The Wonders and Limitations of Science
by Harold Heie
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the SciTech newsletter, which is published by the Presbyterian Association of Science, Technology and the Christian Faith.
The benefits of science are legion. Consider the advances in recent years for the treatment of life-threatening diseases. Marvel also at the knowledge and benefits from space exploration. At the level of everyday life, few of us would return to the days before the power of electricity was harnessed, giving up the many convenient household appliances that we take for granted. And, the use of computers and other technological devices has given us unprecedented access to new information and the ability to efficiently disseminate information. This is just the tip of the iceberg; the list could go on and on.
These advances, and many more, have been enabled by the work of scientists, those committed to a methodology that is loosely called the “scientific method.” Although most practicing scientists will say that their work is not as neat and straightforward as textbook descriptions of the “scientific method” would make it appear, most, if not all, agree that the essence of their method is the testing of hypotheses that attempt to explain observable phenomena or the effects of such phenomena. Hypotheses that withstand criticism help scientists predict what will typically occur in a given situation. For example, if you drop an axe head into a pond, it will sink, and there are “laws of science” having to do with buoyancy that explain why this happens.
The knowledge gained by this method of investigating the world has been so enormous, and generally beneficial, that it is not unusual for the non-scientist, as well as some scientists, to place unlimited trust in the wonders wrought by scientific activity. But, to do so, is to ignore two limitations of science that are inherent in its method for obtaining knowledge.
Science Cannot Answer Questions as to the Purposes that Science Should Serve
Scientific knowledge can be used for good or for ill; for constructive purposes that enhance human life, or for purposes that diminish or eliminate human life. Scientific advances in medicine have led to cures for diseases that used to be death sentences. But, scientific advances in the production of poisonous gases were used by the Nazis to murder millions of Jews during the holocaust.
However, what is good and what is ill is not always so obvious. Witness the following questions pertinent to public policy decisions: Would the enormous amounts of money that the United States devotes to space exploration be better spent on social programs that directly address the needs of the poor in our country? Would the funds devoted to developing lethal weapons of war be better spent on promoting peaceful means for addressing conflicts between nations?
I am not suggesting that there are easy answers to these thorny questions. Rather, my point is that whether a scientist answers these questions with a “yes” or a “no,” her answer is not determined by her work as a scientist. Answers as to the appropriate uses of science are outside the purview of scientific investigation. A scientist, or anyone else, can answer such difficult questions only by engaging in ethical discourse that struggles with normative issues about “what ought to be”, not the descriptive issues of “what is” dealt with in scientific investigation.
A second potential limitation of science is more arguable. Therefore, I will introduce it in the form of a question:
Do the Aspects of Reality that can be Explained by Science Comprise all of Reality?
Some scientists hold to a view called “Naturalism,” which essentially holds that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes and “laws.” In its strongest form, naturalism asserts that “nature is all there is,” thereby precluding the possibility of any “supernatural” intervention from outside of nature.
Consider, then, what a scientist who embraces naturalism would say about the biblical account in II Kings 6: 5-7 that reports the phenomenon of an axe head floating in water. Impossible! Laws of science having to do with buoyancy, or lack thereof, can readily explain why axe heads cannot float in water. And, if one assumes that “nature is all there is,” this argument is impeccable. But, the assumption that “nature is all there is” is not a scientific finding. A scientist, in her role as scientist, must remain mute as to whether “nature is all that there is.” That assumption is a metaphysical assumption as to the nature of reality that is beyond the ken of scientific investigation. And, it is not the only possible assumption about the nature of reality that a scientist can hold (outside of her role as a scientist).
For example, it is not a violation of the “laws of science” to hold that the scope of scientific investigation is limited to explaining phenomena that have natural causes, but “phenomena that have natural causes” do not exhaust all of reality. Another way of saying this is that what we call the “laws of science” are actually descriptions of what happens in nature if nothing outside of nature intervenes. But, it is not a violation of a “law of nature” to believe that, in addition to the natural phenomena that these laws explain, there are aspects of reality that transcend natural phenomena. So, it is not a violation of a “law of science” to believe that a supernatural being, God, could intervene in what happens if nature is left to itself, even to the point of making an axe head float. As a theist, I happen to believe in the possibility of this “miracle” (a phenomenon that cannot be explained in terms of natural causes).
