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The Limits of Science: What Science Can’t Do

June 29, AD2018 0 Comments

deismWho hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?
—Isaiah 40:12 (KJV)

To answer the question “To be or not to be?’ we cannot turn to a science textbook.
–Fr. Stanley Jaki, “The Limits of a Limitless Science”


Science  has done what Isaiah said man can’t do, “meted out the heavens in a span…”   Despite this, Fr. Jaki’s aphorism on what science can’t do clearly sets a limit. However, in order to appreciate fully such limits, we have to understand how science works.  I’ve discussed this topic at length in the web-book “Truth Cannot Contradict Truth, ESSAY 2: How We Believe; How Science Works.”   I’ll  summarize this below.

Lakatos “Research Progamme” for Science. The black arrows show how more fundamental quantities determine less fundamental ones, e.g “Inner Core Principles” must be adhered to in “Fundamental and Auxiliary Theories;”  the red arrows show feedback from data to modify principles and theories.
By Robert Kurland


The most comprehensive scheme and, to my mind, the one that best matches actual scientific practice is that of Imre Lakatos, depicted in the image at the right. Note  these elements of the scheme: a network of hypotheses AND experimental data.  Such a combination of theory and data requires that predictions or explanations made by models and theory must be validated empirically, if the theory or model is to be truly part of science. Measurements must be replicable, which is to say that essentially the same results are required, for whichever team does the measurement or performs the experiment.

The conclusion: scientific theories and hypotheses have to be verified empirically (and reproducible, that is to say, by different studies).


Fr. Stanley Jaki has put more stringent requirements on science:

Science…is synonymous with measurements, which are accurate because they can be expressed in numbers. Those numbers relate to tangible or material things, or rather to their spatial extensions or correlations with one another in a given moment or as time goes on.
—Fr. Stanley Jaki, The Limits of a Limitless Science,” Asbury Theological Journal 54 (1999), p.24

This need for numerical assessment strikes out disciplines which most people would regard as science—biology, geology, paleontology, and such. Here I would have to disagree with Fr. Jaki: abduction and retroduction can be used to assess non-numerical data rigorously. A fine example is the development of the tectonic plate theory. It started in 1915 with the continental drift hypothesis of Alfred Wegener, based on the matching coastline shapes of western Africa and Eastern South America, and the striking similarity of strata and fossils on the two coasts. In the 1960’s seismographic data showed that continents and ocean floors rested on vast tectonic plates which were vehicles for continental drift. So, both qualitative and quantitative evidence entered into validation of the theory.


A much more important limit to science has been set by Fr. Jaki:

Hamlet’s question, ‘to be or not to be,’ has a meaning even deeper than whether an act is moral or immoral. That deeper meaning is not merely whether there is a life after death. The deepest perspective opened up by that question is reflection on existence in general. In raising the question, ‘to be or not to be,’ one conveys one’s ability to ponder existence itself. In fact every bit of knowledge begins with the registering of something that exists. To know is to register existence. But this is precisely what science cannot do, simply because existence as such cannot be measured.[emphasis added].”
—loc. Cit., p.30.

What this means is that science can not explain itself. Science can not show why it gives us a partial picture of the world expressed mathematically, or to use the Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner’s apt phrase, science can not explain “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” by an underlying scientific theory. The only justification for this success is empirical—it works!

Therefore science cannot answer questions about religion. It cannot neither prove nor disprove the existence of a Godhead, nor the existence of the Trinity. Thus, to say that science “proves” the existence of God, is as much an error as saying it disproves that God exists. We can only say that all that we learn about our world from science is in accord with that world which an omniscient and omnipotent God would create.


Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Retired, cranky, old physicist. Convert to Catholicism in 1995. Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith. Intermittent blogs at Rational Catholic and adult education classes here to achieve this end. Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC. Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group. And, finally, my motivation: “It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking. Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.” St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.

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