An article, “Monkey business:  Debating evolution at the Creation Museum”, which appeared in the Feb. 8, 2014, edition of the <italics>Economist<italics> magazine begins–”A scientist and a creationist walked onto a stage.” 

It continues, “This is not a joke . . .” 

Then, it explains:


. . . it happened on February 4th [2014] in Kentucky.  In one corner:  Ken Ham, who founded Answers in Genesis, a group that believes the Bible is literally true and the earth is 6000 years old.  In the other:  Bill Nye the Science Guy”.  The setting:  the Creation Museum, also founded by Mr Ham, where you can see an animatronic Noah building his art and cavemen co-existing with dinosaurs.  The subject:  Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”

Mr Ham debated with the punchy, authority quoting fussiness of a scientist, while Mr Nye showed the corny volubility of a guy who just can’t keep the good news to himself.  Shortly before taking the stage, Mr Ham told reporters that when all was said and done, “I don’t think we should say, ‘Bill Nye won,” or ‘Ken Ham won’. . . . I know that God’s word is true.  Nothing [Mr Nye] said will cast doubt on that.”

Neither took the stage expecting to change his opponent’s mind. . .  (p. 31)


‘In one corner’, ‘debated,’ ‘won’ , ‘neither expected to change his opponent’s mind’, suggests a competition, like that between boxers in a ring, attorneys in a trial, or politicians in an election, in which the participants aim to prevail over the other in front of an audience.  In contrast, a dialogue is grounded in the realization that, when we consider any matter, it is likely that I know something, you know something, and that if we try to understand each other’s point of views, we can come to a more adequate view of a subject than we could as isolated individuals.  At least, we can come to understand why each of us thinks as we do.  Perhaps we can persuade the other of our own viewpoint. Perhaps we can reach a synthesis of what is true in each of our viewpoints, while correcting what is false.

In his <italics>Metaphysics<italics>, Aristotle writes–

“The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, we do not collectively fail, but every one says something true about the nature of things, and while individually we contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed. Therefore, since the truth seems to be like the proverbial door, which no one can fail to hit. . . .” (1st paragraph, second book)

Pascal writes–  “When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side, it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false.  He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. . .” (<italics>Pensées<italics>, Dutton edn. p. 4, #9)

Unlike opponents in a debate, partners in a dialogue do not aim to win or prevail over the other but to discover why the other thinks as he or she does and then, if needed, to change one’s own viewpoint in the light of this discussion.  For a dialogue to be possible, each participant must be open to the possibility that since the other may know something which he does not, each can learn from the other. 

To carry on a dialogue in which one partner appeals to the other to adopt a belief, both participants must agree on some prior shared beliefs or assumptions to which an appeal can be made.  If I speak one language and you speak another, we cannot understand each other.  If my beliefs are so different from your’s that we agree in nothing, we have no shared grounds upon which to argue for our positions.   

Finally, if the dialogue is not to end before it reaches its objective, both parties must agree that if the dialogue is not to end at some arbitrary point at which the parties cease to answer one another’s questions but just assert their own viewpoints without further discussion, dialogue should be open-ended.  If one question leads to another, and that to yet another, the participants agree to follow out the inquiry in which ever direction it leads.  Of course, this does not imply that discussion must be endless, since any train of reasoning must ultimately be grounded either in sensory evidence or rational intuitions which cannot be further supported but which must be accepted as basic. If I want to prove to you that it is wet outside, I can’t reason from any a priori principles.  I can only ask you to go outside and see that it is wet. A sign that one has reached some basic intuitions is that, unless one accepts them, one cannot know anything at all.  In order to show how a case could be made for even the most outrageous theses, the Greek Sophist, Gorgias, once produced arguments to show that nothing exists; that if anything did exist, it could not be known, and that, if it could be known, knowledge about it could not be communicated.  If Gorgias did not exist, did not know anything, or if he could not communicate what he knows to an audience, he could not make his arguments at all.  Parties in a discussion must thus at least allow that they themselves exist, that they can know something, and that they can communicate with one another.  Another such basic intuition is that a thing cannot both exist and not exist at the same time.  If this were not so, since a judgment could simultaneously be true and false at the same time, it would both assert that something was so and deny that it was so. 

