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Scientific Truth Isn't the Only Truth

Science is just one particular, organised way of asking questions about the world, and looking for answers. It can only speak about certain things, and in certain ways - things you can measure by controlled experiment and repeat time and again. It splits complex phenomena into small enough parts to be examined, deduces hypotheses, and tests them. Within bounds like these, it is extremely successful. Outside them, it is silent. That’s one of the reasons why it’s silly to write off miracles as “unscientific”. Science can only test things that can be reproduced. By definition, miracles are unrepeatable events, so science simply has nothing it can say about them, one way or the other.

And it’s easy to exaggerate the “truth” of the latest scientific theory, to the point when it becomes almost holy writ. But theories are provisional. They are apt to change, open to being proved false as well as shown to be “true”. Some theories simply don’t survive, like the flat earth, and even the most fundamental ones change. And it’s not all cold logic. Some of the most important like quantum theory have required great imaginative leaps. Speculation and intuition both play a part, especially in the grand framework theories, like evolution and cosmology. And theories can only describe what we might expect to happen, consistent with the data currently available. They can never prescribe what must happen. Science is a detective, not a law enforcer.

Science is very good at solving problems but it won’t tell you what to do with the answers. It may discover something remarkable like the energy in an atomic nucleus, but it won’t tell you whether to make a bomb out of it, a nuclear power station, a cancer treatment or to leave it alone. A few years ago, science was seen as the great hope for the future of mankind. The environmental crisis now suggests that without some values to guide and restrain it, it could be the end of humankind. Many are saying if that is the product of a purely scientific view of the world, it’s high time we had another one.

Science has limits. It can brilliantly answer “how” questions, but it has no way to address “why” questions, like “Why is the universe there at all?”, or “Why is the universe so orderly that we can do science?”, let alone “Why is there so much suffering?” or “What is the meaning of life?” or “Who am I?” That would be going way off the graph paper of what science itself can talk about, into realms where you have no measurable data or controlled experiments.

Different ways of knowing

Many people have often made the mistake of assuming that once you’ve explained something in scientific terms, that’s all it is. If you can explain something religious using science, you’ve “explained it away”. Imagine two people walking along a cliff top. Out at sea, suddenly a bright red flare shoots across the sky. One of them is physicist, who happens to have some measuring equipment handy. She calculates the trajectory and velocity of the flare, the wavelength of the light, and so on, and writes a concise description of what she observed. The other is a boy scout who says to himself, “That’s a distress flare, I must run and tell the coastguard!” Both of them gave an accurate and valid description of what they saw. But they were different, with different aims in mind. This illustrates the principle of “complementarity” - that there can be complementary ways of looking at the world, telling different sorts of stories. Neither one could claim it did not need the other. It’s the same with science and Christian belief.

There are actually many different ways of knowing - mathematical, scientific, historical records, personal knowledge. The Christian claims are grounded mainly in these last two. How God revealed himself in Christ is not accessible by experimentation, but from ancient documents, to be assessed in the appropriate way. How we know God is the way we know people - by experience.

- Science, Religion and Technology Project, "Hasn’t Science Disproved Christianity?"
April 14, 2010