Can Science Answer Everything? Science Vs. Religion

Math formula

Experiment [science] is the only means of knowledge at our disposal. Everything else is poetry, imagination” – Max Planck.

Many people today take the position that science can answer everything. This viewpoint (whether known or not) involves the affirmation of the idea that science can answer questions of origins, morality and human purpose as well as the workings of astrophysical bodies and the function of DNA within the cell nucleus. Whilst science is no doubt an amazing field of study, research and discovery, I fear that many individuals today have propelled this subject into a position of prominence in which it cannot itself bear the weight of without crumbling.

This ‘scientific’ view of life has a number of names: ‘scientific naturalism’, ‘metaphysical naturalism’[1] , or ‘scientism’. Oxford University Chemist Professor Peter Atkinson is an outspoken believer in this worldview. He asserts that:

Every real question, like, where did the universe come from, where is it going, and how is it getting there – there is nothing of that nature that science cannot illuminate”[2]

Is this position tenable however? It is one thing to make a claim, and another thing to actually demonstrate it to be true.

It seems to me that at the heart of this contention, the underlying issues come to light in the term and saying that we all know and/or hear about so frequently; namely being: science Vs religion or science Vs faith and the unending debate between the two fields. It is assumed by many that science deals with a certain set of questions pertaining to hard facts and real knowledge whilst religion only deals with questions pertaining to purpose, afterlife and morality, all things that are optionally believed but not true or useful for objectivity in real life. Stephen Jay Gould coined this division as ‘Non-Overlapping Magisteria’.[3]

There are multiple problems that follow on from scientific naturalism however, the most obvious of which being that there are many questions that science simply cannot answer. What tends to happen when a person (who holds to scientism) tries to answer a question outside of the realms of science, is that they step into the world of philosophy (usually without even realising). Once this happens, the individual who is trying to prove that their worldview is logically cogent has simultaneously refuted their own worldview, rendering their argument quite useless.

Is it really science vs religion?

Of course this is the idea that is portrayed nowadays, however history paints a completely different backstory story. First and foremost we should understand that every major field of science that we have today (from mathematics, to physics to chemistry etc. – what we call modern science) was started by a believer in God, and not just any God, specifically the God of the Bible. In his book ‘For the Glory of God’ Sociologist and Professor of the social sciences at Baylor University Rodney Stark states that:

Science was not the work of western secularist or even deists; it was entirely the work of devout believers in an active, conscious, creator God.[4]

Professor of History at Queens Mary University Thomas Dixson similarly remarks that:

It was never the intentions of the pioneers of modern science – men such as Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, or Rene Descartes – to undermine religions belief. Far from it. They envisaged Nature as an orderly system of mechanical interactions governed by mathematical Laws. And they hoped that people would see in this new vision the strongest possible evidence of divine power and intelligence.[5]

Secondly, contrary to popular belief, for the most part of the last 2000 years, science and religion have not been at warIn fact this whole idea of ‘science vs religion’’ only originated in the 19th century, just some 2-300 years ago. Two well-known historians were the primary cause of this: Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper. Dickson and White were the two most influential promoters of the ‘conflict thesis’ (the idea that science and religion were conflicting) and they determined to set religion and science into two opposing paths.[6] In his book ‘A history of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom’, White used the metaphor of ‘warfare’ to describe the relation between science and religion.[7]

Ultimately, what we need to realise is that before this point, the average scientist (in the western world) was a Christian, and as we have seen above, it was due to their faith in God that they were able to do such good science, not the opposite. It was because of their belief in the truth of scripture that they determined to apply their knowledge to the physical world. This application is what enabled western world science to advance far beyond that of eastern science where they still held to philosophical and deistic claims about the world. The myth of ‘science vs religion’ is quite frankly unfounded within history and most historians of science of today do not hold to this view anymore. As Lawrence M. Principe Professor of Humanities at Johns Hopkins University puts it:

The idea that scientific and religious camps have historically been separate and antagonistic is rejected by all modern historians of science.[8]

Questions that science cannot answer

Let’s now turn to the main investigation at hand; what are some of the questions that science cannot answer? We will just look at 8 questions of which science has no ultimate say.