[restorative justice]

As an alternative to the actual debate which took place before a partisan audience on a stage in the Creation Museum, let us imagine a quiet room offstage in which, having left aside their debating points, Mr Nye and Mr Ham enter into a dialogue with one another in which each tries to understand the viewpoint of the other, to persuade the other of the truth of his view, or even to reach a larger and more adequate view than each possesses alone.  In such a setting,  Mr Ham might try to convince Mr Nye that he should take the first chapter of <italics>Genesis<italics> to be a divinely dictated eye-witness account of a creation event which took place 6000 years ago.  For his part, Mr Nye might try to convince Mr Ham that he should  accept the view of mainstream science that the earth is 4.5 billion years ago and that life gradually evolved into its present forms over the course of the last 3.5 billion years.  If Mr Ham and Mr Nye talked for a long enough time, it is theoretically possible, if psychologically unlikely, that they could reach some consensus about reality which would incorporate what was true in each individual’s point of view, while correcting what was partial or false in each.

Whether or not  Mr Ham and Mr Nye could reach any agreement, scientists do reach a consensus about general features of the physical world, even if they continue to dispute about details.   They can do so because they tacitly or explicitly accept certain beliefs about themselves as knowers and about a physical world which they believe that they can know.

Scientists commonly take for granted that other scientists are not zombies but that all have similar types of conscious experiences in which they can discern recurring patterns, for instance, as when, having seen how a compass needle swings to a perpendicular direction when an electrical current is through a wire underneath itself, Hans Christian Ørsted infers that something in the electrical current affected the movement of the compass needle.  On the assumption that all of their fellow scientists share similar conscious experiences in which they can discern patterns, scientists believe that they possess a common source of information about reality.  You can tell me about your conscious experiences and the patterns which you infer from them, and I can tell you what I have seen and heard, and what I infer from my experiences.

Scientists commonly assume that they have the same conscious experiences on the same occasions, first, because they have similar human bodies upon which a physical world acts in a uniform way from one time and place to another and, second, because they have similar minds which respond to that action by producing the same kind of conscious experiences in each self.  When light strikes Ørsted’s eye, he sees a color rather than hearing a sound. When light strikes Faraday eye, he also sees a color.  Consequently, what Ørsted saw, Faraday can see. 

On the basis of shared experiences, scientists believe that they can compare their individual experiences so as to reach a more adequate view than any one scientist could provide individually.  Whether creationist or evolutionist, all physicists agree about the validity of Ohm’s law, which states that the flow of an electrical current in a wire is directly proportional to the voltage applied to the wire and inversely proportional to the resistance of the wire.  Whether in a church or in a secular laboratory, one volt of electricity, applied to a wire with a resistance of one ohm, will create a current flow of one ampere.

Scientists also typically assume that the standardized and interchangeable components of which all bodies are made, such as sub-atomic particles, atoms, and molecules do not behave in an idiosyncratic way when viewed by one scientist, in another way when viewed by another scientist.  Leaving aside the question of Schroedinger’s cat, which may be alive or dead depending on whether a scientist chooses to observe it, for the most part, scientists believe that they can describe how compass needles behave without stating who it was that saw them behaving in that way.  Even though Ohm’s law is named after its discoverer, it says nothing about Ohm himself but only states a relationship between voltage, resistance, and current.

On the assumption that large scale bodies behave in the same uniform way as the components of which they are made, mainstream physicists, chemists, cosmologists,  astrophysicists,  researchers into radioactive decay, geologists, geographers, molecular biologists, cell biologists, geneticists, embryologists, anatomists, physiologists, paleontologists, evolutionary biologists, anthropologists, and archeologists collaborate with one another to form a general picture of the cosmos, stars, planets, the earth, the organisms on the earth, and their evolution from one form into another.

Because specialists must adopt specialized techniques and language in order to do research in their speciality, and because nobody can specialized in every field, specialists are not well equipped to do science in another area than their own.  If scientists are to collaborate with one another to create a coherent picture of reality which draws upon many lines of evidence and reasoning, generalists are needed who can view the results of many areas taken together, then read the common message which emerges from these.  Although Alfred Russel Wallace spent more time in the field collecting specimens of plants and animals than Charles Darwin, and although he developed virtually the same theory of natural selection as Darwin, Wallace always conceded priority to <italics>The Origin of Species<italics> because of the masterly way in which, over the course of twenty years, Darwin had woven together diverse lines of evidence in order to establish the reality of descent with modification and the role which variation and natural selection played in the emergence of new species.

