Can Science Say Anything Regarding Human Purposes and the Universe?

There have been discussions and debates in history (in various degrees) where one can see a debate between territories of thought cross over on to another, and hence, controversy will emerge. The natural explanations versus mythologies in Greek thought, faith and reason more or less in the Middle Ages, and science and religion most notoriously noted in the mid-19th century Victorian era. My focus however is to examine what scientific methods can we employ in order to understand the more philosophical (or metaphysical) questions about the universe.

From the outset I will theme my answer to the title question of this post with Paul Davies inquiry in his book, “The Mind of God” (1992): “Can we really hope to answer the ultimate questions of existence through science and rational inquiry, or will we always encounter impenetrable mystery at some stage?” (cp. 1992, p. 20). Like Davies, I accept the idea that different methods of obtaining knowledge must be employed when approaching certain questions. For instance, answering the question “Does God exist?” will be determined far differently than the question “Are electrons heavier than protons?”

Of course, some errors have already taken place thus far into our endeavor. Oxford Biologist and predominant atheist Richard Dawkins in his notorious book, “The God Delusion” (2006) makes the assertion that “the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other” (cp. 2006, p. 72). The problem with this level of reasoning is that we cannot address such a proposition as “God exists” like any other scientific proposition (e.g. “the speed of light is constant between any two given points A and B”). To suggest that it can be, is what we will call the “Cracker Box Fallacy.”

The name of the fallacy comes from a famous debate between Dr. Greg Bahnsen (Christian) and Gordon Stein (Atheist) at the University of California in 1985. In Dr. Bahnsen’s opening statement, he expounds upon the nature of the evidence for theism:

How should the difference of opinion between the theist and the atheist be rationally resolved? What Dr. Stein has written indicates that he, like many atheists, has not reflected adequately on this question. He writes, and I quote, “The question of the existence of God is a factual question, and should be answered in the same way as any other factual questions.”

The assumption that all existence claims are questions about matters of fact, the assumption that all of these are answered in the very same way is not only over simplified and misleading, it is simply mistaken. The existence, factuality or reality of different kinds of things is not established or disconfirmed in the same way in every case.

We might ask , “Is there a box of crackers in the pantry?” And we know how we would go about answering that question. But that is a far, far cry from the way we go about answering questions determining the reality of say, barometric pressure, quasars, gravitational attraction, elasticity, radio activity, natural laws, names, grammar, numbers, the university itself that you’re now at, past events, categories, future contingencies, laws of thought, political obligations, individual identity over time, causation, memories, dreams, or even love or beauty. In such cases, one does not do anything like walk to the pantry and look inside for the crackers. There are thousands of existence or factual questions, and they are not at all answered in the same way in each case.

University of California, Irvine, 1985 (trans.)

As you can see, different subjects belong to different methodologies for better understanding those subjects – a mistake made not less than once before. Thus, we are looking at the questions existence from a scientific standpoint and trying to determine whether or not it is the case that science can take grounds on these sorts of issues. There a couple positions at hand that we can take a look at:

  • (1) Science can say something about these questions.
  • (2) Science cannot say something about these questions.

Now, by proposition (2) it could be said that it is perhaps best not to say that science cannot say something about metaphysical or ‘purposeful’ questions of existence, but rather that it simply has nothing to say about them; science is a subject that by definition has endeavors that are not concerned with the disciplines of philosophical inquiry. This view predominately can be seen in the work of Harvard Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s book, “Rocks of Ages” (1999):

I do not see how science and religion could be unified, or even synthesized, under any common scheme of explanation or analysis; but I also do not understand why the two enterprises should experience any conflict. Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values – subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, can never resolve…

I propose that we encapsulate the central principle of respectful noninterference… by enunciating the principle of NOMA, or Non-Overlapping Magisteria.”

(Rocks of Ages; cp. 1999, p. 4)

This work and especially Gould’s principle of NOMA has been discussed in a number of works that deal with the debate between science and religion (see D. Dennett’s, “Breaking the Spell”, cp. 2006, p. 30; R. Dawkins, “The God Delusion”; cp. 2006, p. 77-85, 127; and H. Ross, “More Than A Theory”; cp. 2009, p. 43-44). As a matter of fact, an interesting passing comment has been by astrophysicist Hugh Ross’s book, “More Than A Theory” (2009).

Some scientists and theologians divide science into two domains: origins science, where theological considerations are permissible, and operations (or ongoing-process) science, where they are not. As with Gould’s supposed solution, this approach creates artificial boundaries between science and theology that limit the extent and effectiveness of education research, and the testing of various creation/evolution models.

(More Than A Theory; cp. 2009, p. 44)

The reason being (as I think Ross is right), is that Gould’s grouping of scientific endeavors with the objective (fact-based) and religious endeavors with the subjective (feeling or experience-based) appears to be an easy way out, but the philosophical choke hold makes such a position as Ross says, “untenable.” Naturalism as such cannot provide an adequate basis for logic, reason, cognitive faculties, mathematics and so forth. The old age problem regarding the uniformity of nature [according to the naturalists] lies within the scope of empirical verification; whereas, begging the question while using empirical verification to try and solve the problem becomes inevitable.

In other words, the case could be that the “god of the gaps” fallacy (which I think is a misunderstood and confused concept to begin with) is applied likewise to the naturalists; otherwise known as the “nature of the gaps” fallacy. Researchers wrongfully attribute some unknown phenomenon or event to the realm of natural or physical explanations as a first principle. That is to say, that nature (as the argument goes) must fill all the gaps in human knowledge and understanding. That of course isn’t to say science has or will have it all figured it out, but that in scope, science can will attribute all naturally known phenomenon to the domain of the naturalistically explained.

As such has been understood, some scientists confuse their disciplines and try to tread on the grounds of others – particularly, philosophy. A commonly well known example and recent one at that comes from Stephen Hawking’s new book, “The Grand Design” (2010). Hawking on the first page of his book writes:

“We exist for a short time, and in that time explore but a small part of the whole universe. But humans are a curious species. We wonder, we seek answers. Living in this vast world that is by turns kind and evil, and gazing at the immense heavens above, people have always a multitude of questions: how can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? Most of us do not spend most of our time worrying about these questions, but almost all of us worry about them some of the time.”

(Grand Design; cp. 2010, p. 5)

Though we may traditionally attribute these questions to the discipline of philosophy, Hawking offers us an eye-opening alternative: “Philosophy is dead… Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge” (pg. 5).

This replacement attempt of natural theology and philosophy with science are not successful switches from the position of Hawking and Mlodinow. It most certainly seems that their claims from theoretical physics are leaving the empirical sciences and are hence concluded into the discipline of philosophy (a real shot in the foot!). Consider by similarity John Haldane’s critique of Hawking’s book (which I have quoted before), “Philosophy Lives” (First Things, 2011):

They are not replacing philosophy with science. Indeed, their discussion shows that, at its most abstract, theoretical physics leaves ordinary empirical science behind and enters the sphere of philosophy, where it becomes vulnerable to refutation by reason.


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