The Limitations of Science and Its Method
In his book, The Dance of Life, writer Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) commented that if at some point in the course of civilization we find that science and religion are antagonistic, then there must be something wrong with either our science or our religion. There are those, of course, who have suggested, in all seriousness, that science and religion are antagonistic. For example, Marshall Walker, in his book, The Nature of Scientific Thought, wrote:
The various Christian churches of the world have in common a supernatural theology which few scientists can bring themselves to accept. The attitude of the scientist toward authority is often misunderstood, and becomes a source of confusion in communicating with those in other disciplines. The scientist recognizes no authority except an empirical observation of nature. The scientist insists that students work in the laboratory to teach them this attitude toward authority. The student seldom verifies any law very accurately and never verifies all laws, but he does become convinced that empirical observation is the ultimate court of appeal which can be invoked if necessary for any statement or law of his science. This attitude toward authority prevents the scientist from accepting the religious interpretation of mystical experiences. He has been trained to distrust his own personal experiences and emotions. The mystics’ easy acceptance of an explanation with no possibility of empirical validation puzzles the scientist. Such an acceptance is impossible for him, and he can only conclude that the mystic has never encountered the feeling of conviction which the scientist finds in empirical validation. Rational behavior consists in being guided by the predictions of the most successful known model (theory) of natural law (1963, pp. 159-160).
And so, with a stroke of the pen, anything of real importance has been relegated, by definition, to the realm of the empirical. This, of course, is not true science, but rather is the philosophy of scientism, which maintains that a complete explanation of all phenomena is possible from a few basic natural principles.
Such statements are representative of a certain kind of built-in bias. Lynn White Jr., writing in the premier issue of Science 80, observed: “It should be no news that scientists—even great ones—are people too.... More damaging to the intellectual process is the tendency of everyone, including historians as well as scientists, to operate within a set of inherited and inadequately tested assumptions” (1979, pp. 73-74). When certain scientists, and those sympathetic with them, suggest that science alone is the “ultimate court of appeal,” the charge can be leveled, and sustained, that they have built their world view on “inadequately tested assumptions.” It is the height of intellectual bigotry to suggest that science and science alone—to the exclusion of all other areas of human thought and endeavor—somehow possesses the authority to answer every question that might be posed. Phillip Abelson, writing in Science, addressed just such an attitude in an article on “Bigotry In Science.”
One of the most astonishing characteristics of scientists is that some of them are plain, old-fashioned bigots. Their zeal has a fanatical, egocentric quality characterized by disdain and intolerance for anyone or any value not associated with a special area of intellectual activity (1964, p. 373).
Those who suggest that “rational behavior” is characterized by the exclusion of religion, and the acceptance of science as the sole authority in all matters, are guilty of the bigotry of which Dr. Abelson wrote. They do not seem to realize that science—as great as it is—is not without its own limitations. The honest scientist admits, frankly and candidly, the limitations inherent in his method. Adherents of scientism, on the other hand, suggest that science can provide answers to any and all questions—something that science is not equipped to do!
If those of us in the scientific community would do a better job of explaining to the public at large how science works, and the limitations of the scientific method, the alleged antagonism between science and religion would dissipate. In speaking of the backlash of a current public disenchantment with science—as a result of the “science can answer anything” attitude—White remarked:
The problem is not public ignorance, but public alienation. Moreover, the chief reason for this alienation is the reluctance of most professional scientists to be as objective about themselves, their values, their goals, and their intellectual methods as they claim to be about interpreting specific data. For a variety of reasons—a litany of grievances that is so commonplace it need not be repeated here—a significant part of the general public has become distrustful of those goals, values and methods. If they are valid today, they need new validation and not simply reassertion. If they are superstitions, i.e., obsolete assumptions, left over from the recent past of science, they need rejection or revision. And the discussion of all this must be public, else it will carry no conviction to the disenchanted laity who provide the support for science (1979, p. 73).
LIMITATIONS OF THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD
None among us doubts the tremendous strides science has made. Nor can there be any doubt about the benefits that have accrued to mankind as a result of scientific endeavor. However, as great as science is, and as wonderful as its benefits for humankind have been, the scientific method nevertheless is subject to certain limitations. Five readily come to mind.
