Science isn't Scientism

Science isn't Scientism

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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.

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