10 Things Science cannot prove

The Blind Spots of Science

“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.

Science (derived from Latin scientia, meaning ‘knowledge’) 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 freewill 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Scientific Physical Laws: There are laws and equations built in the very foundation of the universe, such as, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, the strong force, the weak force and gravity—which most cosmologists tell us were present in the singularity over 13 billion years ago. These are what make science work, but science alone cannot explain them.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Scientists do.

NOTE: There is a FREE ebook, BLINDSPOTS OF SCIENCE, where these issues are addressed more fully.  It available to you free for just signing up on my webpage.  See the link to the bottom right tab –>

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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  • Thanks for this list! I like it, and will use it in future conversations.

    I’ve always wondered about the inclusion of math in these kinds of lists. It seems that math is simply a shorthand representation of reality, and not some kind of metaphysical construct. Here:

    this many
    xx
    plus this many
    xx
    equals this many
    xxxx

    It seems to me neither a questionable concept nor a scientifically provable idea. The existence of two things and the existence of two other things, when taken as a group, is simply four things. Questioning whether that can be scientifically proven seems obvious…no matter how many times you have this many (xx) and that many (xx), you’ll always end up with the same result (xxxx). Rigorous application of the scientific method will confirm this, as will simple common sense.

    I may, of course, have missed something. Why do you think so many include math on their list of scientifically-unfalsifiable things?

    Have a great day!

    • Hello Tony,
      Thanks for the post.
      It is not the math (adding and subtracting) that is not verifiable scientifically, they are, you are right!
      What is not verifiable are the laws that make addition and subtraction constant every where and any time by any one.
      Take for example the following laws
      Commutative Laws: a + b = b + a
      a × b = b × a
      Associative Laws: (a + b) + c = a + (b + c)
      (a × b) × c = a × (b × c)
      Distributive Law: a × (b + c) = a × b + a × c

      Their results can be verified empirically, but the laws themselves, are not physical.
      Where did they come from and why are they working all the time? That is where philosophy (metaphysics) and theology come into play
      Khaldoun

  • Ray

    While I agree with the sentiment and embrace the conclusions presented, I feel the article would have more impact if you utilized an editor and removed some of the spelling mistakes (e.g, from the first paragraph alone: “glen”? “nocking”? “on on”?).

    Keep up the good work but please proofread!

    • Thank you Ray! I will make the corrections. Your feedback is deeply appreciated.
      Khaldoun

      • Chad

        #5. “We cannot why…” 🙂

        Also great article otherwise. 🙂

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  • Rich Wendling

    Science cannot tell us historical truth. Observation is limited to the here and now.

    • Thanks Rich,
      That would make 11 things science cannot do! 🙂
      KS

  • Don Ruhl

    Good points.

  • Miles Fender

    I agree with almost all of these, but I think you’re being a little bit unbalanced. Science would never even claim to be able to answer for literary truths, or logical truths, or mathematical truths, and theism doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have anything to say in these areas either.

    It isn’t like there are only two possible sources for answers: science or theism. Philosophy has plenty to say here without invoking God, and rejecting God as an explanation doesn’t necessarily make one a naturalist about all things. I’m an atheist, but I concede the claim that most of these points cannot be addressed scientifically. Atheism does not entail scientism (though the reverse is obviously pretty unlikely).

    I’m especially with you on moral truths – it’s absolutely infuriating to listen to the (thankfully few) neuroscientists and physicists who think that science can possibly answer metaethical questions. In fact, the only point on this list that I’m wary of is number 8; I think science could – in principle – sufficiently explain these concepts, even if it can’t today.

    • bigshotbob

      Thanks for your response. I’m curious since you’re the only self identified atheist on here, what type of atheist you are. Would you say you are a naturalist or materialist? I have some questions for you if you don’t mind.

      • Miles Fender

        I wouldn’t say I’m a materialist, though I probably am a naturalist. The terms are difficult to deal with though. I would say I’m not a materialist (or physicalist) because I reject the claim that everything we want to describe is ultimately reducible to physical interactions of matter. But I would say I am a naturalist simply in that I reject the existence of the supernatural; I suspect that there are some properties of the universe that are fundamentally non-physical, but still perfectly natural.

        Happy to answer any questions as best I can!

        • bigshotbob

          So what specifically would you say is the main reason why you don’t believe in God?

          • Miles Fender

            At a high level, it’s simply that I have never heard any argument sufficiently convincing to make me think that there IS a God. None of the evidence or logical arguments I have been presented with survive scrutiny, and I find the claims being made to be (at best) extremely implausible.

