Science Questions

Can Science Answer All Questions?

By Paul Rezkalla

In the movie Contact? Ellie told her father that she loved him, but she couldn’t prove it scientifically. That’s because science can’t do that sort of thing. Science can’t show that two people love each other. Science is simply a tool that we utilize to uncover facts about the observable universe. So here’s a fun fact: Science is not omniscient. It cannot answer all our questions. Not by any stretch of the imagination. And the idea that we can’t know anything unless we have scientific evidence for it, is ridiculous. The claim ‘We can’t know anything unless we can verify it scientifically’ cannot, itself, be verified scientifically. That kind of argument is self-defeating. Interesting, no? So when someone says, “There’s no scientific evidence for that, therefore I won’t believe it”, I can respond by saying either:

1. Your face has no scientific evidence

or

2. There are things that we know to be true apart from any scientific evidence.

I find the latter to be more efficient, although not nearly as epic.

Science Questions

Here are 2 categories of facts that we all accept without help from science:

1. Metaphysical Facts

Metaphysics, by definition, lies outside the realm of science. The term ‘Metaphysics’ means ‘meta-physics’ or ‘beyond physics’.  Metaphysical facts include the existence of other minds, the existence of the world outside of your own mind, and the reality of the past. We believe that there are minds other than our own, the external world is real, and the past wasn’t created 5 minutes ago and given only the appearance of having aged as it did. These beliefs are what philosophers call properly basic beliefs. That means that they are foundational. We can’t show them to be true or false. We accept them as facts without question, but they cannot be proven by science.

Science cannot tell me that there are minds other than my own. When I’m in a lecture, I assume that the professor who is lecturing is a real entity with a mind and not simply a figment of my imagination or a part of my dream (as much as I’d like to think so). I treat the world around me as if it is real. I could be stuck in the matrix or I could be a brain floating in a jar of chemicals being stimulated by some crazy scientist who is giving me the illusion of this world. But I know I’m not. I know that the past is real; I was not created 5 minutes ago and implanted with 22 years’ worth of memories. I comfortably believe all of this and yet there is no scientific evidence that confirms it.

2. Ethical Facts

A lot of interest has been generated recently in the field of Evolutionary Psychology. Some experts in this field have argued that we can get morality from understanding who we are as social mammals. The idea of the purely ‘selfish gene’ is slowly being understood to be false, or at least an incomplete picture of who we really are. We are not simply lone mammals on the quest to propagate our DNA at all costs—there is a complex social infrastructure in mammalian groups/herds that has an inbuilt morality for the purpose of helping us deal with each other. Elephants bury their dead, bonobos comfort each other after loss, and most primates understand and operate by the laws of reciprocity and justice. This explains morality, right? Science has given us ethics!

Just a minute, buddy. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This kind of argument commits what David Hume articulated as the            Is-Ought fallacy. You can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. This means that observing and understanding how things are cannot tell us that this is the way things ought to be. Just because we observe that mammals help each other doesn’t tell us that we should help each other. Well, maybe we can say that we ought to help each other because that increases human flourishing. Right? Ok, but that presupposes that human flourishing is good and should be striven towards. But why is increasing human flourishing good in the first place? Why should we pursue it? Any answer that one gives to that question will not come from science. That’s because science is descriptive, not prescriptive. The ‘should’ or ‘ought’ has to come from elsewhere. Science can’t give us that.

Science doesn’t tell us that rape is evil. Science can’t tell us that rape is evil. The value judgment, evil, lies beyond the scope of the scientific method. Sure, science can tell us that rape can have biological and psychological repercussions on individuals and societies, but to say that rape is evil is not something that science can do. We know that rape is evil wholly apart from science.

Science can’t answer questions beyond those about the observable, testable world around us. Trying to do so is akin to using a yardstick to find the weight of a bucket of water. It won’t work because that isn’t the correct tool. My point here is not to say that science is bad. Not at all. I love science. Science has given us, and continues to provide us with progress in health and understanding the world around us. But we should not try to apply science outside of the fields for which it is meant.

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9 replies
  1. Andy Ryan says:

    “And the idea that we can’t know anything unless we have scientific evidence for it, is ridiculous”

    Who is making that claim?

    “I know that the past is real; I was not created 5 minutes ago and implanted with 22 years’ worth of memories. I comfortably believe all of this and yet there is no scientific evidence that confirms it”

    For me it’s POSSIBLE that I was created 5 minutes ago with implanted memories, but it’s an unfalsifiable notion with no evidence to support it, and therefore isn’t really worth my time considering. But the idea doesn’t seem any less likely than that a God could have created the universe 6000 or so years ago but deliberately given it the appearance of being billions of years old, right down to creating stars with light already heading to earth such that they appear to have been there for hundreds of millions of years.

