Can Science Ever Know Enough?

 There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. — Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5

We live in a world driven by the gods of economics, technology and science. Particularly in a time of economic austerity, it is tempting to see the arts or humanities as an optional “extra”—a happy by-product of those true engines of society when they are running smoothly. But in this article we will look at how a biblically informed worldview might turn this perspective on its head, and what the humanities might have to tell us about the present contours of the science and faith conversation.

In his iconic 1959 Rede lecture, “The Two Cultures,” CP Snow noted the dysfunctional relationship between science and the humanities, arguing that the situation is principally the result of our educational system in the West. Ken Arnold, from the medicine and arts focused Wellcome Collection in London, believes that the split continues today, but with the further extension that

In emerging countries . . . amongst the middle classes there is a strong pressure to join the ranks of doctors and scientists and engineers because they see that as the place where future economies are growing. . . . In some ways you could almost begin to feel sorry for the arts and the humanities because they seem to be worth less than the sciences.1

Is Protestant Christianity also peculiarly prone to such thinking? A skepticism of art in religious spaces as a result of iconoclasm and the reformation, combined with a proud history of the protestant work ethic, economic success, and a profound influence on the history of science, might lead Protestants to be more inclined towards the sciences and technology than to the arts. However, there are more corrosive reasons that science has usurped the humanities in our culture than merely educational or theological bias.

In the early 20th century, logical positivists regarded the humanities as expressions merely of our inner states and desires, but having nothing to do with objective reality. Such imperialistic claims to knowledge denied that other knowledge claims referred to any true reality, and were therefore not really forms of knowledge at all. Bertrand Russell writes,

But if there is a world which is not physical, or not in space-time, it may have a structure which we can never hope to express or to know … Perhaps that is why we know so much physics and so little of anything else.2

Christian scientists are of course very sensitive to this, and work hard to explain that science cannot answer questions of ultimate meaning or the existence of God, which are beyond the scope of science. Often, this line of thinking can be narrow in focus, delineating the limits of the science, and naming those assumptions made by science that cannot be justified empirically. Such arguments can be very fruitful within this narrow context, but we should not be led into thinking that our true perception of reality is limited to such analytic and evidential approaches. There are fields of inquiry that science isn’t able to explain (such as metaphysical judgments, ethics, and beauty), and even our confidence in mathematics— upon which so much of science itself is based—rests upon assumptions that cannot be experimentally demonstrated.

The human condition

Mathematics and the sciences do seem to provide tools by which we are able to perceive the external world and its regularities. However, the arts and humanities, too, are a way of understanding reality, and they tell us less about external reality than the internal human condition. The problem is that the ‘human condition’ seems to have been relegated by many to the realm of mere desire and subjective feeling and, therefore, not reality.

The modernist account of science is that, through our reason, we are somehow able to get outside of nature and describe it objectively. The biblical account, though, has human beings as part of the created order, and so embedded in nature—made from the dust of the earth. Given that, human thought life is also part of the natural world, even despite the fact that it is not best described by the sciences.

The works of Shakespeare, for instance, are part of the created order, as are the poems of Wordsworth, the sculptures of Michaelangelo, and the music of Bach, not to mention children’s nursery rhymes, home decoration, and humming tunes whilst waiting for the bus. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “This is not panache, it is our nature.”3

A little reflection on life reveals something very strange going on here. Somehow, the mythic ‘war’ between science and religion has become the dominant battleground for defending the Christian faith, and competing explanations of the material world are used as apologetic weapons. But the reality is that science plays a peripheral role in our experience of life, not least our life as Christians. Of course that is not to deny the enormous impact of science on the material conditions of our lives, or the prevalence of the products of science. Instead, it is to observe that science plays a facilitatatory role, enabling us to carry out the real core business of our lives, which does not revolve around science. Cars, trains and airplanes are modes of transport to take us to work, or to see family, or go on holiday. Social media provide another way of being in relationship with people. Health services are not an end in themselves, but aim to make people well, so that they can get on with their lives. Why then, when life is not about science, does science dominate our way of thinking about life?

In focusing so much energy on opposing positivism are we not being inadvertently drawn into a positivist way of thinking, that science and material explanations of things are, indeed, our basic reality, what is ultimately true?

