What Science Cannot Do

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There is a strong difference between science and the humanities, including disciplines such as philosophy and theology.  Those who follow scientism (the belief that science alone is the highest human discipline) often seem to be very confused about how science cannot study, research, analyze, and then from that explain the who, what, when, where, and why of all of the physical world.

A great example, ironically from the atheist camp, illustrates this point.  In his book The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Bobby Henderson explains how global warming is a result of the decrease of the number of pirates on the planet.  He argues that because global temperatures have increased and the number of pirates have decreased over the same period of time, then they must have a causal relationship; viz. one made the other one happen.

Did you spot the major flaw in that argument?  How could it be even likely that fewer pirates have had that sort of impact?  Science can only show that global temperatures have gone up and the number of pirates have declined.  Science ends with the collection and presentation of data.  After that comes the need for chin-scratching, question-asking, and theory-creating.  Henderson comically leaps to the conclusion that these two pieces of data must be related, and therefore the solution is to recruit more people to become gold-hungry buccaneers in order to save the planet.

A real-world case would be… wait for it… evolutionary science.  (Here is my beef with both science and Christian apologists including Ken Ham and the folks at the Creation Museum.)  Science can find artifacts, analyze them, suggest how old they are, analyze their structures and compare them to other artifacts.  What science cannot do is suggest relationship between organisms, suggest that one “evolved” from another, that they all have a common ancestor, or that there was no action from God to have started or completed the whole process (which they cannot adequately describe).  All they can do is present the pieces of the puzzle.

Ever tried to put together a secondhand jigsaw puzzle?  Missing edge pieces, ripped pieces, and a whole mess of sky that has gone missing is enough to send any puzzler away crying.  Imagine a puzzle with more than a million pieces and only having about a hundred, none of which connect with another.  This is what evolutionary theory is built on.  And even so it has done a pretty good job!  If you look at what Darwin says in his Origin of Species and try to find where current scientific research cannot fall in line with it, well, good luck.  It does seem to be very cohesive!

But a cohesive explanation does not mean that it must be the truth.

On the other hand, if you happen to be traveling in the area of southwestern Ohio, stop in to see the Creation Museum.  What you will not see is any scientific evidence that is used to support evolution.  None.  There is no evidence of “primitive man” to even miss.  Ham does not have any trouble with dinosaurs, to which there is a whole wing dedicated.  But other artifacts are not present.  Why?  I can only speculate that Ham and his team have no reasonable explanation for them.  What does this do to their illegitimacy in the scientific community?  Well, let’s just say that Miss Piggy gets more respect in the barnyard.

The distance between science and the humanities does not stop with evolution.  The now classic movie Jurassic Park dramatizes how going unchecked science can reek havoc on the world!  There are laboratories that are not bringing dinosaurs back from extinction, but which are manufacturing “superbugs,” essentially unstoppable viruses simply because they can and to study them.  What happens if a virus like that gets loose?  What happens if one worker gets an idea to help with overpopulation?

Science needs disciplines like morality, philosophy, and theology to not only help answer the whys and hows, but to keep it going in a reasonable and helpful track.  Just because science can doesn’t mean it should.  Just because science uncovers evidence that fits a theory, does not mean that the theory is truth.  Philosophers, people of faith and scientists  need to come together in their search for truth.  Archaeological evidence needs to be examined by all parties to discover what it may tell us about our past as a species and about Earth our home.

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12 thoughts on “What Science Cannot Do

  1. I believe the question “why?” is a perfectly reasonable question most people(including scientists) ask in their day-to-day experiences. Why did he or she design the oil filter to go there? Why did CS Lewis write novels–who or what inspired him? Why do bad things happen to good people? Most ask these questions every day regardless of a religious belief or lack of. As an engineer, I ask the “why?” question a lot.

    In principle, I can see your point about science being about the “whats”, but that’s because of how most scientists have defined science–with materialistic assumptions. Unless you are like Mr Spock, I don’t know anyone who can perfectly adhere to the strict assumptions of science—most people eventually form an opinion, a world-view, a bias, a belief about the “whys?” This may be based on observations, empirical evidence, past experiences, a hunch, an eye witness, abductive logic–not just scientifc proof. And I believe it’s reasonable/sensible for people to do this—whether they can provide rigourous scientific proof or not to back their belief up. As Christians we can certainly use scientific discoveries to support the case for our beliefs (although not as rigorous proof). Yes, we may have to call this something else–theology or philosopy. Again, I reiterate: science is excellent, robust and reliable within the definitions it has set for itself; it’s something we should respect and celebrate(and thank God for)—but it has no monopoly on discovering truth.

    • Scientists ask ‘how’ and ‘what’ and the ‘why’ derives from that. The operation to understand the process. Your ‘why’ inquires into reason, and Science doesn’t need that.

  2. I’m sorry you feel like I don’t value your perspective. In fact, I really do. I’ve always loved engaging in constructive, intelligent debate and you certainly fit under that category. I am, however, a young Brit, new to the whole blogging world, so please take what I say with a pinch of salt because I don’t mean to undervalue what you say. The reason I come back to comment is because I get to enjoy such quality debates.

