Modern culture esteems science as the preeminent means of understanding the world. If something cannot be established by science, then, according to many, it is either unknowable or simply a matter of personal faith.
While science is an undeniably important means of discovering truths about our world, and it has contributed greatly to human flourishing, it is unwarranted to claim that it’s the sole—or even the best—means of knowing truth.
In his excellent book, The Experience of God, philosopher David Bentley Hart provides a penetrating response to the claim that science is the sole means of knowing truth:
Quite a few otherwise intelligent men and women take it as established principle that we can know as true only what can be verified by empirical method of experimentation and observation. This is, for one thing, a notoriously self-refuting claim, inasmuch as it cannot itself be demonstrated to be true by any application of empirical method.
More to the point, though, it is transparent nonsense: most of the things we know to be true, often quite indubitably, do not fall within the realm of what can be tested by empirical methods; they are by their nature episodic, experiential, local, personal, intuitive, or purely logical. The sciences concern certain facts as organized by certain theories, and certain theories as constrained by certain facts; they accumulate evidence and enucleate hypotheses within very strictly limited paradigms; but they do not provide proofs of where reality begins or ends, or of what the dimensions of truth are. They cannot even establish their own working premises—the real existence of the phenomenal world, the power of the human intellect accurately to reflect that reality, the perfect lawfulness of nature, its mathematical regularity, and so forth—and should not seek to do so, but should confine themselves to the truths to which their methods give them access.
They should also recognize what the boundaries of the scientific rescript are. There are, in fact, truths of reason that are far surer than even the most amply supported findings of empirical science because such truths are not, as those findings must always be, susceptible of later theoretical revision; and then there are truths of mathematics that are subject to proof in the most proper sense and so are more irrefutable still. And there is no single discourse of truth as such, no single path to the knowledge of reality, no single method that can exhaustively define what knowledge is, no useful answer whose range has not been limited in advance by the kinds of questions that prompted them.
The failure to realize this can lead only to the delusions of the kind expressed in, for example, G.G. Simpson’s self-parodying assertion that all attempts to define the meaning of life or the nature of humanity made before 1859 are not entirely worthless, or in Peter Atkin’s ebulliently absurd claims that modern science can “deal with every aspect of existence” and that it has never in fact “encountered a barrier.” Not only do sentiments of this sort verge upon the deranged, they are nothing less than violent assaults upon the truth dignity of science.
Science is an unbelievably value means of knowing the world. We should never downplay its significance. But, as Hart points out, we should avoid the temptation to overplay its significance as well.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 18 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.
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