What Science Can’t Do

Mark Beuving —  January 23, 2012 — 6 Comments

Science is all-powerful. There is nothing it can’t explore, nothing it can’t explain, no problem that it can’t solve. At least, this is what the Western world has believed since the Scientific Revolution. But is it true?

Though science and religion are constantly billed as opponents, they actually can, should, and often do work hand in hand. In fact, modern science began as Christians (along with non-Christians working within the consensus of the Christian worldview) began to explore the world that God had made, believing that since the Creator was rational and orderly, the universe could be explored and understood. Science can help us understand the world that God made, and thus understand more about the amazing mind of God. When each discipline is properly understood and interpreted, science and religion work together for the glory of God.

Yet science has become something of an idol in our day. Science is seen as infallible. Whatever science says goes. This is problematic because science is often used in ways that are, well, unscientific.

I want to point out three things that science can’t do and draw out some of the implications of this.

Science can’t…

  1. Tell us the purpose of anything.
  2. Give us the meaning of life.
  3. Provide us with moral standards.

Science can tell us more than we ever wanted to know about human anatomy, it can describe what makes up the heart and the brain and how these fascinating organs function, but it can not tell us the purpose of a person. To describe the purpose of something implies a knowledge of the reason it was made the way it was. Science can tell us a lot about the way a human being works, but it cannot tell us the intent behind the design of a human being. (It attempts to do this using evolutionary theory, but a nonrational force such as “natural selection” (which isn’t really a force at all), can’t have  a purpose behind anything it does).

Similarly, science can’t tell us the meaning of life. It can describe and categorize life and our experience with the world, but it cannot explain what it all means. People try to use science to tell us that the world is an accident, that life has no meaning, but these types of determinations are outside of the jurisdiction of science. These are metaphysical questions, not scientific questions.

Finally, science cannot give us morals. Morality is all about what a person should do. Science can tell us what is, but it cannot tell us what ought to be. Science is a discipline of description, not prescription. Thus a scientist can tell us how people behave, but he or she cannot justifiably tell another human being that one attitude or action is wrong or that another is right.

Yet people often try to use science to tell us these things. When they do this, they are using science as a smokescreen to make metaphysical statements. This is simply unfair. Science is helpful when used properly, but when it is used to make determinations that are beyond its scope, it becomes a means of control.

So let’s continue to pursue science, but let’s be cautious of “scientific” statements that go beyond the realm of science. Science can help us to understand the world we live in and to solve some of the problems we face (though we have to acknowledge that science is constantly causing new problems), but only the Maker can tell us the meaning of the world He created. Only God can tell us how we should behave. Only He can give us the purpose of our existence.

Of course, we have always known this to be true. But when enough authoritative voices tell us that we can only believe that which can be scientifically proven (a statement, by the way, which cannot be scientifically proven), we begin to doubt the obvious. And claiming to be wise, we become fools.

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Mark Beuving

Mark Beuving

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Mark Beuving currently serves as Associate Pastor at Creekside Church in Rocklin, CA. Prior to going back into pastoral ministry, Mark spent ten years on staff at Eternity Bible College as a Campus Pastor, Dean of Students, and then Associate Professor. Mark now teaches online adjunct for Eternity. He is passionate about building up the body of Christ, training future leaders for the Church, and writing. Though he is interested in many areas of theology and philosophy, Mark is most fascinated with practical theology and exploring the many ways in which the Bible can speak to and transform our world. He is the author of "Resonate: Enjoying God's Gift of Music" and the co-author with Francis Chan of "Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples." Mark lives in Rocklin with his wife and two daughters.
  • Luke Parkitny

    I will keep my reply as short as possible due to time constraints and also to make the main points without adding undue decoration.

    “Should people be held morally accountable for their actions?”

