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Does science have all the answers?
David H. Bailey
Updated 23 December 2018 (c) 2018
Several prominent scholars, often collectively named the "new atheists," declare, without a firm philosophical foundation, that science is, or soon will be, all-encompassing, and, by implication, religion will soon wither away and disappear. For example, atheist scholar Sam Harris writes in his 2004 book The End of Faith, that "Science will not remain mute on spiritual and ethical questions for long" [Harris2004, pg. 43]. Similarly, the late Christopher Hitchens writes "Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important" [Hitchens2007, pg. 282].
Perhaps the strongest expression of this viewpoint is by prominent biologist Richard Dawkins, whom the present author greatly admires for his lucid writings in biology (and quotes him in several occasion in these articles), even though he believes he is mistaken on matters of theology. For example, Dawkins appears to be completely convinced that science is all-encompassing, such as in these excerpts from his recent book The God Delusion [Dawkins2006, pg. 70, 73, 82, 155]:
Either [God] exists or he doesn't. It is a scientific question: one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability. ... God's existence or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe, discoverable in principle if not in practice. ... The presence or absence of a creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question, even if it is not in practice -- or not yet -- a decided one. ... There is a perfectly good explanation [for a scientifically inexplicable phenomenon]. It is just that I am too naive, or too unobservant, or too unimaginative, to think of it.
Difficulties with the all-encompassing philosophy
Needless to say, there are a number of difficulties with such views, some of which are described in other articles in this collection. To begin with, these authors insist that religion be treated as a scientific hypothesis, to be tested by empirical methods and rejected if found wanting. But the overwhelming majority of science-religion philosophers disagree with this premise. As Catholic philosopher John Haught observes, "thinking of God as a hypothesis reduces the infinite divine mystery to a finite scientific cause, and to worship anything finite is idolatrous" [Haught2008, pg. 43]. Anglican philosopher Keith Ward notes that "the question of God is certainly a factual one, but certainly not a scientific one." Instead, "[i]t lies at the very deep level of ultimate metaphysical options" [Ward2008, pg. 30].
Historian Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God, points out that only in the modern era have theologians or philosophers begun to treat God as a scientific explanation [Armstrong2009, pg. 304]:
[Dawkins] is also wrong to claim that God is a scientific hypothesis, that is, a conceptual framework for bringing intelligibility to a series of experiments and observations. It was only in the modern period that theologians started to treat God as a scientific explanation and in the process produced an idolatrous God concept.
This underlying worldview is often known as "scientific materialism" or "scientism," namely the belief that physical reality, as made available to the natural sciences, is all that truly exists [Haught2010, pg. 48]. It is clear that there is little room for religion in this philosophical system, since religion involves faith in unseen and presumably empirically untestable entities. But religion is not the only victim of this worldview. If we fully accept scientific materialism, we would also have to discard art, literature, music, and many other fields of human endeavor that are essential aspects of our modern world.
Even worse, this same worldview can be turned around and aimed at the philosophy of scientific materialism, with even more coherence. As Catholic philosopher John Haught explains [Haught2008, pg. 45]:
But if faith in God requires independent scientific confirmation, what about the colossal faith our new atheists place in science itself? Exactly what are the independent scientific experiments, we might ask, that could provide "evidence" for the hypothesis that all true knowledge must be based on the paradigm of scientific inquiry? If faith requires independent confirmation, what is the independent (nonfaith) method of demonstrating that their own faith in the all-encompassing cognitional scope of science is reasonable?
Difficulties with Dawkins' approach
One additional difficulty has been pointed out by religious scholar Jason Blum. As he noted in a 2012 analysis of Dawkins' book, Dawkins falls prey to the same difficulty that theism falls when, after taking an excessively ambitious position, it must qualify this position repeatedly until the position becomes vacuous. Blum recalls a parable that originally appeared in an essay by British philosopher John Wisdom, and has been retold by others, notably Andrew Flew. In this parable, two men observe that a garden appears to have been tended in their absence, but after a series of experiments -- bloodhounds, barbed wire, and an electric fence -- fail to detect any gardener, the believer still insists that the gardener is there, but is invisible, intangible, silent and otherwise resistant to such tests. Then the skeptic asks how the believer's gardener is materially different from an imaginary gardener or no gardener at all.
In a similar way, Blum points out that Dawkins' repeated qualifications of the testability of science's all-encompassing nature, such as his claim that God's existence or the presence of a creative super-intelligence is "unequivocally a scientific question," even if "it is not in practice," or when he declares that he is possibly "too naive or too unobservant, or too unimaginative" to think of a conventional scientific explanation, threatens to render his view of science into a vacuous and meaningless philosophical position. As Blum observes, "Under this formulation, 'science' becomes bloated to the immensity of encompassing virtually all inquiries, and the category of the 'natural' comes to include virtually all subjects by becoming bereft of any specific meaning." [Blum2012].
In summary, the claim by some scholars and scientists that science is absolutely all-encompassing, and that there is no need in modern thought for religion, is a philosophically indefensible position. No "experiment" can be devised to falsify or even rigorously test such a position. And while some (including the present author) are optimistic that scientific methods might lend some useful insights into topics, such as ethics, morality, the raising of children and the ultimate reasons for human existence, topics that heretofore have been largely left to the realm of religion, such scientific results are not yet in hand, and it is not clear that science will ever be able to provide truly all-encompassing, fundamental answers in these areas.
So while both science and religion may both have the ultimate goal of encompassing all truth, for the time being each would do well to humbly accept its own limitations, and not presume that the other has no important role in the modern world. For additional discussion, see
Atheists, God hypothesis, Scientific materialism and Religion fade away.