In a book in which they put forward a theory of ‘facilitated variation’ in evolution–variations which are biased to produce viable organisms in the course of descent–a pair of collaborators, Marc W. Kirschner, chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School, and John C. Gerhart, a professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, explain why they tried to write a work which would be intelligible not only to specialists but to laypeople.


Recognizing how difficult it is to speak to such a diverse audience [developmental biologists, cell biologists, genomicists, evolutionary biologists, paleontologists, and laypeople], we owe both groups [scientists and laypeople] an explanation.

To the scientist, we ask forbearance that we have largely skirted the jargon and qualifying phrases emblematic of scientific writing.  Yet many of our scientific colleagues who read drafts of this book strongly encouraged us to keep the language simple while making no concessions in the ideas.  Even if we had tried to confine the message to professional biologists, we would have had problems.  In which subfield would this book be understood?  If it were addressed primarily to those who study molecular biology, would the ideas be familiar enough to those who study natural history?  If addressed strictly to evolutionary biologists, our assumptions would disenfranchise most molecular biologists, who would find the questions peculiar and the examples exotic.  We decided that a common, straightforward vocabulary was essential just to reach <italics>scientists<italics> as a group.  To move beyond scientists to the lay public required further adjustments, but fewer than one might expect. (<italics>The Plausibility of Life<italics>, preface, p. xi)


Thanks to the many specialists who write in a clear way for the general public, such as Brian Greene, Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart themselves, Richard Dawkins, Steven J. Gould, Paul Davies, Francis Collins, Stephen Meyer, and many others, even scientific laypeople such as myself, a philosopher by trade, may gain some insight into the lines of scientific evidence which bear on such large questions as the age of the cosmos and the nature of the evolutionary process which brought about plants, animals, and ourselves.  I myself admit to an element of faith in my accepting the testimony of experts in these fields, since I cannot myself verify all the particular details which establish any particular theory.  I trust that protons and electrons exist on the basis of an unanimous consensus among physicists who have thought about how matter can act as it does. 

As a popularizer of science, Bill Nye has at least a general understanding of the many lines of evidence which lead him and most mainstream scientists to believe that the cosmos itself is about 13.7 billion years old, not the 6000 years which Mr Ham asserts, and that suns, planets, and life itself have emerged over the course of many billions of years.  Let us imagine that he outlines this evidence to a momentarily docile Mr Ham. 

He points out how cosmic background radiation and the expansion of the cosmos indicates that the cosmos came into being in a ‘Big Bang’ long ago, whose date can be calculated from the rate of expansion of the universe and the assumption that light from distant stars has traveled at a constant speed of light since that first event.  He indicates why scientists believe that the elements of the periodic table were not brought into being at a stroke, but gradually, in fusion reactions in stars and supernovae–a phenomenon which is still occurring in our sun.  He explains how natural events, such as the gathering together of dust in space, could have created a planet which orbits the sun, and a moon which orbits that planet.  He tells Mr. Ham about how scientists can explain features of the earth’s atmosphere, seas, and surface by extrapolating backwards from processes which can be seen to be still at work.  He explains how geologists extrapolate from presently observable processes of continental drift, sedimentation, volcanic activity and the like to processes in the past which must have created the earth’s topography..  He points out how, because simpler forms of life are found in lower strata than more complex forms, they must have emerged before the complex forms.  He points to evidence which indicates that some forms of life emerged by descent with modification from other forms, such as the way in which living organisms are not distributed equally in any region where they might exist, but in ways which depend on how the existence of present day species depends on their geographical proximity to, or isolation from, other species from which they might have descended.  He indicates how all organisms share common genetic components, in DNA and other features, which are understandable if all arose from a single ancestor, or a few single ancestors.

