The Limits of Science

Science is amazing, but it has a hard time sticking to its own domain. Scientists make patronizing statements like, “Science is about facts – religion is about emotion, so the two have nothing to do with each other. Therefore if you want to believe that a God created the universe, you can go ahead and believe that — just understand that it’s not scientific. We deal in the realm of fact (in other words, what has actually happened in reality), so don’t allow your emotions to interfere with our facts.” This is insulting and condescending. Yes, science is about facts, but an intentionally limited set of facts, since by definition science restricts itself to what can be tested and replicated in a laboratory. But the most pressing issues of human life don’t stem from the laboratory, and ultimately the lab is not fit to address them. I think the three biggest questions in life are:

1. Why am I here?
2. How do I live well?
3. What will become of me?

Science cannot begin to deal with those questions, and so it acts as if there are no facts concerning them. Science is incredible, but because it only deals with what can be seen and replicated, it recklessly asserts that it deals in ultimate reality — that the world of nature is all there is. But people put the lie to that in my office every day as I’ve never counseled a single individual over whether or not quarks exist, or the relevance of string or multiverse theory. People don’t lose any sleep over those issues (okay, maybe scientists do). But they do long to know how to live well (which includes dying well), why they are here, and what will become of them when they die. Those are the main concerns of most people. Marriage problems involve how to live well. So do issues like employment and depression and crime and drugs, both social and otherwise. And many dysfunctions in living well stem from 1) people feeling aimless and purposeless in a society that tells them they are an accident; and 2) people feeling like ultimately life is hopeless and without meaning because eventually they will come to nothing.

This is more than we are meant to bear. How many couples would get married if we could predict that they would divorce with absolute certainty? How many people would have children if we could tell them for certain the baby would die before it reaches its first birthday? How many people would ever enroll in college if they knew for certain they would never finish? We will rarely begin something that we already know we cannot finish. We are creatures who, by our nature, look to the future. This is not to imply that people do not live in the now. People, in fact, live in the now far too often. But even the impulsive things we do presume on the future.

“I’ll eat that piece of cake and start my diet on Monday” (in the future).
“I’ll put that new furniture on a credit card and pay for it later” (in the future).
“I’ll have sex with that person now and see where the relationship leads” (in the future)

All of these impulsive behaviors assume a future and one’s place in it. My point is not that people meticulously plan every detail of their lives according to the future (one can plainly observe that this is not the case), rather that the future plays a role in every decision we make, because we subconsciously assume the future has a place for us. We are always either planning for the future directly, or just impulsively spending/wasting time, assuming that we will have time to set everything right eventually and right the wrongs we have done.

Would you say that a person who does not make this assumption could be a healthy person? “Hey, you guys plan on going ahead to that movie next Wednesday. I’ll probably be dead by then. In fact, you guys will probably be dead too.” Obviously a person like this could never be considered healthy. To be a healthy, normal human being, we need to be able to envision that the future holds a place for us, whether we are 15 and making plans for after high school, 55 and making plans for after retirement, or 75 and making plans for after death.

When science tells us we are an accident and that one day we will come to nothing, it takes away the thing that drives us to live well, it robs us of the ability to be hopeful about our lives, and drains the meaning out of all the little things. Why make plans? If life in its sum total is meaningless, then no aspect of life can be meaningful.

Whether we admit it or not, we experience ourselves as eternal beings. Of course science comes along and tells us that’s just socialization, ego, or whatever. But we cannot fathom the end of our existence and we, by nature, extend ourselves into the future beyond our own death. As much as science tells us death is natural, it never sinks in. That’s true not just for humans but animals as well. Does anything seem more unnatural than a lion eating an antelope alive? Yes, we can tell ourselves that’s the way it is, that’s nature, etc., but we are horrified at the way things are. There’s a sense that all is not right, especially when those earthquakes and hurricanes hit and we are faced with suffering on a scale that boggles the mind. But of course if human beings are coming to nothing, and everything is random, then in one sense life really has no value. In another sense, we’d better fight to preserve this life for all we’re worth if this life is all there is.

But there is a middle ground, where we see immense value in this life, but are not threatened by the end of life in this world. There’s a place that acknowledges that we are divinely created beings with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe. In that place we value life because it is God-given. But we do not cling to it fearfully, because we know that there is no need. We will never die – we will just pass from one state of being to another. 10,000 years from now, I hope to still be blogging. Based on my current pace, I’ll get another eleven posts done between now and then.

I deal every day with people who are flying upside down, trying to make their way through life without knowing which way is up and which way is down, having no moral compass to point to true north. They are good people, sometimes Christian people, with good hearts, but have not internalized the great truths of scripture. They have been swayed by science into believing that God is irrelevant when in fact, God has never been more relevant. When exactly did the human race outgrow its need for hope? Now if it were just vain hope, I wouldn’t be involved in spreading it because I wouldn’t want to be involved in dishonesty, even if it made everybody feel better. But I believe it’s true hope that resonates with the deepest part of every human being. Above I mentioned the three questions that I believe plague mankind. And there are three challenges I believe we must face.

1. The challenge of finding the truth.
2. The challenge of facing the truth.
3. The challenge of following the truth.

If everything is meaningless and random, then there simply is no truth about our lives that really matters. But if we are in fact created beings, designed with a purpose by a “purposer,” then the three challenges above are ours to accept. Wherever science is involved in helping us accomplish those three things, it serves a good purpose. Can science help us find the truth? Of course! But not if it claims that there IS no real truth. Wherever science obfuscates truth and substitutes itself for those things that can truly satisfy a man’s deepest questions, denying the obvious fact that man has a soul and a specific nature, it becomes a god unto itself and every bit as worthless as the Baals and Asherah poles of the Old Testament.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

  • darryl silvestri

    “If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?” -Soren Kierkegaard