Scientism Isn't Science

These remarks stem from some interchanges I had with some believers about methodological naturalism.

Many a scientist will say they are simply looking for natural explanations of phenomena they come across. If that really were the case, there would be no difficulty at all. But that is not so. Scientism is on a quest. The goal is driven by a rigidly held belief that “Science” is a God-free edifice. Hence, “looking for natural explanations” is actually “permitting only naturalistic explanations.” Once we change the adjective to “naturalistic” we can see better what the project is that is being pursued. It is an anti-supernaturalistic universe that is so urgently desired by these people, and the device used to insure the supernatural realm keeps out of the way is the philosophical procedure called “methodological naturalism” (MN).

Every Christian is familiar with the problem of the strident dogmatism of many scientists and their disciples. They love to poke fun at faith and the Bible, seeing themselves as having outgrown such myths. They trust in Science. Science and the declarations of its knowledge elites is their god. In his book Monopolizing Knowledge, MIT Nuclear Physicist Ian Hutchinson has labeled Scientism, the belief that all knowledge comes from the natural sciences, as “a ghastly intellectual mistake.” Yet it is a persistent and habitual mistake which shows no signs of abating.

In a strange twist of fate MN was actually introduced by Christian natural theologians embarrassed by the “awkward” or even “evil” design of things in the world. These men did not wish to ascribe such things as disease and parasites to God. But, as the Enlightenment came into full swing, the Bible was attacked and Christianity doubted and science as naturalism went its own way with MN to guide it. Oftentimes today science is actually defined as MN, whether it needs to be defined that way or not. It does not. As Phillip E. Johnson notes,

MN in science is only superficially reconcilable with theism…When MN is understood profoundly, theism becomes intellectually untenable… A methodological naturalist defines science as the search for the best naturalistic theories. A theory would not be naturalistic if it left something (such as the existence of genetic information or consciousness) to be explained by a supernatural cause.1

Or as Stephen Meyer describes it,

[S]cientists should accept as a working assumption that all features of the natural world can be explained by material causes without recourse to purposive intelligence, mind, or conscious agency2

But true science need not be enclosed within a naturalistic paradigm; methodological or metaphysical. Indeed, to do so is to close off purpose (teleology) to science. That sounds good to the naturalist until it is realized that scientists routinely employ purpose in their theories, and expect to find it in the extended world (e.g. medical diagnosis, forensics, SETI, or archaeology). Ah, but teleological answers are fine if we can confine them to the physical world. They are not fine if they lead to God!

Scientism & Information

But as Johnson shows in the above quote, and as Stephen Meyer, Michael Behe, William Dembski, Werner Gitt and others have demonstrated, science so straight-jacketed is incompetent to explain informational systems. And yet it is the presence of complex information which is confronting MN everywhere.

To say such a thing is not to say that science done by Christians is superior to science done in the non-Christian mode. Non-Christians can and have made great scientific breakthroughs. But as Cornelius Van Til stated:

Non-Christian science has worked with the borrowed capital of Christian theism, and for that reason alone has been able to bring to light much truth.3

Whether we acknowledge the fact or not, we function as image-bearers discovering things which inform us in some way about the Creation. Claiming we can acquire knowledge about the world via methodological naturalism, which is a denial of the revelatory character of the world, leads naturally to the teaching that we should think independently of God (i.e. knowledge can be arrived at by NOT thinking God’s thoughts after Him). But since all that is within the world is pre-known and pre-interpreted by God this position is anti-biblical. Van Til said,

The knowledge of God is inherent in man. It is there by virtue of his creation in the image of God. God witnessed to them through every fact of the universe from the beginning of time… God made man a rational moral creature, he will always be that. As such, he is confronted with God, he is addressed by God. To not know God, man would have to destroy himself; he cannot do this. There is no non-being into which man can slip in order to escape God’s face and voice.4

As he said in another place, “Man is revelational to himself.” The upshot is that whatever we do, whether driving a golf buggy or potting a plant or calculating the density of a star, or conducting a lab experiment, we are using God’s gifts in God’s world, and we should use them in ways pleasing to God (cf. 1 Cor. 10:31).

Science certainly deals with the natural world. But the natural world is revelatory. MN denies this. Thus,

Holy Scripture teaches that God very definitely, consciously, and intentionally, reveals himself in nature and history in the heart and conscience of human beings. When people do not acknowledge and understand this revelation, this is due to the darkening of their mind, and therefore renders them inexcusable.5

This “inexcusability” does not cease when a person dons a lab coat or enters a university lecture hall. How could it?

Here is another quote from a Dutch theologian:

He is the Creator, to whom also the mountains belong, but in the light of his universal power as Creator, all things are revealed in their absolute creatureliness. Everything which is able to impress us deeply, partakes of this creatureliness. All variations of nature do not cancel the common denominator: creature.6

The “creatureliness” of the world, and our status as spokesmen for the world, will not allow us to employ any naturalistic outlook. Scientism is not on a search for truth. It is a highhanded and arrogant dismissal of God and His General Revelation in nature. It is “a ghastly mistake” because it is so obviously the invention of intellectual pride. Confessing themselves to be wise, they became fools (Rom. 1:22).