A patient Mr. Ham says that while he is as familiar as Mr. Nye with all these lines of evidence, he doesn’t find them convincing.  There’s no such thing as ideologically pure science which exists apart from some larger worldview which conditions how scientists practice science, he says.  While ‘secularists’, as creationists term those who do not believe in Christianity, look at the world only from the viewpoint of what they can see and hear, Christians have a different, scriptural, worldview within which they interpret observations.  He then goes on to explain that if a jury had to choose to choose between the forensic inferences of detectives which based on circumstantial evidence and the direct eyewitness testimony of a credible witness, they would certainly choose the eyewitness evidence.  In his own case, Mr Ham says, he bases his beliefs about the age of the world and the origins of life on the absolutely reliable testimony witness of the Creator of the Universe, who has dictated a literal account of how he created the world to scribes in a Jewish tribe in the middle east some thousands of years ago.  That truth has been written down and preserved in an inerrant book called the Bible, which may be read by any believer in the same clear and literal sense in which its author intended.  Mr Ham says that while he accepts observational science, he only denies that we can extrapolate from what we presently see to natural processes in the past which have brought about the present world.  If the story in <italics>Genesis<italics> is literally true, as he believes, the consensus view of mainstream science must be mistaken.  Since the interpretation of the observational evidence which mainstream scientists offer as support for their views conflicts with the infallible testimony of the Bible, empirical evidence must be interpreted in the light of scripture, not taken in the unquestioning way in which secularists take it. 

If this were a real discussion, at this point Mr Nye would most likely sigh, shrug his shoulders, and ask Mr Ham for a personal tour of the Creation Museum.  Mr. Ham cannot appeal to his own faith stance to convince Mr Nye that he should look at the world from the viewpoint of <italics>Genesis<italics>, since Mr. Nye does not accept the literal truth of <italics>Genesis<italics>.  Mr Nye cannot appeal to science to establish the vast age of the world, since science cannot itself establish the assumptions on which scientists do science. Science presumes but does not itself prove that we can use present observations as a guide to inferences to what happened in the past.  It is just this assumption which Mr. Ham questions. If Genesis is to be read literally, we cannot extrapolate from present observations to a world which began 13.7 billion years ago, as mainstream science assumes.  Events did not happen in the past as they do now.

Let us suppose  that in line with  his commitment to an open-ended discussion, Mr Nye asks Mr Ham to defend his belief in a supernatural creator of the natural world who has revealed his works to mankind in inspired revelation.  If Mr Ham claims that God had personally revealed to him that the Bible and its first book was an inerrant source of truth, which he can interpret in the literal way in which he takes it, Mr Ham would be as certain as he could be of his own position.  If he were sure that his own experience was from God, not from his own imagination, and if he knew at the same time that God was telling him the truth, he would need nothing further.  However, if Mr Nye did not share the same divine inspiration, at this point dialogue would cease. 

The only remaining venue within which dialogue might continue is a reasoned discussion of very general theses about reality which both Mr Nye and Mr Ham share in common.  For instance, as I mentioned earlier, if nothing existed, if we could not know what exists, or if we could not communicate our knowledge to one another, Mr Ham and Mr Nye could not engage in dialogue.  Since scientists do believe in dialogue as a source of knowledge, they must accept that something exists, that they can know what exists, and that they can share their knowledge with one another.  In accepting science as a source of knowledge, Mr Nye accepts that something exists, that it can be known, and that he can communicate what he knows.  In fact, he makes a living by communicating science to a popular audience..  For Mr Ham’s part, the organization which he heads, Answers in Genesis, provides a multitude of books, dvd’s, cd’s, and pamphlets which defend its position, as if believers could give reasons for what they believe.  Although some of this evidence is based on theological interpretations of scripture, other evidence is grounded in the observational science which Mr Ham agrees that he shares with Mr  Nye.

What it is to exist, and what kinds of beings do or do not exist, are not scientific but metaphysical questions.  What it is to know, how we can know that something exists, and how we can learn what kinds of beings there are which exists, are epistemological questions.  (‘episteme’ in Greek means ‘knowledge’)  Consequently, if dialogue is to continue, the discussion must move into a field of study which has traditionally been called ‘philosophy’.

From what I could tell from listening to the debate between Mr Ham and Mr Nye, which mostly touched on debating points about empirical matters, neither have any professional competence in philosophy.  As a thought-experiment in how an open-ended dialogue could lead to raising philosophical questions and then arguing for some answers over others, I shall imagine that both are well-acquainted with the history of philosophy and so able to explain and provide a reasoned defense of their divergent world-views.

Though Mr Ham and Mr Nye disagree about the validity of historical science, they  both accept the validity of observational science.  In doing so, they must accept that their individual conscious experiences mirror the existence of natural substances which exist in an objectively existing physical world which behaves in a uniform way from one space to another, if not from one time to another.