A belief that “nature is all there is” or the contrary belief that there is more to reality than nature are both metaphysical beliefs about the nature of reality, neither of which can be evaluated using the scientific method, since that method investigates only phenomena with natural causes. A scientist can embrace either Naturalism or Theism without violating any of the “laws of nature.”
This is not to suggest that Naturalism or Theism are equally adequate views. But, the conversation about the relative adequacy of these metaphysical positions is not a scientific endeavor. Rather, it is a different kind of discourse.
The Nature and Limits of Ethical and Metaphysical Discourse
Questions of how the results of scientific investigation “ought” to be used (the ethical question), and the extent to which scientific results can, or cannot, explain all of reality (the metaphysical question) cannot be answered by further scientific inquiry. They are questions about which a scientist must be mute, in her role as scientist. To demystify these two philosophical words a bit, they are questions that belong to “worldview” discourse.
By a “worldview” I mean a set of beliefs about the nature of reality, and the way I ought to live my life in light of my understanding of reality. Using that broad definition, everyone has a world view, from the devout religious believer to the staunchest atheist. Many have not carefully examined their worldview, or are unable to articulate it, because we have usually been socialized into a dominant worldview, without asking too many questions. Our worldview is the lens through which we see our world and our place in our world, whether we think much about it or not.
The Theist and the Naturalist obviously hold different worldviews. Can they talk about their differences? Some would argue that there is no possibility for discourse since there is no basis for judging whether any one particular worldview is “better” or “worse.” According to this view, adherence to a particular worldview is a matter of personal preference or personal commitment, and there is no basis for judging one worldview to be more or less adequate than any other. Religious people who hold to this view may say that their adherence to their worldview is a “matter of faith,” and that is all that can be said about it. I beg to differ.
As a Christian, I believe that the biblical view about having “faith” is not a matter of believing in something for which there are no good reasons (or even believing in something that is “absurd,” as some Christians have argued). Rather, the biblical meaning of placing “faith” in a particular worldview is to commit your whole being to that worldview and its implications for how you should live your life, which does not mean that there are no good reasons for believing in the truth of that worldview.
Worldviews attempt to make sense of the world that we experience and we understand others to have experienced. Some worldviews, like those that include belief in a flat earth, simply do not make such sense, however.
But, alas, not all nonsensical worldviews are so demonstrably inadequate. Discourse about the adequacy of competing worldviews will not be as straightforward as discourse in science, since there are no experiments that can falsify, or validate any one worldview, or clearly demonstrate its superiority. But, there may be some “global tests” of the worldview as a whole that can at least weed out grossly inadequate options.
Some Christian philosophers have argued that relative adequacy of competing worldviews can be compared using the criteria of “consistency, coherence, and comprehensiveness.”1 If that is the case, what are the implications for the claims that religious persons make about their “ways of knowing?”
To answer this difficult question, I make a distinction between the “source” of a knowledge claim and an evaluation of its adequacy.2 I allow for a variety of “sources” of knowledge claims, ranging from ordinary sensory observations to special revelation from God (much as I would allow for a variety of sources for a hypothesis presented by a scientist, including an “intuitive hunch”). However, whatever the source of a claim to knowledge, the adequacy of the claim must be “tested” using publicly accessible criteria for evaluation of claims.
The criteria for evaluating knowledge claims in science are fairly clear-cut, the most obvious being the extent to which the proposed hypothesis explains the observed phenomenon (other more esoteric criteria being the extent to which the hypothesis holds promise for ongoing fruitful research, and, even, the simplicity or elegance of the hypothesis). The potential criteria, if there are any, for evaluating worldviews are more controversial. But, if the Christian philosophers noted above are correct, there are even some evaluative criteria in worldview discourse for comparing the relative adequacy of alternative worldviews (or at least weeding out grossly inadequate alternatives).
