The Shortcomings of Scientism

By James M. Rochford

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP), scientism holds that empirical science is “the only source of our knowledge of the world (strong scientism) or, more moderately, the best source of rational belief about the way things are (weak scientism).” Many have never heard of the term “scientism” before, but have probably heard this view espoused without realizing it. For instance, Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin calls science “the only begetter of truth.”[1] Likewise, philosopher Paul Horwich writes, “It is now widely believed that the sciences exhaust what can be known, and the promise of metaphysics [the study of ultimate reality] is an intellectually dangerous illusion.”[2] Or as Bertrand Russell famously wrote, “What science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.”[3] Or consider atheistic philosopher Alex Rosenberg’s statements in his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (2011):

“Scientism”… is the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; that science’s description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when “complete,” what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today.[4]

If we’re going to be scientistic, then we have to attain our view of reality from what physics tells us about it. Actually, we’ll have to do more than that: we’ll have to embrace physics as the whole truth about reality.[5]

While science surely offers us knowledge, is it the only path to knowledge, or even the most reliable? Are we able to know truths that are non-physical or immaterial in nature? Scientism suffers from several serious flaws as a theory of knowledge (i.e. epistemology).

1. Scientism is self-defeating

Consider the statement: “No English sentence can be eight words long.” While we could interview an English professor to disprove this statement, or survey English books to argue against it, we don’t need to. We know very clearly that this statement is false, because the sentence itself is eight words long. Therefore, the statement commits suicide, killing itself in self-contradiction. If the statement is true, then it proves itself false. If the statement is not true, then why adhere to it?

In the same way, scientism is self-defeating. Consider the emblematic statement of scientism: “I will only believe in what I can see, smell, taste, touch, or hear.” Can you see, smell, taste, touch, or hear this concept? Is this proposition a tangible thing that can be touched and measured and analyzed? No, of course not. We can see the words on the page; we can hear them spoken; but we cannot scientifically measure the proposition itself. If an 80 year old woman spoke this sentence, it would sound different, but the meaning of the proposition would be identical. Likewise, if the font or size of the words was different, it would still have the same meaning. Even if the proposition was translated into German or French, the words would change, but the proposition wouldn’t.

Consider when someone says, “Your words really touched me the other night.” When they say this, they do not mean that the words left fingerprints on the person’s body, or the words could be tried for molestation. Rather, they mean that a concept was communicated. When they say that they were touched by the words, they do not mean physically (through the five senses); they mean conceptually (through thoughts and concepts).

Ponder another statement of scientism: “Philosophical questions are meaningless or false and only scientific claims are true and rational.” Look closely. This is not a statement of science. It is a philosophical statement about science. I can’t use instruments and measurements and data to prove that I should use instruments and measurements and data. Put another way, I can’t use the scientific method to prove that we should believe in the scientific method. As philosopher Paul Copan writes, “How can we use science to prove that only science gives us knowledge? Was this conclusion discovered through scientific observation?”[6]

2. Scientism suffers from the problem of determinism

If our minds originated from the determination of physical laws and molecules in motion, then why should we trust them? On the naturalistic view, there is nothing outside of the naturalistic process. This would mean that human beings are just tiny, determined, biochemical machines within a larger, determined, mechanical process. This would mean that our minds, and even our own thoughts, would be illusions. But if this is true, then how then could we know if our own thoughts are trustworthy reflections of reality?

Consider Suzanne Collins’ book Mockingjay, where evil scientists in the Capitol brainwash the lead character Peeta Mellark. In the book (now a film), Peeta truly believes that he hates his closest friend: Katniss Everdeen. Of course, if Peeta’s brainwashing could go this deep, then it would be hard to know truth from falsity. The Capitol could’ve convinced him that 2 + 2 = 5, George Washington was the first czar of Russia, or that the band Nickelback makes good music. Given the presence of brainwashing, you’d never know how much you could trust the assertions of your own mind.

