A go-to line from secularists and critics of Christianity and faith is that science is where it’s at in terms of getting real answers to the biggest questions about life and existence in the universe. They maintain that science is able to accurately tell us all we need to know about life’s biggest questions, while religion is just gussied up superstition.
But is this really true? Can science actually provide us with the answer to everything? The confidence of those who assert it can is as large as it is wrong. This outsized belief in the ability of science is called scientism and it is important we all understand its limits.
Late last month, professor Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College, published a brief and important essay explaining the practical limits of science in answering some of humanity’s largest questions about life, reality, and existence. His piece is as interesting as it is humble.
What Is the Universe Made Of?
Right out of the gate, Gleiser explains that science still has far more questions than answers about the fundamental nature of the universe itself. The professor explains that for all the remarkable progress science has made of late, “we know only 5% of the composition of the Universe.” He adds, “The mystery is the other 95%, composed of dark matter (roughly 27%) and dark energy (roughly 68%).” Gleiser confesses science’s agnosticism here,
We don’t know what dark matter or dark energy are, and there are hypothetical explanations that try to modify Einstein’s theory of gravity to accommodate the observations and do away with the darkness.
He concludes that “after decades of searching, we [scientists] remain quite ignorant.” That is refreshing admission.
How Did Life Come About?
As cock-sure confident as some evolutionists and secularists are about the origins of life, Gleiser admits science has no real, final answers. He acknowledges “the mystery here is how aggregates of nonliving atoms gathered into progressively more complex molecules that eventually became the first living entity, a chemical machine capable of metabolism and reproduction.” The complexity of life is too complex for science.
And what about the seeming orderliness of life, the fact that things grow with intention and in reasonableness, evidenced in the regular seasons of life and nature that we all enjoy? How does that happen? Gleiser tells us “The fact that living matter is matter with intentionality remains a profound mystery” to science.
Elsewhere, Gleiser explains that the very question of what life actually is defies science because it bleeds into arenas outside science’s scope. After all, the word “animal” for living creatures comes from the Latin anima which means “soul.”
What Makes Us Human?
The next big question professor Gleiser tells us science has been unable to answer is this: What makes humans truly different from the animals?
He explains our DNA is almost identical to gorillas, but we have three times as many neurons and our development is far more advanced than any animal. Why is this? If all life evolved or originated from one source, what caused humans to become so distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom? To date, he admits, science has no plausible and definitive answer to this very important question. Only questions.
What Is Consciousness?
Consciousness is so basic to our being that we are often not even aware of it. It just is, but that is is what allows you to read and consider this very sentence. Without consciousness, life as we know and experience it as humans would not be possible. It is our most basic operating system for being human. But science has so far failed to adequately answer the question of how human consciousness developed, but also what it actually is. Dr. Gleiser asks,
How is it that the brain generates the self of self, the unique experience that we have of being unique? And why is there a consciousness at all? What is its evolutionary purpose, if any?
Science is unable to answer this question because consciousness cannot be observed and tested.
Why Does Matter Exist?
Like consciousness for human experience, the interrogation of why matter exists is the basic question for the physical world. And again, science has no satisfactory answer.
Matter itself is a conundrum for science because according to the laws of physics, “each particle of matter – each electron, proton, neutron – should have a companion of antimatter, like twins.” But it doesn’t.
Gleiser explains “the mystery is what happened to this antimatter” and science has “been trying to figure this one out for decades with no great success.”
So, science is stuck with its own serious and intractable mysteries. Any good philosopher of science will admit this. The proposition that science is the one sure way to all knowledge is a religious dogma of scientism.
Yes, religious faith has many unanswered questions too. It trades in mystery and has limits in its own knowledge. Just like science.
This shortcoming of science is not a criticism of science because it is a remarkable tool allowing humans to understand much about ourselves and the larger world. Science actually arises out of a Christian worldview where it is understood that God created an orderly universe that operates reasonably. We do not know for sure that we will be given our next breath or tomorrow’s sunrise, but it is a very reasonable assertion that we will because of the orderliness of nature. Creation is far more reliable than it is capricious, and Christianity brought that understanding to the world out of paganism.
But science cannot do everything. It has profound strengths to be sure. But it also has its very real limitations, just like everything else, save for God. And anyone who claims science reliably answers all our most pressing questions demonstrates they are not a dutiful student of the discipline.
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