    But the difference between Science and Theology with my argument there is, Science doesn’t rule out anything, whereas Theology is rigid and relies on Faith. This is why Science is equipped to ask fundamental questions – more so than Theology IMO.

    Seeming as you CAN appreciate Science then, at what point to you think Science is constrained and limited? You seem happy to accept it, until it intervenes with the word of ‘God’. Do you believe evolution? If not, what do you believe? You can point to missing links, but there are copious numbers of links that point to evolution. And what you’ll find with Science, is that new findings rarely replace old ones; merely improve them. Current evidence of evolution won’t develop into creationism, from what we have already discovered.

    Also, I’ve studied Cosmology to a high level, and you can indeed study phenomena throughout time. And what we can say is, we can be pretty sure that the same laws of Science existed at that time. There would be no reason to dispute it, and I don’t see why you would? What casual links are you referring to – the existence of God? But how can anyone prove God other than with a leap of faith?

    (By the way, I never usually use Science in my religious debates – I keep my study and opinion separate and treat them as coincidence.)

    The point you make with Science and its moral compass is an important one. But if you look back in time, don’t you think there’s an ulterior motive? – usually political. Furthermore. with controversial studies like animal testing, which I hate, the ultimate goal is to improve the lives of humans. Science follows the direction of others; it stands for little other than discovery.

    Thanks for responding to me by the way, I really appreciate it!

  3. First, evolution is really just a philosphy which uses scientific discoveries to argue its position. Because most of those philosophers that promote evolution are “scientists,” most people are fooled into thinking that evolution is science.

    Second, science is incapable of “proving” anything. Science can only disprove previous theories and accepted “proofs.” That is because, as any reputable scientist will admit, science doesn’t know everything (if it did, we would no longer have any use for science). Not so long ago, science said that the atom was the smallest thing. Of course, science has since discovered even smaller things.

    Third, science can only explain what is observed; it cannot explain why. For instance, science can explain gravity using all kinds of calculations as to how one object of a certain mass will attract another object of anoother mass. However, as much as science can predict how objects will react to gravity, it cannot explain how graivty actually works–what makes one object attracted to another object?

    Fourth, the ultimate foundation for science is faith; faith that our universe is rational. There is no way that science can prove that the universe is rational. Science has to believe that the universe is rational or science isn’t possible. As scientist study physics at the quantum level, they find that these sub-atomic objects act in irrational ways–ways that they have yet to be able to explain. Since their faith in a rational universe is unshakable, they are convinced that some day they will discover rational explainations for these seemingly irrational behaviors.

    Science is a great thing. It has not only helped us better understand the universe that God created, but has also vastly improved our quality of life. However, it’s important to understand the limits of science; not that there is anything fundamentally wrong with science, just that it has its limitations. Let’s not make science a god.

    • Few issues with this…

      “Not so long ago, science said that the atom was the smallest thing. Of course, science has since discovered even smaller things”

      No it didn’t. It said it’s the smallest thing that we can detect. And what we say now is that a lepton (branch of particle) is the smallest particle we can detect and it’s at most 10^-18 m. Pretty small!

      “it cannot explain why”

      Why isn’t an important question unless you feel the need to ask it. Which religious people do.

      “scientist study physics at the quantum level, they find that these sub-atomic objects act in irrational ways–ways that they have yet to be able to explain”

      The only aim is to decribe how they act – which we can. Rationality is only a concept humans possess and apply. We don’t expect a fundamental, rational ‘answer’. Scientists just study ‘what is’.

      • Science doesn’t “expect a fundamental, rational ‘answer'” only because it already assumes that the universe acts in a rational way. And, that being, it assumes there is a fundamental rational answer for everything. If there doesn’t seem to be, it’s just that science hasn’t discovered it yet.

        If science does not assume a rational universe, then science can not exist–there would be no reason to believe that you can have any real understanding of the universe. There would be no basis for believing that an experiment can be repeated with the same results.

        Science attempts to do more than simply observe and make note of its observations. It attempts to explain and quantify what it observes. It seeks to duplicate what it observes in order to be sure that its explanation is correct. The only way it can do this is if nature is rational.

        Now, if you are truly arguing that science only aim is describe how things act, then trying to connect the dots between what it observes in order to construct an explanation as to how the universe came to be and how we (the human race) came to be, is outside the realm of science.

        You have just argued my point that evolution is not science. It is a philosophical world-view that uses scientific “observations” to argue its position. Furthermore, it’s a world-view that denies anything that is outside of nature.

        The theories of evolution are all greatly flawed, so much so that there are numerous conflicting theories. Evolution theory (macro evolution) has so many holes in it that it would otherwise be discarded if not for the initial denial of any possible force outside of nature. Since evolutionist say there is no god, then evolution must be true because, even though the theory is so extremely weak and highly improbably, it’s the best explanation we’ve got.

        Unfortunately, we’ve been taught over and over again in our schools that this philosophy is actually in itself science. I do not think that creationism should be taught in the science classroom, nor do I think that evolutionary theory should be taught there either. Both should be taught in the philosophy classroom.

