Are there limits to science?

“Are there limits to science?” – this was the title of the recent Science and Religion Forum 2016 conference, where diverse subjects around naturalism, and the limitations of science (and religion) were aired by some of the leading experts in the area. As the Conference Secretary, I was asked to deliver some closing reflections. Here is what I said –

I want to say a special thanks to all the speakers – as can happen with these kinds of conferences organised around a central question, sometimes a diversity of answers leads to an emergent consensus, and I think that’s definitely happened here.

“Are there limits to science?” Yes and no. That seems to be the gist of what I’ve gleaned from this conference, with a particular weight falling on the yes, there are limits.

Much of our discussion has focussed on naturalism, as a kind of container for science. If science has any limits, then naturalism defines them; naturalism exists to define the limits of science. But, in everything we’ve heard, naturalism is clearly nothing if not ambitious. After all, to speak of naturalism – whichever version we’re thinking of – is to include everything natural just to begin with. In its most metaphysical form, what Fiona Ellis referred to as “scientific naturalism”, science is competent to explain everything natural to such an extent that we can’t believe in the supernatural. There’s nothing outside of the natural world; there’s nothing outside science; science has no limits. This kind of naturalism tends to be reductionist to a greater or lesser extent, and so those who follow its inexorable logic through find themselves in the position that the realest reality is the laws of physics. There’s a question as to whether physicists believe this though; this one certainly doesn’t, and so, many of us react to the rampant scientific imperialism here, and we want to say “no, science does have limits; there are things it can’t explain, even in the natural world, such as values, emotions, subjective experiences, Beethoven sonatas”. This was the basis of Fiona’s case for expansive naturalism, and she made the ingenious argument that attempts to include non-scientific realities like values and emotions into naturalism are not unlike attempts to relate the natural world to God in traditional theism. Hence, her version of expansive naturalism is even bigger still – has even fewer limits – than scientific naturalism. Expansive naturalism is even more ambitious than scientific naturalism.

Mikael Leidenhag, taking an even broader view in examining several naturalisms that like to expand, made the very valuable point that these naturalisms are so often placement strategies: schemes to effectively smuggle in those things we hold most dear past the customs and excise of scientific naturalism, hoping that the laws of physics are looking the other way while we enjoy our Beethoven. But all of these placement strategies, he explained, have placement problems as a result: we can’t own those things we hold most dear within naturalism without owning up to our smuggling, effectively admitting that we’re guilty of dualism. And dualism is, after all, the unforgiveable sin in the kingdom of the naturalists. Mikael suggested that we should, in fact, see ourselves as heading in the direction of post-naturalism, and that it’s time we embrace dualism and theological perspectives on reality more readily when discussing this issue.

That brings another angle to the question of “Are there limits to science?” and that is “Are there limits to religion?” The answer here seems to be a very firm “no” for anyone who holds religious beliefs dear, especially if you see science encroaching upon those beliefs. Our tendency here is not to let science encroach, but instead to embrace science with our religion, to make religion wider still than science. If science has limits in any theistic kind of naturalism, religion certainly doesn’t. Sarah Lane Ritchie explored this stance. Spending much of the time looking at the causal joint, which is by definition almost the limit to science which meets the limit to religion, she concluded by looking at what she called the ‘theological turn’ in divine action, which moves away from this idea of limits by embracing naturalism with theism, or even merging the two. Sarah mentioned the, what is to my mind, ideal solution of Thomas Aquinas, where all natural causes are primarily divine causes. Much as I admire John Polkinghorne, I’ve never appreciated his oft-quoted swipe at the Thomistic perspective as ‘an unintelligible kind of theological doublespeak’. It always strikes me that Thomas offers one of the most intelligible solutions in a very unintelligible area. Still, that’s my own opinion, and I know that Sarah doesn’t share it with me. She offered us more enchanted versions of naturalism than those of Thomas, including Chris Knight’s panentheistic vision, some pneumatological visions, all as experimental alternatives which see the limits of science as embraced within God’s wholeness. I took her as suggesting that these are thought experiments – faith experiments even – which nevertheless don’t solve the problems of explaining divine action; and I took from this the point that theistic naturalisms are, in effect, mirror images of the problems faced by scientific naturalism: what are the laws of nature, how competent are they to explain all causes, what do we do with spooky things like values and Beethoven? The problem of how we explain divine action in a faith position mirror the problem of how we deny divine action in scientific naturalism.

Of course, I’ve said nothing yet about Chris Southgate’s amazing Gowland Lecture on the limits of science from a poet’s perspective. If the sciences use limited human language to explore greater truths about the universe, then so does poetry, although as he so ably demonstrated, poetry can transcend the limitations of human language every bit as much as the most awe-inspiring scientific discovery. More importantly, I think that Chris showed us how poetry can act in a prophetic and warning mode, to urge limitations upon science where science is perhaps over-reaching itself. In our culture where science is so far in the ascendant that its terminology, and methodology is becoming all-pervasive, it’s perhaps creative art such as poetry and music that can point to the limits of science most clearly. Donovan Schaefer did a wonderful job of reminding us of this point at the very end of the conference, of how our emotions lead our science; that we can’t assume that the former can simply be explained away by the latter; rather our emotions truly lead our science.

The question that naturally arises from this focus on values, Beethoven, and poetry from several of our speakers, takes us from Are there limits to science, to Should science be limited? This angle brings ethics into the arena, and Neil Messer very helpfully explored some of the issues here, especially from the perspective of neuroscience and cognitive science. He was looking at the human brain, what’s often said to be the most complex entity in the universe, and certainly the place where the limits of science and the limits of religion meet. And that leads us on to the subject of our next conference, which I think is looking increasingly likely to explore the human mind: its wellbeing, its limitations, what is it? I look forward to seeing you there.