The Limits of Science

Lambert Dolphin

 

"Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue."---Winston Churchill

Scientific inquiry into the universe is mostly gained by observations made by man's five senses. The range of these senses is today greatly extended by cameras and sensors which permit measurements of sounds and vibrations beyond the range of hearing, light waves above and below the range of the eye (by many orders of magnitude), and a host of other detectors too numerous to mention.

What is measured very much has to do with the physical world. Science does poorly with one-of-a-kind events such as a resurrection from the dead, or a few UFO sightings, or an annually-weeping statue. Science does well when many measurements of phenomena can be made and independently confirmed by other (hopefully objective) observers. And, science does poorly when attempting to deal with the spiritual world.

In situations where a large amount of data can be acquired, it is often possible to process this information statistically in search of orderly patterns and "laws." When patterns or trends are found, extrapolations beyond the data at hand can frequently be made and useful predictions follow. If trends are observed very often a mathematical model can be written and a "law" formulated.

Science assumes a rational universe, and laws of nature which are the same everywhere, and laws which are applicable both in the microscopic and macroscopic worlds.

Frequently science is faced with describing extremely complex events---such as weather patterns, for instance---where the number of variables is very great and the system changes rapidly in time. Fortunately modern high speed computers have helped immensely with "number crunching" in fields such as aerodynamics, or plasma physics, or weather analysis, and so on.

Modern scientific thought in the West springs from Greek Philosophy and came to us by way of Roman civilization. Science in the West owes a debt to ancient Egypt, to Arabic and to Hebrew culture as well. These days there are some scientists who would draw on Hinduism or other Eastern schools of religious and philosophical thought to better help us understand modern physics and the nature of the cosmos.

Today's scientific discoveries rest on the foundations of previous generations, and many pioneers of science in western science were either Jewish or dedicated followers of Jesus Christ and students of the Bible. Science as we know it in the West is a product of Western Civilization and the roots of this heritage are unmistakably Biblical in origin. A number of philosophers have noted that scientific thought such as we take for granted is a product of Western Civilization with its Roman, Greek and Biblical roots. Our ability to do science then depends on a set of presuppositions and assumptions and on an underlying philosophy. There are rules to be follow and a protocol to be observed, even though the average science does not need to remind himself of these ground rules at every step of his work.

Sifting Data to Find Order and Meaning

Our English word "science" is derived from the Latin scire which means "to know" or sciens, "having knowledge." Scientific endeavors in all disciplines are attempts to classify evidence so as to be able to make meaningful predictions.

On many subjects science must remain silent, or carefully qualify those tentative theories that are put forth perhaps with little qualifying evidence to support them. There is no harm in putting forth hypotheses to be tested; indeed, many new useful theories come about this way. But most hypotheses are found---upon a little further investigation to not fit the evidence and can be discarded in favor of those that do. It should be obvious, but to many it is not, that all science rests upon religious or philosophical presuppositions of one kind or other. Scientists who are secular humanists, atheists, eastern mystics, or Biblical creationists each bring their religious and philosophical presuppositions with them when they work in the lab. It simply is not possible to have science in a vacuum. One always begins with one set of assumptions (or another) about the nature of reality.

Every scientific model starts with a set of "initial conditions" and behind those, a whole set of notions about underlying or previous states of reality. As long as a scientist conducts his work by the rules of science, he or she should never be shut out of the lab, or the classroom, because of a belief system that differs from that of the majority, or one that is at the moment not the most popular point of view. One prominent professor of physics and astronomy has rightly said, "Science is in the business of discovering what the laws of physics are, not why those laws were passed. The latter is the realm of theology."

The Rule of Simplicity in Science

Scientists assume the universe is orderly, as opposed to nonsensical, and wherever possible the simplest hypothesis is chosen because it is more "elegant" and saves extra work. This important principle is known as "Occam's Razor." Thus "grand unified theories" are much to be preferred to complex theories because of this built-in assumption scientists make about the nature of things. Lecturers in science sometimes defend Occam's Razor by remarking that scientists would like to avoid working harder than necessary to understand the universe. The notion that we may be able to describe the nature of things in simple ("elegant") terms has a certain aesthetic appeal which most scientists find attractive---as well as involving less work. Scientific endeavor is based on a meaningful universe where the laws of physics change slowly, or not at all, and where data can be systematized so as to make useful predictions and where cause and effect relationships underlie everything that happens. If the laws of physics were not rational the universe would not be amenable to scientific study. We can do science because the laws of nature are consistent everywhere in space as well as from day to day.

Science Must be Meaningful to be True

The whole notion that the universe is orderly, that physical laws do not change, and that the explanations of things ought to be simple rather than convoluted (complicated), complements our inborn aesthetic senses, such as love of beauty and our personal hopes that a purpose for our own existence might be found. No one really wants to learn conclusively that life makes no sense at all for any reason. Such a conclusion leads to existential despair, a sense of futility, fatalism, and a feeling that human endeavors of all kinds are worthless and of no value. Among scientists there is always some hope that it all makes sense---and often a sense of great excitement and personal reward when meaningful patterns are found and previously uncorrelated information is found to "fit the curve."

