Limits of Science

Scientific advances play a large role in our lives. Maybe you’re reading this article on a computer, a device made possible by understanding and controlling the flow of electrons. Or maybe you’re reading this on your phone, a device that can connect you to people across the world in a matter of seconds via electromagnetic waves. Or consider modern medicine, where fundamental research in biology and chemistry has led to advances in medical diagnosis and treatments that contribute to increased life expectancy.

All of these advances rest on the pillar of basic science. I find that science is therefore powerful and compelling. As a method, science seeks to understand how the natural world works. When done well, science is repeatable and transferable: anyone with adequate training and tools can replicate an experiment and test a theory. Ideally, we aim to do science in an objective way, where experiments and data form the basis for theories of how the world works. When scientific evidence is subject to repeated testing and verified by different labs, we believe we’ve discovered something true about how the Universe works.

As Christians, we also affirm another – indeed ultimate – source of truth: God’s Word, the Bible. And with two sources of truth, tensions can begin to rise. Throughout history and even today, many people, including prominent scientists, have stoked these tensions, claiming that Christianity and science are at odds. But when I think on these matters deeply, what I (and many other believing scientists) affirm is that science and Christianity seek truth in complementary ways. They are not in conflict with each other; they serve different purposes. While science reveals the mechanics of nature, the Bible is God’s revelation of His purpose and plan for the fullness of time (Eph 1:5-10). That is, science tells us how the world works while Christianity tells us our meaning and purpose in this world, and how we are to live in light of ultimate truths.

So, where does tension between Christianity and science come from? One of the more pervasive ways I see people assume implicit tension between Christianity and science is to adopt, even subconsciously, a habit of mind that science should be the only method of discovering truth in the world. The thinking goes as follows. Science, when done well, is objective and provides strong evidence or proof that is hard to argue with. Because science has demonstrated effectiveness, including its impact on society, everything should be subject to the scientific method, and anything that isn’t cannot be taken as absolutely true. Some, like Cambridge philosopher Bertrand Russell, may state this outright:

“Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.”

What I notice in talking to other scientists is that, even if this belief isn’t stated outright, it is often an implicit habit of mind that lessens any belief system not sharing the rigorous methodology of science.

But this view of science as the only way to knowledge is extra-scientific. Ironically, the claim itself is an assumption that requires faith; nothing in science proves it’s the only way to knowledge. The method of science has limitations. Scientific theories are most authoritative when they are subject to repeated experimentation and transferability. But the most important questions we face in life aren’t subject to such experiments.

For example, should I marry this person? Should I take a new job? Should I go into the missions field? Should I leave LA? There is no experiment I know of that, upon repeated observation, will provide scientific-level proof that you should marry a particular person. The most consequential questions we face have a dizzying number of interacting variables, many of which can’t be controlled for, and many of which we aren’t even aware of. Yet, we make decisions, and we make them rationally. Just because we aren’t doing science doesn’t mean we check our brains at the door. Rather, we answer these questions as best we can, without scientific rigor. We pray and submit our decisions to truth in Scriptures. We consider our experiences, the testimony of others, how our decisions relate to our values, the potential consequences of our decisions, and other factors. After this, we commit to a reasonable decision in faith; not via the scientific method.

The limits of science also apply as we consider existential questions. Does God exist? Is there life after death? What is the meaning of my existence? Gottfried Leibniz, who independently formulated calculus, asked the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” There is no experiment I know of that can answer these questions. But while the scientific method is silent here, the Bible is not. If God exists, and He has revealed Himself to us, then we find an answer to these questions through His revelation. This comprises the foundations of our faith and what we believe to be true about the meaning and purpose of our world.

Are science and Christianity then completely separate ideologies that don’t interact? No, I wouldn’t say that either. Rather, I’d offer up this anecdote from my own experience. As a computational neuroscientist and neural engineer, I study how the brain works. I am regularly in awe, and aware of how small I am, much like David in Psalm 8, when he wrote:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
   the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
   and the son of man that you care for him?

As I consider creation – the work of his fingers – in my study of the brain, there is a certain care I take in understanding it. When I do science, I seek to understand how the world works. But because I believe God created everything, I also seek to understand how he designed creation. In my calling, this instills a certain rigor and meticulousness: I want to be sure I am faithful in describing the mechanics of his creation. Further, as I learn of or make new discoveries, I am led to worship. Time and time again, science has proven our world to be elegant. For example, Newton wrote down a simple and, in my opinion, beautiful set of equations describing how objects move in the world. When I discover something new in science, I feel the wonder in learning a bit more about His beautiful design. Science is continually revealing new things about the work of His fingers, and by illuminating creation, it gives glory to the Creator.