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Dallas Willard on Scientism and Inquiry Being Shaped by Its Subject Matter

Dallas Willard, The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus (HarperCollins: February 10, 2015), pp. 14-15, Kindle Edition.

Today it is not uncommon to hear people talk as if there were something identifiable as “scientific method” and claim that it alone is the appropriate basis of knowledge— that it alone is the “pipe” from which knowledge flows. The scientific method is used to draw conclusions based on measurable and testable data, and because those conclusions have been tested, they are considered to be verifiable knowledge. Anything that cannot be processed in this way does not count as knowledge. This is, in effect, to propose a general formula for “appropriate basis” or “conclusive evidence.”

There are various problems with this view. One is that almost everything we know turns out not to be this kind of knowledge. We do not use the scientific method for knowledge of the Greek alphabet or the best way to get from point A to point B or for knowledge of art, morality, and personal relationships. Another is that we have not the slightest clue about what a “scientific” solution to many urgent human problems would look like. If the scientific method cannot help us with some problems, must these be abandoned to power and other forms of irrationality?

Another problem with the “only science has knowledge” view is that a significant amount of what has come out of the “pipe” in the past has turned out to be false. You will find numerous examples of this in Wikipedia under “Superseded Scientific Theories.” Is it still knowledge, since it did come out of that scientific pipe? (Some actually say so.) But this point actually leads to further questions about how to identify the “pipe” and how to be sure whether something really does come out of it.

What we concretely have in real life are individuals with scientific credentials saying one thing or another. We say “science,” but in actuality there are sciences like physics and biology. We say “religion,” but it would be more accurate to say religions like Christianity or Buddhism. Scientists will tell you that they do have a method, but the method of one science doesn’t work in another science. The method of validating a theory in biology doesn’t work particularly well in astronomy. Method is always tied to subject matter, and in dealing with life in general there is no such thing as a single scientific method. This has become the quandary of our culture, because everything that really matters in guiding life falls outside of science. Can any of the sciences or the scientific method tell you how to become a truly good person? Science can’t deal with something like that, because some questions can’t be quantified. Science turns out to be only a portion of the much broader field of knowledge.