The Limits of Science

October 7, 2007 at 3:24 pm Leave a comment

I wrote this in response to a question on the class blog for my Science and Religion class. I would link to it, but it’s a private blog. The prompt asked if there was a limit to science, or topics which were better left to religion than science (with questions about the origin of the universe as an example). Here’s my response:

  There are no questions which should fall outside the range of scientific inquiry.

 To explain, let me say this: my understanding of science is my understanding of a method of thought aimed towards understanding the world. Not pieces or parts of the world, but the world as it exists, has existed, and will exist. Because of this, I do not think that it is correct to declare some questions about anything, including origins, to be out of the range of science. Because science exists as a method, an activity, a framework, and a worldview, rather than an object, I think that if one draws a limit to science one draws a limit to human thought. A better question to ask than “are there some questions that science cannot answer” is “are there some questions which we as humans cannot answer.”

 An objection to my point regarding science has already been posted on this thread by Chris. It’s a tough post to follow. That being said, I do not think that “the Bible is attempting to answer fundamentally different questions than science” or that science fails to ask “why” questions that Chris suggests are better left to religion. Indeed, this is part of why I perceive science and religion as being in competition—they are two methods of thought which are in competition over the same goal: explanation.

 I might be accused here of conflating science with philosophy. Another point that Chris made is that there are separate ways in which scientists themselves might think that their work does or does not explain why something like the big bang occurs. Separate from that, I’m sure that there are many people who would say that, outside of religion, philosophy is the discipline that should answer the why questions of the events and objects that science describes.

 I do not understand why there should be any such distinction between science (at least as I understand it) and philosophy. I think that the best philosophy is conducted in a scientific manner. This is not to say that philosophy needs to be written in the traditional scientific method (indeed, many scientific studies are conducted in a method which does not mirror the 5 bullet points on the wall in many classrooms). Sometimes the best expression of a good scientific thought might be achieved with more poetic language.

 What I mean when I say that philosophy should be conducted in a scientific manner is that philosophy should adhere, at every step, to a careful self-examination to make sure that the conclusions drawn about any subject depict reality as closely as possible. When making normative (“should”) claims, philosophy should similarly strive to depict the best of what is possible. Epistemology and metaphysics should describe the universe as it exists, has existed, and will exist as well as why it exists. Kind of like… science. Ethics and other human affairs (including some branches of philosophy of science) should describe the best that is possible for us as humans to achieve. Hence, fields like… political science. There are many different topics and types of scientific inquiry in the world, and it almost seems unfair to lump them under the same label. But it seems to me that science, in the abstract (unhinged from earth science, psychological science, computer science, political science, or anything else described in the same form) is foremost a method, a way of thinking. What compares to this way of thought? How can we draw a limit to it?

 The discipline which compares to science is religion. One can borrow from the other in practice, but they are in competition over how to explain the world, how to describe what is best and possible and why it is all here. There can be religious incorporation of scientific discoveries, and scientists who believe in god, but these actions do not necessarily tell us about science or religion themselves. Religion has a method for investigating and answering questions about the world that are different than science, and it is just as difficult to draw a limit to it as it is to science. But the two are in no way the same. Scientific explanation is separate from religious explanation, much as the two mirror one another because they share a goal.

 What then, of the limits to science and religion? I think that to draw a limit to either is to draw a limit to human thought. It seems obvious that we are limited by virtue of being humans. We each exist separate from one another in space and time. We exist only for a short period in comparison to some beings and a long period in comparison to others. Hopefully, we can continue to accumulate and stockpile knowledge that helps us to understand the world, but we can never know it all. It’s a necessary condition of being embodied that we cannot. We are limited, and as we are limited so is science, religion, and anything else we can use to increase our understanding of the universe.


Entry filed under: Limits, Religion.

Who Gets to Decide a Scientific Code of Ethics? pt. 2 A History of Causation in a Flowchart (for Philosophy)

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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
October 2007
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