RESPONDblogs: Science Cannot Explain Everything. Discuss?


Open letter to New Atheist Scientists:

I heard Oxford Professor Peter Atkins recently assert that “God is not necessary…Any argument that asserts that God did it is the sign of a lazy mind wallowing on assertion rather than climbing the intellectual Everest of comprehension.”[1] Like you, I recognise the effectiveness of scientific tools in skilled human hands. Yet I am wondering whether you truly believe the scientific method is all mankind needs? Surely there is more to life than trying to simply understand the mechanisms of existence? The point I would like to make is that, while science is useful, there are certain tasks that it is simply inappropriate for. There are some things that science cannot tell us anything useful about.

I think we both know this at an intuitive level. The Latin word “universitas” was originally used to refer to a seat of higher education encompassing many separate disciplines. The Universities I have studied with have all had Science Faculties, but they have also had departments dedicated to the Humanities, to Language, to Music and so on. Are we to believe that these departments should be closed and their subjects relocated to the laboratory? This proposal would destroy the University in favour of a College of Science. Universities operate as if there are some areas that science cannot tell us anything about.

We can go further. Not only are there things science can’t tell us about, science makes assumptions that are closed to scientific scrutiny. An example is mathematical knowledge. We probably agree with Atkins who comments that “it’s a really deep and interesting question why mathematics works as such a profound language of description of the physical world.”[2] And it is clear he believes this fact will one day itself be explained by Science and we will, “come to understand the fabric of reality. I certainly don’t think that at this stage of science we should say…this is something we can never understand.”[3] To avoid intellectual laziness, Atkins requires a scientific explanation of the usefulness of mathematics. I suggest this attitude reveals a wrong understanding of what science is for.

As we know, science is an a-posteriori realm of knowledge. Scientific study identifies particular instances of behaviour, logs these sensory inputs as experimental data, and then attempts to build a general law based on the observations.

Mathematics, on the other hand, is an a-priori realm of knowledge. Mathematical concepts are confidently asserted without appealing to any sense experience whatsoever. Our confidence comes from the self-evident nature of mathematical principles. Within science, we must do the work to justify a belief. Yet in mathematics we must recognise and form an understanding of self-evident mathematical principles. For example, when I was teaching my children arithmetic, I would reach for the fruit in the fruit bowl. I would engage their own sensory mechanisms as I taught them the principle “2+2=4”. Yet notice what is happening here. I am not appealing to sense experience to justify the existence of the mathematical principle, but to illustrate the abstract self-evident law of arithmetic itself. And those are different tasks. As Philosopher J P Moreland puts it, “If you have an understanding of what 2 is and an understanding of what sum means and what 4 is then you can know 2+2=4 in your intellect without having to look at anything.”[4]

My conclusion is that, while mathematics is the language of science, mathematics cannot be explored and understood using the scientific method it enables. These are two wholly separate but related fields of reasoning and knowledge. And to attempt to bend these laws risks our descent into irrationalism. There are some things that science cannot tell us about.

Ethics is also closed to scientific scrutiny. What is good and what is evil? Why is it wrong to torture babies for fun? Why is it right to display loyalty to our friends? These are important considerations for the legal professions, not to mention philosophy and theology. Science has nothing to say about where morality has come from and why it is as it is.

Many scientists would disagree. After all, the human race is generally assumed to have evolved. “Just as good manners have emerged for the sake of decorum and the avoidance of offense, so good behaviour has emerged for the sake of survival.”[5] The material naturalist’s trump card when it comes to morality is evolution. Survival of the fittest requires moral principles that aid our survival. Why is it wrong to murder? Professor Atkins tells us, “Because we might be murdered.”[6]

Yet I think this is to misunderstand what is going on. Anthropologists observe how societies act, they don’t speculate about what is true and good. As Computer Scientist David Glass commented while debating Atkins, “Evolution cannot account for moral duties and laws. What perhaps it can account for is particular types of behaviour. Why it is beneficial in some respects, but not if something is true or false, good or evil.”[7] The evolutionary approach smuggles in the concepts of truth and goodness and then points to why human beings might strive towards them. But this is to misunderstand the point. Where does human good and evil originate from? Science does not know.

