The limitations of science

I am a fan of science. I was a boy at the time of the Apollo missions to the moon, and I watched full coverage of them on television. Over the years, my parents bought me a telescope, a microscope, a chemistry set, and a 100-project electrical kit. I got As in science all through school. I still keep up with the latest discoveries, from the exploration of Mars to the particles detected from split atoms.

Science provides many benefits. Science gives us longer and more productive lives, thanks to expanding knowledge about nutrition, sleep, exercise, medicine, therapy, and the battle against pests, from viruses and harmful bacteria to fleas, ticks, and tapeworms. But science cannot help us beyond death. Science cannot tell us whether any part of our being survives death. Nor can science reveal the destiny of that surviving entity, whether it will go to heaven or to hell.

Science is limited to studying the physical world. It can measure and describe matter and energy, but science cannot observe anything that does not consist of matter or energy. Science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, angels, demons, or the human soul. It is not scientific to say that science disproves those entities, because the rules of science do not permit science to determine anything about the nonmaterial world.

Therefore, anyone who puts his or her faith in science is as mistaken as someone who puts his or her faith in money, or in political power, or in one’s own good deeds, or in Baal or Zeus or Thor. Money and politics and good deeds all have value; they each have a place in our lives. But none of them can take the place of God. None of them can do what God does for his people.

One of the benefits of science is that it changes. New discoveries invalidate prevailing theories and force the creation and testing of new theories about the material world. Isaac Newton applied mathematics to science. He found the equation that describes how gravity works. After Newton, science grew more and more mechanical, with the hope that one day science could explain everything in the universe. But Albert Einstein and other twentieth-century scientists showed that Newton’s mathematical and mechanical universe only describes matter and energy of moderate size. The rules change with the very big, the very small, and the very powerful.

Because science changes, it is unreliable. One researcher says coffee is good for people; the next researcher says coffee is bad for people. Efforts to eradicate the spread of disease and improve the cultivation of crops have damaged the environment by killing off insects and poisoning the creatures that eat insects. Food additives, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and perhaps even life-saving vaccinations can have damaging side effects, which may explain the increase in recent times of autism, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and intolerance of one another. The poisonous social atmosphere in which we live may literally be poisoned by the same scientific advancements that were intended to improve our lives.

The person who relies on science and scientists to provide all Truth is missing a great deal. The knowledge that our souls will spend time elsewhere when we die—a better place or a worse place, depending upon who we know and trust—and that our bodies will be raised to eternal life at the dawn of the new creation—this knowledge shapes much of what we choose to do today. Knowing the Creator of the universe is far more important than knowing when and how the dinosaurs lived. Knowing that the life and death and resurrection of Jesus provides forgiveness of sins, fellowship with God, and victory over all enemies is far more important than encyclopedic knowledge of all the chemicals or all the planets and planetoids or all the subatomic particles.

One reason science seems to be more valuable than religion is that science has, over the years, provided material explanations for phenomena (such as thunderstorms and epileptic seizures) that were formerly attributed to spiritual causes. One might chart the number of phenomena that are explained by science and no longer attributed to spirits and assume that the need for religion will disappear. But even though science can improve our lives in this world, it gives us no reason to go on living. Nor can science guarantee eternal life in a better world after death in this world. Science cannot lift the guilt of a person who knows that he or she has done wrong. Science cannot teach people how to forgive one another and live in harmony. Science is beneficial, but it cannot replace religion. A life based on science is as empty as a life based on money or politics or entertainment.

I remain a fan of science. But my faith is in God. Science studies the things God made. Theology studies God. God is not too small for science; he is too big for science to grasp, too powerful for science to measure, too grand for science to explain. I thank God for all the things science has discovered about his creation. I praise God for who he is, information which science cannot supply. J.

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Six versions of reality

What is real? What things truly exist, and what things are part of our lives only due to our own imagination?

Most of the college classes I teach are world history surveys, but occasionally I get to teach a comparative religions class or an introduction to philosophy. In the latter, the students and I explore the question of what is real. We consider the three views of reality that are commonly held in western philosophy, but I also raise three other views of reality that accompany the usual three views.

One view of reality is called materialism. In this context, materialism is not dedication to money and the things money can buy; materialism is the belief that nothing is real unless it is scientifically detectable. Materialists do not believe in God. They do not believe in angels, demons, or djinn. They do not believe in a human soul or spirit. Anything that might be considered a human soul or mind is regarded as a function of material events. Materialists do not deny the existence of intangible qualities such as love or justice, but they point out that love and justice cannot be described apart from the interaction of material beings. For love to exist, there must be a lover and a beloved. Both those individuals can be studied scientifically to find material explanations for the experience that is called love.

Another view of reality is called idealism. In this context, idealism is not dedication to a cause with the firm conviction that it is right and will prevail; idealism is the belief that only minds and ideas are real. What people experience as the material world does not consist of material objects, but of ideas that have taken a tangible form or expression. Idealists like to show that the material world and its rules are logically impossible. For example, motion is impossible, because to reach point A I must first reach point B which is halfway there; to reach point B I must first reach point C which is halfway there; in the end, I must travel through an infinite number of points before I can arrive anywhere. Idealists express the concept of “mind over matter.” They say that the problems we perceive are part of our thinking, not part of the real world. When we change our thinking, we can overcome sickness, poverty, sorrow, and any other problem that we think exists.

A third view of reality is called dualism. Dualists believe that the material world is real, but they also believe that the world of ideas is real. Dualists speak of God and creation. They speak of the human soul or mind and of the human body. They describe reality as the intersection of the material and the spiritual. Many western thinkers are dualists. Opponents of dualism sometimes describe the dualist view of a human being as “a ghost in a machine.” They refuse to accept a universe with two sets of rules; they are convinced that either matter is truly real or spirit is truly real. The opposite, they say, is only imaginary; it does not really exist.

A fourth view of reality denies the existence of both matter and spirit. While this approach is rare in western philosophy, it is often encountered in Hindu and Buddhist thought. The senses seem to perceive a material world, but the Hindu or Buddhist says that world is only an illusion. The Hindu or Buddhist goes on to say that the sense of mind, of thinking, or of the sense of a self is also an illusion. The practice of both religions involves the effort to escape both illusions—to stop thinking of the human body and the material world as real, and also to stop thinking of the human mind and the immaterial self as real.

Along with these four possibilities—and anyone who acknowledges the first three should really make room for the fourth as well—I have suggested two more possibilities to my students. Both are variations on dualism, but in each possibility one reality is more real than the other. One is the source of the other, and the second cannot exist alone—it is contingent on the first.

In the first possibility, the material world is fundamentally real, but the world of mind and spirit is also real. Mind and spirit cannot exist, though, without matter. Whatever we define as mind or spirit or soul is real, but its cause still comes from the material world. No mind could exist without a body to house that mind. God can exist, but he requires the material universe in which to exist; without the universe, according to this possibility, there could be no God.

In the second possibility, the spiritual world is fundamentally real, but the world which is scientifically observed is also real. Matter cannot exist without spirit. All that we perceive in the material world is the result of a spiritual origin. God is spirit, but he called the material world into being and still interacts with it. He is responsible for the laws of nature, but he also has the power to break those laws whenever it pleases him to do so.

All six of these views of reality are internally consistent and are capable of interpreting the universe without contradiction, based on the presuppositions of each system. Thinkers can compare the systems and debate them, but each requires postulates that proponents of the others might not be willing to grant. As far as I can tell, though, the final system (in which the spiritual world is fundamentally real and the material world is real but contingent) best matches the universe as described in the Bible and in traditional Christianity. J.