1. The scientific method is limited to what can be observed with the five senses. George Gaylord Simpson, the renowned evolutionist of Harvard, wrote: “It is inherent in any acceptable definition of science that statements that cannot be checked by observations are not really about anything—or at the very least they are not science” (1964, 143:769). The Oxford Dictionary, in fact, defines science as “a branch of study which is concerned with a connected body of demonstrated truths or observed facts” (emp. added). It is only through use of the five senses that this observation takes place. As Duane Gish has noted: “Thus, for a theory to qualify as a scientific theory, it must be supported by events, processes, or properties which can be observed...” (1973, pp. 2-3). If something can be seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted, then science can deal with it. But to expect science to investigate something in the proverbial “sixth sense” is to demand too much of the scientific method, and lays it open to charges of abuse or misuse.
2. The scientific method is limited to the present. That science is limited to the present should be a self-evident, axiomatic truth, since the present is the only place and time in which the five senses operate. Enno Wolthius commented on this point when he wrote:
Science seeks to explain the behavior of that which is, and to check its explanation by means of experiments. But this experimental requirement can be met only in the present time. The past, and especially the beginning of things, lies beyond the grasp of this method, and so science can only speculate about the origin and history of the world (1963, p. 50).
To require science to make factual statements about pre-history is to prostitute the method. Since science is based upon observation, it must limit its scope to human history, where things can be properly observed and recorded. As Henry Morris and John Whitcomb have suggested: “Since historical geology, unlike other sciences, cannot deal with currently observable and reproducible events, it is manifestly impossible ever really to prove, by the scientific method, any hypothesis related to pre-human history” (1961, p. 213).
In recent years, there has been considerable disagreement between creationists and evolutionists over whether or not science should be limited to the present. Evolutionists have insisted on using science in an attempt to study various aspects of their theory (e.g., the Big Bang, the origin of the Solar System, etc.) that they freely admit belong in “pre-history.” Creationists have responded by suggesting that such events are not observable, and therefore are not properly within the domain of science. Yet there are certain things about both evolution and creation that can be tested. In order to distinguish the things within each model that can be tested from those that cannot, some authors have suggested that science itself be divided into two categories. For example, Thaxton, Bradley, and Olsen, in The Mystery of Life’s Origin, recommended separating operation science from origin science (1984). Others (e.g., Geisler and Anderson, 1987) have followed suit.
Operation science deals with regular, recurring events in nature that require natural causes (eclipses, volcanoes, reproduction, etc.), while origin science deals with singularities that may or may not require a natural cause (the Big Bang, creation, etc.). The term “origin science” may be new, but it operates by the standard principles of causality and uniformity. The principle of causality says that every material effect must have a prior, necessary, and adequate cause. The principle of uniformity (or analogy) states that similar effects have similar causes. In other words, the kinds of causes that we observe producing effects today can be counted on to have produced similar effects in the past. What we see as an adequate cause in the present, we assume to have been an adequate cause in the past; what we see as an inadequate cause in the present, we assume to have been an inadequate cause in the past.
None of us denies that creation occurred in the distant past as the result of events that now are unable to be studied experimentally in the laboratory. But the same limitations are inherent in evolutionary scenarios. Anyone familiar with the works of evolutionists like Robert Jastrow and Fred Hoyle is aware of the fact that these scientists, and others like them, have pointed out that the origin of the Universe, and of life itself, occurred in the distant past under conditions not necessarily experimentally reproducible and therefore not able to be studied in a strictly scientific manner. Evolutionists Paul Ehrlich and L.C. Birch have addressed these issues.
Our theory of evolution has become...one which cannot be refuted by any possible observations. Every conceivable observation can be fitted into it. It is thus “outside empirical science” but not necessarily false. No one can think of ways in which to test it. Ideas, either without basis or based on a few laboratory experiments carried out in extremely simplified systems, have attained currency far beyond their validity. They have become part of an evolutionary dogma accepted by most of us as part of our training (1967, 214:349).
Thus, even defenders of evolutionary theory have admitted that their theory is “outside of empirical science.” Of course, evolutionists have responded by suggesting that “creation is based on supernatural processes in the past” and therefore is not scientific. However, the “supernatural” beginnings of creation are no less available for scientific examination than are the “prehistoric” (though allegedly natural) beginnings of evolution. To the unbiased observer, that would seem to put creation and evolution on equal footing, scientifically speaking.
