Science Book Review: Scientism and Secularism

Scientism and Secularism cover

© Crossway

The acknowledgments of J. P. Moreland’s Scientism and Secularism include a nod to colleague Garry DeWeese, followed by a parenthetical comment about how Moreland has never understood the second ‘R’. It’s a throwaway line, possibly tossed in for some private levity to break up the intense, thoughtful process of writing. Yet it helped crystallize for me how I think differently than Moreland and thus why some parts of his book clicked for me while others did not. To me, the answer is obvious: because name spelling drifts over time as parents express personal taste, conflate multiple related names (it’s Larry and Barry so why not Garry?), or simply make mistakes. Granted, I don’t know the exact details of Ma & Pa DeWeese’s thought process, but understanding some general mechanisms is adequate for me. I’m similarly not certain what kind of explanation Moreland would prefer, but based on his writing I’d guess it would involve reasoning from commonsense principles rather than starting with the brute data.

Moreland, and by extension Scientism and Secularism are at their best when operating in that sort of top-down mode. At the risk of oversimplifying, extrapolating the logical conclusions of premises is a central activity of philosophy, and much of what the book does well falls into that category. Although I already agree with Moreland that there is more we can know about the world than what science provides, I thought he laid out a reasonable case for that conclusion, by showing how certain useful ideas do not flow from science while also pointing to more fruitful grounding for those ideas.

In a similar mode, in chapter 9 he provides a helpful discussion of epistemic chains–the steps in reasoning that allow us to justify how we know what we know–and foundationalism–a particular approach to assembling epistemic chains which starts from basic beliefs that themselves do not need to be justified by other beliefs. The implications of different approaches to building epistemic chains are clearly laid out. And in chapter 12 he provides a reasonable explanation for why we think the universe hasn’t existed forever based on the nature of infinity.

I even found the reasoning about Intelligent Design in chapter 13 fairly compelling, despite expecting to find some point of departure since Moreland and I think about evolutionary biology differently. What I encountered here though was a case that personal agency is a reasonable explanation for explaining biological diversity that should not be ruled out a priori. There were some good points here, and I don’t have any logical problem with that assertion. In practice, I have not yet seen a testable hypothesis about agency which has been successfully demonstrated scientifically, but that’s a separate question Moreland does not tackle in this chapter (although his thoughts on evolutionary biology are clear elsewhere).

But let’s go back to epistemic chains and foundationalism for a second. For Moreland, the basic (i.e. foundational) beliefs are based on sensory experience or are otherwise self-evident. As a result, he regularly appeals to common sense as a useful criteria for identifying suitable starting points for reasoning and also as a useful criteria for rejecting conclusions when they seem to violate common sense. This is very flattering as a reader; my intuition may be more reliable than scientistic assertions, even if they are made by very knowledgeable scientists.

Yet as a scientist, I know following the data can often lead to very counterintuitive conclusions that defy common sense. I see that as a valuable contribution of the scientific approach to reasoning; it helps us to find truths that don’t come naturally. This is at least partly a function of the way that science has enabled us to explore phenomena that we don’t experience regularly or at all, and so they don’t inform our intuition. Coupled with that is my awareness of the various cognitive biases we humans exhibit; together these factors make me more skeptical about the value of sensory experience and common sense. Moreland does acknowledge that we can be wrong about what we perceive, and so his foundationalism does not require that basic beliefs are always accurate and held with perfect certainty; still, he seems more confident in them than I am.

And so when Moreland is operating in a more bottom-up mode to go from concrete specifics to the premises for his reasoning, I sometimes find it harder to follow him. For starters, let’s take the book’s central thesis. I said I agree that scientism has problems as a personal philosophy, but the case for the pervasiveness of scientism, which is what justifies tackling the topic in the first place, was less convincing. Some of the quotes and anecdotes do demonstrate a high view of science. But is Oprah’s find-your-own-spiritual-path approach to religion (cited in chapter 2) really scientism or does it have more to do with post-modernism? Is a statement (quoted in chapter 1) about teaching science in science class–while acknowledging that religious and philosophical objections exist–an elevation of science or a recognition that different modes of teaching are appropriate for different subjects?

Such questions might be easier to set aside if the examples and illustrations were offered to supplement a more comprehensive demonstration of the role scientism plays in the present (nominally Western, but largely American by specifics) culture. Instead, what we get are a number of changes in that culture, such as shifting sexual mores and reorganizing of university humanities curricula, but no clear correlation to changes related to science. In fact, if we consult Shawn Otto’s The War on Science and its account of the last century, we’d see a correlation between the changes Moreland is concerned about and a decreasing confidence in science, which does not suggest scientism. I’m not prepared to say that Otto’s take is definitely more accurate, just that alternative narratives are available.

Elsewhere in Chapter 1, Moreland enumerates the “power centers” of the “Western world” (again primarily the United States) to remind us that they are drifting towards secularism and scientism (although these are not equivalent, Moreland spends little time unpacking secularism despite it getting equal billing in the title). Those power centers are “the universities; the media and entertainment industry; the Supreme Court.” That strikes me as a curious list. Why just the Supreme Court when the federal government has three branches? Why no mention of the Christian church? Surely all the coverage of (white) evangelical voters and their preferences indicates that the church remains a power center in some capacity.

Finally, if people are gravitating towards science for answers, I think we need to grapple more with why that might be if philosophy and theology are to become more relevant. If we’re being pragmatic (and yes, I recognize that pragmatism is itself a topic for philosophy and not without its flaws), science does offer a lot of practical answers. And in many scientific disciplines, we can quantify our uncertainty, which allows us to see when it gets smaller and so our confidence in certain scientific answers can increase. Philosophical and theological answers don’t have that same quantifiable certainty, and so it can at least seem as if philosophers and theologians argue in circles without ever coming closer to resolving certain key questions. Moreland does acknowledge this criticism, only to point out that the existence of contradictory views is not itself a reliable indicator of knowledge. He also says that scientists disagree more often than is appreciated. That’s probably true, but again those disagreements are often ultimately resolved by more data and more experiments. And many of the past scientific theories that have since been disproved were formed and held based on ideological commitments precisely because the available data were inconclusive; in other words, while they were disagreements between scientists they were not strictly scientific disagreements but philosophical (or sometimes theological) ones that were later resolved by more science. This does not mean all remaining and future philosophical questions will ultimately have scientific answers (a point Moreland also makes). But one can at least see the appeal of such a perspective.

Ultimately, though, Scientism and Secularism is not directly for such readers. It is clearly aimed at fellow Christians who agree with Moreland that science is taking influence away from the church and who need help articulating why theology and religion are still relevant. I can imagine many such readers will find the book appealing and will desire to incorporate it into their conversations with friends and colleagues who may appear to be attracted to scientism. I wouldn’t necessarily just hand the book to such a friend or colleague however; I’d suggest engaging with that person and discerning which points from the book they might be most receptive to and discussing those on amenable terms.

The publisher provided me a copy of the book to review.

Meanwhile, the conversation on Faith across the Multiverse continues on the Peaceful Science forum. This week we’re talking about chaos theory and God’s grace, one of my favorite topics from the book. I hope you can join us, and I hope to see you on the Facebook video chat this Saturday at 7:30pm EDT.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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