Carl Henry, Scientism, and Coronavirus

In Carl Henry’s classic work and magnum opus, God, Revelation, and Authority, Henry describes modern society’s relationship to science as something of a contemporary, modernist religion — “scientism.”

Now, let’s be clear at the outset in case there be any temptation towards a skewed misunderstanding of what he (or I) am saying: Christianity is not opposed to science or modern medicine. In fact, Christianity is the only proper epistemic basis for science. A naturalistic, materialistic worldview has to borrow assumptions from Christianity in order to even make sense and provide a proper epistemological basis for science—in effect, materialistic modernity “colonizes” what is properly Christianity’s, what belongs (epistemologically) to Christianity as sourced in its worldview and belief in a personal God with his orderly creation. Furthermore, Christianity provides a basis for the sort of medical concern for others that a raw evolutionary “natural selection” on its own cannot justify and actually seems to run against (Mother Nature would actually say, “Just let the weak ones die”). But we digress. The point being—we, Christians, of all people should care about science; we care about medicine; and we should care about the best and most responsible ways of addressing this virus. So to be clear, none of what I’m about to say goes against that.

But as Carl Henry described it, “scientism” is a religion of modernity, which seeks “salvation” by attempting to gain absolute mastery over the natural order (the assumed limits of reality), with scientists as the new order of “priests” who mediate this soteriology (salvation) to us in the form of scientific and medical advancements. “If we can control the natural order, we can control our destiny. We can save ourselves from sickness and demise” (let alone the fact that scientific advancements have also made us better at developing ways to more efficiently destroy each other, like atomic bombs). In short, we put our hope in science and medical advancements. Again, not that we deny the benefits of scientific and medical advancement, but on its own, it falls woefully short. And as an ultimate (in effect, “religious”) hope, it proves to be an idolatry that serves our desire to replace God, another iteration of humanism, we might say, that in fact seeks to make us God.

If Carl Henry were alive today then, I imagine he would say something like this: if nothing else, when this Coronavirus is all said and done, and we’re able to look back and see (1) how much we weren’t able to control the material world as we might want, or at least in correspondence to the degree of hope we put in our science and medical knowledge (i.e., a lot, a lot), and (2) how conflicting our understanding of the data inevitably proved to be (just wait), or how wrong some of our methods showed (again, just wait), may it at least go to show us the bankruptcy of science as the “messiah” our society has held it up to be. May this season deconstruct our modernistic idolatries, show them for what they are, that we may more clearly see Christ for who he is, and put our hope (properly) in him.

C.S. Lewis on the Limited Domain of Science

I’ve been reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis lately. Over the next few weeks I plan on sharing some sections with some occasional commentary. (If you follow me on social media [Facebook; Twitter], you will see that I will be sharing some quotes there too.)


In Mere Christianity Lewis makes the following comment:

You cannot find out which view  is the right one by science in the ordinary sense.[1] Science works by experiments. It watches how things behave. Every scientific statement in the long run, however complicated it looks, really means something like, ‘I pointed the telescope to such and such a part of the sky at 2:20 a.m. on January 15th and saw so and-so,’ or, ‘I put some of this stuff in a pot and heated it to such -and such a temperature and it did so-and-so.’ Do not think I am saying anything against science: I am only saying what its job is. And the more scientific a man is, the more (I believe) he would agree with me that this is the job of science–and a very useful and necessary job it is too. But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes–something of a different kind–this is not a scientific question. If there is ‘Something Behind,’ then either it will have to remain altogether unknown to men or else make itself known in some different way. The statement that there is any such thing, and the statement that there is no such thing, are neither of them statements that science can make. And real scientists do not usually make them. It is usually the journalists and popular novelists who have picked up a few odds and ends of half-baked science from textbooks who go in for them. After all, it is really a matter of common sense. Supposing science ever became complete so that it knew every single thing in the whole universe. Is it not plain that the questions, ‘Why is there a universe?’ ‘Why does it go on as it does?’ ‘Has it any meaning?’ would remain just as they were?

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, book 1, chapter 4, paragraph 2 (emphasis added).

In short, Lewis is pointing out that science has a particular domain, and as such, has a limited object of study. It cannot, by definition of being that discipline which studies the observable (not the non-observable), reach outside of the observable into the realm of the non-observable (e.g., God) or into matters of meaning, e.g., why the observable is the way it is.

To be specific, Lewis’ comments serve as a rebuke to those who adapt the following sorts of arguments:

  • I believe what we can know through science (observation).
  • Science cannot observe God.
  • Therefore, God does exist.

(Besides the fact that this sort of argument is non sequitur) what this sort of argument fails to recognize is the limited domain of scientific study (i.e., it is limited to the observable). This form of argumentation makes a huge assumption–that science is not merely a means of gaining knowledge, but the means (i.e., the sole means) of gaining knowledge. But this is merely to preclude a prior–not by demonstration or argument, but simply out of hand, without any justification–all other means of inquiry.


Notes

[1] Here Lewis is referring to the following two views: on the one hand, a view that all there is is the material world and that there is no God, for instance (what he calls “the materialist view”), versus a view, on the other hand, that holds to a belief in a God who in some way stands behind the material world (“the religious view”).

God and Science by Jon Hanes (FACT)

The following lecture was presented by Jon Hanes (deacon) at Lake Drive Baptist Church as a part of the FACT (Forum for the Advancement of Christian Thought) ministry run alongside the church. In this lecture Jon argues that the nature of science assumes or presupposes the existence of God. God is a “properly basic” belief in the scientific method, namely in its blind trust in the uniformity of nature and corresponding use of induction. This is true despite many scientists who deny the existence of this God. In essence, Jon argues for a Reformed, foundationalist epistemology as it relates to science. However, he explains all of this in much more colloquial language than I just did. This lecture is geared for the lay individual; and it is very understandable and clear. Among other things, it has much apologetic value. Jon has doctoral background in the sciences and enters this discussion prompted by the observation that there is very little regard for, or awareness of, the philosophy of science among other scientists in his field of study. I highly recommended it. Check it out.