Limits of science, limits of religion

Are there limits to the use of the scientific method? Are there questions science cannot investigate? Should some questions be left to religion? Do science and religion have different non-overlapping domains? Does there need to be a conflict between science and religion? There appears to be a lot of interest in these questions.

Neil deGrasse Tyson in his book Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution describes four reactions people have to science:

  1. Ignore it, not interested;
  2. Embrace it, the best way of understanding nature, no other methods required;
  3. Disagree with it because it assaults your cherished beliefs. Attempt to disprove scientific results (generally using pseudo-scientific methods or appeal to scriptures);
  4. Accept the scientific approach to nature but maintain a belief in supernatural entities which cannot be understood using the scientific approach.

The fourth approach appears to work for many. In principle it removes the need for conflict and there are many religious working scientists who think this way. In effect, they keep these two parts of their lives separate, not allowing interference. They maintain that science and religion have separate, non-overlapping domains.

Origins of the conflict

The conflict comes from the third group. Obvious examples are the creationism/intelligent design proponents. However, I think that many religious people who consider themselves in the fourth group do have some attraction to the third approach. This may be because of the very success of the scientific method. It has enabled humanity to understand a vast amount about reality. In the process it has shown previously held beliefs derived from the religious approach to be wrong. Consequently religion has been forced to retreat from its previous position explaining the universe. This has been obvious with concepts such as a geocentric universe, origins of life and the universe, evolution, etc. Also, the old explanations of natural phenomena as the actions of spirits and gods have been shown to be false (although, surprisingly, some religious adherents will still make use of these – see, for example Solution to climate change?).

Although some religious people have been able to accommodate to a new theology which doesn’t include a divine role in the natural world, I think many religious people are unhappy about this retreat. They may still have more traditional beliefs, often they believe in a personal god. They are happy to accept scientific knowledge in their day-to day lives, but they would dearly love to see some scientific confirmation for their supernatural beliefs. They are unhappy that this is not forthcoming and hence feel attracted to the arguments of those attacking scientific knowledge.

This attack also comes from other supernaturalists – the groups that Richard Dawkins investigates in his new TV series The Enemies of Reason. Of course, some of these people are doing it for the money. But, there are many people who want to believe in communication with the dead, alien abduction, out-of-body experiences, etc. They will reject scientific findings and even go so far as to claim a scientific conspiracy, a cover-up. Sometimes this develops into an outright hostility to science.

There doesn’t need to be a conflict

But, there doesn’t need to be a conflict. Even people with supernatural beliefs should be happy to accept the scientific method, and its findings, because the method does not investigate the supernatural realm. Implicit in the scientific method is the acceptance of an objectively existing natural, material reality. This has its own order and ability to interact and therefore it is, in essence, knowable.The supernatural is, surely, not natural or material. It is unknowable, impossible to investigate, outside the domain of science. Science may investigate “supernatural” claims by investigating real, existing, testable phenomena but it surely can’t investigate the untestable, the unknowable.

So people who have supernatural beliefs should be happy for these to coexist with scientific knowledge. But coexistence is breached when these beliefs are used to make claims about the natural world. These claims are testable, they can be investigated using the scientific method and, by definition they then come into the realm of science. If the findings conflict with pre-conceived beliefs it is those beliefs, not reality, that need to change.

Attempts to undermine the scientific method

Some religious believers will attempt to undermine scientific methodology by making claims about the natural world which they then define as being beyond scientific investigation. For instance, claims on the origins of the universe or of life. Currently this sort of claim is also made about consciousness or the mind. This is a “science stopper,” an attempt to prevent investigation before it begins, or because it is too hard. It is the lazy way out. In the end, humanity is interested in understanding reality and does not accept that investigation be stopped in this manner.

Another attempt to erode scientific methodology is by inclusion of supernatural explanations into the realm of science. Proponents of intelligent design do this. They openly attack the naturalism inherent in the scientific method. I think this approach gets some appeal by using the “bogey” word materialism. For example, in some recent discussions this has been declared as ” I’m simply trying to un-bind the word ‘science’ from only referring to ‘material.'” (This is essentially the same as the call by intelligent design guru Phillip E. Johnson for The Unraveling of Scientific Materialism).

They are objecting to the declared methodological materialism, or methodological naturalism of science. In effect, they want a science that includes the supernatural. But why do this? Why not be happy with the concept that science and religion have their own separate, non-overlapping, domains?

