The Sanctity of Science and its Limitations

“Science should be the final arbiter on all these issues.”

Response: I appreciate your respect for science, as it has yielded tremendous insight and progress for all of us.  And yet, if we look deeper into science, we can discover what it can and cannot do.

Key Point #1:  Science is driven by paradigms – world views that explain the world. 

One of my favorite books is “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by MIT Professor Thomas Kuhn, written over 50 years ago.  Kuhn made a compelling case for paradigms – a world view or way of looking at things.  So political philosophies, religions, etc. are all paradigms.  Kuhn contended that we don’t see the world as it is, but as we are – through our lens, which focuses on some information (that which reinforces our paradigm), and ignores information that does not.  For example, an environmentalist, a business person, a labor organizer, and an engineer would all see a manufacturing plant in totally different ways, through their respective paradigms. 

Kuhn attacks the notion that scientific knowledge accumulates like money in a bank account, and makes a compelling case that scientists (and everyone else) see the world through a lens, a paradigm.  As time goes on, facts will emerge that don’t fit our paradigm.  We can just ignore these anomalies, but true scientists would hold on to them, and if at some point the pile of anomalies overwhelms the current paradigm, the scientist would examine all of the evidence, and change paradigms to a paradigm that more effectively explains reality.

At one point in our history, scientists believed that the earth was flat.  This flat earth paradigm was commonly held until more and more evidence accumulated that the earth was in fact round.  So the paradigm shifted.  At another point in our history, doctors believed that bleeding a person through leeches or cuts was a valid medical treatment.  In all likelihood, this “best practice medical procedure” contributed to the death of our first president, George Washington.  Over time, researchers discovered that this practice was harmful, and the paradigm shifted.

Key Point #2:  What gets funded gets studied – the influence of vested interests and funding on establishing paradigms.

These paradigms (and their funding sources) directly impact the assumptions, methodologies, and conclusions of scientific studies.  Furthermore, what is published in scientific journals is what scientists investigate.  So a scientific study, funded by a multi-national pharmaceutical firm shows that some new drug reduces the chances of getting cancer.  But the study does not reveal that a natural plant remedy has the same effect.

Our federal government has made tremendous funding available for studies of global warming.  If you as a scientist believe that global warming is not caused by our current industrial era, you will not receive any funding for your research, and you may end up teaching high school science classes, or perhaps delivering pizza.

Key Point #3:  Resistance to changing paradigms in science can emerge because of religious reasons. 

The predominant paradigm in science today is the theory of evolution – the belief that our world started with nothing, or something that exploded and eventually became more and more complex, yielding the world as we see it today, with plants, animals, and people.  There are more than 10,000 scientists in our nation that embrace creation science, and there is substantive evidence that exposes the fallacies of evolution.  And yet there is tremendous resistance to creation science because it implies there is a God.  To those who reject God, they will hold to evolution, or the notion that life came here from another planet.

At the same time, an Intelligent Design movement has emerged within the community of evolutionary scientists who have concluded that the complexity of nature could not have happened by chance, thus denying the validity of Darwinian evolution and contending that nature reveals design by some intelligence.

Key Point #4:  If something looks crazy to you, it is because you don’t grasp the underlying paradigm.

A common reaction to unusual behavior is to describe it as crazy:  “Oh, he is just crazy!”  But what it really means is that you don’t understand the underlying paradigm that is driving that behavior.  This can be very helpful, and it starts with the assumption (usually true) that there is an underlying paradigm, and it requires an inquisitiveness to discover what that paradigm is.  Ask “Within what paradigm would this make perfect sense?”

For example, President Obama recently gave a speech before the United Nations and stated that the future belongs to those nations that respect the prophet (Mohammad).  Your question for the day is this – within what paradigm would this make perfect sense?

Key Point #5:  Ultimately, science cannot tell us what we should do.

Although science has obvious limitations, it does shed light on many facets of our lives, and has opened up many new opportunities for our nation and the world.  There is one more limitation that is often overlooked, that science cannot tell us what we should do.  Science only tells us what is; it cannot tell us what should be.  That is our province as thinking, feeling, spiritual human beings.

  • Science and technology can show us how to build an atomic bomb; it does not tell us if we should build them or if we should use them.
  • Science and technology can show us how to do extraordinary medical procedures, some of which are extremely expensive.  Science does not tell us if they should be used, and for whom – the very wealthy?  Those with political connections?  Only those under 50 years of age?  First come, first serve?
  • Science and technology can prolong life via machines for a very long time, but it cannot tell us if we should do so.
  • Science and technology can now splice human genes into animals and vice versa; it does not tell us if we should.
  • Science and technology can record and scan all voice, text, fax, and e-mail communication across the world; it does not tell us if we should, and for what purpose.
  • Science and technology now has the means to implant a chip into our forearm that is a smart chip, able to be used as a credit card for buying and selling.  But it does not tell us if we should.

Key Point #6:  Science operates solely in the natural world, so it has no capability or authority in the supernatural world.

The Christian perspective is that we live in two overlapping worlds – the physical, material world, and the spiritual world.  When Jesus appeared on the scene two thousand years ago, He announced that the Kingdom of Heaven is here.  Empirical science is based on the ability to observe, to measure, and to manipulate things in the natural world.  Similar to trying to measure temperature with a ruler, science is incapable of understanding or studying the supernatural world.  Atheistic scientists may contend that there is no god, but they are on thin ice because nothing within science can prove that their assertion is true.

The Bible is a record of the sovereign, living God creating and intervening from the spiritual realm into the material universe over time.  It is a special revelation of truth as revealed to us from God.  Many early scientists believed that science was merely a new way to learn about the world as God created it.