Scientism suffers from the same problem: If our thoughts are not within our control, then even our thoughts about determinism would be outside of our control. Like a brain in the hands of a mad scientist, we might feel that our intuitions are correct, but we could never know this, given the fact that such a strong defeater for knowledge exists. Likewise, while we might believe or assert determinism is true (i.e. our psychological state), if we are really determined, we would have no basis for knowing determinism is true (i.e. a well-reasoned assertion). For more on this topic, see our earlier article “The Mind and the Brain: Is Freewill an Illusion?”

3. Scientism’s account of the mind’s origin and makeup defeats its own assertions to know truth—including scientism

According to scientism, our brains came to exist through the means of neo-Darwinian evolution. Thus our brains were created and passed down to us—not necessarily because they could perceive truth—but because they allowed our ancestors to perform the right behaviors, passing on their genetic information to the next generation.

My biology professor once told us the joke that the four F’s of evolution are feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing. (If you don’t get the joke, ask a thirteen year old boy, and I’m sure he’ll be able to help you understand the punchline) Is it possible (or even probable) that our species could have succeeded in these four F’s due to having false beliefs? In his defense of this argument (called “An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism”), philosopher Alvin Plantinga offers several thought experiments where our species could have advanced in the four F’s without actually having true beliefs. Behavior is much more important than beliefs in a Darwinian view. It’s infinitely better to have the right behavior and flee the predator to pass on your genes, than it is to have the right beliefs and get eaten. Again, beliefs and behavior might intersect coincidentally, but at the end of the day, it’s more important to have the right behavior and live, than have the right beliefs and die. On Darwinism, true behavior always trump true beliefs.

While we might theorize several cases where false beliefs actually helped survival and fitness, we don’t need to. Naturalists offer several examples that naturalists claim are illusions that were beneficial to survival: God, the afterlife, objective morality, and freewill. Naturalists say that these beliefs are all false, but were favorable for social communities and the survival of cooperative primates like humans. So in each case, we believed certain things—not because they were true—but because they favored survival and fitness.

Christian thinkers are not the only ones to observe the fact that naturalism is a defeater to truth. Atheist cognitive scientist Steven Pinker writes, “Our brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth. Sometimes the truth is adaptive, but sometimes it is not.”[7] Likewise, atheistic philosopher John Gray writes, “If the human mind has evolved in obedience to the imperatives of survival, what reason is there for thinking that it can acquire knowledge of reality, when all that is required in order to reproduce the species is that its errors and illusions are not fatal? A purely naturalistic philosophy cannot account for the knowledge that we believe we possess.”[8] Moreover, naturalist Francis Crick explained, “Our highly developed brains, after all, were not evolved under the pressure of discovering scientific truths, but only to enable us to be clever enough to survive and leave descendents.”[9] Even Charles Darwin saw the difficulty of a naturalistic account of the mind:

With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?[10]

If the scalpel of scientism can be used to cut away the reliability of our belief-forming processes in some areas, then what will stop it from cutting away reliability in all areas? If Darwinian selection is the process by which we gained reason and awareness (which did not favor reason—only behavior), then we should ask how scientism can still survive in the process.

4. Scientism eliminates many key areas of reality

The scientific method offers knowledge within its limited field, but it does not offer unlimited knowledge. Philosopher Edward Feser relates this to the reliability of metal detectors in restricting our field of knowledge:

(1) Metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins and other metallic objects in more places than any other method has.

(2) Therefore what metal detectors reveal to us (coins and other metallic objects) is all that is real.

Scientism eliminates many properly basic beliefs about the world: Love, justice, meaning, purpose, moral values, numbers, sets, laws of logic, and historical study. Think about it! Actually, don’t think about it, because you can’t even believe in your own thoughts if scientism is true!—because thoughts cannot be seen, smelled, tasted, touched, or heard. Atheist philosopher J.L. Mackie agrees, when he writes,

This theory of meaning is itself highly implausible. It is well known that the adoption of it would similarly create serious difficulties for the meaning of many ordinary statements, including all those about past, historical, events, or about the minds, thoughts, and feelings of persons other than oneself.[11]

Reflect on several areas of reality that are precluded by scientism (arranged under the MEALS acronym):

Metaphysical Truths: Metaphysical truths cannot be proved through the use of science, but they are still rational beliefs to hold (e.g. there are other minds like my own; the universe was not created 5 minutes ago with an appearance of age; the external world is real).