    “The idea of the purely ‘selfish gene’ is slowly being understood to be false, or at least an incomplete picture of who we really are. We are not simply lone mammals on the quest to propagate our DNA at all costs—there is a complex social infrastructure in mammalian groups/herds that has an inbuilt morality for the purpose of helping us deal with each other”

    I’m not sure you understand the ‘selfish gene’ theory. It doesn’t mean we have genes that make us selfish. It means the gene is trying to replicate just itself. Mammals in groups/herds helping each other fits this theory perfectly – the shared genes of the group are being preserved often at the expense of the individual. Again – it’s the genes that are being preserved, not the individual.

    “This means that observing and understanding how things are cannot tell us that this is the way things ought to be”

    Sure, but if the evidence for a God-given objective morality includes the way humans behave, then alternative, and scientific, explanations for that behaviour are absolutely valid as a counter argument. And every defence of divine command theory seems to use as a corner stone the idea that we all REALLY feel that rape is wrong. Given that ‘rape can have biological and psychological repercussions on individuals and societies’ it’s not a surprise that we would develop instincts and knee-jerk responses against rape, and also have a societal taboo against it. This is not the same as arguing that ‘science has given us ethics’. But it is an alternative explanation for a phenomena that apologists claims is evidence for God.

    Reply
    • Kalmaro says:

      I’m not sure I follow your last point.

      I think we can agree on how horrible we feel rape is but would you say that rape actually *is* wrong or do you hold that to say it is bad is just an opinion?

      Reply
      • Andy Ryan says:

        My point is this: when asked for evidence that objective morality exists, apologists tend to point to human behaviour and human feelings and emotions. For example, our feelings about rape, or rules that society makes, or the way we all react to certain crimes.

        Now, when we in response offer biology, evolution, psychology, game theory etc as alternative explanations for the above phenomena – in other words SCIENTIFIC explanations, we are accused of trying to explain ethics through science, trying to create an ought from an is. This is an unfair – or false – accusation.

        We’re not saying science explains why rape is wrong, we’re saying that science explains the phenomena that is being offered by apologists as evidence for objective morality.

        As for whether rape is wrong, I don’t even know what apologists mean by ‘wrong’ any more. They say they mean something like ‘counter to the nature of God’. I’ll say this: my views on rape are unaffected by the views of any God. If a God appeared and said he approves of rape, I would still be against it. And if objective morality exists then for that to mean anything then things would be right or wrong regardless of the opinion or nature of a God or even the existence of a God.

        If you want a straight answer then I’ll say Yes, I believe rape is wrong. If you say that’s just my opinion then I’m afraid my opinion is the only one I can give. Even if I say I think that rape is OBJECTIVELY wrong, then it’s still basically my opinion that it’s objectively wrong. If someone says they don’t think rape is wrong then I’d figure their defininition of ‘wrong’ is different to mine.

        But either way, you can’t argue for the existence of objective morality just because of how deeply I feel something is wrong. You need to show an objective test for it that doesn’t rely on fallible human feelings.

        Reply
        • Kalmaro says:

          So far, all the scientific explanations I’ve heard for why any behavior could be seen as wrong really just describes how we may know of a reaction to events, like survival.

          I’ve yet to see anyone offer any evidence scientifically as to why something actually is wrong, and I think k that was the point of the author.

          I think everyone deep down knows of things that are objectively wrong but not everyone can agree that there is an actual objective morality, which is odd. It’s impossible to say anything is bad without some standard of good, and everyone operates as of there is some sort of standard whether they want to admit it or not.

          I think another point the author was making is how odd it is for people to make the claim that science is the only way to know anything but they can’t prove that scientifically.

          Reply
          • Andy Ryan says:

            And I’ve already explained that the author is making a category error if he thinks people are trying to explain scientifically WHY something is wrong. I’ve explained this above twice already. Can you tell me whether you actually understand my point?

            “I think everyone deep down knows of things…”

            How can you say they KNOW it rather than just think or believe it unless you have perfect knowledge yourself?

            “How odd it is for people to make the claim that science is the only way to know anything…”

            Who is making this claim? It sounds like a strawman to me.

          • Ed Vaessen says:

            Kalmaro:
            “I think everyone deep down knows of things that are objectively wrong but not everyone can agree that there is an actual objective morality, which is odd. It’s impossible to say anything is bad without some standard of good, and everyone operates as if there is some sort of standard whether they want to admit it or not.:

            We cannot say that we know deep down what is objectively wrong or right. We can only objectively conclude that rules against violence and theft are beneficial to a society as a whole in that sense that members of society generally feel more secure when these rules are upheld. But is it therefor objectively good? No. We cannot say that for sure.
            It is always possible to say something is bad. What that is, depends on what your standard of good is and for a large part that was taught to you by your surroundings. Everyone operates with his/her own standard in mind. There are people and societies that condemn homosexual behavior because they think it is bad for society. Their standard differs from people and societies where such behavior is regarded as a human right that does not affect society.