            Since I was born and raised in a secular community under the dim glow of the Church of England (a rather passive and watered-down state religion to begin with), I wasn’t given any strict religious instruction as a child; rather I was presented with the Bible, weekly religious study classes and the occasional church service and encouraged to decide for myself. Probably before I was even in my teens, I recognized that I didn’t believe a word of it. I also took the time to look at other world religions (ancient and modern) in some detail, and came to the same conclusions about all of them.

            I find religion philosophically interesting and challenging, which is why I’m here. But I don’t believe its claims, and can’t without being offered a convincing argument; as disappointing as it might be to Pascal, I don’t see how anyone can “choose” to believe a proposition that they strongly suspect is false.

          • bigshotbob

            Thanks for sharing. I find it fascinating that two people can be presented the very same argument and end up with complete opposite conclusions. I’m interested in understanding why that happens. I think we can rule out intelligence. I’m sure there are a number of external factors that influence our beliefs regarding God that would go beyond logic. Any thoughts on the subject? In regards to Pascal, would you agree that there really only needs to be a 50% or more certainty?

          • Miles Fender

            Well, let’s turn it around. Is there an argument that convinced you that there is a God, or have you always believed and you just find the arguments supportive of your existing conclusion? Can you imagine any argument or evidence that would convince you otherwise?

            Honestly I think the propensity to align to any particular religion has a huge amount to do with one’s culture and childhood. The beliefs of a child’s parents and community clearly have a strong influence. I think those are the main external factors.

            But more broadly, as a species I think we clearly have some deep-seated propensity to see order and purpose even where there may be none, and that I suspect gives us (generally speaking) some natural desire to at least be deists. I suspect that overcoming this may have quite little to do with rationality; I think it’s something much more intuitive and inaccessible. There is no logical argument that would convince a vegan to eat meat, or a hiker lost in a forest after dark not to feel afraid. We just see things differently.

          • bigshotbob

            For me it has been the cumulative case made for God that leads me to believe. I find the Kalam argument and the moral argument extremely strong. I’ve put both of those to extreme scrutiny and have read/listened to many of the arguments against them but I’ve never heard one that hasn’t been defeated. I also find the existence of evil to support the existence of God. I don’t find naturalism to be very compelling. I think Alvin Plantinga makes a great point about not being able to trust our cognitive faculties if we accept naturalism as true. A number of other philosophers believe the same thing and say that free will is illusory. That has some serious implications if that’s true and I’m not willing to accept that. I believe we are much more than a product of chemical reactions going on in our brains. The fact that we can have a logical conversation confirms that for me. The mere fact that we hold beliefs confirms it for me also. Even from what you said, shows me that we are so much more than animals, it’s just not plausible for me to believe that evolution has given us this high level of consciousness. I think that belief in God is very rational and reasonable, certainly when compared to its negation.

          • Miles Fender

            I think we’ve reached the point where we simply differ strongly and nothing will get us past that. I don’t believe that belief in God is irrational at all, but you state (or strongly imply) that non-belief in God is irrational. To me, this suggests a fundamental unwillingness to be open to being convinced to otherwise.

            Interestingly, I find the Kalam and moral arguments to be among the weakest arguments and not remotely convincing. For what it’s worth, I think the fine-tuning argument is probably the strongest (even though I think it’s fairly easily defeated) and I see some strength in the argument from design. I cannot imagine a sense in which the existence of evil could be used as a compelling argument FOR the existence for God, though I do accept that it can be defeated as an argument against.

            So again, I think we’re probably at an impasse. We simply preceive the world differently. I don’t see anything wrong with that, and hopefully you don’t either.

          • bigshotbob

            I don’t see anything wrong with it necessarily. I do think truth can be known about our reality. I wouldn’t say I implied that atheism is irrational. I was probably coming from a place where I feel like atheists always talk down to theists and imply that their “free thinking” is superior. You may have heard that in my phrasing. Good luck in your search for truth.

          • Miles and Bigshotbob, (remind me of your given name?) 🙂

            What about the concept of prayer and moral affects on the world? What I mean by moral effects is that all the good that Jesus and his philosophy have done for the world. It seems it is more than mere arguments. Also, prayer. Prayer, if one is honestly seeking in doing it, is also more than mere argument. How have these effected the discussion and your beliefs? They made a major difference for me.

  • Keshawn Gibbs

    could not agree more with this article, thank you professor sweis i have a friend from back home who believes science can tell us everything we need to know about life and i am going to refer this article to him

  • Stacy Watkins

    I actually composed a written rebuttal to this article (983 words long). If you are interested, I can send it your way.

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  • Patrick

    Wrong in number 1. Two times.
    1. Quantum superposition (Schrödinger’s cat). The cat is simultaneously dead and alive.
    2. Men have given birth to children before, thus, the man would be a mother? The example you mentioned has already been explained before “black swan theory”. People kept thinking for years that only white swans existed, although later, they figured out that black swans exist as well. You cannot say “I have only seen this, therefore this is the only truth”. As an example: I’m an atheist, but this is the exact same reason why atheists cannot disprove god’s existence. I’m pretty sure that it is impossible to disprove the existence of something, as the universe or reality/existence is infinite.

