Will the all-knowing Science please stand up?

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Image Source: https://image.freepik.com/free-vector/science-lab_23-2147490982.jpg

Time and time again and we have seen the progress of science, not to mention its benefits towards humanity. Centuries have passed, and discoveries after discoveries gave us a better picture of the world that we live in. In fact, it even corrected some of our beliefs about the world. And it promises us that there will be more discoveries that are yet to come that will solve our problems.

For over two thousand years, we accepted Aristotle’s view that the world is eternal. But now, nobody would even dare to challenge the view that it actually began a finite time ago – to which we now call the big bang. That is, time, space, matter and energy began to exist, starting from a singularity, and will continue to expand forever. We also used to believe Ptolemy’s model that the Earth was the center of the solar system; that the Sun, the stars, the moon, and other planets revolved around the Earth. However, as our knowledge increases, there’s now not a single educated person who holds the same view. Copernicus, confirmed by Galileo, showed us that it was not the Earth, rather the Sun, is the center of our solar system. And the Earth is just one among the planets that revolve around the sun. And the list of discoveries can go on to Kepler, to Newton, to Watson and Crick, who introduced us the double-helix DNA. In short, science gave us important knowledge about the world that we live in. But not only that, it will continue to increase our knowledge as investigations are being made.

Now, I don’t doubt the contributions of science. In fact, I think they are helpful and necessary for our well-being. Moreover, I also believe that they are liberating. That is, it is always liberating when we begin to answer the puzzling questions that we have about our world. And by that liberating experience, it seems to me that we are really hard-wired for knowledge and enchantment, in other words – we can’t just settle and give up investigating!

But I wonder: to what extent are we going to find the answers? Is science “the only way?” Are we all going to find the answers to our questions from science? In other words, will the all-knowing Science please stand up?

There’s no other way but science

In light of the power science have towards giving us a better picture of the world, there are some who went to the extreme position and adopted the view that science is the only way to gain knowledge. And if it’s not science – if it’s not backed up with empirical evidence – then it cannot be knowledge, because it’s not objective! Rather, it is just a matter of opinion. And religion is not excused to this kind of view. By religion I mean any kind of beliefs that involved a supernatural (e.g., Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.). That is, religion is dismissed as mere opinion, and perhaps not worthy of any consideration.

Neuroscientist Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faithasserts that “when people make outlandish claims, without evidence [unlike science], we stop listening to them – except on matters of faith. I am arguing that we can no longer afford to give faith a pass in this way.”[1] That is, because faith in this view is just a matter of opinion, a product of credulity, and in a way destructive – we should no longer tolerate it!

However, this kind of view is nothing new. The Enlightenment philosopher David Hume already dismantled the religious scaffolding. In his An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), the empiricist philosopher claimed that.

if we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

In this same view, opinion is not only attributed to spiritual matters, but also to any kind of discipline that involves value judgements such as art, music, ethics, etc. In these disciplines, it is not about what is really true, because there isn’t any. Rather, it’s about what you prefer or like – just like choosing vanilla over cookies and cream. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder;” “Sounds good to you, but not to me;” “True for you, but not for me,” are the common phrases that advocate the same view.

Oh, but for the all-knowing science I go

On the other hand, while there are those who believe that science is the only way to gain knowledge, there are also those who believe that science can answer all the questions and problems that left us puzzled – if not now, perhaps in the near future. And sometimes, they are the same people.

The English chemist Peter Atkins once made a bold statement concerning the attributed omniscience of science: “There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence.”[2] However, if science cannot provide us an answer to the questions and problems that we encounter at the moment, it will eventually in the future. As the Nobel-winning physicist Steven Weinberg noted: “The most extreme hope for science is that we will be able to trace the explanation of all natural phenomena to final laws and historical accidents.”[3] That is, there is or will be a natural explanation for every phenomena, and there’s no reason to resort to any lesser discipline – much less theology!

Alright then, so science rules. Fine. No doubt on that. Anyone, it seems to me, who ignores the empirical data, not only tells us about himself, but also about the position where he stands in relation to it. That is, we are not wrong to identify him to be out of touch with reality in which we live in. However, that’s another story. The real issue, it seems to me, is raising the critical question: Are the two views correct? Here, I believe, lies a bigger problem.

Evaluation

The first view, unfortunately, that science is the only way to gain knowledge (while any other way only produces opinions) turns out to be problematic in three ways. Firstly, the view is self-defeating because the statement or the belief in itself is not a scientific one. Rather, it’s a philosophical one – belonging in the area of epistemology. Secondly, the view – according to our universal experience – is flatly mistaken. It betrays how we experience the world. For we do not go to science to determine whether Jesus or Napoleon really existed. That knowledge belongs to history, and history is not repeatable like scientific experiments. We don’t even subscribe from science to check whether we are using proper grammar. That is, science has nothing to do with the subject-verb agreement. Science doesn’t even give us the answer to the square root of twenty-five. Science did not produce mathematics and abstract entities, rather, it presupposes them. Lastly, adopting such a view will leave us with a ridiculous outcome. It may require us to abandon several disciplines such arts, humanities, history, mathematics, ethics, etc., because they are not scientific.

Such method or view (scientific naturalism) is not worthy of any consideration. For instead of giving us a better picture of our world, it discredits several disciplines for us to gain a cumulative knowledge of the world by forcing us to only believe what science tells us. This is not to say that science is unreliable. No, science is reliable. However, the problem is the philosophical view itself, namely scientific naturalism, which reduces every knowledge possible only from empirical results. But for the scientist who insists such a method, I believe John Lennox’s comment is irreplaceable: “One of the things I’ve learned in the world that I work is very important, it is ‘A statement by a scientist is not necessarily a statement of science.'”[4]

The second view – namely called scientism – fares no better. Science has no way of answering all of our questions or problems. For example, the existential questions that we face as human beings like why are we here or what is the ultimate meaning of life are questions science doesn’t answer. As what have been mentioned above, science cannot deal with the questions some disciplines ask, like events in the past and the question of moral values and duties. Naturalists like Jacques Monod, Richard Dawkins, Michael Ruse, E.O Wilson, etc., will admit that unfortunate limitation.

What about the hope that science will answer all of our questions in the near future? Well, the Nobel Prize Winner in Medicine Peter Medewar exposes such futility:

There is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself and upon his profession than roundly to declare—particularly when no declaration of any kind is called for—that science knows or soon will know the answers to all questions worth asking, and that questions which do not admit a scientific answer are in some way nonquestions or “pseudoquestions” that only simpletons ask and only the gullible profess to be able to answer.[5]

Conclusion

We now see that the two views (scientific naturalism and scientism), far from succeeding, miserably fails to communicate truth. But why is it that some people would advocate such views? Perhaps the answer, it seems to me, was already mentioned by Albert Einstein, when he confessed: “The man of science is a poor philosopher.”


[1] Sam Harris, The End of Faith (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2005), 199.

[2] Peter Atkins, Limitless Power of Science, quoted in John Lennox in God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Lion Oxford, 2007), 8.

[3] Quoted in David Berlinksi, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions (Basic Books, 2008), 151.

[4] In God, Science & The Big Questions: Leading Christian Thinkers Repond to the Hew Theism.

[5] P. B. Medawar, Advice to a Young Scientist (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), 31.

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