The Limitations of Science, and the Necessity of Faith
Before anyone jumps to conclusions that I am an ignorant idiot who knows nothing of science, let me attempt to establish my ethos. I was born to scientists and had been trained in the sciences from my youth. My father has a Mechanical Engineering PhD from Yonsei, and my mother a Chemistry PhD from KAIST. I had the scientific method drilled into me by the third grade, was programming by the fourth, was running experiments with ethanol candles by the seventh, and was working at the Fagan Lab in the University of Maryland by the eleventh. All this to say, I consider science an important part of my identity, and I do not demean the discipline lightly.
That said, we will examine four of science’s limitations. This is not meant to be a definitive list, nor is it meant to be a rigorous treatment of science and philosophy. Indeed, there will be overlaps within these categories, but I believe they will be helpful in dismantling the lie that science is the answer to everything. The first is that science cannot prove the existence of anything. The second is that science cannot teach everything. The third is that science can only test repeatable phenomena. Finally the fourth is that science cannot answer philosophical questions.
In speaking of science and faith, I have come to realize that many people seem to forget that science is ultimately rooted in faith as well. To put this in simplistic terms, in order for us to accept any findings of scientific research, we must have faith that such findings can even exist. In other words, the observation of reality must be possible. As observation cannot be proven true, any observation must be taken on faith to be true.
Thus is the first great limitation of science: science, or observation, cannot prove its own existence, or more generally, prove the existence of anything. Although Rene Descartes famously stated, “I think therefore I am,” to show that something ought to exist (as him doubting his existence is in fact something, and thus something must be doing the doubting), we do not know in what form this existence takes. Indeed this can be displayed through the brain in a box thought experiment which states that we cannot know if what we feel and experience are really “real,” or we are simply brains in boxes simulated by electronic pulses to makes us feel what we feel. Ultimately, science must rely on faith that seeing truly is believing.
This is exemplified in Kurt Gödel’s two incompleteness theorems. While a full treatment of the proofs will not be presented, the simplified conclusion of his theorems were that in any system whose statements can all be true at once, it is impossible to prove every statement within that system. In technical terms, an axiomatic system cannot both be complete and consistent at once. In laymen’s terms, there are some statements that must be assumed true in any set of statements that can all be true at once. A very conservative conclusion can be reached that in all things true, certain things need to be taken on faith. Thus the foundation of all science, math, and knowledge is faith.
The second great limitation of science is that it cannot teach everything. In other words, not everything is knowable. Scientific determinism reigned in the 1900s, when science, or observation, was believed to be able discover knowledge of everything in theory. However, this was proven false by multiple scientists and philosophers through the years. One example is Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The essence of this principle is that by measuring the position of a particle, the velocity becomes indeterminable because to determine the position of a particle, particle interaction must be used. Imagine trying to find the location of a certain medicine ball flying in the air by throwing multiple balls at it, and determining where a collision occurs. As the collision happens, the velocity of the original ball has been changed, and thus becomes undeterminable. This collision movement could be minimized with a smaller particle, but as matter is quantized, no smaller particles exist. Technological advances physically cannot give us a smaller particle.
It is of some importance to note here that science also does not inoculate the human mind against blind faith. Einstein would perhaps be the most important example. As Einstein was so fully convinced that science could reveal everything, he spent the last portion of his life attempting to disprove quantum mechanics in futility. He had blind faith that “God does not play dice,” and thus spent his golden years in futility, attempting to prove his blind faith.
A third important limitation of science is that it is limited to testing the veracity of repeatable phenomena. In other words, only events that can be repeated can be tested by science. The scientific process requires events to be repeatable in order for a causation or correlation to be prescribed. This can be seen through repeat trials and open peer review. This is undoubtedly a good thing, as repeatability usually leads to truth. If one were to claim that a certain miracle food leads to weight loss, yet there are no statistically significant results signifying this, it is very likely that the miracle food producer is a scam artist. Faith indeed has little need to be present in such a situation. Even if the partaker had immense faith that the miracle food did indeed lead to weight loss, there would be no effect of faith on the bogus miracle food on weight loss beyond that of placebo.
Yet this emphasis on repeatability can become a liability if science is used as the sole purveyor of truth. What of non-repeatable phenomena? Consider this thought experiment by C.S. Lewis. Imagine that there were two universes or realms of existence A and B. A and B have separate and different laws of nature. A’s natural order of being is not B’s natural order of things, and thus A’s nature would seem supernatural to the inhabitants of B, and vice versa. If for some reason A’s plane of existence touched B’s for a moment, the natural laws of each would be upended for the other for that moment. It would seem to inhabitants of both worlds something supernatural had occurred, and the scientists of each realm would be helpless to explain the phenomena of the other. This is what may be called miraculous or supernatural events, which some scientists determined a priori does not exist, simply on the basis that it cannot be replicated reliably by human means.
This leads us to perhaps the most important limitation of science, which is that science is helpless in determining philosophy and morality. Of course science can help in illuminating misunderstandings about reality and how nature works, but in terms of trying to ascertain right and wrong, scientists must accede to philosophers. After all, what experiment could one run in establishing whether Utilitarianism or National Sovereignty should have preeminence? What experiment could one run to determine the value of life? What experiment could one run to see what it means to be human?
In all of these cases, science cannot give a definitive answer. Sure we could run regressions on national output or government power, we could research and find a numeric answer for a cost of life as determined by health care policy, and we could even sequence the human genome and come up with a set of shared genes within the species, but none of these truly touches the essence of these questions. Science cannot give a definitive answer, because these questions are simply out of the scope of science.
Yet in all these things, science can indeed illuminate, but not guide the man in search of truth. Indeed there were and are great men of faith who fathered the majority of our modern sciences. From the Augustinian friar Gregor Mendel named the Father of Modern Genetics to the Father of Newtonian Physics and Integral Calculus, Isaac Newton, history is filled with scientists of faith. Science and faith ultimately do not preclude each other, and the scientific process can lead faith in understanding the reality in which we live. Ultimately, as seekers of truth, let us apply both our faith and study to the ultimate understanding of truth, with faith and knowledge complementing the other.
CS Lewis, Descartes, Einstein, faith, Kurt Gödel, philosophy, science, Werner Heisenberg