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RESPONDblogs: Science Cannot Explain Everything. Discuss?

By Stuart_gray @stuartg__uk


Open letter to New Atheist Scientists:

I heard Oxford Professor Peter Atkins recently assert that “God is not necessary…Any argument that asserts that God did it is the sign of a lazy mind wallowing on assertion rather than climbing the intellectual Everest of comprehension.”[1] Like you, I recognize the effectiveness of scientific tools in skilled human hands. Yet I am wondering whether you truly believe the scientific method is all mankind needs? Surely there is more to life than trying to simply understand the mechanisms of existence? The point I would like to make is that, while science is useful, there are certain tasks that it is simply inappropriate for. There are some things that science cannot tell us anything useful about.

I think we both know this at an intuitive level. The Latin word “universitas” was originally used to refer to a seat of higher education encompassing many separate disciplines. The Universities I have studied with have all had Science Faculties, but they have also had departments dedicated to the Humanities, to Language, to Music and so on. Are we to believe that these departments should be closed and their subjects relocated to the laboratory? This proposal would destroy the University in favour of a College of Science. Universities operate as if there are some areas that science cannot tell us anything about.

We can go further. Not only are there things science can’t tell us about, science makes assumptions that are closed to scientific scrutiny. An example is mathematical knowledge. We probably agree with Atkins who comments that “it’s a really deep and interesting question why mathematics works as such a profound language of description of the physical world.”[2] And it is clear he believes this fact will one day itself be explained by Science and we will, “come to understand the fabric of reality. I certainly don’t think that at this stage of science we should say…this is something we can never understand.”[3] To avoid intellectual laziness, Atkins requires a scientific explanation of the usefulness of mathematics. I suggest this attitude reveals a wrong understanding of what science is for.

As we know, science is an a-posteriori realm of knowledge. Scientific study identifies particular instances of behaviour, logs these sensory inputs as experimental data, and then attempts to build a general law based on the observations.

Mathematics, on the other hand, is an a-priori realm of knowledge. Mathematical concepts are confidently asserted without appealing to any sense experience whatsoever. Our confidence comes from the self-evident nature of mathematical principles. Within science, we must do the work to justify a belief. Yet in mathematics we must recognize and form an understanding of self-evident mathematical principles. For example, when I was teaching my children arithmetic, I would reach for the fruit in the fruit bowl. I would engage their own sensory mechanisms as I taught them the principle “2+2=4”. Yet notice what is happening here. I am not appealing to sense experience to justify the existence of the mathematical principle, but to illustrate the abstract self-evident law of arithmetic itself. And those are different tasks. As Philosopher J P Moreland puts it, “If you have an understanding of what 2 is and an understanding of what sum means and what 4 is then you can know 2+2=4 in your intellect without having to look at anything.”[4]

My conclusion is that, while mathematics is the language of science, mathematics cannot be explored and understood using the scientific method it enables. These are two wholly separate but related fields of reasoning and knowledge. And to attempt to bend these laws risks our descent into irrationalism. There are some things that science cannot tell us about.

Ethics is also closed to scientific scrutiny. What is good and what is evil? Why is it wrong to torture babies for fun? Why is it right to display loyalty to our friends? These are important considerations for the legal professions, not to mention philosophy and theology. Science has nothing to say about where morality has come from and why it is as it is.

Many scientists would disagree. After all, the human race is generally assumed to have evolved. “Just as good manners have emerged for the sake of decorum and the avoidance of offense, so good behavior has emerged for the sake of survival.”[5] The material naturalist’s trump card when it comes to morality is evolution. Survival of the fittest requires moral principles that aid our survival. Why is it wrong to murder? Professor Atkins tells us, “Because we might be murdered.”[6]

Yet I think this is to misunderstand what is going on. Anthropologists observe how societies act, they don’t speculate about what is true and good. As Computer Scientist David Glass commented while debating Atkins, “Evolution cannot account for moral duties and laws. What perhaps it can account for is particular types of behavior. Why it is beneficial in some respects, but not if something is true or false, good or evil.”[7] The evolutionary approach smuggles in the concepts of truth and goodness and then points to why human beings might strive towards them. But this is to misunderstand the point. Where does human good and evil originate from? Science does not know.

Further, why do these moral laws exist, yet human beings appear incapable to measure up to them? “The law of gravity tells you what stones do if you drop them; but the Law of Human Nature tells you what human beings ought to do and do not…You have the facts (how men behave) and you also have something else (how they ought to behave).”[8] Ironically morality is often less about human action, and more about our inability to act in these good and moral ways. Why is this? Science has no response.

But we can take this argument further still. Not only does science not know everything, scientifically derived truths are generally more tenuous than other things we know and rely on. Like mathematics, ethics is self-evident to us. We intuitively know, “mercy is a virtue. True! There are electrons? Well – probably.”[9] We know our own thoughts and feelings but we have not derived that understanding using any scientific method. “You know it from a 1st person introspective point of view. Science does not know things from a 1st person introspective point of view.”[10] We are surer about how we think than we are about the scientific observations we’ve made. Again, there are some things that science is just not able to talk about.

Finally, were we to stand by the notion that we can only properly know something if it is known by scientifically testable means, then we are defending a self-refuting position. We cannot know this statement’s truth by appealing to the scientific method. So if it is true then it must be false because we have not appealed to science to establish it.

In summary, science is only one of many disciplines. It cannot tell us everything, and the knowledge it does give us must be treated carefully. Let us value the scientific approach while recognising its limits.

[1] “’Does God Exist?’ Bill Craig Debates Peter Atkins,” bethinking, accessed November 21st, 2015,

[2] “Unbelievable? Has science explained away God? David Glass, Peter Atkins & James Croft”, Premier Christian Radio, accessed November 21st, 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] J. P. Moreland, PH.D., Christianity and the Nature of Science, CD, (Biola University, 2015), disc 2.

[5] “’Does God Exist?’ Bill Craig Debates Peter Atkins,” bethinking, accessed November 21st, 2015,

[6] “Unbelievable? Has science explained away God? David Glass, Peter Atkins & James Croft”, Premier Christian Radio, accessed November 21st, 2015,

[7] Ibid.

[8] C. S Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Fount, 1989), 26.

[9] J. P. Moreland, PH.D., Christianity and the Nature of Science, CD, (Biola University, 2015), disc 2.

[10] Ibid.

RESPONDblogs: Science Cannot Explain Everything. Discuss?

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