A biblical model

“We feel,” wrote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.”4 Likewise, philosopher Susanne Langer questions any philosophy which claims to be able to explain everything:

Philosophers in every age have attempted to give an account of as much experience as they could. Some have indeed pretended that what they could not explain did not exist; but all the great philosophers have allowed for more than they could explain, and have, therefore, signed beforehand, if not dated, the death-warrant of their philosophies.5

Fortunately, the Bible preserves us from total positivist oblivion. There are a great many types of literature represented in the Bible, with the notable exception of scientific writing. If we long to be able to express our deepest emotions, we have the psalms; if we are looking for wise advice, we have the proverbs; if philosophical reflection, Ecclesiastes. There is poetry, song, history, biography, but there is no science. In addition, the Bible refers to the use of the visual arts in, for example, the designs of the tabernacle and temple. The Bible does seem to think the arts and humanities are fundamental for human life, but it doesn’t seem to think that what we think the physical world is constructed of matters much at all.

Do we sometimes read the Bible more like a science textbook than a novel or a poem? Most will agree that each type of literature needs to be read in its own way, but lip-service to that idea notwithstanding, recent arguments prove that it is still possible to read a poem with a scientific mentality—looking out for the ‘facts.’ Is that because we have too high a view of science, or because we have too low a view of the humanities? To say something is poetic is not to declare it ultimately untrue, futile and meaningless—it is to say it is more profound and meaningful and true than many other modes of expression.

According to Langer, part of the problem is the priority that has been accorded to discursive language as the only valid way we have of representing reality to each other. She observes that a study of symbolism shows us that this is actually only one way humans use to abstract from reality, and in fact, the situation even with discursive language isn’t as simple as has been made out. She notes that our sensory organs mediate our perceptions of the world and are already on the job— formulating, framing the world to us—before our cognitive apparatus gets to work. It must be so, or we would not be able to evaluate the importance of the vast array of sensory data we receive and reality would appear as a blur.

A linguistic symbol carries a concept we associate with it, which in turn denotes a reality. In language there is a commonly agreed definition for each word we use, thus enabling communication. But each person also has associations unique to him or her which color any particular concept. Though such personal associations with words are present all at once, they can only be expressed and communicated one at a time, because language is also sequential.

A picture also acts symbolically, though in a different way. Even something as ‘realistic’ as a photograph is likewise a representation of reality and not the reality itself. It also carries with it layers of meaning which reflect the subjective intentions of the person who took the photograph, and opens up for interpretations and associations of the person ‘reading’ the picture. A picture, though, is not sequential. All the information comes at once, and individual blotches of color carry no significance on their own, but only as part of the whole.

No amount of words could ever describe a picture in full. The number of blotches of color and their relations to each other are vast in their complexity, and one could never read words quickly enough to carry the meaning a picture brings in an instant, even if it warrants a far longer period of contemplation. Indeed, though we are only speaking here of visual perception, the same is true of our other sensory inputs, too: they all carry knowledge in quite distinct and profound ways, whilst we, in line with the Greeks, have tended to give sight a special place as the most ‘objective’ of our senses.

As we dig down into empirical science and explore the mechanisms by which sights and sounds and textures are transmitted and processed by the brain, we discover that the meaning of the sense-data which we perceive and which we attempt to describe is likewise profoundly limited by the use of words—much less mathematics—and that our science, as such, represents a tiny fraction of reality.

To suggest, then, that science is the only true way of representing reality—as positivism has done—or to exclude the humanities from our world, leaves us without a proper or even adequate means of expressing the significance we attach to even the most mundane day-to-day activities. Science is very good at describing the regularities of the physical world, but the experience of being human is no less part of the real natural world than are the structure of proteins or the movement of planets, and science does not have the appropriate tools to explore our inner worlds.

Nowadays it seems that Christian cultural life has also too-often failed to fully acknowledge other ways of representing reality than materialist science—ironic because this state of affairs is so at odds with the Bible’s model of using the arts and humanities to profoundly explore the human condition. Perhaps it is time to recover that side of the biblical witness, and remind ourselves that there are more ways of representing the world to each other than positivism has ever dreamt.

Notes & References