Craig’s List: What Science Fails to Explain
The perception that religion and science conflict usually stems from the idea that religion is obsolete. Science, after all, has shown that the world wasn’t created in seven calendar days, that species arose from evolution, that the sun and not the earth is the center of the universe. The secular tools of modern science can show us objective, tested, truth about the universe—so what’s the need for religion? Shouldn’t all reliable knowledge come from scientific investigation? More to the point, is there anything science can’t explain?
In a recorded debate with atheist Peter Atkins, Christian philosopher William Lane Craig lists five things that science fails to explain. I will summarize Craig’s list here, with additional analysis and detail.
1) Logic and Mathematics. Science cannot explain the truths of mathematics because it assumes them in its models and analysis. Even more importantly, the methods of science are ultimately experimental and observational. Confirmation of special relativity, for example, came from the Michelson-Morley experiment, the Hafele-Keating experiment, and others. These experiments furnished a limited amount of data from which scientists extrapolated a general theory. Mathematicians, on the other hand, cannot generalize from a few observations the way scientists do. For example, Euclid did not prove the Pythagorean theorem by checking it for six or seven different triangles. Some mathematicians—famously including Georg Cantor—have suggested a relationship between mathematics and theology, perhaps leaving room for religion outside of the jurisdiction of science.
2) Metaphysical Truths. Many of the well-known skepticism problems in philosophy are unanswerable by science. For example, Bertrand Russell once suggested that the world could have been created five minutes ago with all the appearance of age. Because this challenges the scientific interpretation of the data itself, science could not disprove this idea. Similarly, for the problem of the existence of an external world outside of the mind, the existence of other minds, and others.
3) Ethical Beliefs. Whether murder and rape are wrong is not a question that can be answered by science. Science can tell us from an evolutionary perspective why these things might be frowned upon, or why they will hurt other people—but these are ultimately just explanations of the ways that molecules move and interact. They do not tell us anything about whether murder is wrong. Similarly, science provides us no reason to blame someone for an action. Neuroscientists can tell us what goes on in a person’s brain when they do things, but this cannot explain whether the person has any choice in their actions.
4) Aesthetic Beliefs. Beauty is something that science cannot adequately describe or analyze. This is because beauty is not a psychological or neurological effect that something has on an observer. When mathematicians claim that a theorem is beautiful, they do not mean just that it pleases them—they mean that there is something aesthetic or symmetric about the theorem, independently of any observer. Similarly, for beautiful music—Beethoven’s symphonies would be beautiful even if nobody had ever heard them. Beauty is an abstract property that cannot be analyzed completely by the methods of science: observation or empirical investigation.
5) Science Itself. Finally, science cannot explain or prove the reliability of its own methods. The tools of science— generalization, the correspondence principle, induction, hypotheses, testing—cannot justify themselves without forming a logical circle. So how do we know that science “works?” Not by scientific investigation, we should hope! This belongs more properly to the realm of philosophy and perhaps ultimately even to faith.
While we have not argued that religion necessarily explains things beyond the jurisdiction of science, Craig’s five examples prove that science is limited in its explanatory scope. Science does not explain everything, and to say that it takes the place of religion will demand a much more careful argument than many opponents of religion are willing or able to offer.
2 See: http://galileoandeinstein.physics.virginia.edu/lectures/michelson.html; http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/Relativ/airtim.html
Philip LaPorte ’22 is a freshman in Apley Court.Tags: atheism, beauty, Bertrand Russell, ethics, evolution, faith, Georg Cantor, mathematics, Peter Atkins, philosophy, religion, science, secular, William Lane Craig