Scientism is not Science – Toward a Christian Admiration for True Science
In this essay I want to show forth a Christian admiration for science and distinguish it from the error of scientism. In so doing I pray your patience as I first lay a groundwork in the wisdom tradition of the scriptures and the Natural Law approach of the Church.
Context –In daily Masses we have begun reading from the Book of Sirach. Sirach is also called, in older Bibles, the Book of Ecclesiasticus (not the same as Ecclesiastes). St. Cyprian and the Latin Fathers termed it the Liber Ecclesiasticus(or Church Book) since it was widely read in the Church at liturgies and also extensively used in the early instruction of catechumens. In more recent years it has gone by the name Sirach. It is so named after its author, Jesus Ben Sira, who collected and edited the wise sayings in the Second Century BC.
God’s wisdom in creation– The Book is part of the “Wisdom Tradition” in the Scriptures. Other Books in this tradition include Proverbs, Wisdom and Ecclesiastes. The Wisdom Tradition contains an important insight. Namely, that creation enshrines within it the law and wisdom of God who created it. As such it is intelligible and revelatory. Let me allow and excerpt from the Sirach speak:
All wisdom comes from the LORD and with him it remains forever, and is before all time….He has poured her forth upon all his works, upon every living thing according to his bounty; he has lavished her upon his friends. ….When at the first God created his works and, as he made them, assigned their tasks, He ordered for all time what they were to do and their domains from generation to generation. (Sirach 1:1, 10, 16:24-25)
Creation is Revelation – Note therefore, that in making things, God has also poured forth his wisdom upon the work of his hands. He has ordered creation and set forth a law within it. The Wisdom Tradition insists that we are able to discern something of God’s existence, his law, his will and his purpose in what he has made. Creation is thus revelation, revealing to us the One who made it, and manifesting something of the will and purpose of the One who made it. It is for us to discern God’s wisdom which speaks to us from the created order.
In the New Testament, the Johannine tradition takes up the theme of the Wisdom Tradition and explains how everything God has made he made through his Word (Jesus) and that this Word is impressed on all creation:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (John 1:1-3)
Now the Greek term translated here as “Word” is Logos. As we have just seen the ancient Jews, particularly those who collected the Wisdom Tradition, understood that the created world has a Logike (a kind of Logic) based on the fact that God made it through his Logos(Word). John takes up this theme and teaches that when God spoke creation into existence through his Word (Logos) his Logos (Jesus) sets things forth with a Logike (logic) that is discernible and could be studied to make one wise in the ways (the logic) of God. Creation thus manifests Jesus, for he is the Word through whom the Father spoke everything into existence. In the Catholic Tradition we have come to call this scriptural teaching, Natural Law. In effect we can discern a logic, or rationality, to what God has made and come to know of God and his will for us.
To summarize: God speaks to us in what he has made, and we can discern that God has placed order and purpose in creation. There are laws and rationally demonstrable principles at work in all that is.
St Athanasius sets forth the Wisdom/Logos tradition as the early Church understood it:
An impress of Wisdom has been created in us and in all his works…..The likeness of Wisdom has been stamped upon creatures in order that the world may recognize in it the Word who was its maker and through the Word come to know the Father. This is Paul’s teaching: What can be known about God is clear to them, for God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature has been there for the mind to perceive in things that have been made….So there is a wisdom in created things, as the son of Sirach too bears witness: The Lord has poured it out upon all his works, to be with men as his gift, and with wisdom he has abundantly equipped those who love him….and in the light of this wisdom the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims the work of his hands. – (Discourse “Against the Arians” by St Athanasius).
This is an exuberant and confident appreciation of the created world and the Catholic Christian rejoices in coming to know more of the created world for, in so doing, he comes to know more of God.
Problems emerge – And yet this exuberant vision has suffered setbacks in the wider western culture as secularism, and scientism have dealt successive blows.
Secularism tends to see the created world as a closed system which cannot speak to anything outside itself. Secularism tends to exclude anything mystical in creation that points beyond or outside the closed system. It is more than simply an agnostic notion that we simply cannot know of things beyond, it is an antagonism to any reality beyond the here and now. And, in the more militant agnosticism and atheism common in current times, there is downright hostility to any requirements that the spiritual realm or anything outside the secular system might propose.
Scientism is an ideologically unbalanced form of science. It insists that if something cannot physically measured or observed it is not real; it does not exist at all. In its proper form, science is right to state its limits. It uses an empirical method, it limits itself to what is physically measurable and properly states that it is not equipped to pronounce on matters beyond its discipline. Again, this is wholly proper. But scientism strays into philosophy and theology by making claims it cannot measure or verify. Scientism says that if something is not physically manifest, it does not exist. That is a philosophical claim, not a scientific one. Those guilty of scientism also often make theological claims in insisting that there is no God. This claim cannot be proved, measured or verified using scientific methods. As such, scientism strays beyond the discipline of proper science. In so doing, scientism creates a toxic climate for a proper dialogue between faith and science.
True Science is a Joy – Both faith and science have their proper role and proper place and, when these are respected, a Catholic ought rightly rejoice in the findings of proper science. The result is, most often, an increase in wonder and awe. I never cease to be amazed at the intricacy and magnificence of creation. Science, as never before, shows things hidden since the foundation of the world and now revealed for our wonderment. Science has marvelously demonstrated to me the order and design running through all things. As a man of faith I see the logike (logic) and wisdom of God on display through science that thank God for this wonderful gift of modern science given to us. As such, I rejoice in science.
But scientism is an ugly and fraudulent claimant to the scientific mantle. Cloaking itself in scientific mantle it wanders where no true scientist would go. It makes claims that true scientists would not make. It asserts that nothing exists beyond the material and empirically observable, which is not a claim true science can verify or refute. Scientism distorts true science and adulterates it. It poisons the climate and makes dialogue more difficult. It manifests hostility to religion and faith, something which no true scientist needs to have.
A truly Catholic perspective is to rejoice in science. Our tradition enshrines the understanding that creation is revelation and the more we can know of this creation, the more we can know of God, the more we can know of his Logos, Jesus Christ our Lord. Thank God for true science, it is, for the believer another path to God.
But woe to scientism, which disregards as real or existent anything outside itself, or outside the physical and material. True science properly states its own limits. But scientism reduces everything to its own self and thus mistakes its limits for the bounds of reality.