Review of Scientism and Secularism

Has not science disproved god? shown that it is not necessary for Him to exist? If you have grown up in the Western world, you have probably heard claims like this. You may also have heard stronger ones, that truth is impossible to grasp, that philosophy is a useless endeavour, or—ultimately—that we can only know what we can empirically verify. That is, we can only have knowledge of those things that are testable through science or open to our immediate experience. Though you may never have heard it expressed in this way, this belief—known as scientism—is in the very air we breathe. Yet, for all its influence and the numbers of adherent stacked behind it, scientism in its various forms is profoundly unreasonable. At least that is the argument that J. P. Moreland sets out to make in his book Scientism and Secularism, which I was pleased to receive as part of the Crossway blog review program.

Not only is Scientism unreasonable but Moreland argues that it is destructive to science, the very thing for which it seeks primacy. Scientism and Secularism is a book for which J. P. Moreland is particularly fitted to write; not only is he a gifted and influential Christian philosopher, he also has a background in the physical sciences and has maintained interest in that field.

With Scientism and Secularism, Moreland has given the church a gift. He has provided us with a tool to better understand our peers, our education system, and the books we read; to interact with these intelligently; and, ultimately, to have confidence that there are answers to the scientistic objections to Christianity.

The Argument of Scientism and Secularism

The argument of Scientism and Secularism extends over 15 chapters, besides an introduction and conclusion. The first three chapters explain what Moreland means by “scientism” and considers its influence. He helpfully differentiates between a strong scientism, which claims that there is no knowledge outside of the hard sciences, and weak scientism, which claims that all other forms of knowing have less authority (27). Defined in these ways, he shows that our society is steeped in the presuppositions of scientism. Specifically, scientism has shaped our society by placing all Christian claims outside of society’s “plausibility structure,” the grid by which things are consider rational or plausible (31). That is, if only science gives us knowledge or if all other disciplines produce less authoritative or less trustworthy knowledge claims, then there are no rational reasons to believe the non-scientific claims of Christianity or at least no reasons to believe them when they contradict a scientific “truth.”

In the next 10 chapters, Moreland shows that both forms of Scientism are self-defeating—that they cannot sustain their own claims and destroy the very thing they attempt to uphold (ch. 4-6)—and that non-scientific forms of knowledge are equally valid and even have presuppositional priority over science (ch. 7-12). Regarding the latter point, he argues that science rests on various assumptions that can only be proven through philosophy—non-scientific reason. The last three chapters consider how Christianity and science should be integrated and how this should be done (ch. 13-15). Moreland’s repudiation of methodological naturalism (the idea that all questions of God or theological claims about God should be excluded from scientific discourse) in these last chapters is particularly important, for many Christians have subtly bought into this.

Moreland’s argument is highly competent, clear, and largely compelling. There is much in the book to strengthen the faith of a Christian. However, as an adherent of presuppositional epistemology (basically, we need to build our theory of knowledge and truth from the Bible), I observed several areas where his adherence to a more classical model of epistemology weakened his argument.

Trouble with the Positive Argument

The first 6 chapters of Scientism are particularly persuasive because in them Moreland undertakes an internal critique of scientism. That is, he demonstrates that scientism fails on its own claims, that it is self-refuting and too weak to uphold its claims—even in its weakest forms. However, when it comes to argue the positive case, defending other forms of knowledge and their priority over science, Moreland assumes the classical model of Christian epistemology. This model identifies a rational common ground between atheists and Christians. The problem here is this: by seeking common ground with the atheist, such an approach establishes humans as the epistemic authority in intellectual endeavours. That is, humans are established as the final reference point of knowledge.

This comprises the strength of the Christian position, leading to various problems in Christian philosophy, apologetics, education, etc., and gives the atheist false confidence in his own rational abilities. That is, such an approach implies that one can rationally believe many things without believing in God. The problem is that the Bible does not allow such a position. Instead, it claims that God’s existence is undeniable and identifiable in all aspects of creation (Rom 1:18-30). To reject God is to sin and commit oneself to foolishness, to be ultimately unreasonable. Because all creation testifies to God and can only properly be interpreted in light of God’s eternal plan for creation, to reject God is to commit oneself to a position that cannot make sense of the data in God’s creation, making it an unreasonable position. Furthermore, by allowing such common ground, Moreland and other Christians with a similar epistemology allow the atheist to continue in the delusion that life and the created order can be explained and understood rationally apart from the objective existence of God and subjective belief in Him.