Further, why do these moral laws exist, yet human beings appear incapable to measure up to them? “The law of gravity tells you what stones do if you drop them; but the Law of Human Nature tells you what human beings ought to do and do not…You have the facts (how men behave) and you also have something else (how they ought to behave).”[8] Ironically morality is often less about human action, and more about our inability to act in these good and moral ways. Why is this? Science has no response.

But we can take this argument further still. Not only does science not know everything, scientifically derived truths are generally more tenuous than other things we know and rely on. Like mathematics, ethics is self-evident to us. We intuitively know, “mercy is a virtue. True! There are electrons? Well – probably.”[9] We know our own thoughts and feelings but we have not derived that understanding using any scientific method. “You know it from a 1st person introspective point of view. Science does not know things from a 1st person introspective point of view.”[10] We are surer about how we think than we are about the scientific observations we’ve made. Again, there are some things that science is just not able to talk about.

Finally, were we to stand by the notion that we can only properly know something if it is known by scientifically testable means, then we are defending a self-refuting position. We cannot know this statement’s truth by appealing to the scientific method. So if it is true then it must be false because we have not appealed to science to establish it.

In summary, science is only one of many disciplines. It cannot tell us everything, and the knowledge it does give us must be treated carefully. Let us value the scientific approach while recognising its limits.




[1] “’Does God Exist?’ Bill Craig Debates Peter Atkins,” bethinking, accessed November 21st, 2015,

[2] “Unbelievable? Has science explained away God? David Glass, Peter Atkins & James Croft”, Premier Christian Radio, accessed November 21st, 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] J. P. Moreland, PH.D., Christianity and the Nature of Science, CD, (Biola University, 2015), disc 2.

[5] “’Does God Exist?’ Bill Craig Debates Peter Atkins,” bethinking, accessed November 21st, 2015,

[6] “Unbelievable? Has science explained away God? David Glass, Peter Atkins & James Croft”, Premier Christian Radio, accessed November 21st, 2015,

[7] Ibid.

[8] C. S Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Fount, 1989), 26.

[9] J. P. Moreland, PH.D., Christianity and the Nature of Science, CD, (Biola University, 2015), disc 2.

[10] Ibid.

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I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

10 thoughts on “RESPONDblogs: Science Cannot Explain Everything. Discuss?”

  1. I think one of the beautiful things about science is that at the same time that it provides answers, it generates more questions. The pool of things we can study and learn is vastly deep. Why should it be a failing that science can’t answer a particular question? Perhaps a better starting point is whether a given question is valid at all.

    I question whether there is such a thing as a moral law. If moral law exists, it is not like a scientific or mathematical law which can be demonstrated with nearly perfect reliability. Morals are not consistent, and ethics are not self-evident. In many cases there is valid disagreement about what is ethical. Rather, morals are situational. We can say that killing is wrong and yet it is trivial to postulate a situation where killing is the moral and ethical response. If we can’t universally say that killing is wrong, then it can’t be a moral law.

    Evolution is probably a very good answer as to where morals and ethics come from, because we can find that animals have ethics. Monkeys will starve themselves if the only way to get food is to pull a lever that will shock another monkey. (Say what you want about the person who designed that experiment.) To claim they come from some higher source such as a deity, is just an attempt to elevate one group’s social conventions beyond what is reasonable. I’d go so far as to say that’s unethical, but what do I know?

    1. Agreed – scientific study is fascinating and we can bring this approach to bear on so much. Brilliant. There is no criticism of the scientific method here – simply an attempt to frame it realistically.

      What you are saying about a universal moral law is interesting…but you’ve not commented on the examples I gave in the blog. You’ve given yourself an easier challenge and answered it in your response. 🙂 Is it always wrong to do the things that I pointed to? When is it right to behave in these ways…would you ever defend someone who does? If not…then perhaps we are approaching a moral absolute.

