Scope of Scientific Inquiry

This is a short treatise on the preliminary considerations of the nature and limits of scientific knowledge. As such, most of this paper will be concerned with what we are capable of deriving by the means of scientific inquiry. However, this paper will also consider some of the criticisms made by science on Christianity and suggest some possible solutions.

Although there can be numerous and complicated disagreements about complete and precise nature of science, certain things about science can be said without much controversy. The first and perhaps the most fundamental of these is the aim or the purpose of science: to obtain something that which is true of reality. However, such an aim does not belong to science alone. This aim of inquiring into the truth of reality is also shared by philosophy and religion. But it would be certainly untrue to say all three are identical; philosophy is not religion, neither is religion a science. There are clear distinctions between all three ways (if you will) of inquiring into the truth of reality, and seeing these distinctions will allow us to better grasp what qualifies a particular kind of knowledge as scientific knowledge. And the qualifications of scientific knowledge will aid us in seeing to what extent science is capable of speaking what is true about the reality, and in turn, concerning what is true about religion.

Each way of inquiry pursues after truth through different means. Therefore, a distinction can be made in the methods by which each way seeks to establish what can be known about the world. Science[1], among the three, employs a method that involves a synthesis of reason[2] and empirical evidence. This is distinct from both philosophy and religion because philosophy does not necessarily have to collapse into empirical verification as science needs to by necessity, and religion pursues after truth in quite a different way than the other two.[3] In any case, we now very roughly perceive a part of what it means to inquire scientifically.

However, given that we agree on the method of scientific inquiry, we see very clearly also the possible limitations of its capacity to inquire: science can only inquire to the extent that the object of the inquiry is in some way empirically verifiable. Thus, science concerns itself with physical reality by virtue of its methodology, and cannot exceed its limitation which it placed in itself as a precondition for anything to qualify as scientific knowledge; it follows from its methodology that proper object of scientific inquiry is the natural world. Granted that reality beyond the physical exists, science would have no say at all as to the nature and the truth of such reality. If it made any claim on religion apart from what is empirically verifiable, it would no longer be a scientific claim.

However, religion claims a bit stronger point than that, which is that what is beyond the physical, or what is supernatural, intervenes in the physical world, even to alter it momentarily here and there. The truth about religion is that it is not purely and entirely spiritual. All religions, especially Christianity, manifest themselves in time and thus lay claims to be a part of history. If Christianity denies its historicity, then the Bible would have to be mere allegorical accounts and myths of what may be true spiritually, but never physically. However, with Christianity there can be no such alternatives. The claims that Christianity makes of history are essential to its faith. If Jesus never rose again, then Christianity falls apart on itself. We are told that God works in time, and we witness many Scriptural recounts of God’s supernatural intervention on the physical. The resurrection, virgin birth, walking on water, and other such supernatural and miraculous accounts seem not only to merely step onto the turf of science, they smear their presence as if it was rightfully their playground from the beginning. Science now appears to be perfectly qualified to lay scientific judgments on religion. And it is. Even still, scientific judgments, insofar as they are scientific, remain irrelevant to determine the claims of religion. In order to illustrate this point, I must distinguish another characteristic of science.

Let us assume that incarnation, virgin birth, atonement, and resurrection actually occurred in history. God was born through a virgin in a human form. He was crucified on the cross which atoned for the sins of people. And after three days rose again. If a historian[4]was to investigate what happened in the past, he might find that a child was born under a certain person, on a certain date. But can he ever show, by means of scientifically disposed historical investigation, that he was of virgin birth and really God incarnate? Even granted that incarnation is true, it would not be a domain of science to determine the truth of that. It is the same with atonement. The historian may well prove that crucifixion of a person named Jesus occurred in history, but would never find out, through the method he restricts himself, that that particular act of dying has reconciled men to God. The resurrection is somewhat different in that although historical research might even show the probability of the victim of crucifixion being seen alive by other people after three days, it will either have to leave it as an unexplained phenomenon or make sense of it within the naturalistic picture, that he might have not died on the cross in the first place.

Even given the actuality of these miraculous occurrences, science is only allowed that which belongs to its proper scope of investigation; its limitation predetermines the nature of the consequent knowledge prior to its investigation. But a scientist, a physicist maybe, may argue that we know these things to be false because they violate the laws of nature. However, the same point can be made to any such claim that prescribes beforehand a boundary to its systemization of knowledge. Why can’t the laws of nature be violated? Whether or not they can be, it would not be a scientific inquiry that will produce the relevant answers; for science is essentially irrelevant to anything beyond its method of investigation. Science can only infer from the implications of the physical phenomena those that are of the same order—other physical phenomena. Science may guide us to a direction of interpretation of what physical events may potentially retain, but never the knowledge of those things that are taken by faith. I think Mackintosh makes quite a nice point concerning the worry: “The possibilities have been fixed in advance; the facts are compelled to fit the method by which they are to be treated; just as, though an automatic machine when opened may disgorge nothing but unbent pennies, this is not because the outer world is made up of unbent pennies and nothing else, but because the selective mechanism at work will accept no other sort”.[5] The fact about science is that it already adopts a metaphysically predetermined methodological attitude which does not allow itself to transgress; it proceeds from assumptions of reality, which by the very nature of its own methodology cannot prove or disprove.

Science is an art, produced by the unity of our mind’s eyes with our natural eyes. Thus, the product of science is a thing of beauty for those who see value in knowing how our reality is. But at the same time, it is an art with a specific medium. Just as a painter cannot paint outside the canvas he set himself to work within, so is science. Science performs a beneficial and perhaps even a necessary function in our lives. But we cannot see with our ears and smell with our eyes, and we cannot and should not attempt to go beyond the function in which science so prospers.

 

[1] We are here concerned with a particular kind of science that is relevant to the discussion of religion; thus, theoretical sciences, like mathematics, are not discussed.

[2] A logical system of deduction based on certain assumptions.

[3] Religion does not aim at knowledge in the same way as science or philosophy. Religion is said to follow after truth because it orients one’s being in accordance with the truth, both divine and natural.

[4] The historian whose interpretation of history is essentially scientific.

[5] Mackintosh, H. R., Types of Modern Theology, 1964

 

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