Furthermore, if the universe behaves rationally and predictably, then the laws of physics should the same everywhere. In our daily experience (over decades or a few lifetimes) we do not normally observe the laws of nature to be erratic or changing. This leads to the important assumption of "uniformitarianism." If uniformitarianism is true, we can extrapolate curves derived from recent observations into the past-even all the way back to the beginning, to t = 0. But we were not present at the creation as observers, nor during the early history of the earth, and little data has been passed down to us from ancient times. Taking scientific data for 50 or 100 years and extrapolating our findings hundreds, thousands, millions or billions of years into the past is speculation. This does not mean that all such speculation is meaningless, but it does mean that we must be careful not to call scientific models and theories "established fact."

The Role of Intuition and Initial Assumptions

Intuition as well as observation is valued in science. Great discoveries in science have come from following hunches or making a "bold leap of faith," as Einstein did at the beginning of our century when he reached beyond the built-up body of evidence then at hand by means of intuition. Flashes of insight, dreams, or hunches are usually allowed in science because they can be tested. Most scientists are pragmatic at times and will on occasion seize upon a formula or a new discovery and begin to apply it according to the unwritten law "If it works use it. Never mind why. We'll figure that out later."

All scientific theories are built upon assumptions, as mentioned above. These foundational premises ought to be reexamined every once and awhile---since many times in the past tall palaces of speculation have been built on questionable and unproven assumptions. Scientific "advances" are built on the pioneering work of those who have gone before. If the pioneers made mistakes, or were short-sighted, their errors can easily be perpetuated for several generations. After a generation or two, the current scientific workers in a given field usually have "forgotten" or not taken the trouble to find out what assumptions went into the original work. Some have not bothered to ask whether or not the data base has changed or checked to see if the original assumptions are now suspect or erroneous. The problem is, yesterday's speculation becomes today's scientific dogma in many instances.

No tenured professor drawing a comfortable salary and enjoying a maturing successful career is likely to be objective---or even very rational---if a newcomer to his field questions the evidence and finds the professor's whole theory must be thrown out the window in the light of new evidence. Yet this process happens all the time, silently, as one generation fades away, new "authorities" come to power, and better theories take the place of the "primitive" notions that were held as absolutes in the previous generation. One has only to compare college science text books of today with those published a decade or two ago to see how quickly science changes its models, buries its mistakes, and quickly popularizes new theories as if they were well-established immutable facts.

"Science is the only self-correcting human institution, but it is also a process that progresses only by showing itself to be wrong."--Astronomer Allan Sandage.

Theoretical and Experimental Branches in Science

Some scientific discoveries have been the result of purely theoretical studies conducted by mathematicians. Experimental testing of such theories has in many instances led to valid new knowledge. In fact, science divides broadly into classes of theoreticians and groups of experimentalists (who need each other if only to stay honest and realistic in what they undertake). Theoretical studies, such as mathematical models of the universe, allow for many more dimensions and variables than may actually exist in the known universe, yet some scientific discoveries have been made purely because some mathematician suggested that something in one of his equations might help us understand a previously poorly understood area of science. Upon investigation, the suggested phenomenon (a new atomic particle, for example) has often been found to exist.

Researchers, that is, experimentalists, frequently find discrepancies in their measurements that lead to new or better theories. Or, by accident, they may stumble on to some previously unexplained phenomenon. When this happens, they call in the theoreticians, who must go back and do more homework. Though each of these two groups claims to have the superior point of view, it is obvious that a synergy between them exists, and their interaction with each other from differing points of view is most valuable to us all.

The Reliability of the Sciences

One of the most interesting things about science in the western world today can be discovered with the help of a little diagram. If one makes a list of several scientific disciplines-grouped by category somewhat as shown in the following table, Figure 1, it will be immediately obvious that science knows most about the physical, inanimate world, and least about the world of spirit:

THE RELEVANCE OF SCIENCE IN VARIOUS AREAS OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Physical World
Emotional World
Inner Man
External to Man Life Processes Mind. Emotions, Will (the Soul) Realm of the heart (the Spirit)
Physics Biology Psychology Extra Sensory Perception (ESP)
Astronomy Botany Sociology Parapsychology
Geology Medicine Criminology Metaphysics
Geography Organic Chemistry Social Sciences Occult Sciences
Meteorology Anthropology Behavorial Sciences Astrology
Chemistry Genetics    
Archaeology      
Mathematics      
Decreasing Scientific Reliability --------------->

 

One conclusion to be drawn from such a table is that those sciences that attempt to deal with the spiritual realm (that zone closest to the innermost recesses of man) have not proven very successful in spite of valiant attempts to make them so. The latter are frequently discredited by conservative scientists---they are considered "pseudosciences." No one argues very strenuously with the findings of the astronomer or the geologist in comparison. In these two fields we rest on empty space or solid ground respectively! When measuring and studying the physical, material world, our instruments are more reliable; our results are more easily reproducible; and our findings tend to better stand the test of time.

