What Are Science’s Operating Limits?
AUGUST 14, 2021
by Ken Samples
Modern science has dramatically changed the world for the better. All of us have benefitted from medical and technological advances. Because of that success, some people have concluded that science can answer all of humankind’s ultimate questions.
Does science have “operating limits”? In other words, are there areas of knowledge or questions that the scientific enterprise—because of its very nature—can’t adequately address?
Science: A Definition
Science involves a general inductive approach to obtaining knowledge about the world. It weighs probabilities and moves logically from the particular to the general. Scientific data generally comes directly through observation and experimentation about the physical universe. Thus, science does an excellent job of explaining the physical mechanisms of the material world. It serves as a great tool for understanding the reality of that world. Science helps explain the what and how questions of life.
But science founders when it comes to the truly big questions of meaning, purpose, and significance. These are the ultimate why questions that people naturally ask. For example, revealing that something happened in the physical world doesn’t explain why it happened or what it ultimately means. Biologist and philosopher Francisco Ayala has put it this way: “In matters of values, meaning, and purpose, science has all the answers, except the interesting ones.”
So what are science’s specific operating limits? They consist of key truths that science can’t formally prove but also that people can rationally affirm as being real and true:
1. Mathematical and Logical Truths
Math and logic reflect laws and principles that are necessary for scientific theorizing and are foundational assumptions upon which science depends, but that science can’t itself prove. Math and logic are conceptual (abstract) in nature rather than being empirically (sensory) derived. Science tends to confirm the truth of math and logic, but it can’t justify these conceptual realities.
2. Metaphysical Truths
Metaphysical truths (relating to reality) include ideas like the existence of a real external world (not a mere illusion) and that minds exist (other than our own) that are capable of understanding that world. These critical ideas about reality are also foundational assumptions upon which science begins, but can’t justify through the scientific method itself.
3. Ethical Truths
Objective moral truths and values exist (right, wrong, good, bad) and are required to do good science. For example, scientific experiments and the results they provide are valid only if they are conducted with exacting honesty and fair-mindedness. But these ethical and moral principles can’t be derived through science’s observational and empirical means.
4. Aesthetic Judgments
Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that refers to the nature and appreciation of beauty, taste, and art. Beauty abounds in the natural world. But pure value judgments concerning the meaning and appreciation of beauty, taste, and art cannot be addressed by the scientific method. Again, value judgments about either morality or beauty are formed outside the operating lane of science.
5. Science Itself
The scientific enterprise is based upon critical assumptions that can’t be derived by the scientific method. Science cannot validate those assumptions, nor can science tell us how scientific knowledge should be properly used. If scientists are to go about their work with any confidence, they must, for instance, believe in such presuppositions as:
- The objective reality of the cosmos
- The basic intelligibility of the cosmos
- The order, regularity, and uniformity of nature
- The validity of mathematics and logic
- The basic reliability of human cognitive faculties and sensory organs
- The congruence between the human mind and physical reality
- That an acceptable criterion for an adequate hypothesis exists
- That what is observed in nature can provide clues and indicators of unobservable patterns and processes
These eight profound assumptions are just that: assumptions. That is, these preconditions for doing science are not first proven by science. Rather, scientists assume these ideas to be true before beginning to practice science. Science helps to confirm the truth of these preconditions of reality, but the scientific method itself did not establish or justify these prerequisite starting points. In this way, scientists operate on faith in these extraordinary givens—the necessary preconditions of intelligibility.