Theology, philosophy, math, science, and random other things

The limits of science as evidence for Christianity

In the previous post of this series, we finished looking at the trends in sciences.

Thus far, we've seen that Christianity explains science, by explaining its starting points, and its progression. Thus science is evidence for Christianity.

If that was the extent of its explanatory powers, then Christianity would only be a very useful philosophical presupposition. But Christianity claims more for itself: it says that we live and move and have our being in God, and that this same God became incarnate and lives fully in Jesus Christ. If this is true - if Jesus is really the transcendent one who is the source of existence itself - then Christianity should explain not only science, but some part of everything. God would have something to say about everything, and everything would have something to say about God. In particular, Christianity should be able to explain some things that science cannot.

Some may object to the above statement; they may say that science can indeed explain everything. I suspect that they're redefining "science" to suit their needs. My working definition of "science" is the natural sciences as described by Wikipedia. The important idea is that science is a human activity and a limited tool, which makes statements about the natural world through what can be inferred from empirical observations.

In this context it's very clear that science has limits. It will never know, for example, how many molecules of water were in Socrates' drink of hemlock; the appropriate measurement was simply never made. This is generally true of historical events which are not repeatable experiments. However, these are not the interesting limits - I will make a much stronger claim on the limits of science, and say:

Even if we humans had all possible measurement data about all physical entities (atoms, quarks, fields, neurons, the human population, the universe as a whole, etc), and regardless of any possible future advances in our understanding of physical reality, there will be questions on non-physical subjects that the natural sciences cannot answer.

Note that I specify "physical entities" and "physical reality". These must of necessity be constrained by our current understanding of the word "physical". I am not covering a possible future where we make a "scientific discovery" about a new type of entity called "virtue", which has a property called "honesty", which we then classify as "physical". Such a thing would rightly fall under the purview of philosophy in our current understanding, not science.

Note also that I specify "natural science". I am restricting science to speak on scientific things, while not denying that non-scientific inferences can be made from scientific facts - after all, this entire series of posts on science as evidence for Christianity is an inference from science to non-science. However, such inferences would again fall under philosophy, not science.

What, then, are these things that even this possible future super-science cannot explain? In general, science cannot speak to things above or below it on the hierarchy of fields of study: Among them are questions such as:

Why are the laws of nature mathematical? 

Why are the laws of nature those specific mathematical entities and not others? For example, why are charges governed by a field defined over space which are solutions to second-order differential equations? 

What are the rules of logic, and why does the universe follow these rules? 

Could I be a brain in a vat, or an organic component in the Matrix, or the unknowing reality TV star of the Truman Show? 

Is there something more to the universe that we have not yet discovered?

Is there any meaning to my existence as an individual, or the universe's existence as a whole? 

Does God exist? 

What is morality? Why should I do what is right?

Many of these questions can be answered quite easily in Christianity. Yes, God exists. The universe is a logical place because logic itself is an aspect of God's nature and the universe reflects it as his creation. Because God created the universe to be understood by us, we have assurance that we are not fundamentally deceived about its nature, as a brain in a vat may be. Morality is also an aspect of God's nature and we should follow it because we were created to be like God. All of this agrees with our experiences and flows easily from our foundational belief in God, who is revealed in Jesus Christ.

Morality, in particular, merits some additional attention. The physical sciences and its theories describe the way things are. Therefore, they cannot describe the way things ought to be. If the physical theories predict that the firing of a certain group of neurons in my brain WILL cause me to squeeze my finger, which WILL exert enough force to pull the trigger of a gun, which WILL start a explosive reaction in the bullet, which WILL exit the gun with enough velocity to kill an innocent person - well, then, that's the way things will be. That is all that science says. The ability to make that prediction, to the exclusion of other outcomes, is the very strength of science. But morality says that those neurons OUGHT not to have fired. That I OUGHT not have pulled the trigger. That (although it is inevitable at this point in the chain of events) the bullet OUGHT not have exited the gun and killed an innocent person. These are two mutually exclusive versions of reality, and therefore cannot be described by one physical theory.

This is an unbridgeable gap if you remain purely in the realm of nature. But Christianity easily handles it: the "ought" facts are derived from our supernatural God, who IS the one we ought to be like, whereas the "way things are" of the physical sciences only still describe the physical world. Why are the two different? Why is the physical world not as it ought to be? That is part of the problem of evil, an oft-discussed theological issue which is tied intricately to the central message of Christianity. Because it is part of the central message, it is both difficult to explain fully, and also fully solved (that is, in Christ). I hope to eventually write about the problem in a future post. For now, in relation to science, I will merely say that God allowed us to understand morality separately from the physical state of matter, because he created us to be more than just components in nature. He created us to be like himself, having a supernatural, spiritual reality which can stand independently from the physical realm.

