Science vs. scientism: a necessary distinction
We all have those TV shows that define our childhood – shows that captured our little minds and imaginations. For me, it was Sesame Street (don’t laugh; some of you watched Barney), Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and Dukes of Hazzard. While I have no interest in these shows now, I look upon them with a sense of nostalgia because they represent, in part, may days as a young tike whose greatest concerns were snack time and Hot Wheels.
A show that many of our Boyce students (and Southern students?) have probably grown up watching at home or in school is Bill Nye the Science Guy. Bill Nye has opened the eyes of an untold number of children to the fascinating world of science. Nye’s passion for science, coupled with the cool experiments and fun tidbits, made science exciting and alive. There’s no telling how many children have gone on into scientific fields because of Bill Nye’s dynamic teaching.
Entering the abortion debate
Bill Nye has, in the past several years, moved beyond children’s science education into the culture wars over evolution and creationism, abortion rights, and reproductive rights. A video that has stirred up some controversy – at least among conservatives – is Nye’s video at http://www.bigthink.com/ titled “Bill Nye: Can We Stop Telling Women What to Do With Their Bodies?”
In this video, Nye argues against attempts to stop abortion by appealing to the question of when a fetus becomes a person. If the fetus is a person the moment an egg is fertilized (as some pro-lifers claim), then why aren’t pro-lifer’s looking to “sue” or “imprison” women who had a fertilized egg pass or miscarry naturally? Nye seeks to show the absurdity of the pro-lifers’ argument–no one would rationally say a woman was wrong for naturally passing a fertilized egg. How, then, can they say that a woman is wrong for choosing to have an abortion of an unwanted baby? In short, there is no difference between a miscarriage (a “natural abortion”) and the choice to abort an unwanted baby. For Nye, if one would just accept the fact that science has taught us this, then we would have no need for the abortion debate.
A false assumption
Nye’s pro-abortion argument is nothing new; nothing he says sheds new light on the issue. Rather, the point is that the vehicle for his argument is an assumption that has gained quite a bit of traction in our culture, the assumption that science gives us the answers we need to life’s questions.
According to Nye, Christians believe in a book written by men over “5000 years ago.” While this “book” may have met the needs of like-minded individuals at the time, we now live in a day when science has given us the true nature of reality and of the world. No longer do we need to appeal to deities that do not exist; rather, science (and reason) has given us access to unadulterated truth. Science, then, is not a means to truth, it is the bearer of truth.
Scientism vs. science
Nye’s appeal to science as the bar of truth is what is known as scientism. According to John Cowburn in Scientism: A Word We Need (Wipf & Stock, 2013), scientism is a worldview where “only scientific knowledge is valid . . . that science can explain and do everything and that nothing else can explain or do anything: it is the belief that science and reason, or scientific and rational, are co-extensive terms.”
Richard Carrier defends scientism (which he calls metaphysical naturalism) in Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (Authorhouse, 2005) and defines it as “an explanation of everything without recourse to anything supernatural, a view that takes reason and science seriously, and expects nothing from you that you cannot judge for yourself.” One’s faith is not in an imagined deity. Instead, one’s faith is grounded and justified “by appeal to the observable evidence.” In short, scientism is a full-fledged worldview that guides one’s actions and informs their beliefs. Thus, Nye’s appeal to science in the abortion issue confuses the discipline of science with the worldview of scientism.
Nye’s video illustrates a point we as Christians ought to consider when engaging the culture: the distinction between science and scientism. Science as a field of study is something that the Christian can (and should) get behind. In fact, Christians throughout history have made some of the most significant scientific discoveries. Science has led to fascinating discoveries and remarkable advances in technology that has increased life-expectancy, improved healthcare, streamlined communication, and enhanced predictions on weather phenomena (among many other benefits). Christians, in particular, and all of humanity in general have much to be thankful for because of advances made possible by the discipline of science.
Christian scientist not an oxymoron
What Christians should be skeptical of is scientism, for it takes science beyond what it is able to do. Science describes what is observed, but it does not distinguish between right or wrong, nor does it determine what is true or false. Science does not equal truth. Instead, science is a tool (like mathematics and logic) that aids in determining truth.
We can agree with Nye that science explains what happens when a woman passes a fertilized egg or when a doctor aborts a baby in the mother’s womb. Contra the Science Guy, however, science cannot tell us whether these two scenarios are morally different. In one scenario a woman has no control over what happens; her body (for some reason) rejects the egg. In the other scenario, a woman who aborts an unwanted baby does so by choice (either her own or another’s). In both of these scenarios, the issue of the will and motive is at play, to which science is blind. Science is limited in what it can do and is unable to go beyond the observable. Scientism, then, essentially forces a square peg into a round hole.
God has created us such that we can understand the world in which we live. The act of scientific discovery points to the beauty and majesty of our Creator. As Christians, then, let us be involved with the sciences. A Christian scientist is not an oxymoron; science can be, and should be, a boon to the Christian faith.
J. Daniel McDonald, Ph.D., serves as adjunct professor of Christian Worldview and Apologetics at Boyce College.