The success of the scientific method
A scientist’s duty is to acquire knowledge of the natural world in a systematic way. The prevailing system of investigating nature is commonly referred to as the scientific method, “a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”(1)http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/scientific-method
Scientists observe the natural world and formulate hypothesis (proposed explanations) which attempt to describe phenomenon in the natural world. The scientific method is employed to test each hypothesis until it has been suitably confirmed by rigorous experimentation, after which it becomes an established scientific theory. A hypothesis may also be proven false during the validation process, at which point it may be modified for further testing or abandoned.
There are very good reasons for employing the scientific method to understand natural phenomenon.
- Everything in the natural world operates according to universal laws and is governed by stable physical constants, from the tiniest of sub atomic particles to the greatest of galaxies.
- Because of this inherent stability and predictability, natural phenomenon are able to be observed, repeated and verified by experiment.
- This process has allowed scientists to uncover many mysteries of nature, and derive many of the universal laws and constants of nature.
- Universal laws once derived can be extremely powerful, allowing scientists and mathematicians to make highly accurate predictions of the behaviour of objects and phenomenon without observation or experimentation.
There can be no question that science has unlocked many great mysteries of the natural world, and has led to many amazing discoveries and inventions. Great advances in scientific knowledge have given us technology that previous generations could never have imagined, and many benefits have flowed to society as a result of these relatively recent discoveries.
The limitations of science
While the relatively recent scientific approach to our world has been vindicated by countless success stories, does the scientific method have any limitations? Are there things which science cannot explain?
It should be acknowledged, that far from being all comprehending, the field of view of science is limited by definition. Because the scope of a scientist’s observations are restricted to testable and repeatable natural laws and phenomenon, there are important matters which lie beyond the field of scientific investigation:
- Science cannot make moral judgments
- Science cannot make aesthetic judgments
- Science cannot tell you how to use scientific knowledge
- Science cannot draw conclusions about supernatural explanations
- For further reading see (2)http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/whatisscience_12 (3)http://www.cod.edu/people/faculty/fancher/Limits.htm
These limitations mean that science has nothing whatsoever to say regarding the most important aspects of religion, or most of the content of the Bible!
Furthermore, while these vital fields lie beyond the realm of science, it is remarkable to observe that even within the scientific domain, on many fronts the scientific method appears to have reached the limits of its explanatory power.
For example, universal laws that describe the behaviour of energy have been derived, by application of the scientific method. These formulas and definitions now allow scientists to accurately predict the behaviour of energy even in situations where no measurements can take place (such as in the depths of space, or within the core of the sun). The conclusions of science have since allowed humanity to exploit the predictable behaviour of energy to great advantage.
Yet even today, despite these incredible advances in scientific knowledge, we are no closer to explaining what energy actually is or where it originally came from. The same could be said for light, gravity, and other basic fundamental natural phenomenon that we take for granted. Thanks to science, we can now precisely predict how energy, or light, or gravity will behave in any given situation, but we still don’t know what energy, or light, or gravity is, or how they came to be. For these examples, science has only defined, and not explained.
When trying to piece together the remnants of past ages, the short comings of science shift from ideological to historical. As science attempts to explain phenomenon that occurred in the past, it is not so much a problem of the limits of the scientific method, but a limitation of the quality and quantity of material on which conclusions can be made. Science can only speak on a limited range of subjects in the present, but when it comes to the past, its vision is even more limited!
This scientific short sightedness is further highlighted when we move beyond the natural realm, and consider the God who set all these natural laws in motion. Science by definition will seek a natural explanation for all phenomenon, and thus excludes the operation of any supernatural agent as a possibility. The scientific method is an explanatory framework from which God is excluded, not for malicious or deceptive reasons, but because it is founded on the inherent assumption that all natural phenomenon are the product of natural laws alone.
The necessity for faith
While a scientific view point is restricted to the testable and repeatable, the religious person accepts without question that there is an invisible realm of heavenly beings, supervised by God and His son, who is seated at His right hand (the great number of religious scientists acknowledge this too). This belief is based on faith, yet this faith should not be equated with a stubborn belief in something impossible, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
All faith must be founded on something; it is never completely blind. Faith is something that ordinary people (including scientists) exercise every day of their lives. Even the scientific method is based on faith that the laws of the universe operate the same today as they did in the past, and will continue to do so.
Faith often drives ordinary people to put their lives in danger, and take great risks. For example, stepping into an elevator could result in a sudden and terrifying death should something go wrong. But the risks are mitigated by faith, through which we calmly put our life on the line, step inside and confidently press the button for the desired floor.
This faith can be built on many different types of evidence, including:
- Observation of the safe passage of others
- Trust in the testimony of those we deem to be reliable sources
- Examination of the engineering drawings, to confirm the design is safe and adequate
- Confidence in the manufacturer as a known designer of other reliable systems
If one (or more) of these criteria is satisfied then our faith might be sufficiently developed to use the lift, despite the risks involved. There will always be a chance that our faith is misguided, and we might plummet to an untimely death, but very rarely do people take such risks without an evidence based faith.
Religious people are no different. To the ignorant eye the religious man appears a creature of habit, a mindless clone who has blindly followed those who have gone before, and steeped in tradition and fairy tales he allows himself to be swept and carried along in his delusion, incapable of breaking out of the superstitious outlook he has inherited.
But there are many people who have come to Christ with no background whatsoever in religion. They have not blindly followed, but have undergone a process of learning and questioning, which has developed within them what they consider an adequate grounds for faith.
