Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Proper Place of Science

Here in The West, we have a love affair with science. It’s completely understandable; science has spread prosperity to an unprecedented level, it has put men on the moon, given us the means to feed the whole planet, created the microwave, and allowed us to carry excessively tiny telephones with us wherever we go. Unfortunately, the ubiquity of science has caused many people to place it on pedestal and rely on it for every answer. For so many, an answer provided by science no matter what the subject, is wrongly valued far above answers provided by its sister disciplines of philosophy and theology.

Science is a tool and like any tool it is good for some jobs and absolutely useless for others. Science can’t explain the deepest questions that we have asked ourselves over the centuries: “Why are we here? (Not “How did we come into being,” which it might be possible for science to answer, although even that answer has so far eluded scientists, but rather “WHY, or for what purpose, are we here?”). Science can’t explain consciousness, kindness, morality, or even free will.

Here are two classic examples of the limitation of science:

  1. A brain surgeon knows a great deal more about the physical brain than I do, yet he has absolutely no access to my mind. He knows nothing about my innermost thoughts, he can’t discover them by looking at my brain, and he can’t tell what I’m thinking about, or what makes me happy, sad, worried, or elated through any scientific means available to him.

  2. (Credit to Philosopher Brian Magee for this example):I am sitting in a room, when the human body sitting opposite me rises out of it’s chair and then moves across the room to a table. On the table it locates a small silver box, out of which it removes a cigarette which it places in it’s mouth. Upon completing this action, the body proceeds to light that same cigarette.

    I, and anyone else who observes this action, immediately understand that that person desires a cigarette, even if we have never experienced such a similar desire ourselves before. However, if we try to explain this sequence of events in scientific terms, those of atomic motion and chemical reaction, this sequence suddenly becomes totally incomprehensible.

Science is very limited in its ability to explain the universe around us. It is only a tool, and a flawed tool at that as philosophers David Hume and Thomas Kuhn have so brilliantly pointed out. Yet, it remains the best, most important tool we have for explaining the natural world. That is all. Only what can be examined physically and measured quantitatively and qualitatively is available to science. Everything else falls into the realms of Philosophy or Theology.

You’ve probably heard an atheist say that “science has proven that miracles can’t occur.” This is complete rot. By definition science is the study of order and patterns, usually in the natural world. Miracles, by definition, are events that go against the natural order and established pattern of the world. In other words, miracles are forever outside the realm of science. Trying to explain genuine miracles with science is a little like trying to gauge an individual’s wisdom with a tape measure. It’s the wrong tool.

Science is necessary and useful, but it by no means has the last word (or often any word) on the most important aspects of human life – meaning, morality, love, selflessness, consciousness, or rationality; and the list goes on and on. For each of these areas we need the separate but equally useful tools of philosophy and theology.