The Limits of Science

Science is one human institution which has impressive credentials as a guide for teaching us what is true.  As we learned in earlier blogs, science has transformed human existence by providing us with answers of how our material world functions which has enabled us to manipulate nature for our benefit.  Carl Sagan in his book The Demon-Haunted World illustrates how science can push back the boundaries of ignorance and help us make better decision.  Ignorance is the cause of much human suffering and Sagan gives us the example of the witch trials in the 1600s.  Witches were regularly killed because any illness, storm, or event out of the ordinary was construed to be caused by witches.  The attitude at that time was witches must exist; how else could these extraordinary events occur? [1]  The reality of that age was whatever they did not understand they called demonic.

In an earlier age and different culture, Hippocrates noted that whatever people did not understand they called divine. [2]  The problem is events that are not understood are not necessarily divine or demonic; they just might be beyond our current understanding.  But humans have a need to explain the unknown and science, while not perfect, helps us to know what is true and what is imaginary in our world.

If science can help us better understand our world, why should we not trust it to tell us what is true in all areas of our lives?  One of the limitations of science is that it is a process of discovering how our physical world functions; it is not a set of facts.  Anyone who has studied science is taught this basic tenant of science.  This assertion is valid because the definition of inductive logic includes “certainty is attainable only if all possible instances have been examined”.  Scientists have not examined all possible instances in the past or future so they cannot be confident our current scientific facts will be validated in the future.

If scientists believe science is an accumulation of facts, they close their mind to information that might challenge those facts.  The history of science teaches us the wisdom of this tenant of science because scientists once believed in all manner of ideas that we consider foolish today and undoubtedly future generations will look at some of our current scientific “facts” as humorous.  Scientists once believed that space was filled with an ether.  Now we believe space to be a vacuum.  Scientists once believed that catastrophes had no part in shaping our earth (uniformitarianism).  Now scientists believe that meteorite impacts have caused the extinction of various species of animals at various points in time.  In the 1700s, scientist scoffed at the rural folks who told them that rocks fell from the sky and denied what we now know as meteorites existed.  Now scientists go to great lengths to find meteorites and study them.  If you read any science periodical, you will constantly find research that challenges what we know and understand.

Science, for the foreseeable future, will be constantly revising its beliefs as it discovers new evidence.  This is the way science works.


[1]   Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (New York:  Random House, 1996), p. 26.

[2]   Ibid., p. 8.

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