In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had conversations on multiple occasions with colleagues and students about what science is and what it can tell us/what it can’t tell us (i.e. what are its limits). Needless to say, there’s been some differing opinions, especially in regards to the limits of science.
To the former, science is a way of knowing that is remarkably adept at describing our world and its methods can be used in a number of ways to address a number of different questions. Science comes in a lot of flavors, with biology, chemistry, and physics getting the most airplay. However, there are a number of other disciplines that can be considered as “science”, even though they don’t fit into the natural or physical science categories. Any discipline in which a specific question is addressed, data are gathered, and the evidence is used to come to a conclusion should in my mind be called science. While this is a broad definition, I think it’s the right one.
As to the latter where the discussion usually gets a little more hairy… are there any limits to science? That is, are there questions that it can’t address or areas that are off limits? The media, and those in the public with the loudest voices, often posit science and religion as being in warfare. Namely science and religion have overlapping domains but they are in complete disagreement with one another and that one must win out in the end. As you likely know, I think this is junk.
Another common description of science and religion in the media, and one that seems to be more favored by scientists of faith (including those at BioLogos, many who work with the Templeton Foundation, and other popular figures in the science and religion can get along (!) category) or scientists that are agnostics (like Steven J. Gould, Michael Ruse) is that science and religion are not at war, they just address different areas of inquiry or non-overlapping magisteria. A common refrain is that science tells us how, religion tells us why or that science gives us answers about the immediate and the world around us while religion gives us answers to humanity’s ultimate questions.
As you may not know, I think this is also junk. And this directly affects my position on the limits of science.
Getting back to the issue at hand then, what are the limits of science? Frankly, I don’t think that there are any. I firmly believe that science can provide answers to any question we deem fit to pose. Does that mean that I think science can provide insight into issues, areas, and questions, normally reserved to religion like belief in God, morality, and love? Absolutely.
What’s left then for religion, you might ask? Well, that’s the wrong question. In saying that science can provide insight and answers in these areas, that in no way means that I’m saying that science provides the only answer. In addition, I’m not saying that science provides the complete answer. What I am saying is that science provides an answer amongst many. Science belongs at the table in any discussion because it works so well and to say that its methods and analysis is off-limits in matters normally ascribed to religion is to artificially place limits on subjects that scientists are going to study anyway.
The Christian response that I favor is to say that yes, science can address these questions, and we should not be afraid of what it tells us. Science augments religion (and vice-versa) as we seek to best describe the way the world is and the way that we experience it, including our perceptions of and belief in God. Yes, there will be times when the answers provided by science and religion will not be easily integrated, and we will need to seek a solution to the best of our abilities. But the fear of this potentiality should not cause us to rise up and say “science can’t answer that” when it reality it can and it will.