    Anything is possible.

    • Hello Patrick! Thank you for your feedback.
      1) No Schrodingers cat, from my understand is an issue of epistemology not ontology –that is, it is about how we know things, not what things actually are. So if I dont know if the light in the fridge goes off when I shut the door, then it does not follow that it does not go off! In the same way, just because we are not sure if the cat is dead or alive, it does not mean that the cat IS dead and alive. Which is impossible anyway
      2) No men never gave birth, ever. The “man” you mentioned, http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/first-tv-interview-the-pregnant-man is a woman with a great deal of testosterone injected in her.
      3) Yes you can disprove something. We can disprove that square circles exist because they are a contradiction. We can disprove that there are brontosauruses walking in Times Square today.
      Hope that helps and ignites more discussion!!!

      • Patrick

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schr%C3%B6dinger's_cat
        “The scenario presents a cat that may be simultaneously both alive and dead”. Quantum superposition. I can see that you lack the ability to understand that :).

        That ex woman, is still a male now, no matter what you believe, think, or wish for.. Hormones changed her into a him BIOLOGICALLY. Moreover, we have observed genderless and male birth in the animal kingdom. Thus, if possible for animals, then the possibility certainly is there for humans as well. If you would assume that anybody carrying a child is a woman, then you lack critical/logical thinking.

        My bad, although, you were still wrong in your article :). Correction: it is simply impossible to directly prove a purely negative claim, unless you can find a contradictory positive claim, and prove that, then you can prove that something does not exist.

        I hope that helps you to understand what you didn’t understand before. I will ignore you, if you decide to respond to me with nonsensical, unscientific claims. 🙂

        • Mormon Suicide

          “That ex woman, is still a male now, no matter what you believe, think, or wish for.. Hormones changed her into a him BIOLOGICALLY. Moreover, we have observed genderless and male birth in the animal kingdom. Thus, if possible for animals, then the possibility certainly is there for humans as well. If you would assume that anybody carrying a child is a woman, then you lack critical/logical thinking.”

          Unfortunately, right out of the gate you state that a position opposing yours will not convince you “no matter what you believe, think, or wish for…”

          Biologically, chromosomes determine sex. I could go on but unfortunately you don’t care. I wonder if “he” can naturally produce semen (Spermatogenesis) via this elaborately designed system? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRNqsT_NRcY

          Allow me to exhibit some “critical / logical thinking” if I may

          The “we observe it in the animal kingdom” argument is has serious pitfalls IF you are arguing morality (See list below of animal behaviors).

          •Animals eat their young – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UslBeYVb8CY– Reasons: Free up Mother for more sex, Disabled Child

          •Infanticide in Animal Kingdom – Chimps Eat Child in Front of Mother

          •Gang Rape in Animal Kingdom / Mating to death in Animal Kingdom / Kidnapping

          •Adultery (Polyandry & Polyamorous)

          •Homicide for fun – Dolphins – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZkXgxQ8U7gY/ Cats

          •Torture & War – Chimps – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPznMbNcfO8

          •Slavery – Ants – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BfuOzSWtxRw

          •Necrophilia & Cannibalism – Mammals, birds, Reptiles and frogs

          •“ [If] there is mercy in nature, it is accidental. Nature is neither kind nor cruel but indifferent.” – Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain

          •Natural History of Rape Book – https://www.amazon.com/Natural-History-Rape-Biological-Coercion-book/dp/B00MHAUY66/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1489169825&sr=1-1&keywords=natural+history+of+rape

          HOWEVER, you are arguing for possibilities. If it happens in the animal kingdom it follows that it is possible for humans. Let’s analyze this:

          •Can humans fly? Birds do it.
          •Can humans transition from warm-blooded to cold-blooded? Reptiles are cold-blooded.
          •Can humans deliver a venomous bite? Snakes do it.
          •Can humans breathe through their skin? Amphibians do it.

          By your logic anything is possible.
          Coming soon: Trans-species.

          Meanwhile check this out about evidence for a Creator:
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfMiNwNYUmg

          • Patrick

            There is a reason as for why your video has more dislikes than likes. You are not rational, you are irrational. Your god belief is not rational. We humans started as tiny microbes and evolved gradually over time.

            Proof for gender change by using hormones:

            http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/news/20150422/transgender-homomes-surgery#1

            Evolution:
            http://press.princeton.edu/titles/4621.html

          • Mormon Suicide

            As a trained apologist I will stick to the topic at hand. Once again you have already stated explicitly that I will not convince you “no matter what you believe, think, or wish for…” on the subject of gender.

