In the scientific community (and much of the secular world) there are many who adopt an outlook whereby one need not believe anything which cannot be demonstrated using the scientific method. i.e. it must be repeatable through experiments and explained through cause/effect scientific principles.

so if something cannot be demonstrated like this, then one need not believe it and can dismiss it as "unscientific".

This automatically rules out things like intelligent design, since God does not make Himself available to microscopes. Regardless of the tremendous level of wisdom displayed in living things and in the cosmos, one can simply brush it all off since we cannot demonstrate the existence of an intelligence through repeatable experiments.

how does Judaism view this outlook? Would someone who adopts this be considered some sort of idolater (who worships his own mind, i.e. he elevates the human mind as some kind of idol since only that which he can demonstrate and prove with his mind exists.)

Or perhaps it is just a form of atheism since the person adopts the view that there is no intelligence behind the world and it is all just one big physical machine which always does the same thing. Thus it can all be best explained with the scientific method.

Looking for sources from our tradition or from contemporary Halachic authorities who address this. Reliable works of Hashkafa (jewish outlook) such as Michtav M'Eliyahu would also be good. Looking especially for sources saying it is a form of idolatry if such exist.

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    Scientism is not a form of Idolatry halachically speaken. But scientism is a wrong understanding of the really scope of sciences. Scientism is a philosophic current, but in the modern language, scientism concerns a wrong appreciation of human knowledge who use scientific skills as a science itself. e.g. medical knowledge is not exactly a science but is very linked to sciences.
    – kouty
    Sep 13, 2016 at 11:06
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    I am not sure but the Vienna School of Morits Schlick, linked to the first period of Witgenstein, the logic positivism. Need to be verified
    – kouty
    Sep 13, 2016 at 11:16
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    (who worships his own mind, i.e. he elevates the human mind as some kind of idol since only that which he can demonstrate and prove with his mind exists This sounds like a mussar lecture, rather than a halakha lecture. Placing high value on one way of finding truth has nothing to do with the halakhic parameters of idolatry TTBOMK.
    – mevaqesh
    Sep 13, 2016 at 14:27
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    @mevaqesh: Agreed. Not avodah zarah, but "avodah zarah", in quotes. Like anger. But if it's as heretical as AZ and as destructive as AZ (which is what the mussar statement means, no?), then the only remaining difference is the theoretical limits of the specific prohibition of AZ. Sep 14, 2016 at 0:10

1 Answer 1


Forgive me for a short preamble, but it is necessary to establish what scientists (i.e. practitioners of science) mean with ‘unscientific’ before exploring how it differs from what believers of scientism (i.e. science as a worldview, excluding all other worldviews) believe, and whether that could be avoda zarah.

Firstly, this question conflates the scientific method, as a tool, with the worldview that elevates the conclusions drawn with that tool beyond its reach. Science as a concept is just a tool: a social contract between those that decided to find and explain patterns in the world. The social contract governs the criteria that constitute what the scientific community would regard as adequate proof for any given claim.

When scientists claim that something is unscientific it does not necessarily follow that the claim therefore must not be true. An unscientific question or claim is just something that cannot be proven or disproven using the currently agreed upon scientific tools. It is beyond the realm of what science can believably claim, and so does not further our understanding within this social contract. Any claim that cannot be tested within this framework is deemed unscientific, but note that this says nothing about the validity of the claim.

For instance: to state that no purple polar bears exist is an unscientific question, because it is impossible to measure 'none-existence'; one simply never knows whether all the polar bears in existence have been found and their color established. There may very well be a purple polar bear, hiding from scientists in a cave somewhere: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In that regard, science itself cannot be idolatry: the metaphysical simply falls outside of what scientists can form hypotheses and scientific proofs on. To ask whether a deity exists, is an unscientific question, but the tool to establish that ultimately does not impact the reality. When people say that the Egyptians were wrong, because we can see the Sun and no beetle rolls that Sun in front of the Earth daily, the only scientific reply would be: have you looked in all possible dimensions? Our ability to perceive it (or measure it with current scientific tools) does not change the reality; just our ability to provide the agreed upon proof.

To conclude: science itself is a set of rules which changes every once in a while; those rules are an agreed upon set of criteria to judge the evidence to a particular claim.

Now that the preamble is over, it becomes possible to distinguish between the users of the scientific tool in scientific discourse and the believers of scientism who hold the view that “ the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society". When is this a proper application of the scientific method, and when does it start to veer into the realm of “if I see it, I will believe it”. Or in other words still: the difference between “we can finally agree upon the proof about a claim” and “something is not true, unless it has been proven”.

In this divide I believe important to point out that none of the big name philosophers that have been connected with scientism (e.g. Popper, Weber) would argue that something is only true if proven). However, inside and outside of the scientific community there are those that go beyond the scientific method and who do make such claims. So let me establish that in and of itself scientism does not have to be either avadah zarah, or even problematic from a jewish perspective. The question is rather; can those who elevate science to the realm of religion (i.e. the only fundamental universal truth) veer into the realm of avodah zara?

I don’t consider myself able to conclude whether someone’s belief constitutes avodah zara (chas vechalila), there are learned people who are infinitely better able to establish this than I. I can just share my thoughts.

