Posted by: dacalu | 12 November 2010

What Science Can’t Do

I would like to say a few words about science today and, unlike my normal routine, I want to say something about what science cannot do.  I find science immensely valuable.  I think that it gives us power and understanding, perhaps more so than any other way of knowing.  That said, science is a tool, and like any other tool, it has it’s limitations.  Hammers are great – for hammering nails, but not for driving screws.  So let us talk about science and what I see as the two major flaws philosophers make in applying science: undercutting and overreaching.


Perhaps the most common error I see in using scientific knowledge falls under the category of statements which undermine science’s philosophical foundations.  Science looks at a group of phenomena I refer to as “mutual observables.”  These phenomena include those things that all people can sense in a somewhat equal fashion, what might be called objective (existing independently of observation) and empirical (capable of being observed).

Somewhere during the enlightenment it was decided that supernatural entities and value judgments did not fall into the category of mutual observables.  [Contrast natural law theology which states that values are objective and, if not empirical, equally knowable through conscience.]  I cannot tell you whether this attempt to sequester angels, demons, and souls was a good move or a bad move for humanity.  I can say that it helped simplify science in a tremendously useful way.  Once you remove appeals to God and angels for things like planetary motion, you are left searching for physical explanations, and looking, we started to find them.  It turns out that biology CAN tell us important things about the apparent function and purpose of organisms; chemistry and geology CAN tell us about the age of Earth; and neurology can tell us about human reasoning and mental illness.  By limiting the scope of science, we gave it a clearer vision of the natural world.

We call this school of thought methodological naturalism, when we only look at natural things.  Methodological naturalism went into science during the enlightenment and has provided immense rewards – so much so that we tend to think science without it isn’t really science (even though earlier thinkers had no such notion).

Because modern science rests on methodological naturalism, we can neither ignore it – as creation scientists do (e.g., Dembski) – nor pull it out as a conclusion – as the new atheists do (e.g., Dawkins).  The creation scientists seek to preserve the prestige and power of science within a particularly Christian (or Islamic) context.  They maintain that science can look at God as a subject of study.  And at first this seems reasonable.  After all, if God acts in the world, why couldn’t God’s presence be inferred by science.  Alas, it is not so easy.  To make God visible to science, God would have to be a mutual observable, something seen in the same way by everyone.  In other words, we would have to make God a natural object, a form of sacrilege.  We could, if we wanted, treat on Jesus of Nazareth – God made man – as a natural object, and we do do studies of Jesus as a historical figure, but God as creator must be beyond nature.  Any science that claims to deal with God must break the rules of modern science.

Mind you, I think that the many worlds hypothesis in quantum mechanics and certain kinds of five space theories in cosmology suffer from the same problem.  It’s not simply a question of what exists and what doesn’t.  It’s a question of whether or not our physical/energetic observations (and models) can get us there.  Things outside the universe are not observable from within the universe – if they were, we wouldn’t call them outside.  Science just can’t deal with these things.

Alternatively, the new atheists declare that things don’t exist simply because science cannot see them.  They rather naively invoke Occam’s razor to say: why invoke things that are not necessary.  But science doesn’t fail to see them because they absent; science fails to see them because we put blinkers on.  Science intentionally ignores non-natural explanations.  It’s like putting on red glasses and declaring that the green M&Ms no longer exist.  They’re just black M&Ms that people delude themselves into thinking they’re green.  Or, perhaps more pointedly, it’s like walking into a meat freezer and asking why there are no live cows.  You can’t say science proves naturalism because naturalism was a filter we started with.

I’ll have to leave other examples of undercutting and overreaching for later posts, but I want to leave you with one last thought.  Science does what it does so well because it’s specialized.  Think about cats and hunting, weight lifters and weight lifting, pens and writing.  In each case, the thing matches the purpose.  This is, after all, one of the most clear cut cases of intelligent design.  We designed science to do natural explanations.  If we try to repurpose it to do something else, it cannot help but be less effective.

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