“I do not believe in anything that is not physical–I only believe what science tells me is true,” is what a student of mine told me as he came into my office in the Spring of 2013. He was wrong. For this post, I will address ten things we cannot learn from science alone.
This short article rebuttals the idea that only what we can “prove” that is, physically using the scientific method, is true. As a philosopher, the question that raises its head almost every semester in my classes is, “There is no right answer in philosophy, therefore, Professor we should focus on the sciences to give us ultimate truth, right?” This article is a response to this question and popular myth.
The view called naturalism, (aka scientism or materialism) holds that nothing but the physical world exists. This view is false on many accounts. See my article on the issue here where I address the problems of this worldview (you can also listen to the talk I gave on itunes here.) But for now, there are at least 10 things we cannot learn from science alone–there are more of course.
is a way of looking at and researching the world. I am not knocking science or scientific research! It is necessary and I could not write this article without it. But behind every scientific invention or theory there is a worldview or philosophy that is itself not scientific.
Daniel Dennett said it best,
“There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.” .Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 1995
Science is a wonderful gift to make sense of creation and that we have used and are using to make our world a better place.
But science alone does not tell us everything. For now, I will list ten things we cannot prove with science alone.
- Logical Truths: These must be accepted as foundational presuppositions in order for us to engage in any scientific study, so we clearly can’t use science to prove logic. In fact, it is the other way around. We need logic to make sense of science. My wife cannot be pregnant and not pregnant at the same time and same sense. A truth cannot be false at the same time as it is true. If all mothers are women, then every mother we meet must of necessity be a woman. There is no escape from this. These are logical truths that science relies upon.
- Metaphysical Truths: Some truths about the nature of the world (such as whether or not the external world is what we think it is, our free will and ourselves) cannot be determined through the use of the hard sciences. Your personal identity, your sense of self and personhood is not found in your DNA alone.
- Moral and Ethical Truths: Science cannot tell us what is morally virtuous or vile. It tells us what “is.” But it does not tell us what “ought to be” (related to moral judgments). Science can tell you who died, how he died and what way he was killed. But it cannot tell you if he was murdered–it cannot tell you if it was wrong to kill him. Sam Harris and many others tried but failed to do this.
- Scientific Truths: Science itself is based on assumptions that can’t be proven scientifically. Nature is orderly it follows regularity, pattern, and structure–these must be true for any science to work at all. The very foundations for most scientific theories are based on presuppositional, epistemological claims about truth, reality and the nature of the world as we know it. There are laws and equations built in the very foundation of the universe, such as, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, the strong and weak force, and gravity—which most cosmologists tell us were present in the singularity in the very origin of the universe! These are what make science work, but science alone cannot explain these laws without proposing them.
- Mathematical Truths: We cannot know with 100% certainty that the next time we multiply 100 X 100 the answer will always be 10,000. The Pythagorean theorem and other principles help us to understand science . These are mathematical laws that we cannot know will work using science alone. In fact we need math to make sense of science, not the other way around
- Conscience Truths: Scientific analysis can never tell us what “what it is like” to experience love or hate or betrayal. MRI or CAT scans of our brains will not produce data on this. This is private and personal knowledge that cannot be gained by a scientist. Scientists and scholars call it, Qualia. It is the nature of experience itself that does not lend itself to a scientific third-person analysis. By the way, the idea “I cannot believe anything that is non-physical,” is itself a non-physical thing! This is what we call a contradictory statement.
- Literary Truths. We cannot know by science alone that Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Fin was a more interesting character than Homer’s Agamemnon. Literary truths require analysis, but not the same kind that rocks, organs or comets do.
- Beauty and Musical Truths: We can do an analysis of music and beauty mathematically and physically, such as using the golden ratio from Leonardo da Vinci art where we investigate the balanced facial features and landscapes by notions put forth by the ancient Greeks that symmetry and balance is an important ingredient in human judgments of beauty and of musical notes. I am talking about such as tempo and rhythm and the balance between them. However. the appreciation of that music and beauty takes something other than scientific research. Science alone is insufficient to explain them. As a matter of a fact, the more analysis you do of a musical piece or artwork the less beautiful it can become because part of its enjoyment is the wonder of it!
- Forgiveness and Peace. Study science all you want, and you will not be one step closer to finding forgiveness or peace for your sins and the people you hurt with biology or chemistry alone.
- Purpose and Hope. You cannot find the purpose of all of life, and your life in particular with scientific analysis alone. Scientific research can confirm that lives with purpose are more lasting, but it does not tell us what that purpose is.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
-William Shakespeare, “Hamlet”,
Act 1 scene 5G
Note: Science does not do anything.