Reveling in Science, Rejecting Scientism
by Steve Mittwede, CCS Science Department Chair
The two members of the Covenant Classical School Science Department recently participated in the 122ndAnnual Meeting of the Texas Academy of Science (TAS). Our time there gave us lots of food for thought as we continually evaluate our pedagogy and “preferred future,” the latter being our projected educational outcomes for CCS science students.
The young researcher who spoke immediately before I did presented what she called a historiography of evolution education. She is working on a PhD in STEM education at UT-Austin. In the course of her presentation, she suggested that opponents of evolution education have essentially fabricated two problems in contemporary science: scientism and philosophical naturalism.
In short, scientism is understood to be “the belief that science, in the modern sense of that term, and the scientific method as described by modern scientists, afford the only reliable natural means of acquiring such knowledge as may be available about whatever is real” (Wellmuth , 1944, pp. 1-2). Philosophical naturalism, on the other hand, is a presupposition that holds that there are no non-natural processes or events. If scientism and philosophical naturalism exist, they should be repudiated roundly by science educators in classical and Christian schools. Why? Because science is not the only epistemic realm(realm through which true knowledge can be gained), and because the normal application of the legal-historical method suggests that supernatural events (miracles) have indeed occurred.
As an academic researcher with more almost four decades of geological research experience, I can assure you that scientism and philosophical naturalism exist—that both have multitudes of devotees at universities everywhere. This is not to say that those committed to scientism and philosophical naturalism are always utterly consistent in their beliefs and practices; all of us have varying degrees of inconsistency or incoherency in our belief systems and lives, so we should tread lightly in our criticisms. Nevertheless, to suggest that these two positions are merely anti-evolutionary fabrications, as the young PhD student recently did, is folly.
So what are the other epistemic realms? I teach all of my science students that there are three realms of knowing: the scientific, the documentary, and the metaphysical(Figure 1). The scientific, based on observation of and experimentation on various aspects of the natural world, can only answer scientific questions. The documentary uses documents of various kinds (letters, journals, government records, archeological findings, etc.) to answer historical questions. The metaphysical, based upon what we know by faith in God’s self-revelation, answers ultimate questions, such as questions of morality, values, meaning, and ultimate being (ontology). These realms give us a framework for categorizing what we know and how we know it (epistemology).
A critical aspect of this framework is that the three realms are mutually intersecting. For example, geology is demonstrably scientific, but much of what is studied in geology is historical in nature; specifically, geologists study “documents”— minerals, rocks, and fossils that yield information about past processes and events. Theology, values, and ethics are products of human investigation of the historical documents that make up the Bible—the written word of God. Finally, if we accept that miracles (supernatural events) have happened, eyewitness testimonies thereof are documentary in their essence. Moreover, insofar as miracles are instances in which natural laws or processes—the province of science—have been suspended, we know that the scientific and metaphysical realms must intersect. All gathering of knowledge, properly done in whatever realm, should occur in an atmosphere that seeks, values, and applies order, reason, and creativity (Figure 1).
At CCS, we heartily affirm and teach the unity of knowledge, that “All truth is God’s truth.” Wherever we find truth, it is from God and consistent with His character, will, and plan. A corollary of this is that no true knowledge can conflict or compete with any other true knowledge. Of course, our interpretationsof the data from science, history, or theology might be errant or incomplete, and they often are. Whatever the subject at hand, we as teachers strive to mold our students into dogged, faithful truth pursuers.
As a science teacher, I am passionate about my fields, and read almost daily some of the results of new research. But science alone cannot explain the totality of reality. Scientism, as astutely noted by Schoeck (1960, p. ix) “conventionally describes a type of scholarly trespassing, of pseudo exactitude, of embracing incongruous models of scientific method and conceptualization.” In the same book, Werkmeister (p. 1) describes scientism as “a boundary transgression or misuse of otherwise legitimate procedures and attitudes of science.” The documentary and metaphysical realms provide us with types of knowledge that comport well with their ownmaterials and methods. There is reality outside of science.
Scientism and philosophical naturalism are warped realities that must be vigorously resisted even as we embrace science and revel in the bounty it yields us. Whatever we discover through observation and experimentation, whether in the field or in the lab, should lead us to worship the One who is the source of all truth.
Our engagement with the world awakens a deeper sense of longing, which goes beyond simply making sense of things. We want to be a part of something deeper, to be able to be a part of a bigger picture. (McGrath, 2011, p. 114)
McGrath, Alister E. 2011. Surprised by Meaning: Science, Faith, and How We Make Sense of Things.Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
Schoeck, Helmut. “Introduction.” In Scientism and Values, edited by Helmut Schoeck and James W. Wiggins,ix-xvi. Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand Company.
Wellmuth, John. 1944. The Nature and Origins of Scientism(The Aquinas Lecture, 1944). Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press.
Werkmeister, W. H. 1960. “Social Science and the Problem of Value.” In Scientism and Values, edited by Helmut Schoeck and James W. Wiggins, 1-21. Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand Company.