To summarize, alternative “ways of knowing” allow for a variety of “sources” of claims to knowledge, both in scientific inquiry, and in worldview discourse. But, in either area, the most important issue is the adequacy of the particular claim to knowledge, whatever its source. And, although such evaluation is relatively clear-cut in the area of scientific discourse, there are such appropriate criteria for evaluating competing worldviews, even if the best that can result from such evaluation is the elimination of grossly inadequate worldviews (leaving a plurality of “relatively adequate” worldviews to which different persons make different commitments for reasons other than the intellectual persuasiveness of the worldview).
Implications for the Creation/Evolution Debate
To end this essay on a less abstract and more controversial note, let me draw out the implications for the debates that are currently raging in many Christian circles regarding origins: the debates between creationists and evolutionists.
The background for my brief reflections is my 40+ years of service in Christian higher education, a distinctive of which is the “integration of faith & learning.”
While the meaning of this phrase is controversial, I believe that its most important element for Christians is the quest to uncover connections between two realms of knowledge: biblical/theological understanding; and knowledge gained in the academic disciplines. Relative to the Creation/Evolution debate, that means trying to uncover connections between the Genesis accounts of the Creation of the universe, and the findings of the academic disciplines of biology, geology and astronomy that are pertinent to the origin of the universe.
All too briefly, the connection that I find to be most satisfactory is that, since the Bible is not a textbook in biology, geology or astronomy, the message of the Genesis account is essentially “that” God was the creator of the universe, with insights into “why” God created the universe (about which the remainder of the biblical record elaborates), while the disciplines of biology, geology and astronomy illuminate “how” God created the universe. And, I believe that scholarship in these disciplines points to an “evolutionary” means for God’s creative activity, and this was not a recent creation.3
Therefore, my beliefs about “how” God created the universe are deeply informed by my understanding of scientific inquiry in biology, geology, and astronomy. But, my understanding “that” God created the universe, and my understanding of the purposes of God’s Creation are not, and cannot be, the results of scientific inquiry (they are beyond the pale of scientific investigation). They are the results of my commitment to a Christian worldview. Likewise, atheistic scientists who offer purely naturalistic explanations of the origins of the universe must remain mute, in their role as scientists, about the “why and wherefore” of the universe. Our differences about the “why and wherefore” of the universe are worldview differences that can only be debated at the level of worldview discourse. I happen to believe that a Christian worldview makes more sense of total reality than a naturalistic worldview. But, I will be happy to discuss that claim with anyone who wishes to engage me in worldview discourse.
Harold Heie is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Christian Studies at Gordon College (Wenham, MA), where he served as Founding Director from 1994 to 2003. Heie has a BME degree from the Polytechnic Institute of NYU, an MSME from the University of Southern California, and an MA and PhD in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton University. He has co-authored (with David Wolfe) Slogans or Distinctives: Reforming Christian Education (1993), co-edited The Reality of Christian Learning: Strategies for Faith-Discipline Integration (1988, with David Wolfe) and The Role of Religion in Politics and Society (1998, with A. J. Rudin and M.R. Wilson). Heie serves as a Senior Fellow at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) and is a member of the Board of Fellows for the Ph. D. program in Organizational Leadership at Eastern University.
See, for example, David L. Wolfe, Epistemology: The Justification of Belief.
Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982.
For more elaboration than I can present here, see Harold Heie, Learning to Listen, Ready to Talk: A Pilgrimage Toward Peacemaking.
New York: iUniverse, 2007, pp. 103-109.
For a cogent argument for this point of view, see Karl W. Giberson, Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution.
New York: HarperOne, 2008. I wish to thank professor Giberson, Director of the Forum on Faith & Science at Gordon College, for his very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay, and for his skillful editing.
Covalence, July/August 2012