Can Science Answer All Questions?

laboratory scientist working at lab with test tubesIn the movie Contact? Ellie told her father that she loved him, but she couldn’t prove it scientifically. That’s because science can’t do that sort of thing. Science can’t show that two people love each other. Science is simply a tool that we utilize to uncover facts about the observable universe. So here’s a fun fact: Science is not omniscient. It cannot answer all our questions. Not by any stretch of the imagination. And the idea that we can’t know anything unless we have scientific evidence for it, is ridiculous. The claim ‘We can’t know anything unless we can verify it scientifically’ cannot, itself, be verified scientifically. That kind of argument is self-defeating. Interesting, no? So when someone says, “There’s no scientific evidence for that, therefore I won’t believe it”, I can respond by saying either:

1. Your face has no scientific evidence

or

2. There are things that we know to be true apart from any scientific evidence.

I find the latter to be more efficient, although not nearly as epic.

Here are are 2 categories of facts that we all accept without help from science:

1. Metaphysical Facts

Metaphysics, by definition, lies outside the realm of science. The term ‘Metaphysics’ means ‘meta-physics’ or ‘beyond physics’.  Metaphysical facts include the existence of other minds, the existence of the world outside of your own mind, and the reality of the past. We believe that there are minds other than our own, the external world is real, and the past wasn’t created 5 minutes ago and given only the appearance of having aged as it did. These beliefs are what philosophers call properly basic beliefs. That means that they are foundational. We can’t show them to be true or false. We accept them as facts without question, but they cannot be proven by science.

Science cannot tell me that there are minds other than my own. When I’m in a lecture, I assume that the professor who is lecturing is a real entity with a mind and not simply a figment of my imagination or a part of my dream (as much as I’d like to think so). I treat the world around me as if it is real. I could be stuck in the matrix or I could be a brain floating in a jar of chemicals being stimulated by some crazy scientist who is giving me the illusion of this world. But I know I’m not. I know that the past is real; I was not created 5 minutes ago and implanted with 22 years’ worth of memories. I comfortably believe all of this and yet there is no scientific evidence that confirms it.

2. Ethical Facts

A lot of interest has been generated recently in the field of Evolutionary Psychology. Some experts in this field have argued that we can get morality from understanding who we are as social mammals. The idea of the purely ‘selfish gene’ is slowly being understood to be false, or at least an incomplete picture of who we really are. We are not simply lone mammals on the quest to propagate our DNA at all costs—there is a complex social infrastructure in mammalian groups/herds that has an inbuilt morality for the purpose of helping us deal with each other. Elephants bury their dead, bonobos comfort each other after loss, and most primates understand and operate by the laws of reciprocity and justice. This explains morality, right? Science has given us ethics!

Just a minute, buddy. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This kind of argument commits what David Hume articulated as the            Is-Ought fallacy. You can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. This means that observing and understanding how things are cannot tell us that this is the way things ought to be. Just because we observe that mammals help each other doesn’t tell us that we should help each other. Well, maybe we can say that we ought to help each other because that increases human flourishing. Right? Ok, but that presupposes that human flourishing is good and should be striven towards. But why is increasing human flourishing good in the first place? Why should we pursue it? Any answer that one gives to that question will not come from science. That’s because science is descriptive, not prescriptive. The ‘should’ or ‘ought’ has to come from elsewhere. Science can’t give us that.

Science doesn’t tell us that rape is evil. Science can’t tell us that rape is evil. The value judgment, evil, lies beyond the scope of the scientific method. Sure, science can tell us that rape can have biological and psychological repercussions on individuals and societies, but to say that rape is evil is not something that science can do. We know that rape is evil wholly apart from science.

Science can’t answer questions beyond those about the observable, testable world around us. Trying to do so is akin to using a yardstick to find the weight of a bucket of water. It won’t work because that isn’t the correct tool. My point here is not to say that science is bad. Not at all. I love science. Science has given us, and continues to provide us with progress in health and understanding the world around us. But we should not try to apply science outside of the fields for which it is meant.

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Paul Rezkalla

Paul graduated from NYU with degrees in Religious Studies and History. He has recently completed a MA in Philosophy from the University of Birmingham in England and is now pursuing a second MA in Theology. His interests are too many to list and too varied to make sense of.

  • Philip Murray

    hahahaha. I laughed OUT LOUD at “Your face has no scientific evidence.” Good stuff, Paul. I blogged about something similar at:
    http://www.apologeticsreview.com/2011/03/01/ten-presuppositions-of-science/

    Would love to get your feedback. Keep up with Good Work!

    • Paul Rezkalla

      Thanks, Philip! Your post was insightful, too!

  • John Moore

    You wrote, “There are things that we know to be true apart from any scientific evidence,” but that’s not right. What you probably meant to write is “There are things we must assume ‘a priori’ before we can start drawing conclusions.”

    Just because we take something as ‘a priori’ does not mean it’s necessarily true.

