Science and belief
Tens of thousands of people marched for science on Saturday— which led me to ask what exactly is science and what does it mean to march in support of it?
Science is a process. Science isn’t something you believe in, it’s a process in which you engage. More than trial and error, science makes a prediction, called a hypothesis, and then tests that prediction against reality.
Anyone in the research field understands science fails far more often than it succeeds. But that is the process— and you try again. And even when the scientific process arrives at a conclusion, that finding is understood to only hold until reality disproves it. That’s why science is not and can never be completely settled. There may be agreement at this point, with what we now know and based on what we can measure, but science cannot bear the weight of ultimate truth questions because science is a process, not a truth claim.
Science allows for and even relies on the existence of mystery, unsolved problems, unresolved questions, unplumbed depths, unexplored vistas. To say that science is settled or that there is a scientific consensus on a subject that will, with certainty, never be disproven is as a non-scientific statement as could ever be made.
So, when science becomes a belief system instead of an ongoing process of inquiry into the unknown, it becomes something elses— scientism.
Scientism is a relatively recent worldview (the term only came into vogue in the mid-1990’s) asserting the universal competence of science to the exclusion of every other input which was regarded as unscientific. In this worldview, the sciences are the only valid way of seeking knowledge in any and every field. That means the scientists, to the exclusion of everyone else, are the experts on everything and, that whatever they say must be received as the unassailable truth, because, well, they are the scientists and they have said that it is so.
When science is set up as a belief system, it should not surprise us that it seems incompatible with faith, unsurprisingly excluding the possibility of God, the Bible, and anything that anyone believes based on revelation. But science was never meant to be a belief system, and as such it does not hold up under its own assumptions.
Cam McCallister is a speaker with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. He has these conversations on college campuses all the time. He shared with us one he recently had at UC-Berkley:
[I]n educated circles and sort of among our secular elites but they both assumed that the hard sciences are really our sole source of truth. Now on the one hand, I affirmed the fact that all three of us care about objective truth and believe it’s real and we believe it can be known, but what I pointed out was that the naturalistic assumption that they have, there’s an interesting feature to it. So, scientism believes that science alone can give us the answers to everything. Maybe we don’t have all the answers yet, but we’re getting there. One day we’re going to have them all. The problem is, the problem with saying science tells us everything is that statement itself is not scientifically verifiable. That is in fact a philosophical position.
What became abundantly clear as this dialogue continued was that both of these skeptics ruled out the very possibility of the existence of God ahead of time. So, in many ways the conversation was over before it had even begun because to their minds no evidence, no matter how compelling could ever count as valid evidence for God because only the sciences can grant us access to the truth. So, anything that’s not measurable by scientific techniques and strategies doesn’t count as truth.
What Cam points out is really important: “The problem with saying science tells us everything is that statement itself is not scientifically verifiable. That is, in fact, a philosophical position.”
As people of faith, with science in the appropriate place as a method of inquiry, we need not fear or be antagonistic toward it. We can be excited about it! Science serves the common good in a variety of ways. Jennifer Wiseman, an astrophysicist and Christian, encourages us that it is a wonderful gift. “Consider scientific discoveries… as something to be grateful for, something to take time to let it instill a sense of wonder and awe and praise.” We can appreciate scientific knowledge as one piece in the tapestry of the created world to the glory of our Creator.
Since it does not— really, it cannot— provide a comprehensive worldview, we bear a responsibility to decide what to do with scientific information and discoveries. Science alone doesn’t answer the “why” or the “should” questions. Why are we here and what is our purpose? Just because we can do something like change a baby’s DNA, should we? Those questions need answers, too. When we attempt to force science to try to answer every question, we actually do both science and ourselves a serious disservice.
For more on science, belief, and scientism, we recommend listening to our conversation with astrophysicist Dr. Jennifer Wiseman is Director of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
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