One of the most insidious falsehoods perpetuated in contemporary culture is the idea that natural science is final arbiter of truth and the ultimate hope of human salvation. Below I have listed ten things natural science cannot do. This list demonstrates that human beings cannot live a human life by natural science alone. It’s far too narrow, and it aims way too low. We need access to a truth science cannot supply and contact with a reality science cannot touch.
- Natural Science cannot answer a single important question—not even one. Science cannot establish the worthiness of anything it does.
- Natural Science cannot establish the validity of its methods or the truth of its theories. Science cannot demonstrate that it is doing anything more than organizing our empirical experience into meaningful patterns.
- Natural Science cannot prove the rightness or goodness or beauty of its activities.
- Natural Science cannot give you a reason to become a scientist or even to live another day.
- Natural Science cannot make a single moral, aesthetic, metaphysical or theological statement. Science is limited to describing, explaining and predicting the empirical structure and behavior of things in terms of physical causes, spatial and temporal relations, quantitative relations, organic functions, etc.
- Natural Science possesses no competence speak about existential meaning or purpose.
- Natural Science has nothing to say about to you as a person. It cannot tell you who you are, why you are here or what you are supposed to do.
- Natural Science cannot guide itself toward ends. Science has no mind or heart or soul; it cannot love or hate or feel. It cannot do anything or feel anything or think anything. It cannot read or write or speak. Science exists solely in the minds of scientists and is a wholly human enterprise subject to the same error and sin as are such other human enterprises as politics and economics. If human reason is limited, science is correspondingly limited. If human goodness is limited, science is limited accordingly.
- Natural Science cannot give you hope for the future or reason to love others or others reason to love you.
- Natural Science cannot forgive your sins, raise you from the dead or give you eternal life. It cannot tell you God loves you. It cannot give you the power to live a good life. It cannot comfort you at the graveside of your loved one or in your own dying hours.
For some potential devil’s advocate pushback from secularists who are comfortable with the implications of Scientism. I wonder what you might think of these approaches:
1-2) I have had friends who reply to the common apologetic saying “Science cannot prove the statement ‘All true statements are known through the natural sciences'” by simply replying with “Science works.” Atheist speaker Sean Carroll prominently took this tack in a high-profile debate with William Lane Craig. The defender of Scientism may reply that science gives an asymptotic confirmation of its own worthiness/usefulness/accuracy; the more science “works” (by which they mean it achieves positive outcomes in terms of furthering human society via technology and makes successful, helpful predictions), the more it confirms its own worthwhileness. While this never reaches the “100% certainty” mark, it draws ever nearer to that in an asymptotic fashion.
3-6, 8, 10) The defender of Scientism might say to these points, “So what? Those phenomena are illusory anyway, or if there is any reality to it, it is an emergent reality via complex interactions in our conscious brain (i.e. aesthetic experiences).” In our modernism-influenced world, how can we persuade the defender of Scientism that the realities you highlight as falling outside of science are robust and essential realities?
9) There is a trend among secularists to see ethics as arising from evolutionary anthropology. Homo sapiens is, they say, a social species. Books such as Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape” and Michael Shermer’s “The Moral Arc” attempt to ground progressive social/ethical norms and a general principle of goodwill and altruism towards other members of the species. There seem to be two questions here: 1) if the attempts to build an ethical account from evolutionary anthropology actually work, and 2) whether the project is adequate in the first place. What do you think?
“science works” — science works to organize better and better the phenomena of human experience. But if it is to be a philosophy of life it must explain the meaning of human experience and get to a truth beyond the phenomena. One cannot know how close one is getting to an unknown destination no matter how far one’s present location seems to be from one’s past location.
“So what?” — First, “so what?” admits my point, that is, that natural science cannot meet human needs, longings, and hopes. Second, there is not much you can say to someone who says “so what” to everything that makes life humanly meaningful and enjoyable. Life will have to teach you better! What do you say to someone who argues that they do not possess a mind or that their mind is merely a particular state of non-mind? There is nothing to say. It’s a self-refuting claim. To the “so what?” I would say, okay let’s see if you live only on the basis of empirical theories about the constituents and process of the physical world. In this sense “science does not work!” We must choose goals, live by values, and believe that being alive is better than being dead. Everyone wants to love and be loved, and to experience beauty. And no one wants to be treated as so much matter to be experimented on or valued only commercially.
“evolutionary ethics” — naturalistic fallacy! You can’t get an ought from an is. Biological categories can never yield ethical ones. The tendency to altruism is no different from eye color. Just as you are not obligated to have green eyes, you cannot be condemned for not feeling or resisting the impulse to love your neighbor. It is trivial statement to say “what works for survival survived.” But you could never have rational grounds to say that “murder, rape, robbery are wrong.” Everyone knows they are stupid, if survival is your goal. But if you remove moral obligation from any set of rules for behavior and social relations, you have removed it from the ethical realm.