The Meaning of Car - Illustrating the Silliness of Scientism

“Little did I realize that in a few years I would encounter an idea – Darwin’s idea – bearing an unmistakable likeness to universal acid: it eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways. Darwin’s idea had been born as an answer to the question of biology, but it threatened to leak out, offering answers – welcome or not –to questions in cosmology (going in one direction) and psychology (going in another direction). If redesign could be a mindless, algorithmic process of evolution, why couldn’t that whole process itself be the product of evolution, and so forth, all the way down?” – From Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett[1]

Alister McGrath has coined it “scientism”; the idea that science is capable of answering all of our questions, that it has no limits and will in time provide us with inexhaustible knowledge. It is the idea that “we may not know something now – but we will in the future. It is just a matter of time.”[2] For men like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins who have become the face of the new atheism in time everything will be explained by science. The things we not only feel but even believe will be reduced to biological pulses that are the byproducts of umpteen eons of evolution. In such a paradigm there is no room for faith which means that the idea of God must be exiled away from any hypothesis and that theologians are not welcome to the intellectual dance floor.

Is science the only valid discipline capable of providing real answers to the most pressing questions of our existence? Isn’t it the height of hubris to believe that science can clarify theology even erase the idiotic notions within it but that theology can make no positive contribution to scientific knowledge?[3] When discoveries are made why are theologians not invited the dance floor of interpretation? To demonstrate my position I offer this illustration:


Imagine a man discovers a car one day and goes on a quest to understand the meaning of car. To do so he confines himself to drawing conclusions only from the things he can observe under the hood. On the first day he raises the hood and finds a carburetor. He publishes his findings for everyone else who is curious about the meaning of car and it reads, “Carburetor is an integral part of car, without it car cannot run or exist. Obviously car is a purely mechanical process, nothing more.”

The next day the man discovers fan belt and publishes his findings. “Today I have discovered that at some point car became more efficient in that over time it developed mechanical systems to cool itself. Although rubber is not original to the meaning of car it has become an integral part of its existence.”

This process continues ad nauseam part by part, each observation only reinforcing the point that the meaning of car is purely mechanical. In his most recent journal publication he shares the fact that his knowledge of car is so exhaustive by now that it is now possible for him to ignite the process and actually cause car to come to life. Tomorrow the man will indeed ignite the process he now calls “engine” in order to demonstrate the simplicity of car and that it is purely mechanical. The man also alerts the world to the fact that he will now refer to himself as a “mechanic” and he invites other like minded intellects to become mechanics along with him. He releases a statement, “Mechanics provides us with the ability to explain everything about car. There are no limits to the knowledge mechanics can provide us about the meaning and origins of car. Once we ignite the engine process it will be the dawning of a new era in which mechanics will even be able to create new cars.”[4]

Tomorrow dawns and a throng of others, all self proclaimed mechanical intellects join the man for the igniting of the process called “engine.” The car roars to life with a puff of smoke, the sounds of mechanical power fill the air. But in the midst of the excitement a new sound is also heard. It is the sound of voices, instruments, and even the report of a man who knows the temperature precisely and that there is a great chance it will rain the same afternoon. The mechanics rush to find the source of the haunting voices and find that they are proceeding from boxes enclosed in the dash and the doors of the car.

The next day the mechanics prepare a grand stage on which to proclaim their new findings. “Mechanics is able to produce intelligent life. Car is aware of the world in which it exists. . .”


By confining the meaning of "car" to answers that can only be produced by mechanics the interpretation of observations and discoveries concerning “car” can certainly be skewed to fit the paradigm. Without an appreciation of the disciplines of engineering, metallurgy, chemistry, and the capability of broadcasting and receiving sounds along the unseen airwaves of radio signals one cannot truly understand the meaning and origins of car. There is more to “car” than what can be seen under the hood.