Again their faith may be misguided, but it is built on evidence of some form or another, it is never completely blind.
Sometimes the foundation of a person’s faith is built on a very fragile base, such as the trust in acquaintances or friends or family, or an emotional personal experience, but in many cases it has been developed through the crucible of research and rigorous examination. Sometimes religious faith withstands incredible pressure and trial, triumphing in the face of persecution, famine, personal loss, even torture, pain and death.
Many highly intelligent and qualified people also profess to have faith, so it is unreasonable to infer that all religious people are simple or unenlightened.
But whether a person’s faith is based on a fragile foundation or something more substantial, this does not necessarily negate or affirm the object of that faith.
True faith should seek for proof, and rather like the scientific method in the realm of science, test and challenge the foundations of our faith. Those whose faith is founded on solid foundations will triumph in the end.
There can be no greater foundation for religious faith than the teachings of the Bible, which declares itself to be the actual words of the only God of heaven and earth. If any care to test its bold claims, God has provided more evidence than any reasonable person could require. As time goes by, and increasingly hostile criticism is directed at it, the Bible reputation remains intact for those who are willing to honestly test the evidence. Far from being debunked and dismissed, the Bible’s authenticity is still without serious challenge.
The problems with a person’s perspective
As has already been stated, science and religion deal with mostly different realms; whereas science deals strictly with the natural world, religion involves the dealings of the super-natural God, and particularly as His invisible power relates to the earth and mankind.
The religious field of view is broader and deeper than that of science, because it gives answers to both natural observations and also deep philosophical thoughts that are beyond the realm of science such as why we exist, who God is, and how to become like Him and inherit an eternal reward. The religious person can use science as a tool, and measure its claims against the weight of scripture.
Despite this, a selection of notable scientists frequently give their derisive opinions of religion, assuming their impressive scientific credentials are enough to silence all opposing voices. In reasoning from a dominantly scientific mindset, it is easy to imagine that science has superseded religion, ushering in a new order of ‘logic’ and ‘reason’. Yet as we have seen, the scientific view is narrow and limited, with no voice at all on morality (right and wrong), aesthetics (good and bad) and most importantly the supernatural (God Himself). It stands to reason that a person with such a mindset will have a distorted (at best) view of religion based on the frame of reference they have adopted.
Religious people however can fall into a similar trap by attempting to force all science into the biblical framework, while failing to realise the Bible was never written as a scientific textbook, and in fact rarely ventures into the domain of science at all. Some offer their unqualified opinions on science, somehow imagining that their understanding of the Bible gives them an enlightened view of the workings of the natural world. While the view of a religious mindset is wider than that of science, one must be careful that their view of the natural workings of creation has not been distorted because of their world view.
There is frequently an appearance of wisdom in the arguments formed by such adherents to either side of the debate, and those who have adopted similar positions often resonate with the arguments or objections that are raised. Sadly on both sides, erroneous logic is formulated and propagated, and it does little to enhance the reputation of either party in the debate.
The intersection of Religion and Science
What do we do then when there is an overlap of science and religion, as is the case with the origin of life, or the question of how the world came to be in the state it presently is?
As we have seen, both sides need to tread carefully, ensuring that our perspective does not hinder us from seeing real truth which might lie beyond our point of observation. All of us have blind spots and distortions, due to our world view, and we do well to remember this when seeking for the truth.
The scientist has an explanatory framework, based on purelynatural processes. The workings of a supernatural being cannot play a part in his explanation. Therefore his view of the formation of the natural world and life upon it has every possibility of missing a whole dimension of truth, because God and His intervention is deliberately excluded, although it most certainly remains a real possibility.
Furthermore, when a scientist arrives at a completely natural explanation of such an event, it does not guarantee that he is right, and it certainly does not remove the need for God from the equation. There are few events or circumstances which could be proven beyond all doubt to be an act of God, because there is almost always a possibility (however small) that a natural event or complex series of events could account for it. No matter how small the probability, by default the scientist must always take an improbable natural explanation over a (perhaps more likely) supernatural explanation, and because there is almost always a small probability, there will always be a natural explanation!
A purely natural explanation to such a question will clearly not suffice if God has been involved! We have to accept that there are certain things that science cannot admit, on ideological grounds!
The religious man also has an explanatory framework, based on a combination of natural and supernatural processes. He may feel that some of the explanations of science cut across his religious position, but the same possibility of error might be true of him in the reverse.
We should learn from the embarrassments of the past, where men have insisted that the Bible offers a definitive statement regarding the operations of a particular natural phenomenon, only to be proven wrong by science (examples needed – Galileo, flat earth). When science and our understanding of the Bible disagree, there are two possible sources of error! We must be certain of our interpretation of scripture before jumping to conclusions on science.
Throughout this article we have explored some fundamental truths about science that reveal its limitations when explaining the world around us.
On matters of natural phenomenon, the scientific method is the best explanative framework that mankind has devised, and it has taken human knowledge a long way in a relatively short period of time.
But if there is any possibility that God was involved, the scientific method must turn a blind eye to His hand and instead seek a purely natural explanation, even if it is highly improbable.
We should however exercise extreme caution when insisting that our understanding of the Bible supersedes any particular scientific explanation. The Bible is mostly silent on many of the intricacies of science, and we need to be more diligent than ever before in reading the Bible carefully and seeking to understand it, lest we highlight our ignorance and give more ammunition to those who insist that religion is a collection of myths and fables, and that science alone can explain the natural world.