Five Things Science Can’t Explain
Science has contributed innumerable benefits to human life on planet Earth. We should be deeply grateful for the hard work of scientists who dedicate their lives to loyal study of this discipline and the advantages scientific advances grant us.
Due to its success, there is often a tendency to think that science can explain everything. However there are actually many things that science cannot prove. Here are five categories of truth that cannot be proven using the scientific method:
1) Existential Truth: Science cannot prove that you aren’t merely a brain in a jar being manipulated to think this is all actually happening. (Think of something like in “The Matrix”.) It also cannot prove that the world wasn’t created 5 minutes ago with the appearance of age (and with fake memories in your head, and half-digested food in your stomach, etc). However it’s still rational to believe that our memories are true and that the world is real.
2) Moral Truth: Science cannot prove that rape is evil. While it is possible to demonstrate, for example, that there are negative physical or psychological effects of rape, there is no scientific test that can prove it is evil. Science can describe how the natural world is, but moral truth carries an “oughtness” (how things should be) about it that goes beyond what merely is.
3) Logical Truth: Consider the statement “Science is the only way to really know truth.” How could you prove that statement by science? It is actually self-refuting because there is no scientific test you could use to prove that it is true! Science cannot prove logic to be true because it assumes and requires logic in order for it to work.
4) Historical Truth: Science cannot prove that Barack Obama won the 2008 United States presidential election. There is no scientific test we could perform to prove it. We could have an investigation if we wanted to confirm that he did actually win, but the method for proving historical truths is different from testing scientific truths since historical truths are by nature non-repeatable.
5) Experiential Truth: Science cannot prove that your spouse loves you. When asked why so-and-so loves you, you may cite precedent (times when their behavior demonstrates their love for you) but this is a particular type of historical truth. There is no scientific test that can confirm a lifetime of experience of knowing a person.
None of this is meant to criticize science! There’s nothing wrong with the scientific method for testing the kinds of things it was meant to test. However, it would be a mistake to expect it to be able to test everything. There are more intellectual tools available to us than just science, and as the old saying goes, when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail!
For the kinds of truth listed above, science is not deficient in any way; it’s just not the right way to find those particular kinds of truth. To try to do so would be like trying to ascertain whether a banana is tasty by sticking it in your ear and listening to it; it’s simply the wrong method!
There is one other kind of truth that cannot be proven or disproven by science. That’s because it is comprised of all of the other kinds of truth mentioned above mixed together: Religious truth. It does have a certain amount of overlap with science, when religion makes explicit claims about scientific fact, and when science makes explicit claims about religion. But the overlap tends to be rather small; in any case, true science and true religion, because they both aim to describe reality, can never be in conflict. (Read “Science & Religion: Conflict or Coherence?” for more on this topic.)
Why then does science often seem so straightforward and uncontroversial, whereas religion can be so difficult and contentious?
It may have something to do with a fact hinted at earlier: Religious truth is multifaceted. It is comprised of science, logic, philosophy, history, ethics, and experience, all mixed together. It is, in a sense, a different kind of knowing, not ignorant the other kinds of truths, but requiring that they be studied together carefully.
Rigidly applying the same methodology used for studying mundane things would be deficient when considering divine things. This shouldn’t be too surprising, considering that if God truly does exist, God is in a different category from every created thing that we can grasp and study under a microscope: God, unlike every created thing, is in the “uncreated things” category. Science, and each of the other kinds of truths, will have something to say about God. But none of these individually can tell us everything. All are necessary, but no single approach by itself is sufficient.
If that is the case, where should a person start a serious investigation into religion amidst all the complexity? Where should a person begin?
In his suspenseful novel Five Sacred Crossings author and religious scholar Craig Hazen presents through his narrative five “sacred crossings,” or compelling reasons to consider Christianity first. This is merely an exceedingly short summary of what Hazen explains (and argues for) in much more detail in his book:
1) It is testable. Christianity does not make merely esoteric claims; it makes claims about logic, science, history, philosophy, and ultimately reality itself.
2) It paints a picture of the world that matches reality. It does not force a person to deny that our world is real. Rather it cohesively explains why things are the way they are.
3) It makes a non-compartmentalized life possible. The Christian faith does not require a person to live one way when thinking about “religious” things and a totally different way at all other times.
4) It presents salvation as a free gift. Every other religion in the world presents some sort of works-based way to re-connect with God. But at the heart of the Christian message is grace, not more demands to somehow work our way to God.
5) It has Jesus at the center. Jesus is the most compelling (and controversial) figure in history. Many other religions claim to respect him, but Christianity is founded upon his life, teaching, and identity. Why not begin by getting to know him?
One man who took on such a challenge was Dr Alister McGrath, who earned two doctorates at Oxford University, one in molecular biophysics, the other in theology. He described his spiritual and intellectual journey to the Christian faith in this way:
“At Oxford – to my surprise – I discovered Christianity. It was the intellectually most exhilarating and spiritually stimulating thing I could ever hope to describe – better than chemistry, a wonderful subject that I had thought to be the love of my life and my future career. I went on to gain a doctorate for research in molecular biophysics from Oxford, and found that immensely exciting and satisfying. But I knew I had found something better – like the pearl of great price that Jesus talks about in the Gospel, which is so beautiful and precious that it overshadows everything. It was intellectually satisfying, imaginatively engaging, and aesthetically exciting.” 1
If you’re interested in starting a faith adventure today, here are some suggested next steps:
A Scientist’s Search for Truth – Astrophysicist Hugh Ross describes his journey to faith.
The Uniqueness of Jesus – What made Jesus so special anyways?
What Does your Soul Crave? – Destiny? Intimacy? Meaning?
Contact us with Questions – Talk with someone confidentially via email.
1 Alister McGrath, The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath & Daniel Dennett in Dialogue (London, England: Fortress Press, 2008), 27.