The stamp of “scientific authority”

I think the answer is the authority that modern science has in today’s world. There is no doubt the scientific method has been very successful in understanding and explaining reality. It is surely the most credible way we have of further investigating things we do not understand today. If the definition of science could be widened to include the supernatural it would not enable investigation of supernatural claims, but these claims could be given the stamp of “scientific authority.”

In the process, however, science would be asked to give up its methodological materialism, its naturalism, at least in some areas. Without this it would not longer have the credibility resulting from reliance on empirical evidence, testability and confirmation, and peer review of resulting theories. This would be a return to the pre-enlightenment times, an abandonment of modern science. After all, if we don’t maintain the modern naturalist approach we, in effect, revert to the “evidence” of authority, relying on scripture and its interpretation.

Humanity has too much to lose to return to these methods.

Related Articles:
Questions science cannot answer?
Debating science and religion
Solution to climate change?
Putting Dawkins in his place
Limits of science or religious “fog”?
Can science enrich faith?
Miracles and the supernatural?
Should we teach creationism?
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Intelligent design/creationism I: What is scientific knowledge?
Intelligent design/creationism II: Is it scientific?
Intelligent design/creationism III: The religious agenda
Intelligent design/creationism IV: The religion – science conflict
Intelligent design/creationism: Postscript

9 responses to “Limits of science, limits of religion

  1. I listened to a Point of Inquiry podcast interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, he was really interesting. I’ve put that book on my wishlist. I read a great book recently about the limits of science called “Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits” by John D. Barrow.


  2. Havea look at the videos from the Beyond Belief conference ( where Tysson has some great presentations. I have put one of them here (
    Will have a look at Barrow and his book. Thanks for the reference.


  3. I’ll also throw out there that perhaps some of the resentment towards science comes from the arrogance some intelligent people display towards the lesser intelligent people in public.

    For example, for a long time during and after the period when evolution became a popular, well-accepted theory, the scientific community spent some time trying to disprove the literal definitions of the Book of Genesis. So far as to paint the people who did not comprehend (and thus fully accept) evolution as ignorant fools.

    Of course, science has somewhat grown up and become more “socially graceful.” However, the religious community has resentment from the past that carries over that makes them try to crush science – mostly evolution – because at one point, they were being crushed by it.

    That’s just my observation and two cents from a psychological, historical standpoint.


  4. Science and religion can be very easily reconciled using a very ancient symbol.

    This ancient symbol was once referred to as ‘The KEY to Universal Movement’ in Mesoamerica.

    In the Pre-Columbian and Pre-Hitler eras the swastika was a revered symbol worshiped by many of the ‘Cradle Civilizations’. To show the swastika’s connections to the many different religions through the ages is the easy part of the equation RELIGION + Swastika = SCIENCE + Swastika.

    To illustrate how profound the Swastika’s connections are to Science also, google the terms … ‘swastika DNA chiral’ …
    You will see how profound the link is between this very ancient symbol and our very ancient DNA.

    Or if you google ‘religion science swastika’ the results are just as interesting.

    Just a matter of time now.
    Tell two people.
    The truth is working its way to the surface.
    In the reconciliation about to occur,in our lifetimes,perhaps worthy of a 2012 moment … what does “…all has been written” mean?





  5. Ken, you talk about the scientific method as if it as a thing that is set and unchanging. However, scientific methodS change along with scientific knowledge. This is very important is it means that what science is capable of investigating grows. Thus, to give a very important example, the scientific psychology of the early 20th century had to be behaviourist because there was no way to look ‘inside the black box’ but today’s psychologists have access to a range of ways of studying neorology which make it possible to investigate individual nerve synapses as well as large brain structures and their relation to human behaviour.

    This is important for the natural/supernatural divide as it undermines the justification for the claim that there is a domain that is forever closed to scientific investigation. It might seem that this leaves open the possibility that although scientific methods improve they will never improve enough to include certain domains. However, a second trait of science is relevant here – its contiguity with all forms of human cognition. Science is capable of adopting and adapting information whatever the source of it and, in effect, investigating that source. Thus, if human beings are capable of knowing anything about any particular domain then this domain is necessarily open to scientific investigation.

    The only possibility that remains is that there is a domain that humans can never know anything about, be it by scientific or other means. I am not sure that this claim actually makes any sense. Certainly, though, it does not fit with the claim that some people have any knowledge about such a domain. And dressing things up in words like ‘mystical’ or ‘supernatural’, as some do, does not change this one iota.