1 Reason in the Balance, 208.

2 Darwin’s Doubt, 19. (Meyer rejects this view.)

3 Cited in Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, 377.

4 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, (1955), 172.

5 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume I, 340.

6 G.C. Berkouwer, General Revelation, 123.

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There are 7 Comments

Mark_Smith's picture

Scientism is the belief that the scientific method, the process of science, is THE WAY to understand everything. That is clearly wrong.

Naturalism is trickier. As I have said before, there are 2 types of it. The first is metaphysical. That is the belief that all there is is nature. There is no "spiritual" realm if you will. There is nothing supernatural. On the other hand there is methodological naturalism. Paul has tried to attack that in his article above. The problem is MN is essential to basic science. EVERY SCIENTIST from Galileo to me uses it. When you go to the doctor's office because of a bacterial infection, you want an anti-biotic because the chemistry and biochemistry of that drug keeps bacteria from reproducing and kills what's there. That is a natural explanation. You would accept nothing less. Now of course, if the doctor were a believer, she might pray with you that you be healed. That is something else, but it isn't science.

Newton's Laws were derived by Newton because he accepted only natural explanations for how the basic operation of nature works. Newton accepted that God made those laws, and operated them, but they work as physical laws, not spiritual ones.

I suspect Paul is conflating two issues. One is the every day practice of science, which by definition is to look for natural explanations to the physical world. He thinks that means "godless" explanations, but it need not as I explained in Newton's case. Second, he thinks that because most scientists today are godless, that makes methodological naturalism godless. It does not. MN works on the rational foundation of theism. Do scientists in general realize that? No. But some do.

In a nut shell, there is no science without MN. Don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

Mark Smith, PhD in Physics.

Bert Perry's picture

....for science (derived from the Latin word for "knowledge") is "natural philosophy".  I would suggest that the presumption of methodological naturalism (which Newton uses in the Principia) gets confused for scientism in part because we've begun to use the word "science" to exclusively refer to natural philosophy.  At a certain point, I wonder whether the confusion is intentional.

Drawn a different point, the natural sciences use naturalism as a starting point and will, if honest, note that there is a limit to what we know.  Scientism, on the other hand, echoes Carl Sagan's conceit from "Cosmos"; that "cosmos" or natural world is all that is, or was, or ever will be--really obliterating the distinction between philosophy in general and natural philosophy.  You could call scientism a hostile takeover of philosophy, really.  

Again, that's why I wonder if the confusion over the word "science" is intentional.  It's just too convenient to the secularists.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Paul Henebury's picture

Mark writes, "I suspect Paul is conflating two issues. One is the every day practice of science, which by definition is to look for natural explanations to the physical world. He thinks that means "godless" explanations, but it need not as I explained in Newton's case. Second, he thinks that because most scientists today are godless, that makes methodological naturalism godless. It does not. MN works on the rational foundation of theism."

Without going into it in detail here (i will try to address the concerns in another piece), Mark is conflating "natural explanations" with methodological naturalism, and the two are not entirely the same.  This is because MN as usually understood and practiced implies that there are only natural explanations.  Most advocates of MN would not hold with Mark that it "works on the rational foundation of theism."  

Further, I do not think all who use MN adopt godless explanations.  Neither do I believe the logical fallacy of thinking MN is godless because godless people use it.

I cannot say more right now but hope this clarifies a few matters.  


Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Mark_Smith's picture

Per the name, METHODOLOGICAL naturalism means, for method's sake, you assume natural explanations for physical phenomena. That is the way every explanation of the philosophy of science that I have read explains it.

Metaphysical naturalism is the belief that the natural realm is all that exists, hence only natural explanations are allowed.

When most preachers say "naturalism" what they mean is "metaphysical naturalism".

If there is no acceptable form of naturalism, then there is no scientific process.

From the Christian perspective, methodological naturalism assumes God made an orderly universe with physical operations that govern the day to day processes. Science is the effort to discover those physical processes. By definition they are natural.

Obviously, when a humanist uses the term, they can mean something different.


Mark_Smith's picture

One more thing. Paul likes to quote Philip E Johnson, and Stephen Meyer. I understand why. I have learned many things from Meyer. But the reality is, if you try to work at any secular university or scientific institution as a scientist (I don't mean engineer, IT, etc... but a "real" scientist) AND EVEN MENTION Johnson's name or Meyer's name, without mocking it, your career is over. If you even suggest that Intelligent Design might be something that you are interested in, the same rule applies. You have to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves to work as a Christian scientist in real pure science careers.

So, I use MN since it is a word that secularists accept to convey what I mean. Using other terms that Paul might like better would never allow me to speak to the crowd I speak to.

Paul Henebury's picture

This last remark from Mark leaves me very sympathetic with his position, and I do not want to make his life more difficult.  But in THIS forum we can and should be free to demur from the scientific status quo for given reasons.  As I said, I shall have to write some more in a follow up to make my case a little surer, but i do understand Mark's point of view.  and I do acknowledge some difference (at least semantically) between methodological naturalism and philosophical or metaphysical naturalism: I just disagree with Mark that MN is necessary for science to proceed.


I might point out that Mark's reasoning with regard to the reactions of secularists to Meyer et al are ad hominem in character. 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

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