Sheldon Cooper

Why Science Can Never Tell Us Why

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:

Sheldon Cooper” if (Stephen) Hawking’s theories are correct, …they prove where the universe came from, why everything exists, and what its ultimate end will be.”

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.

Picture of Mars by Nasa
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:

  1. “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?”
  2. yellow and blue make 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?”
  3. “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:

Mixed Primary Colors

  1. “Yes.”
  2. “Yes.”
  3. “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.

the limitations of scienceNor 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.

Works Cited

1.  Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity.  New York: MacMillan, 1980.

Copyright © 2013 RationalWorldview.com
  • JDB

    This is a great post. However, I think that separating science from God is contradicting. I believe they go hand in hand. I would even say that Science is the catalyst to discovering god…every time a scientists asks why and how, they are intentionally or unintentionally worshiping God and all that he created…! One cannot have a healthy biblical worldview w/o including science.

    • rworldview

      Thanks so much, JDB, for contributing. I also do not believe in the notion that a belief in God is somehow opposed to science. The purpose of science is observation and discovery, not to answer our metaphysical questions about life. Science tells us to “look, listen, and attend” (I’m stealing a quote from a well known philosopher here) the very complicated world around us. We draw most of our logical conclusions about the universe based on probability not certainty.

  • John Buchwald

    Great article, however, it rests on the assumption that there is something “beyond the natural world,” which we cannot assert. How can we say that consciousness and mind are not very much a part of our physical universe? When we put our physical brain under general anesthesia, does consciousness not cease to exist?- at least until the liver metabolizes them.

    Also, the question of “why” has a different meaning in science than what many are thinking when they ask the philosophical or metaphysical “why.” In science, “why” is referring to a causal relationship. Why did the book fall off the shelf? Answer: because it was leaning in such a way that gravity eventually overcame the static friction that was holding it there. What most people are asking when they ask “why does the universe exist?” is really “what is the purpose?” So you can use the term “why” to ask “what is the cause” as well as “what is the purpose.”

    In the biological sciences, we have natural selection, therefor the cause is often synonymous with the purpose. Much of our sensory cortex is devoted to hand sensation because we have evolved using our hands for the purpose of exploring and controlling the natural world. Without natural selection, I don’t think we can still consider these the same question. Why does the earth revolve around the sun? A combination of momentum and gravitational force. What is the purpose? Does there need to be one?

    • rworldview

      John,

      Thanks so much for the compliment and for taking the time contribute. You make some excellent points. I should have been more clear about the use of the word “why” here. As you pointed out, the word can have a causal context or a purposive one, and as you pointed out I was using the latter.

      However, I cannot agree with your take that the mind and consciousness are parts of the physical universe. Though they exist in tandem with our physical/natural/material bodies, both are immaterial. They are, by nature, not physical. They clearly exist in our physical universe, but they do not possess the quality of being natural or tangible to our senses. Therefore, if they do not possess this physical property, they are separate from the physical. If they were not different than it would not even be possible to make that distinction in a conversation in the first place. As it is, we can. I am not making the claim, here, that our minds and consciousnesses can exist independently from our bodies. They exist in tandem, but that does not make these “invisible” parts of our being physical.

      You brought up natural selection as being both the cause and purpose for explanation in the natural sciences, but natural selection is a name we give to a theory. Natural selection is not a being. It is not alive. It therefore lacks any causal power to do anything. Natural selection is a theory that provides a description. I know what you mean when you bring it up, but it is not a causal force; it is, to put it in simple terms, merely a description of a theoretical process. Theories that offer descriptions for processes in the natural universe are just that and only that– descriptions, not an actual causal force that exists in nature. It would have to be alive because it certainly could not be dead, and in order for it to be alive it would have to possess some sort of being, and that clearly is not the case.

      I realize I’m rambling, but the reason you gave for “why the earth revolves around the sun” is as you brought up previously, more accurately an explanation of how. But, the whole point of my post was exactly what you took away from it — that science can never provide an explanation of the purpose of our observations and experiments, it can only describe how, and even then a provided description does not mean it has the power or ability to cause anything.