  • Science cannot tell us whether or not God exists: This question is by definition, outside the realms of science (since science is to do with things you can observe, test repeat and confirm). This type of a question would fall under the domain of philosophy; within this field, we could come up with a more definite answer, but not in science. Of course, we can use science in order to provide evidence for or against God’s existence, however It cannot give the definitive yes or no answer.
  • Science cannot answer questions of history (objectively speaking): for example, how do we scientifically test who first president of the United States was? You can’t. We find this information out through historical records not scientific experimentation. This is not to say that we cannot infer past event using the scientific method (creationists and evolutionists both do infer past events alike based on an interpretation of the present facts at hand), however many questions such as whether holocaust really happen or not (I do believe it did happen) are not answered by scientifically testing people or buildings; we look to history for this.
  • Science cannot answer questions of origins, purpose and afterlife: How do you scientifically test for a purpose to life? How do you scientifically test if there is an afterlife? A scientific naturalist might say that we are just atoms and chemicals and the universe – which is made up of time space and matter – is all there is, and so there is no afterlife. The issue here is that that very worldview is a philosophy in itself, it is not a statement of truth or science (although it could be true). You could just as easily have a theist say that there is a God and therefore there is a metaphysical reality above the material world. Secondly the idea that the universe only contains time space and energy are a part of the very question at hand we are trying to determine. Scientific naturalism assumes that there is nothing metaphysical, and then goes onto say that there cannot be anything metaphysical because materialism is true. This would be a form of logical fallacy known as circular reasoning, or ‘begging the question’. The actual question isn’t answered because the materialist has assumed their worldview to be correct in order to answer a question that fits within their worldview.
  • The question of how we came to be on an organic and cosmic level are questions that science cannot fully answer. We can derive evidence of the answer from science but yet again, whether you believe in evolution or creation, both of these events were not observed by humans and so again fall outside of science into the realms of philosophy, theology and history.
  • Science cannot answer questions of morality: How do we determine what is right and wrong? Again, historically the fields of theology and philosophy have been at the forefront of this type of search, not science. The obvious question here becomes, how does science point us to a moral code/conduct? It seems to me that science can tell us how something worksBut it cannot tell us why we should carry out an action. For example, if someone is drowning in a lake, science explains to us how they will die within minutes if they are not saved; however, science cannot tell a passer-by why they should jump into the water in order to save the drowning personThat is a moral choice one is compelled to make apart from any knowledge of science.
  • Science cannot answer what the mind is: We know through scientific study and observation that humans have brains, and we can detect and study neurons are conducted through synaptic connections as we grow and develop. However, what is a thought? What is the mind? Scientists do not know exactly what these things are and how they interact with the brain for the simple fact that the mind and our thoughts are immaterial. For example, when you learn a new piece of information, your brain doesn’t suddenly gain ever so slightly in weight. It remains as it is, your entire life. This raises a fundamental question, where are our thoughts stored? Because of the nature of the mind, science cannot offer us an answer because science only deals with what is observable, testable, and repeatable. Of course, the field of neuroscience is a great area of research, and much has been uncovered about the human brain and how nervous system develops. But the point still stands that neuroscience won’t tell us what the mind or for that matter consciousness fundamentally is.
  • Science cannot answer why mathematical laws exist: Einstein marvelled at the appropriateness of mathematical laws in the universe when he said, “How is it possible that mathematics, a product of human thought that is independent of experience, fits so excellently the objects of physical reality?”[9] Einstein saw that there was a major disconnect between doing science and knowing why it works. What he realised was that mathematical laws seemed to be embedded in nature quite independent from what scientists could come up with in their own minds. He, as a scientist, could use mathematical laws, and express them in terms of mathematical equation and formulae, however he could not answer (through science) how they came to be, why they fit so well with his perceived knowledge within science, and how they allowed him to make correct predictions about the world and universe, they just seemed to be there ready to use. The laws of mathematics are immaterial, and yet they are foundational to science especially in the area of physics. What we uncover here is a huge amount of faith underpinning the very essence of science at its core. Scientists have no choice but to maintain that the laws of mathematics are real and will be upheld, without any scientific experimentation to back that claim up. For a theist this might not be such a problem since you would expect God, as a rational being, to create laws that are rational and logical in order for us to utilise. For an atheists however, this might pose a large dilemma; how does so much order come from chaos and blind chance? furthermore why are the laws so consistent? No matter which side you take, the bottom line is that science cannot tell us why these laws exist.
  • Science cannot answer how the scientific method itself came about: What is the scientific method? It is essentially a set of techniques applied to certain phenomena in order to research, and eventually gain new knowledge that was previously unknown. Anything done within the scientific method (observation, hypothesis, testing, repeating, confirmation) can be classed as science; anything outside of this would be classed as something else. The scientific method is said to have characterized science since the 17th century until today by a range of highly acclaimed scientists over the centuries.[10] However, the scientific method itself didn’t come about by the scientific method! It wasn’t an observable phenomenon found in nature tested on, repeated, refined and then eventually released as the latest discovery. It’s It is used in that exact way to characterise what it science, however it itself wasn’t discovered by that same method.
  • Science cannot answer why science works in the first place: The claim that science is the only way we can know anything has a fundamental problem. Bertrand Russell famous philosopher claimed that “Whatever knowledge is attainable must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, man cannot know.”[11] Here is the underlying problem: Russell has made a bold claim about science, however the very statement of speech he has made wasn’t discovered or tested by science/the scientific method, and so is his claim true? In other words, if his claim is true… it is false. It’s a self-refuting worldview right off the bat. There is an even deeper issue here at play however, and that is this (in the word of Professor John Lennox): “at the heart of all science, every scientist no matter who they are or when they have lived, has had a fundamental belief – faith – that the universe is accessible at least in part to the human mind. We call that the rational intelligibility of the universe”.[12] The rational intelligibility of the universe is basically the underlying fact that the human mind has the ability to comprehend the universe (at least in part). This is foundational to science, after all animals are not able to comprehend the universe in the same way we can, and because of this they are extremely limited in their overall perception of the world and what they can do within it compared on a whole with human beings. The rational ineligibility of the universe is taken for granted, not just by scientists, but by everybody, yet it is not a concept that science has an answer to.

