Modern science has dramatically changed the world for the better. All of us have benefitted from medical and technological advances. Because of that success, some people have concluded that science can answer all of humankind’s ultimate questions. This philosophy, called scientism (science is the only or best path to discovering truth), is to be differentiated from science (the study of the natural world through observation and experiment) and is reflected by such prominent secular scientists as Richard Dawkins, Peter Atkins, and Lawrence Krauss.

Does science have “operating limits”? In other words, are there areas of knowledge or questions that the scientific enterprise—because of its very nature—can’t adequately address? Let’s consider this issue.

Science: A Definition

Science involves a general inductive approach to obtaining knowledge about the world. It weighs probabilities and moves logically from the particular to the general. Scientific data generally comes directly through observation and experimentation about the physical universe. Thus science does an excellent job of explaining the physical mechanisms of the material world. It serves as a great tool for understanding the reality of that world. Science helps explain the what and how questions of life. And this practical aspect is what has made science such a successful, deeply valued human endeavor.

Science’s Limits

But science founders when it comes to the truly big questions of meaning, purpose, and significance. These are the ultimate why questions that people naturally and necessarily ask. For example, revealing that something happened in the physical world doesn’t explain why it happened or what it ultimately means. Biologist and philosopher Francisco Ayala has put it this way: “In matters of values, meaning, and purpose, science has all the answers, except the interesting ones.”1 And the eminent philosopher of science Karl Popper, reflecting a modest view of how science functions, stated: “It is important to realize that science doesn’t make assertions about ultimate questions—about the riddles of existence.”2

So what are science’s specific operating limits? They consist of key truths that science can’t formally prove but also that people can rationally affirm as being real and true:3

1. Mathematical and Logical Truths

Math and logic reflect laws and principles that are necessary for scientific theorizing and are foundational assumptions upon which science depends but that science can’t itself prove. Math and logic are conceptual (abstract) in nature rather than being empirically (sensory) derived. Science tends to confirm the truth of math and logic but it can’t justify these conceptual realities.

2. Metaphysical Truths

Metaphysical truths (relating to reality) include ideas like the existence of a real external world (not a mere illusion) and that minds exist (other than our own) that are capable of understanding that world. These critical ideas about reality are also foundational assumptions upon which science begins but can’t justify through the scientific method itself.

3. Ethical Truths

Objective moral truths and values exist (right, wrong, good, bad) and are required to do good science. For example, scientific experiments and the results they provide are valid only if they are conducted with exacting honesty and fair-mindedness. But these ethical and moral principles can’t be derived through science’s observational and empirical means.

4. Aesthetic Judgments

Aesthetics is that branch of philosophy that refers to the nature and appreciation of beauty, taste, and art. Beauty abounds in the natural world. But pure value judgments concerning the meaning and appreciation of beauty, taste, and art cannot be addressed by the scientific method. Again, value judgments about either morality or beauty are formed outside the operating lane of science.

 

5. Science Itself

The scientific enterprise is based upon critical assumptions that can’t be derived by the scientific method. Science cannot validate those assumptions nor can science tell us how scientific knowledge should be properly used. If scientists are to go about their work with any confidence, they must, for instance, believe in such presuppositions as:4

  • The objective reality of the cosmos
  • The basic intelligibility of the cosmos
  • The order, regularity, and uniformity of nature
  • The validity of mathematics and logic
  • The basic reliability of human cognitive faculties and sensory organs
  • The congruence between the human mind and physical reality
  • That an acceptable criterion for an adequate hypothesis exists
  • That what is observed in nature can provide clues and indicators of unobservable patterns and processes

These eight profound assumptions are just that: assumptions. That is, these preconditions for doing science are not first proven by science. Rather, scientists assume these ideas to be true before beginning to practice science. Science helps to confirm the truth of these preconditions of reality, but the scientific method itself did not establish or justify these prerequisite starting points. In this way, scientists operate on faith in these extraordinary givens—the necessary preconditions of intelligibility.

Ultimate Questions

There are many more areas of knowledge (historical, existential, experiential) that cannot be proven scientifically because they are not matters that can be repeated through critical observation and verified or falsified through the scientific method.
Nobel prize recipient Sir Peter Medawar (1915–1987) offered this statement concerning science’s operating limits:

That there is indeed a limit upon science is made very likely by the existence of questions that science cannot answer and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer. These are the questions that children ask—the “ultimate questions” of Karl Popper. I have in mind such questions as: How did everything begin? What are we all here for? What is the point of living? It is not to science, therefore but to metaphysics, imaginative literature or religion that we must turn for answers to questions having to do with first and last things.5

Science, though robust and fruitful in addressing questions about the mechanisms of the natural world, nevertheless has real operating limits. However, the Christian worldview, which is responsible for giving rise to modern science, can augment science’s limited explanatory scope by offering reasonable explanations of questions about meaning, purpose, and significance.

Reflections: Your Turn

Does recognizing the limits of science in any way diminish the importance of this enterprise? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

Check out more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org

Endnotes
  1. Francisco J. Ayala, Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion (Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2007), 177.
  2. Karl R. Popper, “Natural Selection and the Emergence of Mind,” in Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge, ed. Gerard Radnitzky and W. W. Bartley, III (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1987), 141.
  3. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig identified these points as being outside of scientific verification yet justifiably rational and acceptable in his debate with atheist scientist Peter Atkins, “Does Science Prove Everything?” (April 21, 2010), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxJQe_FefxY.
  4. For more on these preconditions of science, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 191–96.
  5. Peter Medawar, The Limits of Science (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1984), 66.

 

About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.



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