Can Science Answer Everything?

I’m a huge science nerd.  Anyone who knows me or reads this blog can attest to that.  Of the books I read last year, half of them were science books: biology, cosmology, psychology, neuroscience, physics, etc.  Science is a passion for me and a field that I advocate for and encourage others to also pursue.  Unfortunately, I seem to be in the minority; only 28 percent of American adults currently qualify as scientifically literate.  It seems most people in our society are ignorant of the most basic facts of science, the scientific method, and how far we’ve come in understanding the world around us.

Now, I understand that learning about quantum mechanics, string theory, and multiverses may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I firmly believe that a very basic understanding of science should be common knowledge.  Science affects nearly every aspect of our daily lives, from the food we eat, to the medicines we take, to the computers we work on; science is at work all around us.  Yet, most people you talk to don’t understand the significance of peer-review.

This becomes apparent anytime there’s a debate in which science is brought up, particularly when the topic centers around religion.  As someone who regularly invokes science whenever religion is on the table, one of the most common responses I get is – “Well, science can’t answer everything!”  This is generally employed as a discussion-stopper; a last ditch, hail-Mary attempt to change the course of discussion.  The implication being, of course, that since science can’t explain it, then God/religion can.  I want to unpack this oft used defense and explain why I believe it is fallacious argument and needs a rebuttal whenever possible.

First, people who claim “science can’t answer everything” generally have no idea what science can and cannot answer.  Science has made some incredible discoveries in the last several decades and continues to make new discoveries almost daily.  One could spend hours trying to keep track of new insights being gained through the numerous scientific fields.  Unfortunately, our public education system also lags behind in providing students with accurate and current information.

So, I understand if people are uninformed about the latest scientific findings; but don’t then presume to know what the limits of science are.  When it comes to the topics of dispute with theists, I’ve yet to encounter one that science doesn’t have an answer for; if not an evidence-backed theory, at least a working, plausible hypothesis.  When it comes to our daily existence, science does provide us with many adequate answers.  A quick Google search is generally all that’s required to find out if science has an explanation for “X”.

Second, the use of the word “can’t” is problematic.  Look back at what life was like for people living in the 1800’s and compare it to today.  Read up on all the discoveries about the universe that we’ve made in only the last 100 years.  Things that only a century ago would have been considered unknowable are now common knowledge.  The amount of progress humanity has made in such a short period is truly remarkable.  It would be unwise to put limits on scientific discovery.  

There remains a multitude of questions that scientists have about the universe and for every new discovery, new questions arise.  But to state emphatically that science “can’t” provide an answer is imprudent.  A better way to say it would be that science “hasn’t yet” found an answer.  I have no doubt that many of the big questions we all have will be answered in the next century – what caused the Big Bang?  How did life arise on Earth?  Are we alone in the Universe? – just to name a few.

Lastly, by using “science can’t explain everything” as a reason for believing in a God, you are committing a logical fallacy.  Known as the “God of the Gaps” fallacy, it happens whenever a theist tries to establish “God” as the answer to a question that science hasn’t come to a consensus on.  By stating that science can’t explain everything, the implication is that God and/or their religion can.  Until evidence for said god is given however, and clear indications as to how it was done, “God” is not a reasonable answer.

Another fallacy related to this, is when theists assert that if a scientific theory is proven false, then their theory, i.e. “God” is automatically true.  This is what’s known as a False Dilemma – assuming that there are only two correct answers.  Let’s say for example, that evolution is falsified; that does not automatically make creationism right.  Creationists still have to come up with scientific evidence to support their claims.

In his book Everybody is Wrong About God, James A. Lindsay posits that the need for explanations, or the need to attribute cause, is one of the fundamental psychological needs that a god-belief provides people.  He states, “A particularly ugly problem regarding attributional frameworks including ‘God’ is that it isn’t only when we lack natural explanations that we resort to religious ones; it also occurs when the natural explanations before us are too threatening to our deeper psychological needs.”  By claiming a belief in a god based on scientific ignorance, theists are hanging their faith on a very fragile thread, or as Neil deGrasse Tyson calls it – “an every receding pocket of scientific ignorance that’s getting smaller and smaller as time goes on.”

There’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know”.  To quote Lindsay again, “Honest doubt and frank ignorance are vastly superior to pretending to know or believing for the sake of believing, so far as intellectual virtues go.”  

Science is the most reliable and currently the only method we have of understanding the natural world.  Who knows what new and wondrous discoveries await us in the future?  And as we discover more and more about the universe we live in, the less people will feel the need to rely on mythological explanations.  Thanks for reading.

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