Can Science Give Us Answers?

Jun 27, 2011 Comments Off by

You would not believe how many times I have seen this question written around the internet. Although actually, you might well believe it, but I certainly couldn’t. So I thought I’d answer it.

The first and most fundamental point that I must make is that this question is very badly worded. Though this is the precise wording of the question that I see everywhere. The problem is with the last word: answers. What exactly is meant by this word in this sentence? Answers to what? Science can certainly give you answers to scientific questions, by definition. But I’m sure that’s not what is meant. There is inherent ambiguity in that final word which makes the question very difficult to understand, because it does not suggest the manner in which science should go about finding these answers, and it does suggest that science can do more than it is widely held capable of doing.

Perhaps a better way of writing this question comes from a previous article on this website, called “Can Science Give Us Answers To Moral Questions”. Aha, now that’s a lot easier to understand. I’m sure that this phrasing is what is meant by our initial question.

There answer is quite simply, no. That’s not what science is for. Science can never tell us what we should do. Certainly, science could study the human brain and the workings of societies and find out which behavioural rules are optimum for a society, in other words, a moral code. This would take a very long time to do, but let’s ignore that. There are several problems with this system.

Firstly the problem of feedback. If you tell a society how to behave, they may then behave differently to how they did when you were studying them, and you’ll have to modify your moral code. This could potentially lead to an endless cycle.

Secondly it involves taking an average view of humanity. It ignores any differences in how individual people think and tells them to all behave the same. This would increase the amount of work required to design a scientific moral code.

Thirdly it ignores large numbers of variable factors which change the optimum behaviour of a society. Society responds to technology as it develops for example, this over time will change the way people behave.

There are more arguments, but they all bring you to the same conclusion. The work required diverges to infinity. You’ll never be able to find an optimum because there are two many variable factors. An optimum is an expression of perfection. Science prefers working in approximations.

I think the problem with this initial question is that many people who ask it do not understand the nature of science. They see science as another religion. They see science as something that people believe in. But when they ask scientists for answers to monumentally difficult questions such as “did the universe have a creator” all scientists can say is “we have absolutely no idea”, and so it looks like they are incapable of providing “answers”. Science does not provide emotional support, so when people think about whether it can provide a sense of morality they cannot, because they use emotions to think about it.

It is important not to expect to much from science. It can tell you interesting, and maybe even useful, facts about the natural world. It can’t tell you how to behave.

Questions and Answers, Sciences

About the author

I am the founder of Atheism Network.
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