    Again, I would point out that we unfairly compartmentalise the idea of what philosophy and what science is. Science begins with a question and a hypothesis. This is based on prior knowledge and assumptions. Then, through the process of science we objectively examine the hypothesis. If enough evidence suggests that the hypothesis is correct and if it all gels with other theories (e.g. biological plausibility, laws of physics, etc) then we accept that the hypothesis is true. If the hypothesis is not true we discard it or we make a paradigm shift (a la Thomas Kuhn). However, to make a paradigm shift, the new theory has to be a better or simpler explanation than the one it replaces.
    How does this relate to morality? We have a concept of what is good for people. If you ask people what they want their life to be like there will be many common themes – there is an idea of what a good life is (I am borrowing this idea heavily from the one Sam Harris makes). I think that it is silly to claim that these ideas purely arise from evolutionary processes; they provide us with the tools but not the actions of those tools (as a crude analogy imagine a computer which is essentially a complex calculator but can also play music, create art, etc). Evolution provides the brain/body and with certain social characteristics that are beneficial. But the outcome of the complexity of the human body is such that we are basically epiphenomena machines (this is not strictly the best way of putting it but it will do as a short cut).

    So firstly, we can use all our available powers to create a world than encompasses morals acceptable to us.These powers include trial and error – I think people forget that most of our history has involved trial and error – it has not always been a rigid process of “science”. We have made many mistakes in “morality” and have been titrating throughout history; this includes the religions who are hardly fixed in what they believe to be right and wrong and have been as responsible for tragedy and for good as the rest of society. If someone infringes on those morals that we have decided will lead to the continuation of society, we then always use science to determine if they should be held accountable. Think of the defense by insanity, or why we do not jail animals, why we treat juvenile offenders differently; all this arises out of science that tells us certain things about the brains and the development of those people/creatures. Of course, we ultimately decide whether we accept that as a “defense” on the basis of those scientific findings.

    I have to finish but I will make one final point that ties into what I said above.

    At the heart of the process of science lies the idea of objectivity. Yes, there are assumptions but those assumptions have to hold up to scrutiny. Yes, science can change our decision when the evidence mounts against a theory, but this is a positive thing! It means that we can make progress. On the other hand, faith based morality (actually I would argue that it is law not morality and that laws can be immoral) is open to interpretation and IS interpreted by people. After all the definition of faith IS anything that is not proven. Anything not open to objective scrutiny is open to bias (this does not guarantee that the outcome is biased but it makes it highly probable). For instance, there are people in this world who hear voices (we call them schizophrenics), or think that even though they have a disability they are in fact healthy (anosognosia) – we can even induce changes in people’s perception of their bodies (see the work by Ramachandran, Moseley, etc). We can make people have spiritual feelings by zapping their temporal cortex or just watching people with temporal epilepsy (one of the theories raised to explain for what Joan of Arc went through). Our impressions of the world are frequently wrong. If we do not test “faith-based” ideas (I mean ANY kind of belief here) – how do we know that they are not wrong? The answer is not that the beliefs have been around for a long time because for a very long time we thought the earth was flat or that Zeus ruled the world! For some, faith may be enough. But for science (for the very reasons of bias, etc) those ideas must be challenged – and this is why science IS important when looking at morality. It cannot tell us what ought to be (because this assumes that there is a universal “ought” handed down to people) but it can tell us what probably “ought to be to create a certain society”.
    Last word: philosophy creates ideas. Science tests them. Thales was a great man in the history of science but we no longer think that all is from water.

  • Luke Parkitny


    Thank you for engaging.

    Firstly, my actual belief regarding this matter is irrelevant and I deliberately did not specify what my belief/s is/are. The basic foundations of my points lie in logic. For instance, I may have faith in what you say (or not) but still question the treatise from the basic principles of argumentation.

    I’ll begin with a small additional point with respect to: “people try to use science to tell us that the world is an accident, that life has no meaning”. Good scientists do not “use science to” do anything. Good scientists use evidence obtained through the scientific process to make arguments. A failure of people is not a failure of the process. I am sure that you would not disagree. However if we introduce science into an investigation, I believe that we should rely on the weight of its evidence to make conclusions. If we do not want to use science to discover answers and already have a different conclusion in mind then we should not attempt to use science in the first place; however, any resulting conclusion is subject to the accusation of bias, etc.

    Now, to come back to your points.

    On the first point: If indeed there is a “greater purpose” than what can be investigated by science then that will always remain a question of faith (which you probably will not argue with). But, in this case, science is not just something that cannot answer all questions but, in fact, something that is dangerous as it deceives us about the reality of the world. One problem with this is that ultimately people will continue to disagree for all eternity. But if it is true that we cannot ever find evidence to explain our world then so be it; humanity will always be split into the believers and the non-believers.