It is easy for us to put our faith in what can be seen and touched, measured and felt-and not so easy to look into the invisible, to trust a God we can't see, or even to think about who we are as living beings having emotions and spirits as well as bodies. It is of course easier to love another human being we can see and touch-than to love God Who is invisible.

Psychology lies in between the outer world of matter and the innermost world of spirit, but since it is difficult to systematize dreams and build up theories of neuroses and psychoses in the rational language scientists accept, the psychologist is as much an artisan as a scientist. If a psychologist is "good," it is because he succeeds in healing someone whether or not anyone knows how he does it.

In spite of his atheistic beliefs, Sigmund Freud and others who followed after his example have at least tried to systematize their findings into a collective body of knowledge so as to build up a body of empirical, and therefore useful, knowledge. Much of modern psychology is, therefore, a legitimate science. A good many contemporary psychologists have, unfortunately, discarded revelation. For example they deny the existence of a soul and believe that man and his behavior can be completely explained in terms of physics and chemistry. In doing so they are attempting to reduce man to a merely physical entity.

Science is only just beginning to understand the workings of the brain (let alone the mind), and attempts to explain man's innermost workings on the basis of physics, chemistry, and electricity make us seem like extensions of the material world. Few of us want to have our souls stolen from us so that we lose a love of life or caring for others, or cease to be vulnerable to learning, growth and change. Life is bleak when we lose a sense of beauty, art, music, or culture. These are all more important than mere scientific facts. I myself believe we are best off when we believe that we are living in a universe full of mystery, with room for endless discoveries as well as endless delights. In the long run, science really only helps us in the physical world and in the biological world, that is in the world of externals, the things of the material half of creation. We get no real help from science on metaphysical matters. And even concerning the material world, science knows very little indeed.

Science is Limited---Mostly---to Physical Realms

In recent years science has been granted more authority than should be properly assigned to what is a limited inquiry into a limited range of human experience. The Bible claims that the physical world is a world of shadows and the real and permanent world is invisible. This is stated in several ways, especially in the New Testament. For example, Paul writes, "We look not to the things that are seen, for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal," (1 Corinthians 4:17) and, "...the form (schema) of this world (kosmos) is passing away." (1 Corinthians 7:31)

Most of us grow up with the notion that the physical world around us is solid, substantial, and enduring, whereas the spiritual world is the world of ghosts and shadows. In fact, the Bible declares that the opposite is true. Life as we know it on earth pales into insignificance compared to what heaven will be like.

It is the excessive preoccupation of science in the West with tangible reality, as opposed to the spiritual source, that I believe has helped dry up the soul of modern man. We have also led ourselves into unmanageable contemporary moral issues whose resolution can be found only in the spiritual. While none of us wants history rolled back to an anti-scientific era, nor are we willing to relinquish the many conveniences modern science has brought us to improve both human effectiveness and enjoyment of life. In fact, the Bible says that God "has given us all things freely to enjoy." (1 Timothy 6:17) It is unbiblical asceticism to deny the physical and strive only for the spiritual.

Science cannot do everything, and it should really not surprise us if the old order falls and a new age enters. It has happened before in history. A "merely physical" model of the universe has always proven inadequate. Sooner or later what was once thought "solid science" is seen to be fallacious and incomplete if God is left out of the equations. Fortunately He has found ways of breaking into our simplistic fantasies about ourselves just when we need Him most.

The following chart is a model of how the scientific method works.

References

1. The Biblical Basis of Modern Science, by Henry M. Morris (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1984) is a valuable reference in my library. Every serious follower of Jesus Christ will find that his or her "world-view" will gradually change, not only in regard to morals, conduct and ethics but also in regard to learning to sort out truth from error and gaining an understanding of the universe which differs greatly from the prevailing secular view and the current zeitgeist ("spirit of the age").

2. The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy,by Nancy R. Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton, (Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 1994), is an outstanding recent book showing the interrelationship between philosophy and science. The authors also show from history how Christianity has provided the foundations for modern science.

Related Articles

Myths of Origin and the Theory of Evolution, by Paul Gosselin

Theodore Schick, Jr., The end of Science?, Skeptical Inquirer, March 13, 1997, Vol. 21; P. 36

Of Facts and Faith, by Rick Lanser

Scripture and General Revelation, by Andrew S. Kulikovsky

Lambert Dolphin
lambert@ldolphin.org
Library
1987 revised April 21, 1995. October 30, 1995. December 9, 2006.