      Cultures do indeed seem to have different ethical standards. For example, there are tribes who dig pits for the elderly members of their community…who walk down into them…where they are strangled. They kill their elders. Now that’s pretty abhorrent to people living in other cultures. Is that evidence that cultural relativism is the norm? No. Because scratch beneath the surface of cultural morays…and you find a common moral basis. That tribe kill their elders because they respect and wish to honour them. They don’t want them to face the experience of being a drag on the community as they become old and sick. Like us…they wish to honour their elders. And here again…perhaps we are pointing towards a moral absolute.

      But we can go further. We intuitively know that moral relativism doesn’t work. How so? Because we hold up moral reformers as heroes. For example, Dr Martin Luther King sought to stand up for the dignity of African Americans. He appealed to moral absolutes as he did so. If moral relativism worked…then he wouldn’t be held up as a hero…just as someone with a different opinion.

      Again your comment about the monkeys is interesting. But the fascinating thing is that people labour under a sense of a moral obligation that they are NOT able to live up to consistently… Further…we hold people to a different standard than animals. When a lion kills a gazelle…it’s natural. When people kill other people…we call it murder and they are held to account for it…

      My own feeling is that people are moral beings because they are made in Gods image…animals are important but they work a different way to people…

      1. Your example of torturing children for fun seems to be designed to be indisputably evil, but I think it’s a bit of a straw man since “fun” is a rather vague term. I suspect that someone who actually tortured children would have some other reason for doing it. It might be personal, as in some form of sexual gratification or that they are incapable of understanding what they’re doing. There may be other reasons: you and I might regard the Spartan Agoge as torture, but it was their way of creating warrior adults.

        Your example of loyalty is easily answered. Would you be so loyal to your friend as to help him hide the body of the spouse he’d murdered?

        I think (and based on your response you would not dispute) that it’s a problem of perspective. MLK is a hero to some and a villain to others, based on their perspectives. Those who believe in white supremacy call themselves both moral and Christian, without irony. To those of us who agree that he was a hero, his use of moral absolutes shouldn’t matter. White supremacists also have their own absolutes. It doesn’t mean these absolutes exist, merely that we are able to imagine that which is not real or possible. As the White Queen said, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” If we are unable to live up to these things we imagine, is the problem with our ability to live up to them or our choice of an impossible standard?

        Here’s my challenge: if moral absolutes exist, then after all this time we should know what they are and how to differentiate them from that which is not a moral absolute? Can you provide in plain terms the indisputable list of absolutes we should live by?

      2. Thanks for the discussion Stan.

        Well- I’ve pointed to two moral absolutes already.

        Yep MLK was hated by people who wanted to oppress African Americans. Are you saying they were right to do that? That their opinion was as valid as MLK’s opinion?

        Fun a vague term? Why? A straw man is an argument that underplays or misrepresents a position so it can be knocked down easily. My example does nothing of the sort…it points to our instinctive nurturing of children. The way the Spartans did it is different to how we do it…but the moral absolute you point to remains…the nurturing of children.

        The point about morality is that it underpins culture…and different cultures express those values in different ways. But also similar ways. If there are no moral absolutes…then you won’t mind if I come round and help myself to your TV (assuming you have one). Or if my bank account funds are low…perhaps you wouldn’t mind if I help myself to some of yours? Of course – this is absurd. But my point is that we can argue till the cows come home about whether moral absolutes exist…but when a moral absolute is touched…we react instinctively. Get your hands off my stuff!

        If you want an interesting cross cultural study of moral absolutes found in different human civilisations…have a look at the Appendices in C S Lewises The Abolition of Man. You can find it online for free download. His Tao would be a good place to start. This is not rocket science…

        And one more thing springs to mind – there have been appeals to moral relativism in the past that have been seen to be plain and simply wrong. We have a short memory about these things. The Nazi defence at the Nuremberg Trials was just that – Cultural Relativism. You cannot hold us to account because we were just doing what our culture deemed necessary. History records that the judges dismissed their defence…because they reminded them they were subject to a higher moral standard than that. Were they right? Of course they were…right?

