Conversations with Professor Ian Hutchinson of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT

Dr. Ian Hutchinson, Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, is the author of Monopolizing Knowledge, which explores the intersection of Christianity and Science in light of Scientism. The following is an excerpt of the interview with him.

 Q: Your book talks about how science has come to monopolize knowledge. Could you explain what you mean by that?

A: Well … it isn’t that I say science has come to monopolize knowledge, but there is a trend within society as a whole to regard scientific knowledge as preeminent. What scientism is – which is what my book is about – is the belief that science is without peer, that science is all the real knowledge there is. So my response to the question is not to say that it is science that is monopolizing knowledge but it is scientism that is bringing about this monopoly. Now, of course, the monopoly to which the one implies the other or not, as the case may be.

Q: What inspired you to write this book in the first place? Was there a specific instance where you debated this topic with a colleague or read a book that seemed to encourage science’s monopoly on knowledge?

A: Well, I hint at this a little bit in the preface to my book when I say that this book has been half a lifetime in gestation. For many years, I’ve been interested in the question of the relationship between science and the Christian faith and I’ve been speaking to all kinds of audiences in churches and universities and Christian groups and others about the relationship between science and Christianity. It has seemed to me for a very long time that this this… background of scientism tends to be one of the most influential things in that overall discussion. It’s the thing that makes it most difficult for secular people – for people who haven’t got any kind of religious faith or Christian faith – to begin to take seriously the possibility that things of the Spirit, the Christian claims, might actually be truth claims – they might actually have some evidence in favor of them … By and large, most Christians don’t base their beliefs on scientific evidence. That doesn’t mean there’s no evidence for Christianity, and most Christians claim there is rather good evidence for Christianity, it’s just that most of that evidence is not scientific… In the end, I came to realize that it would be really helpful if someone, you know, called out this question and examined it and in, you know, to a certain extent, a scholarly way and try to get some of the discussion out into the open. The reason is because scientism is very rarely, explicitly espoused or affirmed by the people who adopt it. In other words, people don’t usually get up and say, I believe that science is all the real knowledge there is… Far more often, it is just an unspoken assumption. It is just an unspoken assumption that is behind the way people are thinking, the way they’re addressing questions. And so my objective is to bring this unspoken assumption out into the open and say, “is this actually true?” And what evidence is there either way – what is the history of people’s belief or not belief in this particular philosophical doctrine – because I think it is really helpful to look at.

Q: What do you think draws a lot of scientists and others to scientism?

A: Well, I think scientists, of course, are most familiar with science and with the scientific approach to problems and they naturally consider that to be valuable. And it is very valuable. It is a wonderful way to find out about certain aspects of the world. It’s the way that we find out about the world, insofar as it is reproducible and possesses the kind of clarity of expression and insubjectivity that we require in science. But it’s an extrapolation, perhaps a natural one – one that scientists might naturally fall into, to believe that those questions are the only interesting ones in the world and that questions that one can address in that way are the only ones about which one can really have knowledge.

Q: Have you ever felt that there’s been any conflict or tension between science and your faith at any point?

A: Yes and no. I mean, if you’re simply asking a psychological question, “have I ever felt tension?” Yes, of course. I mean, one thinks about the various aspects of one’s life and very often different aspects of one’s life, you know, and you wonder “how does this all fit together?” So, in that sense, yes. But I actually, having thought about it, I have reached the place of believing that there is very little tension, actually, between Christianity and science properly understood. I mean, after all, a very good case could be made that Christian theology and philosophy served as a kind of fertile mental habitat in which science as we know it – modern science – grew up. And the people during the scientific revolution and shortly thereafter, who were those who made science what it is – thinking of Newton and Boyle and Kepler and Galileo and people like that – these people were predominantly Christians. So it would be remarkable if one thought that it was some kind of inherent contrast or conflict between science and Christianity at the very least. Now, actually, of course, there is a very commonplace myth that has been promoted for perhaps the last 140 years or so, which is that science and religion, or science and Christianity, are inevitably at war and always have been. But that’s actually simply a myth. It’s historically false.

Q: Is there any advice or encouragement that you would give to college students who are interested in the sciences?

A: I want to encourage people to be interested in science. I think that science is a worthy endeavor and, if you’re a Christian, I think there is a sense in which science can be – as the forebears of modern science thought – a kind of thinking of God’s thoughts after Him. It can be something that has great religious significance and can bring us closer to God in a certain sense, and certainly those of us who come to science [as Christians] think in that way to a certain extent … By way of kind of counterbalancing that, don’t think that science is the be all and end all, you know. If you’re a graduate student, yes, do the science with all your heart and mind, but at the same time, live a life and don’t become so bound up with the interest in science to think that it is the only worthy thing. There are many other worthy things in your life and these should be likewise pursued with all of your energies and with the kind of fervor and excitement that makes one … a living person.

David Tang-Quan ’15, a resident of Thayer Hall, is on the staff of The Ichthus.

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