Philosopher J.P. Moreland remembers the time he was invited to speak at a gathering on the validity of faith.
A friend gave him fair warning. One of the guests, a man who was finishing up his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins, was an outspoken skeptic of all things religious.
They ultimately crossed paths at the dessert table. The man could hardly wait to descend upon Moreland.
“I understand you are a philosopher and a theologian,” he began. “I used to be interested in those things when I was a teenager. But I have outgrown those interests. I know now that the only sort of knowledge of reality is that which can be and has been quantified and tested in the laboratory. If you can measure it and test it scientifically, you can know it. If not, the topic is nothing but private opinion and idle speculation.”
Moreland’s conversation partner wasn’t just a fan of science. He was an enthusiastic proponent of scientism.
There’s a world of difference.
Science is the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. It is unquestionably one of humanity’s greatest blessings. If during the next 24 hours you’ll be driving a car, wearing breathable fabrics, eating two-inch long strawberries, or enjoying the effects of an air conditioner, you can thank the scientists and their technological partners who have made such everyday miracles possible.
Scientism, on the other hand, is a perspective. It’s a commitment to the idea that science alone delivers knowledge. The “hard sciences” of chemistry, physics, biology, cosmology, and the like yield real information about the real world. Philosophy, psychology, ethics and religion, on the other hand – the “soft sciences,” if we should stoop to calling them sciences at all – deliver little more than feelings and opinions.
Devotees of scientism are astounded that so many people believe their religious feelings about the world are “true.” To them, it’s absurd to talk about moral absolutes (science reveals nothing of the kind), let alone the phenomenon of “knowing God.”
Anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes in today’s halls of academia is well aware of this perspective – and the fact that it has won the day.
But scientism has a problem. A stunningly significant problem.
Let’s let J.P. Moreland put it into words. After listening for a while to his new friend at the dessert table, he finally broke in. “Sir, you have made 30 to 40 assertions in the last few minutes, and as far as I can tell, not one of them can be quantified, measured, and scientifically tested in the laboratory. But this places me in an awkward position. By your own standards, all you have been doing in our conversation is spouting your private opinions and idle speculation. Given this, I am wondering why I or anyone else ought to give you the time or day or think a single thing you said is knowably true.”
It’s a wonder J.P. gets invited to anyone’s barbecue.
Moreland reports that the scientist was taken aback. Apparently no one had ever pointed out to him that his scientific basis for knowledge was self-refuting. The very idea of scientism is not scientific. It’s a philosophy that cannot itself be evaluated through observation and experiment.
Make no mistake: Followers of Jesus should be stark raving fans of scientific research. No one would willingly want to turn back the clock 200 years on surgical procedures, modes of transportation, or food safety. Less than 5% of current scientific perspectives conflict with faith. No one quarrels, for instance, with the fact that there are four hydrogen atoms in every molecule of methane.
But when scientism masquerades as real science – when scientists assert that lab-tested truths are the only reliable forms of knowledge – we must respectfully disagree. And then provide a gentle but firm reminder that scientism flunks its own standard of validation.
Ironically, all the things that most human beings would put at the top of their lists of what matters most in life – love, joy, peace, relationships, forgiveness, purpose, and the hope of reunions beyond the grave – are not subject to laboratory evaluation.
Without such things, life would be unlivable.
Which is no doubt why Jesus said, at a critical moment during his ministry, “I didn’t make this up. What I teach comes from the One who sent me. Anyone who wants to do his will can test this teaching and know whether it’s from God or whether I’m making it up” (John 7:16, 17).
In other words, you can do an experiment. It won’t be in a laboratory, but in your business transactions, your conversations, your decision-making, and your private thoughts and prayers when you’re lying awake at 3:00 am trying to make sense of the world.
Jesus invites us to find out for ourselves if there is an invisible world.
And it’s a sure bet that what you’ll discover will be more satisfying than anything else you might find on the dessert table.