A skeptical philosopher (such as David Hume) might ask them how they know that their conscious experiences must be caused in them by some cause beyond those conscious experiences themselves?  He might ask them how they know that anything exists at all, then how they know that the existence of some beings is not self-explanatory but requires that those beings be caused by another being?  What is it to be a cause?  Are there different senses of ‘cause’?  When must things be caused, when not?  Why couldn’t Mr Ham or Mr Nye be just a bundle of uncaused, subsisting, perceptions?

An idealistic philosopher (such as the German philosopher, G. W. Leibniz or the Irish Bishop Berkeley) might ask them how they know that their conscious experiences must be caused in them by a physical world?   Perhaps only minds and their contents exist?

If Mr Ham and Mr Nye are to take their subjective conscious experiences to be iconic representations of the objective character of a physical world, they must suppose that some psychophysical causation exists by which our mind translates physical events in  sense organs, nervous system, brains into corresponding conscious experiences which mirror the character of those physical events.  Both might then asked how it is that their minds are equipped, not just with a mental causation which enables them to create hypotheses on the basis of observations (a causation which takes place within the mind), but a psychophysical causation which translates physical pattern into mental contents which mirror the physical patterns which cause them?  On what grounds do they suppose that conscious experiences of hearing sounds of different pitches correspond to such physical events as their ear’s registering different frequencies of vibrations in the air?  Why should their experience of seeing the red color of an apple correspond to a wavelength of light reflected by the apple?  Why should the pleasure of eating a tasty apple correspond to the apple’s fitness to provide healthy food to the one who eats it?

As an evolutionist,  Mr Ham might argue that since organisms which have false beliefs tend to survive less well than those which think correctly, natural selection would tend to create brains which were fit to mirror the external world.

For his part, Mr Ham might appeal to the benevolence of an Intelligent Designer, who like a human engineer who designs complementary plugs and sockets, or who creates transmitters and receivers which can send and receive signals of the same types and frequencies, or like a composer who writes complementary parts for piano, violin, and cello within a sonata, adjusts the mind and the world to one another.  Having created both the mind and the world, God has gifted our minds with the conscious experiences we need to know the world, and he has created the world as apt to appear to us in those experiences.  Just as he has created our sensory powers fit to reveal the contours of a physical world, so he has made our intellect fit to grasp general patterns which are latent in our sensory experiences, then to  the essences of the beings which cause those patterns.  Not only can we see electrical phenomena, we can formulate an Ohm’s law which describes a regular pattern in those phenomena, then go on to understand the electromagnetic forces which underly those patterns.  Having wished us to be able to generalize from our experiences, the Creator created the world according to uniform natural laws which hold good from one place to another.  Observe electrons at work in Kentucky and you can infer that they will act in the same way in California.

Mr Nye might then ask Mr Ham why he believes that God exists as a creator or designer of the physical world?  He might ask Mr Ham how he knows that something exists and that some things which exist must be caused by others?  Why could the physical world not be self-subsistent, not in need of any cause beyond itself?  Why could not the order which is found in nature–such as the obedience of the physical world to uniform natural laws, and the mind’s competence to know those laws–be a brute fact, not in need of any further explanation?   Mr Nye notes that since Mr Ham does not believe in the Big Bang, Mr Ham cannot argue, as do old-earth creationists, that since the world had a beginning in time, it cannot be everlasting and, therefore, cannot be self-subsistent. 

What is it to be a cause?, Mr. Nye might ask.  Are there different kinds of causes?  If so, what kind of being causes a world?  Must the cause of the world be the source of existence to all exists and the source of all order and direction to beings which seek to realize ends? Why could limited beings not be the sum of all that exists (as Greek materialists supposed) ?  Or, is there something about any limited being, whether mind or body, which shows that it is contingent, and therefore caused by a supreme being, unlimited in power (as Scholastic philosophers supposed)?  Why could not mindless beings just act as they do, with no need for guidance from a knowing being?  Must the the goal-seeking activity of agents which seek ends beyond themselves be the product of an intelligent designer which visualizes those ends for those agents and then equips them with innate anticipations of what they are to do before they do it (as St. Thomas argued in his fifth way to prove the existence of God) ?

Even if, as a cause of persons with minds and wills who can themselves create designs, God must be an Intelligent Designer, is there any functional order in the cosmos which would reveal to us God’s intention in creating this world and not some other?  Given the evil in this world, can God’s intention be benevolent, as Mr Ham supposes?

