A couple days ago, this article popped up in the “recommended stories” section of my browser:
This is just the latest (and perhaps the funniest) example of a phenomenon which keeps me from falling into materialism or scientism (or maybe materialism based on scientism; I’m not sure of the technical categories here; I just know some people “believe in science” as both the best and only way to truth and a way that stands opposed to and has already debunked theism; that’s what I mean by scientism here).
I call this phenomenon which keeps me from falling into scientism the “Stumped Scientist Phenomenon”. It is the phenomenon that every week or so scientists (or “experts” as it is in this story) are stumped or baffled or confused about something. And I don’t think “every week or so” is an exaggeration. When I Googled “scientists stumped”, I got 187,000 hits, all of them similar to this one (including one which used that exact language for this smoking elephant). “Scientists baffled” got 175,000 (though the first one was admittedly an Onion story). “Scientists confused” got 31,700. And on and on I could go. If this doesn’t happen every week or so, it does happen with great frequency.
So why does this keep me from falling into scientism? For the simple fact that if science is what scientism says it is (again, the best and only way to truth, a way which stands opposed to theism and has purported debunked theism), then scientists can never be baffled. They can never be confused. They can never be stumped. They must know all. They must be able to explain everything every time. They can never be anything science doesn’t know or can’t account for. There cannot be an Xs, unknown quantities. If there are, those Xs could undermine everything science has previously asserted.
This is pretty close to what I call “the Phoebe Buffay argument”. This is the fact that science has been wrong about many things, a fact easily proven by an examination of ancient science. Taken to its logical conclusion, that fact suggests that it is quite possible for modern science to be wrong as well. I had already come to understand this fact sometime in the late 90s, and then I heard Phoebe express it on friends, so I just named the argument after her.
The Stumped Scientist Phenomenon is different, though, in that it doesn’t focus on any provable wrong in science but rather at the rather obvious limits of science. The fact of the matter is that even modern science is limited. There are things it has not yet discovered, things it does not know, things it cannot understand. And the fact that any such thing exists undermines scientism as a leak undermines a submarine. That fact shows that any scientific explanation could be debunked by further discovery. For example, some scientists estimate that 86% of the species on the planet have yet to be discovered.
That’s a lot of species, a lot of unknowns. How can know for certain that one of those species won’t completely debunk the theory of evolution. We don’t. Remember, no scientific theory was received from on high compete and accurate and incontestable (though they are often presented as though they did). They are formulated by men according to the best data at hand. But if men don’t have all the data, if there are unknowns which might contradict the data they do have (which they might; how do you know what an unknown will do or not do, after all?), then every theory is subject to some degree of uncertainty. Every theory should be subject to some degree of uncertainty, anyway.
For me to subscribe to scientism, scientists must be able to understand and explain everything. If they can’t, then neither they nor their science are not worthy to be in the best and only way to truth. Then they also can’t be said to have debunked theism. They aren’t able to understand and explain everything, as we repeatedly see in newspaper headlines. And that’s why the smoking elephant/stumped scientist phenomenon keeps me from falling into scientism.