Editor’s note: A version of this interview originally appeared in the Cal Poly Aletheia, part of the Augustine Collective, a network of student-driven thought journals.
Scientism—the belief that science is the only proper source of knowledge—challenges not only our religious beliefs but also our beliefs about love, beauty, and meaning. Some of its adherents, including evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett, even question the reality of human consciousness.
MIT professor, Dr. Ian Hutchinson, however, believes scientism is an ill-advised caricature of the scientific project. For him, other sources of knowledge make science itself more beautiful. Science, he holds, is at its best when we recognize its limitations.
In February 2016, at the annual Veritas Forum at Cal Poly, Dr. Hutchinson spoke with Anelise Powers, a Cal Poly student at the time, to discuss scientism, faith, and why science isn’t the only path to truth.
What is knowledge outside of science?
It usually does not possess the degree of clarity we expect from the natural sciences. It might be something like music. Music can be described and reproduced in a sort of scientific form, or the action of instruments can be described scientifically. So we can have a scientific description of what two instruments lashing together is—the electrons in the surface of the metal interact with one another and transfer an impulse to the ion lattice, and it propagates out and couples to the air and produces compressional waves that travel through the air to the audience and that then excites their ears and so forth.
That’s a scientific description.
But if you’ve given that kind of description you haven’t been able to describe the music because music is about the symphony orchestra and the kinds of ideas, sounds, and expressions, that the composer and the orchestra is trying to get across. Music only becomes music, in many ways, in the ear of the listener because there is an interaction with that person’s human experience. Music is something we cannot readily analyze in a meaningful way by simply making measurements and producing a mathematical description. This is an example of the way in which not all the things we know are susceptible to the approach the natural sciences have.
Do you view scientism as strictly a radical position of few scientists or as having a more far-reaching effect?
It’s both. There are scientists who advocate scientism and there are other scientists who don’t and don’t believe in scientism. But, there are also some very outspoken scientists. Science popularizes those who adopt the position that, basically, science is by far and away the best, and probably, the only real knowledge there is. It actually isn’t the case that most people declare scientism explicitly. There really aren’t too many people that say, “I believe in scientism.” Instead, it’s usually implicit and so, particularly in some of the critics of religion, there is an implicit kind of scientism. If you read, for example, Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, on half a dozen different occasions in the book he basically assumes, and speaks as if, science is all the real knowledge there is. But he doesn’t say that’s what he believes, he just takes it as an unspoken presumption.
Why is scientism worth talking about?
What I’m interested in is the relationship between Christianity and science. I think scientism is one of the most confounding factors in making sense of the relationship between Christianity and science. Historically, Christianity was a fertile philosophical and theological environment in which science got going. The early natural scientists of the 17th century were almost all Christians. Even throughout the following centuries Christians were extremely active and some of them were the greatest scientists of history. So on the one hand, historically Christianity and science were once closely allied with each other. But in the past century or so there’s been a strong impression of the opposite; there’s been a myth that science and Christianity have always been at war and are inevitably at war. The role scientism plays in this, to make the long story short, is that Christianity and science are not inevitably at war, but in fact, they are or can be very closely supportive of one another. Christianity and scientism are inevitably at loggerheads with one another.
Scientism as it has been practiced over the last couple centuries has many of the traits and characteristics of a religion. In fact, Auguste Comte’s movement that he founded, the Positivists, did in fact become a literal religion. They had services of commemoration, they had various sacraments, and it was secular but to the world they seemed all the things a religion has and they serve the same purpose. So there is a good reason why Christianity and scientism are at loggerheads because essentially Scientism is, or in large measure is, a rival religion. The other thing to say is that, yes, scientism has an argument with Christianity and religion in general, but it also has a big argument with all the other non-science disciplines. If scientism is true, than that runs down and denigrates all kinds of other academic knowledge and disciplines like history, or literature, or philosophy, or ethics, or a whole list of things that you could think of in the humanities that are not scientific disciplines.
Did you used to have the impression that science and faith were at odds?
I grew-up in a non-Christian family and wasn’t a believer until I went to college but, I wasn’t ignorant of Christianity and its claims. The school I was in, from time to time, had services that students were obliged to attend. I know that doesn’t happen much these days but it did in those days. I actually don’t think I had the strong belief that the reason Christianity was implausible was because of science. I think it was more that I thought Christianity was debunked; it didn’t seem to have a very lively message, or to me as a high school student, anything that was particularly attractive. I don’t think I thought that science was necessarily all the knowledge there is and actually, I had what these days would be considered the dubious benefits of a classical education. I studied Greek and Latin in school and so forth, so I don’t think I was scientistic in that way. But I certainly, at college, came to a completely new understanding of Christianity, in part because of the influence of some friends, and in part because of hearing lectures by Michael Green.
When you became a Christian, in college, was there a need to reconcile your academic knowledge with Christianity?
One of the things I benefited from when I became a Christian at Cambridge was a very active Intervarsity Christian Fellowship chapter in my college so I had friends with whom I could do Bible study. But I have to admit; I never really thought there was a conflict between science and religion. I already knew a lot about science, I already knew a bit about the Bible and Christianity, and it didn’t seem to me that I was committing intellectual suicide to take Christianity seriously. There were things I thought about because they were topical questions: “How do you make sense of the first few chapters of Genesis in the context of the scientific understanding of the cosmos?” and so forth. But I suppose I was never strongly tempted to require Genesis to be interpreted literally, and it didn’t seem a very vital part of Christian doctrine to do so.
Anelise Powers is currently a law student at Pepperdine University.