  6. I appreciate your comments Konrad. Yes, I agree that scientific methodology (at least in its details) is continually changing with increasing knowledge and development of technology. Actually, I think we can say that the basic epistemological method has changed over the long term. Science didn’t just arise in the last few hundred years. Humanity’s early attempts to understand the world in a useful way (eg. agriculture and navigation) wasn’t the methodological materialism of today. Despite it’s supernatural explanations I think we should still describe them as early science because they were aimed at practical change, and to that extent were tested.
    Do you have any thoughts about the future of scientific methodology? It seems to me that we may be reaching a stage with ideas such as String Theory and the first seconds of the universe where we are just not able to test theories, they become essentially unfalsifiable. Maybe these are just theories ahead of their time (we may be able to test them in 100 years). Then again, maybe we will be in a situation where we end up using theories which haven’t been (can’t be?) independently tested. That would be a basic change in scientific methodology.


  7. These are very interesting questions. Unfortunately, my answer is going to probably seem very dull – I don’t know what the future of scientific methodology is. The reason for this is much more exciting, though. Just as we can not know what tomorrow’s scientific discovery is going to be so we can not know what tomorrow’s scientific methods will be – the two questions are very closely tied together. The question of testing theories is a biggie in this respect. The thing is that there is no single notion of scientific evidence that works. This is a corollary of there not being a single scientific method. The result is that it is very hard to talk about what it means for us to have the ability to test some theory. Any discussion has to get into the nitty gritty of the science instead of hoping to be able to skate along the surface as some of the more naive logical positivists used to think. Unfortunately, I lack the detailed knowledge of physics to be able to say much in the case you mention. What does appear to me likely, however, is that as science becomes more powerful by being further augmented by technology and complex conceptual tools, testing will become more and more indirect by relying on those augmentations. Already we have scientific theories which are essentially purely mathematical, being too complex to be conceivable for human minds – various multi-dimensional versions of physics are the prime example here. As for string theory and similar ideas, I think there is nothing wrong with scientists running ahead of what is testable. Indeed, it seems to me that this is what they have always been doing: that is the element of truth in Hempel’s idea that scientists first invent theories and then find ways to test their implications. If I recall my history of physics, much the same thing happened with Einstein’s work, in that ways to test it were developed after theory. Having said that, an untestable theory is like taking out a loan – the bank will come to collect sooner or later and, in the case of string theory, I have heard claims that it is in effect in default.
    As for the natural/supernatural distinction I tend to avoid it if I can as I find it particularly unclear. As shown by the comments I made previously, I simply do not think that a clear notion of the supernatural can be supported. If something exists in any meaningful way it is going to be investigable and if it is going to be investigable then, sooner or later, it will be investigable by science. I tend to think that the existence of the category of the supernatural is ultimately due to many people’s desire to limit what science can examine thus allowing them to imagine that their ‘supernatural’ beliefs are not challenged by science. But there is no such ghetto for such beliefs. In other words, I basically agree with the second reaction to science listed above, with the important proviso that I think scientific methods are contiguous with other epistemic methods. This is important in that it allows us to understand that things like literature and poetry are also processes through which we learn significant things about the world. These do not investigate essentially different parts of reality but merely use different methods to do so. Indeed, despite not having read the book but knowing something about him, I think that Neil deGrasse Tyson would agree with that. A philosophical way of putting the point would be to say that the roots of science are methodological not metaphysical. The metaphysical committments science has are a result of the process not an assumption for it. If there were ghosts science would reveal them and investigate them – of course, the methods of such a science would have to be radically different to carry out such investiagtions. Still the ghosts would then be part of the natural order.
    An important implication of what I am saying is that there can not be a simple definition of science. One can define it historically in term of a particular tradition. Alternatively one can give it a vague ahistorical definition like “doing the very best that we can to find out stuff about the world”. This fits very well with your point about agriculture and navigation.


  8. Pingback: Supernatural and Science « Slingword’s Blog

  9. I like your ideas and those of the replies. I also have a take on the supernatural, and think I am a bit more radical.
    I disagree with the assertion that supernatural and science can coexist, in that they are opposite means of thinking, and one interferes with the other (despite some having both coexist within one mind).
    My take (shamelessly promoted here) is here:

    Thanks, I’ve enjoyed reading here, and have gotten clearer from the experience.


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