3. The scientific method is limited to telling us “how” a process works, not “why.” In his book, Questions of Science and Faith, J.N. Hawthorne remarked: “Science can give us the ‘know-how’ but it cannot give us the ‘know-why’ ” (1960, p. 4). The late James D. Bales noted:
The scientific method is incapable of dealing with the realm of purpose. It can deal with cause and effect relationships; or as some would say, it can deal with the succession of events in time. It cannot deal with the “why” when one uses the term “why” with reference to purpose (1976, p. 37).
Science deals with mechanism, not purpose. “Why”—in regard to purpose—is not a question science is equipped to answer.
4. The scientific method is limited in that it is amoral (non-moral). Nobel laureate Jacques Monod once stated that “science is ignorant of values” (1969, p. 21). There is nothing inherent in the scientific method that provides for the definition or study of morals. Paul Little, in Know Why You Believe, was correct when he said:
It should be recognized that science is incapable of making value judgments about the things it measures. Many men on the frontiers of science are realizing that there is nothing inherent in science to guide them in the application of the discoveries they make. There is nothing in science itself which will determine whether nuclear energy will be used to destroy cancer or to destroy cities. This is a judgment outside the scientific method to determine (1967, p. 105).
Bales also was correct in his assessment: “The scientific method cannot prove that we have any obligation to accept truth if we find it unpalatable, or show why we should not accept falsehood if we can turn it to our advantage” (1976, p. 37). Science simply does not have the mechanism (by definition of its own method) to legislate morals. This is not meant to imply that scientists work without morals or values. It is simply to say that whatever morals or values they possess were not derived from the scientific method. Science is not equipped to deal with morals.
5. The scientific method is limited in that it cannot deal with the unique. The scientific method deals with those things that are: (a) timeless; (b) universal; (c) dependable; and (d) repeatable. Those things that do not fit in these categories are outside the realm of science. Paul Weisz, in his text, Elements of Biology, stated that “one-time events on earth are outside of science” (1965, p. 4). Biologist John N. Moore has observed that “...at the core of scientific method or methods is experimental repeatability or reproducibility” (1973). Simpson put it this way:
The important distinction between science and those other systematizations (the arts, philosophy, and theology) is that science is self-testing and self-correcting. The testing and correcting are done by means of observations that can be repeated with essentially the same results by normal persons operating by the same methods and with the same approach (as quoted in Moore, 1973, p. 23).
The English word “science” derives from the Latin scientia, which means “knowledge.” Scientists are supposed to be on a lifelong search for knowledge and truth, regardless of where that search eventually leads. Science is based on an observation of the facts, and is directed at finding patterns of order in the observed data. To suggest that knowledge can be acquired solely on the basis of naturalism, and that empirical observation is the “court of ultimate appeal,” is to err. Such an attitude ignores other numerous, significant avenues of human endeavor, as well as additional means of coming to knowledge and truth. It also misuses and abuses the scientific method which, as great as it is, never was intended to be a panacea.
Abelson, Phillip (1964), “Bigotry in Science,” Science, April 24.
Bales, J.D. (1976), Evolution and the Scientific Method (Searcy, AR: Privately published by author).
Ehrlich, Paul and L.C. Birch (1967), “Evolutionary History and Population Biology,” Nature, 214:349-352, April 22.
Geisler, Norman L. and J. Kerby Anderson (1987), Origin Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Gish, Duane T. (1973), Evolution: The Fossils Say No! (San Diego, CA: Creation-Life Publishers).
Hawthorne, J.N. (1960), Questions of Science and Faith (London: Tyndale).
Little, Paul (1967), Know Why You Believe (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books).
Monod, Jacques (1969), From Biology to Ethics (Salk Institute for Biological Studies), October.
Moore, John N. (1973), The American Biology Teacher, pp. 23-26,34, January.
Morris, Henry M. and John C. Whitcomb (1961), The Genesis Flood (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Simpson, George Gaylord (1964), “The Nonprevalence of Humanoids,” Science, 143:769, February 21.
Thaxton, Charles, Walter L. Bradley, and Roger L. Olsen (1984), The Mystery of Life’s Origin (New York: Philosophical Library).
Walker, Marshall (1963), The Nature of Scientific Thought (New York: Prentice-Hall).
Weisz, Paul (1965), Elements of Biology (New York: McGraw-Hill).
White, Lynn, Jr. (1979), “The Ecology of Our Science,” Science 80 (premier issue), 1:72-80, November/December.
Wolthius, Enno (1963), Science, God & You (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Originally published in Reason & Revelation, June 1981, 1:21-23. Revised 1990. Copyright © 1981, 1990 Apologetics Press, Inc. All rights reserved.