• PO Box 95007 Saddleridge, Calgary, AB, T3J 0E3
  • +1 403.689.5890
  • info@faithbeyondbelief.ca
In epistemology,science

The Wedge[1]


 By: Justin Wishart
“Christianity was bad for science. It put a stop to scientific progress for a thousand years, and even after that is made science’s recovery difficult, painful, and slow.” –  quoted by John Loftus, former Christian pastor now atheist author.[2] 
There have been a few notable successes by Atheists but a major one has been to drive a wedge between science and Christianity. It is claimed that the rigours of scientific inquiry are fundamentally opposed to the faith of Christianity. That science is based on evidence that brings one to the conclusions that reflect reality while Christianity is an irrational faith that is purely subjective. This supposed truth seems to have become common knowledge in most academic circles. Many accept this without much thought. However, addressing this directly is not the purpose of my article. Instead, I would like to propose that we learn from this wedge and create a wedge for ourselves. In doing so we can see a clear wedge between what many think about science and what science can actually do. 
  
There is a philosophical position commonly called Scientism.[3] A succinct definition for this position is that it is the belief that the only valid source for knowledge is derived from the scientific method. The only way we can know something is if science demonstrates the truth of a claim. People who hold this view might concede that there could be reality outside of what is testable to science but we can never be sure of what that may be. Proponents of this epistemology will naturally claim that their view is a natural fit with science, that science and Scientism fit like a glove. Is this the actual case? Can we not place a wedge between science and Scientism?
 
Let us first look closely at Scientism’s claim: That you can only have knowledge through the scientific method. Sure, we have learned many things about our universe through the scientific method, but can we draw a conclusion that it is the only valid way to discover truth? I would like to challenge anyone out there to devise a scientific experiment that could scientifically test this claim. Is there a scientific test that proves that science is the only valid way to find truth? If not, then followers of Scientism are caught in a contradiction. If Scientism is true, yet you cannot prove Scientism through the scientific method, it makes Scientism unknowable or false. By its own reasoning (that you can know truth only through the scientific method) one must throw out Scientism itself because it cannot be proved by the scientific method. This alone creates and adequate wedge unless such an experiment is devised. I have yet to see one.
 
Even outside of this contradiction there are problems. Is the scientific method even a valid means to discover truth? At this point I am using the term “valid” in a technical sense. That is, is the scientific method even logical? Unfortunately for the followers of Scientism the answer is no. To begin with, the scientific method commits the fallacy of Affirming the Consequence.[4]
I will give you first an informal example of how the scientific method has “worked” even though it worked despite an incorrect theory. 

“How science can be useful though false is illustrated in a delightful textbook on inductive logic.[5] Milk fever, the illustration goes, until the late ninetieth century, was a disease frequently fatal to cows. A veterinarian proposed the theory that it was caused by bacteria in the cow’s udder. The cure, therefore, was to disinfect the cow, which the veterinarian proceeded to do by injecting Lugol solution in each teat. The mortality under this treatment fell from a previous ninety percent to thirty. Does not this successful treatment prove that the bacteria were killed and that Lugol cured the disease? Unfortunately, another veterinarian was caught without the Lugol solution one day, and he injected plain boiled water. The cow recovered. Had water killed the bacteria? What is worst, it was found later that air could be pumped into the cows’ udders with equally beneficial results. The original science was wrong, but it cured the cow nonetheless.”[6] 
If it wasn’t for the accident of the bumbling veterinarian, the scientific method would have “proved” that Lugol cured milk fever. Yet, due to an accident, we know that this conclusion was false. How many “discoveries” through the scientific method do we have today, though repeatable, are actually misunderstandings? How are we to know? Remember that veterinarians/scientists could have performed this experiment a million times with similar results and not moved a centimetre closer to the truth. Let me demonstrate this fallacy in a formal manner. 
1. If (a), then (b) 
2. (b) 
3. Therefore, (a) 
If you are new to formal logic what you just read might not make much sense. But, it is very easy to understand. The letters represent a value, and in this case we only have two values, (a) & (b). The neat thing about formal logic is that we can now substitute any values for (a) & (b) and see if the argument makes sense. 

1. If Lugol cures milk fever (a), then when I inject Lugol the milk fever will be cured. (b) 
2. The milk fever is cured when I injected Lugol. (b) 
3. Therefore, Lugol cures milk fever. (a)[7] 

But as we can see from the example above, it was not Lugol that cured the milk fever, it was something else. Therefore, the conclusion that we get from the scientific method (3) is false. This shows that the scientific method is a logical fallacy, and it seems obvious that we should not trust the scientific method with the devotion that Scientism demands. Obviously, the conclusion here cannot be fully trusted. Yet, Scientism asks us to trust the findings from this fallacious logic blindly, with unwavering trust.
 