If we could discern a benevolent intention in nature’s design, would that design lead us to believe that it is more likely that God had created a world as a block in six days or that he had created an evolving world? Young-earth creationists argue that since no good God would have used such a brutal and wasteful method of creation as survival of the fittest and the death of all the rest, he must have created a world which at first had no meat-eaters, suffering, or death but whose perfection was ruined by Adam’s sin.  Theists who believe that God has created an evolving world can argue that, despite all its costs, a do-it-yourself evolving world allows God to share his creativity with creatures more fully than a world finished from the start.  Therefore, it is appropriate that God create an evolving world.

From what we can see of God’s design at work in creation, do we have any reason to think that God would wish to reveal his character in some personal way to humans at some point in history, as Mr. Ham believes?  Would he do so by revealing his personality to a chosen ethnic tribe in the middle east at a certain time over other groups at other times?  Even if he had done so, would he dictate his revelation to scribes who would transcribe that revelation in his own, divinely chosen, language, or would he be more apt to inspire writers to understand his activity within the context of their own world-view and culture whose presuppositions would be reflected in what they wrote?

As I remarked earlier, since this fictional dialogue presupposed that both Mr. Ham and Nye would be willing and ab le to carry on a philosophical discussion about their world views , and since they showed no evidence that they were acquainted with the history of philosophy or methods of philosophical reasoning, it is unlikely that in the real world such a dialogue would ever occur.

There is a second, cultural, reason which would hinder such a dialogue.  If Mr Ham and Mr Nye had lived in the middle ages, a period in which philosophy occupied a prominent and respected position in the intellectual life of universities, they might well have attempted to created a dialogue beteen empirical science, revelation, natural theology, and philosophy.  In the modern world, empirical science has displaced philosophy as a measure of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not.  For moderns, and especially for modern scientists, to call a dispute ‘philosophical’ is to imply that it is pointless and unanswerable..


The attitude, and sometimes the explicit thesis, that science alone can provide valid knowledge has been called ‘scientism’.  The view that only nature can be known, not any supernatural realm or being beyond nature, and sometimes the view that only nature exists, has been called ‘naturalism.’  Both scientism and naturalism bar the door to open ended dialogue about God and evolution.

In an Aquinas lecture in 1944 on “The Nature and Origins of Scientism,” John Wellmuth S.J.., Chairman at that time of the philosophy department of Loyola University, identifies several aspects which characterize scientism.

Scientism, he says–


. . . is the belief that science, in the modern sense of that term, and the scientific method, as described by modern scientists, afford the only reliable natural means of acquiring such knowledge as be available about whatever is real.  This belief includes several characteristic features.  In the first place, the field of the various sciences, including such borderline or overlapping sciences as mathematical physics, biochemistry, physiochemistry and mathematical logic, are taken to be coextensive, at least in principle, with the entire field of available knowledge.  Each of these sciences investigates and describes a particular kind of reality or inquires into some phase of reality from a particular point of view, and the sum total of their correlated findings represents all that we know at a given time. . . .

The second characteristic feature of this belief that the scientific method . . . is the only reliable method of widening and deepening our knowledge and of making this knowledge more accurate.  Though the different sciences have different techniques and special methods of their own, all agree in making use of the same methodological principles.  All begin with careful observation of the phenomena in the field which each has marked out for investigation, and proceed to form hypothesis on a basis of the data so observed.  Once these hypotheses have been so formulated as to be adequate to the phenomena in question, and no more complex than need be, a more extended series of observations is conducted, supplemented by experiments if possible, by way of verifying or modifying the initial hypotheses and thus establishing them as theories . . . .

The third characteristic feature of scientism is a more or less definite view about the status of philosophy in relation to the other sciences, insofar as philosophy is itself considered to be a science.  This view is likely to find expression in one of two forms: either that philosophy should be made scientific by conforming to the methods and ideals of some particular science, or that the function of philosophy is to correlate and if possible unify the findings of the other sciences by means of generalizing on the basis of these findings, after having rid itself of outworn metaphysical notions. Any system of philosophy which clings to metaphysical principles will simply be superseded by modern science, because such principles are as useless as the inadequate data of the pre-scientific age during which they were arrived at by inductive generalization. 