      I’m sure you disagree, and that’s great. I would much rather be challenged on the clarity of my writing and my metaphysical beliefs than by someone who does not care. Please come back and visit. I would love to hear your thoughts on my post “Do you believe in the supernatural?” if you have time.

      • John Buchwald

        Thank you for getting back so soon. This is actually a very fascinating subject to me. I think our biggest disagreement has to do with what is considered “supernatural”, namely in this case, “consciousness.” I would say that anything that exists, whether
        or not science understands it, is natural. Just because we didn’t understand radio waves 500 years ago doesn’t make it supernatural. By default,supernatural things cannot exist and should be best left to science fiction.

        As far as this illusive “I experience” that we all seem to
        have. I really like your explanation of consciousness existing in “tandem” with the physical universe. The question is “does consciousness exist because of the material world, or does the material world exist because of consciousness?” It seems the “chicken or the egg” argument even sticks its neck into the cosmos!

        I agree that there are aspects of consciousness that are not
        physical. In fact, those that are most important to us, are not tangible. Even as I take a drag of a cigarette, I know from my biomedical background that this is nothing more than a surge of dopamine projecting from my brainstem to my limbic system, but yet, it is so much more than that. There is a change in my subjective experience of my world.

        There seems to me to be two questions:

        1) Can consciousness exist without the material
        world
        2) Can the material world exist without
        consciousness

        IF the answer to both is “no” then we might presume that
        they both come from a priori properties of the universe that need a certain mixture of both ingredients to exist.

        I think the real question isn’t “why is the universe here?”
        but “why are we here?” I am 35 years old and the universe is, presumably, 14 billion years old (give or take). The universe seems to have gotten along just fine without me for several billions of years. So why here, in the 21st century have I become aware to observe this mysterious entity? That is the real question. My question right now is, does it even make sense to ask? Does a dog ask such questions? Does a flea? Or a bacteria? What if the real problem is that we are posing a question based on the logic system that our brain evolved, but from the perspective of the universe, the question does not even make sense?

        But your argument rests on whether science can solve this riddle. When it comes to understanding the nature of consciousness, we are still in the dark ages. 400 years ago, people really wanted an answer as to why God would allow people to become possessed by satan and go insane. The question could have never been answered by science in those days because the question itself was flawed. That is where I feel we are now with consciousness. We are asking the wrong questions.

        But why? Funding. In the words of a great contemporary philosopher (who’s name tragically escapes me at the moment), “you can research consciousness, but you better have tenure first!” I don’t think it isn’t accessible to science. Anything that is accessible to the human mind is accessible to science. But you need a foundation on which to build a hypothesis. On that requirement, our brains are way ahead of our funding.

        • rworldview

          Hey John, Thanks so much for the thoughtful contribution. I’m trying to have my next blog post ready to go for tomorrow, so let me take care of some stuff and I will reply to your comment as soon as I can. Thanks.

        • rworldview

          Sorry for the late reply. For the sake of simplicity, I borrowed an online dictionary’s term defining supernatural as: of, pertaining to or being above or beyond what is natural. This of course leads us to define what we mean by natural and nature. By natural, I mean anything that exists inside nature, and by nature, I mean the material world. I positively claim the existence of the supernatural, at least on some level. My reasoning: To argue otherwise is to implicitly give credibility to your belief or thought opposing its existence, and that thought itself is not material, lies outside the scope of the natural, and is therefore, supernatural. It would be like concluding: “natural matter is all that exists , oh, except for the conclusion that ‘natural matter is all that exists, and the instruments I used to draw that conclusion (namely, my mind and reason).”

          As far as your question, why am I here? I am right there with you, sharing your humanity, if you will. But instead of looking to the hard sciences to provide that knowledge, why are we not looking to what knowledge that universal human question may be providing itself? In other words, science is not the only method of obtaining knowledge. It may be the most accurate, but it is certainly not the most applicable, and where it is not applicable, it is of no use. So, we are forced to turn to other methods of acquiring knowledge that although may be less accurate, are more applicable and therefore helpful. Here, we should be asking, why is the question of the purpose of my existence — a universal human trait — there in the first place? What does that inner desire to know tell us about the world, the universe, and what possibly lies outside it? That’s just my take. Thanks again for your thoughtful comments. Please come back and visit, because you make some excellent points I certainly haven’t considered before.