Another problem with this epistemology is the changing nature and formulations within scientific theory. To me, the fact that scientific theories change is a great strength of the scientific method. Yet, this fact poses a major difficulty for Scientism. Any theory that scientists work from is but one discovery away from being thrown away. The science of yesterday had to make way for the science of today, and the science of today will have to make way for the science of tomorrow. The question followers of Scientism must answer is: How can you base your epistemology on “facts” found through the scientific method today, when it is very possible it will be “proven” wrong tomorrow? At one time the majority of scientists believed in spontaneous generation,[8] and if you based your theories on this “fact” then you would have been very embarrassed when Louis Pasteur demonstrated that life only arises from life. Since scientific discoveries seem to be more and more frequent, it seems that science cannot be reasonably accepted as an epistemological base.

I will conclude here by saying that I am not a “science denier”. I am thankful for and use things that were a result of science every day. However, regardless of the successes of science, there is nothing within science that makes it an acceptable epistemology on its own. Thus, I think it is fair and reasonable to place a wedge between science and Scientism.  
Christians must become active in demonstrating this wedge to the people we share our faith with. Then they will not be able to create their own boundaries for the apologetic conversation. If we are forced to explain things found in the Bible in purely scientific terms, we will see that we are in a losing discussion. But, since it is obvious that such boundaries are not warranted, that science cannot rightly bring one to Scientism, this will open up the conversation to allow for the possibility of the supernatural. That is, of course, if your dialogue is with someone who is honestly searching for the truth. 
[1] This blog is inspired by Dr. Phillip E. Johnson’s book, The Wedge of Truth.. 
[2] Richard Carrier as quoted by John W. Loftus, Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity, 2008, Prometheus Books, PG. 116 
[3] Another common philosophy is called Logical Positivism. 
[4] When I say something is a fallacy, I am not saying that everything derived from the scientific method is wrong. What a logical fallacy means is that there is no way to guarantee that information derived from the argument is correct. 
[5] Harold Larrabee, Reliable Knowledge, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1945, PG. 191 
[6] Gordon H Clark, A Christian View of Men and Things, The Trinity Foundation, Third Edition 1998, pg. 140 
[7] To those more familiar to the scientific process as opposed to the logical process I would say that 1 equals the theory and hypothesis, while 2 equals the experiment with observations, and 3 is the conclusion. 
[8] That life arises out of inanimate objects as opposed to biogenesis, which life can only come from life. 
  • I am by no means a fan of Scientism, but it seems the thrust of part of this article is misplaced. Most of the people I have spoken with who embrace Scientism are also of the mindset that knowledge is always tentative at best. You point out that the conclusions of science are often wrong and they would shrug that off and say, “so what?” In fact, some see this as a glorious feature of science; it progresses!

    To counter that Scientism does not work because it does not adhere to the strict confines of logic is hardly problematic for those who embrace Scientism because they are not after logical proofs, merely the “inference to the best explanation.” Formal logic is not one of the key tools of science, but that would probably not cause much concern for most of them based on (what I perceive to be) their mindset about truth in the first place. Truth should always be tentatively embraced. Knowledge is always held to lightly.

    I agree with the conclusion of the article – indeed there is something desperately wrong with Scientism – but I wonder if this is the best way to approach it. The first section describing the how the belief that we should only belief that which can be proven scientifically is itself not proven scientifically is certainly spot on. I agree with the rest as well, but I wonder if you are not speaking a language foreign to Scientism.

    Just a thought; take it or leave it.

  • Thanks for your comments.

    I have rarely met a person you describe above. But, to such a person, if they have the idea that knowledge can never be certain, your right that this tactic would be of little value. But, such a position can never rule out the supernatural. You can therefore conclude with someone like that, through the various arguments, that belief in God is rational, while not certain.

    However, this is not any sort of over arching apologetic approach like Evidentialism or Presuppositionalism. This is one piece of the overall apologetic and probably most useful when you meet up with someone who says you must prove God through science, or some such thing. I probably wouldn’t lead with this. We are not intellectually bound to accept such criteria. We can demonstrate that this is actually the unreasonable criteria and there is little intellectual justification for putting this boundary on the conversation.

    At the end of the day, some people will shrug their shoulders at anything you say. With some people, there is nothing adequate you can say. All you can do for such people is show Christ’s love toward them and pray. However, you never really know how much of what your saying is gaining traction in their minds, even if you see no evidence of it.

    Thank you for pointing out potential weaknesses in this argument. That these arguments while sound, would not be convincing to all people. This is often one of the most frustrating things about engaging in apologetic conversations. (for me anyways)