The RAMBAM in mishneh torah makes an interesting point about how a thought process can start with God and the instruments He uses, and end with worshipping the tool

בימי אנוש טעו בני האדם טעות גדול ונבערה עצת חכמי אותו הדור ואנוש עצמו מן הטועים היה וזו היתה טעותם אמרו הואיל והאלהים ברא כוכבים אלו וגלגלים להנהיג את העולם ונתנם במרום וחלק להם כבוד והם שמשים המשמשים לפניו ראויין הם לשבחם ולפארם ולחלוק להם כבוד וזהו רצון האל ברוך הוא לגדל ולכבד מי שגדלו וכבדו כמו שהמלך רוצה לכבד העומדים לפניו וזהו כבודו של מלך כיון שעלה דבר זה על לבם התחילו לבנות לכוכבים היכלות ולהקריב להן קרבנות ולשבחם ולפארם בדברים ולהשתחוות למולם כדי להשיג רצון הבורא בדעתם הרעה וזה היה עיקר עבודת כוכבים וכך היו אומרים עובדיה היודעים עיקרה לא שהן אומרים שאין שם אלוה אלא כוכב זה הוא שירמיהו אומר מי לא ייראך מלך הגוים כי לך יאתה כי בכל חכמי הגוים ובכל מלכותם מאין כמוך ובאחת יבערו ויכסלו מוסר הבלים עץ הוא כלומר הכל יודעים שאתה הוא לבדך אבל טעותם וכסילותם שמדמים שזה ההבל רצונך הוא:

During the times of Enosh, mankind made a great mistake, and the wise men of that generation gave thoughtless counsel. Enosh himself was one of those who erred. Their mistake was as follows: They said God created stars and spheres with which to control the world. He placed them on high and treated them with honor, making them servants who minister before Him. Accordingly, it is fitting to praise and glorify them and to treat them with honor. [They perceived] this to be the will of God, blessed be He, that they magnify and honor those whom He magnified and honored, just as a king desires that the servants who stand before him be honored. Indeed, doing so is an expression of honor to the king. After conceiving of this notion, they began to construct temples to the stars and offer sacrifices to them. They would praise and glorify them with words, and prostrate themselves before them, because by doing so, they would - according to their false conception - be fulfilling the will of God. This was the essence of the worship of false gods, and this was the rationale of those who worshiped them. They would not say that there is no other god except for this star. This message was conveyed by Jeremiah, who declared (10:7-8): "Who will not fear You, King of the nations, for to You it is fitting. Among all the wise men of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is none like You. They have one foolish and senseless [notion. They conceive of their] empty teachings as wood;" i.e., all know that You alone are God. Their foolish error consists of conceiving of this emptiness as Your will.

And we have also learned shemot 20:3

לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים עַל פָּנַי: You shall not have the gods of others before me

Which rashi explains:

the gods of others: which are not gods, but that others have made them for gods over themselves. It is impossible to interpret this passage to mean: gods other than I, since it is a disgrace for Heaven to call them gods along with Him. Alternatively: strange gods, for they are strange to their worshippers. They cry out to them, but they do not answer them, and it appears as if it [the god] were a stranger, who never knew him [the worshipper].

When an individual starts elevating G’ds tools (the universal laws of nature) to the only true gods. Avadah Zarah does not need an actual deity; it seems sufficiently troubling to take anything and make it a god for yourself. So what can be elevated to the level that it comes before G’d in [extremist] scientism? When man’s own intellect and what it is currently able to comprehend and prove is stated to be the only factual truth in the universe, that person is not only unscientific, but has started to elevate its own intellect above everything else. In this worldview, the individual intellect comes before G’d: because only as long as the intellect decides to accept it, G’d will exist. A subjective and conditional existence of G’d places oneself before G’d in such a worldview. ("G’d only exists if I decide He exists"). I would argue that such an extreme position could be regarded as a form of idol worship, with the above texts in mind.

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    @RonP: For what it's worth, I like the current version. Hopefully, it will now get the up-votes. Sep 14, 2016 at 10:46
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    @RonP Yeyasher kochacha! You seem to be implying an equation between "serving" - prostrating, praying, making offerings, as described by Rambam and Rashi, and ~"considering to be the sole source of truth" or, on an epistemological hierarchy, "placing oneself above." Can you explain either why you see this as a valid equation or why you think that the latter would also be considered avoda zara by the authorities you cite?
    – Isaac Moses
    Sep 14, 2016 at 13:36
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    @RonP First of all, I just want to encourage you to keep posting here, and not get discouraged by downvotes. (Incidentally, I don't know where the votes stood before, but a net +2 is not bad at all. I have quite a few answers with less than that.) Regarding the answer itself, I am a bit confused by the sentence When an individual starts elevating G’ds tools (the universal laws of nature) to the only true gods. As a dependent clause, it seems to be referencing something. Is it clarifying the Rashi before? Something else? Some further issues with the last paragraph: while I understand [cont.]
    – mevaqesh
    Sep 14, 2016 at 15:07
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    @RonP that you are not setting out to provide a halakhic definitoin of AZ, but rather to describe the concept, after reading it. I am still not clear where exactly the concept of AZ lies here. Furthermore, it seems dubious to compare to AZ the attitude that as far as I am concerned, God only exists if I believe in him. After all, this is the case by definition.
    – mevaqesh
    Sep 14, 2016 at 15:07
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    The evolution of this answer is a good example of author and community collaborating: Author posts an answer that includes valuable content but only barely answers the question. Community provides feedback in the form of multiple downvotes as well as critical comments. Author engages with the critiques and improves the answer. Most of the downvotes disappear, and the answer's score goes up. Community continues to provide constructive criticism. Author (hopefully) continues to improve the post. The post gets more and more valuable, and changes in its score more or less reflect that.
    – Isaac Moses
    Sep 14, 2016 at 15:58

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