Chapter 2: The Limits of Science

‘What,’ it will be questioned, ‘When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?’ O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.’ – William Blake

            Previously, I attempted to show the plausibility of a sort of consciousness behind the ordering of the universe, not by challenging or ignoring the precepts of science, but by embracing them. Now, I recognize that the skeptic, granting the challenges to the atheist which I have posed as worth consideration, may yet say, “And still, is not positing the Judeo-Christian God a pretty big leap?” I readily agree that an anthropomorphized, theistic God is not proven; only that there exists something like mind in the universe (or behind the universe’s mechanics) is not a wholly irrational belief, but one with some reason behind it. Calling this mental aspect of the universe “God” may be too big a jump, from the scientific point of view. Therefore, I will show the next step in my thought, to demonstrate how I begin to justify calling this “mind” God.

As I mentioned in the previous chapter, the atheist generally uses science to argue that since there is an explanation for X, the need for God as respects X is diminished. Evolution, for example, is a theory which explains how life-forms have come to their present state, mitigating the need for a God designing them. I do feel, personally, that the atheist needs evolution to be true more than the theist needs it to be false. After all, should science ever demonstrate, for whatever reason, that the story of evolution does not work, I should like to know how human beings could justify not believing in a creator. On the other hand, evolution is a terribly complex theory which admits to a great deal of ingenious aspects of life which, however guided by chance, are also only possible given very precarious conditions. The standard theist’s position that a God is needed to answer the complexity of the world is not out of place where evolution is concerned which, if the problems in the theory were wholly solved, would certainly strike us with a great deal of sophistication, probably more than it already does.

Logically, the argument that since X has an explanation scientifically, God is superfluous, ignores other types of experiences. One could describe how automobiles work, and even the tools which put them together, without ever mentioning human beings. Indeed, it is not far-fetched to imagine a factory run only by robots which make automobiles. Were such factories to replace all human labor on cars, the skeptic of history could doubt that humans ever made them, on quite scientific grounds. The language of automobiles (that is, used by people to think about automobiles) could come to entirely exclude humanity’s involvement in their manufacturing. But that there is an explanation for an existence of these cars without human involvement does not mean that humans were never involved. We have the benefit of recorded history, for only history, not a science of automobiles, could make clear that the plausible conclusion of our imagined future skeptic is wrong. Scientific assumption lacks the benefit, when talking about pre-human or early human times, of history, which makes its plausible assumptions about data less certain. This problem, of course, does not go away when we enter into “history,” but that, I think, supports my point rather than harming it.

History, however, is not really terribly different from science. Science has tried, in evolution for example, to recreate a plausible history of life. Historians, too, try to recreate events from the past, when the information is not complete (which it usually isn’t). The job of history is a combination of empiricism and intelligent guesses, which ultimately make history a sort of science. Scientific inquiry into past events is always limited to mere plausibility where it has no reliable historical account of actual events. This is not an attack on science; it is only an admission that natural science is limited where it does not have certain backing from the science of history.

Science can also not explain why all things are true. It can explain why paper burns, but how can it explain that two and two are four? It may be able to give an account of how two apples came to sit on my table, and then how two more followed, but how can it explain that two and two are four generally? The equation two and two equals four is not a strictly empirical observation, so the scientist must either call each instance of two things and two more things adding to four things as a nice coincidence, or, natural science must admit that mathematics is somehow true differently from the way paper burns. The second seems more plausible, to me.

Science is also limited in its ability to interpret beauty. It can say, “When certain things are arranged as X in the world and as Y in the mind and eye of the perceiver, the result is beauty.” But why should the relationship of a painting to an onlooker or a book to a reader result in that perception of beauty? Explaining that neurons cause us to experience beauty is not enough, because then what is beautiful? Does the beauty exist in the neurons? If so, why do I need the painting to see the beauty to begin with? Or is it in the thing the neurons are processing? We could imagine a being wired differently than we are, but looking at a sunset and thinking, “Ah, this is beautiful,” so it seems like the perception of beauty is not contingent upon the way our biology is set up. Science can tell us how something is experienced as beautiful, but not why. Even as the scientist examines nature and discovers beauty in it, his discovery of beauty is not as a scientist but as a person. How shall the beauty of a sunset, or a person, or a rose be calculated? Why is a green meadow more lovely than a dismal swamp? The scientist may respond that some combination of pleasurable perceptions, symmetry and asymmetry, are pleasing to the human brain, explaining how beauty is seen: but why should be beauty be seen at all? There is a certain poetic faculty of perception which seems real, yet is not, in the pure sense, “scientific.”

Science can also give us neither morality, nor philosophy. Science can tell us what happens to a child when it is abused, and can catalog the reactions of parents who are outraged at the sight of such abuse. But, like beauty, science can only study the surrounding empirical evidence of morality, but not morality itself. As for philosophy, science can tell us whether a person is convinced of Descartes’ famous line, “I think, therefore I am,” and of the psychology which went into arriving at the belief, but cannot prove empirically whether the logic therein is sound.

The scientist should not be offended to find out that the questions of his field and the jurisdiction of his wisdom is limited from these areas. This is not to say that science has no place in history, poetry, morality and philosophy. Such a claim would be preposterous. All of these paths of wisdom are employed by beings who exist in the physical world, and so for any of them to have a full discourse everything science has to say should be examined. But we must forego the modern inclination to use science as a means to trump all other fields of study. Certainly, when the philosopher or moralist wanders into scientific territory, they too can receive correction if their ponderings should betray scientific consensus. These means of knowledge should all work together in a system of checks and balances, scientist over the poet, philosopher over the scientist, moralist over the historian, and every other combination of these. In our use of science to ask the question, “Is there a God?”, we must be careful to, however we answer, not let science go uninformed by these other means of inquiry. For if God exists, then in some sense his existence must be poetical, historical, moral and philosophical, as well as scientific.

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