Ethical and Moral Truths: These are truths that are concerned with our values. There is no way to prove that something is Right or Wrong through the use of science. Morality is not found in a test tube. Science presupposes that researchers should be honest with their results, but honesty lies outside the domain of scientific discovery—not within it.

Yet our knowledge of moral truths can, in some cases, be even more certain than scientific truths. For instance, a few years ago, scientists began to question whether Pluto should be classified as a planet. When I heard the news, I immediately said, “Wow! I always thought Pluto was a planet… Now, what’s for breakfast…” The certainty of my knowledge of Pluto was not that strong either way. Now, on the other hand, if someone announced, “Torturing babies for fun is a morally good thing to do,” I wouldn’t have had the same reaction! This is because I’m more certain of this truth, than I am of most scientific truths. And I’m guessing that I’m not the only one. This is because moral truths and realities can be perceived, and we would even be able to grasp these with more confidence than other truths about the world.

Aesthetic Truths: We cannot claim that beauty exists through the scientific method, and yet all rational persons are justified in claiming that something is beautiful (as every teenage boy will tell you as they go through puberty).

Logical and Mathematical Truths: Science presupposes logical and mathematical truths. If someone tried to prove these through the scientific method, they would be arguing in a circle, because the scientific method assumes these truths.

Scientific Truths: Remarkably, it is self-defeating to use science to prove science. The scientific method is a philosophical and rational principle used to produce science, but it is not a product of science. We cannot directly observe many effects and events in the past, but rather, we infer these (e.g. the Big Bang). We also cannot directly observe many aspects of the natural order, but we infer causes which are unobservable (e.g. quarks, neutrinos, etc.). You can’t know the assumptions of science through the methods of science. The scientific method presupposes a number of truths:

(1) Cause and effect relationships exist throughout the universe. We assume that cause-and-effect relationships exist based on repeatability and experience.

(2) We can use the laws of logic to analyze outcomes of our experiments. We cannot compare and assess claims without first assuming logical laws. For instance, the Law of Identity helps us to match the hypothesis with the outcome of our experimentation.

(3) Mathematical truths exist to perform science.

(4) We can trust our minds and reasoning abilities.

Without these assumptions, science cannot exist. Thus in a great act of irony, scientism cannot serve as its own foundation for science.


Scientism suffers from several key flaws as a theory of knowledge (i.e. epistemology). By contrast, we have one, indisputable key to knowledge: our thoughts are within our own control. As scholar Nancy Pearcey writes, “The goal of philosophy is to explain the facts of experience, not to deny them. Anything less is ducking the issue. The problem with reductionism is that instead of explaining things, it tries to explain them away.”[12]

Further Reading

Copan, Paul. How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. 2005. See chapters 4 through 8.

Lewis, C. S. Miracles: A Preliminary Study. New York: Macmillan, 1947.

Moreland, James Porter, and William Lane. Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003. See Part III “Metaphysics” and Part IV “Philosophy of Science.”

Pearcey, Nancy. Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015.

[1] Lewontin, Richard. “Billions and Billions of Demons.” The New York Review of Books. January 9, 1997.

[2] Paul Horwich, “Review of J. R. Lucas, The Future,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 44 (1993): 579. Cited in Copan, Paul. How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. 2005. 60.

[3] Bertrand Russell, Science and Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1935), 235. Cited in Pearcey, Nancy. Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015. 237.

[4] Rosenberg, Alexander. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. 6-7.

[5] Rosenberg, Alexander. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. 20.

[6] Copan, Paul. How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. 2005. 71.

[7] Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 305. Cited in Pearcey, Nancy. Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015. 193.

[8] Gray, John. “The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins.” New Republic. October 2, 2014.

[9] Crick, Francis. The Astonishing Hypothesis: the Scientific Search for the Soul. New York: Scribner, 1994. 262.

[10] Charles Darwin to W. Graham, July 3, 1881, in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin (1897; repr., Boston: Elibron, 2005), 1:285.

[11] Mackie, J. L. The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God. Oxford [Oxfordshire: Clarendon, 1982. 2.

[12] Pearcey, Nancy. Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015. 110.