This is the third installment of my exploration of Scott M. Sullivan’s YouTube series on “How To Argue With An Atheist.” In the first episode, Sullivan talks about “atheistic fundamentalism,” which turned out to be quite an exercise in Christian projection. The second episode dealt with “Learning Logic.” That was awesome for a totally different reason. Now we have the third installment of his series:
“Watch out for ‘Scientism.’”
“Scientism” is the view that we can only know things through the scientific method. Sullivan hates this view presumably because without the scientific method to actually test the validity of claims, he would be free to make up any claim no matter how ridiculous and there would be no tools available to question those claims. This is a far cry from his advice from his last video. I guess it okay to learn logic as long as you don’t actually use it.
According to Sullivan, there are two problems with “Scientism” or as I like to call it using critical thinking skills. The first problem he asserts is that science is “self-refuting.” His premise is that by saying that “the only things we can know must be proven by science” can’t itself be proven by science. Before I get into this, I want to just briefly call attention to the term, “proven.”
I don’t think that is at all what atheists who use the scientific method to understand the world are actually asserting. Science really isn’t about proof as much as it is about disproof. Many Christians like to throw the term “proof” around because they think science-minded atheists hold a dogma that matches their own religious dogma. But I don’t think atheists do.
The whole idea of science is that we are open to changing our position if presented with new evidence. With that in mind, I object to the claim that the only things we can know must be proven by science. Instead, I would say that what we know with reasonable certainty, we know through science but that “what we know” can change as we discover new evidence . Without the scientific method, we can’t really know anything with any kind of certainty. How do we know this is true? We can test it.
Let’s take any other kind of “knowledge” and let’s test to see if that knowledge is actually accurate. Well, what other kinds of knowledge can be asserted? I guess we could test divine knowledge. For example, in Matthew 24:34, Jesus uses divine knowledge to claim that he will return within a generation. Did that happen? No. That knowledge was false. Harold Camping also claimed divine knowledge about the End of Days. His predictions were also proven false. Joseph Smith claimed all kinds of divine knowledge and surprise, surprise, they didn’t check out either. Without the scientific method, anyone can assert anything. Anyone can justify their assertion as divine knowledge and be free from the pesky burden of having actual evidence to back up their claims.
Is there any instance in which someone would trust their divine knowledge over what science has demonstrated to be the case, and divine knowledge was proven to be correct while science was proven incorrect? I can’t think of a single instance. On the other hand, there are plenty of cases where divine claims were proven wrong and science has been proven correct. This is referred to as the God of the Gaps.
The second problem Sullivan talks about is what he calls “clear counter-examples.” He claims that there are instances of knowledge that we all have that do not come from the scientific method. Okay, what are these counter examples?
One counter example he brings up is a knowledge based on definition. Sullivan asserts that we can’t prove through the scientific method that all triangles have three sides. This of course is disingenuous since it basically falls prey to the fallacy of definition. We know all triangles have three sides because that is how we define triangles. If a triangle had four sides, it wouldn’t be a triangle; it would be a square or a rectangle. Even so, we can test this. Our hypothesis is that that all triangles have three sides. Now let’s observe a large sample size of triangles and see if they all have three sides. From our data, we can make a theory. Our new Triangle Theory states that all triangles have three sides. Now let’s open this theory up to peer review. Sullivan or anyone else can disprove this theory simply by presenting evidence of a triangle that doesn’t have three sides. But the more triangles we find that do have three sides without coming across a triangle that doesn’t have three sides, strengthens the theory. This is science at work.
“What about moral truths like that it is wrong to kidnap young women and sell them as slaves?” Well that’s an interesting example. Let’s use both the divine method of knowledge and the scientific method and compare the results. According to the Bible, kidnapping young women and selling them as slaves is perfectly fine as long as the young woman isn’t a Hebrew and isn’t sold to a foreigner (Exodus 21:7-11).
What can science tell us about this? It’s complicated. We know through the scientific method that humans evolved with a sense of empathy. This sense of empathy has allowed us to work together and form societies in order to survive and prosper. Through that empathy, we have the ability to feel compassion for others in our tribe. As our sense of tribe expands, we are able to feel empathy for more and more people. Over time, we as a collective society have been able to include all young women into our societal tribe. We as a collective society have recognized that slavery is immoral for a variety of reasons. One of which, is that we feel empathy for those who are slaves. We can imagine ourselves in that position.
Both of Sullivan’s counter examples have been refuted. The reality is that the scientific method isn’t just the best method we have for determining the validity of claims and for helping us understand the world around us, but it is the only method that has provided us with valid results. Beware scientism is just Sullivan’s way of saying ignore the only valid method for understanding the world around us and for separating fact from fiction. No wonder he wants Christians to beware the scientific method. Without the scientific method, he could sell any idea or belief to anyone without having to defend it with actual evidence or reasoning.