Summer Special: What can science do?

space shuttle launch NASA 1982 crop

Where can we go to find out what is true? At the Faraday Summer course last week, the Dutch philosopher Professor René van Woudenberg explained why science cannot be relied upon as the only source of truth in the world. In a sense, he said, this type of argument is ‘kicking at an open door’. Philosophers have known that we need more than science as a source of knowledge for a long time, but it’s worth talking about because many people don’t know the door is open! Science is a great source of knowledge, but it has a number of limitations.

First, there are the sources of knowledge that are outside of science. To know something, you need to believe it is true. For example, no one knows that Paris is the capital of the UK. In other words, you need a reason to believe something, and that reason can come from outside of science. Some things – such as my name, who my parents are, whether I feel that I have a headache, or my obligations to my family – seem to be beyond scientific investigation. Moral and religious truths, especially, are ‘irreducibly extra-scientific knowledge’ – they can’t be discovered by doing scientific experiments.

Second, there is the type of knowledge we can only get from experience. You can know that an object appears to be a certain colour because of the physics of light, but do you really know what red looks like until you see it with your own eyes? Or can you know a person without meeting them? You can know the theory, but to know something or someone fully you need to experience it in person.

Third, there are the assumptions that we hold, which include logical principles, the idea that the laws of physics are the same right across the universe, or the fact that we trust ourselves to know anything in the first place. We know these things, but we cannot do very much to prove that they are true. From a scientific perspective, we just have to assume they are right and get on with our experiments.

Fourth, there are the ultimate questions. Want is the meaning of life? What should I value? Why should I do anything at all? These are real and very important questions, and it makes sense to ask them. Science is powerless to answer this type of question, so we need to go elsewhere to look for answers to them.

Fifth, some things are simply brute facts. Scientists are very familiar with the fact that they can explain things in lawlike ways. Light travels at a certain speed, things fall in certain ways if you drop them, and water bends light in particular directions. There may be higher laws, yet to be discovered, that explain why these things behave in the ways they do, but at some point there has to be an ultimate explanation of what makes the higher laws the way they are. You can’t simply keep on inventing ever-higher laws to explain the other laws. In the rest of life, we are familiar with personal explanations – someone left a book on my desk. Science cannot provide that sort of explanation, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a possibility…

Finally, there are the ways scientists choose their theories. Only mathematicians can prove anything. Scientists can’t solve everything with numbers, we have to look for data and construct theories that make sense of them. In the end, all scientific theories are provisional, and there may be alternate explanations. So how do scientists decide between theories? Simplicity can often play a part.

If your door has been broken down, your house is a mess, and something has been stolen, what do you say to the police? Do you say that three people raided your house last night: one broke the door down, one made a mess, and another stole something? No, you probably say that at least one person broke into your house, made a mess, and took something valuable. Until you have more data, you can’t really claim how many people were involved.

There are all sorts of ways in which scientists find some theories more satisfying than others, but science itself is not always a deciding factor in the decision. Logic, reason, experience, intuition, aesthetics, personal preference – all of these can play a part. As time goes on, and more data are gathered, we can become more certain which theory is an accurate reflection of reality. Eventually some theories have so much data behind them – gravity or the common ancestry of all living things, for example – that they are treated almost as facts.

Science is a great enterprise, and can tell us many things about the way the world is. Most of us rely on scientific knowledge every day, and the vast majority of us would probably be dead without it. The incredible success of the scientific enterprise can lead some people to see it as the only reliable way to know the world. When that happens, we need people like René to remind us that we need to get out more. We need to learn about the world in a variety of ways, including – but not limited to – science.


All the lectures from the Faraday summer course will appear online over the coming weeks.

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© Faraday Institute

Ruth Bancewicz is a Senior Research Associate at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, where she works on the positive interaction between science and faith. After studying Genetics at Aberdeen University, she completed a PhD at Edinburgh University. She spent two years as a part-time postdoctoral researcher at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology at Edinburgh University, while also working as the Development Officer for Christians in Science. Ruth arrived at The Faraday Institute in 2006, and is currently a trustee of Christians in Science.

4 thoughts on “Summer Special: What can science do?

  1. Ian Elliott Benson July 13, 2018 / 6:41 pm

    Thanks a lot, Ruth for this interesting article. Some questions:
    1. How can it be unscientific to ask your name, or search in records for it?
    2. Surely science can find your parents through DNA analysis?
    3. Is not using the phrase, “irreducibly extra-scientific knowledge” prejudging the issue?
    4. “Can you know a person without meeting them?” “Knowing” a person generally includes meeting them which is a certain experience, and is therefore included in the word “knowing”. Is it not therefore slightly tautological to say that one cannot know a person without meeting them?
    5. You say, “do you really know what red looks like until you see it with your own eyes?” This, of course, is subjective experience, but it can be shown scientifically that people have the same brain reactions to the same stimuli.
    6. You say that, “We know these things, but we cannot do very much to prove that they are true”. Certainly every scientific experiment and calculation makes certain assumptions, and a scientific experiment cannot test every assumption every time, however, can not experiments be devised to see whether one particular assumption is right or not?
    7. You say that “Science is powerless to answer the type of “ultimate” question such as What is the meaning of life? What should I value? Why should I do anything at all? These are real and very important questions, and it makes sense to ask them.” Can these questions not be rephrased in less abstract ways which open them up to scientific investigation? For example, “What is the meaning of life?” could be rephrased as, “Are there any indicators in human experience and history which point to a higher purpose for human beings than satisfying physical, emotional and social needs?”
    I could go on. However, my main point is that belief in God should not be classed as extra-rational knowledge, as if in the face of difficult questions, one simply says, “God did it”, or, “Just believe in my guru who has all the answers”. I do believe that all creation speaks of the glory of God and that He has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, but I also believe that these beliefs can be subject to scientific questioning.


    • Ruth M. Bancewicz July 16, 2018 / 10:13 am

      Thank you Ian, I’m sure Professor van Woudenberg would do a better job of answering your questions that I – given that this is simply a summary of his talk – but I can say this.

      We’re not necessarily talking about extra-rational stuff here. The scientific method doesn’t have the monopoly on rationalism! We’re talking about extra-scientific. Yes, pretty much every question in life can be answered in a scientific way e.g. DNA analysis, but that’s not the only way to answer it. If we deny the validity of the extra-scientific knowledge, we have lost something. In the same way that you cannot reduce a human relationship to a series of scientifically testable questions, I believe that God is similarly irreducible.

      On the rational, I personally am with Alister McGrath who thinks that religion goes beyond the rational. It doesn’t contradict it, it just takes us beyond, as – I think – any relationship will do. But that’s the subject of another blog post!


  2. Ted Christopher July 19, 2018 / 4:22 am

    Hello Ruth et al,

    I suggest a different way to approach the Religion versus Science issue.

    Directly take on materialism with exceptional (but accepted) behavioral phenomena to get an easy start at rebutting the scientific vision of life. This is supposed to be almost impossible but is in fact easy.

    Next take a general swipe at the presumed general basis for life – DNA. Science is now quietly 10 years into a stunning missing heritability problem.

    The basic point here is that taking on science’s vision of life in a non-philosophical way is both easy and essential to opening the door to deeper understandings of life – including religious one.

    Here is a paper I wrote last that introduces some of these points,

    Traction for arguing the God aspect is harder to come by.

    I hope things are going ok there.


    Ted Christopher
    Rochester, NY


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