    • Paul Rezkalla

      Sure, but when we ‘assume’ something, we take it to have some truth value, i.e. it corresponds to reality. The notion of ‘assumption’ is not devoid of a claim to knowledge or truth. What does it mean to ‘accept’ or ‘take’ an a priori belief? It means that we invest positive epistemic status into it.

  • tildeb

    If we assume the term ‘knowledge’ relates not just to beliefs assumed to be true but emphasizes justified beliefs to demonstrate why it’s true (such as creating explanations that produces technologies, applications, and therapies that work for everyone everywhere all the time), then there is no means available in the methodology of metaphysics to do so. And this failure has a demonstrable affect in that metaphysics fails to produce any ‘knowledge’.

    You may assume that this failure to produce knowledge doesn’t really matter, that we should still respect it as a method to inform religious belief as a way to define the reality we share. I think you’re not just wrong but foolishly and dangerously wrong.

    Claims of explanatory knowledge (to be considered equivalent knowledge to that produced by science) must undergo some means to demonstrate this… preferably independent of the person making the knowledge claim. And this is where we run into real trouble, real problems that instigate real harm to real people in real life. Whereas the scientific method allows reality to arbitrate and adjudicate claims made about it, metaphysics substitutes unjustified belief to be sufficient. This is why metaphysics can be counted on to produce no knowledge; it regularly and consistently and reliably produces nothing but belief. The problem – like always – is when beliefs claimed to be equivalent knowledge stand contrary to and in conflict with claims substantiated by a method that we know works adjudicated by reality (by building on its explanations with stuff that works… like the gizmo you’re using to read these words).

    If we intend our questions to result in knowledge, then the quality of them matters a very great deal. When we ask the kinds of questions that cannot produce knowledge, then it is disingenuous to blame the method of science. The insufficiency here rests solely with the confusion of questioner.

    • Paul Rezkalla

      Are you justified in believing that I exist? That I am not an illusion?

      • tildeb

        I am not aware of any illusions that can type.

        • Paul Rezkalla

          How do you know that you’re not just perceiving me typing? This could all be an illusion or a dream. You can’t prove that the external world around you is real.

          • tildeb

            Proof is for axiomatic systems like math or logic. Reality is not a closed axiomatic system. I have a reasonable confidence based on evidence adduced from reality that produces explanations called ‘knowledge’ that works for everyone everywhere all the time (as far as we can tell). For me, this is sufficient. For you? Well, it is incompatible with a faith-based belief that makes reality subject to your beliefs about it. You can fix that.

            Yes, my confidence may be misplaced, but that’s a condition of living, of operating successfully in reality, and not a philosophical axiomatic word game that tries to paint a false picture of equivalency where none exists based on equivalent evidence adduced from reality.

            But you already know this. So why the games?

  • http://hausdorffbb.blogspot.com/ Hausdorff

    “Science can’t show that two people love each other”

    What if someday we map the brain well enough to accurately tell whether or not someone is in love?

    • Paul Rezkalla

      And what would love look like under the microscope? If that were the case, then we could solve so many problems. We’d never have to face the fear of rejection when we confess our love to the woman of our dreams for we could simply test them first to see if they do love us. Spouses who are suspicious of their partners can simply have them undergo a CAT Scan in order to determine whether they still love them. And why stop at love? Maybe we can also tell whether someone is telling the truth. We might be able to analyze truth under the microscope.

      I have read journal articles where neuroscientists have pointed to glowing blots on brain images and said, “See that? That right there is love.” But that’s silly. It’s one thing to say that we know what parts of a person’s brain light up when they are in love, but to say that ‘this glowing thing’ is love, is absolutely ridiculous. How would we know that it was love unless the person experiencing it subjectively told us? This means that what we see in the brain imaging is not love, for if it were, we would be able to identify it without needing the subject to tell us what he/she is feeling at the moment.

      • http://hausdorffbb.blogspot.com/ Hausdorff

        First of all, I completely agree with you based on current technology. Based on what (little) I know about what we can currently do, the guys pointing to blots on brain images and claiming it is love are really over stating what they can deduce from it. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have *something*, perhaps they have something that we have seen before be associated with love, but it could mean plenty of other things as well.

        However, you weren’t talking about current technology (at least that wasn’t how I read the original post), but rather if science could theoretically measure these things. It’s reasonable to guess that brain scanners are going to get better and better, how can we really say that in 100 years they won’t have the kind of precision to tell if someone is in love? And I agree, why stop at love? I see no reason that with a good enough brain scanner we couldn’t have a properly functioning lie detector.

        But this tech obviously doesn’t exist yet, perhaps it never will. Perhaps you are right and there is something about these emotions that brain scanners just are fundamentally unable to pick up. I doubt this is the case, but I have to accept this possibility of it.

        You seem to be trying to assert that this tech absolutely will never exist, and I think that is unfounded. To assert that science cannot do this, and never will be able to do this, is too strong a claim to make and is completely unsupported.

  • Brandon

    Isn’t the title a little misgiving?
    Scientific theories only propose that which is falsifiable. That means the scientific method can’t answer any questions but only shows what is a false answer out of innumerable possibilities, right?