    • I agree that Science can’t prove irrationality – nothing can. Flying Spaghetti Monsters spring to mind here…

      To acknowledge a supreme being, we do need to observe some form of rational effect on the world that isn’t completely arbitrary. Faith, which comes in millions of forms when it comes to religion, can be anything. So we attest the claims in the bible – which has a copious amount of flaws you speak of when downplaying evolution.

  4. Great post! I would also add that science cannot answer the question “why?” in the grand scheme of things. Why are we here? Why is there a universe? Another issue we as believers face is that many scientist define science with a materialistic view. Therefore from their very definition of science they’ve excluded God or theism as an option. That’s okay and I can live with that. Science has proven well its ability to explain much of the world and is a reliable source for discoving knowledge. But let’s not be so presumptuous to believe it (science) can discover all truth. Evidence afterall is limited to what can be detected by our senses and technology and there is no doubt some subjectivity as we (humans) examine and interpret the evidence.

    • “Why?” is not a necessary question unless one feels the need to ask it. Indeed religious people inherently have that need to feel at one with a higher being, but that doesn’t make any of it any more true..

      • It is not just religious people who have the need to ask “Why?” Philosophers ask “why. Those in the pseudo-sciences of psychology ask “Why” (as in “why do people do what they do?).

        Religious people do not necessarily “have a need to feel at one with a higher being.” Many religious people of different faiths believe in a higher being, but do not feel at one with this higher being. Many feel very much separated from their god.

        As far as truth goes, science has nothing to do with truth. Science is only interested in facts. As soon as you start looking for “truth,” you are asking “Why?”

  5. As an advocate of theology, there’s a reason you can’t comprehend scientific theory. There is no guesswork; theory is built on the foundations of evidence (more than anything religion could ever conjure up). Religion, meanwhile, is restricted and constrained by the rigid limits of scripture – one take of it or the other, there is little in qualification to study the most fundamental questions (unlike philosophy).

    Science is not just playing jigsaw and being inadequate – it questions itself, it thoroughly provides evidence and stands to be proven wrong. As a Physicist, I’ve seen so many theories be taught as theories not fact. Often, when a theory is revised, it isn’t proven wrong, just we have discovered more. The facts come from evidence. We say electron travelled from A to B, probably in a straight line because of the higher probability but it can travel in anyway it wants. By studying the probabilities of all its paths you can study the rests and proclaim fact.

    With respect to your evolution argument, because our existence and findings of fossils isn’t enough for you (apologies, there could be more but I’m not a biologist, nor are you), the only reason we can’t show you it is true is because are lifespan isn’t long enough (something that Science can improve by the way).

    And, I don’t know whether or not you’ve been watching too many movies, but there’s no evil Russian, German, English, Japanese Scientists creating superbugs. Moral compasses come from us, philosophy, sociology along with many other branches. Theology is merely a a study of a footprint of human civilisation and its moral guidance continues to leave a lot more to be desired.

    • It’s good to hear from someone who apparently knows what all science is working on at the moment 😉

      It is true that I am not a scientist; although I am in a family of 4 physicists, 2 of whom are Christian and 2 of whom are agnostic. We have had many heated discussions about matters of faith and science. Even so I could easily use your argument against you and suggest that you are inadequately qualified to discuss matters of faith and theology. The difference being I respect what you contribute, but in spite of your interest on the topic as evidenced by your participation in comments, you do not value my perspective.

      In fact this tends to be the case with most atheists that I have had discussions with. Very few have had adequate knowledge of theology to even attend a coherent argument. Most show a defined lack of understanding on matters of faith and theology, even those who “used to be a born again Christian.” If God were as impersonal as gravity, science could have much to say about His existence or lack thereof. Alas, a personal being cannot be so quantified or studied.

      Science classes as far back as grade school (in public education, by the way) taught me that science cannot demonstrate causal relationships. The scientific theory is not set up to do that, even if we had adequate empirical evidence to demonstrate the validity of the scientific theory itself other than an infinite regression. We cannot demonstrate that things we observe as scientific fact in today’s world have always been true or always will be true. All we can say is that we have consistently observed a phenomenon and so it would be reasonable to assume that it will continue to be the case in the future.

      My illustration of the jigsaw puzzle is very relevant, especially in terms of evolutionary science. Those who discovered and studied the most recent “missing link” (named “Ida” in 2009) fully admitted that there are likely thousands of artifacts that they do not have that would be required to fill in gaps in the evolutionary line. As I said in my post, evolutionary theory makes sense and there seems to be little if any evidence to contradict it. That does not mean that it is the true one or the only possibility. It is simply the best we have to go on at the moment.

      By the way, I do not mean to suggest that science has no moral compass. As a discipline, it does not and has no need of one. Thankfully scientists do have moral compasses, though not all have ones that guide them to do their research to the betterment of the human race or the planet. I am sure that you can be “good without god” in a noble humanitarian sense of the word. Science, as purely a search for knowledge, can easily stray off into the amoral jungle. There is a strong history of scientific research I could point you to demonstrate the point if you are unaware of it.

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