As soon as one understands the characteristic features of the attitude which I have called “scientism,” it will be seen at once that this attitude is an actual reality.”  (pp. 1-5)


A physicist, the late Heinz Pagels, provides an example of both scientism and naturalism.  In his <italics>The Dreams of Reason:  The Computer and the Rise of the Sciences of Complexity<italics>, he argues the universe taken as a whole acts as if it were a computer executing an algorithm–a set of natural laws which computes every being into existence in a regular way.  Pagels assumes that if any knowledge claim is to be valid, it must be testable against some set of facts which will either validate or falsify it.  Unlike humanistic fields of study which have no set of facts against which they can test their views, he says, science is a collaborative effort to uncover universal, objective, natural laws, which hold good for any observer in any time and place.  Since these provide an invariant standard against which any particular theory may be tested, they provide knowledge which can be known to be true or false.   As a result, dialogue among scientists can reach a consensus not found in other supposed kinds of knowledge.

Pagels reasons that if science provides the only source of valid knowledge, and if God’s existence cannot be proved scientifically, it cannot be proved at all.  Although the metaphor of computer programming suggests that there must have a programmer of the universe–a cosmic intelligence or demiurge–”We can safely drop the traditional idea of a Demiurge, for there is no scientific evidence for a Creator of the natural world, no evidence for a will or purpose in nature that goes beyond the known laws of nature.”  (p. 157)   

If science defines all that one can validly know, and if science is only competent to speak about how nature behaves, not why it behaves as it does, any extrapolation from causes at work within the world to a cause of nature itself, must lead beyond the pale of what can be known.

In an introduction to a work for a popular audience about the implications for one’s worldview of recent discoveries in cosmology and physics, the mathematician, Stephen Hawking, writes–


How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves?  How does the universe behave?  What is the nature of reality?  Where did all this come from?  Did the universe need a creator? . . . . Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead.  Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.  Scientists have become the bearers of the torch in our quest for knowledge.

(The Grand Design, p. 5)


I supposed previously that, carried far enough, an open-ended dialogue between an evolutionist and creationist will raise philosophical questions which scientists are not competent to answer. If science can provide the only valid form of knowledge, and if we cannot prove God’s existence scientifically, it is clear that the previous dialogue which I imagined between Mr Ham and Mr Nye could not reach any rationally defensible conclusion about God’s existence or his action in the world.

Although most practicing scientists are as seldom as explicit as Pagels or Hawking about the superiority of science over other forms of knowledge, most take for granted that if a claim cannot be established scientifically, it cannot be established at all.  When they view a physical theory is regarded as untestable, they dismiss it as ‘metaphysics’. 

Apart from historical reasons for this view, which Wellmuth explores in his Aquinas lecture, the triumphs of science in explaining the natural world, from Galileo, Newton, Lavoisier, Ørsted, Clerk-Maxwell, to Einstein, commend science as a mode of knowing.  Everyone now profits from the technologies made possible by modern science.  One of the signal marks of science in contrast to politics, and philosophical disputes, is the ability of scientists of all creeds and countries to agree upon a shared method method of coming to consensus about physical reality, through shared experiences of of the phenomena of nature which are what they are regardless of what Ham or Nye think them to be.

If Pagels or Hawking are asked, ‘How do you know that science alone can provide valid knowledge?’, they may either answer this question or they may not.  If  scientists do not defend their trust in the scientific method, science itself must float in the air, resting only on the arbitrary faith commitments of those who choose to believe in it.  If it’s Mr Nye’s faith against Mr Ham’s faith, and if there is no common ground on which one can appeal to the other, dialogue is at an end.

If Pagels or Hawking propose to defend the thesis that only science can provide valid knowledge, they might either offer a scientific explanation of why only science can provide valid knowledge, or they might appeal to some other kind of knowledge . If they are to provide a scientific explanation of why only science can provide valid knowledge, they must do so on the basis of assumptions about reality which make science possible, such as that, since many scientists all share the same conscious experiences of the same physical world, they can engage in a dialogue about that world so as to discover its objective contours.  Since Volta, Ørsted, Faraday, and others all observe the same empirical data, they can agree on the physical nature of electricity.  Since the ability of scientists to be conscious of the physical world is not one physical fact among others, but a psychophysical fact, one which links consciousness to the world, it cannot be established by physical means alone.  If science provides the only valid way of knowing, scientists cannot know that only science can provide valid knowledge.