  2. So is the moral absolute in your TV/money example that “stealing is bad” or “selfishness is good”? I’d infer the latter because “hey, that’s my stuff” is a selfish reaction. In either case it’s not that you would be punished because it’s a moral absolute, but because possessions are a concept central to our culture. Certain Native American tribes lacked this concept–you could take your neighbour’s things and the inference would be not that you were were stealing, but that you just needed it more and probably should have it. A few years ago a friend of mine encountered a modern version of the same concept while visiting in Japan. Some items were stolen. Police investigated, but dropped the case when it was discovered that the thief was probably very poor.

    Cultures can and do choose and enforce their own moral codes. The fact that they differ so drastically country to country, group to group, even church to church is probably the best evidence that all morals are relative. If “stealing is bad” is not an absolute it doesn’t mean you can justify stealing. If society says it’s wrong and you steal within that society, then you should correctly expect to be punished for it. You can spend your time in jail saying that society can’t judge you, but they don’t have to let you out. Just make sure you do your stealing in a country that won’t cut off body parts for it.

    There are probably a lot of things you and I would agree on as to what is moral. I would agree the Nazis were wrong and their justifications were wrong. It does not follow that this is because of a moral absolute. I only need point to the earlier cultures that spawned both of ours as an explanation.

    Your comparison of “mercy is a virtue” vs. “electrons exist” really turns things on their heads. “Electrons exist” is a simple fact that has been verified over and over. You verify it every time you turn on a light or type on your computer. “Mercy is a virtue” requires interpretation and is not immediately apparent how it can be implied/applied for every situation. Given the choice of which to accept and which to take with a grain of salt, I’ll go with the electrons. Sure, there are many things which science hasn’t addressed, but when it does so definitively I ignore that at my peril.

    I’ve not read all of C.S. Lewis’ writings, but enough to understand he produced some good fiction and some questionable apologetics. I do wonder why people keep trotting those out as good arguments.

    1. The point I am making with the TV example is – you can convince yourself of anything. But the way we actually live reveals the truth. If moral relativism was real…then there is no good or evil. No right or wrong. Just opinion. No one lives that way.

      The nazi point is – we appealed to a higher moral value and explicitly dismissed what your thesis appears to be…which seems to be that morals are relative.

      Mercy is an instinctive reaction. Electrons? They are a good explanation for our observations…but all scientific explanation is preliminary by definition. That doesn’t make it poor…it’s just open to future refinement. Morals don’t work that way.

      My pointer to Lewis is an Appendix where he lays out relevant research that was done by others. Are you saying that this research is dismissible because it’s quoted by Lewis? Wow.

      1. And my point regarding the TV example is that exceptions to moral absolutes are in fact common–making them anything but absolute. That the differences are usually cultural would seem to imply that each culture can and does generate its own morals, sometimes but not always based on the culture it was derived from. It is not required for a person to admit their morals are relative for them to BE relative.

        Mercy is situational. In one case it can be merciful to spare a life, and in another merciful to take it. Science would not say anything is understood to 100% certainty, but our understanding of electrons is not far from that. I can depend on electrons to behave a certain way.

        Are you saying you have not refined your own morals since your youth? That would be unlikely. I think that your morals, like mine, are based on your life experience and subject to change. Claim they’re based on a perfect absolute if you want, but they’re still understood and expressed through the filter of your own experience. Your morals are relative to you.

        I missed the point that you were directing me to research by Lewis and not his own writings. I dismiss Lewis’ own apologetics because they often misrepresent what he is arguing against. I wouldn’t dismiss his research on that basis, but it is a mark against it.

