Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas


What Science Can't Tell Us

For all its achievements, science will never be able to give us all the answers.

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There is a view that science can ultimately explain everything, can answer every legitimate question. It is called scientism. Interestingly, most scientists consider scientism a pretty dubious doctrine. Many accept there are questions that science has not, and perhaps cannot, answer.

Take moral questions, for example. Is killing always wrong? Is it morally acceptable to design a baby? Science can make new technologies possible, including weapons of mass destruction and genetic engineering. But most scientists agree that science cannot tell us whether it is ever morally permissible to use such technologies. It seems, as the philosopher David Hume famously noted, that science ultimately reveals only what is the case; it cannot tell us what we morally ought or ought not to do.

Nor, it seems, can science explain why the universe itself exists – why there is anything at all. Scientific explanations involve appealing to natural causes or laws. For example, if you ask why the water froze in the pipes last night, a scientist might explain by pointing out that the temperature of the water fell below zero, and that it is a law of nature that water freezes below zero. That would explain why the water froze. But what explains why there are any natural laws or causes in the first place? What explains why there is a natural world at all? Why there is something rather than nothing? Here, it would seem, science cannot provide answers.

Having said that, much that is traditionally supposed to be off-limits for science is not off-limits at all. Those who believe in psychic powers, or the therapeutic powers of crystals, or the effectiveness of petitionary prayer, or the existence of God will often insist that these claims concern aspects of reality that are supposedly beyond the remit of the empirical sciences. These claims supposedly concern what lies “behind the veil”, as it were. Those who would reject such claims on scientific grounds are often warned that they should show a little humility and acknowledge, with Hamlet, that there are “more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy”.  

The truth, however, is that such claims very often are empirically assessable. For they have empirically observable consequences. If someone claims petitionary prayer works – has positive medical effects, for example – we can test that claim. We can do a proper controlled experiment to see if petitionary prayer has such effects. Such studies have been done. They establish, beyond reasonable doubt, that prayer doesn’t work. God hypotheses are also potentially empirically refutable insofar as they have empirically observable consequences. Which they often do.

Consider, for example, the hypothesis that the universe was created by an all-powerful, all-evil being – an evil god, if you like. No one takes that hypothesis seriously and for good reason: the universe may contain much evil, but it also contains a great deal of good – far too much for it to be the creation of such a malignant deity. We may not know the answer to the question “Why does the universe exists?” and indeed it may be that we cannot know the answer. Still, we might quite reasonably cross certain God hypotheses off our list of likely candidates: including Zeus, Thor and this Evil God. So why might we not cross the Judeo-Christian God off the list too?

As with biologist Rupert Sheldrake, I am in complete agreement that, far from being off-limits to science, many such claims are indeed potentially empirically confirmable or falsifiable.

Stephen Law is a philosopher at the University of London, where he specialises in the philosophy of religion. His books include The War for Children’s Minds and Believing Bullshit, of which Chapter 1 is available to read free here.

Image credit: Bilal Kamoon

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Kevin Denny 15 February 2014

The explanation here for why water froze is circular: it doesn't tell us anything.

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