If some other kind of knowledge, such as philosophy, can validate the claim of science to provide valid knowledge, science does not provide the only way in which to know reality.  If this is so, scientists might enter into a dialogue with philosophers about whether, how, and why, scientists can know reality.

Before scientists can do science, they must know something.  No chemist would allow an illiterate, innumerant, blind and deaf person into the lab.  If scientists are do science, they must possess some prescientific knowledge from which science arises.  If they are to seek to clarify what they know, to put forward valid descriptions of nature, or to explain why things happen as they do, they must have some already existing sensory and conceptual knowledge of the world.  Since Ørsted can hear, see, imagine, understand, and speak, he can frame the idea of placing a compass needle above a wire, connecting a battery to the wire, and then looking to see what happens.

Since scientists can distinguish between knowledge which is global or undifferentiated, tacit, and undefined, and knowledge which can articulate the parts within a whole and which is both explicitly stated and defined, and since they can recognize that it is desirable to gain clear, distinct, and articulated knowledge, they can aim to acquire clearly defined and explicitly formulated accounts of physical events,  Aware of the difference between a one-off observation and a repeated pattern, they seek to generalize from cases to laws.  Anyone, not just Ørsted, can expect to see how a compass needle moves when a current passes through a wire below it.  Aware of the difference between description and explanation, they can try to understand the hidden nature of that which, when it flows in a wire, causes a compass needle to move in a direction perpendicular to the wire.  Even if scientists have never reflected on whether some things or activities must be caused by others, they take for granted that, if something comes into being which didn’t previously exist, or that if a natural substance exhibits an activity which doesn’t belong to it by nature–for instance, if a compass needle begins to move, and if it is not able to move on its own, some agency beyond itself must exist with sufficient power to produce that effect.  Assuming that since if an item acts, it is; and that if it acts in a certain way, it must have sufficient power to act in that way, they reason to the nature of causes.

Aware of the how opinions differ from knowledge which is both true and known to be true, they can seek to validate that they know.  Like the rest of us, they can frame intentional representations which aim to realize what Aristotle would call practical truth, the conformity of a judgment about how one should act, to the best way of acting; technical truth (where ‘techne’ refers to making or technique), the conformity of a plan to the best way to realize a goal (to reach Chicago from Milwaukee, drive south); and ‘speculative’ truth (which, like a ‘specula’ or mirror in Latin, pictures reality), such as Ohm’s law:  current  in amperes= voltage in volts divided by resistance in ohms.  Not only does Ohm’s law truly describes nature, it can serve as a guide to making.

Like the rest of us, scientists are aware that different kinds of truth require different methods of verification.  A technical truth, which prescribes how achieve a result, can be tested by constructed by creating an artifact according to a set of specifications and then seeing if it works  Since the Wright brothers’ Flyer flew in a controllable fashion, their plans were correct.   Since Samuel Langley’s competing Aerodrome dropped ignominiously into the Potomac, its design needed tweaking.  A contingent factual truth, such as that it is raining, must be validated by stepping outside to look.  Propositions in geometry require that one define one’s terms, create a diagram as an heuristic aid to reasoning, grasp how some concepts are connected with others, and then understand how a conclusion follows from premises.  Using a sequence of equivalences, each grounded in a self-evident intuition, a geometer will explain why the interior angles of a triangle must equal two right angles.  In contrast to such straightforward methods of establishing a correspondence between an intentional representation and its target, scientists rely on repeated observations, mathematical models, experiments, and inferences from what is seen to what is unseen. 

It’s one thing to be conscious, to sense, to perceive, to understand, to reason; it’s a second thing to be aware of, to understand, and to judge about how these activities enable one to be a knower.  It’s one thing to know that something exists; it is a second thing to say how one knows that something exists, to say what it is to exist, or to describe in a general way the types of beings which exist.  Philosophers establish the truth of their views by reflecting on what we already know in a pre-philosophical way, or even by reflecting on what mathematicians know as mathematicians, or upon what scientists know as scientists, then formulating explicit definitions which aim to clarify the meaning of such general concepts as being, good, evil, beauty, truth, opinion, knowledge, conceptual knowledge vs. perceptual knowledge, and so on.  The validity of such knowledge rests in the ability of proposed definitions and formulations to express adequately and explicitly what we already know in a pre-reflective way.