In an excerpt from his book, Can A Scientist Believe in Miracles, MIT Nuclear Scientist Ian Hutchinson, answers one of the most common questions he’s received at Veritas Forums: won’t science eventually answer all of our questions about the world?

WON’ T SCIENCE EVENTUALLY EXPLAIN EVERYTHING?

In 2010 I enjoyed a Veritas Forum dialogue with Marcelo Gleiser, a physics professor at Dartmouth College, in which he argued against the idea that there is a “God equation” or final theory of everything. More recently, he wrote a book titled The Island of Knowledge, which is based on the idea that knowledge, and especially science, is like an expanding island within an ocean of unknowing. In this metaphor, present knowledge has limits, but as we discover new knowledge, the island of the known gets bigger. As it expands, its shoreline, the interface between the known and the unknown, does not shrink; instead, it also gets bigger. The metaphor suggests that nothing in the ocean is immune from becoming part of the growing island of human knowledge. And also the coastal regions—the growing edge of human knowledge and the endeavor of science—are never exhausted. For Gleiser that is a source of inspiration. But how much of the island is science? And will it in fact grow forever?

Just because we don’t know something now does not mean that we won’t eventually have a scientific understanding. 

Science doesn’t yet answer everything, but don’t you think that eventually it will? 

Gleiser’s metaphor affirms today’s Western confidence that humans can eventually understand everything, that there is nothing that will prevent the island’s growth. This view contrasts starkly with the climate of opinion prior to the scientific revolution. It was obvious then that humanity understood hardly anything. And, while a biblical outlook that human intelligence was in the image of God gave reason to believe we could understand some, at least, of the plan of his creation, the prevailing view was that the world was full of mysteries that were beyond us.

Natural science’s success is largely responsible for the transformation of opinion about the ultimate capabilities of human intelligence. The enormous growth of scientific knowledge in the last four centuries gives reason to be optimistic about its future and encourages scientific endeavor. Yet, in my view, neither past scientific successes nor pragmatic optimism justify the current degree of confidence in human capabilities. In fact, I think it is almost certain there are aspects, even of the material world, that we humans will never understand, and that science has some intrinsic limits.

To understand science’s limits, we need to be clear what we are talking about. The word science has broadly two meanings. The predominant meaning up until the sixteenth century was the meaning of the Latin word scientia, which referred to any kind of systematic knowledge. The second meaning, which predominates today, is that science refers to the study of nature. That meaning is generally implied when we talk about God and science.

Explicitly defining science as the study of nature isn’t terribly helpful, though, because nature is itself a very ambiguous concept. Robert Boyle (of Boyle’s law) in 1686 published a whole book on the question of what nature is.1 In it he listed eight different meanings of the word nature. The meaning he advocated was the established order or settled course of things.2 His meaning has become standard in science, and it is nearer the truth today that we define nature as what science studies than that we define science as the study of nature. So, science is the study of the settled course of things, the normal course of events. That is why science depends on reproducibility.

Now, I have already mentioned that I am rather skeptical about human systematic study (scientia) being able to understand or explain everything, because it is far from obvious whether human cognitive abilities are, or ever will be, up to the task. But I am completely certain that natural science cannot explain everything, because there are lots of unique, unrepeatable events in the world whose significant aspects cannot be described by the methods of science.

In human history, most events are unrepeatable. The Battle of Waterloo in 1815, for example, was a unique combination of unrepeatable events.3 Science can tell us some general things: about the power and range of weaponry of the day, about the maximum speed of horse travel, on which the combatants depended, about the contours of the landscape and its elevation. But we cannot do a repeat experiment or observation that gets even the majority of the relevant factors about the battle the same: Napoleon’s and Wellington’s approach to generalship, the morale of the respective armies (which depends on the history leading up to the battle), the unpredictable accidents of the melee that turned the tide at the crucial moment, or even the reasons why it took place at all. Hardly any of the questions historians concentrate on are questions that science is suited to address. So, although human history is indeed systematic study (scientia), it is not science.

I am not suggesting history is not knowledge. It is. The belief that science is all of real knowledge is called scientism. It is a ghastly but very widespread intellectual error that arises in part in English because of a confusion between scientia and science.4

If we accept the assumption that scientists use methodological naturalism, what areas are not susceptible to that?

The term methodological naturalism is often used to describe what is regarded as science’s method. I prefer to say that science sets out to explain nature naturally.5 That is a tremendously powerful and fruitful way to investigate the world. But since nature is the normal course of events, i.e. the reproducible aspects, science can’t be expected to encompass areas of knowledge that concern unrepeatable events, or events beyond the normal course. It is not that those events are “not susceptible” to scientific investigation; they are; it is just that the relevant aspects of many kinds of event (and human history was my example) are not addressed by science because they are not repeatable, and so are not nature.

Although we don’t now know for example what happened before the big bang, we might one day find out. What sorts of questions are permanently unanswerable by science?

Once you accept that there are important areas of knowledge that are not nature, you have questions that are permanently and in principle unanswerable by science. That is why we have in universities lots of nonscientific disciplines such as history, language, literature, the law, philosophy, ethics, politics, and music. We already have many answers to crucial nonscientific questions about these and other subjects, arising from their systematic studies. They possess all kinds of knowledge that is scientia, but is not science.6

Positivists of the early nineteenth century such as Auguste Comte thought that the nonscientific disciplines are in some kind of proto-scientific developmental stage, and that given time and effort, they would gradually evolve to become science. Today, although positivist philosophy is essentially dead, there still remain those who think that being turned into science is the way human and social disciplines gain credibility. But for those disciplines to become science requires either that they abandon the questions that they have traditionally set out to investigate or that the meaning of science should change. Either way, the questions are unanswerable by what we currently mean by science. We don’t need to settle whether the island of knowledge will grow forever in order to maintain that some questions are unanswerable by science. We already have substantial parts of the island itself that are known but are not science.

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  1.  Boyle’s grandiose title was A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature.
  2.  See Ian Hutchinson, Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism (Belmont, MA: Fias, 2011), chap. 1.
  3.  In the Battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington’s British army, assisted by the Prussians, only just defeated the French army of Napoleon, ending the Napoleonic wars.
  4.  In German for example, between Naturwissenschaft and Geisteswissenschaft. It erroneously supposes that the investigative methods of natural science apply universally to all topics.
  5. I find the expression methodological naturalism unhelpful in its elaborate philosophical technicality, but in any case misleading. Scientists do not have to adopt any kind of naturalism to do science, whether of method or ontological perspective. Rather, what they must do is seek for natural explanations. Admittedly there is still ambiguity in the qualification “natural”; but its obscurity to the non-expert is far less than in the term methodological naturalism.
  6.  When nonscientific disciplines have names like political science or social science, they are reverting to the archaic meaning of scientia, but sometimes for the sake of the prestige attached to the modern meaning.