      2. Hi again Stan – yes…experience…filters….exceptions. I agree with all of that. But the observation that I am making is that human beings seem to all be wired to react in certain ways. Whatever the law of the land says…whatever cultural norms grow …however we sear our consciences…we have a common core that we naturally assume and appeal to without any discussion. You have done this to me in our discussion this week. Further people often run from this standard in guilt.

        Situational morals – there’s a new one!! Situational ethics makes more sense to me. But that would lead to a pretty toxic way of living ones life if you really lived that way.

        You can point and say – it’s all relative. But that makes no sense to me for the reasons I’ve given. My reasons essentially boil down to…no one lives as if everyone’s opinion and behaviour is valid whatever that opinion is. That is actually what relativism would look like.

        An example is your criticism of C S Lewis. You claim he misrepresents what he argues about (I disagree but u are entitled to your opinion). You are therefore appealing to a moral standard of truthfulness and honesty that you expect Lewis and I to share with you. A true relativist cannot judge in this way. So what if someone else misrepresents a position? What is that to you? That is what moral relativism would look like. Yet you are up in arms about the ethical approach of Lewis as an apologist! No – your intuition and emotion is truer than your thesis of relativism.

        Some things are always unacceptable to human beings – as I’ve said – and other things are always honourable. It looks to me that you are standing on the foundation of moral absolutes and trying to make an argument for relativism because you probably prefer the material naturalist worldview that it fits with. Well…that goes to show that world views are clearly powerful things…

  3. Your argument hinges on the idea that without some perfect moral standard, morals can’t exist at all. This is simply false. As individuals, we have to answer to a higher moral authority, but not a divine one. We must answer to the morals of the society in which we live. These are morals set by consensus and convention, and they change over time. If you lived in the Southern US in the eighteenth century, you likely thought slavery was the proper and moral order of the day. You could easily support this view with the Bible. If you disagreed and acted on that by trying to free slaves, that society could very well take your life for it. Today this is completely reversed–if you tried to keep a slave you could be jailed or even executed. The moral standard has changed. It changed both through bloody combat, but also through the shifting views of the members of society. But it did change.

    By that standard I am free to judge based on the common views of our respective societies. If I am within those standards then I have a reasonable expectation that society will agree with me. Not every individual will agree but that doesn’t matter. I only need the consensus on my side.

    This does mean that history can produce some pretty warped moralities. But it’s not about good and evil. A better standard is helpful or harmful, and one hopes that moralities that are more helpful to the members of society win out over those that are harmful.

    I agree that people don’t live as if any individual’s morals as as valid as any other. I disagree that there is any higher standard than society.

    1. Hi again Stan. Okay – I hear you. What Society says must be the moral authority that presses in on us. That’s your thesis…and its not just your thesis- I’ve heard it many times. The problem is that – while it works as a theory – it doesn’t fit with the empirical evidence we see from Human society. It’s a theory – but it’s not a solid theory. Intuitively people always end up appealing to a higher source of authority and guidance than society gives us.
      The job of the historian is to judge societies of the past and hold them to a higher moral standard. Ah – but that higher standard is OUR society cos we are more evolved than they were. Is that right? How do you know? That’s a big assumption.
      Ok – imagine that were true. Imagine our society was the source of authority with the final word. What would that necessarily mean?
      1 – Moral Reformers who judge society and seek to transform it from he inside out – would be by definition the most immoral people of the society. Are they? No – we hold moral reformers in high esteem. Because we sense they are fighting for reform…and they are holding their society to a higher level of moral authority.
      2 – if your thesis is correct then a law can never be immoral by definition. But we intuitively know that things are much more nuanced than that. Take abortion in the UK for example. The law states you can abort the foetus up to 24 weeks. That’s legal. But is it moral? That’s a whole different discussion. Legality and morality are two different things. But if your thesis is correct…they are essentially the same thing. Because society defines morality.
      There are more implications like these…some I’ve already mentioned…that show that “society does morality” does not fit with how human society works. BUT – it’s a popular material naturalist position that is happy to eliminate a higher standard of authority which sounds a lot like God.

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