Science as a Belief System


Auguste Comte and Stages of Human Development

Some sociologists have argued that science is a quite different type of belief system to political ideologies and religion. For example, the functionalist sociologist Auguste Comte (1830) saw society as passing through three stages progressing towards scientific knowledge; Theological Stage, Metaphysical Stage and Positive Stage. From Comte's point of view, scientific beliefs are fundamentally different from other types of belief. They are not a matter of opinion as scientific facts are independant of the beliefs or individuals. Unlike religion, science does not rely upon faith but upon evidence. Scientific knowledge can be tested through research, and false beliefs can be rejected. A move towards a scientific belief system represens progress.

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Theological Stage

Approximately during the pre-18th century, religious and superstitious beliefs are dominant. People believe because they have faith. They follow beliefs from sacred texts and religious leaders. Beliefs are not open to question or debate.

Comte's framework is supported by the theory of secularization. It can be contrasted with postmodern theories.

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Metaphysical Stage

Approximately during the 18th century, philosophical beliefs are dominant. People can now use rationality to decide what to believe and how to behave. For example, political philosophy led to the introduction of democracy rather than believing that kings and queens should rule by divine right.

Comte's framework is supported by the theory of secularization. It can be contrasted with postmodern theories.

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Positive Stage

Approximately during the 19th century onwards, science is the dominant belief system. People believe those things that can be tested and proved to be true using objective knowledge. Beliefs are no longer a matter of opinion.

Comte's framework is supported by the theory of secularization. It can be contrasted with postmodern theories.

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Positivism and Science

Comte advocated positivism as an objective, scientific way of producing knowledge. he believed this approach could be applied to social sciences such as sociology, as well as physical sciences such as chemistry, biology and physics. 

Positivism is not universally accepted as model of science. If anything, Popper's views on science are more widely accepted.

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Features of Positivism

The main features of positivism are:

  • There are objective social facts about the social world. These facts can be expressed as statistics.
  • These facts are not influenced by the researcher's subjective viewpoint or thier beliefs about values and therefore value-free.
  • You can look for correlations.
  • It is possible to discover laws of human behaviour - causes of behaviour, which are true for all humans everywhere and throughout history just as there are laws in science.
  • Human behaviour is shaped by external stimuli rather than internal stimuli.
  • To be scientific you should only study what you can observe. It is therefore unscientific to study people's emotions, meanings or motives, which are internal to the unobservable mind.
  • Scientific knowledge is produced through induction; you collect evidence and induce a theory from the evidence.

Positivism is not universally accepted as model of science. If anything, Popper's views on science are more widely accepted.

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Karl Popper: Falsification and Science

An alternative view of science as a belief system was put forward by Karl Popper (1959). Popper agreed with Comte that social science, unlike religion, can be objective. However, unlike Comte, he did not believe it could produce laws that will necessarily be true for all time.

He saw all science as based on falsifiable theories, which made precise predictions that could then be tested. if repeatedly tested and found to be correct, a theory may be provisionally accepted, but there is always the possibility that it will be proved wrong (or falsified) in the future.

Popper believed that sociology could be objective if it made precise predictions that could be falsified. However, he regarded some sociology, such as Marxism, as unscientific because it did not include precise predictions. For example, Marx did not produce precise predictions about when a proletariat revolution would take place.

Popper did not see science as ideological - he saw it as a genuine search for the truth. However, he argued that social scientists needed to make precise predictions and be careful to make their theories falsifiable if they were to be seen as scientific.

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Deductive Approach

Popper used a deductive approach: from the theory you deduce hyptheses and make precise predictions, then check that these are correct. (This is unlike the inductive approach of positivism, which induces theories from the data collected). Both Popper and positivists see scientific belief systems as superior to other belief systems. However, positivists see science as producing objective truth, while Popper saw science as getting close as possible to the truth, although it was always possible that a theory would be falsified in the future.

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Science in Social Context

Some sociologists do not see science as being objective in the way believed by positivists and Popper. Instead, they argue that science is a belief system, like any other, which is influenced and shaped by the society in whihc those beliefs are produced.

As well as being influenced by the broad social context, scientific knowledge can be influenced by the desires of scientists to have successful careers. This means that scientists may not always be objective. Kaplan (1964) distinguished between reconstructed logics (the methods scientists claim to use) and logic in use (the actual methods they use).

Michael Lynch (1983) illustrated this by showing how scientists studying rats' brains ignored slides that contradicted their theories, dismissing them as artefacts (or mistakes produced during the laboratory procedures). He argued that scientists look for evidence to confirm theories and ignore evidence that might falsify them. They are reluctant to accept evidence that may undermine their work.

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Key Study: Evolution

Roger Gomm (1982) agues that Darwin's theory of evolution was accepted because the social context of Victorian Britian,with its laissez-faire (lets do it) capitalism, welcomed the ideas of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Opposition to social revolution encourages acceptane of evolutionary theory, and of fossil evidence, because evolutionary thinking allowed Victorian Britons to see themselves as superior to thepeoplein conquered colonies.

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Postmodernism and Science

Lyotard (1984) believed that science is just another metanarrative or big sotry about the world, with no more validity than other metanarratives. He argued therefore that science is not different in kind from any other belief system. Different belief systems are accepted in different societies and at different stages in history, and no one belief system is superior to others.

According to Lyotard, science involves a metanarrative of progress, suggesting that humans can cntrol and perfect the world. This view became more influential from the 18th century onwards, although it never completely replaced religion. However, in the modern era the metanarrative of progress came to dominate Western thought. Then in recent decades modernity has been replaced by postmodernity.

In postmodernity, people become sceptical of all metanarratives that tell them what is right and wrong, and tell them how to live their lives. Science has become discredited because it has failed to solve problems such as cancer, and it has been used in a way that creates new problems (such as nuclear weapons and global warming).

Science consists of denotative language games, which are based upon whether statements are true or not. Denotative language games have been replaced by technical language games, concerned with whether things are useful rather than whether they are true.

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Postmodernism and Science Continued

People may therefore no longer seek the truth from one single belief system; instead they can pick and choose from a whole variety of different belief systems. These are outlined below:

Scientific beliefs; In the modern era, scientific knowledge was accepted as the objective truth. In postmodernity, science is seen as just one amongst many possible truths (e.g. people use alternative therapies as well as traditional scientific medicine).

Political beliefs; In previous eras, political ideologies, such as communism and fascism, had a powerful influence in modern societies. In postmodernity, people reject single political metanarratives but may be interested in single-issue politics (e.g. ecology, human rights or the rights of minority groups).

Religious beliefs; In previous eras, religion was dominant in pre-modern societies and most people still believed in one of the dominant world religions in the modern era. In postmodernity, people no longer follow single religion, but pick and choose from the variety of beliefs available in New Age movements, sects and cults.

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Most sociologists agree that the degree of faith in science is influenced by social factors. However, as science allows beliefs to be tested against the evidence, the scientific belief that withstand testing are seen as objective truths.

However, the extent to which science has lost influence can be exaggerated. For examples, most people still rely upon scientifically based healthcare and technology is integral to people's lives, although people may be more sceptical about science than they were in the past.

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Examiners' Notes

  • Use Comte's ideasas a starting point for essay questions such as those about whether science has replaced religion as an ideological influence in society.
  • Look out for 10 mark questions asking you to explain the differences between two alternative theories of science, or asking you to compare science and religion as belief systems.
  • The ideas of postmodernists such as Lyotard contrast with all the other perspectives in belief systems, so are invaluable for giving you a chance to demonstrate analysis and evaluation skills on this and other topics.
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