            I make a necessary distinction between hormones / chromosomes / anatomical processes.

            Pumping a male full of estrogen will not result in that individual performing oogenesis.

            Now, I appreciate you taking the time to listen to my Youtube video. I hope you learned something about what I wrote. Thank you for the book recommendation.

            I would love to see how you account for such fine-tuning discussed in my video. I have my e-mail address there. E-mail and I will provide my phone number for faster discussion. I’m more pleasant on the phone.

          • Mormon Suicide, thank you for your well thought out post. We ought not use the animal kingdom as a model for our behavior!

    • kiwi57

      1. Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment. The cat is not simultaneously alive and dead; it is actually either alive or dead, but we won’t know which until we peek inside the box. Until then, its state is unknown to us, and expressed by a probability function.

      2. Even if we accept that a woman who underwent sex change therapy is now a “man,” the fact is that she was biologically female when she conceived, gestated and delivered. To use her as an example of “men giving birth” is equivalent to claiming that since someone now dead once walked around, then that is proof that corpses can walk.

  • Ronald Klaus

    This is a good blog with many good ideas. However, here’s some feedback from a former scientist and mathematician and an arm-chair apologist (I write on Quora) who is starting his own apologetics blog (https://ronaldlklaus.wordpress.com/). But there are some subtleties to some of your points that I think are worth thinking about and perhaps making explicit.

    When people talk about what “science” proves or doesn’t prove, they usually don’t mean “science” in the limited sense of that word. They usually mean “science + self-evident truth + reason.” Clearly, science by itself can’t establish the truth of logic since it is one of the products of logic. Logic is taken as self-evident because you can’t even have a conversation about anything unless you accept some of the basic premises of logic. Your own blog wouldn’t count as anything but gibberish if this weren’t accepted. So I think it is better to start with this broader definition as a conversation starter and not use, for example, science’s inability to establish logic as a point against it.. It is a limit on any kind of conversation.

    That being the case I think your statements on mathematics need some clarification. Math is essentially a logic game. It establishes some rules of logic and reasoning, some definitions, and then works toward true propositions, by which it means propositions that don’t contradict anything established previously. In its strictest sense it doesn’t have any connection with the real world. That is why I call it a game.

    So, for example, when an American football team is down by 4 points, the statement, “This game cannot be won by a field goal alone” is a true statement because it corresponds to the rules of the game. Given the foundational rules of mathematics and the definitions of abstract algebra, in particular, that the integers are what is called a “group,” it can be proven that the multiplication of two members of that group has a unique solution. Thus 100 times 100 always multiplies out to 10,000, when we define these symbols they way they are defined mathematically. So I don’t think you can say exactly what you said on your site. Whether this corresponds to what we experience in the real world or not is another question. But the pencil-and-paper multiplication is unique.

    I don’t know if you are aware of Gödel’s two theorems which are a much greater mathematical problem. They prove, to simplify, that no suitably complex mathematical system can be proven to be completely consistent. Nor can such a system be considered complete. This might be worth mentioning lest we put too much reliance even on logic-based mathematics. However, it is a bit tricky to explain.

    Also, you might have mentioned that all scientific theories are inductive. That means they are generalizations of a lot of data. But that doesn’t mean they are true in the ultimate sense. As quantum mechanics and relativity show, they are subject to later modification. Now we have dark energy and dark matter that are going to call for further modifications.

    Best wishes.

    • Ronald,
      Thank you for your extensive feedback. Sorry it took me so long to resond!
      When I take an apple from a tree that has 10 apples, I will find that there are 9 left. That is a mathmantical reality not just a principle or an artifical convention.
      When I say a woman is pregnant, she cannot be both pregnant or not pregnant. It is not a game in that sense. I cannot make the tree have more apples if I take more from it nor can I make a woman pregant and not pregnant at the same time. This is more than mere articifical or man made convention it seems–it seems to be part of the structor of the universe we inhabit. Check out this post and the comments in the New York Times https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/logic-and-neutrality/ It is by Timothy Williamson is the Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford University,

  • Pops

    (Sorry for not being here earlier – a link to this just popped up on Meridian Magazine…)

    In my view, the underlying principle behind all of this is that everything we claim to know relies on stuff we can’t know (axioms). It is because “we”, or our minds, are not connected to the universe except through fallible senses. Thus arises the assertion that it is not possible to determine whether the universe really exists, or if I am simply a participant in an elaborate simulation in which my senses are provided input by some sufficiently-advanced computing device.

    Richard Feynman expressed it this way: “The best a scientist can ever say is ‘I’m not wrong yet’.”

  • Brian Chilton

    Can I share this article on my website? I’ll provide a link to view the original and will give you full credit.