There are many more questions like these that we could pose, such as why did music develop? Why do we only seem to move in one direction of time? Is the universe infinite? Why is over 80% of the world religious? Hopefully however this article at least gives an outline of the basic assumptions that every scientist takes for granted (when we look at the basic definition of science and what it can actually account for). My interests lie in philosophy, science and religion and so my questions were thought up along those lines of enquiry, but it would be an fascinating field of research to find out just how many questions in total science cannot answer! Maybe it’s possible that nobody in the world can answer a question like this.

Referencing/citation:

[1] Dr. Denis Alexander () Can Science Explain Everything?, Available at: https://www.bethinking.org/does-science-disprove-god/can-science-explain-everything

[2] P. W. Atkins (2011) On being: a scientist’s exploration of the great questions of existence, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] Stephen Jay Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria”, Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16-22

[4] Stark, R., For the Glory of God: How monotheism led to reformations, science, witch-hunts and the end of slavery, Princeton University Press, 2003

[5] Dixon, Thomas (2008) Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction, : Oxford University Press. [P46-47]

[6]Frederick M. Seiler (2008) Science, Religion, and the Rise and Fall of the “Conflict Thesis”, Available at: http://fredseiler.com/essays/ConflictThesis.htm

[7] Dixon White (1896) History of the Warfare of science with theology in Christendom, : D. Appleton & Company

[8]Lawrence M. Principe, Transcript book for lecture course Science and Religion (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2006), [p. 23]

[9] Albert Einstein (1879 – 1995)

[10] Scientific Method , Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/scientific_method

[11] Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970), Religion and Science, OUP, p. 243, 1961

[12] John Lennox () Faith and Science – Atheism vs Theism , Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bjm4zJKVOE&index=13&list=PLmDyNeFa7FOsSPJ2sPYfDFFriXyeVmBJn&t=325s

2 thoughts on “Can Science Answer Everything? Science Vs. Religion

  1. You are correct. Science is not competent to address things outside of the narrow physical, material realm. Yet, for many folks in these times, science has become a substitute for authentic religion, thus the term scientism.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Completely agreed! People lift science to such high esteem that it simply just falls under it’s own weight, yet these people still cannot loosen their grip even just a bit. Scientism is a completely irrational and self refuting belief system.

      Liked by 1 person

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