    On the second point: I apologise if I implied that you argued against meaning. My point was simply that science cannot tell us the meaning of our lives but it can provide us with WHY we find meaning in certain things (there is good literature explaining the evolutionary basis of altruism, for example). Every faith and philosophy has described some version of the “meaning” for our being. But, if there is something that acts beyond science in this respect, then there is nothing that will prove this “thing’s” existence. In this case some of us claim that there is a primary meaning and others claim that (and are comfortable with) meaning is secondary and can arise from some primary characteristics and behaviours that are, in fact, primary.

    On the third point: This is/ought thing has been hotly debated so I won’t add boring repetition into this blog.

    Lastly, again thanks for the response. My main aim was to clarify what science is and to address the need for the assumptions in your argument (and I am sure that most of the readers here are comfortable with those assumptions). I also wanted to particularly remind the readers (although this is probably not necessary) that science is a process (a way of going about things) that allows us to test our assumptions and manages (to a reasonable extent, if done well) to account for our natural biases (here, think of logical biases, placebo, etc).
    If there is such a thing that is “beyond science” (beyond the natural world) then you are correct; we will never know of this thing, as science is a process of enquiry that allows us to gather evidence for the existence of something. If science is incapable of being used to gather such evidence then we reach a situation where some will go with science and some will go with faith. The latter see science as limited and the former see the others’ evidence as arising from the natural biases of the human mind. This will probably never be resolved.

    In conclusion, your stance is correct if we assume that something exists that cannot be proven (scientifically). My stance is correct in the absence of such proof. But, in science evidence is required for the presence but not for the absence of something. So we reach an impasse if the presence cannot be proven in a way that is uniformly agreed as being scientific.
    Problematically (for those without such faith or, if you will indulge me, the objective onlooker) this means that whichever philosophy happens to be ingrained in people (christian, buddhist, islamic, wiccan, etc) will form the basis of their understanding of the world and thus there would appear not to be a single “way of the world”.

    It’s always fascinating to debate, and learn, how we view the world so thanks for the opportunity.

    • Mark Beuving


      I’m glad you’re sticking with this.

      As to your “additional point,” I am not at all suggesting that science has somehow failed. I am saying that the scientific process is helpful for describing what we see in the world around us, but that the scientific method cannot be used to make philosophical statements. How does the universe work? Science can help us understand that. Should people be held morally accountable for their actions? That question falls under the heading of ethics, philosophy, religion, etc. You cannot frame such a question as a hypothesis that is testable, repeatable, verifiable. I haven’t heard you address this aspect of my argument yet, and I’d love to hear what your take on it is.

      I think I’m with you on the “first point.” It’s not that matters of finding the purpose of things is irrelevant, it’s simply that science cannot (and when properly defined, does not claim to be able to) speak to the purpose of things. Also note that I did not say that we cannot find evidence for the purpose of the world, only that science will not answer these questions for us. Here is where fundamental beliefs necessarily enter the picture (I have fundamental assumptions about reality, just as everyone else does). I believe that the world is ordered and beautiful, and that this ordered beauty points to a Creator. I believe that it is reasonable for this Creator to have spoken to us, and I find ample reason to believe that the Bible is His recorded communication to us. So my view of the world is then shaped by what this Creator has said to me. I think it’s important to be honest about the assumptions we’re making. But note that we have left the realm of scientific verification, and have entered the world of metaphysics. I don’t believe that this makes these assertions less true, I simply believe that it leaves the jurisdiction of science. The Western world has so idolized science that we have come to believe that if it can’t be established through the scientific method, then it can’t be true. Not so. The belief that everything must be established through the scientific method is a philosophical belief, and it cannot be established through the scientific method.

      I also think I’m with you on “point two,” but you seem to be equating “science” with “evolutionary theory.” Let me know if this is not the case. I absolutely agree that Darwinists, along with people from every religion and worldview on earth find meaning and morals in the world around them. My only point is that their assertion of meaning is not BASED on science—it is not scientifically derived—but rather they enter the realm of philosophy in order to explain why people are altruistic. To a certain extent, social science can verify the existence of altruism using an imperfect form of the scientific method (human behavior isn’t as easy to test as the rate of acceleration for falling objects), but they cannot use any form of the scientific method to say WHY people are altruistic. This is a philosophical question that requires a philosophical answer. And again, that does not make the answer less true or important, it just means that the answer lies outside of science, so we shouldn’t pretend that our answers are scientific.

