Like millions of other Americans, I too am a fan of The Big Bang Theory. On last week’s episode, in a conversation between Sheldon (a socially inept but highly intelligent physicist played by Jim Parsons) and his neighbor Penny, Sheldon says:
I realize Jim Parsons is only playing a genius, but this line really expresses the sentiment of our culture and the spirit of its current age, particularly in academia. Often times, without realizing it, we make the jump from: Because a person is an expert in explaining certain ways of how the universe works, to: that person is capable of telling us why those laws and the universe exist.
For all its merit, its necessity, and its study, science — which contributes to our way of life in so many wonderful and innovative ways — cannot answer such questions as “why everything exists,” as the loveable Sheldon Cooper claimed. Science cannot and never will be able to explain the metaphysical questions that nag us as human beings. For a list of some of those questions, refer to the previous post What is a worldview? Part 2.
Science — and all the many fields of academic study that fall under its umbrella (mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry etc.) — often over-extends its reach into territory where it has no business doing so. I am not disparaging the importance of science with that claim. The breakthroughs in science made, particularly in the past century, have been amazing and those discoveries will only increase to make our lives better.
However, I think it is important to realize that when determining the components of a worldview, one must keep the role of science in its proper place. The role of science is to provide laws and substantiated reliable theories about the natural world based on observations and experimentation. Those laws often come with the caveat “given nothing interferes.”
For the sake of simplicity, I will give an almost too simple example. If I ask my friend the following questions:
- “Am I correct in asserting that if I mix a blue highlighter and a yellow highlighter on paper, the colored portion of the paper will turn green?”
- “If so, would it also be true that yellow and blue will always make green given the same set of circumstances in my experiment the future?”
- “Finally, am I correct in claiming the colored portion of the paper will definitely still be green tomorrow?”
Her answer, based on what we all learned in kindergarten, would most likely be respectively:
“Yes, but only if no one or nothing else tampers with the colored portion of the paper. If someone comes along and marks over the colored portion with a pink highlighter, the colored portion will no longer be green, thus making your third assertion untrue.”
This illustration is meant to convey that the purpose of science is to explain a result, conclusion, or phenomena of the natural world based on repeated observation and experimentation in controlled conditions. In short, the role of science is essentially to make and record observations about the natural world and for humanity to progress by using those observations for innovation, which improve our quality of life.
However, science falls short in that it cannot explain the phenomena that exist outside or beyond the natural material world — what I defined as the supernatural in my previous post titled Do you believe in the supernatural? Here, I am not using the term ‘supernatural’ in any religious sense, but only as those elements found in our universe that are not natural or material but yet we believe to exist e.g. the non-corporeal parts of our being such as our consciousness and mind.
Throughout my life I have heard over and over again statements such as “the supernatural and God do not exist because the laws of science cannot explain such things or because there is no scientific evidence to prove it.” However, I believe this to be a fallacy. Just because science falls short of explaining anything outside or beyond the natural world does not logically necessitate the nonexistence of anything outside or beyond the natural world.
Nor does it mean we should allow science’s limitations to become a stumbling block leading us to fall short ourselves in our pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the universe, which most would agree likely includes something outside of or beyond material nature.
I would say no matter how “complete” science becomes, it will never provide an explanation for everything associated with our existence. In cruder terms, the explanatory power of science will almost always fall short. For one, the laws of the natural world are unable to explain the “why (not causal use but purpose) of existence” — that is the existence of the universe, its inhabitants, and all of the events that take place within it. To observe something is one thing. To claim to know why it came into being is entirely another. The latter is not a matter of science (Lewis, 1980). Surprisingly, though, both the intelligent and unintelligent alike conflate these two issues just like Sheldon Cooper did in the season finale of The Big Bang Theory.
Science is wonderful, but it only makes sense to turn to other forms and methods of obtaining knowledge to better understand our universe as a whole and to throw off, or at least attempt to throw off, the heavy yoke placed on us by the perpetual myth we were taught in school our whole lives that science has some sort of monopoly on knowledge or that knowledge obtained by science is somehow truer than knowledge obtained by other methods. If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that most of the knowledge we accept as valid was not obtained in a scientific lab, but through other “less certain” and “less precise” methods that have nothing to do with the hard sciences.
Please feel free to leave a comment, agree, or disagree.
1. Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: MacMillan, 1980.
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