This being said, why is there no place for theology in the interpretation of science? Why is it that it is popular to believe that science has great power over theology, to prove or disprove its intrinsic ideas, but that theology has nothing to contribute to science, more specifically to knowledge? This scientific monopoly on interpretation is not only bad for knowledge and discovery, but it is bad for science, perhaps eventually fatal to science in that it provides its own logical limitation. The idea that there is nothing beyond scientific knowledge is in a sense the quest to prove, to know, and to embrace a hopeless nothing. It is the quest to prove we are nothing. Yet when the disciplines are invited to dance together – science, philosophy, theology, psychology, mechanics (why not!) – it inspires man to not simply confine himself to how things work, but why they exist. Meaningful answers to "why" questions can be found. These are the questions science cannot answer, the “why” questions. The “how” questions are appreciable with our hands, but it is the “why” for which our souls truly grope.

NOTABLE QUOTES ON THIS SUBJECT (from minds far greater than my own!):

Stephen Jay Gould

“To say it for all my collegues and for the umpteenth millionth time: Science simply cannot by its legitimate methods adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists. Science can work only with naturalistic explanations; it can neither affirm nor deny other types of actors (like god) in other spheres (the moral realm, for example).”[5]

Francis Collins

“Science cannot be used to justify discounting the great monotheistic religions of the world, which rest upon centuries of monotheistic religions of the world, which rest upon centuries of history, moral philosophy, and powerful evidence provided by human altruism. It is the height of scientific hubris to claim otherwise. – but if God is true and science is true – a full synthesis must be possible.”[6]

M.R. Bennett and Peter Michael

“Underlying these three considerations is a primitive modern belief, characteristic of our times, that all knowledge and all genuine understanding are scientific. As Richard Dawkins succinctly puts it: ‘Science is the only way we know to understand the real world.’ ‘Science’, in such declarations of faith, is physical science – in particular, microbiology, chemistry and, ultimately, physics. For, it is argued, ‘in the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is and of what is not that it is not.’ But, first, there is no such thing as ‘explaining the world’, only different ways of explaining different phenomena in the world. The theories of the various natural sciences do not, and do not purport to, describe and explain everything describable and explicable.”[7]

Alister McGrath

“The more scientific advance is achieved, the greater will be our understanding of the universe – and hence the greater need to explain this very success.”[8]

“The fundamental issue confronting the sciences is how to make sense of a highly complex, multifaceted, multilayered reality. This fundamental question in human knowledge has been much discussed by philosophers of science, and often ignored by those who, for their own reasons, want to portray science as the only viable route to genuine knowledge. Above all, it pulls the rug out from under those who want to talk simplistically about scientific “proof” or “disproof” of such things as the meaning of life or the existence of God.”[9]

[1] Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Touchstone, 1996) 63.

[2] Alister McGrath and Joanna McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2007), 35

[3] See the Francis Collins quote under “Notable Quotes” which appears later in this post.

[4] “I watch from the sidelines with engaged curiosity, and I shall not be surprised if, within the next few years, chemists report that they have successfully midwifed a new orign o life in the laboratory. Nevertheless it hasn’t happened yet, and it is still possible to maintain that the probability of this happening is, and always was, exceedingly low – although it did happen once!” Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006). 137.

[5] Francis Collins, The Language of God (New York, Free Press: 2006), 165.

[6] Ibid. 169.

[7]M.R. Bennett and Peter Michael, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 373.

[8]McGrath and McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion. 31.

[9]Ibid. 34.


Anonymous said…
Again - One of the best illustrations on the issue I've heard. I used it on the first day of class and it was effective in that forum as well. I think it refutes the idea of scientism (where the only legit knowledge is obtained through the scientific method) in a powerful and understandable way.

PS - thanks for the plug blog.
Biggles said…
Alvin Plantinga wrote several essays that re framed the "science-religion" war as really being between naturalism and evolutionists.

Specifically Plantinga argues, the probability that our minds are reliable under a conjunction of philosophical naturalism and evolution is low or inscrutable. Therefore, to assert that naturalistic evolution is true also asserts that one has a low or unknown probability of being right. This, Plantinga argues, epistemically defeats the belief that naturalistic evolution is true and that ascribing truth to naturalism and evolution is internally dubious or inconsistent.

Therefore, rationality itself can be deemed a belief system by the very same argumentation that science uses to justify the validity of its method.

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