      Finally, with reference to your conclusion, there is much that you said that I agree with. I would just add the caution that nobody, NOBODY, gets to make the choice of whether they are going to answer questions purely on the basis of science, or on the basis of science and faith. In reality, there is much we can learn from science, but we all make faith-based decisions all of the time. Science is impossible without philosophy. We cannot interpret the findings of science without making use of philosophy. And here is where we are in most agreement: People absolutely interpret those findings in differing ways—that is why people have differing worldviews. My caution is that we see science for what it truly is (and what it is is important and helpful), yet be honest when we are stepping outside of the realm of what can be examined through the scientific method and enter the realm of philosophy, ethics, religion, etc. Unfortunately, many are not honest about this or aware of the distinction, so people make metaphysical claims in the name of science.

      Thanks again for weighing in Luke. It’s always helpful to be more specific, more clear, and to consider these things in depth.

  • Mark Beuving

    Luke, thanks for stopping by. I’m pretty sure you’ve missed the point I was trying to make.

    1) You are certainly entitled to the belief that what we find in the universe is purposeless, but that is not something you can determine through the scientific method. That was the point I was making. You can use science to evaluate what a tree might be useful for, but you cannot use science to state why a tree was brought into existence. I believe that there is a purpose for everything, including trees, but I don’t claim to have discovered that purpose through science (hence the title of the post). I believe that everything has a purpose on the basis of God’s revelation, and that is an area that science simply cannot speak to.

    2) I wasn’t arguing that people don’t need meaning in order to live fulfilled lives. I absolutely believe that people need meaning. And that is why everyone wrestles to find meaning throughout their lives. Again, my only point was that science can not establish the meaning of life. It can describe life, it can even describe man’s need for meaning, but it cannot establish that meaning. Once again, I believe that the meaning of life is found in God, and that people who reject God spend their lives trying to replace that ultimate meaning with other things. Both Romans 1 and the entirety of Ecclesiastes describe this search for meaning beautifully. So again: yes, we need meaning; no, science cannot provide meaning.

    3) I think you understood me here. Yes, science can offer DESCRIPTION, but again, it cannot offer prescription. You simply cannot examine WHAT IS and through that examination make determinations about WHAT SHOULD BE.

    I hope you understand that I’m not trying to denigrate science in the least. I am simply pointing out that science must be understood properly.

  • Luke Parkitny

    Interesting. I would like to point out some flaws in the argument.

    Firstly, that science cannot tell us the purpose of anything. An assumption is made that there is a purpose for people’s existence. It is not obvious that there is a purpose; perhaps everything is a by-product of the particular state in which we find the universe. Perhaps the only “reason for us being” is that the particular conditions have led to us being here. That there is a purpose presupposes a grand design and we thus end up in a circular argument that goes like this: there is a grand design which requires us to be there as we are part of the plan and thus there is a purpose for us being here which proves a grand design is in place.

    Secondly, “to give us the meaning of life” assumes that either there is a grand meaning that is imposed on our lives from above or that we are not capable of finding meaning in our own lives. We can use, for example, psychology, evolutionary theory, and neuroscience to argue why people NEED meaning in their lives but that meaning may simply be a byproduct of our needs (for example the need for social acceptance, propagation of our genes, etc). The meaning that one draws for one’s life is very valid regardless of its origins however that meaning may merely emanate from us and the context for our existence.

    Thirdly, the argument that science cannot “provide us with moral standards” would require a longer argument than I can engage in at the moment; currently there is the well known Sam Harris book which raises some interesting points around this issue. But, in short, science does not PROVIDE morals as science is merely a tool that can be used to establish WHY we may have certain ideas about what is and is not good. Thus, strictly speaking the above argument against science is correct on this point but not for the reason that the author deems it to be. But again, psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary theories do provide some good suggestions as to why certain ideas of what is and is not good may exist.

  • Jeff Steele

    Here’s another fun one: Science can’t even tell us what counts as science–that’s a philosophical question!