          • Kyle says:

            I tend to differ in that my view is that morality is subjective with respect to the society one lives in. Bear in mind the definition for a society can be somewhat fluid and hazily defined as well as there being multiple levels of societies and not being limited to how many someone might consider themselves in. You can see this in action with people who would vehemently oppose rape yet give prison rape a pass. When speaking of rape in general it is assumed that this happens to some innocent person making this act immoral. Once they have been convicted of a crime though, rape suddenly becomes a fair punishment.

  2. KR says:

    Paul Rezkalla wrote: “The claim ‘We can’t know anything unless we can verify it scientifically’ cannot, itself, be verified scientifically.”

    As has already been pointed out, people don’t tend to make that claim. However, I’m not aware of any other method of verifying claims about reality than empirical investigation – and without verification, how do we know that what we believe is true is actually true?

    “We believe that there are minds other than our own, the external world is real, and the past wasn’t created 5 minutes ago and given only the appearance of having aged as it did. These beliefs are what philosophers call properly basic beliefs. That means that they are foundational. We can’t show them to be true or false. We accept them as facts without question, but they cannot be proven by science.”

    If we can’t demonstrate these beliefs to be true, I don’t see how we can claim them to be facts – metaphysical or otherwise. It seems to me that they are assumptions, not facts. They may be very reasonable (and probably necessary) assumptions but assumptions nonetheless.

    “You can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. This means that observing and understanding how things are cannot tell us that this is the way things ought to be. Just because we observe that mammals help each other doesn’t tell us that we should help each other.”

    This misses the point. If our cooperative behaviour is the result of an evolutionary process, the “ought” simply dissolves. Mammals don’t help each other because they ought to, they do it because this is a functional behaviour in a population where individuals depend on each other for their survival. Everything else being equal, it provides a survival benefit over populations that don’t have the same level of social cohesion.

    “Well, maybe we can say that we ought to help each other because that increases human flourishing. Right? Ok, but that presupposes that human flourishing is good and should be striven towards. But why is increasing human flourishing good in the first place? Why should we pursue it?”

    There is no objective “ought” that compels us to survive, just actions and their consequences. If we humans collectively decide to behave in a non-functional and self-destructive way, there’s nothing to stop us from doing so. If we let it go on long enough, we will go extinct and that will be that. Personally, I would find this tragic but then that’s just my subjective, human-centric opinion. I doubt the surviving organisms on Earth would care much.

    “Science doesn’t tell us that rape is evil. Science can’t tell us that rape is evil. The value judgment, evil, lies beyond the scope of the scientific method. Sure, science can tell us that rape can have biological and psychological repercussions on individuals and societies, but to say that rape is evil is not something that science can do.”

    If by “evil” you mean objectively wrong, I don’t think there’s any such thing. There is a broad consensus view that rape is wrong (and there are good biological explanations for this) but how do you get from consensus to objectivity? These are the dots that proponents of objective morality never seem to connect. What about all the moral issues where there is no consensus? Can any proponent of objective morality provide an example of where such a moral conflict was resolved by one side demonstrating that their position was the objective one? If the claim is that there are “ethical facts” then this needs to be addressed. If these ethical facts are powerless to resolve moral conflicts then they are clearly unable to guide our behaviour and the question of their existence becomes moot, as they would be irrelevant whether they exist or not.

    To me it seems pretty obvious that moral conflicts are not resolved by any objective moral standards. What happens is that these conflicts are either worked out by force or by a democratic process, both of which are clearly inherently subjective outcomes. I find it interesting that people who believe that there are objective moral standards and that society should be guided by them apparently accept the democratic process of law-making (certain countries excluded, obviously). This seems inconsistent. The democratic process is all about opposing opinions slugging it out in various fora and eventually coming to a vote. It’s just about as subjective as it gets – and there’s no guarantee that the final result will align with any particular moral position or that the decision won’t be reversed at some point in the future. How can a proponent of objective moral standards support this?

    “Science can’t answer questions beyond those about the observable, testable world around us. Trying to do so is akin to using a yardstick to find the weight of a bucket of water. It won’t work because that isn’t the correct tool.”

    If the answer is not accessible to empirical investigation, how can we verify that the answer is true? If there is no reliable way to verify that the answer is true, then why should we accept it?

    A yardstick actually comes in pretty handy if you want to calculate the weight of the water in the bucket and know some basic geometry (like how to calculate the volume of a cylinder) and the density of water.

    Reply
  3. Luke says:

    The author wrote:: “Your face has no scientific evidence”
    The author wrote:: “Just a minute, buddy.”

    Is this a joke?

    I quite like the slide from “this cannot be proved scientifically” to “there’s no scientific evidence for that” almost as much as a movie quote intended as art recast as a epistemological argument to be believed.

    Reply

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