Some may still object to all this, especially to the idea that morality exists apart from the physical universe. Metaphysical naturalism asserts that all the higher order entities, such as morality or consciousness, supervene upon the physical and therefore can be explained by science. This is then supposed to somehow eliminate the need for God. But this is taking this far beyond even the futuristic super-science that I postulated earlier. It not only asserts that scientific discoveries will inform us more about things like consciousness or morality (which is inevitable, and is actually evidence for Christianity as part of the long-term trends in science), but goes on to assert that the specific discoveries will somehow support a specific philosophical position (atheism) that is totally unrelated to science. Furthermore, it asserts that these future discoveries will belong to an unprecedented new category never before seen in science: discoveries about abstract, non-physical entities which are properly the domains of other fields, which simultaneously negates these other fields. It is at this point that I begin to suspect that "science" has been redefined to be something meaningless, something akin to simply "everything".

Now, I believe that in some sense, everything is indeed physics. But I would also add that there are many things that are "everything". Everything is math, because the laws of physics are mathematical. Everything is philosophy, because physics and the rest of science has philosophical underpinnings. Everything is theology, because what you believe about God determines your philosophy. In the other direction, everything is biology, because all the information I have about the world comes to me through sensory experience. Everything is neurology, because everything I experience ultimately takes place in my brain. Everything is psychology, because I experience my brain as my mind. Everything is sociology, because all these academic disciplines are products of human society. Everything is history, because in the biggest sense, history is everything that happens. And everything is theology, because everything that happens does so through the will and purpose of God. Some of the above are scientific disciplines, and some of them are not. To state that all this collapses down to "science" does violence to the actual meaning of the word, as that very statement lies beyond scientific inquiry and in the realm of philosophy. You may say that the universe is only physics, but it could also be said that the universe is only that which is necessary to bring about my mental state. The "only physics" view is also ridiculously impractical. What will you do, calculate the wavefunction of your brain to decide whether you want paper or plastic?

To prevent such abuses of "science", it is instructive to consider science as we understand it today, rather than the futuristic super-science that I postulated earlier or the "science" of metaphysical naturalism. And in this restricted but practical sense, it's clear that science does not provide all the answers. Science, as we understand it now, cannot tell us which course of action would be morally right or wrong. Science cannot tell us about the nature of beauty. Science cannot verify non-repeatable historical events. Science can and does inform us about some aspects of all these things, but at the end of the day their proper decision lies outside the jurisdiction of science.

Lastly, science, as currently understood, does not explain consciousness. Again, there are certainly many ways that science informs us about certain aspects of consciousness, but at the heart of it the hard problem of consciousness remains intractable. This is probably the most important problem that's currently beyond science, as it's likely to be intrinsically linked with all other such problems. This is yet another issue that I hope to address in a future post.

Of course, I do not have a full answer from Christianity on the problem of consciousness, or some of the other related issues. However, Christianity does tell us what to do in the face of such circumstances that would paralyze us into inaction if we only had science to guide us. It tells us to keep seeking, because the universe was made for us to understand. Meanwhile, it tells us to love one another, and to appreciate beauty. It informs us that God acts through history. Such guidelines are not full explanations, but they do work reasonably well with reality, and therefore with whatever the full explanation might eventually turn out to be.

So when you compare Christianity to any alternate worldview which claim that science alone is the answer, we see that Christianity is superior. For Christianity explains many things that science cannot ever hope to, and provides sensible guidelines even when a full explanation is currently lacking from both science and Christianity. In addition all this, Christianity explains science itself. Therefore, the issues surrounding the limits of science is very strong evidence for Christianity, and against any "science only" worldview.

In my next post of this series, I will discuss the predictions that Christianity makes about the future of science.

You may next want to read:
Christian predictions on the future of science (part 1) (Next post of this series)
How is God related to all other fields of study?
How physics fits within Christianity (part 2)
Another post, from the table of contents

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2 comments on “The limits of science as evidence for Christianity”

  1. Awesome! To fully capture the idea of this article I'd read it several more times. It gives me a totally refreshed view of science and an important link between Christianity and the material world. The idea that the lifeless world and science are also God's will really excites me! Thank you.

  2. If I can help people understand more of God and how he works in the world, then that makes all the work I put into this blog worth it!

    Oh, and if there was anything particularly confusing, or if I could have made things more clear by changing how I said things, please let me know. I do edit old posts to improve them from time to time.

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