.
Therefore, continued Hutchinson, many, many disciplines that involve numbers lack the clarity and reproducibility that is required by scientific methods (e.g., history, economics, politics). Moreover, it is a terrible mistake to think that the only thing there is to say about Beethoven’s 9th is what science can offer. Music has an inherent ambiguity which cannot be conveyed in its entirety by a scientific analysis.
And yet, the contemporary subscriber to scientism must say just this about the human experience of music. Indeed, scientism is forced to rule out personality and purpose altogether: a philosophical move it must take— which, by the way, is rather unscientific in nature.
Hutchinson also outlined the failures of scientistic thinkers, like Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, to derive humane conclusions about ethics—and lamented that similar attempts continue today in sociobiology and so-called evolutionary psychology.
As he concluded, Hutchinson emphatically affirmed that scientific and non-scientific descriptions can be simultaneously valid in that they both contribute to our knowledge of our world. And, for the many disciplines which are not scientific in nature, it is philosophically necessary that they use non-scientific descriptions for those events and objects which are, or should be, qualitative rather than quantitative, and trenchantly irreducible.
In the latter parts of his lecture, Hutchinson turned away from science: he claimed that the strongest “evidence” for Christianity is not scientific at all. Any sort of arguments that might be marshaled for the defense of Christ’s divinity will be mostly historical, circumstantial, documentary, logical, or testimonial—Hutchinson said rather candidly that he felt the “scientific evidence” for Christianity was not nearly as strong (or, at least not nearly as relevant) as the historical evidence.
Hutchinson’s concluding remarks were about the relational nature of Christianity, and the necessity of an openness to relationship in a dynamic which Christians call faith. Faith is not anti-scientific, but a-scientific. Science may continue to speak with expertise and authority in its own domain, and may even provide certain corrective insights for religion, but should not become its own religion à la scientism.