If You Cannot Scientifically Prove Your Belief, Is It Meaningless?

By Paul Copan

What is science? How should Christians respond to scientism? Are God and science really opposed to each other?

Science or Scientism?

In 1956, C.P. Snow wrote of “two cultures” — the declining literary culture and the expanding scientific culture. Scientists are the “new men,” the “directing class of a new society.”1 Those clipboard-carrying, lab-coat-clad scientists are, to many, the new high priests of our culture — the ones who provide definitive answers where theology and philosophy cannot. In this vein, zoologist Richard Dawkins declares,“Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not.”2 Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin calls science “the only begetter of truth.”3 Science, then, is the only reasonable, safe road to travel. God and science, we are told, are opposed to each other. After all, didn’t the Catholic Church oppose Galileo?

This kind of criticism, however, is not science. Instead, it is a philosophical view of reality and a purported path to knowledge called scientism. Scientism comes in two versions: strong (science is the only path to knowledge) and weak (science is the best path to knowledge, even if some other disciplines like philosophy may help).

Cambridge physicist and best-selling author, Stephen Hawking, takes the strong view: science can help us answer “why we are here and where we came from. … And the goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in.”4 That is, you should only believe what is scientifically testable or part of an accepted scientific theory. If a belief is not “scientific,” then it is meaningless or even false.

Scientism, particularly its strong form, is a worldview or philosophy of life that affirms two things: the material world is all that there is, and science is the (only) means of verifying truth claims. All claims of knowledge have to be scientifically verifiable; otherwise, they are meaningless.

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We encounter scientism in the film adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who. The kangaroo opposing Horton insists that life cannot exist on a tiny speck of dust. The reason he gives turns out to be the mantra of strong scientism: “If you cannot see, hear, or feel something, it does not exist!” This is a view Christians commonly encounter: “Can you prove it scientifically?”

What isscience? How should Christians respond to scientism — especially its strong form? Are God and science really opposed to each other?

What Is Science?

What is science? This is a tricky term to define, but we can put forward this working definition: Science the attempted objective study of the natural world/natural phenomena whose theories and explanations do not normally depart from the natural realm.5 Good science will study the natural world as objectively as possible (though, for whatever the reason, scientists do not always achieve this).

Furthermore, theories of/explanations for various natural processes or phenomena do not normallydepart from the natural world. This is where some will disagree, but the word normally allows for explanations outside of nature. For example, if God created the universe from nothing (think, Big Bang), then all naturalistic attempts to explain the universe’s beginning are ultimately doomed. Why is it scientifically immodest to suggest that the evidence points to something independent of the universe? If God created and designed the universe, then we could expect theology and science to intersect at critical points…

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If You Cannot Scientifically Prove Your Belief, It Is Meaningless