Foundationalism

For example, consider his defense of a broad foundationalism.1 Essentially, a broad foundationalist position believes that at the bottom of human knowledge is a body of basic beliefs. These beliefs are not supported by other beliefs; they are either self-evident or grounded in immediate sensory perception (“my belief that the leaves are rustling… is justified by an experience, namely, I seem to hear the rustling leaves” 109). According to foundationalism, any person is justified in believing these basic beliefs. Every other belief (a non-basic belief) is justified ultimately by an appeal to these basic beliefs (e.g. all logically derived beliefs rest on the laws of logic) (109). The problem in this position is that it grounds all knowledge in an ultimately unreliable authority, the self. That is, basic beliefs are those beliefs that are immediate evident in one way or another to the subjective observer; they rest on no higher authority than the observing subject, a human being. This produces two significant problems, one theological and one philosophical.

The Theological Problem

Theologically, this raises the problem of ultimate authority. Once man is seated in the position of authority, when beliefs are justified with reference to those beliefs basic to humanity, it is near to impossible to unseat him. Think of it this way: if my belief in everything else depends on my reason and immediate experience, should not my belief in God and the trustworthiness of His Word be built on the same foundation? No longer is belief in God the self-evident starting point of human thought, as Romans 1:18-31 suggests, and no longer is the word of God self-attesting. Instead, the truth of God’s word needs to be established with reference to human authority, such as logic and historical sciences. This produces a problem, for the Word of God claims absolute authority over human reasoning. If the authority of the Word is established on the foundation of human authority—human basic beliefs—it is next to impossible to reverse the order of authority.

The Philosophical Problem

Philosophically, this system can also be shown to be flawed. In many ways, basic foundationalism builds reason and knowledge on an irrationalistic foundation. Think about this way. Foundationalism seeks to provide a firm footing by which we can justify all human knowledge. It finds this footing in reason and immediate experience. Yet it has bought into a circle: by seeking to ground rationality and knowledge in a foundation of basic beliefs, it presupposes that humans are indeed rational and that their immediate experience can be trusted. Presupposing that humans reasonable, that our sense experience can be trusted, and that humans are the authority or reference point for knowledge, foundationalism presents a doctrine of basic beliefs as the necessary condition for these things. In doing so, it offers no substantiation for its basic premises and, therefore, becomes untenable if a better explanation of reason and knowledge proffers itself.

If we begin with the individual as the reference point or authority for knowledge, we can never rationally get beyond the self. Without presupposing that our senses are reliable, we can never show that they are reliable. Without presupposing that our reason corresponds to an external reality, we cannot demonstrate that our subjective reason is true—that it counts as knowledge. Indeed, if we start with ourselves as the reference point, we cannot reasonably show that others exist. The foundationalist may counter that these things are evidently true—impossible to deny. This is true, yet the self-evident nature of these truths needs to be explained. Foundationalism is unable to do so.

Presuppositional epistemology, argued for by Van Til and his followers and for which my forthcoming book The Gift of Knowing argues, maintains that such a worldview is ultimately irrational. The only rational worldview is that which has God as revealed in the Bible as the ultimate authority and reference point for knowledge. Unless God objectively exists and has revealed Himself in creation and through the Bible, there is no reasonable foundation for human reason. Only this position presents a sufficient explanation for the human ability to interpret creation and for human reason. By accepting the postulate of human authority, a Christian foundationalism misses the most powerful apologetic Christianity can offer: without Yahweh and His Word, there is no possibility for reason.

Conclusion

However, this final caveat aside, Moreland’s book is of tremendous value for the contemporary Church. Though a reader without a background in philosophy or theology may find it difficult, those who take up and read Scientism and Secularism stand to gain a better understanding of Western culture and how its challenges to Christianity ultimately rest on a faulty foundation.


1 Broad foundationalism is opposed to the narrow foundationalism of Descartes, which is rightly rejected by contemporary philosophy.

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