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The Limits of Science

A popular saying today is “follow the science,” which implies that it is science that will show us the correct path in life, and a person is wise who follows its guidance. I believe that science is a very powerful tool that helps us understand many of the mechanisms of our universe, but I also maintain that there are many mysteries of life that science alone will never penetrate, and science alone is insufficient to provide the wisdom we need to live a good life.

The scope of science

Science is limited in its scope. It restricts itself to studying things that can be observed and measured. I am teaching some 6th grade boys how to program a computer and make a video game. I told them they could calculate the distance between two coordinates using the Pythagorean Theorem, and one of them said something about the power of math. I told them that math is very powerful and can tell you a lot of things, but there are some things it can’t tell you, such as if you like a particular girl. (You can imagine the reaction that got.)

Sure, science can do a study to measure various bodily reactions in subjects as they look at different pictures of women, but that is not the same thing as a particular young man deciding he likes a particular young woman. An amazing thing about the human person is that he can choose to not follow the physical impulses that can be measured in a lab, but to follow some higher motivation that is beyond the ability of science to detect.

Because science has made so many gains in the narrow scope in which it does work, many people have come to believe that it is only that scope that matters. The questions that science cannot answer are now judged as unimportant or even nonsensical. This is scientism, an ideology that science is the only means of knowledge, and anything science can’t tell us is not worth knowing. Scientism is not scientific, but is a philosophical assumption based on an ideological preference. Since philosophy is not science, scientism judges itself to be unimportant or nonsensical.

Love, beauty, truth, goodness, and justice are all very important ideas, and they are central to who we are as humans. Disciplines such as philosophy, art, literature, history, and theology are all important for a deep understanding of these ideas. Science alone cannot cut it, so those who only want to follow the science end up being shallow and foolish when it comes to what makes us human.

Science is done by humans

The scientific method is a rational process, but it is performed by humans who are not always rational. As unbiased as we try to be, we are affected by our assumptions and and beliefs. This is especially true when it comes to topics that are heavily political, such as climate change and the coronavirus. Even when the process is followed perfectly, humans decide what questions to study, how to set up the studies and experiments, which data is valid and which data is erroneous, and how to interpret the data. These decisions all involve human judgment that is not always impartial.

Today, the situation is worsened by the fact that more and more topics are being judged to be off-limits. Certain questions are considered to be too dangerous to even ask, and if someone gets the “wrong” answer, it could mean the end of his career. How can we trust that the professionals are “following the science” in such an intellectual atmosphere?

Science is generally inaccessible

It is possible for many people to replicate the experiments of the early days of science so that we can see for ourselves that these early scientific ideas are true. These experiments are done in science classrooms throughout the world. However, most of the cutting edge science that goes on today is conducted by highly-trained specialists using expensive equipment. There may be only one or two places in the world where the experiments can be conducted with only a handful of people with the expertise to really understand what they mean. The rest of the world must trust what these people do and say.

If someone tells me that I need to “follow the science”, it is very unlikely that he means that he himself has done the science, nor does he expect me to replicate the experiment. What he means is that I must believe what a particular scientific authority is saying. Often times there are other authorities that disagree with them. If I am to follow the science, which science must I choose? Usually it is more a matter of institutional power that is behind a particular idea rather than the science being indisputable. Such an appeal to authority has always been considered a weak argument because it is really not much of an argument at all. It just points to someone else and tells us to believe.

Even though scientific verification is not available to most of us, we all have access to logic and common sense. Although it is true that such common sense is not infallible, we don’t have to completely throw it out just because someone cites a study that says the contrary.

Conclusion

I am not advocating that we be “anti-science”, but I am advocating a healthy skepticism when someone quotes a scientific authority to make people believe something that they don’t think is right. This is especially true for Christians because we do have another, very important source of knowledge and wisdom, which is the Word of God that has been revealed to us. I believe that revelation from God, rightly understood, will never contradict good science because God created the universe that science studies. He knows how it works better than any of us ever will. The conflicts only come about from either bad theology, such as a simplistic view of creation, or from people abusing science to make it say something outside the discipline, such as the claim that belief in God is irrational. Learn from science, but learn more from God.

6 replies on “The Limits of Science”

I would actually say you give science slightly too much credit here. In addition to everything you said, nontechnical extrapolations from science are extrapolations from the model. And while there is unmistakable progress in the precision and accuracy of the models, this is often accomplished by a complete redesign of the model (with the old model then regarded as a local or classical approximation.)

We saw this dramatically with the move from Newtonian to Einstein’s gravity: to correct a mild error in predicting the orbit of Mercury, an entire worldview had to be uprooted and replaced.

This is very similar to what you say about laymen following authority, not science. But even the scientist, when he talks about his science, talks in terms of the model, and not the underlying data. Though she typically has the expertise to know where the seams in the model are, she (in my experience) rarely communicates just how much correcting for that may change the story she tells about “science.”

Also, your blog has a bug where new lines are stripped from comments.

Maybe my comments shouldn’t be essays, I admit it, but having split it into paragraphs, seeing it as a blob of text is frustrating.

Well, there’s a bug or design flaw in the preview because one would expect it to give an accurate representation of what will be posted. I will look into it.

That’s a good point, Kevin. I remember hearing Richard Feynman speak about quantum mechanics, and he began by saying that what he was going to talk about was not real. It was an extreme simplification of a model of reality. The model can only be properly understood mathematically. The analogies he used in his talk were very poor, but they were the best he could do for an audience that couldn’t understand the math. However, even the model, properly understood, is not the same thing as reality.

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