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Is science the best way to know everything?

March 22nd, 2019

I’ve often heard it said, especially by non-believers in discussion with believers. Science is the best, perhaps the only reliable way to know things. Everything else is subjective.

Is this true?

The question raises some interesting issues.

These musings are a response to a post, A big weekend in Boston by Connor Wood, and a Veritas Forum discussion between Troy Van Voorhis and Ronan Plesser.

Science has been successful, no question

I don’t need to say that science and technology have been successful in so many ways, most of them good for the human race – medicine, transportation, computers and the internet, electric and electronic appliances, and all the rest.

There are some who say, on this basis, that it is the best, the only or the only proven way to gain useful and reliable knowledge.

Closing the argument with naturalism

If naturalism is true, i.e. all there is in the universe is natural, made up of matter and energy and existing in time and space, then it is hard to argue. Science is spectacularly successful in discovering natural processes, and technology is adept at exploiting these discoveries.

But is naturalism true? Is it so obvious that that is the end of the discussion? Are there any things that naturalistic science struggle to explain?

Heisenberg wasn’t so certain

Werner Heisenberg was a famous quantum physicist who once said:

what we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning”

If he is right, then we can say that naturalistic science will only lead us to answers that are naturalistic, whether there are other answers or not.

Places where science seems unable to go

The limitations of science
  • Science is always reductionist. In order to categorise, it must simplify and generalise. Former particle physicist John Polkinghorne wrote: “science describes only one dimension of the many layered reality within which we live, restricting itself to the impersonal and general, and bracketing out the personal and unique.” Connor Wood writes: “scientific approaches are inherently reductionistic. What else could they be? That’s what science is.”
  • Chemist Troy Van Voorhis says that reproducibility and objectivity form the “bedrock of science” but they are also limitations. Not all observed events are reproducible, and some important things have a subjective as well as objective component. For example, we can know all the scientific facts about climate change, but it is also important to know that we need to act on that understanding, and that knowledge is a subjective truth that some will accept and some (evidently) don’t.
  • Whatever questions we ask, and whatever answers we get, we can always ask why are things that way. It seems we can never get down to the bedrock of a complete explanation.

So it seems that science will always struggle with “big” questions relating to human consciousness, free will, ethics, universal origins, etc. Some say one day science will resolve some of these; others think they are beyond the reach of science for the reasons just given.

How does it feel?

We can know all the neurological facts about pain, but that is very different to actually experiencing pain. We can know the chemistry of chocolate, but that is very different from the taste of chocolate.

These experiences or facts are very personal. You and I may have completely different sensations when eating the same type of chocolate. If we want to understand how another person experiences things, we can only listen to their experiences – there is no scientific way to measure and compare the experience of taste or pain.

And even if we could measure taste or pain, this still wouldn’t relate to the experience we each actually have, but would be an abstraction. Ronan Plesser says that even if science could totally observe and predict his love for his children, it wouldn’t change, or even be relevant to, how he felt about them. “Love has real and concrete effects.”

Faith

Connor Wood says that “faith is a personal, interior thing – thus, it’s fundamentally not amenable to objective analysis”. This is true, he would say, regardless of whether we believe that religion is true or not.

So no matter how much we learn about religion as an objective component of the external world, people will still be religious, and their beliefs will have meaning. There will be a viewpoint from which religion is not an object of taxonomic or explanatory inquiry, but a lived reality. I don’t see why this is a problem.

Troy Van Voorhis says that christian faith is essentially trust. Our trust in a friend may be based on experience and observation (so it is empirical and in a sense scientific), but the actual choice to trust is a step beyond the evidence. So religious belief may also be based on evidences, but is still a step beyond the evidence.

But this, Van Voorhis suggests, isn’t so very different from science, where our beliefs, that the external world is real and orderly, and reason can give reliable results, are based on experience and evidence, but are also a step beyond the evidence.

Explaining all this

Some people (like Ronan Plesser) simply accept that science cannot explain some things, and find no difficulty with that, while others (like Troy Van Voorhis) suggest that christian theism can explain the things that science cannot. For example, naturalism cannot explain how consciousness of self, free will and true ethical statements can arise in a naturalistic universe, even though we find all those things necessary for life, but theism can explain them as the result of creation by a personal God.

Whichever view you take, these thoughts suggest that we cannot simply claim science is the way to address and resolve all questions, certainly not questions of subjective experience, love, ethics, trust and faith, and belief in God.

Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash.

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